Museum Publishes Veteran’s Letters Amid Shutdown
The team at The Green Howards Museum is transcribing and publishing the letters of a Second World War soldier each day in an innovative way to attract virtual visitors and support its workers during the museum’s Covid-19 shutdown.
Staff at the North Yorkshire museum have been typing up the letters sent by Captain John Oldfield, from Sandsend, Whitby, who joined the army in 1938. Born on 28 April 1918, Oldfield attended Sandhurst and joined the Green Howards in both Malta and Palestine.
He was deployed to France, lifted from Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo, and served with the regiment in Cyprus and North Africa.
His letters can be read on the museum’s website, which is updated daily. Museum director, Lynda Powell, explained: “the letters have been kept in our store since they were donated to the museum, as part of a larger collection of personal items, in 1997.
“The original plan was for them to feature in our special exhibition, Treasures in Store, which was due to launch in April […] Instead, we have redeployed our retail and admissions team to this mammoth transcription task while the museum is closed.
We think there are more than 1,000 pieces of correspondence in the box, packaged in bundles, but not in any strict order”
As the letters are transcribed, they are added to the museum’s website. The team hope people will read a letter a day as part of their daily routine while normal life is disrupted.
Publishing his personal experiences is a huge undertaking, however, as Lynda Powell recognises: “We know that we are in it for the long haul, but the finished set of transcribed letters will provide a wonderful resource to add to our understanding of what it was like to be a soldier through the Second World War.”
The effort to transcribe and publish the letters has also provided work for some staff whose normal roles have been affected by the museum’s Covid-19 shutdown. Normally, admissions assistant Sara Cox would be busy welcoming visitors to the museum. She said: “I’ve never done anything like this before, it’s very absorbing, and I’m developing a real soft spot for Johnnie as a result of transcribing the letters.
He’s got a great sense of humour and a funny turn of phrase… So far, nothing bad has happened to him, but I know that’s going to change, which I’m not looking forward to…
“From reading his correspondence, it’s clear he really loves getting news from his family and values the morale boosting nature of keeping in touch with loved ones during difficult times. He’s got a great sense of humour and a funny turn of phrase, he also includes little sketches of his fellow soldiers in his letters. So far, nothing bad has happened to him, but I know that’s going to change, which I’m not looking forward to.”
The project is also giving 16-year-old Annie Scott – the museum’s youngest staff member – a unique glimpse into the past. “His handwriting is amazing”, she said, adding: “He’s only a few years older than me but some of the things he talks about are completely strange.
“He keeps asking for a new pipe [and] I also needed some help to understand why he kept referring to his sister’s bun, when it turns out she is having a baby. “It’s very educational, I love it and I hope people enjoy reading the letters.”
Captain Oldfield wrote many of his letters from POW camps in Italy and Germany following his capture in Libya, in June 1942. They give insight into how men, with no knowledge of when they were going to be released, coped with incarceration.
He was interred in PG35, near Salerno, Italy, after being held at a makeshift camp near Benghazi in Libya. The officers were later moved to Bologna and then onto the processing camp Stalag IV B. Oldfield was sent to Oflag 79, near Brunswick, by train in April 1944.
Throughout his time as POW his skills as an artist and musician helped entertain and comfort the men he was imprisoned with. John could play both the violin and piano, headed the Oflag 79 Art Club, and even painted a hunting scene which was sent from the camp to Buckingham Palace as a Christmas card. Some of his war art is held by the museum.
Throughout his time as POW his skills as an artist and musician helped entertain and comfort the men he was imprisoned with
He was described “thorough” and “imperturbable”, and others commented on his unselfish capacity to give his energies at a time when everyone was feeling the effects of a starvation. Those who knew him believed his impeccable smart dress and personal integrity were partly a result of attempting to maintain standards in the squalor of the POW camps.
Treasures in Store
Oldfield returned to the regimental base in Richmond in 1946 and deployed to Malaya between 1949-52. He later wrote the book The Green Howards in Malaya and served in senior roles with 1st Battalion in West Germany, with the NATO Defence College in Paris. His last posting before retiring as a Brigadier in 1969 was as Commander of Aldershot Garrison, and he also set up the Green Howards Benevolent Fund, which still supports members of the regiment.
Visitors will be able to see the letters themselves, as well as the rest of the Oldfield archive, as part of the museum’s next special exhibition, Treasures in Store once the museum re-opens.
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