Donald Baker's war time story taken from letters which he wrote to his mother in Rhodesia



Donald Baker's war time story taken from letters which he wrote to his mother in Rhodesia


Stars in June 1940 based on letters written to his mother. Tells of life in Rhodesia before being called up and travelling to England, Discusses war as well as work and social life and initial training in Rhodesia. Goes on to describe a little of journey by ship and the life in England including bombing. Mentions RAF basic training camps in August 1940. Mentions medical for pilot and starting training (maths an navigation courses). Goes on leave to Scotland and describes Christmas. January 1941 sent for elementary flying training which is completed about March 1941. Account finishes in may 1941 with mention getting lost and emergency landing.



Six page printed document


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The letters were always addressed “My Dearest Mother” and signed off “Your loving son, Donald” We don’t really know why the letters were not addressed to both his father and mother. The letters were written on a fairly regular basis, every one or two weeks, and in addition to that he “wired” home regularly as the letters took between 6 weeks and two months to reach home. Once Dad was in the POW camp the news was mundane and occasionally censored. My impressions from the letters were his strong mindedness to become a pilot, get his wings and be a part of the real action in the war. He never mentioned what happened on the night of the 5th November when his plane was shot down, and anything about his rescue, capture and interrogation. Once the war was over he very seldom spoke about this time in his life, but I want to fill in the gaps, and piece together information to complete the story.
JUNE 1940
The first letter written to his mother was on the 8th June 1940 using Rhodesian Railway’s letterhead, from the Chief Accountant’s Office in Bulawayo. Dad was then just 19 years old. Obviously there had been talk of the war but not much serious thought given to it as he mainly wrote about his sport which at the time was “rugger” second league, and due to an ankle injury he had to give it a rest for 3 weeks. Dad’s social life was also the topic of conversation, having been to a cabaret, the first he’d been to for a long time and he enjoyed it as his partner was a bit of allright. [sic] Being a member of the Bulawayo Young Peoples club also provided some form of social life. And then his place of abode also cropped up “Shifted into the Sussex Hotel at the end of the last month. It is allright [sic] so far, but will soon tire of it I expect. My roommate has a wireless so we are quite comfortable. The room wasn’t exactly built last year” And then, as if an afterthought after he’d closed off, he told his mother that he had received his Certificate of Registration.
The next letter was undated, and starts off by apologising to his mother who was obviously worried about him, the reason being that Dad had forgotten to post the previous letter. Tobacco was fetching good prices that year in Rhodesia.
Talk of the war is now an important topic in the letter and the beginnings of his political interests starting to bud. “Yes things definitely seem to have taken a bad turn for us overseas. However, I reckon it will serve to make the British nation wake up as we seem to have felt before that we couldn’t help winning just because we are in the right. However I guess the Germans will have to put all they’ve got and a bit more if they reckon on conquering Britain in a month or two. Fancy France capitulating under the terms imposed by Hitler. However, I suppose they would only have been wiped out completely. I have been caught for part-time training. I only wish they would call me for the air force as I can’t imagine that I am helping by paying the occasional pensioner. A woman could do the job [underlined] nearly [/underlined] as well.” Douglas Legg, who had joined the RAF, was probably an influence in Dad’s life as he paid Dad a visit and said he was having the time of his life in Salisbury.
Work at the office was getting busy; the war increased the amount of work he had to do.
But still there other things he needed to tell his mother. This girl he used to write to in Nyasaland had written saying she was passing through on her way to the falls with her parents. “Well, they came last Thursday and stayed at the Grand. Apparently the girl became “society” after she left Umtali. She is only 17 but anyone would think she was 27 what with earrings, lipstick and rouge. The “old man”, a hang of a pompous guy of course had to have some drinks. In my best tone I said a shandy, but you can imagine my surprise when this kid says “gin & mixed”. I just pole-vaulted out of the door and was sick the next day. I was just out of my element.”
Lastly, it did not look like he would make it home for the Rhodes & Founders weekend because of the training scheme that had been implemented and public holidays were part of the deal.
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The letter that followed was written in pencil, undated, still using the RR letterhead. Granny had been down to visit Phyllis in Chipinga. The weekend following was R & F and it was just an impossibility to get home for that. One chap had seen the magistrate, adjutant and Colonel to get off but they weren’t having it. The General Manager had written and said Dad was being called up on the first July or soon afterwards. Dad had written to the RAF to request that he is drafted with recruits going overseas and he needed to train his replacement at work. “I am teaching a new woman to do my job so am pretty busy. It’s a hang of a job because she is new to the work and every little thing has to be explained an [sic] I am not by any means an eloquent orator”
Jack had written to Dad and also wanted his company for the R & F weekend but that was not going to happen.
