The Tank Museum Archive has recently received a large donation of letters that give a moving insight into the life of one young soldier at the start of WWII, that led to the ultimate sacrifice of his life in service of his country.
The 65 letters chronical May 1940 to August 1943 and offer a fascinating view into the lived experiences of the Second World War, from protecting the Home Front to fighting in the North African desert. They are made all the more poignant as the author was killed in action on 27th April 1943, and the collection includes undelivered letters from his mother, unaware that her son had been killed.
Alan William Harris, Jim to his family, was just seventeen when as a young office worker in London his letters back home to his mother began. Jim joined the war effort as an ARP warden and documented his experiences of air raids and watching the city burn during the Battle of Britain.
The letters then jump to November 1941, Jim is now nineteen and was undergoing training with ‘D’ squadron 60th training regiment RAC as 7947020 Trooper Harris. Jim’s letters feature constant requests for laundry and food parcels from home and give a comprehensive description of his training, including his strengths (wireless and gunnery) and weaknesses (pistol and anti-tank rifle firing).
In what was in hindsight a life changing decision, Jim declines an offer of joining the gunnery instructor course at Lulworth, feeling he would be a poor teacher and was subsequently posted to 12th RTR on 8TH April 1942.
Harris was one of thirteen troopers who arrived in Colchester and after passing his wireless trade which combined with his competency as a gunner, aided his selection to a crew position in a Churchill tank named Lizzard, (tanks in 12th RTR were named after the letter L) as part of No.3 Troop, A Squadron. Trooper Harris later crewed a new Churchill called Linnet.
His letters from this period include complaints that there were never enough rags and requests for any spares to be sent so he could keep his tank’s guns, 6-pdr and Besa MGs, clean.
An essential part of maintaining morale was keeping the troops entertained and Harris wrote how he enjoyed seeing Laurel and Hardy’s Chump at Oxford and how he felt like Convict 99, a pre-war Will Hay film, during his stay in Hawick.
The basic amenities of camp were reported back to the family and describe how ‘King Mud’ was in power again and mention the name Joyce, sometimes Joy, who was assumed to be his girlfriend.
In March 1943, Jim is overseas and writes of his disappointment with the weather and “scruffy” population in North Africa and although himself covered in dust, dirt and grime, marks the scenery as magnificent. His letters admit that he is being careful not to divulge information whilst he is playing “soldiers”, writing that “discretion being the better part of valour, and ignorance is bliss”. Jim’s tone starts to change, and we see him mature, his words are now used to calm the fears of his mother and bolster his faith and moral justification for what he’s about to embark on.
“God is with me and will see me through this crusade.
“Cause is righteous, and though the road is bumpy at times, I know that I can and will come through with flying colours.”
In mid-April 1943, Jim and the 12th RTR were located in North-Eastern Algeria and as part of 21st Army tank brigade, supported 4th infantry division in the upcoming Operation Vulcan.
B and C Squadrons were involved in attacks on the 24th and 25th April, with A Squadron the last to be committed at dawn on the 27th in support of the 10th Brigade’s reserve battalion, 1st Royal West Kents.
After this attack, the letters home stopped. Just two years from his first letter, Trooper Harris had lost his life.
Jim’s life was taken during the counter-attack by Fallschirmjagers from the Hermann Göring Division, supported by Tigers, which saw the Germans regain the position.
Harris’s troop leader, Lieutenant Saunder, wrote to Jim’s mother and father three months after Jim’s death and describes how Jim’s tank was just cresting a hill when it was hit by an 88mm anti-tank gun, killing Jim and another crew member instantly.
Jim’s body was recovered and is buried in Massicault War Cemetery, Tunisia, with 1,446 war dead.
Stuart Wheeler, Museum Historian, said, “This series of letters are very poignant but ultimately heartbreaking to read. They give an insight into how the war starts to impact on Jim’s life and those around him. It was a story all too familiar during the war and is of special interest to us, given that we are Jim’s, and The Royal Tank Regiment’s, Regimental Museum.
“Receiving letters like these are always significant as they add detail and colour to the story of the men who fought in tanks during World War Two and never returned home.”
The letters to his mother give a poignant insight into how the life of a young man was transformed by war. The family’s heartfelt inscription for their lost son still loses nothing of its emotional impact: FAREWELL. BELOVED. YOUR KNIGHTLY VALOUR PROVED.