SEARCH FOR TRACES - LOVE LETTERS FROM CALCUTTA
by Patrick Schlenker 2021
Translation Christopher Torry 2021
In spring 2013, I bought a large bundle of letters and other documents from an unknown person on eBay. The love letters were all from a corporal in the British Royal Air Force who had written to his girlfriend, a British nurse. Both were stationed in what was then India during World War II.
These letters were with me in my collection for many years. During that time, I took out the letters and read some of them. Every now and then, I made up my mind to investigate the precise circumstances of the two people in order to research what had become of them. The little treasure slumbered, along with dozens of other historical documents in a British ammunition box, until I picked up the letters again in spring 2020 when I was clearing my new warehouse.
It took a few weeks until I had scanned and sorted the 96 love letters on my own. The research dragged on and the common platforms like Forces War Records didn't help me either. First a request to the Margates Margates Sea Bathing Hospital, where the nurse Phyllis Hilda Dann began her training, and various researches on Ancestry.co.uk brought the breakthrough when I was able to get in touch with the youngest brother of the author of the love letters via a cousin.
What I have found is a wonderful love story between two people that began in a dark time, hundreds of kilometers apart and thousands of kilometers from home and unfortunately ended far too early in England.
This is the story of Nurse Phyllis Hilda Dann P/306660 and Lance Corporal Keith Bernard Emile Ralph Phillips 771539.
Keith Bernard Emile Ralph Phillips
Keith Bernard Emile Ralph Phillips in the uniform of a Lance Corporal in the Royal Air Force - Photo Derrick Phillips
Keith Bernard Emile Ralph Phillips, was the eldest son of Emile Peter Marie Phillips (* 1889- † 1974) and Merle Ida Mimmie Agnes Watts (* 1899- † 1966) born on Thursday, June 16, 1921 in the Colaba district of the port city of Bombay , today's Mumbai. His parents had been married since June 2, 1919. On July 13, 1921, Keith was baptized by Father William Bennett, SJ, chaplain, in the Convent of Jesus and Mary on Wodehouse Road. Keith had 4 siblings of whom only his brother Derrick lives today. Georgina Emily Henriette Phillips 1920-2001 - Married to Warwick Arthur Andree 1917-2014 (children Georgina Andree & Warwick Andree)/Cecil Bertram Phillips (* 1923- † 1924) / Mary Merle Anne Phillips (* 1927- † 2005) / Derrick Phillips.
Wodehouse Road Bombay with the monastery in the background
From January 15, 1931 to December 31, 1936, he completed his schooling in the Jesuit School St. Mary's High School on Nesbit Road in Mazagon, Bombay. The school, which was founded in 1864, is one of the oldest continuously operated private schools in India. It is still one of the top day schools in the country today.
The diploma mentions that Keith had to drop out of school early because of illness. Keith later completed further training at either St. Xavier's School or St. Xavier's College. As a young adult, Keith had nearly died of peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix.
PERIOD OF SERVICE
Sometime after graduating from high school, Keith began an apprenticeship as a civilian with the Royal Indian Navy. After the outbreak of World War II, Keith joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) as "Aircraftsman 1" (AC1) with service number 771539 as an electrician on December 6, 1939. An aircraft man is the lowest rank in the RAF.
He served two terms from December 6, 1939 to February 27, 1941 and from December 4, 1941 to February 18, 1946 in various parts of India. Among them he was stationed in Ambala, where he had attended the School of Technical Training Haig Lines (No.1 Ground Training Schools (GTS) founded in 1940 for Indian personnel. There Keith and other young men were trained in mechanical engineering for aircraft maintenance.
From March 6th to 8th, 1941, Keith served in Singapore before he was deployed in Burma from March 12 to November 30, 1941. Further stations were Murree (today's Punjab Province in Northern Pakistan). From the town of Muree, which is at an altitude of 2300 meters above sea level, you have a fantastic view of the surrounding mountains and the Himalayas.
Keith was also in Karachi (now Pakistan's largest city) for a while. stationed at the RAF Mauripur base. RAF Mauripur was opened in 1942 as a transit airport, on which one had specialized in the maintenance of aircraft in the transit area. Among other things, the No. 77, no. 117 and No. 267 Squadron stationed with C-47 Dakotas, which mainly flew supplies to Burma.
