“I am not complaining. I would not appreciate comfort if there were no hardship. We cannot appreciate joy without sorrow, health if we have never felt pain, or peace until after a war. All things must have their opposites, and we can learn from both.”
End of the War
One can only imagine what ten weeks of leave felt like for repatriated POWs after years of separation. Husbands and wives had to get to know each other all over again. Children had to be introduced to their fathers. Habits had formed, attitudes had developed and hardened, experiences had shaped character, for good or ill. Millions around the world were experiencing varying emotions as the theaters of war closed almost everywhere. Men were still fighting in the Pacific, however, and it would be a few more months before the surrender of Japan brought an end to to this unprecedented world conflict.
Retraining for the Army
In August, after his leave, Robert Otterson was posted for three weeks to Third Division Troops Unit at Hayward’s Heath, a village near the coast of southern England, in Sussex. The short period at Hayward’s Heath started on August 9 and appears to have been the Army’s process of reeducating and retraining soldiers who had been POWs, including giving them an overview of the recent war from a perspective they had not seen. The camp theater showed parts 1 and 2 of a film called “British Scrap Book,” covering the main phases of the war up to December 1944 - the landings in North Africa and Italy, fighting in Russia and the Far East, the V1 rockets that fell on southern England and the D-Day landings at Normandy. There was physical training, lectures on such things as how to take a Sten gun to pieces and reassemble it, and presentations or workshops on a variety of other subjects. “After years of indolence this is sure a hectic life,” he wrote home.
A personal interview with the company commander addressed the lack of married quarters for the Otterson family of four. They were still living where they had stayed throughout the war - 3 Primrose Villas, in Hamesmoor Road, Mytchett. The village was then in Hampshire, but with a change of county boundaries is today in Surrey. In his interview with the CO, Robert Otterson was told to see the welfare officer, who in turn promptly drafted a letter to the War Office on his behalf.
Robert and Doris Otterson also seem to have settled on the fact that his future would remain tied up with the Army. Some time during the ten weeks leave, he had decided to re-enlist for another eight years to complete the option of 21 years’ service. With so many men being demobilized, there was also a general tendency for those remaining to drop rank. Robert Otterson expected the trend would affect him, too, but during the training at Hayward’s Heath he was able to write to his wife: “By the way, I may not have to drop a stripe after all, as I am War Substantive.” That seems to imply that his war experience contributed to his keeping his rank.
During the time at Hayward’s Heath, news came that the war with Japan had ended.
Without the restrictions and limitations that had applied to his letter writing during the war, Robert Otterson now wrote home frequently - every couple of days, and sometimes every day. His letters are unfailingly affectionate. His attitude to trials and absences is upbeat and positive, and his reflections on the strength of the relationship with his wife are deep and thoughtful.
In his letter of August 14, after commenting on how much he misses Doris, he writes: “But I am not complaining. I would not appreciate comfort if there were no hardship. We cannot appreciate joy without sorrow, health if we have never felt pain, or peace until after a war. All things must have their opposites, and we can learn from both.”
Two days later, he wrote: “In the upbringing of the children, we react differently when the children do something. In some cases it hurts you when I chastise them - and in other cases it hurts me when you do so. Yet for the most part we hide our feelings .That is really the best thing to do. If either of us feels they have been chastised unjustly, it is best to wait until the atmosphere has cleared a bit before saying so. Yet we have two bonny children, darling. Their faults are minor ones which will be corrected in time. You have had the job of bringing them up so far, and will probably be the greatest influence in their lives for a few years more, but I know you will not deny me the opportunity of sharing this responsibility whenever I can.”
