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Title:      The Last Enemy
Author:     Richard Hillary
eBook No.:  0501181.txt
Edition:    1
Language:   English
Character set encoding:     Latin-1(ISO-8859-1)--8 bit
Date first posted:          December 2005
Date most recently updated: December 2005

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Title:      The Last Enemy
Author:     Richard Hillary

'The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death'
I Corinthians xv. 26



SEPTEMBER 3 dawned dark and overcast, with a slight breeze ruffling the
waters of the Estuary. Hornchurch aerodrome, twelve miles east of London,
wore its usual morning pallor of yellow fog, lending an added air of
grimness to the dimly silhouetted Spitfires around the boundary. From
time to time a balloon would poke its head grotesquely through the mist
as though looking for possible victims before falling back like some
tired monster.

We came out on to the tarmac at about eight o'clock. During the night our
machines had been moved from the Dispersal Point over to the hangars. All
the machine tools, oil, and general equipment had been left on the far
side of the aerodrome. I was worried. We had been bombed a short time
before, and my plane had been fitted out with a new cockpit hood. This
hood unfortunately would not slide open along its groove; and with a
depleted ground staff and no tools, I began to fear it never would.
Unless it did open, I shouldn't be able to bale out in a hurry if I had
to. Miraculously, 'Uncle George' Denholm, our Squadron Leader, produced
three men with a heavy file and lubricating oil, and the corporal fitter
and I set upon the hood in a fury of haste. We took it turn by turn,
filing and oiling, oiling and filing, until at last the hood began to
move. But agonizingly slowly: by ten o'clock, when the mist had cleared
and the sun was blazing out of a clear sky, the hood was still sticking
firmly half-way along the groove; at ten-fifteen, what I had feared for
the last hour happened. Down the loud-speaker came the emotionless voice
of the controller: '603 Squadron take off and patrol base; you will
receive further orders in the air: 603 Squadron take off as quickly as
you can, please.' As I pressed the starter and the engine roared into
life, the corporal stepped back and crossed his fingers significantly. I
felt the usual sick feeling in the pit of the stomach, as though I were
about to row a race, and then I was too busy getting into position to
feel anything.

Uncle George and the leading section took off in a cloud of dust; Brian
Carbury looked across and put up his thumbs. I nodded and opened up, to
take off for the last time from Hornchurch. I was flying No. 3 in Brian's
section, with Stapme Stapleton on the right: the third section consisted
of only two machines, so that our Squadron strength was eight. We headed
south--east, climbing all out on a steady course. At about 12,000 feet we
came up through the clouds: I looked down and saw them spread out below
me like layers of whipped cream. The sun was brilliant and made it
difficult to see even the next plane when turning. I was peering
anxiously ahead, for the controller had given us warning of at least
fifty enemy fighters approaching very high. When we did first sight them,
nobody shouted, as I think we all saw them at the same moment. They must
have been 500 to 1000 feet above us and coming straight on like a swarm
of locusts. I remember cursing and going automatically into line astern:
the next moment we were in among them and it was each man for himself. As
soon as they saw us they spread out and dived, and the next ten minutes
was a blur of twisting machines and tracer bullets. One Messerschmitt
went down in a sheet of flame on my right, and a Spitfire hurtled past in
a half-roll; I was weaving and turning in a desperate attempt to gain
height, with the machine practically hanging on the airscrew. Then, just
below me and to my left, I saw what I had been praying for--a
Messerschmitt climbing and away from the sun. I closed in to 200 yards,
and from slightly to one side gave him a two-second burst: fabric ripped
off the wing and black smoke poured from the engine, but he did not go
down. Like a fool, I did not break away, but put in another three-second
burst. Red flames shot upwards and he spiralled out of sight. At that
moment, I felt a terrific explosion which knocked the control stick from
my hand, and the whole machine quivered like a stricken animal. In a
second, the cockpit was a mass of flames: instinctively, I reached up to
open the hood. It would not move. I tore off my straps and managed to
force it back; but this took time, and when I dropped back into the seat
and reached for the stick in an effort to turn the plane on its back, the
heat was so intense that I could feel myself going. I remember a second
of sharp agony, remember thinking 'So this is it!' and putting both hands
to my eyes. Then I passed out.

When I regained consciousness I was free of the machine and falling
rapidly. I pulled the rip-cord of my parachute and checked my descent
with a jerk. Looking down, I saw that my left trouser leg was burnt off,
that I was going to fall into the sea, and that the English coast was
deplorably far away. About twenty feet above the water, I attempted to
undo my parachute, failed, and flopped into the sea with it billowing
round me. I was told later that the machine went into a spin at about
25,000 feet and that at 10,000 feet I fell out--unconscious. This may
well have been so, for I discovered later a large cut on the top of my
head, presumably collected while bumping round inside.

The water was not unwarm and I was pleasantly surprised to find that my
life-jacket kept me afloat. I looked at my watch: it was not there. Then,
for the first time, I noticed how burnt my hands were: down to the wrist,
the skin was dead white and hung in shreds: I felt faintly sick from the
smell of burnt flesh. By closing one eye I could see my lips, jutting out
like motor tires. The side of my parachute harness was cutting into me
particularly painfully, so that I guessed my right hip was burnt. I made
a further attempt to undo the harness, but owing to the pain of my hands,
soon desisted. Instead, I lay back and reviewed my position: I was a long
way from land; my hands were burnt, and so, judging from the pain of the
sun, was my face; it was unlikely that anyone on shore had seen me come
down and even more unlikely that a ship would come by; I could float for
possibly four hours in my Mae West. I began to feel that I had perhaps
been premature in considering myself lucky to have escaped from the
machine. After about half an hour my teeth started chattering, and to
quiet them I kept up a regular tuneless chant, varying it from time to
time with calls for help. There can be few more futile pastimes than
yelling for help alone in the North Sea, with a solitary seagull for
company, yet it gave me a certain melancholy satisfaction, for I had once
written a short story in which the hero (falling from a liner) had done
just this. It was rejected.

The water now seemed much colder and I noticed with surprise that the sun
had gone in though my face was still burning. I looked down at my hands,
and not seeing them, realized that I had gone blind. So I was going to
die. It came to me like that--I was going to die, and I was not afraid.
This realization came as a surprise. The manner of my approaching death
appalled and horrified me, but the actual vision of death left me
unafraid: I felt only a profound curiosity and a sense of satisfaction
that within a few minutes or a few hours I was to learn the great answer.
I decided that it should be in a few minutes. I had no qualms about
hastening my end and, reaching up, I managed to unscrew the valve of my
Mae West. The air escaped in a rush and my head went under water. It is
said by people who have all but died in the sea that drowning is a
pleasant death. I did not find it so. I swallowed a large quantity of
water before my head came up again, but derived little satisfaction from
it. I tried again, to find that I could not get my face under. I was so
enmeshed in my parachute that I could not move. For the next ten minutes,
I tore my hands to ribbons on the spring-release catch. It was stuck
fast. I lay back exhausted, and then I started to laugh. By this time I
was probably not entirely normal and I doubt if my laughter was wholly
sane, but there was something irresistibly comical in my grand gesture of
suicide being so simply thwarted.

Goethe once wrote that no one, unless he had led the full life and
realized himself completely, had the right to take his own life.
Providence seemed determined that I should not incur the great man's

It is often said that a dying man re-lives his whole life in one rapid
kaleidoscope. I merely thought gloomily of the Squadron returning, of my
mother at home, and of the few people who would miss me. Outside my
family, I could count them on the fingers of one hand. What did gratify
me enormously was to find that I indulged in no frantic abasements or
prayers to the Almighty. It is an old jibe of God-fearing people that the
irreligious always change their tune when about to die: I was pleased to
think that I was proving them wrong. Because I seemed to be in for an
indeterminate period of waiting, I began to feel a terrible loneliness
and sought for some means to take my mind off my plight. I took it for
granted that I must soon become delirious, and I attempted to hasten the
process: I encouraged my mind to wander vaguely and aimlessly, with the
result that I did experience a certain peace. But when I forced myself to
think of something concrete, I found that I was still only too lucid. I
went on shuttling between the two with varying success until I was picked
up. I remember as in a dream hearing somebody shout: it seemed so far
away and quite unconnected with me...

Then willing arms were dragging me over the side; my parachute was taken
off (and with such ease!); a brandy flask was pushed between my swollen
lips; a voice said, 'O.K., Joe, it's one of ours and still kicking'; and
I was safe. I was neither relieved nor angry: I was past caring.

It was to the Margate lifeboat that I owed my rescue. Watchers on the
coast had seen me come down, and for three hours they had been searching
for me. Owing to wrong directions, they were just giving up and turning
back for land when ironically enough one of them saw my parachute. They
were then fifteen miles east of Margate.

While in the water I had been numb and had felt very little pain. Now
that I began to thaw out, the agony was such that I could have cried out.
The good fellows made me as comfortable as possible, put up some sort of
awning to keep the sun from my face, and phoned through for a doctor. It
seemed to me to take an eternity to reach shore. I was put into an
ambulance and driven rapidly to hospital. Through all this I was quite
conscious, though unable to see. At the hospital they cut off my uniform,
I gave the requisite information to a nurse about my next of kin, and
then, to my infinite relief, felt a hypodermic syringe pushed into my

I can't help feeling that a good epitaph for me at that moment would have
been four lines of Verlaine:

Quoique sans patrie et sans roi,
Et trs brave ne l'tant guere,
J'ai voulu mourir a la guerre.
La mort n'a pas voulu de moi.

The foundations of an experience of which this crash was, if not the
climax, at least the turning point were laid in Oxford before the war.



Under the Munich Umbrella

OXFORD has been called many names, from 'the city of beautiful nonsense'
to 'an organized waste of time,' and it is characteristic of the place
that the harsher names have usually been the inventions of the
University's own undergraduates. I had been there two years and was not
yet twenty-one when the war broke out. No one could say that we were, in
my years, strictly 'politically minded.' At the same time it would be
false to suggest that the University was blissfully unaware of impending
disaster. True, one could enter anybody's rooms and within two minutes be
engaged in a heated discussion over orthodox versus Fairbairn rowing, or
whether Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot was the daddy of contemporary poetry,
while an impassioned harangue on liberty would be received in embarrassed
silence. Nevertheless, politics filled a large space. That humorous
tradition of Oxford verbosity, the Union, held a political debate every
week; Conservative, Labour, and even Liberal clubs flourished; and the
British Union of Fascists had managed to raise a back room and
twenty-four members.

But it was not to the political societies and meetings that one could
look for a representative view of the pre-war undergraduate. Perhaps as
good a cross-section of opinion and sentiment as any at Oxford was to be
found in Trinity, the college where I spent those two years rowing a
great deal, flying a little--I was a member of the University Air
Squadron--and reading somewhat. We were a small college of less than two
hundred, but a successful one. We had the president of the Rugby Club,
the secretary of the Boat Club, numerous golf, hockey, and running Blues
and the best cricketer in the University. We also numbered among us the
president of the Dramatic Society, the editor of the Isis (the University
magazine), and a small but select band of scholars. The sentiment of the
college was undoubtedly governed by the more athletic undergraduates, and
we radiated an atmosphere of alert Philistinism. Apart from the scholars,
we had come up from the so-called better public schools, from Eton,
Shrewsbury, Wellington, and Winchester, and while not the richest
representatives of the University, we were most of us comfortably enough
off. Trinity was, in fact, a typical incubator of the English ruling
classes before the war. Most of those with Blues were intelligent enough
to get second-class honours in whatever subject they were 'reading,' and
could thus ensure themselves entry into some branch of the Civil or
Colonial Service, unless they happened to be reading Law, in which case
they were sure to have sufficient private means to go through the lean
years of a beginner's career at the Bar or in politics. We were held
together by a common taste in friends, sport, literature, and idle
amusement, by a deep-rooted distrust of all organized emotion and
standardized patriotism, and by a somewhat self-conscious satisfaction in
our ability to succeed without apparent effort. I went up for my first
term, determined, without over-exertion, to row myself into the
Government of the Sudan, that country of blacks ruled by Blues in which
my father had spent so many years. To our scholars (except the Etonians)
we scarcely spoke; not, I think, from plain snobbishness, but because we
found we did not speak the same language. Through force of circumstance
they had to work hard; they had neither the time nor the money to
cultivate the dilettante browsing which we affected. As a result they
tended to be martial in their enthusiasms, whether pacifistic or
patriotic. They were earnest, technically knowing, and conversationally

Not that conversationally Trinity had any great claim to distinction. To
speak brilliantly was not to be accepted at once as indispensable; indeed
it might prove a handicap, giving rise to suspicions of artiness. It
would be tolerated as an idiosyncrasy because of one's prowess at golf,
cricket, or some other college sport that proved one's all-rightness. For
while one might be clever, on no account must one be unconventional or
disturbing--above all disturbing. The scholars' conversation might well
have been disturbing. Their very presence gave one the uneasy suspicion
that in even so small a community as this while one half thought the
world was their oyster, the other half knew it was not and never could
be. Our attitude will doubtless strike the reader as reprehensible and
snobbish, but I believe it to have been basically a suspicion of anything
radical--any change, and not a matter of class distinction. For a man
from any walk of life, were he athletic rather than aesthetic, was
accepted by the college at once, if he was a decent sort of fellow.
Snobbish or not, our attitude was essentially English.

Let us say, therefore, that it was an unconscious appreciation of the
simple things of life, an instinctive distrust of any form of adopted
aestheticism as insincere.

We had in Trinity several clubs and societies of which, typically, the
Dining Club was the most exclusive and the Debating Society the most
puerile. Outside the college, the clubs to which we belonged were mostly
of a sporting nature, for though some of us in our first year had joined
political societies, our enthusiasm soon waned. As for the Union, though
we were at first impressed by its great past, and prepared to be amused
and possibly instructed by its discussions, we were soon convinced of its
fatuity, which exceeded that of the average school debating society.

It was often said that the President of Trinity would accept no one as a
Commoner in his college who was not a landowner. This was an
exaggeration, but one which the dons were not unwilling to foster. Noel
Agazarian, an Armenian friend of mine in another college, once told me
that he had been proposed for Trinity, but that the President had written
back to his head master regretting that the College could not accept Mr.
Agazarian, and pointing out that in 1911, when the last coloured
gentleman had been at Trinity, it had really proved most unfortunate.

We were cliquy, extremely limited in our horizon, quite conscious of the
fact, and in no way dissatisfied about it. We knew that war was imminent.
There was nothing we could do about it. We were depressed by a sense of
its inevitability but we were not patriotic. While lacking any political
training, we were convinced that we had been needlessly led into the
present world crisis, not by unscrupulous rogues, but worse, by the
bungling of a crowd of incompetent old fools. We hoped merely that when
war came it might be fought with a maximum of individuality and a minimum
of discipline.

Though still outwardly complacent and successful, there was a very
definite undercurrent of dissatisfaction and frustration amongst nearly
everyone I knew during my last year.

Frank Waldron had rowed No. 6 in the Oxford Crew. He stood six-foot-three
and had an impressive mass of snow-white hair. Frank was not
unintelligent and he was popular. In my first year he had been president
of the Junior Common Room. The girls pursued him but he affected to
prefer drink. In point of fact he was unsure of himself and was searching
for someone to put on a pedestal. He had great personality and an
undeveloped character. Apart from myself, he was the laziest though most
stylish oarsman in the University, but he was just that much better to
get away with it. He did a minimum of work, knowing that it was essential
to get a second if he wished to enter the Civil Service, but always
finding some plausible argument to convince himself that the various
distractions of life were necessities.

I mention Frank here, because, though a caricature, he was in a way
representative of a large number of similarly situated young men. He had
many unconscious imitators who, because they had not the same prowess or
personality, showed up as the drifting shadows that they were.

The seed of self-destruction among the more intellectual members of the
University was even more evident. Despising the middle-class society to
which they owed their education and position, they attacked it, not with
vigour but with an adolescent petulance. They were encouraged in this by
their literary idols, by their unquestioning allegiance to Auden,
Isherwood, Spender, and Day Lewis. With them they affected a dilettante
political leaning to the left. Thus, while refining to be confined by the
limited outlook of their own class, they were regarded with suspicion by
the practical exponents of labour as bourgeois, idealistic, pink in their
politics and pale-grey in their effectiveness. They balanced precariously
and with irritability between a despised world they had come out of and a
despising world they couldn't get into. The result, in both their
behaviour and their writing, was an inevitable concentration on self, a
turning-in on themselves, a breaking-down and not a building-up. To build
demanded enthusiasm, and that one could not tolerate. Of this leaning was
a friend of mine in another college by the name of David Rutter. He was
different not so much in that he was sincere as in that he was a

'Modern patriotism,' he would say, 'is a false emotion. In the Middle
Ages they had the right idea. All that a man cared about was his family
and his own home on the village green. It was immaterial to him who was
ruling the country and what political opinions held sway. Wars were no
concern of his.' His favourite quotation was the remark of Joan's father
in Schiller's drama on the Maid of Orleans, 'Lasst uns still gehorchend
harren wem uns Gott zum Kng gibt,' which he would translate for me as,
'Let us trust obediently in the king God sends us.'

'Then,' he would go on, 'came the industrial revolution. People had to
move to the cities. They ceased to live on the land. Meanwhile our
country, by being slightly more unscrupulous than anyone else, was
obtaining colonies all over the world. Later came the popular press, and
we have been exhorted ever since to love not only our own country, but
vast tracts of land and people in the Empire whom we have never seen and
never wish to see.'

I would then ask him to explain the emotion one always feels when, after
a long time abroad, the South Coast express steams into Victoria Station.
'False, quite false,' he would say; 'you're a sentimentalist.' I was
inclined to agree with him. 'Furthermore,' he would say, 'when this war
comes, which, thanks to the benighted muddling of our Government, come it
must, whose war is it going to be? You can't tell me that it will be the
same war for the unemployed labourer as for the Duke of Westminster. What
are the people to gain from it? Nothing!'

But though his arguments against patriotism were intellectual, his
pacifism was emotional. He had a completely sincere hatred of violence
and killing, and the spectacle of army chaplains wearing field boots
under the surplice revolted him.

At this time I was stroking one of the trial crews for the Oxford boat
just previous to being thrown out for 'lack of enthusiasm and
co-operation.' I was also on the editorial staff of the University
magazine. David Rutter once asked me how I could reconcile heartiness
with aestheticism in my nature. 'You're like a man who hires two taxis
and runs between,' he said. 'What are you going to do when the war

I told him that as I was already in the University Air Squadron I should
of course join the Air Force. 'In the first place,' I said, 'I shall get
paid and have good food. Secondly, I have none of your sentiments about
killing, much as I admire them. In a fighter plane, I believe, we have
found a way to return to war as it ought to be, war which is individual
combat between two people, in which one either kills or is killed. It's
exciting, it's individual, and it's disinterested. I shan't be sitting
behind a long-range gun working out how to kill people sixty miles away.
I shan't get maimed: either I shall get killed or I shall get a few
pleasant putty medals and enjoy being stared at in a night club. Your
unfortunate convictions, worthy as they are, will get you at best a few
white feathers, and at worst locked up.'

'Thank God,' said David, 'that I at least have the courage of my

I said nothing, but secretly I admired him. I was by now in a difficult
position. I no longer wished to go to the Sudan; I wished to write; but
to stop rowing and take to hard work when so near a Blue seemed absurd.
Now in France or Germany one may announce at an early age that one
intends to write, and one's family reconciles itself to the idea, if not
with enthusiasm at least with encouragement. Not so in England. To
impress writing as a career on one's parents one must be specific. I was.
I announced my intention of becoming a journalist. My family was
sceptical, my mother maintaining that I could never bring myself to live
on thirty shillings a week, which seemed to her my probable salary for
many years to come, while my father seemed to feel that I was in need of
a healthier occupation. But my mind was made up. I could not see myself
as an empire-builder and I managed to become sports editor of the
University magazine. I dared not let myself consider the years out of my
life, first at school, and now at the University, which had been sweated
away upon the river, earnestly peering one way and going the other.
Unfortunately, rowing was the only accomplishment in which I could get
credit for being slightly better than average. I was in a dilemma, but I
need not have worried. My state of mind was not conducive to good
oarsmanship and I was removed from the crew. This at once irritated me
and I made efforts to get back, succeeding only in wasting an equal
amount of time and energy in the second crew for a lesser amount of

Mentally, too, I felt restricted. It was not intellectual snobbery, but I
felt the need sometimes to eat, drink, and think something else than
rowing. I had a number of intelligent and witty friends; but a permanent
oarsman's residence at either Putney or Henley gave me small opportunity
to enjoy their company. Further, the more my training helped my
mechanical perfection as an oarsman, the more it deadened my mind to an
appreciation of anything but red meat and a comfortable bed. I made a
determined effort to spend more time on the paper, and as a result did no
reading for my degree. Had the war not broken, I fear I should have made
a poor showing in my finals. This did not particularly worry me, as a
degree seemed to me the least important of the University's offerings.
Had I not been chained to my oar, I should have undoubtedly read more,
though not, I think, for my degree. As it was, I read fairly widely, and,
more important, learned a certain savoir-faire; learned how much I could
drink, how not to be gauche with women, how to talk to people without
being aggressive or embarrassed, and gained a measure of confidence which
would have been impossible for me under any other form of education.

I had the further advantage of having travelled. When very young I had
lived abroad, and every vacation from school and the University I had
utilized to visit the Continent. It is maintained by some that travel has
no educational value, that a person with sensibility can gain as rich an
experience of life by staying right where he is as by wandering around
the world, and that a person with no sensibility may as well remain at
home anyway. To me this is nonsense, for if one is a bore, I maintain
that it is better to be a bore about Peshawar than Upper Tooting. I was
more fortunate than some of my friends, for I knew enough French and
German to be able to move about alone; whereas my friends, though they
were not insular, tended to travel in organized groups, either to
Switzerland for skiing in winter or to Austria for camping in summer.

It was on one of these organized trips that Frank Waldron and I went to
Germany and Hungary shortly before the war. Frank was no keener on
organized groups than I, but we both felt the urge to travel abroad again
before it was too late, and we had worked out the cheapest way of doing
so. We wrote to the German and Hungarian Governments expressing the hope
that we might be allowed to row in their respective countries. They
replied that they would be delighted, sent us the times of their regattas
(which we very well knew), and expressed the wish that they might be
allowed to pay our expenses. We wrote back with appropriate surprise and
gratification, and having collected eight others, on July 3, 1938, we set

Half of us went by car and half by train, but we contrived somehow to
arrive in Bad Ems together, two days before the race. We were to row for
General Goering's Prize Fours. They had originally been the Kaiser Fours,
and the gallant General had taken them over.

We left our things at the hotel where we were to stay and took a look at
the town which, with its mass of green trees rising in a sheer sweep on
either side of the river, made an enchanting picture. Down at the
boathouse we had our first encounter with Popeye. He was the local coach
and had been a sergeant-major in the last war. With his squat muscled
body, his toothless mouth sucking a pipe, the inevitable cap over one
eye, his identity was beyond dispute. Popeye was to prove our one
invaluable ally. He was very proud of his English though we never
discovered where he learned it. After expressing a horrified surprise
that we had not brought our own boat, he was full of ideas for helping

'Mr. Waldron,' he said, 'I fix you right up tomorrow this afternoon. You
see, I get you boat.'

The next day saw the arrival of several very serious-looking crews and a
host of supporters, but no boat. Again we went to Popeye.

'Ah, gentlemen,' he said. 'My wife, she drunk since two years but
tomorrow she come.'

We hoped he meant the boat. Fortunately he did, and while leaky and low
in the water, it was still a boat and we were mighty relieved to see it.
By this time we were regarded with contemptuous amusement by the
elegantly turned-out German crews. They came with car-loads of supporters
and set, determined faces. Shortly before the race we walked down to the
changing-rooms to get ready. All five German crews were lying flat on
their backs on mattresses, great brown stupid-looking giants, taking deep
breaths. It was all very impressive. I was getting out of my shirt when
one of them came up and spoke to me, or rather harangued me, for I had no
chance to say anything. He had been watching us, he said, and could only
come to the conclusion that we were thoroughly representative of a
decadent race. No German crew would dream of appearing so lackadaisical
if rowing in England: they would train and they would win. Losing this
race might not appear very important to us, but I could rest assured that
the German people would not fail to notice and learn from our defeat.