Another stop for Keith was Kohat (now the capital of the Kohat district in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan). The RAF base in Kohat had existed since 1922 and was used for operational purposes against threats from tribesmen in the northern and western areas of the border province. In Kohat, Royal Air Force and India Air Force squadrons were stationed on the Burmese front as part of their rest periods between missions. Kohat was the first military airfield in India, which was commanded by an officer of the Indian Air Force, namely Air Marshal Subroto Mukerjee, the so-called "Father of the Indian Air Force". This was replaced in January 1945 by the British Air Marshal Aspy Merwan Engineer DFC 3.
In Bishnupur, Keith repaired and maintained aircraft with the 143 Repair and Salvage Unit before he was ordered back to Calcutta, where he did his service with the No 1 Combined Maintenance and Upgrade (CMU). His family also lived in Calcutta at that time.
From Bishnupur Keith wrote 25 love letters to Phyllis by December 25th, 1944. The remaining 71 letters were sent from Calcutta on December 29, 1944.
He couldn't visit his sweetheart so easily if you imagine that at that time a journey from Karachi to Calcutta by train took about 6 days.
Keith arriving in Singapore on March 6, 1941 - Photo Derrick Phillips
His main job with the Aircraft Repair Section (ARS) consisted of the repair and maintenance of British fighter planes such as Hurricanes and Spitfires. During his tenure, Keith was promoted to Leading Aircraftsman (LAC) and later to Corporal (LC).
During his vacations, Keith tried to teach his brother Derrick to read wiring diagrams and build a wireless device. He also helped him build and use a crystal device. Keith was always playing pranks or joking. To a child in India, Keith had the added shine of serving in the Royal Air Force. The "Brylcream Boys", as the popular nickname for RAF personnel was during World War II, was definitely the most glamorous of the three armed forces for children.
Keith's Airman's Service Book and Certificate of Service from the RAF shows that he was an "Electrician Grade I" in the Royal Air Force's Volunteer Reserve (VR) until February 20, 1946, and then in the South East until March 20, 1946 Asia Command (SEAC) served. He was awarded the Defense Medal and the remarks from his Officer Commanding stated: “He was an efficient electrician for aircraft and motor transport vehicles (MTV) and is recommended for use in all areas of electrical engineering. “Keith had never applied for the Burma Star, although he would certainly have received it through his service there.
While serving in Karachi, he met his future wife, Phyllis Hilda Dann, who was serving as a nurse with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve.
Phyllis Hilda Dann
Phyllis Hilda Dann in the uniform of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve with the rank of subaltern (Lieutenant) - Photo Derrick Phillips
Phyllis was born on June 5, 1915, one of two children of James David Dann and Jessica (née Clark) Dann, and was baptized on July 15, 1915 at St. Luke's Church in Shepherds Bush, London.
Entry in the local register for the baptism of Phyllis Hilda Dann on July 15, 1915 - source Ancestry.co.uk
When Phyllis was two years and 2 days old, her father, Lance Corporal James David Dann of the 8th London Regiment (Post Office Rifles (service number 373619), died in „The Battle of Messines (Ridge) in Belgium on June 7, 1917. Phyllis had never seen her father. His remains were never found. James David Dann is immortalized on plate 54 of the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres / Belgium.
Menin Gate Memorial - Ypres Belgien - Graphic The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)
Top: James David Then obituary notice. Bottom: James was posthumously awarded the Medal of Victory. Private collection P. Schlenker
With him Phyllis got her older sister Frances Jessie, born on June 23, 1912. On May 12, 1917 another sister by the name of Doreen Stella. She was baptized on June 17, 1917 in St. Thomas Church in Hammersmith. However, Doreen died a few days later. Frances Jessie married William Ernest Clarke on March 20, 1932 at Stamford Brook in Hammersmith.
