phoney war

Forgotten People, Forgotten War - Love Letters, Operation Ariel And 'The Phoney War'

phoney war

Illustration of artillery gunners early on in the war (artist: Mark Beesley)

For many people, World War 2 means the invasion of Poland, the Battle of (and subsequent evacuation from) France, Pearl Harbor and the entry of the Americans, then D-Day and victory in Europe.

What Peter Ledger does in ‘City Boys at War’ is to take a detailed look at the frequently overlooked period from after the Battle of Poland and up to the Battle of France.

Here, he gives Forces Network a taster of his research into the lives of some of those who lived through this portion of the conflict.

Article by Peter Ledger

Mention the word ‘Dunkirk’ and most people think of the heroic evacuation of troops from the mole and beaches of Dunkirk.  

Operation Dynamo, the code name given to that event, has been much written about.  

What hasn’t been are:

•    The frustrations of the so-called Phoney War, which saw around 450,000 men effectively twiddling their thumbs in northern France after the invasion of Poland while a furious war was going on at sea;

•    the fears of the families at home, listening to radio and newspaper reports of the collapse of France, knowing that their husbands/fathers/sons were in grave peril.  What was it like for them?

•    a significant number of British troops, in both the army and RAF, did not make it home from Dunkirk.  What was their fate?

phoney war
Alfred Ledger with his wife Marjorie in 1938 © Angela Grant

City Boys at War considers a campaign of just eleven months, from September 1939 to July 1940, viewed at the micro level – the perspective of a gunner, his wife, his family and his comrades.

The gunner in question is a man named Alfred Ledger, who joined the Lloyd’s Battery of the 53rd (City of London) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, RA - a Territorial Army unit based at White City – in 1938, and was called up in August 1939. 

The narrative is based on letters exchanged between Alfred and his wife, Marjorie, the regimental war diaries and other accounts lodged at the National Archives and IWM.

Ledger was stoic about the tough war conditions, but was not able to contain his annoyance at his letters to Marjorie being censored, say at one point:

“I dislike the idea of anyone who is directly in charge of me reading my letters to you. That, briefly, explains why some – in fact most – have probably appeared a bit cold.”

Censorship came in three forms:

(1)    Letters, to which censorship was strictly applied.

(2)    ‘Green Envelopes’, issued on trust and read on a random basis at Regimental HQ.

(3)    Pre-printed open postcards.

Examples of some of this censorship can be seen in the following pictures:

city boys at war
Alfred’s heavily-censored first letter from France (© Angela Grant)...
second world war
...and a standard-issue, pre-printed postcard (© Angela Grant)

The book opens with the Phoney War, the months leading up to the German attack in the west, which ended with Operation Dynamo and the escape of the British army from Dunkirk. 

However, the events described do not end on the beaches but with a second, little known, rescue, Operation Ariel (also known as Aerial), the organised escape of allied troops and civilians from ports in Brittany and western France.

Ariel was just as successful in its objective as Dynamo, rescuing 190,000 troops. Dunkirk has become part of British folklore. Ariel has been forgotten. 

As for Haddock Force (the units sent south to defend French military airfields in the event of RAF bombers using them as refuelling bases en route to bomb Italy), history moves into the realms of mystery. But it is these events that the narrative follows.

city boys at war
An illustration of refugees fleeing the war (artist: Mark Beesley)

Curiously, the book was unplanned.  

The author was staying with his cousin who mentioned that she had all the letters exchanged between her parents during the Second World War.  Venturing into the loft they pulled out a dusty wooden box, crammed to the gunnels with letters. Still in their original envelopes, they had remained unopened for 75 years.

They proved to be a fascinating record of life at home and on the front in France at a time when the nation was at grave peril.  

The author decided to write a short account purely for the benefit of their family.  However, while Alfred had spoken during his lifetime of the Lloyd’s Battery, he had never mentioned the regiment in which he served.  An internet search quickly established that this was the 53rd Heavy Anti Aircraft Regiment, RA.

A website dedicated to the 53rd mentioned its war diaries and visits to the National Archives subsequently led to war diaries of the Regiment, the three batteries, the Brigade and many other official documents. These even included the War Cabinet minutes mentioning the Brigade to which the 53rd was assigned.  

Marrying all this material with the letters allowed City Boys at War to emerge, the letters giving a personal feel and putting meat on the skeletal structure of units and events outlined in official documents.

