National Letter Writing Day: Extracts from thriller writer Eric Ambler’s war letters

In the age of automated emails and sliding into DMs, the old-fashioned, handwritten letter is more precious than ever. Even more so when providing an intimate glimpse inside the hearts and minds of our favourite authors.

Eric Ambler may have reinvented the political thriller, but he was also a master of the personal note. In honour of National Letter Writing Day, we want to share a few treasured letters (which are both sobering and uplifting) that Ambler wrote to his wife, Louise Crombie, during the Second World War. Ambler entered the war as a private soldier, and was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1941 where he was quickly assigned to photographic units. He ended the war as Lieutenant-Colonel and assistant director of the army film unit.

Ambler’s letters allow us to look at the Second World War through the eyes of the eloquent writer, whose words conjure up the frightening scenes and experiences of war.


Wednesday, August 1940 There’s an entirely different quality in the air now. A bomb knocks a row of houses down and those who aren’t killed come out and sweep the mess up as best they can in the most incredibly light-hearted way. There’s more laughter here now than ever there was in peace time. The place is alive, for at last we have something to fight for that everyone can understand and we aren’t fighting alone. We no longer believe in the possibility of defeat. These people can never be defeated. I wonder, my dearest if this sounds like nonsense. Perhaps it is that Kellner has prescribed, as a part of my revised diet, raw beef three times a week. Boeuf a la Turque, he calls it. You’d better get out your yashmak, darling. Oh my love, how I wish you were with me. I need you so much. ‘6’ weren’t convinced that this war is going to wan before many months are passed I don’t think I could bear the separation. God bless you, my dear wife. Sleep well.

Thursday, August 1940 Well, my dearest, another week gone or rather dragged by, and it’s time for me to look for another envelope. I wonder if you can guess how much I want you. I try to busy myself and talk to people a lot so that I don’t brood but as the sole topic of conversation these days is sleep (or, rather, the lack of it) I haven’t been very successful. The Germans, it appears, have been claiming fierce results for their raids. Well, I haven’t seen them and I’ve been to look. I don’t think they’ll get anywhere knocking our houses down because it just makes people madder than ever – either that or it makes them laugh. They only solemn comment comes from a sailor: “I hear they’ve hit a couple of pubs in Dover. It’s getting serious.”

Saturday, September 1940 We saw them coming over, hundreds of them. There was an hour’s noise and then they were gone. But as I went to go up to the port it was getting dark, I saw something in the sky that looked like a weird orange sunset. For a minute or two I thought that it was indeed a sunset until I came to my sense and realised that the sun had never set in that direction before. Later I climbed into the roof of the port and saw the fires from there. My darling, it was the most wonderful and the most terrible sight I’ve ever seen. It was quite dark by that time but those fires lit up the sky with the most unearthly glow. It looked as if the whole of London were blazing.

Wednesday, October 1940 A very busy and exhausting night, sweet love. They dropped a Goring portmanteau (which is like a Molotov breadbasket only it’s a lot of high explosives instead of incendiary bombs). The effect is rather like a jumping cracker only every crack is a bomb. There were a lot of houses hit and a lot of casualties.
    It’s funny how one changes. I do things now that I could never before have seen myself doing and I do them with zest even. I can now watch people vomiting with shock without feeling anything except pity for them and a certain interest in their possibilities as cases. The noises and sights which are part of the job no longer seem to touch my nerves. I no longer want to get away from this ugliness. I find only a desire to help these people.
    Does all that sound odd? Should I always have felt like helping people in terrible bodily distress? Maybe. But when the mere sight of injury sends one’s stomach into one’s mouth and one’s first instinct is to rush away to the lavatory – anywhere just so that you don’t have to look at it, these things have to be learned.
    Pity it is that I feel most. That and admiration. God, how courageous people are! The worse they’re hurt, the more polite and anxious not to cause trouble they are. They actually apologise  for being injured.
    They started bringing them into the park at about nine. After that they were brought in at intervals for a couple of hours – as the rescue parties got them out of the wreckage. The early ones were people who’d been injured by glass. You know, a pane of glass used to be just something to see through. Now, for me, it’s an object actively distasteful to me. It’s not a thing to see through but a collection of terrible knives that tear flesh to pieces. Bomb blast turns those knives into weapons which can cut their way two inches into a brick wall ten feet away. Glass doesn’t just fall, it flies. One of the women was dead when they got her to us. A piece of glass had hit her behind the ear and gone right into her brain. Her husband had a cut in his neck – not a bad one. He didn’t know she was dead.

Tuesday, October 1940 Fear is the body’s response to a situation and little different from the blink of an eyelid produced by an insect flying too near. For me this inspiration comes from the impact of reason on instinct. I can’t describe it in any other way. The mind is old, infinitely old. Its roots are lost in the very darkness of creation. In it is all experiences. That is God. When I say now that I trust in God I do not mean that He is joining to win the war for me or anything silly like that, but that I believe in the essential goodness of man and in the glory of his martyrdom and destiny as an integration of forces. Here, now, we are renewing ourselves. This is an ending and a beginning. We are becoming adult in the real sense of the term. The old world would have said that what is happening to us now would make us hate the enemy. But it doesn’t. The odd thing is that it doesn’t. We are no longer children. We do not need such elementary emotions as hate to prick us, to overcome fear. We have more reason than one for looking up to the stars.

Friday, February 1941 God let me tell you this, darling – all this beastliness of blood and fear and destruction has only one permanent effect on me. That effect is that I realise now more than ever before that the only important things in my life are that I should be able to cuddle up with my wife in a comfortable bed with a day of good work, good food and good drink behind me and a promise of order and dignity tomorrow, that we should be able to go where we wish and have what fun we wish, that you should have the clothes you want and I the books I want, that we should be able to live our life free from the influence of the stupid and brutish. Aren’t those the things that you want, my darling? If so then I am ‘shallow and inconsequential’ with you and like it. Goodnight, my darling. God bless and keep you, my adorable wife. I shall go to bed now to dream as always of you and all you mean to me. I love you so very much.

As always, thank you for reading, and be sure to tweet us @AgoraBooksLDN with your favourite letters from authors you’ve found!