Jenny Hall has written to me from Crawley with the fascinating story of the wartime romance that brought her parents together.
Ray Harris and Doreen Sellman were friends who lived in Brighton. When Ray enlisted in the army in June 1940, the pair agreed to be pen friends, neither of them realising that their exchanges of letters would lead to marriage and a family.
Ray became a tank driver with the 7th Armoured Division and saw five years of service in North Africa and Europe. He took part in the Italian Campaign and the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Driving a tank was a very hazardous job; British machines were mostly inferior to the powerful German panzers plus the enemy had a devastating anti-tank weapon in their 88mm gun. There was always the threat of mines in the earth and fighter planes and bombers in the air. Ray survived all of these perils and returned home for a final time safe and sound from occupation duties in Germany at the very end of 1945.
Following his de-mob Ray considered a career in show business but realised this offered an insecure future. Instead he became a coach painter and later worked in freight development. Jenny was born to the couple in1947. A sister, Susan, joined her in 1948. Ray and Doreen spent their retirement years living in the Cliffe area of Lewes.
Jenny takes up the story: “My father died in 2001. Then after my mother passed away in 2006, I found a chocolate box containing 200 letters that my father had written to her in the course of World War II. The letters tell a very moving love story. My parents started writing as pen friends, became engaged and finally had a wartime marriage in Brighton on 26th February 1944.”
On the chocolate box Doreen had inscribed:
“My happy dreams are stored away
The tender dreams of yesterday
A tender message to impart
When it is winter in the heart
And dreams of you, like summer flowers
Steal back to fill the empty hours
Recapturing old ecstasies
With ever fragrant memories”
So touched was Jenny by the discovery of the letters that she has woven them into a wonderful little book called “A Desert Rat Entertains”. The title refers to the fact that Ray was a natural-born entertainer with a gift for comedy. Although still a tank driver, Ray’s showbiz penchant led to him joining the “Jerboa Strollers” Concert Party, the jerboa being the rodent that gave the 7th Armoured Division their nickname of “The Desert Rats”. Ray took part in over 200 shows in North Africa. A newspaper from the time records: “The setting for their desert performances are pretty rough and, if the show ends late, the performers sleep in the sand around their props truck. Their piano was on one occasion demolished by a bomb.”
One presenter of productions featuring the Jerboa Strollers was Jasper Maskelyne, pre-war a well-known illusionist and magician. Eager to do his bit for his country, Maskelyne’s skills at deception were employed by the Eighth Army. Dubbed the “man who made the Suez Canal disappear”, his crowning achievement came with a whole series of “tricks, swindles and devices” that misled Rommel’s Afrika Korps prior to the decisive battle at El Alamein in October 1942.
Ray was good at quick-fire comedy and adept at impersonating Max Miller, the ‘Cheeky Chappy’ of music hall fame. Miller wrote to Ray in the desert on two occasions from his Brighton home sending him jokes that he could use in shows. One letter goes: “Dear Corporal Harris … I am enclosing some material which I hope you will find useful. I can imagine how difficult it is for you to find new stuff out there. I find it hard enough even in England to keep getting new routines. Remember me to any of the ‘boys’ who know me and tell them we are thinking of them and wishing them all a safe return.”
After North Africa Ray took part in the 1943 invasion of Italy. In his letters to Doreen he could never reveal his location so in her book Jenny has helpfully provided background military information. She has also reproduced photographs and various posters and documents. One picture shows Ray posing in the ruins of Pompeii.
The Desert Rats were withdrawn from Italy and brought back to England to prepare for D-Day. They landed on the Normandy beaches in the afternoon of 6th June 1944. Ray remained with the division right through the Normandy campaign and by the late summer was with them on the very borders of Hitler’s Reich. He went on to witness the surrender of Germany in May 1945.
One of his last letters to Doreen before he came home is dated 18 December 1945: “Even if I am not with you on Xmas Day darling, you know I shall be thinking of you every minute sweetheart and praying for the last few days to go quickly, so that I can be with you for always … Once again I am putting on another Xmas show this year and, of course, with all the new lads in, I shall use a lot of my old gags and patter, so it is not so difficult as usually is the case. Well darling I will finish up this time by wishing you a very, very Happy Xmas my dearest. I shall be thinking of you.”
At the end of her book, Jenny pays this tribute to her father: “His wonderful sense of humour and quick wit remained with him right up until his death and family get-togethers were always full of warmth, joke-telling and laughter.”
Obviously I didn’t know him, but I do believe that post-war show business may have missed out on a great talent in Ray.
*”A Desert Rat Entertains” is published by Pen Press at £9.99. ISBN: 978-1-78003-654-0.