England Under Fire

I

IT was near midnight, no moon, and the sky overcast. The air was brooding. The slow surge of the tide making around the rocks below could be heard deeply, in diapason, a sound as if the universal were in soliloquy. The hour, the dark, the calm, the tide — here it was, the right conjunction in circumstance for the invasion of England. The experts had warned us of it. But though you may have found out too often what experts are to be misled by them, yet you did feel that fate need not have been quite so theatrical, for things were bad enough. If we were doomed, then let fate get on with it.

The darkness was absolute. In what shape would the enemy come? You should be in England now, anywhere here would do, to learn what night is when a power lies in wait against you that has a form unknown. The soldier walking beside me paused. His face glowed as he lit his pipe. ‘I wish,’ he said bitterly, as we resumed our patrol, ‘that fellow in Germany would come out. Let us get at him, and get it over.’

We had not spoken for some time, but he had uttered my own thought. It is a common thought. It comes to all of us. Idle words are sure to fly up out of smouldering anger, impatience, and anxiety. It was black and heavy, our summer world, and its stillness was not only delusive but ugly. This quiet would be burst open. Where would the clangor begin? Then, while we stood considering this, there being no hurry about it that we could see, — we could not so much as sec each other, — we heard low voices. We could not place the speakers, who were serious and subdued. We eavesdropped. The words we heard were of probabilities, guesses prompted by a late and scant broadcast we had missed. The only certainty was that heavy attacks by war planes had been made on our country that day.

So it had begun! We bent our ears for more, but no more came. The murmuring ceased. We tried to find the speakers, but nobody was about. Only a sea mew cried from mid-air, very like a short derisive laugh, small and idiotic.

The Day had come? London attacked at last? That invincible might of the German fleet in the air which has so frightened Europe — it had struck home? We could not tell, and it was useless to attempt to telephone. The telephone is off, in war, in the very hour when you would give a full purse to hear a known and trusted voice. Patience now is not only a virtue but compulsory. We must wait for morning. Those broadcasts! So often they excite but cannot satisfy. Still, was that air invasion beaten off? We wanted to know. We dared to hope so. Yet, is it easy to stop an incursion of numberless locusts?

The night remained silent about it. There was nothing to do but turn in. The ticks of the clock could be counted. One could do that. If sleep were refused, then stare at the place where the window ought to be, like a gymnosophist, till it shaped. There was enough, meanwhile, to keep one’s thoughts going. This war is of so entirely new an order that you can be as speculative about it as an ant when its hill has been kicked upside down. Civilization has progressed so far that it will have to begin again, though how and with what we don’t know; not yet. New powers are at large which have made the lessons of the last war and its following peace — political, military, economic, and moral — as obsolete as mediæval weapons, feudal society, and chivalry. Even today’s children must dimly surmise that a new life has begun for them, young though they are, as they pause before their rural schoolhouse to wonder why the legs of a German airman are dangling over its parapet. Front lines are with Agincourt. While you are still thinking the trouble is nowhere near you, explosions begin in that place, without a prelude. Down you go into a ditch, or flat on the pavement, if there is no broken glass on it, resting your head on an arm, and keeping the mouth a little open. The front line runs across every roof. The cradle, the free library, and the cinema are outposts. . . .

Well, had the fabulous power which reduced Rotterdam to rubble and bones now made London desolate? While we were waiting to hear about that, there was an encouraging fact to keep us company. It was the only one we had. But in the long run it might prove to be the cardinal fact. In more than one way Dunkirk was a revelation. Outnumbered there, our men in the sky lightly maintained the tradition of those seafarers who once on a time, with a smaller fleet of better ships, mishandled in confident abandon the maritime tradition of great Spain. Do not think that parallel from 1588 is a solace far-fetched. There are virtues of the unpredictable human spirit, as well as vices, which will never become obsolete, in any new era. And, when condemning a democratic people for senility and slowness, remember also that many of them will be young, vivacious, honest, and simple souls, undisturbed by a legend of an implacable bogey. They will not have given much attention to it, Then again, it is the high pleasure in sport for an outside team to laugh to itself while it takes its chances at walloping the proud favorite in the last match. I could then, that anxious night, while waiting for what I should hear at daylight, recall the name of John Hawkins, and with satisfying relevance to the present tribulation of my people.