Letter no. 4 dated the 13th July, marked the commencement of his military career. Written on plain paper, in pencil, the envelope marked “On Active Service” and posted from the No. 2 training Centre, Bulawayo meant that he was “doing his stuff”. His call up number was No. 778186. He had to report on Friday 12th July to the RAF and he was preparing to be sent either to England or Canada for training. “There is a big crowd of us in camp. I am n [sic] the second draft and we leave not long after the first, which is said to be leaving next Wednesday. We are said to be following them about 1 week afterwards but of course this is not in the least official but everyone says the same so I guess there must be something in it.” Dad was so hoping to go home for a visit first, he needed to bring his kit home and sort out one or two things like his insurance policy and money matters. He was bored in the camp as they did very little, only about 2 hrs drill a day and the rest of the day they just loafed. Issy and Horace were both in the camp with him. Granny had sent him £1 and about which he had to say the following “It will be more useful than ever now, as it is bitterly cold here especially sleeping on the ground. However it’s for a good cause and the fellows are pretty happy.” (I think Harold Wilson needed to be reminded of that when he betrayed the very men who fought so gallantly for England in the War.) Dad was so glad it was the RAF and thought it would be No 1 if he could have been sent to Canada as he never knew when he would see that country otherwise.
This was the last letter written from home soil, before sailing by ship approximately the 28th July 1940. There are no details about which port he sailed from or his voyage over, except that he had posted a letter from Cape Verde to granny, but that is not with the collection of letters that I have. I would like to find out some more information on the journey to the port and whether or not he saw his family before leaving.
The address on the next letter dated 26th August 1940, reads as follows: DA Baker, RAF no. 778186, Rhodesian Air Contingent, C/o The High Commissioner for S. Rhodesia, Rhodesia House, 429 Strand, London WC2. Dad was stationed at Bridgenorth, Sulop, [sic] Shropshire. He had probably been off ill as he started the letter saying he was feeling fit again though he had not really got his voice back. (Probably picked up flu whilst travelling on the crowded ship.) “I haven’t started on any Air Force work yet. We are just doing marching and a spot of musketry now and again. We were all injected against Typhoid and Tetanus or something like that last Saturday. However apart from a fairly stiff arm it did not affect me at all. We were given 48 hours Light Duty after it so had quite a loaf. We all had to go for a shoot today. The distance was 25 yards and we were given 25 shots to blaze into the target. The chaps here reckoned the Rhodesians could shoot well enough so they did not take our scores. Consequently the fellows were shooting the props and knocking the targets down.” Dad had been to Wolverhampton but found things expensive, rationing made some things difficult to find. Cigarettes (decent ones) were 1/6 for 20 but Dad obviously had a good stock of them as he had bought 500 on the boat for 12/6. The beer in England was not to their liking.
“People here are very hospitable to Colonials and make us very much at home. The fellows in camp are not so keen on us as they reckon we are rather a “tough” and ungentlemanly crew. Of course
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there is a general feeling of sort of superiority having come 7000 miles and all that sort of thing. We are all looking forward to getting to our squadrons as this camp is getting on our nerves because actually it is only a camp to instil discipline and all we seem to do is march, spit and polish and clean up our knives and forks and plates, but we are getting used to the last part as we had that on the boat” … “Must get my wings on my chest or some badge as I really couldn’t just stay down on the ground and polish plugs …
We were all very proud of the uniforms the first day, but there are so many men in kit that it has worn off.”
The planes flying overhead at night and air raid sirens seemed to keep everyone awake at night. Dad started to make contact with relatives, Uncle Jim and the rest of them up there in Scotland and was planning on a visit. Family news cropped up in the letter as Harry and Betty were married and his best wishes were bestowed on them.
The next letter was not dated, but presumably written a week or so after the last approximately the 1st September 1940. Written on blue writing paper with ink pen. Dad still had not received any of his mother’s letters since leaving Rhodesia. He had received mail from Aunt Ella and Aunt Bess (Somerset). “They seem to think I am one big hero coming all this way to join the Air Force and all that sort of stuff. We are supposed to be leaving this camp anytime from now to go to a training school. We hear the Germans every night, supposed to be raiding the Midlands towns and they all seem to pass pretty near here. Am getting quite used to being “droned” to sleep” “Had a bit of fun in a bus the other day. A pal and I were speaking Afrikaans and we heard everyone saying we must be Polish. You can imagine their surprise when we spoke to the conductor in perfectly good English. When they heard we were Rhodesian, they didn’t half make a fuss of us. Everyone here seems to think that colonials are just the cats pyjamas, in particular the girls.”
