- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Ronald Ritson, Marie Florence Cranfield, Clifford English, Major E.R. Hargreaves, General Bernard L. Montgomery
- Location of story:
- South Norwood, London, Portsmouth, Inverness, Scilly Banks, Moresby Parks, Plumetot, Caen, Normandy,
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 February 2005
Photograph of 7517826 Private Ronald Ritson, Stevenage 1942. This is believed to be the first photograph Private Ritson sent to his 'Pen Friend' 2033627 ACW1 Marie Cranfield. They eventually became engaged and married in February 1945.
Letter writing during the Second World War
During the early days of the Second World War many men and women from the age of 18 onwards either volunteered or were conscripted into the Armed Forces. For most, it was the first time they had ever been separated from family for any length of time.
It was felt that one thing that could be done to counteract possible feelings of separation or loneliness among serving members of the Armed Forces or those left at home was to encourage letter writing. Many local newspapers played a part in this strategy by encouraging people to write in and find a 'Pen Pal' and exchange letters. One of the local newspapers who did this was the 'Norwood News', whose main circulation area covered an area of south London including Norwood, Thornton Heath and Croydon.
One of those who wrote took up this invitation and wrote asking for a 'Pen Pal' was a Leading Aircraftswoman in the WRAF Marie Cranfield, originally from South Norwood, London. In 1942 Marie was 19 years old. By co-incidence, her letter went to soldiers in the Royal Army Medical Corps one of whom was Marie's first cousin Clifford English.
Ronald Ritson, who was one of Clifford English's best friends in the Medical Corps, read Marie's letter. Ronald was originally from Scilly Banks, near Whitehaven in what was then the county of Cumberland. Scilly Banks was a small village of about twenty dwellings and a Brethren Chapel. It is now in the county of Cumbria.
Ronald and Marie started to write to each other and exchanged photographs. Things stayed like this for a while. Then Cliff English left the Unit and was posted elsewhere. This is how Ronald explained it to me on one occasion:
‘‘Well then, there was this young fellow that I had met up with in Aldershot. They called him Private Clifford English. Now, he left us after a while. I don’t know where he went to start with. I think he finished up in North Africa and Italy. We were training up at Inverness then.’’
‘‘But while I was in Inverness, I got another letter from my future wife. She told me that she had met her cousin, who was Private Cliff English then. He made corporal later on. Anyway, they must have got talking, and he had likely given her my pedigree, I suppose! So she sent me another letter and I sent a letter back, and so on. We kept in touch.’’
The two Pen Pals, Marie and Ronald, kept writing to each other for some time. After a while, Ronald’s Unit was moved from Inverness in the Scottish Highlands to near Portsmouth on the South coast of England. This is how Ronald explained to me what happened next:
‘‘So when we went down near Portsmouth, they used to let us have some weekend leave. But, living so far away in Cumberland, I just couldn't take any extended leave. However, I could take a twenty-four hours leave. So I went to Marie’s Mam and Dad's place in South Norwood and stayed there for twenty-four hours in London.
This was when we first met, really. Otherwise, we had just been pen-friends up until then. My future wife's family were called Cranfield, so she was called Marie Cranfield. I must have spent about three weekends with them I suppose.’’
Marie’s home address was 47 Huntley Road, South Norwood, London SE25. Ronald’s letters were sent either to that address or sometimes to a different address depending where Marie happened to be billeted by the WRAF, such as Eastcote, Ruislip. Eventually, in 1944 Marie and Ronald became engaged, as Ronald explained:
‘‘Now, when we used to meet up, we used to talk about getting engaged. Well, I wasn't too keen really to begin with. Mainly because I said to her that I didn't think I would come back! Marie asked me why I thought that.’’
‘‘So I said "Well there's going to be this going overseas. I have two brothers at home so I'm the only one that's come into the army." Being among the first to go across into the war zone that turned out to be Normandy, I didn't think I'd have much chance coming back alive. However, we did get engaged before D-Day. It was before D-Day.’’
Letters from the Frontline
Ronald took part in the Normandy Landings and landed at Sword Beach on 8 June 1944. He subsequently travelled through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Writing letters home became even more special when Ronald was with the colours on active service in mainland Europe. When I asked Ronald about letter writing from the Front line, this is what he said:
‘‘I used to write home to my father and mother and my two brothers that were at home at that time, Tom and Joe. Then I used to write to my Pen Friend Marie in London, who was by then my fiancée.
