Jean Louth has dedicated her life to remembering the father she lost as a child and the thousands of others who were killed during the Second World War. She tells SARAH FOSTER about what inspires her to keep going – and why she’ll never give up.
The words Jean Louth will speak in public on Remembrance Sunday carry an extra special meaning for her.
When she steps up to the microphone she’ll be thinking of her dad as she utters this familiar verse: They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.
She’s never stopped thinking of the father she lost so suddenly at the age of six. In fact, she’s dedicated more than 30 years of her life to making sure no-one else should forget him or the rest of the city’s fallen either.
Harry Short never made it home from the Second World War. Killed in action at Dunkirk on May 26, 1940, his body was never found leaving Jean and her brothers, Ron and David, in limbo with no grave to visit.
Harry was just 34. Like so many other brave young men and women he never got the chance to grow old. But his memory has lived on and not just in the hearts of those who knew and loved him.
The brave bombardier has been the inspiration for Jean’s incredible campaign to see a memorial erected in Portsmouth to commemorate the lives of those killed during the Second World War.
Last week The News told how her on-going mission to see the names of more than 3,000 people engraved on the memorial she fought so hard to get had received a £20,000 boost. The bequest, left by Southsea fishmonger John Frederick Hooper’s estate, will pay for 1,200 names to be added to the poignant tribute in Guildhall Square.
But Jean, now 79, won’t stop until she’s raised the rest of the money needed to see all the names added – including that of her own father.
Harry never got to see his children grow up, get married and have children and grandchildren of their own. Seeing his name etched in stone is Jean’s way of honouring those who lost their lives during the war and commemorating the life of the dad she remembers so fondly.
‘He was one of thousands in Portsmouth who lost their lives,’ says Jean. ‘I want to see my dad remembered because he gave his life for his country. I’m amazingly proud of what he did.’
Born in Portsmouth in February 1907, Harry joined the army when he was just 17-and-a-half. After switching from the Devon and Dorset regiment to the Royal Artillery he met and fell in love with Jean’s mum, May.
By the time they married on April 15, 1933, at the old Portsmouth Register Office in St Michael’s Road, May was expecting their first child. Jean came along in October 1933, with Ron arriving in 1936 and David born in 1938.
Based at Hilsea barracks, Harry was a familiar figure at the family home and Jean has happy memories of her dad holding her hand as they crossed the road when he took her to Milton Park Primary School for the very first time.
‘I’ve got quite a lot of memories of him,’ she adds. ‘I think it must have been about the outbreak of war and we’d moved to Stamshaw. I can remember the sirens being tested and we’d ask “Are the Germans coming?”
‘We lived on a square and there was a little sweet shop. Mum had given us a penny to spend on sweets and as I got round the corner I saw my dad. I couldn’t have been more than about five or six and I was pushing my brother in the pram.
‘Dad gave us a another penny each and that was like riches. Ron and I went running into the shop, we were so excited that we left the baby in the pram outside.
‘When we got home my mum said “Where’s the baby?” We’d left him outside the shop.
‘I used to go to school and can remember coming home sometimes to find dad and his friends there. We were just an ordinary family.
‘When he went off I can remember being sad but I was so used to him going off to work with the army. It’s just he didn’t come back.
‘All the time we had mum we had our little family life. He would go to work and come home in the evening, I can just remember him being there.’
As an army regular, Harry was deployed as soon as war was declared. The family didn’t know a lot about where he went but he’d write home and, like so many others in her position, it was up to May to carry on.
Harry was among the allied troops who found themselves stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940 and as the evacuation process began he was one of many presumed shot and killed.
Heartbreakingly, a letter he sent revealed he’d been due to come home on leave. With tears in her eyes Jean reveals: ‘He was due to come home for three weeks for Easter but then Dunkirk blew up and he never did come home.
‘There was a letter to my mum telling her how much he loved her and how much he was missing his kiddies. It was very sad.’