That Devonian, in consultation with his friend Drake and other cronies who had been to sea, aware of what the English might sight some day in the offing, boldly discarded the ancient notion of a fighting ship, which was a castle afloat for soldiers; and his act scared the traditionalists. But Hawkins had noticed that sailors, not soldiers, were the fellows to time gunfire when seas were running. He wanted nimble ships with striking power, and he built them, aware that he had the men to work them. Magnitude did not intimidate him. Now our history books tell us that ‘He blew with his winds and they were scattered.’ I agree, and without the aid of mysticism. But I suspect that the impulse to that phrase came of Queen Elizabeth’s diplomatic art when issuing her medal for the victory. She remembered she was a heretic, and excommunicate, and so found pleasure in pointing to the probability that God, as the world could now observe, seemed to have been on her side, after all. For the truth is, the Spaniards in that far-off July had a fair wind all up the English Channel. It carried them along to their task, which was to protect Parma’s army on its way over to London. But while on their course to do this, favored with a proper wind, they were outsailed and outgunned. The prestige and august legend of Spain were of no avail. This incomprehensible novelty bewildered the Spaniards, and shook their nerve. That was why, as they were anchored in Calais Roads one night, panic seized them when fire ships came. The scattering began. Next day, off Gravelines, they were hammered till they turned away, and the wind did begin to blow which broke them up, that foul wind which set crippled galleons inshore, and drove them to run for home, if they could make it, by the north about. Parma’s army was left standing on the sand dunes.

Thus, by the look of it, the winds of God, and long before the event, may blow into a receptive mind a creative thought that is destined to bias the event. Hawkins seems to have been so favored, and to have believed what came to his mind with all his heart. The winds which to indifferent weathercocks appear to blow where they list perchance are quickening with creative notions the minds and hearts of the just, if they have the will to believe . . . and there was a sign for August 1940. Our men in the sky, we had seen, had a confidence in their craft which sent them lightly against the dreaded German air force, to shoot it down, two and three to one.

Some of those men we know, and what we know of them makes still more mysterious their performances aloft. Down on the earth, at table, or idle while off duty, they perplex us. We look for signs of their singular aptitude, as that of Valkyries, but nothing shows except the poise of ownership, shyness, and good humor. I notice, when with them, that the subject of flying should be avoided. Talk of anything but that. I can but guess that when they are above the clouds, and out of sight, they are transfigured. They have a secret. I should like to watch them up there, but have no wings. It is impossible for mortals to approach the horns of the moon. These men leave us. Later, while people sleep, there falls from the clear firmament a dreadful music, though nothing can be seen above except the immemorial constellations, and one might suppose that at last one could hear the very quiring of the stars on their way to what we shall never know. To that companionship with Orion our young friends, who sat at table with us, are translated. Their unearthly music falls to us from space, from between Ursa Major and Perseus. They are changed into the Dawn Patrol.

One of these pilots, a youngster of our acquaintance, after France had surrendered was worried because fifteen messmates had been left in a Biscayan port. He went to his superior at his aerodrome in central England. ‘Let’s get them out of it, sir.’

Out of it? What was he talking about! The enemy was there by then; nothing could be done. Something must be done, protested the junior, and explained what he would do. His superior then also went mad, dropped discretion and superiority, and allowed ‘a big old bus’ to be emptied of everything. Even its machine guns were removed. Both set out into the blue. ‘What will you do if we meet the Jerries?’ asked the senior, while over the sea, for they had no arms. ‘Dive on the beggars,’ said the pilot. But they had a clear run. They found their men, who, so the narrator told us, were as cheerful as if victory were at hand. ‘I think,’ said their senior, looking at his watch, while merrymaking proceeded, ‘we ought to be going.’ This the boys could not dispute, as they saw the Germans were beginning to arrive. ‘Then,’ explained our informant, ’we packed in the whole fifteen with a shoehorn, and got ‘em home to lunch. They were hungry. . . . No. Nothing happened.’