I suggested that it might be advisable to wait until after the race
before shooting his mouth off, but he was not listening. It was Popeye
who finally silenced him by announcing that we would win. This caused a
roar of laughter and everyone was happy again. As Popeye was our one and
only supporter, we taught him to shout 'You got to go, boys, you got to
go.' He assured us that we would hear him.

Looking back, this race was really a surprisingly accurate pointer to the
course of the war. We were quite untrained, lacked any form of
organization and were really quite hopelessly casual. We even arrived
late at the start, where all five German crews were lined up, eager to
go. It was explained to us that we would be started in the usual manner;
the starter would call out 'Are you ready?' and if nobody shouted or
raised his hand he would fire a gun and we would be off. We made it clear
that we understood and came forward expectantly. 'Are you ready?' called
the starter. Beside us there was a flurry of oars and all five German
crews were several lengths up the river. We got off to a very shaky start
and I can't ever remember hearing that gun fired. The car-loads of German
supporters were driving slowly along either bank yelling out
encouragement to their respective crews in a regulated chant while we
rowed in silence, till about quarter-way up the course and above all the
roaring and shouting on the banks I heard Popeye: 'You got to go, boys,
you got to go. All my dough she is on you.' I looked up to see Popeye
hanging from a branch on the side of the river, his anxious face almost
touching the water. When Frank took one hand off his oar and waved to
him, I really thought the little man was going to fall in. As we came up
to the bridge that was the half-way mark we must have been five lengths
behind; but it was at that moment that somebody spat on us. It was a
tactical error. Sammy Stockton, who was stroking the boat, took us up the
next half of the course as though pursued by all the fiends in hell and
we won the race by two-fifths of a second. General Goering had to
surrender his cup and we took it back with us to England. It was a gold
shell-case mounted with the German eagle and disgraced our rooms in
Oxford for nearly a year until we could stand it no longer and sent it
back through the German Embassy. I always regret that we didn't put it to
the use which its shape suggested. It was certainly an unpopular win. Had
we shown any sort of enthusiasm or given any impression that we had
trained they would have tolerated it, but as it was they showed merely a
sullen resentment.

Two days later we went on to Budapest. Popeye, faithful to the end,
collected a dog-cart and took all our luggage to the station. We shook
the old man's hand and thanked him for all he had done.

'Promise me one thing, Popeye,' said Frank, 'when the war comes you won't
shoot any of us.'

'Ah, Mr. Waldron,' he replied, 'you must not joke of these things. I
never shoot you, we are brothers. It is those Frenchies we must shoot.
The Tommies, they are good fellows, I remember. We must never fight

As the train drew out of the station he stood, a tiny stocky figure,
waving his cap until we finally steamed round the bend. We wrote to him
later, but he never replied.

We were greeted at Budapest by a delegation. As I stepped on to the
platform, a grey-haired man came forward and shook my hand.

'My dear sir,' he said, 'we are very happy to welcome you to our country.

'Good-bye,' I said, introducing him rapidly to the others, half of whom
were already climbing back into the train.

We were put up at the Palatinus Hotel on St. Margaret's Island where
Frank's antiquated Alvis created a sensation. Members of our party had
been dropping off all the way across Europe and it was only by a constant
stream of cables and a large measure of luck that we finally mustered
eight people in Budapest, where we found to our horror that we had been
billed all over town as the Oxford University Crew. Our frame of mind was
not improved by the discovery that we had two eights races in the same
day, the length of the Henley course, and that we were to be opposed by
four Olympic crews. It was so hot it was only possible to row very early
in the morning or in the cool of the evening. The Hungarians made sure we
had so many official dinners that evening rowing was impossible, and the
food was so good and the wines so potent that early-morning exercise was
out of the question. Further, the Danube, far from being blue, turned out
to be a turbulent brown torrent that made the Tideway seem like a mill-pond
in comparison. Out in midstream half-naked giants, leaning over the side
of anchored barges, hung on to the rudder to prevent us being carried
off downstream before the start. We had to keep our blades above the
water until they let go for fear that the stream would tear them out of
our hands. Then at the last moment, Sammy Stockton, the one member of
our rather temperamental crew who could be relied upon never to show any
temperament, turned pale-green. A combination of heat, goulash, and
Tokay had proved too much for him and he came up to the start a very
sick man. Once again we were pinning all our faith on our Four, as the
eight in the bows had an air of uncoordinated individualism. We were
three-quarters of the way down the course and still in front, when John
Garton, who was steering, ran into the boat on our left. There was an
immediate uproar of which we understood not one word, but it was, alas,
impossible to misconstrue the meaning of the umpire's arm pointing
firmly back towards the start. Once again we battled upstream and turned
around with a sense of foreboding. Again we were off, half-way down the
course and still ahead: a faint hope began to flutter in my agonized
stomach, but it was not to be. The spirit was willing but the flesh was
weak. Behind me I heard Sammy let out a whistling sigh like a pricked
balloon and the race was over. The jubilation of the Hungarians was
tempered by the fact that our defeat nearly caused a crisis, for at the
Mayor's banquet that night we were to be presented with medals struck in
honour of our victory, and it was doubtful whether any others could be
manufactured in time. But they were. The evening passed off admirably.
Frank rose to his feet and delivered a speech in fluent if ungrammatical
German. He congratulated the Hungarians on their victory, apologized
for, but did not excuse our defeat and thanked them for their excellent
hospitality. There were, fortunately, no repercussions apart from a
cartoon in the Pesti Hirlap, showing eight people in a boat looking over
their left shoulders at a naked girl in a skiff with the caption
underneath: 'Why Oxford Lost?'

The others returned to England shortly afterwards, but I stayed on an
extra month with some people I knew who had an estate at Vecses about
twelve miles out of Budapest. They were Jews, and even then very careful
about holding large parties or being in any way publicized for fear of
giving a handle to the Nazi sympathizers in the Government. With them I
travelled all around Hungary and found everywhere an atmosphere of
medieval feudalism: most of the small towns and villages were peopled
entirely by peasants, apart from a bored army garrison. In Budapest there
was a sincere liking for the English tempered by an ever-present memory
of the Treaty of Trianon, and a very genuine dislike of the Germans; but
there was a general resignation to the inevitability of a Nazi affiance
for geographical reasons. Any suggestion that there was still time for a
United Balkans to put up a solid front as a counter to German Influence
was waved aside. The Hungarians were a proud race; what had they in
common with the upstart barbarians who surrounded them and who had so
cynically carved up their country?

I left with a genuine regret and advice from the British Embassy not to
leave the train anywhere on the way through Germany.

Before the outbreak of the war I made two more trips abroad, each to
France. As soon as I got back from Hungary I collected the car and
motored through Brittany. My main object was, I must admit, food. I saw
before me possibly years of cold mutton, boiled potatoes, and Brussels
sprouts, and the lure of one final diet of cognac at fourpence a glass,
oysters, coq-au-vin, and souffles drew me like a magnet. I motored out
through Abbeville, Rouen, Rennes, and Quimper and ended up at Beg Meil, a
small fishing village on the east coast, where between rich meals of
impossible cheapness and nights of indigestion and remorse I talked with
the people. Everywhere there was the same resignation, the same
it's-on-the-way-but-what-the-hell attitude. I was in Rouen on the night
of Hitler's final speech before Munich. The hysterical 'Sieg Heils!' of
his audience were picked up by the loud-speakers throughout the streets,
and sounded strangely unreal in the quiet evening of the cathedral city.
The French said nothing, merely listening in silence and then dispersing
with a shrug of their shoulders. The walls were plastered with calling-up
notices and the stations crowded with uniforms. There was no excitement.
It was as though a very tired old man was bestirring himself for a
long-expected and unwelcome appointment.

I got back to England on the day of the Munich Conference; the boat was
crowded and several cars were broken as they were hauled on board. The
French seemed to resent our going.

During 'peace in our time' I made my final trip. The Oxford and Cambridge
crews were invited to Cannes to row on the bay and I had the enviable
position of spare man. Caf society was there in force; there were
fireworks, banquets at Juan-les-Pins, battles of flowers at Nice, and a
general air of all being for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
We stayed at the Carlton, bathed at Eden Rock and spent most of the night
in the Casino. We gave a dinner for the Mayor which ended with Frank and
the guest of honour rolled together in the tablecloth singing quite
un-intelligible ditties, much to the surprise of the more sober diners.
We emerged from some night club at seven o'clock on the morning of our
departure with a bare half-hour left to catch our plane. Over the doorway
a Union Jack and a Tricolor embraced each other in a rather tired entente
cordiale. Frank seized the Tricolor and waved it gaily above his head. At
that moment the smallest Frenchman I've ever seen rushed after us and
clutched hold of Frank's retreating coat-tails.

'Mais, non, non, non!' he screeched.

'Mais, oui, oui, oui, my little man,' said Frank, and, disengaging
himself, he belaboured the fellow over the head with the emblem of his
Fatherland and cantered off down the road, to appear twenty minutes later
on the airport, a sponge bag in one hand and the Tricolor still firmly
clasped in the other.

This, then, was the Oxford Generation which on September 3, 1939, went to
war. I have of necessity described that part of the University with which
I came in contact and which was particularly self-sufficient, but I
venture to think that we differed little in essentials from the majority
of young men with a similar education. We were disillusioned and spoiled.
The press referred to us as the Lost Generation and we were not
displeased. Superficially we were selfish and egocentric without any Holy
Grail in which we could lose ourselves. The war provided it, and in a
delightfully palatable form. It demanded no heroics, but gave us the
opportunity to demonstrate in action our dislike of organized emotion and
patriotism, the opportunity to prove to ourselves and to the world that
our effete veneer was not as deep as our dislike of interference, the
opportunity to prove that, undisciplined though we might be, we were a
match for Hitler's dogma-fed youth.

For myself, I was glad for purely selfish reasons. The war solved all
problems of a career, and promised a chance of self-realization that
would normally take years to achieve. As a fighter pilot I hoped for a
concentration of amusement, fear, and exaltation which it would be
impossible to experience in any other form of existence.

I was not disappointed.

September 3, 1939, fell during the long vacation, and all of us in the
University Air Squadron reported that day to the Volunteer Reserve Centre
at Oxford. I drove up from Beacons field in the late afternoon and
discovered with the rest that we had made a mistake: the radio calling-up
notice had referred only to ground crews and not to pilots. Instead of
going home, I went along with Frank to his old rooms and we settled down
to while away the evening.

Frank was then twenty-five and had just finished his last year. We had
both rowed more than we had flown, and would have a lot to learn about
flying. The walls of Frank's rooms were covered with oars, old prints,
and the photographs of one or two actresses whom we had known: outside
there was black-out and the noise of marching feet. We said little.
Through that window there came to us, with an impact that was a shock, a
breath of the new life we were to be hurled into. There was a heavy
silence in the air that was ominous. I was moved, full of new and rather
awed emotions. I wanted to say something but could not. I felt a curious
constraint. At that moment there was a loud banging on the door, and we
started up: outside stood a policeman. We knew him well.

'I might have known,' he said, 'that it would be you two.'

'Good evening, Rogers,' said Frank. 'Surely no complaints. Term hasn't
begun yet.'

'No, Mr. Waldron, but the war has. Just take a look at your window.'

We looked up. A brilliant shaft of light was illuminating the street for
fifty yards on either side of the house. Not a very auspicious start to
our war careers.


Before Dunkirk

FOR some time we reported regularly every fortnight to the Air Centre at
Oxford, where we were paid a handsome sum of money and told to stand by.
Then we were drafted to an initial Training Wing. We were marched from
the station to various colleges and I found myself supplied with a straw
bed and command of a platoon. My fellow sergeants were certainly tough:
they were farmers, bank clerks, estate agents, representatives of every
class and calling, and just about the nicest bunch of men it has ever
been my lot to meet. There could have been few people less fitted to
drill them than I, but by a system of the majority vote we overcame most
of our difficulties. If ignorant of on what foot to give a command, I
would have a stand-easy and take a show of hands. The idea worked
admirably and whenever an officer appeared our platoon was a model of
efficiency. We never saw an aeroplane and seldom attended a lecture: This
was the pre-Dunkirk 'phoney war' period, but life was not dull. Soon
afterwards I was commissioned on the score of my proficiency certificate
in the University Air Squadron, and was moved to another Wing. Here I
found myself amongst many old friends.

Frank Waldron was there, Noel Agazarian, and Michael Judd, also of the
University Squadron. Michael thought and felt as egocentrically as I did
about everything, but his reaction to the war was different. It did not
fit into his plans, for he had just won a travelling fellowship at All
Souls: to him the war was in fact a confounded nuisance. Although we were
officers, route marches were nevertheless obligatory for us; but by some
odd chance Frank and Noel and I always seemed to be in the last section
of threes on the march. Prominent and eager at the start, we were somehow
never to be seen by the end. London, I fear, accounted for more than
enough of our time and money. That our behaviour was odd and
uncooperative did not occur to us, or if it did, caused us few pangs. We
had joined the Air Force to fly, and not to parade around like Boy
Scouts. We didn't bother to consider that elementary training might be as
essential as anything that we should learn later, or that a certain
confusion of organization was inevitable at the beginning of the war. We
rented a large room in a hotel and formed a club, pleasantly idling away
six weeks in drinking and playing cards.

Then one day it was announced that we were to move. The news was greeted
with enthusiasm, for while the prospect of flying seemed no nearer, this
station was notoriously gay and seemed a step in the right direction.
There had been pictures in the press of young men diving into the
swimming-pool, of Mr. Wally Hammond leading a parade, and of Len Harvey
and Eddie Phillips boxing. David Douglas-Hamilton, who boxed for England,
and Noel, who boxed for Oxford, were particularly pleased.

I drove down with Frank in his battered old Alvis and reported. We were
billeted in boarding-houses along the front. I had never quite believed
in the legend of seaside boarding-houses, but within two days I was
convinced. There it all was, the heavy smell of Brussels sprouts, the
aspidistras, the slut of a maid with a hole in her black stockings and a
filthy thumb-nail in the soup, the communal table in the dining-room
which just didn't face the sea, the two meals a day served punctually at
one o'clock and seven-thirty.

We found that Nigel Bicknell, Bill Aitken, and Dick Holdsworth had been
billeted in the same boarding-house. The way in which they took the war
deserves to be mentioned.

Nigel was a year or two older than I. He had been editor of the Granta,
the University magazine at Cambridge. From Nigel's behaviour, referred to
a little later, it will be seen that the attitude of Cambridge to the war
was the same as ours. He had had a tentative job on the Daily Express,
and by the outbreak of the war he had laid the foundations of a career.
For him as for Michael Judd, the war was a confounded nuisance.

Bill Aitken was older. He had the Beaverbrook forehead and directness of
approach. He was director of several companies, married, and with
considerably more to lose by joining the R.A.F. as a pilot officer than
any of us. The immediate pettiness of our regulations and our momentary
inactivity brought from him none of the petulant outbursts in which most
of us indulged, nor did he display the same absorption with himself and
what he was to get out of it.

Dick Holdsworth had much the same attitude. He was to me that nothing
short of miraculous combination, a First in Law and a rowing Blue. He too
was several years older than most of us and considerably better
orientated: his good-natured compliance with the most child-like rules
and determined eagerness to gain everything possible from the Course
ensured him the respect of our instructors. But the others were mostly of
my age and it was with no very good grace that we submitted to a
fortnight's pep course.

We went for no more route marches, but drilled vigorously on the pier; we
had no lectures on flying but several on deportment; we were told to get
our hair cut and told of the importance of forming threes for the proper
handling of an aircraft; but of the sporting celebrities we were told
nothing and saw little, until after much pleading a boxing tournament was
arranged. Noel and David both acquitted themselves well, David hitting
Len Harvey harder and more often than the champion expected. We applauded
with suitable enthusiasm, and marched back to the pier for more drill.

At the end of a fortnight our postings to flying training schools came
through and our period of inactivity was over. Dick Holdsworth, Noel,
Peter Howes, and I were to report at a small village on the north-east
coast of Scotland. None of us had ever heard of it, but none of us cared:
as long as we flew it was immaterial to us where. As we were likely to be
together for some months to come, I was relieved to be going with people
whom I both knew and liked. Noel, with his pleasantly ugly face, had been
sent down from Oxford over a slight matter of breaking up his college and
intended reading for the Bar. With an Armenian father and a French mother
he was by nature cosmopolitan, intelligent, and a brilliant linguist, but
an English education had discovered that he was an athlete, and his
University triumphs had been of brawn rather than brain. Of this he was
very well aware and somewhat bewildered by it. These warring elements in
his make-up made him a most amusing companion and a very good friend.
Peter Howes, lanky and of cadaverous good looks, had been reading for a
science degree. With a permanently harassed expression on his face he
could be a good talker, and was never so happy as when, lying back
smoking his pipe, he could expound his theories on sex (of which he knew
very little), on literature (of which he knew more), and on mathematics
(of which he knew a great deal). He was to prove an invaluable asset in
our Wings Exam.

Peter, Noel, and I drove up together. We arrived in the late afternoon of
a raw, cold November day. When we had reported to the Station Adjutant,
Peter drove us down to the little greystone house in the neighbouring
village that was to be our home for many months. Our landlady, a somewhat
bewildered old body, showed us with pride the room in which we were to
sleep. It was cold and without heating. The iron bedsteads stood
austerely in the middle of the room, and an enamelled wash-basin stood in
the corner. An old print hung by the window, and a bewhiskered ancestor
looked stonily at us from over the wash-stand. The room was scrupulously
clean. We assured her that we should be most comfortable, and returned, a
little chastened, to the camp.

At the beginning of the war there was a definite prejudice in the Air
Force against Volunteer Reserve Officers, and we had the added
disadvantage of an Oxford attitude to life. We were expected to be
superior; we were known as week-end pilots; we were known as the
long-haired boys; we were to have the nonsense knocked out of us. When I
say 'we' I don't include Dick Holdsworth. He settled down at once and was
perfectly content: he was obviously willing to cooperate to the full.
Noel, Peter, and I, less mature and more assertive, looked for trouble
and found it. It came in the form of the Chief Ground Instructor, who
took to his task of settling our hash with enthusiasm; but our innate
laziness added to a certain low cunning proved equal to the situation,
and we managed to skip quite a number of morning parades and lectures.
There admittedly can be no excuse for our behaviour, but there is, I
think, an explanation, to be found in the fact that Dunkirk had not come:
the war was still one of tin soldiers and not yet of reality.
Nevertheless, thanks to the fact that we got on well with our co-pilots,
and to Noel's infectious good-humour and lack of affectation, we
gradually settled down to a harmonious relationship with our instructors,
who were willing enough to help as soon as we showed signs of
cooperation. Our lives quickly became a regular routine of flying and
lectures. Dick Holdsworth started in on bombing training, but through
making a nuisance of ourselves we three managed to fly Harvards, American
fighter trainers.

In our flying instructors Noel and I were very lucky. Noel was handed
over to Sergeant Robinson, I to Sergeant White. They were great friends,
and a rivalry immediately began to see who could first make a pilot out
of the unpromising material that we represented. White was a dour,
taciturn little Scot with a dry sense of humour. I liked him at once.

Noel's flying was typical of the man: rough, slap-dash, and with touches
of brilliance. Owing to the complete blank in my mind on the subject of
anything mechanical, I was at first bewildered by the complicated array
of knobs and buttons confronting me in the cockpit. I was convinced that
I might at any moment haul up the under-carriage while still on the
ground, or switch off the engine in the air, out of pure confusion of
mind. However, thanks to the patience and consideration of Sergeant
White, I developed gradually from a mediocre performer to a quite
moderate pilot. For weeks he sat behind me in the rear cockpit muttering,
just loud enough for me to hear, about the bad luck of getting such a bum
for a pupil. Then one day he called down the Inter-Comm., 'Man, you can
fly at last. Now I want you to dust the pants of Agazarian and show our
friend, Sergeant Robinson, that he's not the only one with a pupil that's
not a half-wit.'

My recollection of our Scottish training is a confusion of, in the main,
pleasant memories: Of my first solo cross-country flight, when I nearly
made a forced landing down-wind in a field with a large white house at
the far end. A little red light inside the cockpit started winking at me,
and then the engine cut. The red light continued to shine like a brothel
invitation while I racked my brain to think what was wrong. I was down to
500 feet, and more frightened of making a fool of myself than of
crashing, when I remembered. It was the warning signal for no petrol. I
quickly changed tanks, grateful that there were no spectators of my
stupidity, and flew back, determined to learn my cockpit drill thoroughly
before taking to the air again.

Of my second solo cross-country flight when the engine cut again, this
time due to no fault of mine. Both the magnetos were burned out. I was on
my way back from Wick and flying at about 2000 feet when the engine
spluttered twice and stopped. By the grace of God I was near a small
aerodrome backed by a purple range of mountains and opening on to the
sea. There was no time to make a circuit, so I banked and, feeling
decidedly queasy, put down right across two incoming machines to pull up
six yards from the sea.

Of cloud and formation flying. I shall never forget the first time that I
flew really high, and, looking down, saw wave after wave of white
undulating cloud that stretched for miles in every direction like some
fairy city. I dived along a great canyon; the sun threw the reddish
shadow of the plane on to the cotton-wool walls of white cliff that
towered up on either side. It was intoxicating. I flew on. Soon I could
see nothing and had to rely on my instruments. I did a slow roll. This
was extremely stupid apart from being strictly forbidden. My speed fell
off alarmingly. I pushed the stick forward: the speed fell still further
and I nearly went into a spin. I could not tell whether I was on my back
or right way up, and felt very unhappy. I lost about 2000 feet and came
out of the cloud in a screaming spiral, but still fortunately a long way
above the earth. I straightened up and flew home with another lesson hard

Formation flying was the most popular and exciting part of our training.
At first I was very erratic, perilously close to the leader one minute
and a quarter of a mile away the next. But gradually I began to improve,
and after a few hours I was really enjoying myself. We had a flight
commander who, once we were steady, insisted on us flying in very tight
formation, the wing-tip of the outside machine in line with the roundel
on the leader's fuselage. He was a brave man and it certainly gave us
confidence. Landing was a simple ritual of sign language; undercarriage
down, engine into fine pitch, and flaps down, always without taking one's
eyes off the leader. There was a tendency to drift away slightly before
touching-down, but we invariably landed as close as we dared, even among
ourselves, until one day the C.O. of advanced training stood and watched
us. I think he nearly had a stroke, and from then on we confined our
tight formations to less public parts of the sky.

Of the scenery, which was superb. Many times of an evening I would stand
on the shore and look out to sea, where a curious phosphorescent green
was changing to a transparent blue. Behind the camp the setting sun, like
a flaming ball, painted the mountains purple and gold. The air was like
champagne, and as we were in the Gulf Stream the weather was beautifully
mild. While violent snowstorms were raging in England, we were enjoying
the most perfect flying weather and a day which lasted for nearly
twenty-four hours.

On leave for four days, Noel and I drove across Scotland to the west
coast and took the ferry over to Skye. The small stone quay was spotted
with shops; a bus was drawn up by the waterside, a hotel advertisement on
its side. I looked at Noel and he nodded. We had come prepared to be
disappointed. But we had not driven far before the road gave way to a
winding track and the only signs of habitation were a few crofters'
cottages. It was evening when we drew up outside the Sligachan Inn at the
foot of the Coolin mountains. The innkeeper welcomed us and showed us our
rooms. From every window was the same view, grey mountains rising in
austere beauty, their peaks hidden in a white mist, and everywhere a
great feeling of stillness. The shadows that lengthened across the
valley, the streams that coursed down the rocks, the thin mist turning
now into night, all a part of that stillness. I shivered. Skye was a
world that one would either love or hate; there could be no temporizing.

'It is very beautiful,' said the landlord.

'Yes,' I said, 'it's beautiful.'

'But only mountaineers or fools will climb those peaks.'

