Robert and Denis—“Best of Chums”

Pictured above are Robert Dickinson (left) and Denis Crooks.

The 12 letters in this post were sent to me by Maggie Clarke, Denis Crook’s daughter.

Ten of the letters were among those Denis sent to his parents while he was interned at Camp 59–Servigliano. The final two were written in Camp 53–Sforzacosta. The letters are a testament to the deep friendship between Denis and fellow prisoner Robert Dickinson, who is mentioned in each of the letters.

Denis also is frequently mentioned in the log of daily events in Robert’s prison camp journal, “Servigliano Calling.”

The two men were, as Denis put it, “best of chums” from January 1942 to May 1943. When Robert was transferred from Camp 53, it would be the last time the two men would see each other, as Robert did not return from the war.

In addition to reports of what Denis and Robert were up to, the letters provide a wealth of information about daily life in camp—invention and refinement of the “blowers” the men used to warm food, the concoctions that they created from Red Cross parcel contents (see also “Robert Dickinson’s ‘Campo 59 Cookery'”), and details of a camp-sponsored “grand carnival” (see also “Carnival Time”).

(No. 11) April 12th. [1942]

Dear Mother and Dad,
I received another two letters last week—no. 50 dated 4th. Feb. and letter-card dated 30th. Oct. and then today I had a letter-card (no. 3) dated 1st. of March, so I was very pleased. After I had written my last letter on Easter Sunday we received another Red-Cross food parcel, one between two. I and my friend Bob were very lucky, we had an apple pudding (tinned of course) and with it we each ate a pound of jam which we had bought at the canteen; we get paid here and can buy cheese and jam at the canteen. Gee! was it good!!! Amongst other things we had ½ lb. oatmeal, so on Monday the cookhouse made porridge for those who had oatmeal, and that was jolly good too. I hope these parcels come fairly regularly now. [missing text] had an extra 8 o’clock service last Sunday morn… [missing text] that. There were over 100 chaps there. The padre has [text missing] evening services every evening at 7:30 for about 10 minutes. I hope you are receiving my letters every week now, we write regularly every Sunday. Please thank everybody for their greetings, and for being so good to you at home, it must have been very worrying for you. Remember me to Michael and Joan Field, and also to Elsa and through her to Ron Gilbert. Yes, I do smoke a little, it helps to pass the time, so I’d love to get some cigarettes. We have an Italian issue every week, and also 50 English with each parcel. Glad your back is O.K. Dad, keep it up! Lot of love and kisses from Denis xxxxxxx

(No. 23) June 29th. [1942]

My Dear Mother and Dad,
Another week has come round, and another letter to write to you. I have also had one from you, no. 18 dated April 15th. The April ones are beginning to come through now more quickly. I’m glad you managed to sing one of the hymns on April 12th., and also that you sung them at home. I thought of you when we sang them here, and of course I’m always thinking of you all the time, especially at 9 p.m. when Bob and I are usually having our supper—i.e. our steamed and baked puddings and things from the parcel. To-night we are having “pork and beans” made into a pie—it certainly smells good! I only wish you were here to see it!! Mail has just come in [missing text] …ted 31st. May and one from Mrs. Smith [missing text] …ase thank them for me. And thank you too for the words to “The Blue Danube” —part 2. I haven’t received part 1 yet but no doubt it will turn up soon. I’m sorry the birthday wishes didn’t arrive in time, but better late than never, as they say! Have you bought your Christmas presents yet? I have now started going to drawing classes, run by one of the sergeants here, who is a pro. artist; it is quite interesting and passes the time. We have all sorts of classes going—French, German, Shorthand, etc. We have also been issued with tooth-brush and paste by the Red X. so we’re well looked after! All my love, Denis xxxxxxx

(No. 24) July 6th. [1942]

My Dear Mother and Dad,
Here we are again, full of smiles and keeping the old chin up, as I hope you are too. This week I received your letter no. 35 dated 3rd. June, so you can see the mail is coming though quite O.K. now. Yes, I think our time here is the same as yours if you are two hours on. If they do that many more times midnight will be in the daytime and noon at night-time! Things are much the same as usual here—parcels are still arriving every week and that’s the main thing. Bob and I, and many others too, are still making our puddings and cakes every day. In fact Bob and I, and two others we “muck in” with for cooking, are at present making ourselves a new and bigger oven. This one will be 9” x 6” x 6” inside, so it will be large enough for the four [text missing] at parcel we had a 12 oz. packet of raisins, so to-day we are having a chocolate-raisin pudd. (cocoa in it). They turn out lovely and crisp, just like a small cake. Everything, including the baking tins, are made with empty tins!! You can guess that’s just my line! We now have out-door boxing matches, when the band plays in the interval; last time they played “The Yeoman of England” and I thought of the old gramophone record at home. Well, my page is finished, so cheerio for now. All my love, Denis xxxxxxx

