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15 October 2014
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Durham Sapper drowned from SS Yoma : last letter home

by Margaret Cowell

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Contributed by 
Margaret Cowell
People in story: 
Herbert Cullum, Alice Gill, George Monk, Viviane Andreone, Rosemary Gill, Ernest Gill, Peggy Gill, Jack Gill, Charlie Gill , Joan Gill, Les Gill
Location of story: 
Ferryhill County Durham and Bougie, North Africa
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
28 January 2006

Wedding of Ernie and Peggy Gill 5th June 1943 at Ferryhill, County Durham

I never met my Uncle Herbie but his was a familiar face to me as his photograph was displayed prominently in our home and in those of my aunts and uncles, his brothers and sisters. Herbie had gone missing from a troopship in the Mediterranean. I have covered the story of the sinking of the SS Yoma in another contribution to the People’s War website but this is to give a little more background about the people mentioned in that account.

Because of my parent’s marriage, mentioned in Herbie’s letters, it is possible to see the family as they were around the time that these events were happening. They were married on Saturday June 5th 1943 at Ferryhill, a mining village in County Durham and their wedding photograph shows Alice Gill, Herbie’s mother, Charlie, Herbie’s stepfather and their six children. From the left in the back row are brothers Charlie, Les and Ernie, the groom and Peggy, the bride. Between Charlie and Les stands their sister Joan.

Another sister, Rosemary, is seated beside her mother Alice with their father, Charlie standing behind. The little boy standing at his mother’s knee is Jack, the little brother mentioned in Herbie’s letters . Jack had been very ill with tubercular bone disease in his leg and was newly out of plaster. After Herbie went missing, Rosemary tried to find out what had happened to him and corresponded with his friend George Monk and Viviane Andreone, a young French girl whose family had welcomed George and Herbie into their home in Bougie in Algeria. Viviane wrote about ‘Bert’ as Herbie was known in the Army:

“Bert …was our big English brother whom we loved very much. He often stayed with us. We always waited impatiently for his days leave, and when he arrived with his great friend George the house then was full of life and happiness as we liked our Bert very much. Alas one day he told us of his pending departure. All of us, the little ones too, cried, we were so attached to him…”

As Alice sat serenely with six of her seven children around her, Herbie was on a cattle truck crossing the desert to embark on the troop ship which would cross the path of a German U boat, the U-81 with such disastrous consequences. In his last letter home Herbie asked about my parents wedding which he had missed. Herbie was engaged to be married too and he wrote on the 8th June:

“Well Mum, how did the wedding go? I was thinking of you all on Saturday travelling in a cattle truck and I was wishing I was with you. I hope that you and Ernie got my airgraph all right. I only wish I had the same chance to get married but I guess my poor Margaret will have to wait many long months yet…”

Unfortunately, just over a week later Herbie was reported missing after the troopship the SS Yoma was sunk on 17th June 1943. In February 1944 the Army Council informed Alice that as no further news of Herbie had been received he was presumed killed in action at sea. It was only after some recent family history research that we found out some of what happened on the Yoma. I was sent Herbie’s last letter and the letters of condolence from friends by my Aunt Rosemary, his sister mentioned above. Herbie’s letter is full of hope and love for his friends and family and the letters of condolence mourn an obviously charming young man. How sad it is that he didn’t make it home to all those who loved him.

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