Love letters from Bomber Command

“I received the two most wonderful letters. I wonder whether the post office people ever realise what precious documents they handle. Since I’ve read them I’ve been so happy I could jump over the moon. I wouldn’t but. I’d just jump from here to your doorstep. Oh Jean, dear! I don’t think anyone has loved another as I love you.” (See https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C2696962?image=1 )

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Portrait of Ronald Henry Etherton and Jean Ayre, 1942

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Ronald Henry Etherton was posted at Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, while training to be a navigator as part of the Empire Air Training Scheme. He and Jean Ayre met at a social ice skating event at the Silver Glade Pavilion on 10 June, 1943.

Ron recalled the event: “In the ‘merry mixup’ everyone was holding their arms up to form an arch for the others to skate under when I suddenly caught sight of an unbelievably beautiful face. Beautiful so much that I’ll bet I blinked. Oh boy! If we changed partners just once I’d be able to skate with her. Hell! It was all over and we hadn’t changed. Then, what happened? I think that you beat me to it and spoke to me first”. (See https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C2696959?image=67)

Ronald Henry Etherton wearing a Royal Australian Air Force raincoat

Ronald Henry Etherton wearing a Royal Australian Air Force raincoat

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The pair became ardent sweethearts. However, after only six weeks of enjoying each other’s company, Ron was posted to Halifax, Canada, to continue his training. This was followed by further navigational instruction in the United Kingdom. Although they were far apart, Ron and Jean’s relationship blossomed through the frequent exchange of letters. Their affection can be seen on the pages themselves, in ink-marked kisses and faint lipstick prints. (See https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C2696959?image=44)

Page six of letter from Ronald Henry Etherton to Jean Ayre, 17 August 1943

Page six of letter from Ronald Henry Etherton to Jean Ayre, 17 August 1943

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As they got to know each other better, they began to dream of a future together. On 19 October 1941, Ronald wrote “Will you marry me and make me the happiest fellow in the world? You are my whole future. My every dream and plan for you. I’ll always love you.”

He continues, “It isn’t all daydreaming and yearning that makes me think so much of you. You were my ideal, my dream girl even before I met you. Never did I think that I really would meet her but that is the first time that my dreams have come true so completely. I really should feel grateful to the Nazis because if they had not started this war I probably would not have met you.” (See https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C2696959?image=90)

Ron qualified as a navigator in July 1943, and subsequently undertook further operational training in the United Kingdom. For the most part, he enjoyed his work, as illustrated in a letter dated 6 June 1944, “I get a great deal of satisfaction out of being able to say ‘We’re here now’ or ‘We’ll be there at such and such time’ and to know that those positions are accurate to a matter of hundred yards even when we’ve been flying hours without sight of the ground or contact with it.”

In a letter to Jean dated 18 June 1944, Ron wrote, “We go to our squadron tomorrow. I’ve heard a lot about it and the station. It has a very good name for its efficiency. Unfortunately that usually means that it would be sent on hot targets.”

Halifax bomber of 76 Squadron

Halifax bomber of 76 Squadron

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After Ron joined 76 Squadron, Bomber Command, Royal Air Force, on 19 June 1944, his letters became less frequent. He and his crew were sent on operations that formed part of the strategic bombing campaign against Germany, flying missions at all times of day or night. Like other servicemen in his position, censorship prevented Ron from writing in detail about his duties. However, he was able share with Jean broadly.

“We’ve done eight sorties now – about a fifth of our tour. Though we haven’t had any casualties and no very serious damage to the aircraft we certainly haven’t had a very quiet time. Don’t believe that the German defences are crumbling. Maybe we’ve been unlucky but he still has enough fighters to cause no little inconvenience to our bombers. Fortunately we’ve outwitted those that have had a go at us or maybe they were rotten shots.” (See https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C2696963?image=35)

In the midst of dangerous missions, Ron’s thoughts remained with the young woman in Canada. On 25 July he wrote to Jean, “When two people love each other as I do you and as I think you do me, a war or a difference of countries cannot be of so much consequence as to stop so much happiness as there can and will be. Let’s just stay in love and swear that one of these days we’ll be together no matter what may come.”

Ron and Jean’s dreams never came to pass. On 13 August 1944, Ron and his crew were declared missing after failing to return from a bombing operation targeting Russelsheim, Germany.

Telegraph informing Jean that Ron was missing, dated 15 August 1944

Telegraph informing Jean that Ron was missing, dated 15 August 1944

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Several days later it was confirmed that Ron had died during the operation. Jean’s last letters to Ron were returned to her.

Though Jean later married, she never forgot her first love, Ronald Henry Etherton. She carefully placed his letters in a box and kept them for the rest of her life. The collection of letters was donated to the Australian War Memorial by Jean’s daughter. The collection shows the development of a romantic relationship between two people in wartime, and records their hopes for the future. The Australian War Memorial has digitised the collection, which can be viewed in full here: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P10306221