Nearly 80 years after it was written, a 99-year-old great-grandmother has received a hand-written love letter from her soldier fiance which went to the bottom of the ocean when the cargo ship transporting it to Britain was sunk off the coast of Galway by German U-boats in 1941.
Phyllis Ponting, from Devizes in Wiltshire, gave up hope of ever hearing from her beloved Bill Walker, serving with the Wiltshire Regiment, after he was posted to India and he never answered her letter accepting his proposal of marriage.
Heartbroken Phyllis, whose maiden name was Aldridge, went on to find happiness with Jim Holloway, whom she married, and the couple had four children. After his death she wed Reginald Ponting.
For all these years she wondered whatever happened to Bill Walker, telling the BBC he couldn’t have survived, ‘otherwise he would have been straight round to my address. We would have been married. He loved me a lot’.
But the letter was one of 700 to survive in the wreck, three miles under the waves, in conditions likened by marine archaeologists to ‘like putting them in a tin can, sealing it up and putting it in a fridge freezer.’
Delivered at last: Phyllis Ponting with the love letters from Bill Walker which were lost at sea after his boat was torpedoed in World War Two
Phyllis Ponting, now 99, never knew whether her wartime sweetheart Bill Walker, pictured above, survived the war. But she said she had always presumed he had given his life for his country because ‘Otherwise he would have been straight round to my address. We would have been married. He loved me a lot’
Phyllis Ponting as a teenager before the war, when she met Bill Walker who proposed to her
The message of love from the smitten young soldier has now, incredibly, been recovered with around 700 other letters from the wreck of the SS Gairsoppa, a steam-powered cargo ship.
She has been tracked down as the ‘Phyll’ in the letters after a feature on BBC’s The One Show and been visited by a representative of the London Postal Museum and given copies of Bill’s letter.
‘I can’t believe the letter was at the bottom of the sea and now I can read it’ said Phyllis, who has four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
‘I don’t think Bill can have survived the war, otherwise he would have been straight round to my address in Roseland Avenue. We would have been married. He loved me a lot,’ the 99-year-old said.
They met in Devizes when Bill was stationed at the Wiltshire Regiment’s barracks in the town.
In the letter, he writes about reading her acceptance of his marriage proposal.
He said ‘I wish you could have been there when I opened it. I wept with joy. I could not help it. If you could only know how happy it made me, darling.’
It was among 700 personal letters, many from servicemen, which were being transported on the vessel and which were lost when the steam cargo ship was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland.
Museum curator Shaun Kingsley said that after the letters were recovered and treated in a conservation lab, including Bill Walker’s final letter to Phyllis, pictured above, ‘slowly and suddenly words started to appear’
The ship, which was also carrying a huge haul of 48 tons of silver, sank almost 4,700 metres (about 15,400ft) to the bottom of the Atlantic, killing 83 of the 84 crew members, about 300 miles off the coast of Galway.
Incredibly, the poigant collection of letters from India – many to sweethearts back home – has been recovered in almost pristine condition from the wreck on the seabed.
They are now part of a heart-rending exhibition called Voices from the Deep, being staged at London’s Postal Museum.
Work to recover the cargo, including the letters, began in 2011.
Marine archaeologists wanted to find the silver, which was being sent from colonial India to Britain to help fund the war effort, but they discovered the letters too.
Museum curator Shaun Kingsley said ‘It’s the largest collection of letters since people started to write to survive any shipwreck, anywhere in the world.
‘It shouldn’t have been preserved, but because there was no light, there was no oxygen, it was darkness, it was like putting a collection of organics in a tin can, sealing it up and putting it in a fridge freezer.
‘And in the conservation lab, slowly and suddenly words started to appear. Some 700 letters written from British India in 1940.’
American-backed salvage firm Odyssey Marine Exploration say the bringing to the surface of the silver bullion is the heaviest and deepest recovery of precious metals from a shipwreck ever made.
The company, under contract to the British Government, will get to keep 80 per cent of the haul after expenses. The remaining 20 per cent will go to the Treasury.
The first 1,200 silver bars, or about 1.8 million troy ounces, was worth about £23.7 million (about $37 million).