Still no news from the relatives up north, but expecting to hear from them soon.
We are supposed to be leaving this camp anytime from now to go to a training school. A lot of Rhodesian have already left for their respective centres and am also keen to start on something new as we do nothing but drill here from morn till night. We hear the Germans every night, supposed to be raiding the Midlands towns and they all seem to pass pretty near here. Am getting quite used to being “droned” to sleep” Air Raid sirens still an annoyance, but also such a dismal sound. The All Clear sounded a lot better. They knew when German planes flew overhead because they had did not have [sic] a steady roar “but comes in intervals”. Bombs had been dropped fairly close by at 3 am one morning and some people were killed. For entertainment the lads when [sic] into Wolverhampton to watch a “bio” and a bus ride but because of they had to be in at 9.30 and the bus ride was an hour to get back, their night life was severely curtailed.
On the 9th September Dad wrote that he was pleased to have had some mail from home at long last. He had begun to think that there was no more British merchant Navy, the letter took so long! Dad was thrilled to have been accepted as a pilot but was waiting in anticipation for the Medical Test, which was to follow in two days time. “I sincerely hope I pass (Medical) as I am looking forward immensely to get a crack at these bally Nazis that we hear every night. It is most annoying to lie in bed and just listen to them and not be able to do anything about it. However will just have to put up with that for another five months and then maybe I’ll get a chance to do something as a pilots course takes at least that long … The Empire relies on me to turn the tide”
It was obvious from his letters by now that Dad wanted to be part of the action and did not enjoy doing things like foot drill on the square every day. Only the aircrews were left in the camp, all the Rhodesians having been drafted to various stations. The weather was now beginning to get pretty cold; winter was just around the corner.
The next letter was written on the 16th September 1940 on blue stationary, still stationed at Bridgnorth. He was very pleased to tell his mother that he passed his Medical for a pilot and was now waiting to be posted for training. Good news – 175 Germans down yesterday. The weather had changed since his last
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letter, drizzle and cold. On a social visit to Wolverhampton the sirens went off at 8. pm but the dance they were at continued, despite the raid. “We left at about 10 pm and so tried to get lodgings and we walked that town till 2 am without success. In desperation we went to an air raid shelter and managed to get an hours sleep till 6 o’clock. We then found an hotel that we knew about but couldn’t find it in the “black out” and lost ourselves in the effort. However we took a bed at 6 am and breakfast at 2 pm. What a night as it was cold and raining and nobody seems to be able to direct one to anywhere decent. Saw a 6 weeks old Chronicle today. Big headlines about Rhodesian Air Contingent arriving in Britain. Must have caused quite a consternation when we left at the dead of night. Yes, I heard you shout” (I wonder if that meant granny was at the station to see them off?)
On Thursday the 26th September 1940, using the official Air Force letterhead but still using the Rhodesia House address in London Dad wrote “I suppose by now Harry will be back from his honeymoon” Dad had managed to get to Somerset to see his relatives. He went by train, changing at Birmingham and a few other places before arriving at Castle Cary. He surprised everyone by arriving unannounced. He wrote about Aunt Bess, Uncle Jack, Dan, Bruce, Bert Baker, visiting Wyke house, people in Millbourne Port. “I had a jolly fine weekend and really enjoyed it.” The weather was getting increasingly colder in Bridgnorth. (That was quite a journey there and back considering Dad had to change trains quite often, catch a bus and walk a fair distance without having any directions from the relatives, and being new to England.)
On Friday 9th October 1940 Dad wrote from his new base, in Paignton near Torquay. “It is very lovely down here, as the scenery is so wonderful. Most of the air Force here is billeted in Hotels as it used to be a very popular seaside resort in peacetime. There are four of us in my room (all Rhodesians) and it is not too bad as we have plenty of fresh air with a big window overlooking the sea.” However the next day they were leaving for a 3 week Maths course at another camp nearby. Thereafter there would be a 5 weeks Navigation Course, 8 weeks at Elementary Flying School, 8 weeks at Advanced Training School, altogether six months of hard work before seeing any action. If Dad failed any of the exams then his future career as a pilot would come to an end, leaving them with the option of gunner or observer, so naturally Dad was very keen to pass. “The atmosphere at a Pilots Training School is much different to the last place I was at as generally speaking the fellows are pretty “high class” and the Officers and M.C.O’s [sic] are the very best they can find, and cadets are treated more or less like gentlemen again.”