'We're both fools,' Noel said shortly.

'So be it. Dinner is at 8.30.'

We stood a while at the window. The night was clear and our heads felt
clear and cold as the air. We smelled the odour of the ground in the
spring after rain and behind us the wood smoke of the pine fire in our
room, and we were content. For these are the odours of nostalgia, spring
mist and wood smoke, and never the scent of a woman or of food.

We were alone in the inn save for one old man who had returned there to
die. His hair was white but his face and bearing were still those of a
mountaineer, though he must have been a great age. He never spoke, but
appeared regularly at meals to take his place at a table tight-pressed
against the window, alone with his wine and his memories. We thought him
rather fine.

In the morning we set off early, warmed by a rare spring sun which soon
dried the dew from the heather. We had decided on Bruach-na-Free, one of
the easier peaks, but it was lunch-time before we reached the base of the
first stiff climb and the muscles in our thighs were already taut. We
rested and ate our sandwiches and drank from a mountain stream. The water
was achingly cold. Then we started to climb. In the morning we had taken
our time and talked, now we moved fast and said nothing. With feet and
hands we forced our way up the lower grey crumbling rock to the wet black
smooth surface, mist-clouded above. There was no friendship in that
climb: neither of us had spoken, but each knew that the other meant to
reach the top first. Once I slipped and dropped back several feet,
cutting open my hand. Noel did not stop; he did not even turn his head. I
would not have forgiven him if he had. Gradually I brought him back.
Nothing disturbed that great stillness but the occasional crash of a
loose stone and the sobbing of our breath. We were no longer going up and
around the face of the mountain but climbing straight. We could see
nothing in the mist, but my thigh muscles were twitching with the strain
and my arms were on fire. Then I felt a cold breeze blowing down on my
upturned face and knew we were near the top. I practically threw myself
up the last few yards, but Noel hung on to his advantage and hauled
himself up the last ledge with a gasp of relief, a second or two before
me. We lay on our backs, and felt the black wet rock cold against us,
felt the deep mist damp against our faces, felt the sweat as it trickled
into our eyes, felt the air in deep gulps within our lungs. The war was
far away and life was very good.

We could see nothing below us, but started off down, jumping and
slithering on the avalanche of rocks that cascaded beside us, making a
great thunder of noise in that deep stillness. We soon felt again the
sun, warm on our faces, and saw below us the bed of a mountain stream
leading away into the distance, and scarcely visible, a mere speck at the
far end, the inn. We did not hesitate to follow the stream, as it was
running low, and we made quite good time until we came to a drop of some
twelve feet where the water fell in a small torrent. This we managed to
negotiate without getting too wet, only to be met a few yards further on
with a sheer drop of some twenty feet. The stream had become a river and
dropped down into a shallow pool some two feet deep. It was impossible to
go back and there was only one way of going on. 'You first,' I said to
Noel. 'Give me your clothes and I'll throw them down to you with mine.'

Now early March is no time for bathing anywhere, but there can be few
colder places that we could have chosen than the mountain streams of
Skye. Noel stripped, handed me his clothes, and let himself down as far
as possible. Then he let go. He landed on all fours and scrambled out
unhurt, a grotesque white figure amidst those sombre rocks.

'For Christ's sake hurry up: I'm freezing.'

'I'm right with you,' I shouted, and then with Noel's clothes firmly
clutched under my arm, and still wearing my own, I slipped. I had a short
glimpse of Noel's agonized face watching the delicate curve of one of his
shoes through the air and then I was under the water with two grazed
knees. It was freezingly cold, but I managed to grab everything and
wallowed painfully out.

'You bastard,' said Noel.

'I'm sorry, but look at me: I'm just as wet.'

'Yes, but you're wearing your clothes: I've got to put these bloody
things on again.'

With much muttering he finally got dressed, and we squelched our way
onwards. By the time we reached the inn two hours later we were dry but
mighty hungry.

Over dinner we told the landlord of our novel descent. His sole comment
was 'Humph,' but the old man at the window turned and smiled at us. I
think he approved.

Of crashes. It was after an armament lecture in one of the huts when we
heard, very high, the thin wailing scream of a plane coming down fast.
The corporal sat down and rolled himself a cigarette. He took out the
paper and made of it a neat trough with his forefinger, opened the tin of
tobacco and sprinkled a little on to the paper, ran his tongue along the
paper edge and then rolled it. As he put it in his mouth we heard the
crash, maybe a mile away. The corporal lit a match and spoke: 'I remember
the last time we had one of those. I was on the salvage party. It wasn't
a pretty sight.'

We learned later that the man had been on a war-load height test and had
presumably fainted. They did not find much of him, but we filled up the
coffin with sand and gave him a grand funeral.

And again night flying. It was a dark night, but cloudless. Noel and I
walked down together from the Mess. A light carpet of snow covered the
ground and gave an almost fairylike appearance to the wooden living-huts.
Through a chink in the blackout a thin ray of light shone out from one of
the windows. A dry wind rustled over the bleakness of the field as we
crunched our way across the tarmac and pushed open the door of the

I pulled on my sidcot and gloves and slipped my feet into the comforting
warmth of my fur-lined boots. I was to be off first. Sergeant White
strode in smoking a cigarette:

'Well, you couldn't want a better night. Even you shouldn't make a
mistake with this carpet on the ground.'

'Bet you need more than three dual circuits,' said Noel. (He meant three
times in with the instructor before I could do it solo.)

I took the bet and we walked out on to the field. I could see the
machine, a squat dark patch against the grey of the horizon. I hauled
myself up on to the wing, buckled on my parachute harness, and climbed
into the front cockpit, while the fitter stood by to strap me in. I
settled myself comfortably into the box seat; glanced over the dimly
shining instrument panel, and plugged in my ear-phones.

'All set.'

'Right, Hillary. Run her up.'

I lifted my hand to the rigger and he disappeared. I pulled the stick
back into my stomach and gradually opened the throttle, automatically
checking engine revs., oil pressure, and temperature. The engine burst
forth from a stutter to a great even roar of sound, hurling a scream of
defiance into the night. I throttled back, waved away the chocks from
under the wheels, and let the machine roll gently forward to the taxi-ing

Across about a hundred yards from us lay the flare path, a straight line
of dimly glowing light. The officer in charge of night flying and a
sergeant with the Aldis lamp sat huddled in their greatcoats at the near
end. There was no landing beacon. I tapped out my letter on the Morse
key, had it returned in green by the lamp, and swung the machine into
wind. I pushed the throttle wide open and eased the stick forward. As we
gathered speed and the flickering lights of the flare path tore past in a
confused blur, I knew that I was too tense. I could feel my hand
hard-clenched on the control stick. I was swinging into the flare path
and I felt White give a slight push on the rudder. The tail came up and
then with one slight bump we were off the ground.

Reassuringly came White's voice: 'Climb up to a thousand feet and do a
normal circuit. Watch your speed.'

Automatically as we climbed I hauled up the undercarriage, and pushed the
pitch lever into coarse. I straightened out at a thousand feet, and, with
my eyes fixed on the turn-and-bank indicator, pushed rudder and stick
together to do a gentle turn to the left. Then I looked round me. Below
lay the flare path, a thin snake of light, while ahead the sea was shot
with silver beneath a sky of studded jewels. I could just make out the
horizon and it gave me a feeling of confidence. I relaxed back into my
seat, lifted my head from the cockpit, and took a lighter hold of the
stick. Behind me I could hear White humming softly. I tapped out my
letter and a flash of green answered from the ground. I banked again, and
flying down-wind, released the undercarriage: another turn and I changed
into fine pitch, throttling back slowly. In the silence that followed
turning into the flare path, I saw the lights rushing up to meet us and
could feel myself tensing up again.

'Watch your speed now.'


We were up to the first flare and I started to ease the stick back.

'Not yet, you're too high.'

I felt the pressure on the stick as White continued to hold it forward.
We were up to the second flare and still not down. I had a moment of
panic. I was going to stall, we were going too fast, couldn't possibly
get down, I was making a fool of myself. Then a slight bump, the wheels
rumbling along the runway, and White's voice, 'Hold her straight, man.'
We were down.

Twice more we went round before White climbed out and poked his head into
the front cockpit: 'Think you can take her round yourself, now?'


'Well, off you go then, and for God's sake don't make a mess of it. I
want some sleep tonight.'

For the first few minutes I few automatically, but with a subdued feeling
of excitement. Then again I lifted my eyes from the instrument panel and
looked for the horizon. I could not see it. Heavy clouds obscured the
stars, and outside the dimly lighted cockpit lay pitch darkness. I looked
for the flare path and for a moment could not pick it up. I glanced back
at the instruments. I was gaining speed rapidly. That meant I was diving.
Jerkily I hauled back on the stick. My speed fell off alarmingly. I knew
exactly what to do, for I had had plenty of experience in instrument
flying; but for a moment I was paralysed. Enclosed in that small space
and faced with a thousand bewildering instruments, I had a moment of
complete claustrophobia. I must get out. I was going to crash. I did not
know in which direction I was going. Was I even right way up? I half
stood up in my seat. Then I saw the flare path. I was not lost: I was in
a perfectly normal position. I dropped back into my seat feeling
thoroughly ashamed of myself. The awful feeling of being shut in was
gone, and I began to enjoy myself I was released, filled with a feeling
of power, of exaltation. To be up there alone, confident that the machine
would answer the least touch on the controls, to be isolated, entirely
responsible for one's own return to earth--this was every man's ambition
and for a moment I had nearly lost it.

I had to make a couple more circuits before I could get the signal to
land. Two machines came in before me. Then I was down, the wheels
skimming the ground. I turned off at the end of the flare path and taxied
slowly back, swinging the machine gently from side to side. I made my
second solo circuit, brought off an adequate landing, and climbed out.
White met me as I walked into the hangar.

'O.K.,' he said, 'you'll do.'

We sat down and he handed me a cigarette. Outside someone was coming in
to land. He was given a green on the Aldis lamp and throttled back, only
to open up and go round again. We watched the glimmer of his navigation
lights as he made a quick circuit and once again throttled back. He was
past the first flare, past the second, past the third and still not
touching down when the engine roared into life and he was off again.

'Christ,' said White, 'he's in coarse pitch.'

Again we watched the navigation lights, but we soon lost them and could
just hear the hum of the engine headed towards the sea. Ten minutes went
by; twenty minutes. Nobody spoke. Then the officer in charge of night
flying walked into the hangar.

'I've sent up for some more airmen. Meanwhile you all spread out and
look. Move out to the sea.'

'Who was it?' someone asked.

'Ross. Get moving. We don't want to be here all night.'

We found him on the shore, the machine half in and half out of the sea.
The officer in charge of night flying climbed on to the wing and peered
into the cockpit.

'In coarse pitch,' he said, 'as I thought.' Then after a slight pause,
'Poor devil.'

I remembered again that moment of blind panic and knew what he must have
felt. In his breast pocket was 10, drawn to go on leave the next day. He
was twenty years old.

Of people. The other pilots on our Course were a diverse and
representative lot. They ranged from schoolboys of eighteen to men of
twenty-six. They had taken on their short service commissions, because
they were bored with their jobs, sensed the imminence of war, or, amongst
the youngest, simply for the joy of flying. To my surprise, I discovered
that they nearly all had a familiarity with mechanics and a degree of
mathematical perception well ahead of my own. I consoled myself with the
thought that I had always despised the mathematical mind and that few
great men had possessed one. This was cold comfort; but what did seem
more to the point was that if anything were to go wrong with my engine in
mid-air I could hardly climb blithely out on to the wing and mend it. I
was cheered to discover that Charlie Frizell, the most competent pilot on
the Course, was almost as mathematically imbecile as I. He had, however,
an instinct for flying and a certain dash which marked him out as a
future fighter pilot. He was nineteen and had joined the Air Force
because he wanted a job.

While Charlie Frizell was nineteen and flying Harvards, Bob Marriott was
twenty-six and training for bombers; yet they had much in common. They
were both lazy (we took to them at once) and about as successful at
dodging parades and lectures as we. Bob's instructor was the same age as
Charlie Frizell, but this age juxtaposition between pupils and
instructors was nothing rare and seemed to work out well enough. Then
there was Giddings, an ex-school teacher, tall, ungainly, and
oppressively serious-minded, who would never appear in the Mess with the
others but always retired to his room to pore over his books on
navigation and Theory of Flight. There was Benbow, a merchant seaman all
his life who had given up freighters for bombers, with an inexhaustible
supply of dubious sea stories; Perkins, once a lawyer in South Africa,
small, quiet, monosyllabic, and the soul of courtesy when sober, an
unrecognizable glass-chewing trouble-maker when drunk; Russell, a
mustachioed, swash-buckling, would-be leader of men, convinced that he
was the best pilot on the Course, but a sound enough fellow underneath.
He amused us and mortified himself by landing his Harvard with the
undercarriage up, quietly oblivious of the warning hooter inside the
machine. Finally, Harry M'Grath and Dixie Dean.

I mention them together, but they could not have been more unlike. Harry,
vast, genial, and thirty-two, with a cigarette permanently glued to his
lower lip, was married and had a child. He had an Irish temper that
flared up and then as quickly changed to shrill trumpetings of
elephantine laughter. He had been on the Reserve for some time, having
once flown Vickers Virginias. In Ireland before the war he had been in
some job connected with Civil Aviation. Dixie, diminutive, desperately
keen, and nineteen, with, off duty, the most startling taste in clothes,
and shoulders to his suits that you could ski off, was just out of school
and adolescing self-consciously all over the place. He was as yet no
great performer in the air, but pathetically keen to prove himself. When
the others laughed at him, his narrow little face would tighten up with
the determination to be the best pilot of them all.

This was a cross-section of the raw material out of which must be welded
officers competent to take their place in Fighters, Bombers, and Coastal
Command. After the day's work was over we would gather in the Mess or
adjourn to some neighbouring pub to pass the evening talking and drinking
beer. And there as the months went by one could watch the gradual
assimilation of these men, so diverse in their lives and habits, into
something bigger than themselves, their integration into the composite
figure that is the Air Force Pilot. Unknown to themselves, the
realization of all this was gradually instilled in the embryo, pilots who
lived together, laughing, quarrelling, rapidly maturing in the incubator
of that station.

Much that is untrue and misleading has been written on the pilot in this
war. Within one short year he has become the nation's hero, and the
attempt to live up to this false conception bores him. For, as he would
be the first to admit, on the ground the pilot is a very ordinary fellow.
Songs such as 'Silver Wings'--

          They say he's just a crazy sort of guy,
          But to me he means a million other things,

make him writhe with very genuine embarrassment.

The pilot is of a race of men who since time immemorial have been
inarticulate; who, through their daily contact with death, have realized,
often enough unconsciously, certain fundamental things. It is only in the
air that the pilot can grasp that feeling, that flash of knowledge, of
insight, that matures him beyond his years; only in the air that he knows
suddenly he is a man in a world of men. 'Coming back to earth' has for
him a double significance. He finds it difficult to orientate himself in
a world that is so worldly, amongst a people whose conversation seems to
him brilliant, minds agile, and knowledge complete--yet a people somehow
blind. It is very strange.

In his village before the war the comfortably-off stockbrokers, the
retired officers and business men, thought of the pilot, if they thought
of him at all, as rather raffish, not a gentleman. Now they are eager to
speak to him, to show him hospitality, to be seen about with him, to tell
him that they too are doing their bit. He's a fine fellow, the saviour of
the country; he must have qualities which they had overlooked. But they
can't find them. He is polite, but not effusive. They are puzzled and he
is embarrassed.

He wants only to get back to the Mess, to be among his own kind, with men
who act and don't talk, or if they do, talk only shop; of old So-and-so
and his temper, of flights and crashes, of personal experiences; bragging
with that understatement so dear to the Englishman. He wants to get back
to that closed language that is Air Force slang.

These men, who in the air must have their minds clear, their nerves
controlled, and their concentration intense, ask on the ground only to be
allowed to relax. They ask only to get out of uniform; in the Mess, to
read not literature but thrillers, not The Times but the Daily Mirror.
Indeed Popeye has been adopted by the Air Force. As these men fight the
war they have no particular desire to read about it. They like to drink a
little beer, play the radio and a little bridge. On leave they want only
to get home to their wives and families and be left to themselves.

On some stations officers, if they are married, live out. On others it is
forbidden. This depends on the Commanding Officer, some believing the
sudden change from night-bombing attacks over Berlin to all the comforts
of home to be a psychological error, others believing it to be
beneficial. In most squadrons the pilots live on the station, going home
only on leave. It is always possible to apply for compassionate leave in
the event of serious domestic trouble, and this is nearly always granted,
though the Passionate Leave applied for by some Squadrons doesn't receive
quite the same sympathy.

It might be imagined that there would be some lack of sympathy between
the pilots and the ground staff of an aerodrome, that the pilots would
adopt a rather patronizing manner towards the stores officers, engineers,
signal operators, and adjutants of a station, rather similar to that
condescension shown by the more highfalutin regiments towards the Royal
Army Service Corps. But this is hardly ever true. On every station that I
know there is an easy comradeship between pilots and technicians. Each
realizes the essential value of the other--though I must admit on one
occasion hearing a pilot define the height of impertinence as a stores
officer wearing flying boots.

While on duty most pilots drink nothing and smoke little; when on leave
they welcome the opportunity for an occasional carouse in London. They
get a somewhat malicious pleasure in appearing slightly scruffy when
dining at the smartest restaurants, thus tending to embarrass the
beautifully turned out, pink-and-white-cheeked young men of the crack
infantry regiments, and making them feel uncomfortably closely related to
chorus boys.

But though these men may seem to fit into the picture of everyday life,
though they seem content enough in the company of other men and in the
restfulness of their homes, yet they are really only happy when they are
back with their Squadrons, with their associations and memories. They
long to be back in their planes, so that isolated with the wind and the
stars they may play their part in man's struggle against the elements.

The change in Peter Howes was perhaps the most interesting, for he was
not unaware of what was happening. From an almost morbid introspection,
an unhappy preoccupation with the psychological labyrinths of his own
mind, his personality blossomed, like some plant long untouched by the
sun, into an at first unwilling but soon open acceptance of the ideas and
habits of the others. Peter had a biting tongue when he chose to use it.
I remember one night we were discussing Air Force slang and its origins.
I started off on some theory but he cut me short. 'Nonsense,' he said.
'You must understand that in our service we have a number of uneducated
louts from all over the world none of whom can speak his own language
properly. It thus becomes necessary to invent a small vocabulary of
phrases, equipped with which they can carry on together an intelligible
conversation.' At this time he was a very bad pilot, though his English
was meticulous. In three months he was an excellent pilot and his
vocabulary was pure R.A.F. I don't know if there is a connection, but I
wonder. With enthusiasm he would join in the general debunking when an
offender was caught 'shooting a line.'

Of the war. From time to time without warning a Squadron of long-range
bombers would come dropping out of the sky. For a week or so they would
make our station their headquarters for raids on Norway, the heavy drone
of their engines announcing their return as night began to fall. One day
nine set out and four returned. I watched closely the pilots in the Mess
that night but their faces were expressionless: they played bridge as
usual and discussed the next day's raid.

Then one day a Spitfire Squadron dropped in. It was our first glimpse of
the machine which Peter, Noel, and I hoped eventually to fly. The trim
deceptive frailty of their lines fascinated us and we spent much of our
spare time climbing on to their wings and inspecting the controls. For
while we continued to refuse to consider the war in the light of a
crusade for humanity, or a life-and-death struggle for civilization, and
concerned ourselves merely with what there was in it for us, yet for that
very reason we were most anxious to fly single-seater fighters.

The Course drew to a close. We had done a good many hours' flying on
service types. We had taken our Wings Examination and somehow managed to
pass. Giddings, our ex-schoolmaster, was way out in front, and I, thanks
to Peter's knowledge of navigation and Noel's of armament, just scraped

We had learned something of flying and the theory of combat, but more
important, we had learned a little of how to handle ourselves when we got
to our Squadrons. We awaited our final postings with impatience, but
their arrival was a bitter disappointment. Only Charlie Frizell and two
others were to go into Fighters: at this early stage there had been few
casualties in Fighter Command and there was little demand for
replacements. Noel, Peter, and I were all slated for Army Co-operation.
This entailed further training at Old Sarum before we should finally be
operational, operational on Lysanders, machines which Peter gloomily
'termed 'flying coffins.' Giddings and a few other good sober pilots were
to be instructors; the remainder were split up between bombers and
Coastal Command.

And so we said good-bye to Scotland and headed south.



NOEL and I spent one night in London. Peter Howes collected us at about
ten o'clock and we drove down to Old Sarum. During the drive we talked
ourselves into a belated enthusiasm for Army Co-operation, and as we came
on to the road skirting the aerodrome and saw the field slanting downhill
from the hangars with machines picketed around the edge, we gazed at them
with interest. There were an equal number of Hectors and Lysanders,
heroic enough names though the machines might belie them in appearance.
The Hectors were slim biplanes, advanced editions of the old Hart, but it
was the Lysanders, the machines in which it seemed probable that we
should be flying for the duration, that really caught our attention. They
were squat, heavy, high-winged monoplanes and looked as though they could
take a beating. We were less impressed by the two solitary guns, one
fixed and firing forward and the other rotatable by the rear gunner.

The road running up to the Mess took us close by Salisbury, and the
towering steeple of its cathedral was a good landmark from the aerodrome.
The countryside lay quiet in the warm glow of the summer evening. A few
minutes' flying to the south was the sea, and across from it France,
equally peaceful in the quiet of the evening; within a few weeks
Britain's army was to be struggling desperately to get back across that
narrow stretch of water, and the France that we knew was to be no more.

The Course was run with great efficiency by a dapper little Squadron
Leader by the name of Barker. We were divided into squads and spent from
nine o'clock in the morning to seven in the evening alternating between
lectures and flying our two types of aircraft.

To our delight, on the second day of the Course Bill Aitken appeared from
Cranwell to join us. We had not seen him since together with most of our
friends he had been posted to his F.T.S. several months before. He was
the same as ever, rather serious, with deep lines across his broad
forehead and little bursts of dry laughter. He did his best to answer all
our questions, but when we got around to Frank Waldron and Nigel Bicknell
he was inclined to become a little pompous. It appeared that the
regulations at Cranwell had been somewhat more strictly enforced than in
Scotland. Frank and Nigel had set off with much the same ideas as Noel
and I up in Scotland, but with more determination as the rules were
stricter, and consequently they had come up against more trouble. They
had consistently attempted to avoid lectures, and Frank had crowned his
efforts by oversleeping for the Wings Exam. He was also violently sick
whenever he went up (which was not his fault), so the Air Ministry raised
little objection when he applied for a transfer to the Scots Guards.

Nigel, it appeared, had found the restrictions an irresistible
attraction, and no notice could appear without him hearing of it; he
would solemnly produce pieces of red tape from his pocket and pin them
around the board. This did not tend to encourage cordial relations with
the higher authorities, and when he finally wrote an extremely witty but
hardly tactful letter to the Commanding Officer, pointing out that
Volunteer Reservists had joined the R.A.F. to fight the Germans and not
to be treated like children, his stock was at its lowest ebb. He was not
actually kicked out, but his record sheet was the blackest of the Course
and his action resulted in a tightening-up of all restrictions.

'When I left Cranwell,' said Bill, 'he was trying to hook himself a job
as Air Force Psychologist.'

It was obvious that Bill did not approve, and one could not blame him. He
thought their actions represented something deeper than mere
fooling-about, a disinclination to face up to the war and a desire to
avoid fighting it for as long as possible. He thought further that there
were a dangerous number of young men with pseudo-intellectual leanings in
the same direction--this last with a significant glance at me.

