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Bryony Hill’s book on how her family survived World War II

PUBLISHED: 10:03 16 February 2015 | UPDATED: 13:48 16 February 2015

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Bryony Hill, wife of football legend Jimmy Hill, who lives in Hurstpierpoint, has written a fascinating book about how her family survived World War II

The paper was yellowing and brittle, the writing cramped and faded, but as Bryony Hill read through the bundles of old letters, a story unfolded before her. It told of hardship and deprivation, courage and immense fortitude, loss and longing – and finally of love and hope for the future.

So fascinated was she by what both sets of grandparents had endured during the Second World War, and how her mother and father met over the garden fence at the end of it, that she decided to put the letters into a book, How I Long To Be With You.

“My first find was the letters from my maternal grandfather Smithy to my grandmother Esme,” remembers Bryony. “Amongst her belongings was a box of letters from Smithy, written between 1938 and 1943 to Granny in New Zealand. I started reading them but eventually put them to one side. Grandpa Smithy’s writing was artistic, to say the least.

“More than a decade later, after my mother Bridget had died, I was clearing her house and came across a long, narrow, dusty suitcase in the attic, full of letters and photos from my father’s side of the family, starting at the beginning of the war. There were two folders - the first contained letters from my father Trevor, who was in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves, to his parents in Haywards Heath.

“In the second were letters to dad from his father Wilbur and his mother Jelly (both were nicknames), plus some from Paul, dad’s younger brother who went into the RAF and was tragically shot down during the Battle of Britain in 1940. His plane and his body have never been found.

“The more I read, the more I could see the connection between the two families, who’d never met but had friends in common. Then the idea came to write a book. I thought if I dated the letters I could have them as a running diary of two families at war, although in very different circumstances.”

Collating and editing the book was the diversion Bryony needed after Jimmy went into a nursing home in Sussex in 2012, suffering from Alzheimers. “I was trying to keep busy,” she explains. “It was very, very hard but we’d had a wonderful life together. He was an intelligent, witty, charming, lovely man but Alzheimers has destroyed so much of that. I know now he is well cared for and above all, safe, but it has been so sad to see the man I’ve known and loved for so many years disappear from me.”

To take her mind off her pain, she got stuck into the war letters, but it was a nightmare task. Because of paper rationing, the words were written so tightly they were almost impossible to decipher. Where the letters had been typed, the script was almost invisible, because typewriter ribbons were so scarce they were used to within an inch of their life.

The story begins with Smithy in India in 1938, as the threat of war rumbled in Europe. By June 1939, just before the outbreak of war, Paul was learning to fly in Scotland. Trevor was called up in 1940, joining the RNVR as a Pay Lieutenant.

The more she read about her family’s history, the more spellbound Bryony became. “Our generation didn’t know anything about what our parents did in the war,” she says. “All we knew about dad was that he’d taught the other sailors ‘keep-fit’. We were never interested because it was never a topic of conversation. But the evidence was there: dad kept all his campaign kit including his paraffin heater, which he called Beatrice and which I now have in my shepherd’s hut in the garden. On hot days in the summer we’d use his collapsible canvas bath as a padding pool.

“That generation had seen and had to do things that were horrific. Ma, for instance, was a nurse in New Zealand on men’s surgical looking after wounded American sailors. She only talked of the fun she had with them, though, never their terrible injuries.”

Interesting facts came to light during Bryony’s research: Esme, for instance, spent time in Iraq with Smithy in 1940 working as a decoder. “Smithy worshipped Esme,” says Bryony, who lives in Hurstpierpoint. “I was astounded by the passionate nature of some of his letters, which were also sweetly innocent and very loving. It was a revelation because my grandmother never talked about her husband and my mother never talked about her father.

“The letters from Smithy suddenly stopped in 1943 and everyone thought he was dead. Then in 1945, after the war had ended, he turned up in New Zealand. He drank excessively and eventually returned to England – without Esme - and stayed with his brother near Hastings until he died. He had warned Esme in his letters that he had no conversation and was worried how he’d fit in after the war.

“During the war, people did things they had never done before. Wilbur, for example, learned how to make rock buns and darn holes in the eiderdown where 
the mice had nibbled it. It was make do and mend.

“I was reading about people I knew leading a life I had no idea existed, which was strange but moving. There was always an undercurrent of fear, of the unknown, of when was it going to end. And it was hard: dad was desperate to come home to support his father when his mother died in 1942 but he wasn’t allowed to because there was a war on.

“In 1946, ma got a passage to England hoping to marry a man she’d met before the war (not my dad). She went to stay with her godfather in Haywards Heath who lived next door to Wilbur and his second wife Norah. Dad was staying with them while Durstons - the house he’d bought in Bolney - was renovated. They met over the fence, fell in love and married, then had my brother Paul, me and my younger brother Neil. You couldn’t have invented this love story.”

How I Long To Be With You by Bryony Hill is published by Book Guild Publishing, £17.99

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