II

The news, when we heard it early next morning, was as terse as the report from a flat market. Its geography was cryptic, and less easily solved than a crossword puzzle. London, however, so far was not involved. That cool laconic relation over the air addressed before breakfast to an acute and popular interest was nothing like the story we used to get of the final struggle for the English Football Cup, in the happy days of long ago. The chief thing in it was that our Hurricanes and Spitfires were as right as ever, news as good as the word that we could continue to live on, for the time being, and look up. I can see now that our authorities were harshly careful because they knew no more than the rest of us what was in the wind, or still to come. There had been so many surprises in this war to shock us into silence that there might be others. No applause, please!

Were we wrong, then, in assuming that the invasion had begun? It looked like it. Still, instinct as well as circumstance warned us that Hitler, somehow, though we knew not how, must drive to a conclusion; and reason said that he had begun his drive. We were aware that it would give him rapture to do to London what he did to Warsaw, if he could. No doubt of that. Those Nazis always had a rankling hatred of us more poisonous than anything they felt for the French; and a reminder that English Liberals, from the end of the last war, had been Germany’s only rational friends in Europe was enough to jump them into loud and corybantic hysteria. Something else came to me. Only a few days ago, on August 8, a surprise attack was made on Dover and the shipping in the Channel by remarkable clouds of planes. That was ominous. The Germans are superstitious over dates. We have noted that. Hitler, whenever he consulted his astrologist, would have brooded over August 8, for it was Germany’s Black Day, so named by Ludendorff. On that day, in 1918, in an attack by Australians and Londoners before Amiens, the German army began to topple, and thereafter continued to go over till November, from the North Sea to the Alps. Hitler, of course, would blame us for that. It was the day fixed by the stars for the return compliment, to compensate gloriously one more of those abundant German humiliations. Irrational? Yes, but the militarist and the gambler are more superstitious than a black African in his banana patch. War is irrational; it is anarchy.

That attack on Dover and the ships had an end so cheering that Londoners soon forgot it. It was a danger past. It was without special significance. This brings us to the point when it ought to be admitted that whether Britons are confident, or only thick-headed, is a doubt which halts some of us, nervously aware that old habits of thought, the result of long immunity from invasion, do not allow us to view our peril with the requisite concern, in this new era for everybody. We do know, having his own word for it, that it is Hitler’s will, irrevocable as ever, to blot us out; but the odd fact is that, though we have witnessed in horror his methods when blotting out other people, it is rare to meet a man or woman at home who has anything more than a puzzled look, or a smile, for the threat of the abolition of our ancient establishment. What, push over those hills? How blot us? Mop up the sea? Naturally it is difficult for a Briton, if his home is where the funnels of ships are as commonplace as chimneypots, to believe that a great army fully furnished can be shipped overseas and landed as easily as tanks cross a frontier; the sea is wet, and that doubter perhaps knows a thing or two of the mystery of stevedoring. He wonders how stevedoring would be managed under gunfire. He thinks such a problem must puzzle even Hitler.

Then he hesitates. He reflects anew. Has he overlooked an important quantity in his reckoning? Is there a deciding factor of which he has never heard? He remembers the many incredible events that have been to Hitler’s advantage, since the war began, triumphs won so cheaply, to all appearance, that they might have come of magic art. There is excuse enough for doubt, when one frowns into the future, trying to discern what is there, and seeing little even when helped by an understanding of everything implied by ships and the sea; excuse enough, while one gazes round the horizon of another morning, which is undefiled, so far — quite unable to judge, with all one knows of war and peace, where next the infernal plague will break out. This new era!