I disagreed with him. I thought he had made a superficial assessment and
said so. I went further: I prophesied that within six months he would
have to take those words back, that those very people who were being so
unstable at the moment would prove themselves as capable as anyone of
facing an emergency when the time came. 'I doubt it,' he said. 'Anyway
you know that war has been described as "a period of great boredom,
interspersed with moments of great excitement." The man who believes
enough in what he's fighting for to put up with the periods of boredom is
twice as important in the winning of a war as the man who rises to a

Besides Bill we discovered two other familiar figures, Peter Pease and
Colin Pinckney. They had both been in the Cambridge Air Squadron before
the war. Peter was, I think, the best-looking man I have ever seen. He
stood six-foot-three and was of a deceptive slightness for he weighed
close on 13 stone. He had an outward reserve which protected him from any
surface friendships, but for those who troubled to get to know him it was
apparent that this reserve masked a deep shyness and a profound integrity
of character. Soft-spoken, and with an innate habit of understatement, I
never knew him to lose his temper. He never spoke of himself and it was
only through Colin that I learned how well he had done at Eton before his
two reflective years at Cambridge, where he had watched events in Europe
and made up his mind what part he must play when the exponents of
everything he most abhorred began to sweep all before them.

Colin was of the same height but of broader build. He had a bony,
pleasantly ugly face and openly admitted that be derived most of his
pleasure in life from a good grouse-shoot and a well-proportioned salmon.
He was somewhat more forthcoming than Peter but of fundamentally the same
instincts. They had been together since the beginning of the war and were
now inseparable. I was to become the third corner of a triangle of
friendship the record of which will form an important part of the rest of
this book. It is therefore perhaps well to stress that Peter Pease, and
not Peter Howes, is the peak of this triangle.

The work at Old Sarum was interesting. We studied detailed-map reading,
aerial photography, air-to-ground Morse, artillery shoots, and
long-distance reconnaissance. The Lysander proved to be a ponderous old
gentleman's plane, heavy on the controls but easy to handle. It seemed
almost impossible to stall it.

Of flying incidents there were few, though once I did my best to kill my
observer. We were on our way back from a photography sortie when I
decided to do some aerobatics. As our Inter-Comm. was not working, I
turned round, pointed at the observer, and then tapped my straps, to ask
him if he was adequately tied in. He nodded. I started off by doing a
couple of stall turns. Behind me I could hear him shouting away in what I
took to be an involuntary access of enthusiastic approval. After the
second stall turn I put the machine into a loop. On the dive down he
leaned forward and shouted in my ear. I waved my hand. On the climb up, I
saw him out of the corner of my eye letting himself low down into the
rear seat. Then we were up and over. I straightened up and looked back.
There was no sign of my observer. I shouted. Still he did not appear. I
had a sudden feeling of apprehension. That shouting--could it mean...? I
peered anxiously over the side. At that moment a white face emerged
slowly from the back cockpit, a hand grabbed my shoulder and a voice
shouted in my ear: 'For Christ's sake don't do a slow roll, I'm not
strapped in!'

He had taken my signals for a query whether I was strapped in. His cries
had been not of joy but of fear, and when we had started down on our loop
he had dived rapidly to the bottom of the cockpit, clutching feverishly
at the camera on the floor for support and convinced that his last hour
had come.

I headed back for the aerodrome and, after making a quick circuit,
deposited him gingerly on the field, landing as though I had dynamite in
the back.

Noel nearly cut short a promising flying career in a Hector. He opened up
to take off with the pasteboard instructions for his second Morse
exercise on his knee. As the machine gathered speed across the aerodrome
the card had dropped from his knee on to the floor. He bent to pick it
up, inadvertently pushing the stick further forward as he did so. The
long prop touched the ground and the machine tore its nose in and
somersaulted on to its back. It did not catch fire. As the ambulance shot
out from the hangars, I remember muttering to myself 'Pray God don't be a
bloody fool and undo the straps.' Fortunately he did not and escaped with
a badly cut tongue and a warning from the C.F.L that a repetition of the
episode would not be treated lightly.

A surprising number of people have managed to kill themselves by putting
on their brakes too hard when coming in to land, toppling on to their
backs, and then undoing the straps--to fall out on their heads and break
their necks.

Every night at nine o'clock the Mess was crowded with Army and Air Force
officers, men who commonly never bothered to listen to the news, parked
round the radio with silent expressionless faces, listening to the
extermination of France and the desperate retreat of the British
Expeditionary Force.

Privately we learned that Lysanders were hopping across the Channel two
or three times daily in an effort to drop supplies to the besieged
garrison in Calais, sometimes with a solitary one-gunned Hector for
fighter support. As the Lysander was supposed to operate always under a
covering layer of fighters, we could imagine how desperate the situation
must be.

Then came Dunkirk: tired, ragged men who had once been an army, returning
now with German souvenirs but without their own equipment; and the
tendency of the public to regard it almost as a victory.

After days on the beaches without sight of British planes these men were
bitter, and not unnaturally. They could not be expected to know that, had
we not for once managed to gain air superiority behind them, over
Flanders, they would never have left Dunkirk alive. For us the evacuation
was still a newspaper story, until Noel, Howes, and I got the day off,
motored to Brighton, and saw for ourselves.

The beaches, streets, and pubs were a crawling mass of soldiers, British,
French, and Belgian. They had no money but were being royally welcomed by
the locals. They were ragged and weary. When Howes suddenly met a blonde
and vanished with her and the car for the rest of the day, Noel and I
soon found ourselves in various billets acting as interpreters for the
French. They were very tired and very patient. It had been so long. What
could a few more hours matter? The most frequent request was for
somewhere to bathe their feet. When it became obvious that there had been
a mix-up, that some billets looked like being hopelessly overcrowded and
others empty, we gave up. Collecting two French soldiers and a Belgian
dispatch rider, we took them off for a drink. The bar we chose was a
seething mass of sweating, turbulent khaki. Before we could even get a
drink we were involved in half a dozen arguments over the whereabouts of
our aircraft over Dunkirk. Knowing personally several pilots who had been
killed, and with some knowledge of the true facts, we found it hard to
keep our tempers.

In fairness to the B.E.F. it must be said that by no means all returned
as rabble. A story of the Grenadier Guards was already going the rounds.
In columns of three they had marched on to the pier at Dunkirk with
complete equipment, as though going for a route march. A Territorial
officer, seeing them standing at ease, advanced and started to distribute
spoons and forks for them to deal with the food that was being handed
out. His efforts were summarily halted by the acid comment of a young
Grenadier subaltern:

'Thank you,' he said, 'but the Grenadiers always carry their own

The French were less bitter, possibly out of politeness, but more
probably because while they had seen few British aircraft, they had seen
no French. But it was our Belgian dispatch rider who surprised and
delighted us by endorsing everything we said.

'How could we expect to see many British fighter planes?' he asked.
'There was a heavy fog over the beaches and they were up above.'

One fight, however, he had seen--a lone Spitfire among four Junkers. For
him, he said, it had been symbolic, and he admitted having prayed. If
that Spitfire came out on top, then they would all be rescued. His prayer
was answered. It shot down two Germans, crippled a third, and the fourth
made off.

We sat on till well into the night, talking, arguing, singing, getting
tight; they, tired and relaxed, content to sit back, their troubles for
the moment over, we taut and expectant, braced by our first real contact
with the war, eager to get started.

Finally, through an alcoholic haze, we made our farewells and staggered
out into the street. Somehow we located both Howes and the car and set
off back for Old Sarum. We were late and Howes drove fast. There was no
moon. Coming out of a bend, he took the bank with his near-side front
wheel, skidded, touched the brake, and hit the bank again. We were still
travelling fast. For a moment we hung on two wheels, and then we turned
over, once, twice. There was a crash of splintering glass, a tearing
noise as two of the doors were torn off, and then, but for the sound of
escaping petrol, silence. That week I had bought myself a new service cap
and I could see it wedged under Noel's left knee.

'Get off my cap, blast you!' I shouted, thus destroying the silence and
bringing down on my head a storm of invective, from which I gathered that
none of us was seriously hurt. It turned out that we hadn't even a
scratch. 'It looks,' said Howes, 'as though Fate doesn't want us to go
out this way. Maybe we have a more exciting death in store for us.'
Looking back, unpleasantly prophetic words.

A day or so later all leave was cancelled, no one was allowed further
than half an hour's call from the aerodrome, and the invasion scare was
on. An order came that all officers were to carry side arms, and at the
station armoury I was issued with an antiquated short-nosed Forty-five
and six soft-lead bullets. I appealed to the armament sergeant.

'Sorry, sir,' he said, 'but that's the regulation. Just content yourself
with six Jerries, sir.'

That in itself would not have been so bad if only the ammunition fitted,
which I soon found it did not. With only six bullets there was little
temptation to waste any of them practising, but one day by low cunning I
managed to get myself another twelve and loosed off. The first round
fired but the second jammed. I had .455 bullets for a .45 revolver.

The Government's appeal to the people to stay put and not to evacuate,
printed on the front page of every newspaper, roused England to the
imminence of disaster. It could actually happen. England's green and
pleasant land might at any moment wake to the noise, of thundering tanks,
to the sight of an army dropping from the skies, and to the realization
that it was too late.

In Government departments, city offices, and warehouses, in farms,
schools, and universities, the civilian population of England woke up. It
was their war. From seventeen to seventy they came forward for the Home
Guard. If they had no arms--and usually they hadn't--they drilled with
brooms. The spirit was there, but the arms and the organization were not.

At Old Sarum we had completed our six weeks and were ready for drafting
to our Squadrons. Then the inevitable happened, though at that time it
seemed more like a miracle. It started as a rumour, but when the whole
Course was called together and the chief instructor rose to his feet,
rumour became reality.

Owing to the sudden collapse of France and our own consequent
vulnerability it had been decided that a number of us were to go to
Fighter Squadrons. The Air Ministry had ordered fifteen to be
transferred. We each looked at our neighbour as though he were suddenly
an enemy. There were twenty of us, and the five who were to continue in
Army Cooperation were to be drawn from a hat. It was my worst moment of
the war, and I speak for all the others.

Bill Aitken and Peter Pease were both drawn, together with three others.
The rest of us almost groaned with relief. But it seemed hard on Peter,
though he made no complaint. It would mean his separation from Colin and
the loss of a potentially great fighter pilot.

For Bill it did not matter: he was older, that type of flying appealed to
him, and he was admirably suited for it. I think he was not too
disappointed. The fighter pilots were to go to an Operational Training
Unit in Gloucestershire close to the Welsh border, for a fortnight. Then
our training would be complete and we would be drafted to Fighter

Of us all, I think Noel was the most elated. His face wore a permanent
fixed grin which nothing could wipe off.

'Spitfires at last,' he kept repeating.

'Spitfires or Hurricanes,' I said meanly.

He continued to grin.

'Don't give a damn. They're both good enough for me.'

We were to leave at once. At the last moment one other man was required
and Peter Pease was selected; so it was in a contented frame of mind that
we set off.

To our delight our instructors were No. 1 Squadron, back from France and
being given a rest. There is little need for me to say much about them,
for through Noel Monk's account in Squadrons Up of the part they played
at Maastricht Bridge and elsewhere at the front, they must be about the
best-known Squadron in the R.A.F.

'Bull' Halahan was still their Commanding Officer, and Johnnie Walker was
in charge of flying. They were the first decorated pilots of this war
that we had seen and we regarded them with considerable awe. They were
not unaware of this and affected a pointed nonchalance. The Bull was so
much what one had expected as to be almost a caricature. A muscled stocky
figure with a prominent jaw and an Irish twinkle in his eye, he would
roll into the lecture room and start right in with whatever he had to

These men treated us as junior members of a Squadron. They were friendly
and casual, but they expected cooperation and they got it. It was a
pleasant change from Training Command. Time was short and we had much to

We learned many things then new, though perhaps no longer true, so
swiftly do fighter tactics change. We learned for the first time the
German habit of using their fighter escorts in stepped-up layers all
around their bombers, their admitted excellence in carrying out some
prearranged manoeuvre, and their confusion and ineffectiveness once this
was in any way disturbed.

We learned of the advantage of height and of attacking from out of the
sun; of the Germans' willingness to fight with height and odds in their
favour and their disinclination to mix it on less favourable terms; of
the vulnerability of the Messerschmitt 109 when attacked from the rear
and its almost standardized method of evasion when so attacked--a half
roll, followed by a vertical dive right down to the ground. As the
Messerschmitt pilots had to sit on their petrol tanks, it is perhaps hard
to blame them.

We learned of the necessity to work as a Squadron and to understand
thoroughly every command, of the Squadron Leader whether given by mouth
or gesture.

We learned that we should never follow a plane down after hitting it, for
it weakened the effectiveness of the Squadron; and further was likely to
result in an attack from the rear. This point was driven home by the
example of five planes over Dunkirk all of which followed each other
down. Only the top machine survived.

If we were so outnumbered that we were forced to break formation, we
should attempt to keep in pairs, and never for more than two seconds fly
on a straight course. In that moment we might forget all we had ever
learned about Rate-1 turns and keeping a watchful eye on the
turn-and-bank indicator. We should straighten up only when about to
attack, closing in to 200 yards, holding the machine steady in the
turbulent slipstream of the other plane, and letting go with all eight
guns in short snap bursts of from two to four seconds.

We learned of the German mass psychology applied even to their planes, of
how they were so constructed that the crews were always bunched together,
thus gaining confidence and a false sense of security.

We learned the importance of getting to know our ground crews and to
appreciate their part in a successful day's fighting, to make a careful
check-up before taking off, but not to be hypercritical, for the crews
would detect and resent any lack of confidence at once.

And we learned, finally, to fly the Spitfire.

I faced the prospect with some trepidation. Here for the first time was a
machine in which there was no chance of making a dual circuit as a
preliminary. I must solo tight off, and in the fastest machine in the

One of the Squadron took me up for a couple of trips in a Miles Master,
the British trainer most similar to a Spitfire in characteristics.

I was put through half an hour's instrument flying under the hood in a
Harvard, and then I was ready. At least I hoped I was ready. Kilmartin, a
slight dark-haired Irishman in charge of our Flight, said: 'Get your
parachute and climb in. I'll just show you the cockpit before you go

He sauntered over to the machine, and I found myself memorizing every
detail of his appearance with the clearness of a condemned man on his way
to the scaffold--the chin sunk into the folds of a polo sweater, the
leather pads on the elbows, and the string-darned hole in the seat of the
pants. He caught my look of anxiety and grinned.

'Don't worry; you'll be surprised how easy she is to handle.'

I hoped so.

The Spitfires stood in two lines outside 'A' Flight Pilots' room. The
dull grey-brown of the camouflage could not conceal the clear-cut beauty,
the wicked simplicity of their lines. I hooked up my parachute and
climbed awkwardly into the low cockpit. I noticed how small was my field
of vision. Kilmartin swung himself on to a wing and started to run
through the instruments. I was conscious of his voice, but heard nothing
of what he said. I was to fly Spitfire. It was what I had most wanted
through all the long dreary months of training. If I could fly a
Spitfire, it would be worth it. Well, I was about to achieve my ambition
and felt nothing. I was numb, neither exhilarated nor scared. I noticed
the white enamel undercarriage handle. 'Like a lavatory plug,' I thought.

'What did you say?'

Kilmartin was looking at me and I realized I had spoken aloud. I pulled
myself together.

'Have you got all that?' he asked.

'Yes, sir.'

'Well, off you go then. About four circuits and bumps. Good luck!'

He climbed down.

I taxied slowly across the field, remembering suddenly what I had been
told: that the Spitfire's prop was long and that it was therefore
inadvisable to push the stick too far forward when taking off; that the
Spitfire was not a Lysander and that any hard application of the brake
when landing would result in a somersault and immediate transfer to a
'Battle' Squadron. Because of the Battle's lack of power and small
armament this was regarded by everyone as the ultimate disgrace.

I ran quickly through my cockpit drill, swung the nose into wind, and
took off. I had been flying automatically for several minutes before it
dawned on me that I was actually in the air, undercarriage retracted and
half-way round the circuit without incident. I turned into wind and
hauled up on my seat, at the same time pushing back the hood. I came in
low, cut the engine just over the boundary hedge, and floated down on all
three points. I took off again. Three more times I came round for a
perfect landing. It was too easy. I waited across wind for a minute and
watched with satisfaction several machines bounce badly as they came in.
Then I taxied rapidly back to the hangars and climbed out nonchalantly.
Noel, who had not yet soloed, met me.

'How was it?' he said.

I made a circle of approval with my thumb and forefinger.

'Money for old rope,' I said.

I didn't make another good landing for a week.

The flight immediately following our first solo was an hour's aerobatics.
I climbed up to 12,000 feet before attempting even a slow roll.

Kilmartin had said 'See if you can make her talk.' That meant the whole
bag of tricks, and I wanted ample room for mistakes and possible
blacking-out. With one or two very sharp movements on the stick I blacked
myself out for a few seconds, but the machine was sweeter to handle than
any other that I had flown. I put it through every manoeuvre that I knew
of and it responded beautifully. I ended with two flick rolls and turned
back for home. I was filled with a sudden exhilarating confidence. I
could fly a Spitfire; in any position I was its master. It remained to be
seen whether I could fight in one.

We also had to put in an oxygen climb to 28,000 feet, an air-firing
exercise, formation attacks, and numerous dogfights.

The oxygen climb was uneventful but lengthy. It was interesting to see
what a distance one ended up from the aerodrome even though climbing all
the way in wide circles. Helmet, goggles, and oxygen mask gave me a
feeling of restriction, and from then on I always flew with my goggles
up, except when landing. The results of this were to be far-reaching.

The air-firing exercise was uneventful, but as short as the oxygen climb
had been long. We were given a few rounds in each gun and sent off to
fire them into the Severn. All eight guns roared out from a quick
pressure on the fire button on the control stick. The noise through the
enclosed cabin was muffled, but the recoil caused a momentary drop in
speed of 40 miles per hour.

For our formation attack practices we usually needed six machines. We
flew in two sections of three with an instructor heading each. One
section would fly along in V formation representing the enemy and the
other would make an attack. The attacking section would also fly in V
formation until the enemy were sighted. Then the section leader would
call out over the radio telephone 'Line astern!' and the pilots to right
and left of him would drop behind.

A section in line astern is in its most manoeuvrable formation. The
leader would then come up on the enemy formation, taking care to keep
well out to one side (usually to starboard) and a few hundred feet above
them. When still some distance off, he would call out 'Echelon
starboard!' and the two following machines would draw out to his right,
still keeping fairly tight formation. When about 300 yards astern and to
starboard of the enemy, he would call out 'Going down!' and all three
machines, still in echelon formation, would dive down and come up behind
the target aircraft. At about 250 yards' range they would open fire
(theoretically), and close in more slowly to about 100 yards when the
leader would call out 'Breaking away!' and with an abrupt movement of
stick and rudder go tearing downwards and sideways beneath the enemy
machines, thus giving the rear gunners, if they were still alive, a
double factor to allow for when taking their aim. The other two machines
would follow and form up again in line astern, this time to port of the
enemy and in a position to repeat the attack. We came up in echelon to
avoid cross fire--assuming the target aircraft to be bombers--and we
broke away downwards to avoid presenting the bellies of our machines to
the rear gunners. If the target aircraft were fighters, we broke away
upwards, as they had no rear gunners, and by doing so we at the same time
gained height.

When we were sent up for a dog-fight, two of us would go off together for
forty minutes and endeavour in every way possible to 'shoot' each other
down. One learned most from this exercise, of course, when an instructor
was in the other plane; but there were many pilots and few instructors,
so this was a rarity. On one occasion I went up with Kilmartin. We
climbed to 10,000 feet, and he intimated that he would attempt to get on
my tail. He succeeded. In frenzied eagerness I hurled my machine about
the sky. Never, I felt, had such things been done to a plane. They must
inevitably dislodge him. But a quick glance in my mirror showed that he
was quietly behind me like a patient nursemaid following a too boisterous
charge. Only once did I nearly succeed. I did a particularly tight turn
and inadvertently went into a spin which took me into a cloud. For a
moment I had lost him, but I had lost myself too, and thus restored the
status quo.

When we re-established contact, he signalled to me to get on his tail and
stay there. I carried out the first part of my orders admirably and
started to pursue him round in every-tightening circles. I attempted to
get him in my sights, but could not quite succeed in doing so. But that
did not prevent me from wondering why he calmly allowed me to follow him
without taking any evasive action: these circles were becoming monotonous
and making me dizzy. I glanced in my mirror and understood. I was dead
long ago, and I could almost imagine that I saw him smile. I was very
glad it was a practice.

I landed considerably mortified and prepared for some withering comments.
Kilmartin climbed out of his machine with a sly grin at the corner of his

'Do you feel as dead as you should?' he asked.

I nodded.

'That's all right,' he said. 'I meant you to. Now I'll give you a few
tips for the next time.'

He told me then of the uselessness of all aerobatics in actual combat.
Their only value was to give a pilot a feeling of mastery over his
machine in any position, upright or inverted. To do a loop was to present
a slow-moving sitting target to your opponent, who need only raise the
nose of his machine slightly to keep you permanently in his sights. A
slow roll was little better. For complete evasion the two most effective
methods were a half roll and a controlled spin--especially if you had
been hit, for it gave an impression of being out of control. For the rest
it was a question of turning inside your opponent (sometimes pulling up
and above him, the more effectively to dive down again), of thinking
quickly and clearly, of seizing every opportunity and firing at once, and
of a quick break-away. All this and more he impressed upon me, and I did
my best to carry it out on my subsequent flights. These were less
one-sided, but then I never flew with him again.

On these dog-fights we would also practise beam attacks, probably the
most effective and certainly the most difficult means of bringing down an
enemy machine. The attacking Spitfire would overhaul his target, well out
to the side and about 500 feet or so above. When same little way ahead he
would bank and turn in, to let the other machine come through his sights
almost at right angles, and with a double deflection (twice the diameter
of his sights) he would let go in a long burst. He thus opened fire in
front of the enemy's nose and raked him all the way down the side where
he had the least protection and the smallest field of fire, while himself
presenting a very small and awkwardly moving target for the gunners. He
could then drop in behind and deliver another attack from the rear.

But my clearest memory of the course was the bridge. It was across the
Severn and linked England to Wales. It was a narrow bridge with close-set
arches and it was the occasion of a long-brewing quarrel for Noel and me.

Noel, Peter Howes, and I had been together now for some time and were
beginning to get on one another's nerves. There was soon to be a parting
of the ways. It happened at the very end of our training, when we were
about to join our Squadrons, and was to have consequences which none of
us could foresee, which all three of us vaguely sensed, but yet could do
nothing to stop. With Howes it took the form of withdrawing into himself,
of saying little and of avoiding our company. For Noel and me,
fundamentally closer together and considerably quicker-tempered, it could
not end like that. There had to be a show-down: the bridge provided it.

Noel, low-flying down the Severn, came to the bridge and flew under it.
He came back and told me. From then on the bridge fascinated and
frightened me. I had to fly under it. I said as much to Peter Pease. He
gave me a long quizzical stare.

'Richard,' he said, 'from now on a lot of people are going to fly under
that bridge. From a flying point of view it proves nothing: it's
extremely stupid. From a personal point of view it can only be of value
if you don't tell anybody about it.'

He was right of course.

To fly under the bridge now simply to come back and say that I had done
so would be sheer exhibitionism. It would prove nothing. Yet I knew I
would fly under it. I had to for my own satisfaction, just as many years
before I had had to stand on a 25-foot board above a swimming-pool until
I dived off.

There was a strongish wind blowing and as I came down to a few feet above
the river I saw that I had on quite an amount of drift. The span of the
arch looked depressingly narrow; I considered pulling up but forced
myself to hold the stick steady. For a moment I thought I was going to
hit with the port wing, and then I was through.

It was later in the Mess and we were playing billiards when Noel asked me
if I had done it. By now we could not even play billiards without the
game developing into a silently bitter struggle for supremacy. As Noel
nearly always won, he could not have chosen a worse moment to speak.

'Well, did you?' he asked.

I played a deliberate shot and didn't answer.

He laughed.

'Surely our little winged wonder isn't getting soft? I was expecting to
hear how narrowly you missed death.'

I put down my cue.

'Listen, Noel,' I said. 'For months you've been smugly satisfied that
you're a better pilot than I am, and just because I soloed before you
here you have to go off and make a bloody fool of yourself under some
bridge just to prove that you're still a hell of a pilot. You make me

He looked at me bitterly.