On this day - August 16 - he passed his medical with an A1. He took more practical tests. He had to assemble in a given time a hand vice, a ball bearing spindle, an electric light fitting and a lock. In physical exercise he did the 100 yards sprint in 11 seconds, came first place in the mile in 6 mins 53 seconds, and passed high jump, long jump and exercises on the horizontal bar. This was followed in the afternoon by military tests - rifle, Bren gun, hand grenade throwing and gas. He wonders in his letter how his wife celebrated VJ Day (Victory over Japan), and whether there was a bonfire on the Green. He says he has received his arrears of chocolate ration which he will bring home on the weekend, but to warn the children there is no chewing gum. But he does have a tablet of soap for his wife - an indication, presumably, of the kind of shortages that were being experienced so soon after the war’s end.
Above: Robert Otterson’s “babies” - daughters Ruth and Ann. Ruth is wearing the same tartan skirt and red coat that she wore when her father saw her for the first time in nearly three years.
Extracts from letters, November 1947
4 Nov 1947
I received five letters this morning. Three were from you, one from Ann and one from Ruth. Ann, bless her heart, sent me sixpence. I'm sorry to hear that you have been having a lot of trouble with the fire and the copper. Could you get Mr Harrison to do the copper for you? The fire you could probably manage yourself. It is quite easy to lift the front plate out and lift out the damper lever. Then you push the brush up the pipe, and down the flue below the pipe at the back of the fire. Afterwards you rake the soot from the little trap door underneath the fire. But don't forget to close it up again. I wish I was there to do it for you.
15 Nov 1947
Addressed to Mrs D. Otterson, B 19 Marne Lines, Married Quarters, Catterick Camp, Yorks.
The reason I put my telephone number at the head of my letters...if you ever want me urgently, you just have to ask for Liverpool Exchange and then telephone number Gateacre 1261 and you should get through in 15 minutes.
On the afternoon of November 15, he took Mrs Leather into Liverpool to do some shopping.
It sounds from his entry that he is over the other side of the Mersey, probably at the seaside town of New Brighton since he refers to the promenade and the amusement places. "I left there at about 5 o'clock and crossed to Liverpool where I had tea in Lewis's. I thought about going to the pictures but the queues were too long, so I got a bus back to my digs...They are working away on our quarters, and I hope it will not be too long before we are together."
Left: Robert Otterson kept extensive records of his activities, and all the dates of his postings. He had expected at the end of the war to lose one of his sergeant's stripes as the army demobilized millions of men. But that didn't happen. In January of 1948 he was promoted to Warrant Officer 2nd class, but by the end of November of the same year his rank reverted to War Substantive Squadron Quartermaster Sergeant. We are given no details.
On August 20, Robert Otterson and his fellow soldiers visited the Hawker aircraft factory at Kingston, which he thoroughly enjoyed. It is evident from the letter written on this day that he was able to get home each weekend. But he still wrote every day unless something prevented him, and Doris wrote back frequently.
The next day, he took part in a five-mile walking race in the rain, clad only in gym shorts army boots and socks. A couple of men broke the rules by running to catch up and stay with him for the rest of the course. Had they been caught, they would have had to start again, he notes. But he finished first, in 54 minutes.
Catterick Camp, Yorkshire
On completion of the retraining course, Robert Otterson was assigned to Catterick Camp, in Yorkshire. He arrived on September 1 and immediately began a refresher course. This was the second time he had been posted to the large camp in the north of England, but the first time since he was married. He had spent two and a half months at Catterick as his first posting after enlisting in the Army in 1932.
Again, he was separated from Doris and the children. In mid-September he had a 36-hour pass to Sunderland where he could visit his parents. But until the end of the month when his family joined him, it was a lonely time. Unusually, he confesses in a letter to being lonely and not anxious for the company of his fellow soldiers. He mentions an afternoon at “the pictures” in Darlington - the term then commonly used for movie theater or cinema. “The film was a Technicolour called Sudan and was very good,” he wrote “It passed the afternoon and evening away, but I’m never really happy wandering around alone. At one time I liked nothing better than to go off on my own for a day or more camping and what not. Now, I don’t know what’s come over me. I always feel lonely if I have no one to talk to. Perhaps it is a result of living in a crowd for three years. There’s no one here I particularly want to pal up with. If you go with a single fellow, even if he is a good chap, he’s always got an eye open for a girl. Most of the fellows anyhow like a drink, so I guess I shall have to put up with my own company until you come along, darling.”
