News from the Eighth Army, 1942

When Jane was sorting through some old photographs, she came across a wartime ‘forces airmail letter form’ from her father to his mother, and copied it out. At the time her father, Fred Cornwell, was somewhere in the Middle East.  He had just been in action at the battle of El Alamein, which had ended on 4 November, barely a fortnight earlier, and was getting over diphtheria.  It’s interesting that in the middle of war and battles and serious illness, he could still see this completely different world as a greengrocer with a stall in Brixton Market from which he went to fight in the 8th Army, and to which he returned after the war.

19 November 1942
6105756 Pte Cornwell F.
16 Platoon ‘D’ Coy
1/6 Queen’s Royal regiment
Middle East Forces

Dear Mother,

Once more I am writing to you from the Convalescent Camp but I am certainly feeling a lot fitter than I did, in fact getting slowly back to normal again.  The time is passing quicker now than it did because I do a few odd jobs now, so it helps to make you fitter again.  I suppose the cold weather is well in now at home.  It is still fairly warm here during the day, but cold, very cold in the mornings and during the night.  We had about three days of rain over the week-end and it certainly does rain and the huts cannot keep it out altogether.  I had a couple of airgraphs and three letters from Margaret [Fred’s wife] yesterday, and by the dates there is a few more drifting about somewhere but I hope they catch me up in time. In fact they are pretty sure to, it only means waiting for them.  The oranges are getting more plentiful now and we buy them, about halfpenny each, tangerines 2 for tuppence halfpenny. Potatoes are scarce here and I think they are worth about 1 and 6 a lb. in the towns, so I presume fruit is more profitable here than veg. The only veg we seem to get a lot of is pumpkin, and that is served to us every dinner time. Uncle Dodger had better send his pumpkins over here (he sometimes sells them doesn’t he?) I’m not stuck on them at all so I don’t have any. Hope to receive a few letters from you all at home, you may be sure they are welcome and looked forward to. The war news is more of a tonic now don’t you think.  Well mother I must close now, remember me to all at home. Take care of yourself. God bless you.
Best of love,

The letter is beautifully written and easily legible even though in a sharply down-sized photocopy, the form in which it was received in Brixton, London SW9.  Jane has similar letters to her own mother (Fred’s wife), and to herself (his daughter).    Fred ended the war as a Sergeant, and was demobbed in April 1946, a year after the end of the war in Europe.  After he got home he rarely spoke of his war-time experiences in the desert and in Palestine.  He was a voracious reader.


5 Responses

  1. Tim Weakley says:

    That’s an interesting piece. I was born in Alexandria and lived there until the end of the war. My parents had a big house in the eastern suburb of Ramleh, and we could sense the opening barrage at Alamein about 60 miles away in October 1942 – the vibrations now and again caused the double doors between dining-room and living-room to rattle. We had numerous servicemen through the house, especially during the Desert War years 1940-43. They were mostly officers from the Army (one married my much older sister) and from the Med. Fleet, but in addition my mother used to collect a party of convalescents from the 64th General Hospital once a week and drive them around Ramleh and then home to tea and to try their hand at bowls in the back garden (a game almost as vicious as croquet). So if your father-in-law passed through the 64th General (though his letter is from a Convalescent Camp) he may have visited us.

    Interesting too that he had contracted diphtheria, which must have been fairly rare even then, as that disease was the indirect cause of my being born in Alex. My mother’s father, Marc Armand Ruffer, was one of the founders of the Institute for Preventive Medicine in London (later the Lister Institute) and played a big part in the first mass immunizations against diphtheria in the mid 1890s. He contracted it himself when a vial of live culture broke in his hand, recovered, went out to Egypt to convalesce, and was offered a governmant medical post by the British High Commissioner. My father went out as an RAMC doctor and eye specialist in 1915 and was passing through Alex en route for Gallipoli when that show closed, so he spent the rest of the war at a base hospital in Alex where my mother was some sort of volunteer nursing auxiliary (they were married in 1917) and decided to stay in Alex, where there must much scope for practice, after the war.

  2. Brian says:

    Many thanks for that, Tim. A fascinating account and a wonderful potential coincidence: alas, we’ll never know whether Fred Cornwell ever visited your house. (It would be surprising if your parents, and even you yourself, don’t appear somewhere, lightly disguised, in Durrell‘s Alexandria Quartet!)


  3. Mary Rayner says:

    My father, Frederick (Fred) John Lambert served in the 8th Army at Africa & Italy, one of his jobs driving the amunition trucks across the desert.  He never spoke much about his war experiences – hence me, his youngest daughter, trying to find out, as he died in 1990.   He lived in Nunhead and Peckham, London, drove trams and buses and then trained as a butcher.  Later going on to become Labour Town Councillor for St Neots, and this is a lad who started his first job as a pageboy at the Conservative Carlton Club, including writing up the horse racing results on a board.

    He had a sergeant who stuttered and wondered if Fred Cornwall could have been this sergeant.  My father stuttered also and got put on a charge as he did not want to say anything to his sergeant in case he thought he was taking the mickey!

  4. Trisha says:

    My Dad, now deceased, fought in World War II.  He would sometimes mention a castle in Italy and about the old bear they looked after with no teeth…they used to bang a tamborine and the poor bear would dance (how sad for this animal but these were different times).  He sometimes mentioned Monte Casino and the Middle East, but he did not often speak about what the men saw or suffered, but our family knows that he suffered greatly along with the men who fought – some who came back home and those who were killed and did not come home.  My Dad was born in London and spent most of his pre-war life in the Wandsworth/Mitcham areas and his name was Gess.  His father started Mitcham market.  Unfortunately, he did not speak much about the war, but he did pass on some information which will always stay in my mind and I am now an individual who has great respect for those brace men and women who gave us freedom.  Anyway, my Dad died some years ago and my Mum is getting close to her end years being 86 and 87 in December.  She did try to get my Father's medals (a Star of India was mentioned), but Mum could not afford to retrieve them and my Dad's memories were too awful to really speak about the war and for him to feel he should collect his medals.  As one of his daughters, I would really like to collect his medals, particularly before Mum dies, since it would make a connection for her which can at times be painful.  I have typed in 'War Office', but cannot find the information I require – can you help?  I would really like to obtain the medals which my Dad fought for and deserved (particularly as the war blighted his life).  However, I am not sure how to go about obtaining them.  It would be lovely if we could present them to our Mum.can you help? 

    Your website has been fantastic since it mentions items which my Dad mentioned – many thanks for the lifeline!


    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Trisha.  My wife has looked into the question of medals for you and has replied to you privately.  The solution seems to be here.

  5. pammy says:

    pleas brian can you email the information that you are giving to Trisha.I am in the same position and would like to be able to get the medals my father won during the north african and italian campaign,he was with the eigth army at Monte Cassino.

    Brian writes:  My wife's advice to Trisha, Pammy, was to follow the advice in the website at
                                      (you should be able to just click on it)

    — but if she has any further suggestions for you, I'll ask her to e-mail you.

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