[underlined] November 19th 1940. [/underlined] With the postal service taking some 6 weeks to 2 months to reach Rhodesia, Dad wrote to wish every one a happy and prosperous New Year at home. He was anticipating spending Christmas with one of the relatives.
“Am just continuing on the same old course which should be finished at the end of this week as we have started on the various exams. We were issued with flying kit the other day and believe me it is really lovely stuff and warm as anything.”
Being mid-winter and Dad did not tend to go out much, apart from a dance which was rather overcrowded so he went home early. Also the black out didn’t make it easy to get around after dark. With exams coming up Dad chose to a spot of swotting instead. [sic]
Letter dated 15th December 1940 on official RAF letterhead, pale blue with envelope to match and 6 ha’penny stamps arrived in Inyazura on the 18th February 1941. (By then the news was so out of date it must have been frustrating for the family keeping up with Dad’s news.) Dad was saddened by the news of Harry Roberts. “I am very sorry indeed to hear such sad news and it is terribly hard luck on Phyllis. However as you say Phyllis has courage and I’m sure she’ll bear up and get over it but nevertheless it must have been an awful shock to her.”
In the meantime Dad had some leave and visited relatives in Scotland for the first time. He stayed with the Tullochs, relatives on his mother’s side, went to see Uncle Jim’s school where he more or less took the salute. Babs Tulloch, his cousin was studying at medical school so he did not see much of her, but
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they managed to Jack Buchanan at the Kings Theatre. [sic] His Uncle Jim Dunn gave him a lecture of about two hours on religion which he was in the habit of doing but Dad “took his dose like a lamb as he didn’t think he was in a position to argue about such things”. He also visited an Auntie Isobel who was busy in the shop. Then he also met with Bella Stephenson, and Aunt Nellie, Bella Strachan and her husband. Dad had not forgotten his sister and sent her a telegram of condolences from Glasgow. The trip up to Glasgow was not that easy, the train service was not good because of the air raids and it took from Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon at 4.30 to arrive. He was exhausted as he had not slept much on the train on the Friday night and then stopped over at a B&B in Carlisle that cost him 6d. The journey back was equally as long and tedious and caused him to be one day late so he was in a spot of trouble. In the meantime the training in Paignton was progressing, all necessary exams passed and just waiting to be posted to an EFTS. and Dad had been promoted to Leading Aircraftsman. The pay went up from 2/- to 5/6 per day. The rest of the letter concerned money matters and his insurance policy and an offer of money for Phyllis. It was a very newsy letter, extra long to make up for the week he lost.
Letter dated the 29th December 1940 described his Christmas in Paignton where there was a lot doing and which he enjoyed. There was a dance in Torquay, which they left late and had to get a taxi home. A very benevolent family had three of them for Christmas midday dinner, which seemed strange to him. He and his roommate visited this family a number of times as they enjoyed the warmth and peaceful atmosphere away from the barracks. Over the Christmas period he went to a couple of dances which he enjoyed thoroughly. (I think his time in Paignton was the happiest for him.)
5th January 1941. Saw snow for the first time, some six inches of snow on the hills and around and bitterly cold weather. On a route march into the hills the fellows participated in some snow fights which resulted in some facial injuries because the snow was frozen. All the ponds were frozen up and walking quite dangerous, worst of all is doing PT outside in a vest and shorts “which nearly kills us” Still in Paignton in seems, [sic] expecting to leave for E.F.T.S. soon near Hull once the weather clears up a little.
New Years eve was a big success, went to a local dance. Otherwise not much news, just a mention of some friends of Dad’s from Rhodesia and what they doing [sic] in the Air Force.
On 14th January, Dad wrote that he had been posted to 4 E.F.TS. flying school in Brough, fairly near Hull. Kept very busy, lots of lectures and then studying. Lectures all morning and then flying the in the afternoon, [sic] weather permitting. The students had to average well over 60% on all subjects in order to pass
“Up to now have done 2 and a half hours which is all dual, just learning the various manoevers [sic] etc. but the instructor is always there to check up and show you how it should be done. It is just fine flying around. We have a very nice lounge and separate writing room nicely furnished. We have tablecloths again, cups and saucers instead of mugs and last but not least by a long way … we have butter, jam and sugar on the table. There is also a mess where we can get beer and soft drinks so generally speaking we are living like gentlemen. We sleep out every second night in an old Sunday school building so that in the event of a lot of air raids we can get a decent nights sleep, but nothing has happened so far”.