Laden with 1200 silver bars, the SS Gairsoppa (pictured) had to burn too much fuel to keep up with the Navy convoy which was offering the steam-powered cargo vessel some protection from German U-boats. The skipper received permission for the ship to strike off on its own towards Galway in Ireland rather than its original destination of Liverpool, but a U-boat torpedo killed 83 of its 84 crew
SS Gairsoppa, built at the Jarrow shipyard in 1919, was steaming home to Liverpool from India in 1941 while in the service of the Ministry of War Transport when she was forced to break away from a Merchant Navy convoy, protected by Royal Navy destroyers, and was torpedoed.
She sank in British waters and the 412ft-long steamship has remained sitting upright on the seabed with her holds open, nearly three miles under water.
The ship, recognisable by the red-and-black paintwork of the British-India Steam Navigation Company and the torpedo hole in its side, was sailing in a convoy from Calcutta in 1941.
Buffeted by high winds and running low on coal, the captain decided he would not make it to Liverpool and broke from the convoy to head for Galway.
A single torpedo from U-101 sank her in 20 minutes, on February 17, 1941.
Three lifeboats were launched, but only Second Officer Richard Ayres made it to land, reaching the Cornish coast after 13 days.
During World War II, Britain, cut off from occupied Europe, was utterly dependent on supplies reaching her by sea.
But Hitler was determined to force Britain to her knees by cutting off these supplies. He ordered his U-boat captains to hunt down and destroy Allied shipping.
In February 1941 alone, 38 British ships were sunk. Many of the ships were old and heavily laden, so they could travel no faster than eight knots, making them an easy target for U-boats.
The Gairsoppa, with its heavy load of almost 7,000 tonnes which included the silver, as well as iron and tea, was forced to burn more and more fuel to maintain her speed in the stormy seas as they journeyed north.
Fearing that he did not have enough fuel to make it to Liverpool, her skipper, Captain Gerald Hyland, asked permission to break away from the convoy and make instead for Galway on Ireland’s south-west coast, and on February 14, 1941, the Gairsoppa left the convoy.
The U-101, captained by Ernst Mengersen, headed towards the Gairsoppa, hoping to make a ‘kill’, and at 2230 hours a massive explosion blew apart the ship’s Number Two hold.
Such was the impact of the single torpedo that the foremast snapped and crashed to the deck, taking with it the radio antennae, so the crew were unable even to send a distress signal.
They were alone and sinking fast. As fire and smoke ripped through the Gairsoppa, Captain Hyland gave the order to abandon ship and the men made for the lifeboats.
This picture from marine archaeologists shows the SS Gairsoppa on the seabed, nearly three miles down
Then bullets ripped through the darkness, forcing them to throw themselves down.
The U-boat had surfaced and sprayed the deck with machine-gun fire.
Some of the bullets cut through the ropes of one lifeboat, sending it crashing into the freezing sea. Dozens of men leapt overboard and swam towards it, including Second Officer Richard Ayres.
They began pushing away from the stricken vessel to avoid being sucked down as it sank, and had to paddle frantically to get clear of the spinning propellers.
Somehow they pulled away and watched as just a hundred yards from them, the Gairsoppa disappeared under the waves, within 20 minutes of being hit.
Of the other two lifeboats, there was no sign.
They were alone in icy seas, hundreds of miles from land.
There were 31 men in the lifeboat – eight Europeans and 23 Indian seamen, known as Lascars, all of whom began immediately suffering badly from the cold, so they were given all the blankets and some canvas for shelter.
The only man skilled at sailing a small boat, was 31-year-old Second Officer Ayres who immediately took command and set sail eastwards, steering with an oar because the rudder had been lost.
Their food supplies consisted of some tins of condensed milk and dry biscuit, so hard it could barely be swallowed. Ayres resisted the crew’s pleas for extra water rations to soften the biscuit, because they were desperately short of water.
Each man was limited to half a pint of water a day and half a pint a night.
But the Lascars began drinking salt water, which made them go mad and fight each other. Men began to die. Then, on the eighth day, water ran out.
There was no sign of land and little chance of rescue: no one knew their fate or whereabouts.
Men become delirious and ‘had barely enough hope and heart to carry on,’ according to Ayres.
A couple of rain showers gave some relief from the thirst that burned their throats, but in the cold air, their hands and fingers became swollen with frostbite, making it impossible to grip the oars.
Over the next few days, their strength and spirit ebbed away.
