A WARTIME letter describing rescuing survivors from Harwich harbour during the Second World War has been discovered under the floorboards of a school.

The four-page handwritten letter was hidden for almost 80 years at Sompting Abbotts Preparatory School in Sussex until it was found by workman doing repairs.

Dated November 22, 1939, it is addressed to a boy called Jim, who was a boarder at the time, and was sent from his parents who were then living at 4 St Helen’s Green, Harwich.

Harwich and Manningtree Standard:

Jim’s mother tells him how she rushed to help British crewmen “covered in black oil and shivering cold” rescued from the sea after the destroyer HMS Gipsy was hit by a mine on November 21, 1939.

She said: “We put them in dry clothes, but we had only got women’s clothes for them, except two young lads I helped into some clothes of yours and David’s.

“One has got a pair of your shoes and a Sompting Abbotts’ flannel shirt and your old flannel coat. It was a tight fit, but better than nothing.”

How the letter came to be beneath the floor planks is unclear, but it is thought Jim may have kept it under his bed and it slipped through a crack.

The school, intrigued by the letter’s discovery, has found Jim’s living relative – his son Craig Macbride, who lives in Melbourne, Australia.

The 53-year-old said: “It was a wonderful surprise to learn of the letter’s existence.

“I knew my grandparents left for Australia to give my dad a better life, but I didn’t know much about what their wartime experiences in Britain were like.

“He didn’t speak much about his life as a child during the war in England. I think he wanted to forget it, much as I was interested in it. He did sometimes talk about air raid shelters and the panic of getting to them.”

The school was evacuated in 1940 following the surrender of France when the school building was requisitioned by the British Army.

Jim continued his education at Framlingham College, Suffolk, before signing up aged 18 and serving as a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers in the Middle East.

He and his family then emigrated to Australia in 1948.

To find out more about the school www.somptingabbotts.com

Harwich and Manningtree Standard:

  • Jim and his brother David in their school uniforms during a trip to London Zoo

Dearest Jim,

Many thanks for your nice interesting letter. I bet you all enjoyed the lecture on deep-sea diving.

I would love to be able to see the play, darling. I bet you will make a nice girl. I always said you ought to have been my daughter! Is it fun rehearsing?

I went to London on Monday and returned Tuesday about 6 o’clock. When I got back there was a message waiting for me from Mrs. Watson since 2 o’clock, asking me to go to the quay and help her take all the old clothes I could spare, as the Terakuni Maru (a ship Uncle Charles has travelled on) has been mined and sunk just off this shore and they were bringing in the survivors.

Of course I rushed off at once but was too late. They had all been given food and hot drinks and dry clothes and had gone up to London.

We sat down for an evening chat with the Watsons. At 9.15, there were two most terrible explosions. One of our own destroyers struck a mine only about 100 yards from the harbour. They brought in about 140 survivors and Daddy and I stayed all night and helped. We gave them hot tea and soup and biscuits. They were practically naked, just wrapped round in old blankets or any old thing and covered in black oil and shivering cold.

We put them in dry clothes but we had only got women’s clothes for them except two young lads I helped into some clothes of yours and David’s. One has got a pair of your shoes and a Sompting Abbotts’ flannel shirt and your old flannel coat. It was a tight fit but better than nothing.

Some were badly injured and 25 have gone down with the ship. It was a terrible thing and my heart ached for those poor men. They were so brave; they joked and laughed at one another because they looked so funny in women`s clothes. The state they arrived in was pitiful and their poor bare feet were blue with cold. We only had a few pairs of shoes to give out so most had to remain bare footed. There were about four doctors working on those that were badly smashed up.

During this past week about 500 survivors from sunk vessels have been brought in to Harwich and given clothes, drinks, food, care and attention; not a bad effort. The clothes question is the most difficult. I have written to several friends and asked them to send us all the old clothes that they can spare so that we have a good store of warm dry things in case of emergency.

Well darling, I look forward so much to hearing how the play progresses. I bet you all enjoy doing it.

Heaps of love from Daddy. From your loving Mother PS Hope you got the skates safely. I sent them from the flat.