As a child, Phyllis attended Godolphin and Latymer School and Upper Latymer School in Hammersmith, London. She began her training as a nurse at the Bruce Porter Convalescent Home in Folkestone (part of the Barnardo Homes National Incorporated Association), where she completed a two-year training course in "medical and surgical nursing" in 1932. This in both day and night duty. She gained further experience as a nurse at the Kent and Sussex Hospital in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. In 1936 she also worked at the Royal Sea Bathing Hospital, Margate. Her job reference describes her work as "extremely satisfactory and her behavior as exemplary". From 1937 to 1940, Phyllis completed a three-year advanced training course at the Torbay Hospital Provident and Eye Dispensary, which consisted of lectures on anatomy, physiology, and medical and surgical care. Here, too, their work was described as very good and their behavior as excellent.
Certificate dated July 1936 from the Royal Sea Bathing Hospital in Margate - P. Schlenker's private collection
In the same year Phyllis celebrated her 21st birthday. One from her mother Jessica. - Source private collection P. Schlenker
Source private collection P. Schlenker
And from her very good "Chums" (buddies) Peter, Phillip, Pat and Paul - source P. Schlenker private collection
On February 15, 1944, Phyllis joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNS / R). Phyllis was immediately P. Then Sister QAIMNS / R P / 306660. Like all the other QAIMNS / R sisters, Phyllis was given a gray uniform with red lapels and a collar trim and a khaki uniform with a peaked cap for outside the hospital premises in the rank of lieutenant.
During her basic training, in which, in addition to medical training, she also learned to salute and always sign everything with the name and number. Phyllis, like all members of the army, was vaccinated against malaria and yellow fever, as well as against smallpox and, as many other QAIMNS / R have described, all other known diseases.
Although the QAIMNS was founded in 1902, the real origin of the unit lies in the 19th century and with Florence Nightingale. After Nightingale's pioneering work in Crimea, where she found that poor conditions and poor sanitation were among the many reasons that contributed to the rising death rate of injured soldiers.
In 1902 Queen Alexandra was approached with a request to become president and patroness of the newly organized female nursing wing of the army. Queen Alexandra, named after her, was an active participant in the QAIMNS until her death in 1925. It was her decision that the nurses should keep Florence Nightingale's choice of gray in her dress, and she chose the symbol of the white cross from the Danish flag. recognition of her Danish background and her motto "Candida sub Cruce" (under the white cross).
It quickly became apparent that far more nurses were needed in times of conflict than in times of peace, and so QAIMNS also had the QAIMNS (R), reserve nurses who were also fully trained and qualified. Normally it was single women who worked in hospitals but could be called up in emergencies. They proved to be an invaluable resource and were often picked up by their matrons during their nursing training in the 1930s. On September 3, 1939, for example, all the reserve nurses opened the sealed instructions they had carried after their training and reported by the thousands to their assigned bases according to the instructions.
Phyllis was subsequently assigned to the No 1 IBGH - Indian Based (British) General Hospital on Drigh Road in Karachi. The arduous journey across the seas took around 3 weeks. The weather was usually extremely cold and the sea was very rough. Emergency boat drills were a daily must and did not help render most of the people on board seasick. However, the nurses on these ships had to adapt quickly to the circumstances, as they were usually also responsible for the staff and the other soldiers in the event of illness. So the young girls were sent to "Sick Bay", as the sick room on these ships was affectionately called. There was an abundance of patients there with a wide variety of complaints. For the nurses it was officially called "Through Life Capability Management". Unofficially "tender, loving care from mom". The biggest challenge for everyone, however, was the great heat and the flies that were everywhere at all times.
On December 25, 1944, Phyllis was invited to the Royal Air Force's official Christmas dinner in Mauripur, outside Karachi. Wing Commander Henry Neville Gynes Ramsbottom-Isherwood, recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), the Air Force Medal (AF) and the Order of Lenin had invited. He was one of only four recipients of the Order of Lenin in the British Commonwealth during the war after fighting an aerial battle over northern Russia. Isherwood also trained Russian personnel on British fighter jets. Wing Commander Henry Neville Gynes Ramsbottom-Isherwood crashed on April 24, 1950 with a Gloster Meteor IV jet fighter during a test flight in a heavy snow storm and was killed in the process.