'Well, little Lord Fauntleroy, this is a new angle. And from you, the
biggest line-shooter I've ever known. All right. Stick around the hangars
cadging extra flights and crawling to the instructors. Maybe they'll give
you a good assessment yet.' And with that he slammed red into a corner
pocket to win the game and I stalked out of the room and slammed the

Next day Squadron vacancies were announced. I walked down to the
Adjutant's office with Peter Pease and Colin Pinckney. 603 (City of
Edinburgh) Squadron had three vacancies. It was out of the battle area
(the first battle over Dover had already been fought), but it was a
Spitfire Squadron and we could all three go together. We put our names

Noel decided to go to Northolt to 609 Squadron to fly Hurricanes, and
Peter Howes to Hornchurch to 54 Squadron.

The following day we left. I was to drive up with Peter Pease and we were
to make an early start. I piled my luggage into his car and prepared to
climb in after it. Then I hesitated and turned back. I found Noel
packing. He got up as I came in. We were both embarrassed. I held out my

'Good-bye and good luck,' I said.

'Good-bye, Dick,' he said. 'We've drifted rather a long way apart lately.
I'm sorry. Don't let's either of us drift up to Heaven. That's all.'

While he was speaking Peter Howes had come in to say good-bye too. 'You
two needn't worry,' he said. 'You both have the luck of the devil. If the
long-haired boys are to be broken up, I have a hunch that I'll be the
first to go.' We both told him not to be a fool and agreed to meet, all
three of us, in three months' time in London.

They came out to the car.

'Take care of yourself,' said Peter Howes.

'Your courage amazes me,' said Noel. 'Going back to that bloody awful
country, and voluntarily!'

I waved and then Peter Pease and I were round the corner and on our way.
I sat silent most of the way to London, confused by a number of
disturbing emotions.


The World of Peter Pease

We had two days in which to get to Edinburgh and we spent one night in
London, a London still unscarred and carefree, before driving up to
Yorkshire, where we intended to break our journey at the Peases'.

Peter drove fast and well, without any of the sudden bursts of
acceleration which characterize most fast drivers. For some reason I was
surprised. Upright in his seat, his existence was concentrated in his
hands on the wheel and in the sole of his foot on the accelerator. There
was little traffic on the roads and as we moved out into the open country
all nature seemed to sing with the rhythm of the tires on the hot
asphalt. Gradually the countryside turned from a soft green warmth to a
gaunt bleakness. I was a little depressed, for we had heard a rumour that
Scottish Squadrons would not cross the Border. To kick our heels in
Scotland with the war at last about to break in the South was not my idea
of a design for living. Peter was unruffled and satisfied that we should
be in the thick of it before many weeks were past, but with every mile my
depression deepened.

'God, how I hate the North,' I said, 'the country, the climate, the
people; all craggy, dour, and shut-in. I can go south to France, Italy,
or where you will and feel perfectly at home; but north of Oxford I'm in
a foreign country.'

Peter laughed. 'That's because at heart you're a man of the capital. You
live in London, and you understand it and like it and like the people;
but you get up to Manchester or Birmingham and you see their ugliness
with unprejudiced eyes. It appals you. I don't blame you, it appals me
too; but then so does ugliness in London. I'm not prejudiced in London's
favour, as you are.'

'Oh, no, it's not only the towns, it's the country too. What could you
have more beautiful than Buckinghamshire--or if it's not beautiful, it's
warm and attractive, which is much more important. But as for this--' I
waved my hand vaguely out of the window, where the Black Country
stretched out wet and dreary on either side.

Peter nodded. 'Yes, it looks pretty ghastly, doesn't it? Yet it all fits
in. The people who live here love the grime and the stench and the living
conditions. They've never known anything else and it's a part of them.
That's why they'll fight this war to the end rather than surrender one
inch of it.'

I thought for a moment I was going to get him into an argument about the
war, but as soon as he saw what I was after he steered the conversation
politely away and it was not for another six weeks that I was to break
down his silence.

We arrived in time for dinner, and the crunch of the tires on the drive
as we swung through the gates prepared me for the comfortably substantial
house in front of which we drew at up. Colin Pinckney arrived half an
hour later, having driven up in a more leisurely manner, and we went in
to dinner. The Peases were a devoted family and Peter's parents quite
obviously adored him. In that quiet dining-room with just the five of us
gathered round the table it occurred to me that if Peter were killed, it
would be important--not only to his family, but indeed for me, as the
deaths of the majority of my friends many of whom I knew better could not
be. I was confused and disturbed by this.

After dinner Lady Pease was discussing an offer she had had to send one
of her boys, now at Eton, to America, an offer which she had turned down.
She felt that it was a bad precedent for well-to-do children to be sent
abroad and a very bad preparation for life in a post-war England. I
agreed with her. I thought of the surprising number of men in responsible
positions who seemed determined to get their wives and children out of
the country. I didn't quite understand it. The natural reason would be
that they didn't want them hurt, but I wasn't sure that that was the
whole of it. I didn't believe that a man with something important to do
in this war wanted the responsibility of a wife, more especially if he
loved her. She was a distracting liability and he would be far happier
with her out of the way. Then he could concentrate his whole mind on his
job without having to wonder the whole time whether she was safe. All he
needed was the purely physical satisfaction of some woman, and that he
could get anywhere.

Now, at the Peases', on the way to bed, I asked Colin if be thought that
were true. 'To a certain extent,' he replied, 'but like all your
generalizations it doesn't by any means apply universally. For example,
how do you fit in all these hurried war marriages with your theory?'

'I admit they don't seem to fit into the picture at first, but I think we
can explain them. I don't know if you've noticed it, and again this is
one of my generalizations, but it's been almost entirely the little men
who have got married.'

'What do you mean,' he asked, 'the little men?'

'Well, as far as I can see, in the Army, and certainly in all Squadrons,
it's been the nonentity, the fellow who was unsure of himself, standing
drinks, always laughing and singing songs in the Mess, trying to be one
of the chaps and never quite succeeding. He doesn't feel himself accepted
by the others and somehow he's got to prove himself so he does it by
marrying some poor, clinging little girl, giving her a child to justify
his manhood and then getting killed. She's left with 90 a year, and I
hope, a pleasant memory.'

But Colin, muttering about cynics and how late it was, was already on his
way to bed.

Early next morning we were on our way. It was cold in Edinburgh and the
damp mist lay heavy on the streets. We drove straight out to the
aerodrome at Turnhouse and reported to our CO., Squadron Leader Denholm
(known by the Squadron as Uncle George). From him we learned that the
Squadron was operating further north, 'A' Flight from Dyce and 'B' Flight
from Montrose. There was one Spitfire replacement to be flown up to Dyce;
Colin got the job and so it came about that Peter and I drove up together
to join 'B' Flight at Montrose.

The aerodrome lay just beyond the town and stretched parallel to the sea,
one edge of the landing field merging into the dunes. For a few miles
around the country was flat, but mountain peaks reared abruptly into the
sky, forming a purple backdrop for the aerodrome.

The first person to greet us in the Mess was Michael Judd, whom neither
of us had seen since our initial training. He was an instructor. He took
us down to the Dispersal Point to introduce us to the Squadron. Montrose
was primarily an F.T.S. where future pilots crowded the air in Miles
Masters. As the only possible enemy raids must come from Norway, half a
Squadron was considered sufficient for its protection.

At our Dispersal Point at the north-west corner of the aerodrome there
were three wooden huts. One of these was the Flight Commander's office;
another was reserved for the R.T. equipment and technicians; the third,
divided into two, was for the pilots and ground crew respectively. It was
into this third hut that Michael led us.

From the ceiling hung several models of German aircraft, on the back wall
by the stove were pasted seductive creatures by Petty, and on a table in
the middle of the room a gramophone was playing, propped at a drunken
angle on a pile of old books and magazines. In a corner there was another
table on which there were a couple of telephones operated by a corporal.
Two beds standing against the longer walls, and several old chairs,
completed the furniture.

As we came in, half a dozen heads were turned towards the door and
Rushmer, the Flight Commander, came forward to greet us. Like the others,
he wore a Mae West and no tunic. Known by everyone as Rusty on account of
his dull-red hair, he had a shy manner and a friendly smile. Peter, I
could see, sensed a kindred spirit at once. Rusty never ordered things to
be done; he merely suggested that it might be a good idea if they were
done, and they always were. He had a bland manner and an ability tacitly
to ignore anything which he did not wish to hear, which protected him
alike from outside interference from his superiors and from too frequent
suggestions from his junior officers on how to run the Flight. Rusty had
been with the Squadron since before the war: he was a Flight Lieutenant,
and in action always led the Red Section. As 603 was an Auxiliary
Squadron, all the older members were people with civilian occupations who
before the war had flown for pleasure.

Blue Section Leader Larry Cunningham had also been with the Squadron for
some time. He was a Scotsman, tall and thin, without Rusty's charm, but
with plenty of experience.

Then there was Brian Carbury, a New Zealander who had started in 41
Squadron. He was six-foot-four, with crinkly hair and a roving eye. He
greeted us warmly and suggested an immediate adjournment to the Mess for
drinks. Before the war he had been a shoe salesman in New Zealand. Sick
of the job, he had come to England and taken a short service commission.
He was now a Flying Officer. There was little distinctive about him on
the ground, but he was to prove the Squadron's greatest asset in the air.

Another from overseas was Hugh Stapleton, a South African. He hoped to
return after the war and run an orange farm. He too was over six feet
tall, thick-set, with a mass of blond hair which he never brushed. He was
twenty and married, with a rough savoir-faire beyond his years, acquired
from an early unprotected acquaintance with life. He was always losing
buttons off his uniform and had a pair of patched trousers which the rest
of the Squadron swore he slept in. He was completely slap-happy and known
as 'Stapme' because of his predilection for Popeye in the Daily Mirror,
his favourite literature.

Pilot Officer Berry, commonly known as Raspberry, came from Hull. He was
short and stocky, with a ruddy complexion and a mouth that was always
grinning or coming out with some broad Yorkshire witticism impossible to
answer. Above that mouth, surprisingly, sprouted a heavy black moustache,
which induced me to call him the organgrinder. His reply to this was
always unprintable but very much to the point. Even on the blackest days
he radiated an infectious good-humour. His aggressive spirit chafed at
the Squadrons present inactivity and he was always the first to hear any
rumour of our moving south.

'Bubble' Waterston was twenty-four, but he looked eighteen, with his
short-cropped hair and open face. He too had been with the Squadron for
some time before the war. He had been studying in Scotland for an
engineering degree. He had great curiosity about anything mechanical, and
was always tinkering with the engine of his car. His unquestioning
acceptance of everyone and his unconscious charm made him the most
popular member of the Squadron.

Then there was Boulter, with jutting ears framing the face of an
intelligent ferret, always sleepy and in bed snoring when off duty;
'Broody' Benson, nineteen years old, a fine pilot and possessed of only
one idea, to shoot down Huns, more Huns, and then still more Huns; Don
MacDonald who had been in the Cambridge Squadron and had an elder brother
in 'A' Flight at Dyce; and finally Pip Cardell, the most recent addition
to the Squadron before our arrival, still bewildered, excited, and a
little lost.

For the first week or so, Peter and I were not to be operational. We
would have a chance to utilize the Squadron's comparative inactivity to
acquaint ourselves thoroughly with the flying idiosyncrasies of the

All that we had on duty at a time was one Readiness Section of three
machines: the rest of the Squadron were either available (ready to take
off within half an hour of a call) or released (allowed off the
aerodrome). With a full complement of pilots, it was nearly always
possible for two of us to get up into the hills for a couple of days a
week, where we shot grouse. The same system applied to 'A' Flight at

At this time the Germans were sending over single raiders from Norway,
and with six Spitfires between Dyce and Montrose there was little
difficulty in shooting them down. Operations would ring through, the
corporal at the telephone in the pilots' room would call out, 'Red
Section scramble base,' one of us would fire a red Very light to clear
the air of all training aircraft, and within a couple of minutes three
machines would be in the air climbing rapidly. The leader, in constant
radio touch with the ground, would be given a course on which to fly to
intercept the enemy. So good was the ground control that it was not
infrequent to make an interception forty miles out to sea. The Section
would then carry out a copybook attack; the bomber would come down in the
sea, and her crew, if still alive, would push off in a rubber boat,
waving frantically. The Section would radio back the derelicts' position,
turn for home, and that would be that.

On one occasion, when I was still not operational, I was flying up the
coast when I heard Operations order our Blue Section into the air and
start radioing the bomber's position. I should have returned to the base;
but instead I grabbed my map and pin-pointed its position--about four
miles south of me and heading out to sea. Without reporting my intention,
I set off after it, delighted at the prospect of returning and
nonchalantly announcing its destruction single-handed.

It was a cloudy day and a fair guess that the enemy machine would be
flying just in the bottom of the cloud base. Up to this minute I had
behaved fairly rationally, but I now began a series of slow climbs and
dives in and out of the clouds in search of my quarry. Finding nothing, I
turned back and landed, to discover that two minutes earlier the enemy
machine had flown right across the aerodrome at 1000 feet. It was not
until Brian Carbury landed with his Section and inquired sweetly whether
I'd had fun that I learned how nearly I had been killed. Having received
no notice of any other friendly aircraft, and seeing a machine popping in
and out of the clouds, he had put his Section into 'line astern' and had
been about to open fire when he recognized me as a Spitfire.

Next day Rusty made both Peter and me operational. 'I think it will be
safer for the others,' he explained apologetically.

My first assignment, though not exciting, was for me particularly
interesting. It meant flying down to Oxford. I had not been back since
the war began and I was curious to see how different it would all seem

Noel had been there recently to see his family and had written to me:
'Richard, whatever you do, don't go back. It would take a book to explain
how it's changed; but to sum it up in one sentence--in the Randolph Bar
there is a notice saying: "No unaccompanied ladies will be served with

I flew down with one halt on the way and arrived in the early evening. I
came down low and circled the city, looking for familiar landmarks. I
picked out the Isis, a tiny mud-puddle, and the barges dotted along its
bank; the Broad, and Trinity, with its well-kept gardens obvious from
even that height; Longwall and Magdalen Tower. I made a couple of
circuits and came in. This, the first part of my visit, was entirely
satisfactory, for my bank manager was a member of the Home Guard and on
duty at the time. He was suitably impressed with me as a pilot, and when
next morning I called upon him, without much hope, for an extension of my
overdraft, he was more than obliging.

On landing I called up Rusty and reported, then I hailed a taxi and drove
straight down to Trinity.

Superficially it was unchanged. Huckins, the porter, was still at the
gate. 'Good evening, Mr. Hillary,' he said, in the same lugubrious tone
in which he would announce that one was to be reported to the Dean. The
windows of my rooms over the chapel still looked out on the Quad and
caught the evening rays of the sun, and a few old college servants raised
friendly hands to their forelocks. But, apart from them, not a familiar
face. It was of course out of term, but Trinity, unlike most colleges,
had not been amalgamated or handed over to the Government, and I had
hoped to see a few dons I knew. The old place was tired; it had the
left-over air of a seaside resort in winter. I walked into the garden
quad and looked around at the uncurtained windows.

There was Algy Young's old room in which I had spent many an agreeable
evening. Algy had looked like playing rugger for the University. Of a
serious disposition, he could not make up his mind whether to go into
politics or business. I remember how often we had laughed at him for his
enjoyment of food and getting fat. Well, it was doubtful if he was
enjoying either now in Oflag VII C, having been captured along with the
rest of the Highland Division at Dunkirk.

And there was Staircase 15. Alwyn Stevens had had a room there. We had
rowed together in the Head of the River Boat for two years. Moody and of
uncertain temper as he was, the rest of us had not gone out of our way to
understand him, and he had wrapped himself up in his work, surprising
everyone when it was understood that he had a good chance of a First in
Law. He had been killed flying.

Peter Krabb had also been on that staircase. Boisterous, amusing, and
sarcastic, he had not come back from France.

I climbed to my old room, intending to find someone to make me up a bed
for the night. All the furniture lay heaped in a corner, a mounted oar
still hung over the fireplace, exaggerating if anything the bareness of
the room. Geo. Coles had had the rooms before me. With his enormous
shoulders he had been heavy-weight boxer for the University and a Rugger
Blue. Of no enormous mental stature, he had not let it worry him and had
led the life which amused him. At the beginning of the war he had managed
to get a permanent commission in the Air Force: it was only a week since
he had been seen going down in flames over France.

I kicked a chair-leg dispiritedly and went back down the stairs,
intending to take a room for the night at the Randolph. I had no luggage.
I hoped they'd try to stop me. At the bottom of the stairs I ran into the
President's wife. She offered to put me up for the night. I accepted
gratefully, explaining that I might be late as I must go to the depot to
make some arrangements. I then set off to survey the town. My first stop
was the Randolph, where the truth of Noel's warning was forcibly brought
home to me. The bar was full, but of strange faces, and Mary was no
longer there to serve drinks. Some harassed creature pushed me a pink gin
and forgot my change. I was about to give up and leave when I saw Eric
Dehn. Eric and I had been to school together and we had done two years
together at Oxford. He was in battle dress, and as amusing as ever. He
had been in France but had got out at Dunkirk. He was as depressed as I,
but we went along to the George for an excellent dinner and then on to
the Playhouse to look up some of Eric's girl friends, with whom we passed
a pleasant enough evening. It was very late when I got back to Trinity
and took off my shoes, the more quietly to climb the President's stairs
(one's education dies hard).

I was slightly drunk as I got undressed and crawled into bed. 'This,' I
thought to myself hazily, 'symbolizes everything. Tonight you sleep in
the President's linen in your underpants; tomorrow God knows!' And with
that I fell asleep. I was glad to go back to Montrose.

At this time we were still using Spitfires as night fighters. Now the
Spitfire is not a good machine for night fighting. Its landing run is too
long and the flames from its own exhaust make the pilot's visibility
uncomfortably small. Shortly afterwards the whole problem of night
interception was radically revised (with great success), but for the
moment night fighting in Spitfires produced little more than hours to go
in one's log-book. Three of us would spend the night in the Dispersal Hut
waiting for a 'flap.' When it came, one machine would take off, and I as
the junior squadron member would canter down the flare path, putting out
all the lamps until the second machine took off some ten minutes later,
when I would put them all on again. Meanwhile, there would be the uneven
hum of a German bomber circling above, an experience which always gave me
prickles down the spine.

For the most part, life at Montrose was very agreeable. We knew that at
no very distant date the war would be upon us; but momentarily it was
remote and we were enjoying ourselves. In the time when it was possible
to get away from the station for a couple of days, most of us motored up
to Invermark where Lord Dalhousie had kindly turned over his shooting
lodge to us. Here in the deep stillness of the mountains it was possible
to relax, and the war, if it penetrated at all, was wafted up as the
breath of the vulgarity of another world. We shot grouse and fished on
the loch, and on one occasion after an arduous day's stalking I shot a
stag; but I am no sportsman and the dying look in the beast's eyes
resolved me to confine my killing to Germans.

I was therefore relieved and grateful when Stapme and Bubble let me in on
their preciously guarded secret. We three flew together and therefore had
the same time off. Stapme and Bubble would both come up to Invermark, but
neither of them shot. How they employed their few hours of freedom will,
I think, come as a surprise to a number of people, for they must have
seemed from the outside as typical a pair of easy-going pilots as one
could expect to meet anywhere. Stapme with his talk of beer, blokes, and
carburettors, and Bubble with his absorption in things mechanical, might
have been expected to spend their leaves, respectively, in a too fast car
with a too loud blonde, and in getting together with the chaps in the
local pub. In point of fact they played hide-and-seek with children.

Tarfside was a tiny hamlet a few miles down the road from Invermark, and
to it this summer had come a dozen or so Scots children, evacuated from
the more vulnerable towns in the district. They went to school at
Brechin, a few miles from Montrose, but for the holidays they came to the
mountains, under the care of Mrs. Davie, the admirable and unexacting
mother of two of them. Their ages ranged from six to sixteen.

How Stapme and Bubble had first come upon them I never discovered, but
from the moment that I saw those children I too was under their spell.
That they really came from Brechin, that thin-blooded Wigan of the north,
I was not prepared to admit; kilted and tanned by the sun, they were so
essentially right against that background of heather, burns, and pine.
They were in no way precocious, but rather completely natural and
unselfconscious. In the general confusion of introductions, one little
fellow, the smallest, was left out. He approached me slowly with a grave

'I'm Rat Face,' he said.

'How are you, Rat Face?' I asked.

'Quite well, thank you. You can pick me up if you like.'

I gave him a pick-a-back, and all day we played rounders, hide-and-seek,
or picnicked, and as evening drew on we climbed up into the old hayloft
and told stories, Stapme, Bubble, and I striving to outdo one another.

I lost my heart completely to Betty Davie, aged ten. She confided to me
that I was her favourite, and I was ridiculously gratified. She was
determined to be a school teacher, but with those eyes and the promise of
those lips I did not doubt that her resolution would weaken.

It was with regret that we drove back to the aerodrome, and with a latent
fear that we should not get back to Tarfside. We drove always straight to
the Dispersal Point, each time expecting the greeting: 'Tomorrow we move
south.' Out before the huts crouched our Spitfires, seemingly eager to be
gone, the boldly painted names on their noses standing out in the
gathering dusk. Nearly every plane was called by name, names as divergent
as Boomerang, Valkyrie, and Angel Face. Mine I called Sredni Vashtar,
after the immortal short story of Saki.

Sredni Vashtar was a ferret, worshipped and kept in the tool-shed by a
little boy called Conradin: it finally made a meal of Conradin's most
disagreeable guardian, Mrs. De Ropp. Conradin in his worship would chant
this hymn:

Sredni Vashtar went forth,
His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white,
His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death,
Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful.

I thought it appropriate.

The legend of the children at Tarfside soon spread through the Squadron,
and no three machines would return from a practice flight without first
sweeping in tight formation low along the bed of the valley where the
children, grouped on a patch of grass by the road, would wave and shout
and dance in ecstasy.

Although our leaves did not coincide, I saw a fair amount of Peter Pease
but I found him exasperatingly elusive. I had an urge to get behind that
polite reserve, and by drawing him into argument to discover how his mind
worked. The more reserved he was the more sarcastically aggressive I
became. It was to no avail. I would throw him the ball and he would
quietly put it in his pocket. Whenever I thought I had him cornered he
would smilingly excuse himself and retire to his rooms to write letters.
What I did not know, but might have guessed, was that he was in love.

On occasion, however, we drove up to Aberdeen to see Colin and had dinner
together in the town. Once Colin and I conspired to get him into some
dance hop. We both expressed an eagerness to go in, and rather than be
awkward he agreed to go with us. The smell of humanity was oppressive,
and we sat on the balcony watching the closely packed couples slowly
circling the floor. A young woman, powerfully scented and with
startlingly blond hair, was sitting next to me.

'You do look mournful,' she said. 'Come and have a dance.'

I pointed apologetically to my foot and sighed:

'Twisted my ankle, I'm afraid, but my friend here is a good dancer.'

I turned to Peter Pease and said, 'I want you to meet Miss I'm sorry, I
didn't get your name?'

'McBride. Dolly, my friends call me.'

'Miss McBride, Mr. Pease.'

Peter got to his feet.

'I'm afraid I don't dance a tango very well, but I'd like to try.'

They went off down the stairs, to appear a moment later on the floor.
Colin and I craned our necks. Dolly was looking eagerly up at Peter and
they were talking and laughing. At the end of the dance Peter led her
from the floor, thanked her, and started back up the stairs.

'It's no good,' said Colin mournfully. 'I might have known: the laugh's
on us.'

I resented Peter's self-confidence, for while he was shy, he was
perfectly assured. I rather prided myself on my self-sufficiency, on my
ability to be perfectly at ease with people of any standing or any age,
but with Peter I felt, as it were, that at any moment he might discover
me wearing a made-up tie. He would, of course, not be so tactless as to
mention it, would in fact put himself out to be even more charming than
before. But there it would be: no getting round it, the fellow knew.
Well, damn it, why shouldn't I wear a made-up tie if I wanted to?