(No. 31) 24th. August. [1942]

My Dear Mother and Dad,
Three more letters from you this week, nos. 38 (June 14), 46 (July 8) and 48 (July 15). I only wish mine were getting through as regularly to you, there must be a hold-up somewhere. I have not had any more parcels this week (!!) but two of my mates had a cig. parcel and next-of-kin respectively so I got 20 Players and a lump of chocolate. We always give each other some. Fancy Norman married! It certainly was a surprise; I wish I could have been present at the ceremony. I am writing him the card this week. If you are sending me any more books, I should like some Jeffrey Farnol please. By the way, there are over 800 next-of-kin expected in the next few days, so I should strike lucky!! Now for a day in the life of a P.O.W. We get up around 8 o’clock, at least I do (some stay in bed till 10!) after having black coffee brought round to us in bed!! Each morning two men in each hut collect a soyer of coffee from the cookhouse, and sweep out the hut after they’ve “dished it out” to us. During the morning we read, smoke, or do any little odd jobs, and usually Bob and I make ourselves a ”brew”. This morning Bob is making some tea up at the special enclosure reserved for brewing. At 11:30 comes dinner—bread and cheese, tea, and something from our food parcel. Will continue next week. All my love, Denis xxxxxxx

(No. 32) 31st. August. [1942]

My Dear Mother and Dad,
I received my second cigarette parcel yesterday—200 “Players”. Thank you very much. I also received letters nos. 23 (3rd. May), 50 and 52 (23rd. and 30th. July). I’m jolly glad to hear you have at last received two of my letters. I expect the others will turn up sooner or later. I have written every week and now I sometimes write you the card as well since they are quicker. I have read all the books you sent me, and I am now swapping with other chaps who have also had book parcels. No, I can’t drink your health in vino now as we don’t get any, but I am always thinking of you and home for all that. I have not heard from the office yet, but I have written to them—on May 25th. Yes, I think that is a good idea about giving half to Toc H and half to the Red Cross. I forget the amount I stated, but say about £2 or £3 to each. I would like the Toc H donation made to the Group as they must have plenty of expenses. To continue from my last letter—during the afternoons we usually make our “duffs” after dinner, and then about 2 o’clock we have another brew of tea which we make ourselves—Bob and I. Then we get down to “work” i.e. making picture frames from tins, cardboard and all sorts of odds and ends, and fireplaces, ovens, etc. Will continue in my next. Lots of love from Denis xxxxxxx

Note: In this letter, Denis mentions Toc H. Toc H is an abbreviation for Talbot House (TH). “Toc” signified the letter T in the spelling alphabet used by British Army signalers during World War I.

(No. 34) Sept. 14th. [1942]

My Dear Mother and Dad,
This week I received another two letters from you, nos. 49 and 56 dated 19th. July and 12th. August, so you see mail is still coming in regularly, as are also the food parcels. This week Bob and I had a New Zealand one—honey, lamb and peas, lamb and tomatoes, a large (21 oz.) tin of peas which had a lovely minty flavor, just like we have them at home in the summer, 1 lb. tin of beat butter, 14 oz. jam, 1 lb. tin of cheese, café au lait, tea and chocolate. Not bad—what!! I also received this week the first book parcel you sent—six thrillers and a beautiful Bible. Thank you ever so much. Some books have also arrived [missing text] the Red Cross—about 500 or so, and quite well [missing text] course they have to see a lot of wear. Yes, [missing text] …ld make a very good nurse. I am so gla… [missing text] …ginning to receive my letters a little more regularly now. Also to hear about the young fish in the pond—I hope they live and don’t get eaten up by the mother or the neighbor’s cat! The pipe is still going strong—I’m just going to have a smoke now. On Thursday we are having a grand carnival—fancy dress, side shows, competitions, etc. etc. The Camp Commandant has given 150 lire for prizes. Bob and I are entering our oven and latest invention (charcoal burner) in the “cooking stoves” competition. There will also be a scavenging hunt—and perhaps a photographer! It should be good fun!! All my love, Denis xxxxxxx.

