When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Tag archive: Second World War

Farewell Flight

1943: The Royal Air Force lost 55,000 men during the bomber offensive against Europe, and the Americans, 26,000. Aircrews were gloomily aware of the odds against them. “If you live on the brink of death yourself,” the pilot Denis Hornsey pointed out, “it is as if those who have gone have merely caught an earlier train to the same destination. And . . . you will almost certainly be catching the next one.”

Source: Max Hastings, Bomber Command (1979), pp. 220–2

“A Perfect Day”

1939: “A perfect day,” wrote Harold Nicolson from his home in Kent, “and I bathe in the peace of the lake.” The date was 4 September; Britain had declared war on Germany the previous day. It was all very confusing: the tranquillity of the English countryside; the way things seemed to carry on as they had before. “Even as when someone dies, one is amazed that the poplars should still be standing quite unaware of one’s own disaster, so when I walked down to the lake to bathe, I could scarcely believe that the swans were being sincere in their indifference to the Second German War.”

Source: Harold Nicolson, Diaries and Letters 1939–1945, ed. Nigel Nicolson (1967), p. 30

Dangerous Driver

Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris photographed at his desk

1943: The area bombing of German cities and the people in them was inextricably linked to Arthur Harris, the head of RAF Bomber Command. Harris was very energetic, very forceful, very blunt. When stopped late one night for driving his Bentley at high speed, the policeman rebuked him: “You might have killed somebody, sir.” To which Harris replied: “Young man, I kill thousands of people every night!”

Source: Max Hastings, Bomber Command (1979), p. 135

Giveaway Vegetable

1942: The poet Robert Graves, living in south Devon, had his application to join the special constabulary blocked by the village policeman. Three reasons: first, because of Graves’s suspicious German middle name, von Ranke: second, because Graves had been heard “talking a foreign language to two disreputable foreigners” – refugees from Franco’s Spain, as it happened; and third, because someone had scratched the words HEIL HITLER! on a marrow in his garden.

Source: Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1982), p. 281

Peace In Wartime

1941: “You hear people say that fishing is a waste of time,” wrote the novelist and keen angler H.E. Bates. “Can time be wasted?” he pondered. “In a hundred years it will not matter much whether on a June day in 1941 I fished for perch or devoted the same time to acquiring greater learning by studying the works of Aristotle, of which, anyway, I have no copy. The day is very hot, and there are thousands of golden-cream roses blooming on the house wall in the sun. Perhaps someone will be glad that I described them, sitting as I am forty miles from the German lines at Calais. Perhaps someone will wonder then at the stoicism, the indifference, the laziness or the sheer lack of conscience of someone who thought roses and fish of at least as much importance as tanks and bombs.”

Source: H.E. Bates, The Country Heart (1949), p. 30

When Writers Meet

1945: War correspondent George Orwell was delighted to find that Ernest Hemingway was staying at the same hotel in Paris. The two men had never met. Orwell went up to Hemingway’s room and knocked. A voice bellowed at him to come in. He opened the door and said sheepishly, “I’m Eric Blair.” The American was standing on the other side of the bed, packing suitcases. “Well, what the –ing hell do you want?” he shouted. Orwell spoke again. “I’m George Orwell.” Hemingway pushed the suitcases to the end of the bed. “Why the –ing hell didn’t you say so? Have a drink. Have a double.”

Source: Paul Potts, Dante Called You Beatrice (1960), p. 82

First Things First

1944: Able Seaman Ken Oakley’s job on D-Day was to organise the men and machines disgorged from landing craft at Sword beach. “More and more craft were coming in continuously, and I was directing them. The trouble was, when the soldiers came ashore, their first reaction was, ‘Let’s group up and have a little check, and then we’ll have a cup of tea.’ ”

Source: Max Arthur, Forgotten Voices of the Second World War (2004), pp. 314–15

“The Smallest Children Lay Like Fried Eels”

1943: Operation Gomorrah was the code name for British and American air raids that inflicted biblical destruction (“brimstone and fire from . . . out of heaven”) on Hamburg.

For 10 days the bombers returned again and again. In the early hours of 28 July, incendiary bombs unleashed a firestorm in the densely populated city. Many thousands of people perished in many hideous ways: sucked into blazing buildings by hurricane-force winds; torched by blizzards of sparks; trapped and suffocated in basement shelters; stuck fast in melted asphalt on the roads.

Their bodies, charred and shrivelled by the intense heat, piled up in the cellars and littered the streets. “How terribly must these people have died,” lamented one woman. “The smallest children lay like fried eels on the pavement.”

Source: Martin Middlebrook, The Battle of Hamburg: Allied Bomber Forces against a German City in 1943 (1980), chap. 15

Devastated residential and commercial buildings in the Eilbek district of Hamburg.

Devastated residential and commercial buildings in the Eilbek district of Hamburg, viewed by a Royal Air Force photographer

Mice Disable Panzers

1942: As the battle for Stalingrad reached its climax, both sides hurled men and machines into the fray. West of the city, though, the German 22nd Panzer Division didn’t budge; its tank engines wouldn’t start. Not because of harsh weather, or Soviet sabotage, but because field mice had sneaked into the tanks and nibbled through the electrical insulation.

Source: Henry Metelmann, Through Hell for Hitler (2003), p. 114

Dirty Tricks In French Rugby

1941: Rugby union and rugby league have never seen fully eye to eye. In France, rugby union slumped in popularity in the 1930s as spectators deserted it for the newly introduced rugby league.

Following the military defeat of France in 1940, rugby union stooped to dirty tricks against its sporting rival. Officials lobbied the Vichy government, and in December 1941 rugby league was banned.

Although rugby league was rehabilitated after the downfall of Pétain, it never recovered its prewar vitality and remains a minority sport.

Source: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interdiction_du_rugby_à_XIII_en_France

Caught On The Hop

1940: The speed with which the Wehrmacht lunged across northern France caught P.G. Wodehouse on the hop; he was trapped in his villa at Le Touquet.

Two months later, the Germans decided to intern all enemy males under the age of 60. Wodehouse was given ten minutes to pack. Ethel, his wife, went “nearly insane” and couldn’t find the keys for the room with the suitcase. Plum went into captivity equipped with “a copy of Shakespeare, a pair of pajamas, and a mutton chop”.

Source: P.G. Wodehouse, P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, ed. Sophie Ratcliffe (2011), p. 295

Toilet Training

1939: As war loomed, the British government evacuated more than a million children and mothers from the cities to the countryside. Host families were appalled to find that some of the children lacked proper toilet training. It wasn’t the children’s fault; their parents hadn’t taught them. One Glasgow mother admonished her 6-year-old child: “You dirty thing, messing the lady’s carpet. Go and do it in the corner.”

Source: Richard M. Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (1950), p. 122