I resented this assurance, basically because here was a man better
orientated than I, and as the result of an upbringing and a system of
education which I deeply distrusted and had in the past despised as being
quite incapable of producing anything but, at the best, congenital
idiots, and at the worst, fox-hunting bounders. For he was a product of
the old-school-tie system in its most extreme form. He was more than
comfortably off; his father owned property which in due course, as the
eldest son, he would inherit; he had been brought up in the orthodox Tory
tradition and in the belief that this was as it should be.

I often attacked him and accused him of living in an ivory tower, but he
refused to be drawn indeed there was little reason why he should be, for
it was only too obvious that he was liked and respected by everyone in
the Squadron. It was in fact almost impossible to draw him into an
argument on any subject, though I tried everything, from apparently
harmless conversation to attempts to make him lose his temper.

I wanted particularly to make him talk about the war, and in this I was
determined to succeed. I knew that I need not expect any glib arguments.
He was religious, and, I felt pretty certain, would not attempt to put
forward any but the orthodox Christian views. Yet I wanted to hear his
arguments from his own lips. I had an idea that the issue for him was an
apprehension of something related to faith and not to any intellectual

My chance came when we were sent down from Montrose to Edinburgh by train
to fly up a couple of new Spitfires. We had the compartment to ourselves.
I didn't temporize but asked him straight out his reasons for fighting
the war. He gave me that slow smile of his.

'Well, Richard,' he said, 'you've got me at last, haven't you?'

He sat back in his corner and thought for a moment. Words didn't come
easily to him, and I am bound to confess that in reconstructing his
argument I do a certain violence to his expression. He was not as fluent
as I shall make him. But what follows is at any rate the substance of his

'I don't know if I can answer you to your satisfaction,' he said, 'but
I'll try. I would say that I was fighting the war to rid the world of
fear--of the fear of fear is perhaps what I mean. If the Germans win
this war, nobody except little Hitlers will dare do anything. England
will be run as if it were a concentration camp, or at best a factory. All
courage will die out of the world--the courage to love, to create, to
take risks, whether physical or intellectual or moral. Men will hesitate
to carry out the promptings of the heart or the brain because, having
acted, they will live in fear that their action may be discovered and
themselves cruelly punished. Thus all love, all spontaneity, will die out
of the world. Emotion will have atrophied. Thought will have petrified.
The oxygen breathed by the soul, so to speak, will vanish, and mankind
will wither. Does that satisfy you?'

'It's a good speech,' I said, 'but it's all big words, It's all negative.
Isn't there something positive you want?'

Peter flushed slightly. He who was the last person to clothe his feelings
in big words had done so out of regard for me; and I had reproached him.
But he was persistent. What he had started he would finish.

'Something positive I want? But of course. Only, saying what it is means
big words again, confound you, Richard! What I want is to see a better
world come out of this war.'

'What do you mean by better?' I challenged him. 'Christian, I suppose.'

'Now who is using the big words?' he wanted to know. 'You've used the
biggest word of all. Yes, Christian, of course. Nothing else. It isn't
only that I am a Christian by faith. It's that I don't know any other way
of life worth fighting for. Christianity means to me, on the social
plane, freedom, man's humanity to man. Everything else I see as man's
inhumanity to man. I believe that we should all make our contribution,
even though it's a mere drop in the ocean, to the betterment of humanity.
I know that, put into words, it sounds sentimental, and of course you
don't agree. I can see that.'

I nodded. 'You're quite right,' I said. 'I don't. I think that your
Christianity clouds the issue, makes it harder to see what we're talking
about. As I see it there are three possible philosophies. First, there is
hedonism, living purely for pleasure. The rich, by and large, did nothing
but that here in England until practically the other day--that is, the
non-industrial rich. And that life is over. Only the rich could live that
way, and now the poor aren't going to allow it any longer. Secondly, one
can live for the good of the community--or for the betterment of
mankind, as you would put it. Though how one is to be certain that one's
contribution is bettering humanity, God only knows.'

'Yes,' Peter said, 'He unquestionably does.'

I threw up my hands. 'There you go,' I said. 'All you religious people
are alike. In the end you always fall back upon infallible faith. "I feel
it here," you say, with a hand on your stomachs. Well, I may feel just
the same thing; but with me it's indigestion, or the exaltation I get
from an hour of great music, or from Lear and Cordelia.'

Peter stared out of the window. I was a little ashamed of that crack
about the hand on the stomach. It smelled of Hyde Park oratory. And I
could have gone on more easily if I felt that I had hurt him, or angered
him. I knew that what was disturbing him was simply the distance between
us, the gulf.

'Look at your missionary,' I went on. 'He goes off to Bunga Bunga land to
convert the blacks to bowler hats and spats. He's quite certain that he
has the call to dedicate himself to humanity. In point of fact he's
probably putting into practice the third philosophy, the only one in
which I can believe. That is, to live for the realization of one's self.
Some do it by preaching, some by making love, others by building
locomotives or smashing stock markets.'

'If I gather what you mean,' Peter said, 'you mean something I should
call rather base. In fact, I couldn't imagine a lower form of life. Can
you be more explicit?'

'Well,' I said, 'to be perfectly brutal about it--though actually it
isn't in the least a brutal thing--I mean using the world as opposed to
being used by the world. Every single artist who ever lived, every great
scientist, did exactly that. You couldn't find a better example than
Goethe, for instance, or Newton, or Leonardo. Would the world be poorer
or richer if Goethe had been killed fighting for his native Frankfurt, or
Leonardo had been stuck in the ribs by some petty Italian tyrant's lance?
Or if Einstein had been beaten to death by the Gestapo because his "soul"
commanded that he fight for the Jewish peoples?'

Peter, who was not ordinarily witty or mischievous, smiled almost

'And is our Richard planning to be a Goethe or a Newton?' he asked.
Before I could break in he had gone on:

'There was Joan of Arc, you know.'

'You couldn't cite a better instance of what I mean,' I said quickly.
'Obsessed with self-realization, she was. The Voices were her voices, the
king of France was her king, the French were her people. God! What an

'But let me go on. You don't have to be a Goethe. I'm not concerned with
genius. I'm concerned with my own potentialities. I say that I am
fighting this war because I believe that, in war, one can swiftly develop
all one's faculties to a degree it would normally take half a lifetime to
achieve. And to do this, you must be as free from outside interference as
possible. That's why I'm in the Air Force. For in a Spitfire we're back
to war as it ought to be--if you can talk about war as it ought to be.
Back to individual combat, to self--reliance, total responsibility for
one's own fate. One either kills or is killed; and it's damned exciting.
And after the war, when I shall be writing, I'll again be developing
faster than the rest of you. Because a writer is constantly digging into
himself, penetrating the life and nature of man, and thus realizing

'Richard, I don't understand you,' Peter said. 'All your talk is
hard-boiled; you as much as proclaim yourself a realist. And yet you are
so fuzzy-minded as to assume that you'll be allowed to dig into yourself
and the rest in a German-dominated world. You're not a medieval mystic,
you know. You'll be able to think, perhaps, in a concentration camp, but
not to write and impart what you think.'

'Of course I won't. Don't take me for a bloody fool. Besides, we're
agreed about the necessity for smashing the Germans. It's the purpose
that we're arguing about. I want to smash them in order to be free to
grow; you in order to be free to worship your God and lead your villagers
in prayer.'

'Suppose we go in to lunch,' said Peter. 'I could do with something to

We made our way along to the dining-car, clambering over feet, kit-bags,
and suitcases, tossed from compartment door to window and back again by
the motion of the train. We were passing through rough river-scored
mountains, deceptively clothed with a soft brown moss. 'No place for a
forced landing,' I thought automatically.

The dining-car was full, one or two business men but mostly uniforms. We
managed to get ourselves a couple of seats and I took a look at them. I
wondered if these people asked themselves such questions as I was asking
Peter--probably not, if what foreigners say about the English is true,
that we hate thinking, analysis. Peter certainly did, and I left him
alone through lunch.

When we had got back to our compartment Peter gave a sigh of content and
settled back in the corner, happy in the belief that his ordeal was over.
But I hadn't said the half of what was on my mind. I knew that I should
surely never get such a chance at him again. So I started.

'Look here, Peter,' I said. 'Let's begin by agreeing that I am a selfish
swine and am in the war only to get what I can out of it. But what about
you? You're a landowner--a sort of dodo, a species nearly extinct. . . .
No, don't stop me! Even though you may not own half England, you're
representative of the type. I'm quite ready to agree that you're not
fighting to maintain the present system of land tenure. You're fighting
for all the ideals you mentioned earlier. I know that. Do you expect to
make the world a better place for your dependants to live in, solely
through Christianity; and if so, how?'

Peter rather pointedly opened a window and stood staring out at the
passing countryside. He was struggling to arrange his thoughts, to find
words; and what he said came out so slowly, in such fragments of
discourse, that I shall not attempt to give it shape. It was nothing new,
and it came to this. He would be as decent to those in a less fortunate
position as he possibly could, more especially to those dependent on him.
He hoped that his role would consist in helping them, protecting them,
keeping alive that ancient sturdy self reliance of the true-born
Englishman that had made England what she was.

About this I must say one thing. While Peter's words were all clichs on
the surface, all copybook talk, underneath they were terrific. He was
saying what was to him almost the most important thing he could say,
something as intense as a prayer to his God. What he said was, if you
like, stupidly English. But what he would do, the lengths to which he
would go, the probity and charity with which he would live that extinct
form of existence, would also be English; and magnificently English.
Extinct is the word: Peter was the very parfit knight.

I realized all this as he spoke, but I had no intention of pulling my
punches because of it. 'Well,' said I, 'if I had your altruism I'd try
economics and not religion as my nostrum. I'd say to myself, we must do
away with this unemployment, muck, undernourishment, and the rest of the
horror that is the chief characteristic of every Christian State since
Constantine became a Christian. And it differs from the non-Christian
State only in that the others haven't been such raging persecutors of men
of other faiths. Of course, there will still be what you'd call original
sin. You still won't be able to prevent one man wanting to pop into bed
with another man's wife. But on balance I should say you would be getting
nearer to saving the world by economics than by religion, the greatest
instrument of persecution ever devised.'

'Oh, now wait a minute!' Peter protested. 'I don't know much about either
religion or economics, but I know this. Religious persecution has been
periodic, but economic persecution has been constant, uninterrupted,
never-ending. There's no evidence in history of men being better disposed
towards one another because of economics, but there is some evidence of
their being so through religion.' Now he was on a subject he could warm
to. Where he got his fresh eloquence from I don't know; but he went on
more or less in this vein: 'We're talking about two different things, you
and I. You are talking about material misery and crime, and so on;
whereas I am talking about something you're not interested in--sin, and
the harm man does to himself. What I'm trying to say is this, that men
who possess the religious sense know that you can't injure others without
doing harm to yourself. You agree that there has always been economic
misery. You're almost ready to admit it can't be altogether done away
with. Well, make men Christians, I say, and they won't hurt others
because they won't want to hurt themselves, their immortal souls.'

It was queer how I, who had taken the offensive from the beginning, was
now being put on the defensive by the conviction behind Peter's words. I
was convinced, too; but I was not half as collected in that compartment
as I am now, writing the debate out from memory. I recall that we rambled
round the subject a good deal, and that Peter admitted he'd perhaps try
to stand for Parliament. I pointed out to him that he would have either
to vote with his Party on every issue--if there still was a dear
old--fashioned Parliament--or retire a disappointed reformer. Suppose, I
said, he turned out like Neville Chamberlain, acted as his conscience
prompted and then found out he'd been a--well, never mind the epithet. I
told him that as a writer I should be content to go my own way and be
governed by any set of politicians he or his political enemies could dish
up for the misguidance of the perhaps excessively patient British people.

But Peter had an answer to this. 'Do you realize,' he asked, 'that your
lofty political irresponsibilities are exactly what the Nazis are
drilling into the German people? You reject their system because you're
an individualist and don't like taking orders. But if you are politically
irresponsible, you have to take orders. I reject Nazism not only because
I have a sense of history, but also because, unlike you, I believe its
purpose is to stamp out the divine spark in Man.'

We should be pulling into Edinburgh soon. I wasn't satisfied. Politics
was an easier subject than the immortal soul, and I went back at him on
that tack.

'How,' I asked, 'are you going to reconcile your moral and religious
convictions with being a loyal Party member? Especially if you were
successful, and were taken into the Cabinet, some of the acts you
committed in the name of the State would get you put away for life if you
committed them as an individual.'

'Now, Richard,' Peter started to protest; but I stopped him. 'No, no. Let
me go on. In time of need--and politics are continuously in times of
need--the rulers, the ruling classes, are always able to evoke
exceptional circumstances and glibly plead the need of exceptional
measures. They are for ever in a state of self-defence. You may define
reform by saying that it indicates a weak state of ruling-class defence.
Revolution you may define by saying that it represents the breakdown of
ruling-class defence. You, as a Cabinet member, would spend your life
defending a class interest--by a concession to the common people when the
defences were weak, by a disguised persecution when your defences were
strong. Yes, you would! You wouldn't be able to help yourself. You'd be a
cog in the Party machine--or, as I've hinted before, a mere overseer of
your baronial acres who hadn't been able to stand the gaff in Whitehall.'

My tirade had freshened me. I was feeling 'fine,' as Hemingway would say;
as fine as one of his heroes when a well-born girl offers him a bottle of
precious brandy if only he will go to bed with her. Peter stared at me
with a glint of curiosity in his eye. The day was darkening, and in the
half-light his bony face had taken on a decidedly ascetic look, so that I
felt more than ever in contact with an alien spiritual world.

'You're not a communist, Richard,' he said--

'God knows I'm not!'

'--but you are an anarchist.'

'Nonsense!' said I. 'It's simpler than that. You are going to concern
yourself with politics and mankind when the war is over: I am going to
concern myself with the individual and Richard Hillary. I may or may not
be exactly a man of my time: I don't know. But I know that you are an
anachronism. In an age when to love one's country is vulgar, to love God
archaic, and to love mankind sentimental, you do all three. If you can
work out a harmonious synthesis, I'll take my hat off to you. The really
funny thing is that I, as an individual, shall certainly do less harm to
the world writing than you as a Party member, a governor of the nation,
are bound to do in office.'

'That,' said Peter, 'is most certainly not true. I don't read much myself
but lots of people round me do. And the harm done them by their reading
these past few years has been absolutely appalling. It is taking this war
to correct the flubdub of the 1920's pacifism. All due to writers! Was
there a single poet in Oxford who didn't write surrealist economics, who
didn't proclaim that he refused to fight for king and country, instead of
sticking to his cuckoos and bluebells? Not one! Besides, wasn't it your
friend Goethe who said that while an artist never writes with a moral end
in view, the effect of a work of art is always moral?'

'Yes, my good Peter,' I said. 'But that's where I have you, because I
don't care. The mass of mankind leaves me cold. My only concern outside
myself is my immediate circle of friends, to whom I behave well,
basically, I suppose, because I hope they'll behave well towards me.
That's merely oiling the wheels of an agreeable existence. Thus if I were
asked to contribute to a friend of mine about to go down from Oxford
through lack of money I would do so willingly, but if I were asked to
subscribe to some African chiefs wife because she was being beaten up by
her husband I should refuse as I wouldn't know the good lady. But that in
effect is what you're asking us all to do.'

'Oh, but you're such a fraud, Richard,' he said cheerfully. 'What about
those children at Tarfside?'

'For God's sake,' I said, 'they gave me more pleasure than I gave them. I
was taking, not giving.'

Peter groaned.

'I know, I know,' I said. 'You are about to tell me that in time, looking
at the world and its featherless bipeds, studying the machinery that
animates them, and describing it, I shall grow very fond of them. I shall
end up with whiskers and a rage for primitive Christianity, like Tolstoi;
or bald and sitting in homespuns among my worshippers, like Gandhi. But I
shan't, and if you live long enough I'll prove it to you.'

Peter said: 'I can see that neither of us is going to convince the other.
And I don't mind at all admitting that I am sure you will change your
tune. It won't be long either. Something bigger than you and me is coming
out of this, and as it grows you'll grow with it. Your preconceived
notions won't last long. You are not entirely unfeeling, Richard. I'm
sure it needs only some psychological shock, some affront to your
sensibility, to arouse your pity or your anger sufficiently to make you
forget yourself.'

'I doubt it,' I said; and at that we left it.

We spent the night at Turnhouse, collected the two Spitfires and flew
back to Montrose. Before I had switched off, Bubble was climbing up on to
the wing.

'Get your things packed and hand them over to Sergeant Ross. We're on our
way. You'd left before we could stop you.'

It had come at last. The whole Squadron was moving down to Turnhouse.
That was only Edinburgh, but with the German offensive in full swing in
the south, it could mean only one thing. In a very few days we should be
further south and in it. Broody Benson was hopping up and down like a

'Now we'll show the bastards! Jesus, will we show 'em!'

Stapme was capering about shaking everyone by the hand, and Raspberry's
moustache looked as though it would fall off with excitement. 'Eh, now
they'll cop it and no mistake,' he chortled. 'I've had just about enough
of bulling about up here!' Even Boulter was out of bed, his ears
twitching uncontrollably. Our relief Squadron was already coming in,
plane after plane engining down over the boundary. Rusty quickly
allocated us to sections and 'B' Flight roared twelve strong across the
aerodrome, dipped once over the Mess, and headed south.

For a moment I thought Rusty had forgotten, but then I heard his voice
down the R.T., 'Once more, boys,' and in four sections of three we were
banking to starboard and headed for the mountains.

They had heard the news, and as we went into line astern and dived one by
one in salute over the valley, none of the children moved or shouted.
With white boulders they had spelt out on the road the two words: 'Good

We rejoined formation and once again headed south. I looked back. The
children stood close together on the grass, their hands raised in silent


The Invaders

AFTER kicking our heels for two days at Turnhouse, a reaction set in. We
were like children with the promise of a trip to the seaside, broken
because of rain. On the third day I allowed myself to be persuaded
against my better judgment to take up a gun again.

The Duke of Hamilton, the Station C.O., had offered the Squadron a couple
of days grouse-shooting on his estate. Colin, of course, was eager to go
as were two other 'A' Flight pilots, Sheep Gilroy and Black Morton. Sheep
was a Scotsman and a farmer, with a port-wine complexion and features
which gave rise to his name. I finally agreed to go in place of Peter
Pease, who was on duty, and the four of us set off. It was pouring with
rain when we arrived, to be greeted by the usual intimidating band of
beaters, loaders, gillies, and what-not. We set off at once for the
butts, an uphill climb across the moors of a mere couple of miles, the
others apparently in no way put out by the weather. We climbed in single
file, I bringing up the protesting rear, miserable, wet, and muddy from
repeated falls into the heather. After about an hour we reached the top
and disposed ourselves in four butts, while the beaters, loaders,
gullies, and what-not squelched away into the mist. After the first
half-hour, during which my hands turned blue and my feet lost all
feeling, I sat down and resigned myself to the sensation of the wet earth
steadily seeping through my breeches. From time to time I got up and
looked over at the others, alert, guns gripped firmly, staring eagerly
into the mist, and I was ashamed of my craven spirit: I chid myself. Were
there not gentlemen--and the right type of gentlemen too--who paid 30
a day for the privilege of just such suffering? My musings were
interrupted by a series of animal cries, and from out of the mist emerged
the beaters, beating. As a result of this lengthy coordination of effort
one hare and two rather tired-looking birds put in an apologetic
short-lived appearance, to be summarily dispatched by our withering fire.
The prospect of lunch cheered me, and my hunger was such that I was
undismayed at the thought of the long walk back, but my illusions were
rudely shattered when we set off purposefully for a second lot of butts
where a larger flock, flight, covey, or what-have-you was expected. Once
again the beaters vanished into the mist, once again we were left damply
to our meditations, and once again a discreet flutter of wings rewarded
our vigil. This time my cries of hunger were accorded a grudging
attention and we set off for the brake, parked some miles away and
containing whisky and sandwiches. Sheep and Black Morton had to return to
Turnhouse that evening for duty, but Colin and I were to stay overnight
and shoot again in the morning (on condition it wasn't raining). Back at
the Lodge I got out of my wet clothes and sank gratefully into a hot
bath, allowing the steam to waft away the more acute memories of the
day's discomforts. Colin at dinner stretched out his legs contentedly,
and his face wore the rapt expression of the madman who, when asked why
he banged his head against the wall, replied that it was such fun when he

We retired early to bed and slept until, at two o'clock in the morning, a
gillie banged on the door. Colin got up, took from the gillie's hand a
telegram, opened it, and read it aloud.

DENHOLM.' For us, the war began that night.

At ten o'clock we were back at Turnhouse. The rest of the Squadron were
all set to leave; we were to move down to Hornchurch, an aerodrome twelve
miles east of London on the Thames Estuary. Four machines would not be
serviceable until the evening, and Broody Benson, Pip Cardell, Colin, and
I were to fly them down. We took off at four o'clock, some five hours
after the others, Broody leading, Pip and I to each side, and Colin in
the box, map-reading. Twenty-four of us flew south that tenth day of
August 1940: of those twenty-four eight were to fly back.

We landed at Hornchurch at about seven o'clock to receive our first
shock. Instead of one section there were four Squadrons at readiness; 603
Squadron were already in action. They started coming in about half an
hour after we landed, smoke stains along the leading edges of the wings
showing that all the guns had been fired. They had acquitted themselves
well although caught at a disadvantage of height.

'You don't have to look for them,' said Brian. 'You have to look for a
way out.'

From this flight Don MacDonald did not return.

At this time the Germans were sending over comparatively few bombers.
They were making a determined attempt to wipe out our entire Fighter
Force, and from dawn till dusk the sky was filled with Messerschmitt
109's and 110's.

Half a dozen of us always slept over at the Dispersal Hut to be ready for
a surprise enemy attack at dawn. This entailed being up by four-thirty
and by five o'clock having our machines warmed up and the oxygen, sights,
and ammunition tested. The first Hun attack usually came over about
breakfast-time and from then until eight o'clock at night we were almost
continuously in the air. We ate when we could, baked beans and bacon and
eggs being sent over from the Mess.

On the morning after our arrival I walked over with Peter Howes and
Broody. Howes was at Hornchurch with another Squadron and worried because
he had as yet shot nothing down. Every evening when we came into the Mess
he would ask us how many we had got and then go over miserably to his
room. His Squadron had had a number of losses and was due for relief. If
ever a man needed it, it was Howes. Broody, on the other hand, was in a
high state of excitement, his sharp eager face grinning from ear to ear.
We left Howes at his Dispersal Hut and walked over to where our machines
were being warmed up. The voice of the controller came unhurried over the
loud-speaker, telling us to take off, and in a few seconds we were
running for our machines. I climbed into the cockpit of my plane and felt
an empty sensation of suspense in the pit of my stomach. For one second
time seemed to stand still and I stared blankly in front of me. I knew
that that morning I was to kill for the first time. That I might be
killed or in any way injured did not occur to me. Later, when we were
losing pilots regularly, I did consider it in an abstract way when on the
ground; but once in the air, never. I knew it could not happen to me. I
suppose every pilot knows that, knows it cannot happen to him; even when
he is taking off for the last time, when he will not return, he knows
that he cannot be killed. I wondered idly what he was like, this man I
would kill. Was he young, was he fat, would he die with the Fuhrer's name
on his lips, or would he die alone, in that last moment conscious of
himself as a man? I would never know. Then I was being strapped in, my
mind automatically checking the controls, and we were off.

We ran into them at 18,000 feet, twenty yellow-nosed Messerschmitt 109's,
about 500 feet above us. Our Squadron strength was eight, and as they
came down on us we went into line astern and turned head on to them.
Brian Carbury, who was leading the Section, dropped the nose of his
machine, and I could almost feel the leading Nazi pilot push forward on
his stick to bring his guns to bear. At the same moment Brian hauled hard
back on his own control stick and led us over them in a steep climbing
turn to the left. In two vital seconds they lost their advantage. I saw
Brian let go a burst of fire at the leading plane, saw the pilot put his
machine into a half roll, and knew that he was mine. Automatically, I
kicked the rudder to the left to get him at right angles, turned the
gunbutton to 'Fire,' and let go in a four-second burst with full
deflection. He came right through my sights and I saw the tracer from all
eight guns thud home. For a second he seemed to hang motionless; then a
jet of red flame shot upwards and he spun out of sight.