(No. 42) Nov. 9th. [1942]

My Dear Mother and Dad,
You’ll be pleased to hear that I had my photo taken on Thursday—just head and shoulders. I don’t know when we shall get the prints but of course I’ll send you one as soon as we do, assuming that we are allowed to send them home. I also received the games parcel this week, but I’m afraid one game had nearly all the pieces missing and the other about half missing! Still, thank you very much for sending them. Yesterday (this is Saturday morning) was my Birthday, and as you guessed, we had a bit of a “do”. Menu—prunes and custard, yorkshire pudd. with about ½ lb. of raspberry jam on it (!!) followed by a birthday cake made from biscuits from the Canadian food parcel, and raisins, and baked. It weighed about two or three pounds!! We decorated it with plain cream, chocolate cream, raspberry cream, (cream and jam mixed) and jam, and wrote “23” in the centre. Gosh, was it good! We also made another and similar cake, just in case this didn’t fill us up!! Bob and I had all this between us, and we gave several of our chums a slice of the birthday cake and we weren’t sick! I thought of you all day thinking of me and drinking my health, I drank yours in cocoa. Please thank Auntie Elsie for her letter of Oct. 8th. We have our first concert of the season this-afternoon. Lots of love from Denis xxxxxxx

(No. 43) Nov. 16th. [1942]

My Dear Mother and Dad,
I have done well for letters this week, five from you, nos. 69, 70, 73, 74 and 76, the last taking only 18 days!! I also had the Vicar’s letter dated Oct. 12th. Please thank him very much for me. The drawing classes stopped during the very hot weather, but they and other educational classes have just begun again. I have not joined as I am very busy “making things”. I have just started making another “blower”. It is really a fan, driven by two sets of belts from a handle, which forces air through a short tube and up through the bottom of the firegrate. With this machine we can burn embers, bark, rubbish of all sorts, and get the most out of the fuel. There are quite a few in the camp now, this is the third one I have made. They are fitted with proper bearings and everything. The one I am now making is “streamlined”!! Please thank Auntie Ethel for her chocolate contributions and give her my love. The 7/2 in the address is my section and hut nos, and should go after my name, where you usually put it. It is quite O.K. about lending the Math books, I often wish I had them here myself, as I sometimes do a bit on my own, or help one or two of the chaps who are taking the classes. Have not come across any other Toc H chaps yet. Well, I must close now, so cheerio and “ chin up”! Lot of love, Denis xxxxxxx

(No. 49) Dec. 28th., 1942.

My Dear Mother and Dad,
It is three o’clock Boxing Day, and I’ve just come back from a jolly good concert given by the concert party and band. It was the best show yet put on in this camp, and that’s saying something!! We have had a marvellous time here this Xmas, you maybe sure of that. Bob and I, and most of the other chaps, too didn’t touch our Xmas parcels till yesterday, so we had “big eats” all day, and to-day as well. We had tea first thing, instead of coffee. Bob and I went to Holy Communion at 7 o’clock, there were about 100 there and more at 8. With our mid-morning brew we had chocolate biscuits, and for dinner we had steak and macaroni (1 lb. tin) and Christmas pudding (1 lb.) with condensed milk on it! We also had issued two oranges each. Also in the parcel we had a tin of fancy sweets, a Christmas cake which we had for supper, ¼ lb. of chocolate, marmalade, butter, sugar, cheese and a steak and tomato pudding, which we had for dinner to-day. In the morning we baked a cake with biscuits and raisins from our last Canadian parcel and dried figs from the canteen, and we’re having that to-night with “icing” on! Last night we had a sing-song in the hut. Just before Christmas Bob received his September next-of-kin, so we have had plenty of chocolate!! I have been thinking a lot about you at home, and hope and pray we’ll be together next year. Will continue next week. Lots of love, Denis xxxxxxx

(No. 59) 12th. March, 1943.
[This letter was written in Italian Camp 53–Sforzacosta; Denis and Bob were transferred from Camp 59 to Camp 53 on January 24, 1943.]

