The teddy bear that went to war and then went viral
Five-inch teddy bear and his 89-year-old owner becomes internet sensation after his RAF exploits during the Second War came to light.
He is barely five inches high, with a stern little mouth and rather worn ears and paws – a scruffy little teddy bear that you would not give a second glance in a charity shop. He doesn’t even have a name.
But he has become quite an internet sensation, thanks to his owner, Jean Mellows, writing a letter to The Telegraph. (Go to the source for more photos.)
In full, the letter said:
“I was interested to read about the teddy bear that accompanied a Battle of Britainpilot as I too have a little bear, with my maiden name tape sewn on it, which I gave to my fiancé to take with him on his operations over Germany during the Second World War.
“He was a Mosquito nightfighter pilot and flew 50 ops accompanied by my bear, and together they won the DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross].
“We were married for 50 years but now, sadly, I just have the bear.”
With three sentences of perfect prose, Mrs Mellows had ensured readers of The Telegraph letters page were wiping their eyes over breakfast, clearing their throats and asking for the marmalade to be passed. Within 48 hours of its publication at the end of last week, her letter had been shared hundreds of times on social media, with many wanting to know more about the bear, the DFC – and Mrs Mellows.
Which is why I ended up in her lovely house in Dorking – bursting at the seams with treasures, pictures and memories – turning over bear and inspecting the small “Jean Wells” name tape.
“I had him when I was away at boarding school,” she explains, adding: “He’s never had a name. I’m sorry, I can’t produce one.”
“Bear” looks rather unimpressed by the fuss and the Telegraph photographer snapping away, but Mrs Mellows is rather enjoying herself.
“Yes, I don’t really do Twitter,” she says, “but I am told that he has become quite popular.”
I explain that he’s gone viral. “I think it’s marvellous,” she says, adding that she shrieked with delight when her letter appeared in the paper. She has written in in the past, but without luck.
She is in her 90th year. “I’m 89-and-a-half,” she giggles (she giggles a lot). “I’m so psychological about being 90, I’m doing it in halves. You wouldn’t think I am 90, would you?”
“No!”, I say in mock gallantry. But, I mean it. She is tall (six-foot in her prime), elegant, strides up a flight of stairs with barely a puff and keen to share her wonderful love story.
She met Pilot Officer Paul Mellows at church tea party in Redhill, Surrey, the Saturday before Christmas 1943. He was 21, on leave, and, despite his RAF tunic, looked like a schoolboy – with a walnut whip of thick curls on his head. Jean was 18 and had just left school. “He came up to me, smiling and asked if he could carry my tray for me,” she says.
Was he dashing? “Oh, yes. My knees knocked, and I think they knocked for the next 50 years. I adored him.” A few days later they went carol singing together and when Jean’s torch broke, he again came to the rescue. “We shared a hymn book. I was fluttering from then.”
On Boxing Day, he invited her around to tea at his large family home, which was home to countless fearsome maiden aunts, who had been bombed out of their own homes. “I walked into the drawing room with 16 pairs of astonished eyes looking at me. You have to remember, sons and daughters were younger for far longer back then. Paul had never had a girlfriend. He was the youngest of four. And, to them, he was just little Paul.”
She survived her ordeal, and when the next day he had to return to base, they started a correspondence.
Danger was never far away. Jean’s own father was missing in action after being torpedoed in the Atlantic. Only later was it confirmed he had died. Paul, meanwhile, was flying Mosquitoes, two-man fighter planes that accompanied night bombing raids over Germany.
The one upside was they could not fly during full moons, which meant Flight Lieutenant Mellows (as he was by then) got frequent leaves.
The young couple would go walking up Colley Hill in the moonlight. From an upstairs window of her Dorking home, Mrs Mellows can almost still see the spot where he proposed in the summer of 1944, with a peck – the first time they had ever kissed.
“We were totally innocent. We did not give ourselves to each other until we were married – even though every leave could have been the last time we met. It’s a big point I want to make.”
She stresses it later: “It was the discipline many of us had at the time. I want my children and grandchildren to know that.”
She obviously suspects that I have her down as a hussy – and, looking at her engagement photos, you can tell she would have turned plenty of heads.
At this stage, Jean, then training as a nurse, gave her fiancé her teddy bear as a lucky mascot – one of many such tokens given to young pilots by their sweethearts. It was the news that Bonhams was auctioning a similar bear (with an estimate of £5,000), owned by Wing Commander Stephen Beaumont during the Battle of Britain, that prompted Jean’s letter to the Telegraph. And Falla, a teddy bear tucked into Sir Robert Clark's tunic, ended up being parachuted behind enemy lines in Italy before finishing the war in a POW camp in Germany.
Paul and bear got into quite a few scrapes, including having his tail (the plane, not the bear’s) shot to pieces above Stuttgart. He was briefly missing in action, but skilful flying meant Fl Lt Mellows was able to limp the Mosquito back to base, being awarded the DFC in the process. Paul’s miniature mess medal, along with his France and Germany star, is currently pinned to bear’s chest.
The couple married in 1946, after Paul was demobbed. It was the last time he wore his uniform.
What is remarkable is that Jean has kept everything: not just the medals and badges, but his uniform, including his flying boots, complete with penknife secreted in a specially-designed pouch in the lining; the silk escape scarf on which is printed a map of Germany; and every single letter he wrote to her during the war. There is a whole cabinet of curiosities, a mini-museum full of medals, coins, shrapnel.
As a young married couple, they went to Cambridge so Paul could finish the law degree he started before the war, while Jean brought up their young family. He rowed in the record-winning 1948 boat race crew and went on to compete in that year’s austerity Olympic Games, winning a silver medal (Great Britain was beaten in the final by the United States).
But all of these medals are nothing compared with the burnished trophy of their marriage. The secret? “Total love.”
She adds: “I think possibly in our generation, you married with an absolute lifetime dedication. We had some awful times when we were first married, we had no money, we were living on a government grant which he was given as an ex-serviceman, we had far too many children too quickly – I had three before I was 25.” She would go on to have five, and now has 13 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
But, as she says, “I’ve never had any 'what ifs’.”
She says Paul, who died 18 years ago, would be slightly appalled by the bear’s celebrity.
As I get up to leave, she adds: “I still miss him terribly. Almost more because I am on my own so much. But I know we shall meet again. I am sure I will join him. Isn’t that wonderful?”
It is. It really is. The bear might be an old scruff, but he represents something invaluable: enduring love.