In WWII, Two Gay Soldiers' Forbidden Romance Lives On In Their Love Letters
In WWII, Two Gay Soldiers’ Forbidden Romance Lives On In Their Love Letters

In WWII, Two Gay Soldiers’ Forbidden Romance Lives On In Their Love Letters

Shannon Quinn - July 4, 2018

Soldiers separated from their loved ones during World War II gazed at photographs of their sweethearts, and wrote love letters in the hopes that one day, they would be reunited and start a family. One soldier, Gilbert Bradley, wrote his letters, too, but he could never keep a photo of his true love, because he was a man named Gordon Bowsher.

In WWII, Two Gay Soldiers’ Forbidden Romance Lives On In Their Love Letters
Photos of Gilbert Bradley and his letters are kept in the Oswestry museum. Credit: HeritageOpenDays.org.uk

For decades, their love story remained a secret, and it was hidden away from the eyes of the world. Gilbert Bradley died in 2008, and an estate company cleaned out his house and sold his letters to an antique dealer who specialized in war ephemera. A historian and volunteer at the Oswestry Museum in Shropshire, England named Mark Hignett stumbled upon the letters on eBay while he was searching for historic documents from his hometown. At first, Mark Hignett thought that Gilbert Bradley was writing to a girlfriend or fiance, because they simply signed the letters with the letter “G”. Once he realized that “G” stood for Gordon Bowsher, he was shocked. Letters between gay men are incredibly rare, because they were almost always destroyed. Letters between a gay civilian and a soldier? That’s priceless.

In WWII, Two Gay Soldiers’ Forbidden Romance Lives On In Their Love Letters
This is an incredibly rare photograph of a gay soldier and a man in Paris during World War II. No pictures exist of Gordon and Gilbert together, but it could have been something like this. Credit: Elle Magazine.

Forbidden Love

Mark Hignett bought the collection on eBay, and went on a multi-year quest to search for as many of Gilbert and Gordon’s letters as possible. Many years and over one thousand pounds later, each letter he found gave another missing piece to the story. There are nearly 600 letters in total in Hignett’s collection, and they are on display at the Oswestry Museum.

Homosexuality was illegal at that time, and being caught in the army as a gay man was so much worse. If he was found out, it was likely that he would serve time in prison, or even get shot by a homophobic soldier, and left for dead. It’s not surprising that when World War II began, Gilbert Bradley did not want to be in the army at all. Like so many others, he was drafted in 1939, and had no choice but to obey the government. He pretended to have epilepsy during the medical exam, hoping that they would allow him to stay. Unfortunately, the doctors saw right through it, and he was given a clean bill of health. He was ordered to train as an airplane gunner at Park Hall Camp in Oswestry, Shropshire.

In WWII, Two Gay Soldiers’ Forbidden Romance Lives On In Their Love Letters
The letters, and the photo of Gilbert. Credit: Metro.co.uk

One year earlier, Gilbert met Gordon at a party on a houseboat. Gordon was in a relationship with Gilbert’s nephew, but when they met one another, they had a spark that was undeniable, and they began having a secret affair. Gordon Bowsher’s father was incredibly wealthy. He owned a tea plantation in India, and he also ran a shipping company that delivered goods back and forth from Great Britain and their territories. This rich boy had everything his heart desired, except the one thing that was most important- love. And he found that with Gilbert Bradley. When they learned that Gilbert would be sent off to war, they promised to write to one another as much as they possibly could. Gordon describes the non-stop anxiety over worrying if Gilbert would survive the war, and every letter in the mailbox filled him with so much relief and joy.

In WWII, Two Gay Soldiers’ Forbidden Romance Lives On In Their Love Letters
Two gay soldiers relaxing together in uniform. Credit: DailyMail

A Life-Long Secret

Despite feeling all of these intense emotions, they had to keep it a secret. Being openly gay would not be decriminalized until The Sexual Offenses Act in 1967. Even then, no one could have gay sex until over the age of 21. The men imagined a world where they could openly tell their family and friends about their relationship, but they knew that it needed to stay behind closed doors. They playfully asked one another to imagine their father’s reactions, but knew it would never come to pass, writing, “The rest of the world has no conception of what our love is.”

Not surprisingly, there were other gay men that were drafted into the army as well. Spending years apart can be lonely, and Gilbert Bradley met and had relationships with two other men during the war when he was stationed in Scotland. He was completely honest about it in his letters to Gordon, as if they had an agreement that what happens in war stays in war. Gordon replied to the news, “(I understand) why they fell in love with you. After all, so did I.

They wrote to one another from 1939 to 1945, and then, the letters stop. Maybe Gordon could no longer bear to think of Gilbert having affairs with other men, or the hope that they could ever be together was becoming less and less likely as their personal lives were forced to move forward. They put up a good fight, but the war had torn them apart. Too many years. Too many broken promises and unfulfilled dreams, but for years, they were truly waiting for one another.

In WWII, Two Gay Soldiers’ Forbidden Romance Lives On In Their Love Letters
Gilbert would write any chance he got, even if he was traveling in hotels. Credit: Metro.co.uk

In one of the letters, Gilbert pleaded with Gordon to destroy the evidence, so that there would be no trace that could possibly incriminate them. For the vast majority of gay men writing letters to one another during that time, they actually did burn the letters. Clearly, though, Gordon and Gilbert valued the memories of their love far more than the risk of getting caught. Nearly 600 letters still existed in his home, and there may have been more at one point in time.

In one of the letters, they write, ‘My darling boy. For years I had it drummed into me that no love could last for life…I want you darling seriously to delve into your own mind, and to look for once in to the future. Imagine the time when the war is over and we are living together… would it not be better to live on from now on the memory of our life together when it was at its most golden pitch.”

In WWII, Two Gay Soldiers’ Forbidden Romance Lives On In Their Love Letters
The full collection of letters. Credit: Metro.co.uk

No Fairytale Ending

Sadly, there was no happy ending for them. At least, not together. For years, they had dreams of leaving England and moving to the United States, where they could live in sunny California, which was known for being more accepting of homosexuals. They went on vacation there after the war, and Gordon Bowsher really did move to California, but he did it alone. He followed in his father’s footsteps by starting a business. He made his own fortune by breeding and training horses.

Gilbert Bradley continued to have relationships with men in the military, and he was eventually caught with a famous politician named Sir Paul Latham in 1941. He was court martialed from the military for “improper conduct”, but thankfully, he was not imprisoned or killed. He found a job as a studio assistant at the BBC, and eventually retired in Brighton Beach, where he lived to be 92 years old. He kept the letters until he died, in 2008.

No one knows exactly why they broke up, or why they couldn’t go through with living out the dream they shared for so many years. They letters never talk about this- or, if they do, Mark Hignett hasn’t found them yet. Maybe Gilbert Bradley only wanted to remember their best moments- their “golden pitch”.

In one of the letters, it says, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our letters could be published in the future in a more enlightened time. Then all the world could see how in love we are.”

In WWII, Two Gay Soldiers’ Forbidden Romance Lives On In Their Love Letters
Mark Hignett and his collection of love letters. Credit: Metro.co.uk

Thankfully, that’s exactly what’s happening. Mark Hignett plans to publish a book with all of the complete letters in chronological order. When the story of their love was first broadcast on the BBC, dozens of movie producers, playwrights, and songwriters approached Mark Hignett, because they were so inspired by the story, that they wanted to create art based on their love. Someday in the future, there will most likely be a Hollywood film coming out about their story, and people are already anticipating that it will make more people cry than Titanic and Brokeback Mountain combined.

At a local festival called Heritage Open Days, people who were inspired by the love letters got together for a writing workshop. They wrote their own letters in the couple’s honor, and then burned them. The ashes were collected, and they had it made into a diamond ring that symbolizes the love that would last forever.

 

Where Do we get this Stuff? Here are our Sources.

Forbidden Love: The WW2 Letters Between Two Men. Bethan Bell. BBC. 2017.

Gay WWII Secret Letters Gain Hollywood Interest. BBC. 2017.

These Newly Discovered Love Letters Between Two Gay Soldiers In World War II Will Have You In Tears. Katie O’Malley. Elle Magazine. 2017

War Time Love Letters Reveal Epic Gay Love Story Kept Secret for Decades. Richard Hartley-Parkinson. Metro.co.uk

Gilbert & Gordon: Then All The World Could See How in Love We Are. Heritage Open Days.

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