Moving letters donated to Tank Museum

Alan ‘Jim’ Harris in uniform shortly before his death in 1943

A moving collection of letters written by a young tank gunner in World War Two that follows his training and deployment through to his death has been given to The Tank Museum.

The heart-breaking letters from God-fearing patriot and ‘cheerful’ optimist Alan ‘Jim’ Harris to his parents between 1940 and 1943 highlight the agony so many families went through.

Donated to the Dorset museum, the letters have been catalogued and include several sent by his mother after her son had been killed.

Just a teenage when he joined up in 1940 during the Blitz, the Kent lad’s war began as an ARP warden in London where he was working in the civil service.

A teenage Jim Harris just before the war

By 1941 he was training with the 60th Training Regiment and he became a good radio operator and gunner.

In what turned out to be a decision that would lead to his death, he declined the opportunity to become a gunnery instructor at Lulworth in Dorset.

He didn’t think he’d make a good teacher and argued that it was ridiculous to use A1 category soldiers as instructors.

So he began training with the Royal Tank Regiment at locations across the country and writes home asking for various items including rags to help clean the guns.

In early 1943 he finally sets sail for war: “I am on a ship somewhere at sea! Where at sea I’ve not the vaguest idea”, he writes to his parents.

It was to Algeria that he was heading and his priority in his letters is to reassure his parents that he is all right, will return and has God and justice on his side.

Before his first action he writes home in March 1943: “I will be taking soon the next step … But don’t worry, keep your chin up and don’t fear for me… We’ve a good crowd of lads and together we’ll do all that is required of us and a bit more, so that soon we will be able to live as we want to, a righteous and sober life… living in a free and godly country.”

He adds: “…the cause is right and if the road be bumpy at times, I know that I can and will come through with flying colours.”

As he gets closer to action he writes: “God will be with me as the cause is righteous. So don’t worry about me.”

He tells his parents that he is disappointed in North Africa, that the weather is like ‘English April showers’ and the Arabs, he says, are ‘scruffy’. But the scenery he concedes, is ‘magnificent’.

In mid-April 1943 Jim, who mentions a sweetheart Joyce in his letters, was in north-east Algeria with the 12th Royal Tank Regiment as part of the 21st Army tank brigade, which was there to support the 4th Infantry Division in the upcoming Operation Vulcan.

Jim and his ‘A’ Squadron advanced on April 27  – their first time in combat – and attacked Sidi Abdallah Hill, part of strong German defences.

The hill was successful taken but the Germans counter-attacked with the Hermann Goring Division, and Tiger tanks.

Jim’s Churchill tank took a direct hit from an 88mm anti-tank gun. He was killed instantly along with one crew member. Jim was 2o.

Letters his mother sent him after this were returned, stamped with the message ‘It is regretted that this item could not be delivered because the addressee is reported missing.’

Some months later Jim’s troop leader wrote to his parents telling them how their son’s body had been recovered and buried.

Lieutenant Saunders added: “Your son was an invaluable member of the crew in his capacity as gunner, and on the day of battle he shot and fought magnificently. He was always of a cheerful and generous disposition and was very popular with, and respected by, all men in the Squadron. His death means an irreplaceable loss to the Troop, Squadron and Battalion.”

Stuart Wheeler, Museum Historian, said: “This series of letters are very poignant but ultimately heartbreaking to read.

“They give an insight into how the war starts to impact on Jim’s life and those around him. It was a story all too familiar during the war and is of special interest to us, given that we are Jim’s, and The Royal Tank Regiment’s, Regimental Museum.

“Receiving letters like these are always significant as they add detail and colour to the story of the men who fought in tanks during World War Two and never returned home.”

Jim’s body was later moved to the Massicault cemetery in Tunisia.

His nephew John Pullen, who donated the letters to the museum, said: “The letters remind us of the millions who made the sacrifice.”



For more information contact Ed Baker at Deep South Media on 07788392965 or