John Oldfield’s letters

One of the things we are doing whilst the museum is closed due to Covid19 is transcribing letters written to and from John Oldfield, who joined the army in 1938.

They’ve been kept in our store since they were donated to the museum, as part of a larger collection of personal items, in 1997.

The original plan was for them to feature in our special exhibition, Treasures in Store, but that’s now on hold.

When we knew it was likely that the museum was going to be closed, our Collections Assistant Zoe swung into action, carefully untying the bundles and photographing each piece of paper, then allocating groups of letters for the team to work on at home.

We think there are more than 1000 pieces of correspondence in the box, packaged in bundles relating to some kind of system, but not in any strict order; indeed, some of them aren’t dated.

That can be a bit annoying, but of course they weren’t written for us to all read in chronological order many years after the events they describe, were they? We’re aiming to upload the transcript of a letter each day.

Read on to find out more about the man himself, or start reading the letters.

A note about the letter transcripts: more and more will be added as we work our way through.  The earliest letter gets pushed down the list as more are added, so go to the last page if you want to start reading from the beginning!

Get to know John Oldfield…

Born in Sandsend, near Whitby on 28 April 1918, John was encouraged by his parents to draw; a skill which we are lucky enough to see from some of the other items donated to the museum along with the letters.

Following school, he attended Sandhurst Royal Military Academy. Lieutenant John Oldfield was commissioned into his local county regiment, The Green Howards, joining them in Malta and then moving on to Palestine, where he created a mural of horses for the Officers’ Mess.

When war broke out he was sent to France and faced the ordeal of retreat and evacuation from Dunkirk. Service in Cyprus and North Africa followed, but John was captured in Libya in June 1942.

Life in captivity

After an extremely rough time in a makeshift camp near Benghazi he was flown with other prisoners to the Italian mainland, eventually ending up in PG35 near Salerno, where he met up with other Green Howards.

With his white silk scarf and moustache he added a certain panache to the dull regime where he organised musical evenings and started a painting club.

Eventually, the officers from PG35 were moved to Bologna, then across the Brenner Pass to the vast German processing camp, Stalag IV B, where he was deloused, had his photograph and fingerprints taken, was inoculated and then sent by train to Oflag 79, near Brunswick, in April 1944.

Here his skills as an artist and musician – he played both the violin and piano came into their own. He became President of the Oflag 79 Art Club; even painting a hunting scene which was sent from the camp to Buckingham Palace as a Christmas card.

He painted from memory many scenes of his beloved Sleights and the North Yorkshire Moors, some of which we have in the museum collection. One of them was published in the Illustrated London News. Seeing it, the managing director of Windsor & Newton wrote to John asking if the company could buy the original. This was John Oldfield’s first sale.

Captain John Dugdale, one of his fellow artists in the camp, wrote about him: ‘In organising life classes and exhibitions he was just as thorough and imperturbable as he was in his painting, and he gave his energies unsparingly and unselfishly at a time when everyone was feeling the effects of a starvation diet.’

Life after confinement

Those who knew him believed that his impeccably smart dress and huge personal integrity were partly a result of attempting to maintain standards in the squalor of the camps during the three years he had spent as a captive.

Captain Oldfield returned to the Depot in Richmond in 1946 and used his talents to design the reredos in the Green Howards Chapel of St Mary’s Church, The sketches he created are in our collection. Mousey Thompson duly crafted the piece, which can still be seen in the church.

He set up the Green Howards Benevolent Fund, which still exists and supports members of the regiment, and started the army’s ‘One Day’s Pay Scheme’. Both schemes proved to be of lasting assistance to men who had suffered as prisoners of war.

He went on to serve in Malaya between 1949 and 1952 and later wrote ‘The Green Howards in Malaya’. He served in Washington DC, USA, then as second-in-command before commanding the 1st Battalion in Iselohn (West Germany) from 1960 to 1961. After serving as Colonel at the NATO Defence College in Paris, he was promoted to Brigadier. His last appointment was Commander of Aldershot Garrison.

In 1969 John Oldfield retired from the army so he could paint full time, but his links with the military remained. He was appointed Colonel of the Regiment in 1975, a role he held for seven years.

He worked tirelessly to promote the regiment, develop its connections with the local community of North Yorkshire and Teesside, and maintain the links with the Norwegian Royal Family. He was appointed an OBE and made Deputy Lieutenant of Hampshire.

Contribution to our archive

John Oldfield also conducted interviews with regimental veterans to build up an audio archive. This archive, also in the museum collection, transports us instantly to days gone by; clipped accents and all.  Literally a box of old fashioned cassette tapes sitting in the store.  But with so much to offer up.

Thanks to Oldfield we can hear the voices of soldiers who served in the First World War, chatting candidly to a fellow serviceman about their experiences and exploits.

Clearly a fan of audio, Oldfield often embellished these recordings with sound effects from his own collection to help illustrate the point the interviewee was making.

We get to know him as an interviewer, questioning and coaxing information from the men he is speaking to.  It often sounds like he is enjoying a nice glass of single malt whilst conducting the interviews!

Brigadier Oldfield died on 29 September 1998.


A note about the letter transcripts: more and more will be added as we work our way through.  The earliest letter gets pushed down the list as more are added, so go to the last page if you want to start reading from the beginning!