Those that gave their lives for this: A letter home from VE-Day, 1945

·5 min read
Douglas Bartlett as a fresh recruit in the Royal Navy, before being assigned a vessel. HMS Victory was the name of the recruit barracks in Portsmouth. (Andrew Hawthorn/CBC - image credit)
Douglas Bartlett as a fresh recruit in the Royal Navy, before being assigned a vessel. HMS Victory was the name of the recruit barracks in Portsmouth. (Andrew Hawthorn/CBC - image credit)
Andrew Hawthorn/CBC
Andrew Hawthorn/CBC

"I suppose this is a night of history. What you and I and millions all over the world have been waiting for has at last come about. The war is over, and people are going wild with joy. Yet somehow I cannot feel that way."

This is how it begins, a letter I've found with dozens of others in a decades-old milk crate once belonging to my great-grandmother, shoved under old winter coats and discarded screen windows.

It was written by my Gramps, dated the day after VE-Day 1945, a letter from a serving Newfoundlander to his mother at the very moment the war in Europe ended.

I found this letter in my basement, which used to be his basement, getting ready for renovations.

Germany surrendered to allied forces May 8, ending almost six years of violence across the continent. VE-Day; victory in Europe. In a little over a week, the Nazi regime had collapsed, Adolf Hitler was dead and Soviet forces had taken Berlin. CBC reporter Matthew Halton told listeners, "The German war is over — five little words that one hardly dares to speak."

The world erupted in celebration but here Gramps — or I should say Douglas Bartlett, leading seaman, a five-year veteran of the Royal Navy in multiple theatres of war — is declining an invitation to the party.

Andrew Hawthorn/CBC
Andrew Hawthorn/CBC

St. John's scrapper

Born in 1921, the son of a foundry worker, Doug grew up on the streets of downtown St. John's in a neighbourhood which no longer exists. Always small for his age, he was not afraid to fight and defend himself or others from the bigger kids looking for someone to pick on. He left school at 14 to help support his family as a telegraph messenger.

When the war broke out, he enlisted in the British Navy. He had always wanted to see the world as a sailor. This was his chance.

And see it he did.

During his service, Doug saw action in the Mid-Atlantic, Mediterranean, and off the coast of the United States. Much of his service was in the far north aboard the minesweeper Gossamer escorting convoys of supplies to Murmansk and Archangel in Russia.

He spent most of 1941-42 chopping ice from the guns to offer some protection from the German Messerschmitt and Stuka aircraft that would strafe them with gunfire. Gossamer was sunk in June of 1942. Doug survived, but many did not.

Imperial War Museum
Imperial War Museum

Aboard the battleship Howe in 1943, he took part in the invasion of Sicily, during which time he was told by his captain, Sir Charles Woodhouse, that had he a crew made up entirely of Newfoundlanders he would sail anywhere and fight any enemy.

While Gramps would frequently write home, his letters rarely give away anything of what he is doing due to wartime censorship. Instead they are a record of how he feels. Similarly as I grew up he would often tell us stories of the war, heavily sanitized, mostly about meeting interesting people and having adventures. He would never tell anyone directly about the sinking of Gossamer.

By the time I came along he had medals from three countries and was loaded with enough stories to last the rest of both our lives.

But even by VE-Day 1945, Gramps wanted to be done with fighting. He wanted to be, but was not.

A job not yet complete

"I cannot feel any way joyful because I am thinking of all those that gave their lives for this," Doug wrote. "Some of them so very young that they did not have a chance to see life, and yet I suppose most of them died so that others might live in peace, and a better, happier world. Let us hope their sacrifice was not in vain."

"And the war is not yet over. There are men still fighting and dying in the far east. How long more that will take, we don't know, but let us hope that it will not be too long. We have waited so long… yet my job is not yet complete."

It's striking to contrast this to a letter Gramps sent four years earlier, in May 1941: "Oh, and by the way don't you be worrying about the war. It is not as bad as it may seem. I am perfectly alright, and don't be getting such silly ideas into your head you'll never see us again… There isn't enough Jerries in Germany to scare us. The only people they are scaring is themselves."

He wrote this before Gossamer was sunk, before his friend and fellow St. John's telegraph messenger Cyril Thistle was torpedoed and killed on the River Clyde. By VE-Day, even in victory, Gramps was wondering if it had all been worth it.

Imperial War Museum
Imperial War Museum

Today, if somewhat perversely, we can look from the future and view a war that killed an estimated 70 million to 85 million people, around three per cent of the world's population at the time, as a story with a happy ending of sorts. After all, we won.

But from the visceral centre of the conflict, Gramps had no way of knowing what would come after, or that the fighting would last only a few more extremely bloody months. He thought only of the fighting and the dead, and the duty he felt he owed them, his comrades.

"We grow weary and discouraged," he wrote, "but we must go on and see it through in the hope that we shall have a better world to live in. A world of free and happy people, free from want and tyranny, free to lead our lives in the way we think best, to love and be loved."

For the rest of his life, Gramps was involved with veteran's causes and remembrance ceremonies, but I think it's telling that he was more engaged with youth organizations such as the Church Lads' Brigade, with the Navy League, and with Habitat for Humanity.

For him, and I suspect for many like him, honouring his friends' sacrifice was as much or more about tending to their "better world" as it was about remembering the dead. Their work, not yet complete, for a world in which to love and be loved.

Andrew Hawthorn/CBC
Andrew Hawthorn/CBC

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting