Letters From A Good Man At War: ‘They didn’t talk about bereavement and life went on’

A portrait of Philip in new book by Sue Hessell

A portrait of Philip in new book by Sue Hessell - Credit: Archant

Crouch End community campaigner Sue Hessel has compiled a moving testament to wartime decency by publishing her uncle’s letters home to his beloved family

A young Philip dressed in RAF uniform

A young Philip dressed in RAF uniform - Credit: Archant

Flight Sergeant Philip Hermolle’s vivid, eloquent letters were stored away in a suitcase by his griefstricken mother soon after his death in 1944.

Decades later, his niece Sue Hessel discovered the suitcase at an aunt’s house and has now published the contents as Letters From A Good Man At War.

The Crouch End campaigner, who gives a talk at her local Waterstones on November 2 in the run up to Armistice Day, says:

“All I knew was he was the oldest brother of grandmother’s six children, who had trained to be a Catholic priest. We used to say what a shame it was that we never knew Uncle Philip who died in the war, but one of the nicest things has been getting to know this kind, generous, faithful man.”

Telegram from Buckingham Palace

Telegram from Buckingham Palace - Credit: Archant

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When war was declared, Hermolle abandoned his training at a Staffordshire seminary and joined the RAF.

“He does the right thing and joins up immediately. His letters begin in Blackpool in July 1940, with a light-hearted feel, but soon the tone darkens against a backdrop of nightly air raids.”

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By Christmas 1940 his family home in Birmingham had been razed to the ground, the four younger children evacuated, his parents temporarily rehoused and mother forced to get a factory job at Lucas’s Automotive and Aerospace.

‘Fancy you Mother having a job,’ he writes to her. ‘I cannot help feeling very sorry that circumstances should have compelled you to change your whole mode of life, but I hope you will be as happy in it as the times allow.’

Philip's grave in Ortona

Philip's grave in Ortona - Credit: Archant

Hessel’s grandmother was 40 when the war broke out, and her youngest child was only four.

“It is an unbearably sad and anxious time for all,” says Hessel. “Philip was a prolific and very beautiful letter writer, he wrote one or two letters a week and they are such a window into life nearly 80 years ago and the uncertainty they lived through. They are so human.”

Service took Hermolle across the world, from Canada to the Isle of Man, Africa and Sicily to Italy.

“He comes through in the letters as an ordinary normal young man living an extraordinary life during war. There’s even a hint of romance. He met a young lady in the canteen when he was stationed in Brighton and she later sent a condolence letter.”

As a pilot he flew Ansons, Mosquitoes, Oxfords and Long nosed Blenheims: ‘I don’t like them so much as the short nose version, and I find them at present a little difficult to land,’ he writes home.

Hermolle was reported missing in action in Ortona Italy on January 4, 1944. After finding the clothing of one of his crew they knew he had been shot down, and by July there was the devastating telegram from the King.

“The complete set of letters was parcelled up in a suitcase by my grandmother with some newspaper cuttings and condolence cards. The lid was put down and I don’t think she ever read them again. A piece of her heart was broken.

“That’s how most people dealt with death after the war, they didn’t talk about bereavement and life went on but I think it must have been very hard for mothers to celebrate on Victory Day if they had lost someone.”

Hessel discovered the suitcase at her aunt’s house and couldn’t believe how vivid and compelling they were.

“I was completely fascinated. I got to the last letter and didn’t want it to end. When the last one was read there was nothing more of him. I felt I had met a friend. He shines through as someone with a warm, beautiful and generous nature, who never wavers in his faith. He was not a pious but a good man. It begs the question how can a good man go to war and be involved in bombing people?”

Letters From A Good Man At War is available in Waterstone’s or via Amazon £9.99.

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