Letters from a gunner in Germany
Whenever I visited the late Donald Noble in central Newfoundland, there was nothing he enjoyed more than sitting at the kitchen table or in the outdoors gazebo and chatting. He was a wealth of knowledge about this, that and something else. Invariably, he held me spellbound as he told stories about his experiences in military life.
Following Donald’s death in 2011, I thought his tales of yesterday would die with him. Now, thanks to the efforts of his grandson, Trevor Purchase of Embree, the elder man speaks from the grave. Earlier this year, Trevor published the 45 letters his grandfather wrote from overseas in 1953-55. The result is a book, “To His Loving Mother: Letters from a Canadian Gunner in Germany.”
“In an age before instant messaging,” Trevor says, “Donald kept in touch with his family back home in the old-fashioned way — handwritten letters sent through the mail.”
In February 1953, shortly before the Korean War came to an end, 19year-old Donald Noble of Windsor (now Grand Falls-Windsor) joined the Canadian Army, becoming a gunner in the 2nd Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. His regiment relocated to Fort Prince of Wales in Deilinghofen, near Hemer, Germany, in November, as part of NATO’s integrated military force in postwar West Germany. On a peacekeeping mission, Donald was assigned to Fox Battery.
Trevor writes in the preface, “Donald once told me he was invited to leave his job as a gunner in the artillery and transfer to the position of radio operator because, as the officer told him, ‘You are a good writer.’ I did not have the chance to see his writing ability for myself while he was alive, never having read anything written by Donald.
“It was only after he passed away that his wife found an old black Pot of Gold chocolates box and, inside, a stack of letters.”
All of them are addressed to Donald’s mother, Eleanor. He often mentions his only sister, Ruby, and brothers, Max, Fred, Harry and Frank. His wife, Lucy, was living in Bishop’s Falls, raising their daughter, Donna, now Trevor’s mother.
“The goal in this book,” Trevor explains, “was to keep the text as true to the original as possible.”
Donald’s letters are interspersed with more than 50 photographs from the 1950s, many taken by him on his travels.
There’s one of Donald standing beside his mother, his arm draped around her, perhaps taken just prior to his departure for Germany. There are snaps of his wife, Lucy, and Baby Donna. There are candids of Donald and his buddies at a party. There’s a solemn depiction of Donald and his fellow soldiers at a memorial to Russian soldiers killed at the BergenBelsen concentration camp during the Second World War. In another photo, Donald is standing near a prim and proper guard on a horse at Buckingham Palace. There’s even an anniversary cake for the 2nd Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery.
Donald’s chatty missives evoke loving glimpses of his faraway home. Despite the spelling mistakes and missing words, the heartfelt emotions shine through.
On Dec. 8, 1954, for example, he writes: “Good night Mom, how are you tonight. I hope that you and the family are still well. I received your letter today, and I glad that you are still feeling well. As for myself I am just feeling fine. Well Mom, it’s a lovely night here, only it’s sure cold out now. And there’s a bit of snow down here too. I guess there’s still snow down over there to eh. Well I hope we have snow for Christmas as it would seem more like Christmas use to be eh.”
On May 5, 1955, he writes: “But I would like to be home tonight. It sure seem a long time since I seen you last, the night you & Ruby got aboard the bus at Bishops eh. And I sure would like to see Lucy & Donna.... Rem. me to all the family & friends....”
In his final letter, written on Nov. 8, 1955, he writes, “Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get any more mail from me as I will see you soon, I hope.”
Donald returned home in 1955 and, eventually, built in Windsor “the house that he had been dreaming of while he was in Germany.”
Those of us who wish to remember and honour the individuals who served in the military are in Trevor Purchase’s debt. It might take less than an hour to read “To His Loving Mother,” but the sentiments expressed therein will remain with the reader for a long time to come.
Lest we forget.