3 September 1939: war was declared

War was declared; the life of my parents (Jack and Frankie Donaldson) was abruptly transformed.

two wives hearing that war was declared
Coney and Frankie in despair


They had been married for 4 years when war was declared and had 2 small children and many idealistic plans for the good life. Jack left on September 1, before the formal declaration, to join the Royal Engineers. A few days later his old nanny, who was helping Frankie with us children, said to her, ‘Well you won’t be much use to the children if you cry all the time’.




children 1939
The Donaldson and Debenham children at The Wood House, the weekend when war broke out. L to R: Thomas, Rose, George, Virginia

Before Dunkirk in May/June 1940, it was known as the ‘Phoney War’ and life was not very stressful. After Dunkirk everything changed. Jack was in supplies and logistics and followed the British army to nearly every major location.  First of all, however, he was sent to a training camp in Yorkshire. It was too far to travel often in wartime conditions and Frankie in any case had to stay with the children. Communication was not difficult so they were able to discuss plans to deal with this new and challenging life after war was declared. They soon came up with the idea of trying to farm. Jack had some capital from the sale of his mother’s house, and this could be used to buy a farm.

But how to run a farm? Frankie was not brought up on the land and knew nothing about farming. So in early 1940 she signed up for the Northamptonshire Institute of Agriculture at Moulton, to take lessons. Two of her friends, Mary Dunn and Coney Jarvis, did the same and all three lived during this period at Mary’s house, Castle Farm, Lavendon.

Jack seems to have joined up before war was actually declared. His letters begin on September 1st. On 2/6/39 he wrote optimistically:

Jack Donaldson in World War II JD: Weaver’s Down.  p.c. 2/9/39   An orderly officer to-day.  In consequence dead tired and very busy …no time to think, which is good.  There’s no news.  One man here still thinks there won’t be a war, but only one.  I long to hear how you all are.  The more I think of it, the more our job looks safe to me, and the more certain I am we shall all be together again soon.

Weaver’s Down.   8/9/39   We go early to-morrow, which I am not really sorry about.  I’m sorry to have been in poor form yesterday, but that side of it I just can’t take and that’s all there is to it.  I can only deal with it by black-out and absorption in other things.

p.c. 10/9/39    About to embark, sitting on the dock-side.  Everyone in very good form, but all looking too ridiculous, with about 30lbs of equipment, haversack, tin hat, revolver, pack, rations etc., hanging all over us; and gas-masks and gas-capes to boot.  We all look like travelling tinkers.  It feels rather grand and heroic going “overseas”, but for us of course it is a complete fraud, as I should think the port we’re in now will be much more dangerous if the war perks up than anywhere we’re likely to go.

13/9/39   The war has been made for me to-day by the fact that I met Ralph (Ralph Jarvis, a lifelong friend) in the Information Bureau.  It really is too funny for words, and we are dining together to-night.  He was called up only last Thursday and had to get his kit ready in 24 hours, and arrived here yesterday.  He’s by way of being a Liaison Officer, but will presumably do this information job for a month or so.  He’s a receptionist really, and tries to tell newcomers and others where to go, and whom to find, very seldom knowing himself.  Nobody is able to take this war seriously yet.  I wonder what will break next?

Frankie’s early letters are lost as she took them to write a book but did not complete it. Some of the early part is here as text.

Learning to Farm

Frances Donaldson in World War Two Frankie writes:  ‘15/2/40   Lavendon.   When I arrived at Lavendon Mary had been the proud owner of a farm for about two weeks and had been attending the Farm Institute for about the same time.  Her conversation was so lavishly sprinkled with references to stores, foddering, lime efficiency, soil analyses, and so on that I was in despair of ever catching up.  However, she admitted that she had already made one or two bloomers in class, and when pressed for details said that on one occasion when the lecturer had been emphasizing the necessity of making sure, when buying a dairy bull, that it had a good milk record, she had remarked that she failed to see how a bull could have a good milk record.

Coney and I enrolled without difficulty at the Farm Institute which we try to attend every morning.  The snow lies so thickly and so frozen on the ground that one can walk round Mary’s farm crossing from one field to another over the top of the hedges.  Moulton is about ten miles away.  Nine days out of ten when we have driven a few miles the car begins to boil and we wait until, by alternately running it until it boils and then turning it off and waiting, we gradually thaw out the water.  We are almost invariably late.

The standard of lectures is appalling, consisting chiefly of reading material out of a book at dictation speed.  The point in going to the Institute turns out to be almost nothing we could learn directly but the relationship we are forming with Mr Stewart, the Director, with Mr Lindsay, his assistant, and with Miss Strang, in charge of both dairying and hens. These three also lead the Agricultural Advisory Service for Northampton.

17/4/40   Lavendon (in a lecture at the Institute) Looked at my watch what appears to me to be at least 1/4 hr ago and now I have looked at it again and only 3 minutes have gone and there is another 35 minutes to go.


PG Wodehouse before the second world war was declared



Do you know that Plummy and Ethel were caught at Le Touquet.  I can’t conceive what this can mean or whether they can emerge alive. I have not spoken to Leonora yet.

(Plummy is PG Wodehouse, stepfather of her great friend Leonora. Ethel is his wife and Leonora’s mother.)





O boy there is only another 1/4 hr of this lecture and seriously once I get out I don’t believe I shall ever come in again…. When you think of what is going on all over the world I don’t think I can stand sitting listening to this rubbish every day.  If it really got one anywhere there would be some point but for the last two months I have come entirely and only with the idea of being polite to Mr Stewart.  This is a jolly letter for you but it does describe how most of my days are spent, if that is any interest.’

Frankie immediately understood the advantage of being on good terms with the teachers and people of influence in the world of farming. This stood her in good stead throughout the war and afterwards.

Jack meanwhile was settling in France, managing trains and the logistics of troop movements supplying the front line. He was always modest and self-deprecating and he wrote:

Jack Donaldson in World War II6.10 a.m.  2/10/39     You must realize we are sending people up to fight and (probably one day) bringing them back wounded, but never in as dangerous position as even London.

2 Responses to 1 Declaration of war 1939

  1. Fantastic reading. My mother is the daughter of Frankie’s sister. My mother lived with Frankie through some of that time during World War II. I have heard so many stories about her and met her twice myself. I have also met with Kate who I absolutely loved upon meeting in 2009. So I am very happy to come upon this treasure and I really look forward to reading it. I have heard my whole life stories about Frankie and Jack and I am delighted to get to know her first hand in these letters. I was named Leslie for Frankie’s mother.

    • Leslie, I wrote you a long reply when you made this comment, but it seems never to have gone to you. I am sorry. You must think me rude. Here’s trying again: I am publishing the book in the autumn and it will be on Amazon. I will send details. I don’t have your mother’s address (my beloved cousin Susan) – will you send it to me? email and otherwise. Lots of love and more notes coming soon. Rose

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A Woman's War