It is in that moment of pause and doubt, while feeling the impartial geniality of the sun, smelling wood smoke (autumn is near), noticing absently the sprightliness of the swallows, so strangely unconcerned, and the stillness and aloofness of the elms, and hearing the voices of children at play, that a hate of the Nazis falls over the mind like the sudden chill of a cloud across the sun — a shadow one would put off, if one could, but cannot. Those men, fouling life, driving dirt into thought, rendering even the morning light unreal! Because of them, the very laughter of innocence at play is dismaying, for tonight it may be blotted out. For what? Hitler’s horoscope! This hate of the obscene — hardly felt in the last war, I can affirm — must be reckoned with. I spoke today to a young soldier, a simple man, who was in the retreat to the sea. His own part in it did not seem to interest him, but he did recall, low-voiced, some wayside scenes in a deliberate hunting down of homeless civilians by German planes, which flew low, playful with machine guns on helpless crowds. A Belgian child by the roadside stirred among the dead, and this youth went to help her, and raised her. Her arm fell off. He does not fear invasion. He wants it to come. I left him cleaning his rifle by a beach.

He is wrong? Yes, I suppose he is; and so am I. Hate is wrong. But that child’s arm fell off. She opened her eyes to see who touched her and then died. So what can we do? Tell me that. Is innocence to perish because of one man’s horoscope? Is its laughter to be silenced for that? Shall we allow an insensate fool to put out the light, and thereafter sit in darkness? If hate, though of what is foul, is unlovely, yet the prospect of continuous darkness, unrelieved by a gleam of reason, in which cruelty is absolute, seems a good deal worse. I cannot justify hate, but would say merely that we hate a prospect in which life loses all the values for which we care. Not even that legendary Star, by the light of which men built their great cathedrals, the star they still celebrate with music appropriate to the aisles of Chartres and Canterbury, will show a ray in the darkness that threatens us. We need not be Christian men to hate the imminence of purgatory without hope.

That is why, when recently a relative wrote to tell me, in wry words, that he practised with his bayonet on dummies erected in the cloisters of abbey ruins where monks once illuminated missals and early texts of our faith and origin,

I found I could not disagree with him about it. He said that, except with machinery, we have got nowhere worth mentioning in ten centuries. The irony of it, he felt, ought to be sharpened later against whoever and whatever are blameworthy, and he desired to live for that. Just now, though, he admitted, we had no time for backward glances in appraisal; our enemy is on the encircling horizon, and we have no room to spare. The golf course is a land mine, the public park is cultivated into a surprise for visitors we do not want, and the bathing beach is altered to scarify an ichthyosaurus, should it try to land. No church bells may ring for prayers. The chimes are now the tocsin.

III

My friend’s letter came on the morning of the day when Hitler had his first serious defeat of the war. Even as I read it, the man who wrote it was busy with his battery shooting down six German bombers. For me, the hour was unsullied. There was nothing overhead but idle gulls. I thrust the letter into a pocket while inspecting three fine trout a gunner had caught in the stream beside his post. A few minutes later a young matron asked me whether I had heard the screaming bomb fall in the night. What, there? No. Had she? Had she not! I was still inclined to reject that bomb, but she described the beast. It alighted three fields behind her children’s bedroom, after its vile song, but they slept on, and she was thankful for that, while she watched a hayrick burning. She fancied at first the old church tower was alight, it seemed to be redhot, but that was only the reflection, she found. How silly the Germans were, dropping bombs there!

This was puzzling. I was traveling far that day, to places where bombs were more probable. Jerry must be up to something, to have included so unlikely a spot in his battle orders. And what a grand feature he makes of terror! Even his bombs must scream before they burst.

I had to go, and at once forgot one odd and irresponsible bomb. My train at length neared a seaport old in story. I must not name it — though it would vastly improve the omen of this yarn if I could. The train remained at a platform long enough for an appreciation of the scene without, which included one admiral, several captains, a number of other naval officers, mingling with bluejackets and marines — mostly British, but sonic French — in a manner more casual and on the level than I remember of the other war. The nonchalant French seamen appeared to be well salted. The admiral was wearing an old raincoat, though it was a warm day, to hide his high office. Pay no attention to me! A matured commander stood near my window, giving affable advice to a junior French naval officer, and that figure of his was one for a civilian to remember, when trusting that our invisible ships are keeping their eyes open. I relished the head and bearing of that mariner, while my train waited. . . .