Alfred and Marjorie had been married just five weeks when the 53rd was activated and despatched to France as part of the Advanced Air Striking Force, the air component of the British Expeditionary Force.  

battle of France
Illustration of artillery gunners early on in the war (artist: Mark Beesley)

It is the story of two young people, at the time of life when they should have been at their very closest, forced apart by duty to their country.    From the letters emerges a story of two people trying to do their best to help in any way they can and, on a personal level, just to keep going.  They were exemplars of that generation of ordinary people who anonymously stood up to one of the greatest monsters in modern history.

Despite the censorship, the couple devised a method by which Alfred could, at least, always let Marjorie know where he was. The paragraphs of one of his letters began as follows:

Chance would have it…

How irony combines with fate…

Early yesterday morning…

Rain – even the continuous drizzle…

But some of the poor militia boys…

On arrival at the station…

Unlike some of the other batteries…

Rather than sleep in the so-called cabin…

Going back a bit…”

In this way, she knew he was in Cherbourg, and then, a few days later, in Epernay (“Each section… Please don’t… Eventually we… Regarding the correct… No, my love… Are you still… You will appreciate…”).

Eager for more information, Margorie later suggested a second code at one point:

“I suppose you are manning now till tomorrow morning. I’ll think of you tonight in the cold keeping watch. If your battery shoots a plane down do you think you could make a blot on the page of your letter, or something? I would love to know if you do.”

It was Alfred, the gunner, who faced the risks of war, but perhaps Marjorie was also in a distressing position? 

Her letters reveal the stoicism needed to survive the stress of separation and the anguish of not knowing what had happened to her young husband.  

On the other hand, Alfred, constrained by censorship, focuses on trying to reassure her that he is not in harm’s way, describing the occasional fleeting pleasure that we take for granted, but which as a combatant might come at an unexpected moment and then is gone.  He took the grim side stoically, never once complaining about the harsh conditions facing the volunteer soldiers at the start of the war.

The letters are crammed with other unexpected nuggets of information – Sandes House which gave the troops brief respite from their lives on muddy gun stations by providing hot baths and English newspapers; what it was like being bombed while driving a truck loaded with ammunition; the helplessness of the troops witnessing the plight of refugees who, in more normal times, they would have helped but were forced to push their way through the pathetic human tide.

second world war
Alfred is one of the figures on the left, shown here training with 53 HAA at Weybourne Anti-Aircraft Practice Camp in Norfolk, 1938 © Angela Grant

The war diaries, on the other hand, provide a factual account of events as they happened.  

Dry to a fault, they open by describing the boredom, almost futility, of life during the Phoney War.  

Along with the letters, however, they show the misplaced confidence of many in the country. Britain and France had emerged victorious from the horrors of the Great War and expected to do so again.  

The warnings of a minority of politicians and a few prescient military commanders went unheard - famously Churchill, but also the likes of Air Marshal Portal, head of Bomber Command, who presciently warned that the proposed deployment of Blenheim light bombers to France would lead to crippling losses.

The narrative continues with the deployment of the 53rd to airfields north of Marseille, providing anti-aircraft defence for the mysterious Haddock Force – RAF bombers positioned to attack the north Italian industrial cities.  

Farce ensued, involving the Anglo-French Supreme War Council and the flagrant disobedience of the commander of the French Air Force, who issued orders preventing the RAF bombers taking off.

battle of france
SS Alma Dawson, used to evacuate hundreds of British troops to Gibraltar as part of Operation Ariel © wreck

However, even the factual war diaries cannot disguise the pain of war – chaos, confusion and fear facing the troops as they escaped from their gun stations around Reims, withdrawing not to Dunkirk but south to Troyes; the shock of missing patrols, captured in an attempt to recover guns abandoned in the chaos of withdrawal; exasperation when French dockers went on strike,  refusing to work cranes required to load the heavy guns (because they saw the British as abandoning them); and the relief of arriving in Gibraltar in a filthy, requisitioned British collier.

City Boys at War describes little-known units and operations which, unfairly, have been overlooked by historians.

For more on Marjorie and Alfred’s view of the early phase of the war, read ‘City Boys at War’ from Unicorn Publishing Group, which can be picked up with the following discount:

SPECIAL OFFER! Visit and use the promo code CITYBOYS to get a copy of City Boys at War for just £12, including p&p. Offer valid until 31/05/2019.

Image of SS Alma Dawson from

King George VI inspects an anti-aircraft battery in 1940

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