But Ayres, determined, fit and strong, was resolved to save the lives of the remaining
He sailed the little boat through towering waves and fierce gales, snatching little sleep as only he, the Gairsoppa’s radio officer, 18-year-old Robert Hampshire, and a gunner named Norman Thomas, 20, from Chatham, Kent, had the strength left to man the rudder.
Then, 13 days after the sinking, with only seven men surviving, many barely clinging to life, one man croaked out the word they all longed to hear: ‘Land’.
At first the others thought it was just a cloud, but then they made out a lighthouse. It was the Lizard lighthouse on the southernmost tip of Cornwall, 300 miles from where the Gairsoppa had sunk.
Ayres began sailing towards a rocky cove. Just as they were nearing its entrance, a huge wave cruelly smashed on to the small boat, capsizing it.
In their weakened state, all but three of the men drowned – so near yet so far from safety.
Another wave righted the boat and Ayres managed to drag himself, Hampshire and Thomas on board, only for another breaker to capsize them again.
They clung to the keel, but as more waves crashed violently over them they lost their grip.
‘We will fight them on the beaches’: Churchill’s most famous wartime speeches
Winston Churchill’s rousing speeches inspired a nation and played a key role in Britain’s morale during the dark early days of the Second World War.
It was a time when the country was almost at its knees, with men dying and morale sinking.
But Churchill’s defiant and powerful words allowed ordinary Britons, soldiers, sailors and airmen to feel hope.
He replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister on May 10 1940.
Days earlier, the ‘phoney war’, the period of relative calm following the declaration of war on September 3, 1939, had ended with the German invasion of France, Belgium and Holland.
Churchill’s first speech as premier to the House of Commons, three days later, would go down in history as one of his most famous.
Winston Churchill delivers a rousing speech during the dark days of WWII
He said: ‘I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’
‘We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.
‘You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.
‘You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
‘Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal.
‘But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time, I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, ‘Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.’ ‘
Extract from his first broadcast as PM to the country on May 19, 1940.
‘I speak to you for the first time as Prime Minister in a solemn hour for the life of our country, of our Empire, of our allies, and, above all, of the cause of freedom . . .
‘It would be foolish . . . to disguise the gravity of the hour. It would be still more foolish to lose heart and courage or to suppose that well-trained, well-equipped armies numbering three or four millions of men can be overcome in the space of a few weeks, or even months…
‘Side by side, unaided except by their kith and kin in the great Dominions and by the wide empires which rest beneath their shield — side by side, the British and French peoples have advanced to rescue not only Europe but mankind from the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened and stained the pages of history.
‘Behind them — behind us, behind the armies and fleets of Britain and France — gather a group of shattered states and bludgeoned races: the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians — upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall.
‘Today is Trinity Sunday. Centuries ago, words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of truth and justice, ‘Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.’ ‘
Extract from his Commons speech on June 4, 1940, after the evacuation of 338,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk.
‘I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.
‘At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government — every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength.
‘Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.
‘We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.’
Extract from his Commons speech on June 18, 1940.
‘What General Weygand [the French Allied commander] called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.
‘Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.
‘Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
‘But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.
‘Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ ‘
Hampshire was washed to his death, but Ayres and Thomas made it to nearby rocks.
Then another icy wave knocked Thomas backwards, drowning him just yards from safety.
Exhausted and alone, Ayres felt ‘the fight for life was not worthwhile’.
Then, as he surrendered himself to his fate, he heard voices urging him not to give up.
Three young girls, Betty Driver, Olive Martin and her sister, evacuees from Tottenham in London, had been walking along the cliffs when they spotted the boat flip over in the stormy seas below.
One ran across the fields to fetch help from a nearby farm. The other two raced down to the beach and shouted to the men, begging them to keep swimming.
Eventually, the first girl returned with a coastguard, Brian Richards, who threw Ayres a rope and pulled him ashore.
The bodies of Hampshire, Thomas and two Lascars were recovered and buried in a nearby cemetery. It later transpired that the place where Ayres had come ashore, at Caerthillian Cove, was just a few miles from his home.
He was awarded an MBE in recognition of his heroic efforts to keep fellow survivors alive, as well as a War Medal for bravery at sea.
Ayres returned to sea just nine months later, and spoke little about it after the war, during his years in the Royal Naval Reserve.
He died in 1992, but the citation on his MBE will forever celebrate the extraordinary efforts of a brave man: ‘It was only the cruelty of the sea that robbed him of the fruits of his labour.’