She adds: ‘Lots of soldiers were over there and a lot of bodies were never found.
‘All mum ever got was a letter saying “missing believed killed” but we know he was at Dunkirk. He had a friend, Dick Lane, who was mum and dad’s best man at the wedding and he was with dad right through the army.
‘He came and saw my mum afterwards and said “We were both swimming towards a ship and that was the last I saw of him”.
‘We don’t know if he was hit in the water or if he managed to get to a ship that was then blown up.
‘I think he drowned at Dunkirk. We’ll never know exactly what happened but the war office said he died on May 26, 1940.’
For the rest of the war the family lived in Portchester, only moving back to Eastney in 1945, just before peace was finally declared.
While Jean was still too young to really understand what had happened to her father, she can remember feeling desperately sad for mum May.
‘She used to say for about two years after it happened that she didn’t know if she was a wife or a widow. They kept on finding people in concentration camps and behind bars. Every time someone was found and they thought it might be him the war office would come to mum and say “Do you have another recent photograph?”
‘It wasn’t him but I can imagine mum’s hopes getting up every time.
‘The only thing I can remember was that my two aunts who lived nearby came round to take care of me and my brothers. Mum must have been prostrate with grief.
‘There must have been an awful lot of widows. I can remember feeling very sorry for my mum when the chaps started coming home.
‘There were so many people in the same situation as me who had lost their fathers. It makes me wonder how my life would have been different if he had come back.’
While Harry’s name hasn’t yet gone up at the memorial he is commemorated at Dunkirk and Jean went there four years ago to lay a wreath.
But it was in 1979 when she and husband Bob discovered that there wasn’t a Second World War memorial in Portsmouth that she first began campaigning for one to be built. Neither of them could believe a city that had seen so many losses during the war didn’t already have one.
‘That’s when I started badgering the council and writing to people but no-one was doing much at all. I had a little portable typewriter and I wrote hundreds of letters. I wrote to the Queen and even had a letter back from her secretary saying “The Queen has commanded that the Ministry of Defence look into this”. ‘I liked that – “the Queen commands”. The answer that came back was that it was up to the people of Portsmouth and I suppose it was.
‘I think that what happened after the war was that the first priority was to rebuild the city. It was so badly bombed and the priority was to get people into homes.
‘As time went by, councillors came and went and people must have assumed there was a memorial. It got shoved to one side.’
In 1989 The News backed Jean’s efforts and the campaign began in earnest. Over the years the donations started to come in until there was finally enough money to build the memorial in 2005.
With the support of Portsmouth City Council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Havant MP David Willetts and others, Jean has kept up the fight. And envelopes containing money have continued to drop through her door in West Leigh, Havant.
‘I’ve got two big files of letters thanking me. Someone had to do it. I’m just an ordinary person.
‘If it wasn’t for these men and women who went out and fought and died we wouldn’t be here now. Who knows what would have happened to the city of Portsmouth? We owe them. We must remember them.
‘We’ve got to get there. No way am I ever going to give up.
‘You can’t give up on something like this. My dad and the other soldiers didn’t give up half-way through the war.’
£30 to engrave each name
It costs £30 to engrave a name on the Second World War memorial and there are around 3,600 names due to go on.
Jean Louth estimates that the campaign still needs to raise a further £50,000 in order to see it completed.
Those with surnames beginning A-D are already commemorated and work has started on the Es. The new bequests should take them up to P so Jean will have to wait a little longer to see Harry Short’s name appear: ‘I think I shall be crying my eyes out when that happens,’ she adds.
‘It will be over-the-top special.’
When Princess Alexandra unveiled the new memorial in 2005, Jean was one of those who got to meet her.
After the unveiling the family gathered at home and Jean found a card her children had sent her.
It read ‘Your mum and dad would have been proud of you’.
Anyone who wants to make a donation can send a cheque made payable to Portsmouth World War Two Memorial Fund to 194 Wakefords Way, West Leigh, Havant.