For the next few minutes I was too busy looking after myself to think of
anything, but when, after a short while, they turned and made off over
the Channel, and we were ordered to our base, my mind began to work

It had happened.

My first emotion was one of satisfaction, satisfaction at a job
adequately done, at the final logical conclusion of months of specialized
training. And then I had a feeling of the essential rightness of it all.
He was dead and I was alive; it could so easily have been the other way
round; and that would somehow have been right too. I realized in that
moment just how lucky a fighter pilot is. He has none of the personalized
emotions of the soldier, handed a rifle and bayonet and told to charge.
He does not even have to share the dangerous emotions of the bomber pilot
who night after night must experience that childhood longing for smashing
things. The fighter pilot's emotions are those of the duellist--cool,
precise, impersonal. He is privileged to kill well. For if one must
either kill or be killed, as now one must, it should, I feel, be done
with dignity. Death should be given the setting it deserves; it should
never be a pettiness; and for the fighter pilot it never can be.

From this flight Broody Benson did not return.

During that August-September period we were always so outnumbered that it
was practically impossible, unless we were lucky enough to have the
advantage of height, to deliver more than one Squadron attack. After a
few seconds we always broke up, and the sky was a smoke trail of
individual dog-fights. The result was that the Squadron would come home
individually, machines landing one after the other at intervals of about
two minutes. After an hour, Uncle George would make a check-up on who was
missing. Often there would be a telephone-call from some pilot to say
that he had made a forced landing at some other aerodrome, or in a field.
But the telephone wasn't always so welcome. It would be a rescue squad
announcing the number of a crashed machine; then Uncle George would check
it, and cross another name off the list. At that time, the losing of
pilots was somehow extremely impersonal; nobody, I think, felt any great
emotion--there simply wasn't time for it.

After the hard lesson of the first two days, we became more canny and
determined not to let ourselves be caught from above. We would fly on the
reciprocal of the course given us by the controller until we got to
15,000 feet, and then fly back again, climbing all the time. By this
means we usually saw the Huns coming in below us, and were in a perfect
position to deliver a Squadron attack. If caught at a disadvantage, they
would never stay to fight, but always turned straight back for the
Channel. We arranged a system whereby two pilots always flew
together--thus if one should follow a plane down the other stayed 500
feet or so above, to protect him from attack in the rear.

Often machines would come back to their base just long enough for the
ground staff, who worked with beautiful speed, to refuel them and put in
a new oxygen bottle and more ammunition before taking off again. Uncle
George was shot down several times but always turned up unhurt; once we
thought Rusty was gone for good, but he was back leading his flight the
next day; one sergeant pilot in 'A' Flight was shot down four times, but
he seemed to bear a charmed life.

The sun and the great height at which we flew often made it extremely
difficult to pick out the enemy machines, but it was here that Sheep's
experience on the moors of Scotland proved invaluable. He always led the
guard section and always saw the Huns long before anyone else. For me the
sun presented a major problem. We had dark lenses on our glasses, but I,
as I have mentioned before, never wore mine. They gave me a feeling of
claustrophobia. With spots on the wind-screen, spots before the eyes, and
a couple of spots which might be Messerschmitts, blind spots on my
goggles seemed too much of a good thing; I always slipped them up on to
my forehead before going into action. For this and for not wearing gloves
I paid a stiff price.

I remember once going practically to France before shooting down a 109.
There were two of them, flying at sea-level and headed for the French
coast. Raspberry was flying beside me and caught one half-way across. I
got right up close behind the second one and gave it a series of short
bursts. It darted about in front, like a startled rabbit, and finally
plunged into the sea about three miles off the French coast.

On another occasion I was stupid enough actually to fly over France: the
sky appeared to be perfectly clear but for one returning Messerschmitt,
flying very high. I had been trying to catch him for about ten minutes
and was determined that he should not get away. Eventually I caught him
inland from Calais and was just about to open fire when I saw a squadron
of twelve Messerschmitts coming in on my right. I was extremely
frightened, but turned in towards them and opened fire at the leader. I
could see his tracer going past underneath me, and then I saw his hood
fly off, and the next moment they were past. I didn't wait to see any
more, but made off for home, pursued for half the distance by eleven very
determined Germans. I landed a good hour after everyone else to find
Uncle George just finishing his check-up.

From this flight Larry Cunningham did not return.

After about a week of Hornchurch, I woke late one morning to the noise of
machines running up on the aerodrome. It irritated me: I had a headache.

Having been on every flight the previous day, the morning was mine to do
with as I pleased. I got up slowly, gazed dispassionately at my tongue in
the mirror, and wandered over to the Mess for breakfast. It must have
been getting on for twelve o'clock when I came out on to the aerodrome to
find the usual August heat haze forming a dull pall over everything. I
started to walk across the aerodrome to the Dispersal Point on the far
side. There were only two machines on the ground so I concluded that the
Squadron was already up. Then I heard a shout, and our ground crew drew
up in a lorry beside me. Sergeant Ross leaned out:

'Want a lift, sir? We're going round.'

'No, thanks, Sergeant. I'm going to cut across.'

This was forbidden for obvious reasons, but I felt like that.

'O.K., sir. See you round there.'

The lorry trundled off down the road in a cloud of dust. I walked on
across the landing ground. At that moment I heard the emotionless voice
of the controller.

'Large enemy bombing formation approaching Hornchurch. All personnel not
engaged in active duty take cover immediately.'

I looked up. They were still not visible. At the Dispersal Point I saw
Bubble and Pip Cardell make a dash for the shelter. Three Spitfires just
landed, turned about and came past me with a roar to take off down-wind.
Our lorry was still trundling along the road, maybe half-way round, and
seemed suddenly an awfully long way from the Dispersal Point.

I looked up again, and this time I saw them--about a dozen slugs,
shining in the bright sun and coming straight on. At the rising scream of
the first bomb I instinctively shrugged up my shoulders and ducked my
head. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the three Spitfires. One moment
they were about twenty feet up in close formation; the next catapulted
apart as though on elastic. The leader went over on his back and ploughed
along the runway with a rending crash of tearing fabric; No. 2 put a wing
in and spun round on his airscrew, while the plane on the left was
blasted wingless into the next field. I remember thinking stupidly,
'That's the shortest flight he's ever taken,' and then my feet were
nearly knocked from under me, my mouth was full of dirt, and Bubble,
gesticulating like a madman from the shelter entrance, was yelling, 'Run,
you bloody fool, run!' I ran. Suddenly awakened to the lunacy of my
behaviour, I covered the distance to that shelter as if impelled by a
rocket and shot through the entrance while once again the ground rose up
and hit me, and my head smashed hard against one of the pillars. I
subsided on a heap of rubble and massaged it.

'Who's here?' I asked, peering through the gloom.

'Cardell and I and three of our ground crew,' said Bubble, 'and, by the
Grace of God, you!'

I could see by his mouth that he was still talking, but a sudden
concentration of the scream and crump of falling bombs made it impossible
to hear him.

The air was thick with dust and the shelter shook and heaved at each
explosion, yet somehow held firm. For about three minutes the bedlam
continued, and then suddenly ceased. In the utter silence which followed
nobody moved. None of us wished to be the first to look on the
devastation which we felt must be outside. Then Bubble spoke. 'Praise
God!' he said, 'I'm not a civilian. Of all the bloody frightening things
I've ever done, sitting in that shelter was the worst. Me for the air
from now on!'

It broke the tension and we scrambled out of the entrance. The runways
were certainly in something of a mess. Gaping holes and great gobbets of
earth were everywhere. Right in front of us a bomb had landed by my
Spitfire, covering it with a shower of grit and rubble.

I turned to the aircraftsman standing beside me. 'Will you get hold of
Sergeant Ross and tell him to have a crew give her an inspection.'

He jerked his head towards one corner of the aerodrome:

'I think I'd better collect the crew myself, sir. Sergeant Ross won't be
doing any more inspections.'

I followed his glance and saw the lorry, the roof about twenty yards
away, lying grotesquely on its side. I climbed into the cockpit, and,
feeling faintly sick, tested out the switches. Bubble poked his head over
the side.

'Let's go over to the Mess and see what's up: all our machines will be
landing down at the reserve landing field, anyway.'

I climbed out and walked over to find that the three Spitfire pilots were
quite unharmed but for a few superficial scratches, in spite of being
machine-gunned by the bombers. 'Operations' was undamaged: no hangar had
been touched and the Officers' Mess had two windows broken.

The Station Commander ordered every available man and woman on to the job
of repairing the aerodrome surface and by four o'clock there was not a
hole to be seen. Several unexploded bombs were marked off, and two lines
of yellow flags were laid down to mark the runways. At five o'clock our
Squadron, taking off for a 'flap' from the reserve field, landed without
incident on its home base. Thus, apart from four men killed in the lorry
and a network of holes on the landing surface, there was nothing to show
for ten minutes' really accurate bombing from 12,000 feet, in which
several dozen sticks of bombs had been dropped. It was a striking proof
of the inefficacy of their attempts to wipe out our advance fighter

Brian had a bullet through his foot, and as my machine was still out of
commission, I took his place in readiness for the next show. I had had
enough of the ground for one day.

Six o'clock came and went, and no call. We started to play poker and I
was winning. It was agreed that we should stop at seven: should there be
a 'flap' before then, the game was off. I gazed anxiously at the clock. I
am always unlucky at cards, but when the hands pointed to 6.55 I really
began to feel my luck was on the change. But sure enough at that moment
came the voice of the controller: '603 Squadron take off and patrol base:
further instructions in the air.'

We made a dash for our machines and within two minutes were off the
ground. Twice we circled the aerodrome to allow all twelve planes to get
in formation. We were flying in four sections of three: Red Section
leading, Blue and Green to right and left, and the three remaining planes
forming a guard section above and behind us.

I was flying No. 2 in the Blue Section.

Over the radio came the voice of the controller: 'Hub, Red Leader,'
followed by instructions on course and height.

As always, for the first few minutes we flew on the reciprocal of the
course given until we reached 15,000 feet. We then turned about and flew
on 110 degrees in an all-out climb, thus coming out of the sun and
gaining height all the way.

During the climb Uncle George was in constant touch with the ground. We
were to intercept about twenty enemy fighters at 25,000 feet. I glanced
across at Stapme and saw his mouth moving. That meant he was singing
again. He would sometimes do this with his radio set on 'send,' with the
result that, mingled with our instructions from the ground, we would hear
a raucous rendering of 'Night and Day.' And then quite clearly over the
radio I heard the Germans excitedly calling to each other. This was a not
infrequent occurrence and it made one feel that they were right behind,
although often they were some distance away. I switched my set to 'send'
and called out 'Halts Maul!' and as many other choice pieces of German
invective as I could remember. To my delight I heard one of them answer:
'You feelthy Englishmen, we will teach you how to speak to a German.' I
am aware that this sounds a tall story, but several others in the
Squadron were listening out and heard the whole thing.

I looked down. It was a completely cloudless sky and way below lay the
English countryside, stretching lazily into the distance, a quite
extraordinary picture of green and purple in the setting sun.

I took a glance at my altimeter. We were at 28,000 feet. At that moment
Sheep yelled 'Tallyho' and dropped down in front of Uncle George in a
slow dive in the direction of the approaching planes. Uncle George saw
them at once.

'O.K. Line astern.'

I drew in behind Stapme and took a look at them. They were about 2000
feet below us, which was a pleasant change, but they must have spotted us
at the same moment, for they were forming a protective circle, one behind
the other, which is a defence formation hard to break.

'Echelon starboard' came Uncle George's voice.

We spread out fanwise to the right.

'Going down!'

One after the other we peeled off in a power dive. I picked out one
machine and switched my gun-button to 'Fire.' At 300 yards I had him in
my sights. At 200 I opened up in a long four-second burst and saw the
tracer going into his nose. Then I was pulling out, so hard that I could
feel my eyes dropping through my neck. Coming round in a slow climbing
turn, I saw that we had broken them up. The sky was now a mass of
individual dog-fights. Several of them had already been knocked down. One
I hoped was mine, but on pulling up I had not been able to see the
result. To my left I saw Peter Pease make a head-on attack on a
Messerschmitt. They were headed straight for each other and it looked as
though the fire of both was striking home. Then at the last moment the
Messerschmitt pulled up, taking Peter's fire full in the belly. It rolled
on to its back, yellow flames pouring from the cockpit, and vanished.

The next few minutes were typical. First the sky a bedlam of machines;
then suddenly silence and not a plane to be seen. I noticed then that I
was very tired and very hot. The sweat was running down my face in
rivulets. But this was no time for vague reflections. Flying around the
sky on one's own at that time was not a healthy course of action.

I still had some ammunition left. Having no desire to return to the
aerodrome until it had all been used to some good purpose, I took a look
around the sky for some friendly fighters. About a mile away over
Dungeness I saw a formation of about forty Hurricanes on patrol at 20,000
feet. Feeling that there was safety in numbers, I set off in their
direction. When about 200 yards from the rear machine, I looked down and
saw 5000 feet below another formation of fifty machines flying in the
same direction. Flying stepped up like this was an old trick of the Runs,
and I was glad to see we were adopting the same tactics. But as though
hit by a douche of cold water, I suddenly woke up. There were far more
machines flying together than we could ever muster over one spot. I took
another look at the rear machine in my formation, and sure enough, there
was the Swastika on its tail. Yet they all seemed quite oblivious of my
presence. I had the sun behind me and a glorious opportunity. Closing in
to 150 yards I let go a three-second burst into the rear machine. It
flicked on to its back and spun out of sight. Feeling like an
irresponsible schoolboy who has perpetrated some crime which must
inevitably be found out, I glanced round me. Still nobody seemed
disturbed. I suppose I could have repeated the performance on the next
machine, but I felt that it was inadvisable to tempt Providence too far.
I did a quick half roll and made off home, where I found to my irritation
that Raspberry, as usual, had three planes down to my one.

There was to be a concert on the Station that night, but as I had to be
up at five the next morning for Dawn Readiness, I had a quick dinner and
two beers, and went to bed, feeling not unsatisfied with the day.

Perhaps the most amusing though painful experience which I had was when I
was shot down acting as Arse-end Charlie to a Squadron of Hurricanes.
Arse-end Charlie is the man who weaves backwards and forwards above and
behind the Squadron to protect them from attack from the rear. There had
been the usual dog-fights over the South Coast, and the Squadron had
broken up. Having only fired one snap burst, I climbed up in search of
friendly Spitfires, but found instead a Squadron of Hurricanes flying
round the sky at 18,000 feet in sections of stepped-up threes, but with
no rear-guard. So I joined on. I learned within a few seconds the truth
of the old warning, 'Beware of the Hun in the Sun.' I was making pleasant
little sweeps from side to side, and peering earnestly into my mirror
when, from out of the sun and dead astern, bullets started appearing
along my port wing. There is an appalling tendency to sit and watch this
happen without taking any action, as though mesmerized by a snake; but I
managed to pull myself together and go into a spin, at the same time
attempting to call up the Hurricanes and warn them, but I found that my
radio had been shot away. At first there appeared to be little damage
done and I started to climb up again, but black smoke began pouring out
of the engine and there was an unpleasant smell of escaping glycol. I
thought I had better get home while I could; but as the windscreen was
soon covered with oil I realized that I couldn't make it and decided
instead to put down at Lympne, where there was an aerodrome. Then I
realized that I wasn't going to make Lympne either--I was going at full
boost and only clocking 90 miles per hour, so I decided that I had better
put down in the nearest field before I stalled and spun in. I chose a
cornfield and put the machine down on its belly. Fortunately nothing
caught fire, and I had just climbed out and switched off the petrol, when
to my amazement I saw an ambulance coming through the gate. This I
thought was real service, until the corporal and two orderlies who
climbed out started cantering away in the opposite direction, their necks
craned up to the heavens. I looked up and saw about 50 yards away a
parachute, and suspended on the end, his legs dangling vaguely, Colin. He
was a little burned about his face and hands but quite cheerful.

We were at once surrounded by a bevy of officers and discovered that we
had landed practically in the back garden of a Brigade cocktail party. A
salvage crew from Lympne took charge of my machine, a doctor took charge
of Colin, and the rest took charge of me, handing me double whiskies for
the nerves at a laudable rate. I was put up that night by the Brigadier,
who thought I was suffering from a rather severe shock, largely because
by dinner-time I was so pie-eyed that I didn't dare open my mouth but
answered all his questions with a glassy stare. The next day I went up to
London by train, a somewhat incongruous figure, carrying a helmet and
parachute. The prospect of a long and tedious journey by tube to
Hornchurch did not appeal to me, so I called up the Air Ministry and
demanded a car and a W.A.A.F. I was put on to the good lady in charge of
transport, a sergeant, who protested apologetically that she must have
the authorization of a Wing Commander. I told her forcibly that at this
moment I was considerably more important than any Wing Commander, painted
a vivid picture of the complete disorganization of Fighter Command in the
event of my not being back at Hornchurch within an hour, and clinched the
argument by telling her that my parachute was a military secret which
must on no account be seen in a train. By the afternoon I was flying

That evening there was a terrific attack on Hornchurch and, for the first
time since coming south, I saw some bombers. There were twelve Dornier
215's flying in close formation at about 12,000 feet, and headed back for
France. I was on my way back to the aerodrome when I first sighted them
about 5000 feet below me. I dived straight down in a quarter head-on
attack. It seemed quite impossible to miss, and I pressed the button.
Nothing happened; I had already fired all my ammunition. I could not turn
back, so I put both my arms over my head and went straight through the
formation, never thinking I'd get out of it unscratched. I landed on the
aerodrome with the machine, quite serviceable, but a little draughty.

From this flight Bubble Waterston did not return.

And so August drew to a close with no slackening of pressure in the enemy
offensive. Yet the Squadron showed no signs of strain, and I personally
was content. This was what I had waited for, waited for nearly a year,
and I was not disappointed. If I felt anything, it was a sensation of
relief. We had little time to think, and each day brought new action. No
one thought of the future: sufficient unto the day was the emotion
thereof. At night one switched off one's mind like an electric light.

It was one week after Bubble went that I crashed into the North Sea.



Shall I Live for a Ghost?

I WAS falling. Falling slowly through a dark pit. I was dead. My body,
headless, circled in front of me. I saw it with my mind, my mind that was
the redness in front of the eye, the dull scream in the ear, the grinning
of the mouth, the skin crawling on the skull. It was death and
resurrection. Terror, moving with me, touched my cheek with hers and I
felt the flesh wince. Faster, faster.... I was hot now, hot, again one
with my body, on fire and screaming soundlessly. Dear God, no! No! Not
that, not again. The sickly smell of death was in my nostrils and a
confused roar of sound. Then all was quiet. I was back.

Someone was holding my arms.

'Quiet now. There's a good boy. You're going to be all right. You've been
very ill and you mustn't talk.'

I tried to reach up my hand but could not.

'Is that you, nurse? What have they done to me?'

'Well, they've put something on your face and hands to stop them hurting
and you won't be able to see for a little while. But you mustn't talk:
you're not strong enough yet.'

Gradually I realized what had happened. My face and hands had been
scrubbed and then sprayed with tannic acid. The acid had formed into a
hard black cement. My eyes alone had received different treatment: they
were coated with a thick layer of gentian violet. My arms were propped up
in front of me, the fingers extended like witches' claws, and my body was
hung loosely on straps just clear of the bed.

I can recollect no moments of acute agony in the four days which I spent
in that hospital; only a great sea of pain in which I floated almost with
comfort. Every three hours I was injected with morphia, so while
imagining myself quite coherent, I was for the most part in a
semi-stupor. The memory of it has remained a confused blur.

Two days without eating, and then periodic doses of liquid food taken
through a tube. An appalling thirst, and hundreds of bottles of ginger
beer. Being blind, and not really feeling strong enough to care.
Imagining myself back in my plane, unable to get out, and waking to find
myself shouting and bathed in sweat. My parents coming down to see me and
their wonderful self-control.

They arrived in the late afternoon of my second day in bed, having with
admirable restraint done nothing the first day. On the morning of the
crash my mother had been on her way to the Red Cross, when she felt a
premonition that she must go home. She told the taxi-driver to turn about
and arrived at the flat to hear the telephone ringing. It was our
Squadron Adjutant, trying to reach my father. Embarrassed by finding
himself talking to my mother, he started in on a glamorized history of my
exploits in the air and was bewildered by my mother cutting him short to
ask where I was. He managed somehow after about five minutes of
incoherent stuttering to get over his news.

They arrived in the afternoon and were met by Matron. Outside my ward a
twittery nurse explained that they must not expect to find me looking
quite normal, and they were ushered in. The room was in darkness; I just
a dim shape in one corner. Then the blinds were shot up, all the lights
switched on, and there I was. As my mother remarked later, the
performance lacked only the rolling of drums and a spotlight. For the
sake of decorum my face had been covered with white gauze, with a slit in
the middle through which protruded my lips.

We spoke little, my only coherent remark being that I had no wish to go
on living if I were to look like Alice. Alice was a large country girl
who had once been our maid. As a child she had been burned and disfigured
by a Primus stove. I was not aware that she had made any impression on
me, but now I was unable to get her out of my mind. It was not so much
her looks as her smell I had continually in my nostrils and which I
couldn't dissociate from the disfigurement.

They sat quietly and listened to me rambling for an hour. Then it was
time for my dressings and they took their leave.

The smell of ether. Matron once doing my dressing with three orderlies
holding my arms; a nurse weeping quietly at the head of the bed, and no
remembered sign of a doctor. A visit from the lifeboat crew that had
picked me up, and a terrible longing to make sense when talking to them.
Their inarticulate sympathy and assurance of quick recovery. Their
discovery that an ancestor of mine had founded the lifeboats, and my
pompous and unsolicited promise of a subscription. The expectation of an
American ambulance to drive me up to the Masonic Hospital (for Margate
was used only as a clearing station). Believing that I was already in it
and on my way, and waking to the disappointment that I had not been
moved. A dream that I was fighting to open my eyes and could not: waking
in a sweat to realize it was a dream and then finding it to be true. A
sensation of time slowing down, of words and actions, all in slow motion.
Sweat, pain, smells, cheering messages from the Squadron, and an
overriding apathy.

Finally I was moved. The ambulance appeared with a cargo of two somewhat
nervous A.T.S. women who were to drive me to London, and, with my nurse
in attendance, and wrapped in an old grandmother's shawl, I was carried
aboard and we were off. For the first few miles I felt quite well,
dictated letters to my nurse, drank bottle after bottle of ginger beer,
and gossiped with the drivers. They described the countryside for me,
told me they were new to the job, expressed satisfaction at having me for
a consignment, asked me if I felt fine. Yes, I said, I felt fine; asked
my nurse if the drivers were pretty, heard her answer yes, heard them
simpering, and we were all very matey. But after about half an hour my
arms began to throb from the rhythmical jolting of the road. I stopped
dictating, drank no more ginger beer, and didn't care whether they were
pretty or not. Then they lost their way. Wasn't it awful and shouldn't
they stop and ask? No, they certainly shouldn't: they could call out the
names of the streets and I would tell them where to go. By the time we
arrived at Ravenscourt Park I was pretty much all-in. I was carried into
the hospital and once again felt the warm September sun burning my face.
I was put in a private ward and had the impression of a hundred excited
ants buzzing around me. My nurse said good-bye and started to sob. For
no earthly reason I found myself in tears. It had been a lousy hospital,
I had never seen the nurse anyway, and I was now in very good hands;
but I suppose I was in a fairly exhausted state. So there we all were,
snivelling about the place and getting nowhere. Then the charge nurse
came up and took my arm and asked me what my name was.

'Dick,' I said.

'Ah,' she said brightly. 'We must call you Richard the Lion Heart.'

