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'Mom, I am not afraid to die': Wolverhampton soldier's tragic last letter on eve of Arnhem

By Toby Neal | Wolverhampton | Features | Published:

"Goodbye, and thanks for everything, Your unworthy son, Ivor."

Ivor Rowbery was killed during the Arnhem operation

On the eve of going into action at Arnhem 75 years ago, Private Ivor Rowbery wrote a poignant last letter to his mother.

He was not afraid to die, he told her, but those back home in Wolverhampton were worth fighting for.

Ivor, serving in airborne forces with the South Staffords, was killed at the age of 22 near the Old Church at Oosterbeek, on September 22, 1944, hit in the back by a mortar grenade.

The last letter

Two years later the makers of Basildon Bond writing paper and The Tatler magazine ran a competition for the best letter written by a member of the armed forces during the war.

Ivor's mother, Lilian May Rowbery, sent in Ivor's two-page letter. Out of over 400 entries, it was chosen as the winner, and was printed in the September 1946 issue of The Tatler.

The Staffordshire Regiment Museum near Lichfield is displaying a copy of the magazine and the letter as part of an exhibition highlighting the regiment's involvement in the ill-fated Arnhem operation of September 1944, in which British airborne troops seized a key bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem in Holland and held out for several days before being overwhelmed by German forces.

Soldiers of the South Staffords approach Arnhem

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Museum director Danielle Crozier said: “The files on Arnhem include a copy of Ivor’s letter and The Tatler and it was a very emotional moment when Richard Pursehouse, Ben Cunliffe, myself and the volunteer researchers first opened the file and I read it out. We attempted to imagine what his mother and family must have felt.”

The Rowbery family, who lived in Curzon Street, Wolverhampton, were no strangers to tragedy. One of Ivor's brothers, Gordon, had been killed in a swimming accident in 1935.

At the time of his death Ivor was serving with the 2nd South Staffordshire Regiment attached to the 1st Airborne Division.

His letter read in part: "Tomorrow we go into action. As yet we do not know exactly what our job will be, but no doubt it will be a dangerous one in which many lives will be lost, mine may be one of those lives.

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Ivor's grave

"Well, Mom, I am not afraid to die. I like this life, yes – for the past two years I have planned and dreamed and mapped out a perfect future for myself. I would have liked that future to materialise, but it is not what I will, but what God wills, and if by sacrificing all this I leave the world slightly better than I found it I am perfectly willing to make that sacrifice.

"Don’t get me wrong though, Mom, I am no flag-waving patriot, nor have I ever professed to be.

"England’s a great little country – the best there is but I cannot honestly and sincerely say 'that it is worth fighting for.' Nor can I fancy myself in the role of a gallant crusader fighting for the liberation Europe. It would be a nice thought but I would be kidding myself.

The young Wolverhampton soldier fell here, at Oosterbeek church, 75 years ago.

"No, Mom, my little world is centred around you and includes Dad, everyone at home, and my friends at Wolverhampton. That is worth fighting for, and if by doing so it strengthens your security and improves your lot in any way, then it is worth dying for too.

"Now this is where I come to the point of this letter. As I have already stated, I am not afraid to die and perfectly willing to do so, if, by my doing so, you benefit in any way whatsoever. If you do not, then my sacrifice is all in vain.

"Have you benefited, Mom, or have you cried and worried yourself sick? I fear it is the other. Don’t you see, Mom, that it will do me no good and that in addition you are undoing all the good will I have tried to do.

"Grief is hypocritical, useless; unfair, and does neither you nor me any good

"I want no flowers, no epitaph, no tears. All I want is for you to remember me and feel proud of me, then I shall rest in peace knowing that I have done a good job."

Ivor was buried on the battlefield, near the church, by his comrades, but was later reinterred in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Arnhem-Oosterbeek.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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