My Dear Mother and Dad,
Here we are again, and three letters from you this week, No. 97, 2 and 9 (new series), the last only taking three weeks. December next-of-kins have started coming in, so Bob and I are expecting ours any time. 6 lbs. of chocolate!!! Keep it up! Bob is expecting about 5 lb or so in his, so it will be “big eats” when they do come. We always share everything we get, cigarettes, chocolate, books, etc.—he’s a good chum. He hasn’t had any books yet, but he has some on the way. He is a big reader and likes Farnol too, so he and I have plenty to read now. I’ve just finished reading “The Broad Highway—and a jolly good book too, and I’m just starting “Jack o’ the Green”. A short time ago I borrowed “The Good Companions” off a chap, and thoroughly enjoyed it, although I’ve read it before. When my Savings reaches the 500 I think the best thing to do will be to put the money in the bank, don’t you? Thank you very much for the Xmas present. Did you get my letter asking you to buy an electric clock “from me to you” for Xmas? Then you’ll never fear losing your train Dad. Also thank you for sending me some more tobacco, and the chaps in your section for sending some cigarettes. I was sorry to hear about Uncle Will. By the way, Bob comes from Lincoln. He is 24 and a bricklayer by trade. This week’s food parcel was American—our first one—18 oz. of butter, 18 oz. of honey, 14 oz. of marmalade, bullie, M.&V, steak, Irish Stew, Cream Cracker biscuits and sugar!! Must close now. Lots of love from Denis xxxxxxx.

Note: “Bullie” is corned beef; M&V is likely canned “meat & veg.”

(No. 65). April 23rd, 1943.

My Dear Mother and Dad,
In three days it will be your Birthday, Mother, and I shall be thinking of you especially on that day, hoping and praying that next April 24th. We shall be together again. By the way, these letters are always dated two days in advance, when they leave the camp, so to-day is the 21st. Being a Wednesday, Bob and I have just drawn our food parcel, which are issued out every Wednesday and Saturday to this compound. They are more standardized now, and very good. For dinner we had a 15 oz. tin of herrings in tomato sauce!! Bob has asked me to thank you for the chocolate. I usually ask him to do the same when his parcels arrive, as we always share everything. I hope you receive your Birthday card safely, and also the Vatican Easter telegram which we sent off three days ago. This week I had your letter no. 18. Three of the chaps I have met are Bill Nunn of Hamlet Court Road, Sid Ward of Hadleigh and Henry Whitwell of Westcliff. Do you know their people at the Guild? I did not bring my oven but I left my “blower” and have just finished making a new one. The cookhouse do cakes for us if we want them done, on their embers. My pipe is still going well, I’m glad to hear you’ve sent off some more tobacco, thanking you! Have you managed to get the photography books yet? Well, cheerio for now and keep smiling! All my love, Denis xxxxxxx.

(No. 68) May 13th, 1943.
My Dear Mother and Dad,
I had some bad news this week, Bob has been detailed with quite a lot of others to go to another camp, so it seems we are to be split up after being together since Jan. 18th. 1942. So far I have not been included amongst those going away. He will be going probably in a day or two; some went this-morning. Of course we don’t know where they are going. I have given Bob two of my books, “Winds of Fortune” and “David Copperfield” as momentos, and he hasn’t any books of his own. I knew you wouldn’t mind and he is very fond of reading. In the Dickens book I put “To Bob, a good companion and the best of chums. From your “mucker”, Denis. Jan. 1942, P.G. 59–May 1943, P.G. 53”. I’m afraid we shall miss each other quite a lot. This week I received 200 Players, presumably from Messrs. Smith and Swift. There was no name on the card. Anyway, I am writing them the card this week to thank them. I also had your letters nos. 23 and 24, and was very sorry to hear about poor Grandma, but perhaps it was a happy release, as you say. Have you heard anything of Raymond yet? No, I don’t know anybody called Coad, there is a Douglas Cooper here from Southend, and also Bill Nunn and Sid Ward, as I mentioned in one of my earlier letters. Well, I must close now. Roll-on tomorrow! (parcel day—one Canadian food parcel!!) Lots of love from Denis xxxxxxx.

Final note:

In his journal, Robert Dickinson wrote on May 9, “Apparently not getting enough volunteers for working party’s; now detailing men! I am detailed!!! And Denis not on the list; a split from the finest ‘mucker’ imaginable, not once a row in 15 months.”

On May 21, Robert was transferred to a work camp at the village of Casanova in northern Italy. Denis remained at Camp 53 until October 1943, when he was transferred to Germany.

Denis returned home at the end of the war. Robert escaped from captivity and was sheltered by an Italian family; he eventually joined the Italian Partisan resistance and in March 1945 was killed in action.

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