Menu card for the Christmas party at the Royal Air Force in Mauripur on December 25, 1944 - source P. Schlenker private collection
From mid-February 1945 Phyllis was transferred to the Combined Military Hospital (CMH) Hospital on Nasik Road in Deolali. Deolali was a British Army camp 160 km northeast of Mumbai. It was the original location of the Army Staff College (now Defense Services Staff College in India. The camp had a military prison that was used for soldiers of the British Army and for captured Indian nationalists who had served in the Indian National Army founded by Japan Next there were also cinemas, swimming pools, amusement parks and restaurants for the troops.
No 1 IBGH - Indian Based (British) General Hospital - Drigh Road Karachi, where Phyllis served until February 1945 - source www.rafcommands.com
Towards the end of 1945 Phyllis was transferred again to a Combined Military Hospital in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) in Kohat (today's Pakistan). NWFP is the former name of a border region in British India. The name of the province became known through the wars in Afghanistan and the conflict with the Russian Empire (Great Game). Kohat is 180km west of Islamabad. The Combined Military Hospital was partly part of the rapid development during the war. The idea of a homogeneous corps by amalgamating the Indian Medical Services, the Indian Medical Department (IMD) and the Indian Hospital Corps gradually took shape and the Indian Army Corps (IAMC) emerged on April 3, 1943. The medical facilities of the India Army Medical Corps ( IAMC) were concentrated in what would later become Pakistan.
Phyllis and Keith during their marriage on June 30, 1945 in St. Thomas Church on Middleton Row in Calcutta - Photo Photo Derrick Phillips
Even after their marriage, both remained with their units and continued to serve separately from one another. Shortly before the separation of India into two states and independence, Phyllis and Keith returned to England via Mauritania and Liverpool. They should be followed by their parents and siblings for the following months.
Phyllis then worked as a civilian nurse for a few years, mainly at Hillingdon Hospital in the London area. Phyllis was indeed an old-school nurse and did not tolerate any negligence or discipline from the nurses.
She once told Derrick, Keith's youngest brother, a creepy story: She was on night duty and was sitting at her desk doing paperwork when she suddenly saw a patient walking past the door of the ward. Knowing that the woman was older and quite ill, she rushed to the other ward to berate the nurse on duty for not noticing that the patient had got out of bed and was wandering around somewhere. The nurse looked surprised and said, "But - this patient died yesterday." Phyllis swore that this was how it happened and that the story was not made up.
Paper drawing by Phyllis Hilda Dann. – P. Schlenker’s private collection
Keith, like Phyllis, got a job as an electrical engineer with British European Airways at the Northolt Aerodrome. Keith then moved to Heathrow Airport, where he became an inspector at British Overseas Airways Corporation and, after the merger with BEA, became an airline and British Airways. Keith, according to his brother Derrick, has always been an advocate of precision and security. This is how he earned some unpopularities. He refused to certify so many aircraft as airworthy unless every little bug he found had been completely corrected. When he retired on July 31, 1980 after 33 years of community service, he feared that safety standards would be lowered.
Keith and Phyllis lived briefly in Eastcote, Middlesex (now part of London's Uxbridge) and Hillingdon Heath before moving to Ickenham, Middlesex (now also part of Uxbridge). Keith was an avid gardener and had a beautiful garden full of flowers. They had two cocker spaniels. Born into a long and respected dog pedigree, Marcus was a great friend, but too often had a tendency to guard his master's shoes and growl when someone (even Keith) tried to take them away from him. Lady, the second cocker spaniel was just a sweet and very pretty "creature" according to Derrick.
Derrick wrote to me about his brother Keith:
Keith was a much loved brother of me and my sisters and, always full of fun, he was adored by his nieces and nephew. Keith was the only brother I knew, as Cecil died before I was born. I always looked up to him, not just as one would to an elder brother, but because he was one of those people who seemed to able to turn his hand to any practical job. He was always playing pranks or joking. On one occasion a cousin joined us for Dinner. He was extremely fond of his food (to put it kindly); if someone appeared not to want to finish what was on their plate, he would ask if he could have it. He was also squeamish about what he ate – so Keith quietly slipped a long cooked carrot into his clear soup and when my cousin asked what it was Keith replied “Oh, it’s just a puppy dog’s tail”. That was enough to put my cousin off the rest of his meal.
