'Lofoten Letter' by Evan John (1941)

Lofoten letter, - Evan John

Evan John, Lofoten Letter (London: William Heinemann, 1941), proof copy, 67pp


"... here it is - the record of gradual approach to possible battle as felt by one who has never yet seen a man die, never even seen a dead man." (pp37-8).

A surprisingly enjoyable non-fiction account of a British soldier embarking on a raid of the Lofoten Islands in Norway in early March 1941. It is written by Evan John, a pseudonym of Evan John Simpson, a classically-educated writer and playwright who would later commit suicide in 1953.

Taking the form of a long letter written to his wife, it is rather fragmented (as it was written on scraps of paper whilst at sea) and deals primarily with the author's various observations on army discipline and grumblings on day-to-day minutiae. He remarks on how soldiery seems mostly "house-maid work" than fighting and muses on "the double strain of being a fighting 'hero' and a most unheroic charwoman that makes modern military life such an irritating burden." (pg. 17).

The actual raid itself is uneventful ("a mere tea-party... all the heroics look a little silly." (pg. 42)), but the author was not to know that at the time, and his writings betray the apprehension that must be felt when facing an uncertain future in battle ("It is quite conceivable that many of us will have just two more nights' sleep in this world." (pg. 23)). But what makes Lofoten Letter such an agreeable book (despite nothing of note really happening) is the author's casual, stiff-upper-lipped humour. When an officer gives a very keen lecture on what to do if captured by the enemy, he remarks how the officer might want them all to be captured, "so that we could get the full benefit from his excellent advice" (pg. 5). He wonders whether the Norwegians participating in the raid all look so depressed because of the Nazi occupation of their country, or because of their prolonged exposure to the works of the playwright Henrik Ibsen (pg. 5). His scrounged Norwegian phrasebook includes such phrases as "Can one take ladies with one there?" and "We wish to hire a reindeer", which John notes are "not exactly designed for a soldier on a raid" (pp20-1). Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this short, modest book, but it is also clear why it has long been out of print.