We passengers gazed sharply at each other round our compartment. Our eyes asked the question. What was that? Wasn’t it the wailing note? It was. It continued to wail. The people in the station, I noticed, did not run. Their interest was in the sky. Women remained just where the warning found them, with their children and parcels. Why lose your train because of an unpleasant noise? Our guard appeared. He told us we could go on, if we wanted to, or get out. There was a raid on.

Nobody got out. The train resumed its journey, and as it was rounding a curve we had a broad view of a battle in modern war. What we saw was an array of impassive balloons, looking on at the show as we were, an audience of silvery hobgoblins at a superior height. Below them a White Ensign was tranquilly unrolling from a flagstaff. That was all. No; distantly, a great number of circular cloudlets of shrapnel were forming instantaneously and soundlessly, livid patches in the blue. A column of dark smoke leaned away solidly from an object out of sight. The man opposite turned from the window, and opened his newspaper. So did I. That is all.

All? Not exactly, but it is most of what you see of war in its latest phase till chance blows the affair right over and around you, a blasting storm, a deafening and numbing typhoon. And chance is sure to do that; and you may not have long to wait. This, as the train drew away from battle, did not occur to me.

I assumed the affair at that port was incidental, a touch to keep us reminded that our foe could show himself anywhere in our islands; but we knew that already.

Three hours later we were ending our journey, with a short walk below barren hills to our porch. The land was so calm with a prescience of autumn that we forgot war was about. By a seventeenth-century barn a group of soldiers were lounging. As we neared them I saw them stiffen. Then they began to stargaze in the afternoon. Of course we did the same. From an ambush of fair-weather cumulus overhead came a continuous urgency of machine guns. Cartridge cases showered about us, but we paid no attention to that by-product of battle — which was foolish of us, for where the cases are, there the bullets are also. Where were those planes? Nothing was aloft but a ferocious noise. Through a clear chasm in the clouds we thought once we could discern some scintillating atoms. An intermittent droning from one cloud, a sergeant by me was confident, was that of a Jerry. A tiny silver butterfly flew off the rim of it and melted in another cloud. As the sergeant spoke, a Spitfire sang low from over the hill behind us, and went up into that concealment as sharply as a rocket. We heard two bursts from a gun, there was a pause, and then a flaming meteor dropped from the belly of the cloud, headfirst, rotating, with a long tail as red as burnished copper following it. ‘Got ‘im!’ murmured the sergeant. A fountain sprang high close to the beach. We waited for whatever was next. The crepitating confusion was in one of its intervals, and longer than usual.

The soldiers said they had seen four other Jerries drop farther out to sea. While I continued to gaze upwards vacantly, I cannot say for what, a Spitfire fell from a cloud, a mile out. Another followed it. They dropped obliquely shorewards to destruction, but saved themselves in unison — I heard myself exclaim when they were about to strike the beach. Both upended, and rolled easily away from disaster, in a sort of elegant hilarity. The sergeant gunner chuckled. ‘They always do that after a show.’

Not till next day did we hear that our island had been attacked by continuous droves of enemy planes. Fifty-three had fallen along our own stretch of coast, in as short a time as it took our defenders to become aware that at last they were engaged in a decisive affair. When one attack was dispersed, another swarm from France approached the land. We have had many such visitations since, and some of them worse, for the invasion of us has begun. Along the dim ridges of the hills every night the searchlights radiate and intersect, and are often brilliant enough to put out the Milky Way. Soon we are listening to the enemy. His power vibrates the dark, and one wishes one knew precisely how to locate it. It seems prevalent. At times there is a flash, and an upheaval below made by him, or by them, and our walls shudder. Somebody near has caught it. The guns roll around the night like drums. Their round expansions of shrapnel are as if orange glow-lamps were festooned aloft in clusters and glittered in a desultory way. Metal showers rain and rattle down. Through these doings in the dark, the lord star Jupiter eyes all magnificently, his survey by no means intermittent. Somehow, I am glad of that. How long will this one last?