Farnborough Air Show - D-110 Crash - 6th September, 1952
On September 6, 1952, Phyllis, Keith and his younger brother Derrick attended the Farnborough Air Show. On that day, test pilot Squadron Leader John Derry flew the prototype DH-110 from de Havilland, from which the de Havilland Sea Vixen would later emerge. After a demonstration of their ability to break the sound barrier while in flight at low altitude, the aircraft disintegrated. The leading edges of the wing buckled, which resulted in the outer parts of the wings being torn off. The subsequent shift of the center of pressure of the DH-110 caused the aircraft to lean forward and the cockpit and tail breaking off and the engines being torn out of the airframe by the acceleration.
Shortly before the accident, Derrick complained that because of the large number of spectators he could not see the runway and thus also not the aircraft parked there. So the three of them went to a small hill on the other side of their original location. Shortly afterwards, one of Derry's engines crashed into the crowd in the area where they had recently been standing. The accident killed 29 spectators, as well as Squadron Leader John Derry and his flight test observer Anthony Richards.
Farnborough Air Show - D-110 Absturz - 6. September 1952
Keith and his wife Phyllis dutifully visited their parents and siblings every Sunday, and especially at Christmas. The family enjoyed Christmas dinner together.
Derrick wrote to me about this:
On one notable occasion he and Phyllis on their way to us on Christmas Day travelled on the London Underground. The train stopped at our local tube station and they disembarked. The train left, but Keith and Phyllis found that the station was closed and they could not leave it. Imagine the surprise of the driver of the next train, when he saw two people on the platform of a closed station flagging him down! The train fortunately stopped and Keith and Phyllis were able to travel to the next station and walk to our flat.
Shortly after Keith retired on July 31, 1980, he was diagnosed with cancer and a few months later, on January 16, 1983, he lost his last fight and succumbed to the disease at Mount Vernon Hospital in Northwood. Ironically, Phyllis worked in the same hospital. Derrick was with Keith when he passed away. Derrick had found some comfort in being with him in his last moments. Keith's last words to Derrick were, "Take care of Phyllis". Derrick and his wife Sheila had subsequently done their best to grant his last wish.
After Keith's death, Phyllis lived alone in her home in Ickenham for the next 22 years. In her final years, she suffered profoundly from sciatica and glaucoma, which blinded her in one eye while developing a cataract in the other eye. After years of fighting, with the support of her brother-in-law Derrick and his wife Sheila, not to give up their independence, Phyllis fell badly in mid-December 2005. She injured her face and both eyes. She was admitted to the Hillingdon Hospital on an emergency basis. A week later, she was transferred to her former workplace, Mount Vernon Hospital. There, her health deteriorated very quickly, and she passed away peacefully in her sleep in the early hours of the morning on December 26, 2005, at the age of ninety years and nearly six months. Her sister Frances Jessie had previously died on July 11, 2005 at the age of 92. Obviously, with their long lifespan, the two sisters made up for the very short life of their little sister Doreen Stella.
Perhaps it had to be that Phyllis died in Mount Vernon, where her husband Keith had died in 1983. Phyllis had been determined never to give up her home, and she granted her wish. According to Derrick, a lasting memory for the rest of the Phyllis family was their 90th birthday celebrated at her niece Alison Coote's home in Sevenoaks - attended by large numbers of members of the Phillips, Coote, Holmes and Beesening families (including her brother) . Then there were sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews and great-nephews.
Keith and Phyllis found their final resting place together in Hillingdon Cemetery, Uxbridge. Keith and Phyllis had no children, which was not easy for them. Derrick believes Keith would have been a wonderful father.
A total of 96 letters from the period between September 20, 1944 and July 27, 1945 have been preserved. These were sent from the following addresses:
29.12.1944 Calcutta No 1 Combined Maintenance and Upgrade (CMU)
21.1.1945 2/1 Russel Street Calcutta
2.2.1945 4 Lord Shina Road Calcutta (Heute ein Schulhaus)
5.2.1945 Calcutta No 1 E.M.U
18.2.1945 4 Lord Shina Road Calcutta
4.7.1945 Suitte 11 - 4 Lord Shina Road Calcutta