At the end of the month, he was given VJ leave in recognition of the Victory over Japan, and he used the occasion to bring his family to Richmond, Yorkshire. On October 15 the Otterson family finally occupied the married quarters in Catterick.
No longer needing to write while separated from his wife, the source of letters promptly dries up. Not until two years later does the written record resume - apart from a few brief diary notes about exam passes and camp assignments.
Posted to Liverpool
On September 18, 1947, Robert Otterson arrived at Woolton Camp, five miles south of Liverpool city center, to join (M) Signal Regiment of the Territorial Army as Squadron Quartermaster Sergeant. Again it would mean a family separation, and the letters that tell us so much about this family’s life resume for a month or so. The letters, though few, offer interesting insights into the way families lived - the use of telephones in ordinary homes was just beginning, and there were few domestic home devices that operated with the flick of a switch. Extracts from the letters are found to the right.
On 12 December, 1947, Doris and the two girls arrived. They stayed with a lady who had become a friend - a Mrs Leather who lived in Church Road, Woolton - until the married quarters were ready in February 1948.
The last entry in Robert Otterson’s brief diary notes is for 9 October, 1948. He writes simply, “Michael Robert born.”
A fatal day
It was a mid-summer's day, half-way through July in 1949. Sgt. Robert Otterson, who had stayed in the army after the end of World War II, was returning to Liverpool on the Bala road in North Wales, riding his army motor bike. We have no detailed record of how the accident happened, but there was a collision with a van that threw him from his bike and resulted in serious head injuries. He was rushed by ambulance to Wrexham Hospital, but died before he arrived there.
Robert's wife, Doris, was at home at the army barracks at Camp Hill, Woolton, Liverpool, when there was a knock at the door. When she opened it, a policeman stood there, and delivered the news that her husband had been seriously injured. A car took her to the hospital - a journey of probably more than an hour that must have seemed like an eternity. When she arrived, it was too late.
The death of Robert, as with any death of a young parent, was devastating for Doris and had consequences for the three children impossible to calculate. It must have been even harder for his wife to bear after the years of separation during the recently ended war. The funeral is described on one of the earlier of Robert Otterson's pages.
Robert's elder brother, Tom, was given the task of being the liaison with the funeral home. In the process of Tom making the arrangements, Doris was asked what she would like to do with Rob's wedding ring. She asked that it be buried with him, but when Tom was next at the funeral home, he found the coffin had already been closed and sealed. Unwilling to upset Doris, he kept the ring and never told her, thinking that he would one day pass it to Rob's son, Michael.
Many years passed. Doris and her children lived on the other side of England from the rest of the Otterson family and had only occasional contact. As for Tom and his wife, Molly, they moved to Denmark to live with one of their daughters. Meanwhile, Doris died and Michael moved to Australia where he and his wife raised their own family.
But one day in the 1980s, Michael had a business assignment that took him from Australia to Copenhagen on the other side of the world. Having not seen his uncle in many years, Michael took a side trip to Tom's home in Tommerup, near Odense, where there was a pleasant reunion which afforded the opportunity also for an interview with Tom about his brother and his parents. During the interview, Tom told Michael the story of the ring, and produced it as a long-delayed gift. It was a thrilling moment for the son who had never known his father, but who, over the years, had tried to learn everything about him.
More years passed, and Michael moved to the United States with his family. On a trip to Europe with his youngest son, also named Michael, the ring was presented to Robert's grandson, along with a promise to never remove it. Fittingly, it was handed over on the beach at Dunkirk, scene of one of the most dramatic engagements of World War II. That promise from grandson Michael to always wear it has been kept, in honored memory of a devoted husband and father who never saw his children grow up, and who never knew his grandchildren.