Usual address “Some where in England” 24th January 1941. Due to good old English weather no flying for nearly a week. Dad had to placate Granny, she was worried and not heard from Dad for so long. The reason being that mail from the UK 2nd – 22nd November had gone missing, which is hardly surprising consider [sic] there was a war going on.
“We are trying to learn all sorts of things to become pilots and it seems to me as if being able to fly a plane is about the least important thing. This navigation is still a bit of a myth to me as there are such an awful lot of things to do and work out before starting on a flight. It is such a common thing to hear about a bomber going to the other end of Germany and back that it seems childs [sic] play, but I’m thinking they are pretty smart.” Doesn’t that sound just like Dad!
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Very welcome post received from his mother, and a letter from Harry which took Dad about an hour to decipher! The sea voyage did not have a good effect on the chocolate so Dad asked his mother not to send anymore, cigarettes yes!
Sunday 2nd February 1941. The usual discussion about letters received and sent, the miserable weather and lack of flying. Examinations passed but more to come, lectures from 8.30 – 5.30. Sunday’s in England not much happening and “must be just about the sleepiest thing imaginable”.
12th February 1941. Not much to report other than a bit of flying and about ready to go solo, weather permitting. So far Dad had done 8 hrs flying, but needed to get in 42 hours flying before moved to next base for more advanced training. Some correspondence exchanged between Dad and Babs Tulloch, who had sent Dad a pair of woollen knitted gloves.
Socially not much happening, the closest place is Hull but the bus costs a bit too much. However they did get to see a bio: Erol Flynn “The Sea Hawk” and then went to an enjoyable dance in the evening.
18th February 1941 Dad keeping fit, received a couple of newspapers dated 27th December and 3rd January, so a bit out of date by then. Douglas Leggo getting married. No letters from his mother in five weeks which was cause for concern and also had no news about Buster. Still busy with exams, very little flying because of the weather, so not much news.
24th February 1941 Two letters had arrived, and about 4 newspapers so news from home was very welcome. Busters kids had whooping cough at the festive season. Final exams finished, just waiting for results. Lots of flying when the weather is good, and recently had some sunshine. Not much news, pretty much the same thing done every day.
10th March 1941 Still at Brough and ground instruction now completed. Up until then Dad had only flown 25 hours in 8 weeks. Letters received from Mrs. Bartons niece, Babs Tulloch but still so few letters coming through from Inyazura. Dad wanted snaps of Charlton, Harry;s [sic] honeymoon.
And then a big money mix-up:
“Do you remember that time I was hard up and cabled home for money. Well you cabled £11.10.0 but the post office at Paignton made a mistake and sent me only 10/- which at the time seemed rather strange, but I couldn’t do anything about it. However they discovered it about 2 months later (that was honest of them) and have duly paid over the remaining £11 with much apology.”
(This letter took a whole two months to get to IY)
Posted from Cary Hill House, Castle Cary, Bath Sunday 30th March On 10 days leave, so visited relatives.
“Arrived here last night and meant to make it an unheralded visit but I had a telegram waiting for me when I arrived to say that leave had been extended from 2nd April to 9th April. When my leave is over I have to report to my new station, which is about 40 miles north of London. I believe it si [sic] quite a nice place so I hope I shall enjoy it there. Actually I was quite sorry to leave Brough as we had grand crowd of fellows there and we had a good time”
The letters written in April must have gone astray, 11th May 1941 was the date of the next letter. First solo cross country was [deleted] from here [/deleted] [inserted] across [/inserted] to Worcester then north of Shresbury, [sic] passed right over the old camp at Bridgnorth. The next cross country was a bit of an adventure, having got lost near Salisbury, and after flying around in circles for about an hour they had to make an emergency landing to refuel. Started night flying on the 10th May, only started at 3 am because of an air raid. There had been a tragedy the previous week when the instructor and another pupil cam [sic] into land with its navigation lights on. the Germans spotted it and shot at it. They had to crash land and the pilot and instructor were wounded


“Donald Baker's war time story taken from letters which he wrote to his mother in Rhodesia,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 2, 2024,

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