Of course, as you know, Marie later became my wife. I think we did pretty well really getting letters through. They might have been held up sometimes but this was probably for some good reason. But generally with letters, they did get through.’’
On the evening of Tuesday 11 July 1944,Ronald wrote a letter while in his camp at Plumetot, Calvados. Just a few hours before Ronald had driven his CO Major Hargreaves into newly-liberated Caen and witnessed scenes he later told me were ‘indescribable’. In the letter he mentions none of this. In a wartime frontline letter, specific references to places and names are avoided. This is a transcript of that letter addressed to ‘2033627 ACW1 M.F. Cranfield, London’:
‘‘Private R. Ritson,
26 Field Hygiene Sect.,
Tues 11 July
My Darling Marie,
Today I have received another of your most welcome letters. I‘m pleased you are keeping fine, as I am in the best of health. We all feel much better and happier since the day we landed.
Today we had bread for the first time since we left England and it was nice and fresh. I think it had been baked here by the Army. But it was lovely. Of course all our other food is in tins. It’s very good, but nothing like the food cooked at home.
Well darling I hope you have heard from your Mum and Dad. But I have a feeling they will be much safer where they are for the time being.
The letter which I have received is dated Friday 7 July. So it hasn’t taken very long has it dear? Now they are coming in by air, it’s very good.
I hope you are getting some of my letters dear, also a few bars of chocolate which I sent off over a week ago. And I have sent lots of letters off, so I do hope you are getting some darling.
We have still got our wireless, and get some good music on. It’s grand to know it’s coming from home. We have just heard General Montgomery on the wireless and should say a recording from over here, but I think it‘s very heartening. What do you think Marie?
I keep hearing from home, and Mother writes to be remembered to you, and hopes you are keeping well and sends her best regards to your people and hopes your Dad is getting much better. I had a letter from my pal and he asked had I brought you out there, and says I must take you up there even if it is on my next leave (if we get any). Even my relations always ask about you. So you are going to be very welcome no doubt.
There are one or two of my old pals over here, some were from my own village. It’s rather funny with only being a few houses there are three of my pals, four including myself and I have a feeling there is another one which must make five. So, it’s quite a lot considering there are only twenty houses there. But I haven’t met any of them yet. I may do, one never knows.
Well darling, I think that is about all I have for the moment. So in the meantime, please take good care of yourself and keep your chin up. I’m always thinking about you, darling. So Cheerio for now and the best of luck.
All my love,
On Thursday 8 February 1945, Ronald and Marie married at St Chad’s Church, South Norwood, London. Mainly because they were originally ‘Pen Pals’, the story of their wedding was the lead story in the local Norwood newspaper, ‘Norwood News’ published on Friday 16 February 1945. Both of them continued to serve in the Forces until in November of that year Ronald was released to return to his former job as a coalminer at Walkmilll Colliery, Moresby Parks in what is now Cumbria. Originally, because of housing shortages, they had to live in the same cottage as Ronald’s parents and younger brother at a place called Scilly Banks. Although there was no Mains electricity, they were able to obtain fresh food and there was candlelight, oil lamps, running water and a battery-powered ‘wireless’.
Marie and Ronald saved virtually all of their wartime letters in a box. From time to time they would look through the letters, read them again and think of past experiences, both good and bad. During the war, many of the letters were shown to close friends in their unit when they were received. However, after the war probably only Marie and Ronald ever read these personal wartime letters.
Some years later Marie and Ronald decided to place their wartime letters into a sealed box and place it in the ground. Although the exact location where they buried the box is unknown, it is thought this may be in the Scilly Banks / Moresby Parks area in Cumbria, near their first home. .
As with many others with experiences of World War Two Marie and Ronald talked very little about their wartime experiences to others, and especially the post-war generations. The main reason was that no-one asked them! They retained several items to remind them about wartime, such as photographs, the newspaper article about their wedding and a couple of letters they had written.
It was some time after Marie passed away in 1990 that Ronald told me about his wartime experiences to help with my research for a university project. It was only then I learnt, and perhaps began to understand for the first time, the extent that World War Two was indeed a «People’s War». Everyone who lived through those times must have had experiences that should be recorded and remembered. In Marie and Ronald’s case, Normandy and Norwood were two places that would always remain in their memories.
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