Morning comes again, not too soon — indeed, we are pleased to meet it — and tales of the night before begin to arrive from our neighbors. Some discipline is then applied to the mind, firmly, to enable progress to be made with whatever task — such as this story for you — one has in hand. In the evening there is a stroll to the inn. Men from the garrison drop in, at the hour for the broadcast, when we get the day’s news. There have been, we are told, attacks everywhere, as usual. We had guessed that; we have had some. But what the men want to hear is ‘the scores for the day.’ (I use their own phrase for it.) Sometimes it is six to one against Jerry; now and then it drops to two to one.

In London, as elsewhere, the war is accepted as an unavoidable inclemency. The hour of a storm cannot be forecast, and though it is sure to strike sometime that day, and probably more than twice, work ought to be done. Wheels must be kept turning. Man is the most adaptable of all animals. In the heavens, suddenly, the detonations begin their larks, dammit, right over the Sunday dinner. It is advisable to leave that on the table, and descend to the dugout. Your neighbors will be there, also without their dinners, but with cards and gramophone. During the hours of work, though, only perfunctory attention is given to the siren. Ten minutes are bestowed on a shelter, as formal acknowledgment of kindly official instructions, and then, unless ruin has come close, men and women go up to their tasks. Mustn’t waste time! But what a cold hatred of the Nazis accumulates! ‘They shall pay for this!’ decided the aged shopkeeper in the bystreet, when she came out to rescue from plaster and broken glass what was left of her stock. Many of us are in full sympathy with her, for one reason or another. ‘Last time,’ mused an onlooker, ‘the Kaiser ran into Holland. Where will Hitler go?’ It was then seen, with complete satisfaction, that he has nowhere to go. For we are all aware that this ruin of a continent need not have come about, but the Nazis had resolved, with religious fervor, to make it. ‘Right,’ as once defined by the German Minister of Justice, ‘is what is in the interests of the German Volk; wrong is what harms it.’

After that, there was no more to be said. There was but one thing to do. Could it be done? Last June not sufficient reason existed to show that it could be. Today the test is past. It is being done. Our men have taken the measure of the Nazis. The British air force was comparatively small, but it has already destroyed the legend that German propaganda had created of the invincibility of Hitler’s air fleet; and his army, at present, is still standing where Parma’s stood. In this war of the spirit against machines cruelly directed, the machines encountered at first but a broken spirit, and flew on in triumph. They encountered, over the English Channel, a spirit debonair and resolute, well equipped, and during August the German Armada was showered from the skies.

I do not know how to write of those men who, few in number, went up on wings to avert Nazi dominion of Christendom. Who could do that, in the uproar of a war continuing? It has been called an epic story, a theme for a poet when, in a time to come, he looks back in tranquillity; but I do not know HOW the silent gratitude of many humble and contrite hearts can uprise in the splendor of great verse. For our youth in the air not only saved the day for us; it stemmed what seemed to be the oncoming of an age of darkness. How picture that?

Meanwhile, those same fliers are giving the Nazis an experience from which Germany has been free for over a century. Germany, at long last, is NOW invaded. Hitler’s conjuring has brought that about. The destruction Berlin designed for others is already nearing her precincts. What Berliners rejoiced to hear had been done to Rotterdam and Warsaw is now approaching Potsdam. I do not want to exult. That, too, is hateful. There is cruelty enough in the world without adding to it. Nor could anyone exult after witnessing what may be seen in my OWN neighborhood. One day in August we chanced on wreckage by the roadside, an extraneous mass which had crushed a hedge of whitethorn and guelder-rose. A ploughman, with a horse on a lead, stood by the wreck gravely, bareheaded. His cap was in his hand. It was the crumpled metal of a German bomber, its colors and outline grotesque in that rustic lane; and tangled with its jagged metal were the bodies of three young Germans. The ploughman merely looked at us, and made a sorrowful gesture. He pointed to the field. ‘Another there,’ he said.

We found there was. It was one of ours, doubtless the one that had brought down the bomber. But that smaller machine, a Spitfire, was perfect. It had landed in a difficult place with precision. Then its wounded crusader had climbed out of it to rest. There he was, with his head on arm, as if asleep.