I made an attempt at a polite laugh but all that came out was a dismal
groan and I fainted away. The house surgeon took the opportunity to give
me an anaesthetic and removed all the tannic acid from my left hand.

At this time tannic acid was the recognized treatment for burns. The
theory was that in forming a hard cement it protected the skin from the
air, and encouraged it to heal up underneath. As the tannic started to
crack, it was to be chipped off gradually with a scalpel, but after a few
months of experience, it was discovered that nearly all pilots with
third-degree burns so treated developed secondary infection and
septicaemia. This caused its use to be discontinued and gave us the
dubious satisfaction of knowing that we were suffering in the cause of
science. Both my hands were suppurating, and the fingers were already
contracting under the tannic and curling down into the palms. The risk of
shock was considered too great for them to do both hands. I must have
been under the anaesthetic for about fifteen minutes and in that time I
saw Peter Pease killed.

He was after another machine, a tall figure leaning slightly forward with
a smile at the corner of his mouth. Suddenly from nowhere a Messerschmitt
was on his tail about 150 yards away. For two seconds nothing happened. I
had a terrible feeling of futility. Then at the top of my voice I
shouted, 'Peter, for God's sake look out behind!'

I saw the Messerschmitt open up and a burst of fire hit Peter's machine.
His expression did not change, and for a moment his machine hung
motionless. Then it turned slowly on its back and dived to the ground. I
came-to, screaming his name, with two nurses and the doctor holding me
down on the bed.

'All right now. Take it easy, you're not dead yet. That must have been a
very bad dream.'

I said nothing. There wasn't anything to say. Two days later I had a
letter from Colin. My nurse read it to me. It was very short, hoping that
I was getting better and telling me that Peter was dead.

Slowly I came back to life. My morphia injections were less frequent and
my mind began to clear. Though I began to feel and think again coherently
I still could not see. Two V.A.D.s fainted while helping with my
dressings, the first during the day and the other at night. The second
time I could not sleep and was calling out for someone to stop the
beetles running down my face, when I heard my nurse say fiercely, 'Get
outside quick: don't make a fool of yourself here!' and the sound of
footsteps moving towards the door. I remember cursing the unfortunate
girl and telling her to put her head between her knees. I was told later
that for my first three weeks I did little but curse and blaspheme, but I
remember nothing of it. The nurses were wonderfully patient and never
complained. Then one day I found that I could see. My nurse was bending
over me doing my dressings, and she seemed to me very beautiful. She was.
I watched her for a long time, grateful that my first glimpse of the
world should be of anything so perfect. Finally I said:

'Sue, you never told me that your eyes were so blue.'

For a moment she stared at me. Then, 'Oh, Dick, how wonderful,' she said.
'I told you it wouldn't be long'; and she dashed out to bring in all the
nurses on the block.

I felt absurdly elated and studied their faces eagerly, gradually
connecting them with the voices that I knew.

'This is Anne,' said Sue. 'She is your special V.A.D. and helps me with
all your dressings. She was the only one of us you'd allow near you for
about a week. You said you liked her voice.' Before me stood an
attractive fair-haired girl of about twenty-three. She smiled and her
teeth were as enchanting as her voice. I began to feel that hospital had
its compensations. The nurses called me Dick and I knew them all by their
Christian names. Quite how irregular this was I did not discover until I
moved to another hospital where I was considerably less ill and not so
outrageously spoiled. At first my dressings had to be changed every two
hours in the day-time. As this took over an hour to do, it meant that Sue
and Anne had practically no time off. But they seemed not to care. It was
largely due to them that both my hands were not amputated.

Sue, who had been nursing since seventeen, had been allocated as my
special nurse because of her previous experience of burns, and because,
as Matron said, 'She's our best girl and very human.' Anne had been
married to a naval officer killed in the Courageous, and had taken up
nursing after his death.

At this time there was a very definite prejudice among the regular nurses
against V.A.D.s. They were regarded as painted society girls, attracted
to nursing by the prospect of sitting on the officers' beds and holding
their hands. The V.A.D.s were rapidly disabused of this idea, and, if
they were lucky, were finally graduated from washing bed-pans to
polishing bed-tables. I never heard that any of them grumbled, and they
gradually won a reluctant recognition. This prejudice was considerably
less noticeable in the Masonic than in most hospitals: Sue, certainly,
looked on Anne as a companionable and very useful lieutenant to whom she
could safely entrust my dressings and general upkeep in her absence. I
think I was a little in love with both of them.

The Masonic is perhaps the best hospital in England, though at the time I
was unaware how lucky I was. When war broke out the Masons handed over a
part of it to the services; but owing to its vulnerable position very few
action casualties were kept there long. Pilots were pretty quickly moved
out to the main Air Force Hospital, which I was not in the least eager to
visit. Thanks to the kind-hearted duplicity of my house surgeon, I never
had to; for every time they rang up and asked for me he would say that I
was too ill to be moved. The Masonic's great charm lay in that it in no
way resembled a hospital; if anything it was like the inside of a ship.
The nursing staff were very carefully chosen, and during the regular
blitzing of the district, which took place every night, they were

The Germans were presumably attempting to hit Hammersmith Bridge, but
their efforts were somewhat erratic and we were treated night after night
to an orchestra of the scream and crump of falling bombs. They always
seemed to choose a moment when my eyes were being irrigated, when my poor
nurse was poised above me with a glass undine in her hand. At night we
were moved into the corridor, away from the outside wall, but such was
the snoring of my fellow sufferers that I persuaded Bertha to allow me
back in my own room after Matron had made her rounds.

Bertha was my night nurse. I never discovered her real name, but to me
she was Bertha from the instant that I saw her. She was large and gaunt
with an Eton crop and a heart of gold. She was engaged to a merchant
seaman who was on his way to Australia. She made it quite clear that she
had no intention of letting me get round her as I did the day staff, and
ended by spoiling me even more. At night when I couldn't sleep we would
hold long and heated arguments on the subject of sex. She expressed
horror at my ideas on love and on her preference for a cup of tea. I gave
her a present of four pounds of it when I was discharged. One night the
Germans were particularly persistent, and I had the unpleasant sensation
of hearing a stick of bombs gradually approaching the hospital, the first
some way off, the next closer, and the third shaking the building. Bertha
threw herself across my bed; but the fourth bomb never fell. She got up
quickly, looking embarrassed, and arranged her cap.

'Nice fool I'd look if you got hit in your own room when you're supposed
to be out in the corridor,' she said, and stumped out of the room.

An R.A.S.C. officer who had been admitted to the hospital with the
painful but unromantic complaint of piles protested at the amount of
favouritism shown to me merely because I was in the R.A.F. A patriotic
captain who was in the same ward turned on him and said: 'At least he was
shot down defending his country and didn't come in here with a pimple on
his bottom. The Government will buy him a new Spitfire, but I'm damned if
it will buy you a new arse.'

One day my doctor came in and said that I could get up. Soon after I was
able to totter about the passages and could be given a proper bath. I was
still unable to use my hands and everything had to be done for me. One
evening during a blitz, my nurse, having led me along to the lavatory,
placed a prodigiously long cigarette-holder in my mouth and lighted the
cigarette in the end of it. Then she went off to get some coffee. I was
puffing away contentedly when the lighted cigarette fell into my pyjama
trousers and started smouldering. There was little danger that I would go
up in flames, but I thought it advisable to draw attention to the fact
that all was not well. I therefore shouted 'Oi!' Nobody heard me. 'Help!'
I shouted somewhat louder. Still nothing happened, so I delivered myself
of my imitation of Tarzan's elephant call of which I was quite proud. It
happened that in the ward opposite there was an old gentleman who had
been operated on for a hernia. The combination of the scream of falling
bombs and my animal cries could mean only one thing. Someone had been
seriously injured, and he made haste to dive over the side of the bed. In
doing so he caused himself considerable discomfort: convinced of the ruin
of his operation and the imminence of his death, he added his cries to
mine. His fears finally calmed, he could see nothing humorous in the
matter and insisted on being moved to another ward. From then on I was
literally never left alone for a minute.

For the first few weeks, only my parents were allowed to visit me and
they came every day. My mother would sit and read to me by the hour.
Quite how much she suffered I could only guess, for she gave no sign. One
remark of hers I shall never forget. She said: 'You should be glad this
has to happen to you. Too many people told you how attractive you were
and you believed them. You were well on the way to becoming something of
a cad. Now you'll find out who your real friends are.' I did.

When I was allowed to see people, one of my first visitors was Michael
Cary (who had been at Trinity with me and had a First in Greats). He was
then private secretary to the Chief of Air Staff. He was allowed to stay
only a short time before being shoo'd away by my nurses, but I think it
may have been time enough to shake him. A short while afterwards he
joined the Navy as an A.B. I hope it was not as a result of seeing me,
for he had too good a brain to waste polishing brass. Colin came down
whenever he had leave from Hornchurch and brought me news of the

Ken MacDonald, Don's brother who had been with 'A' Flight at Dyce, had
been killed. He had been seen about to bale out of his blazing machine at
1000 feet; but as he was over a thickly populated area he had climbed in
again and crashed the machine in the Thames.

Pip Cardell had been killed. Returning from a chase over the Channel with
Dexter, one of the new members of the Squadron, he appeared to be in
trouble just before reaching the English coast. He jumped; but his
parachute failed to open and he came down in the sea. Dexter flew low and
saw him move. He was still alive, so Dexter flew right along the shore
and out to sea, waggling his wings to draw attention and calling up the
base on the R.T. No boat put out from the shore, and Dexter made a crash
landing on the beach, drawing up ten yards from a nest of buried mines.
But when they got up to Pip he was dead.

Howes had been killed, even as he had said. His Squadron had been moved
from Hornchurch to a quieter area, a few days after I was shot down. But
he had been transferred to our Squadron, still deeply worried because as
yet he had failed to bring anything down. The inevitable happened; and
from his second flight with us he failed to return.

Rusty was missing, but a clairvoyant had written to Uncle George swearing
that he was neither dead nor captured. Rusty, he said (whom he had never
seen), had crashed in France, badly burned, and was being looked after
by a French peasant.

As a counter to this depressing news Colin told me that Brian, Raspberry,
and Sheep all had the D.F.C., and Brian was shortly to get a bar to his.
The Squadron's confirmed score was nearing the hundred mark. We had also
had the pleasure of dealing with the Italians. They had come over before
breakfast, and together with 41 Squadron we were looking for them.
Suddenly Uncle George called out:

'Wops ahead.'

'Where are they?' asked 41 Squadron.

'Shan't tell you,' came back the answer. 'We're only out-numbered three
to one.'

Colin told me that it was the most unsporting thing he had ever had to
do, rather like shooting sitting birds, as he so typically put it. We got
down eight of them without loss to ourselves and much to the annoyance of
41 Squadron.

Then one day I had an unexpected visitor. Matron opened the door and said
'Someone to see you,' and Denise walked in. I knew at once who she was.
It was unnecessary for her to speak. Her slight figure was in mourning
and she wore no make-up. She was the most beautiful person I have ever

Much has been written on Beauty. Poets have excelled themselves in
similes for a woman's eyes, mouth, hair; novelists have devoted pages to
a geometrically accurate description of their heroines' features. I can
write no such description of Denise. I did not see her like that. For me
she had an inner beauty, a serenity which no listing of features can
convey. She had a perfection of carriage and a grace of movement that
were strikingly reminiscent of Peter Pease, and when she spoke it might
have been Peter speaking.

'I hope you'll excuse me coming to see you like this,' she said; 'but I
was going to be married to Peter. He often spoke of you and wanted so
much to see you. So I hope you won't mind me coming instead.'

There was so much I wanted to say, so many things for us to talk over,
but the room seemed of a sudden unbearably full of hurrying jolly nurses
who would not go away. The bustle and excitement did little to put her at
her ease, and her shyness was painful to me. Time came for her to leave,
and I had said nothing I wanted to say. As soon as she was gone I
dictated a note, begging her to come again and to give me a little
warning. She did. From then until I was able to get out, her visits did
more to help my recovery than all the expert nursing and medical
attention. For she was the very spirit of courage. It was useless for me
to say to her any of the usual words of comfort for the loss of a fianc,
and I did not try. She and Peter were two halves of the same person. They
even wrote alike. I could only pray that time would cure that awful
numbness and bring her back to the fullness of life. Not that she was
broken. She seemed somehow to have gathered his strength, to feel him
always near her, and was determined to go on to the end in the cause for
which he had given his life, hoping that she too might be allowed to die,
but feeling guilty at the selfishness of the thought.

She believed passionately in freedom, in freedom from fear and oppression
and tyranny, not only for herself but for the whole world.

'For the whole world.' Did I believe that? I still wasn't sure. There was
a time--only the other day--when it hadn't mattered to me if it was
true or not that a man could want freedom for others than himself. She
made me feel that this might be no mere catch-phrase of politicians,
since it was something to which the two finest people I had ever known
had willingly dedicated themselves. I was impressed. I saw there a spirit
far purer than mine. But was it for me? I didn't know. I just didn't

I lay in that hospital and watched summer turn to winter. Through my
window I watched the leaves of my solitary tree gradually turn brown, and
then, shaken by an ever-freshening wind, fall one by one. I watched the
sun change from a great ball of fire to a watery glimmer, watched the
rain beating on the glass and the small broken clouds drifting a few
hundred feet above, and in that time I had ample opportunity for

I thought of the men I had known, of the men who were living and the men
who were dead; and I came to this conclusion. It was to the Carburys and
the Berrys of this war that Britain must look, to the tough practical men
who had come up the hard way, who were not fighting this war for any
philosophical principles or economic ideals; who, unlike the average
Oxford undergraduate, were not flying for aesthetic reasons, but because
of an instinctive knowledge that this was the job for which they were
most suited. These were the men who had blasted and would continue to
blast the Luftwaffe out of the sky while their more intellectual comrades
would, alas, in the main be killed. They might answer, if asked why they
fought, 'To smash Hitler!' But instinctively, inarticulately, they too
were fighting for the things that Peter had died to preserve.

Was there perhaps a new race of Englishmen arising out of this war, a
race of men bred by the war, a harmonious synthesis of the governing
class and the great rest of England; that synthesis of disparate
backgrounds and upbringings to be seen at its most obvious best in R.A.F.
Squadrons? While they were now possessed of no other thought than to win
the war, yet having won it, would they this time refuse to step aside and
remain indifferent to the peace-time fate of the country, once again
leave government to the old governing class? I thought it possible.
Indeed, the process might be said to have already begun. They now had as
their representative Churchill, a man of initiative, determination, and
no Party. But they would not always have him; and what then? Would they
see to it that there arose from their fusion representatives, not of the
old gang, deciding at Lady Cufuffle's that Henry should have the Foreign
Office and George the Ministry of Food, nor figureheads for an angry but
ineffectual Labour Party, but true representatives of the new England
that should emerge from this struggle? And if they did, what then? Could
they unite on a policy of humanity and sense to arrive at the settlement
of problems which six thousand years of civilization had failed to solve?
And even though they should fail, was there an obligation for the more
thinking of them to try, to contribute at whatever personal cost 'their
little drop,' however small, to the betterment of mankind? Was there that
obligation, was that the goal towards which all those should strive who
were left, strengthened and confirmed by those who had died? Or was it
still possible for men to lead the egocentric life, to work out their own
salvation without concern for the rest; could they simply look to
themselves--or, more important, could I? I still thought so.

The day came when I was allowed out of the hospital for a few hours. Sue
got me dressed, and with a pair of dark glasses, cotton-wool under my
eyes, and my right arm in a sling, I looked fairly presentable. I walked
out through the swing-doors and took a deep breath.

London in the morning was still the best place in the world. The smell of
wet streets, of sawdust in the butchers' shops, of tar melted on the
blocks, was exhilarating. Peter had been right: I loved the capital. The
wind on the heath might call for a time, but the facile glitter of the
city was the stronger. Self-esteem, I suppose, is one cause; for in the
city, work of man, one is somebody, feet on the pavement, suit on the
body, anybody's equal and nobody's fool; but in the country, work of God,
one is nothing, less than the earth, the birds, and the trees; one is
discordant--a blot.

I walked slowly through Ravenscourt Park and looked into many faces. Life
was good, but if I hoped to find some reflection of my feeling I was
disappointed. One or two looked at me with pity, and for a moment I was
angry; but when I gazed again at their faces, closed in as on some dread
secret, their owners hurrying along, unseeing, unfeeling, eager to get to
their jobs, unaware of the life within them, I was sorry for them. I felt
a desire to stop and shake them and say: 'You fools, it's you who should
be pitied and not I; for this day I am alive while you are dead.'

And yet there were some who pleased me, some in whom all youth had not
died. I passed one girl, and gazing into her face became aware of her as
a woman: her lips were soft, her breasts firm, her legs long and
graceful. It was many a month since any woman had stirred me, and I was
pleased. I smiled at her and she smiled at me. I did not speak to her for
fear of breaking the spell, but walked back to lunch on air. After this I
was allowed out every day, and usually managed to stay out until nine
o'clock, when I drove back through the blitz and the black-out.

'London can take it' was already becoming a truism; but I had been put
out of action before the real fury of the night attacks had been let
loose, and I had seen nothing of the damage. In the hospital, from the
newspapers, and from people who came to see me, I gained a somewhat hazy
idea of what was going on. On the one hand I saw London as a city
hysterically gay, a city doomed, with nerves so strained that a life of
synthetic gaiety alone prevented them from snapping. My other picture was
of a London bloody but unbowed, of a people grimly determined to see this
thing through, with man-power mobilized; a city unable, through a
combined lack of inclination, facility, and time, to fritter away the war
in the night-haunts of the capital. I set out to see for myself.

London night-life did exist. Though the sirens might scream and the bombs
fall, restaurants and cocktail bars remained open and full every night of
the week. I say restaurants and cocktail bars, for the bottle parties and
striptease cabarets which had a mushroom growth at the beginning of the
war had long been closed. Nor was prostitution abroad. Ladies of leisure
whose business hours were from eleven till three were perhaps the only
citizens to find themselves completely baffled by the black-out. London
was not promiscuous: the diners-out in a West End restaurant were no
longer the clientele of cafe society, for caf society no longer existed
in London. The majority of the so-called smart set felt at last with the
outbreak of war a real vocation, felt finally a chance to realize
themselves and to orientate themselves to a life of reality. They might
be seen in a smart restaurant; but they were there in another guise--as
soldiers, sailors, and airmen on forty-eight hours' leave; as members of
one of the women's services seeking a few hours' relaxation before again
applying themselves wholeheartedly to their jobs; or as Civil Servants
and Government workers who, after a hard day's work, preferred to relax
and enjoy the bombing in congenial company rather than return to a
solitary dinner in their own flats.

While the bombs were dropping on London (and they were dropping every
night in my time in the hospital), and while half London was enjoying
itself, the other half was not asleep. It was striving to make London as
normal a city by night as it had become by day. Anti-aircraft crews,
studded around fields, parks, and streets, were momentarily silhouetted
against the sky by the sudden flash of their guns. The Auxiliary Fire
Service, spread out in a network of squads through the capital, was
standing by, ready at a moment's notice to deal with the inevitable
fires; air-raid wardens, tireless in their care of shelters and work of
rescue, patrolled their areas watchfully. One heavy night I poked my nose
out of the Dorchester, which was rocking gently, to find a cab calmly
coasting down Park Lane. I hailed it and was driven back to the hospital.
The driver turned to me: 'Thank God, sir,' he said, 'Jerry's wasting 'is
time trying to break our morale, when 'e might be doing real damage on
some small town.'

With the break of day London shook herself and went back to work. Women
with husbands in Government jobs were no longer to be seen at noon draped
along the bars of the West End as their first appointment of the day.
They were up and at work with determined efficiency in administrative
posts of the Red Cross, the women's voluntary services, and the prisoners
of war organizations. The Home Guards and air-raid wardens of the
previous night would return home, take a bath, and go off to their
respective offices. The soldier was back with his regiment, the airman
with his squadron; the charming frivolous creatures with whom they had
dined were themselves in uniform, effective in their jobs of driving,
typing, or nursing.

That, I discovered, was a little of what London was doing. But what was
London feeling? Perhaps a not irrelevant example was an experience of
Sheep Gilroy's when flying with the Squadron. He was sitting in his bath
when a 'flap' was announced. Pulling on a few clothes and not bothering
to put on his tunic, he dashed out to his plane and took off. A few
minutes later he was hit by an incendiary bullet and the machine caught
fire. He baled out, quite badly burned, and landed by a parachute in one
of the poorer districts of London. With no identifying tunic, he was at
once set upon by two hundred silent and coldly angry women, armed with
knives and rolling-pins. For him no doubt it was a harrowing experience,
until he finally established his nationality by producing all the most
lurid words in his vocabulary; but as an omen for the day when the cream
of Hitler's Aryan youth should attempt to land in Britain it was most

All this went on at a time when night after night the East End was taking
a terrible beating, and it was rumoured that the people were ominously
quiet. Could their morale be cracking? The answer was provided in a story
that was going the rounds. A young man went down to see a chaplain whom
he knew in the East End. He noticed not only that the damage was
considerable but that the people were saying practically nothing at all.
'How are they taking it?' he asked nervously. The chaplain shook his head.
'I'm afraid,' he said, 'that my people have fallen from grace: they are
beginning to feel a little bitter towards the Germans.'

The understatement in that remark was impressive because it was typical.
The war was practically never discussed except as a joke. The casual
observer might easily have drawn one of two conclusions: either that
London was spent of all feeling, or that it was a city waiting like a
blind man, unseeing, uncaring, for the end. Either conclusion would have
been wide of the mark. Londoners are slow to anger. They had shown for
long enough that they could take it; now they were waiting on the time
when it would be their turn to dish it out, when their cold rage would
need more than a Panzer division to stamp it out.

Now and then I lunched at home with my mother, who was working all day in
the Prisoners of War Organization, or my father would leave his desk long
enough to give me lunch at his club. On one of these occasions we ran
into Bill Aitken, and I had coffee with him afterwards. He was still in
Army Co-operation and reminded me of our conversation at Old Sarum. 'Do
you remember,' he asked, 'telling me that I should have to eat my words
about Nigel Bicknell and Frank Waldron? Well, you were certainly right
about Nigel.'

'I haven't heard anything,' I said, 'but you sound as though he had
renounced his career as Air Force Psychologist.'

Bill laughed. 'He's done more than that. He was flying his Blenheim to
make some attack on France when one engine cut. He carried on, bombed his
objective, and was on his way back when the other engine cut out too, and
his machine came down in the sea. For six hours, until dawn when a boat
saw them, he held his observer up. He's got the D.F.C.'

'I must write to him,' I said. 'But I was right about Frank too. Do you
remember your quotation that war was "a period of great boredom,
interspersed with moments of great excitement"; and how you said that the
real test came in the periods of boredom, since anyone can rise to a

'Yes, I remember.'

'Well, I think I'm right in saying that Frank has come through on that
score. He's in the Scots Guards with very little to do; but he's
considerably more subdued than you'll remember him. When he first got out
of the Air Force he thought he could waltz straight into the Guards, but
they wouldn't take him until he had been through an O.C.T.U. That was his
first surprise. The second was when there was no vacancy in the O.C.T.U.
for three months. Our Frank, undismayed, hied himself off to France and
kicked up his heels in Megve with the Chasseurs Alpins, and then in
Cannes with the local lovelies. But he came back and went through his
course. He was a year behind all his friends--or rather all those that
were left, and it sobered him up. I think you'd be surprised if you saw
him now.'

Bill got up to leave. 'I should like to see him again,' he said with a
smile, 'but of the ex-bad boys, I think you are the best example of a
change for the better.'

'Perhaps it's as well that you can't stay,' I said. 'I'm afraid it
wouldn't take you long to see that you're mistaken. If anything, I
believe even more strongly in the ideas which I held before. Sometime
we'll discuss it.'

I spent most evenings with Denise at the house in Eaton Place. It was the
usual London house, tall, narrow, and comfortable. Denise was living
there alone with a housekeeper, for her father was about to marry again
and had moved to the country. At tea-time I would come and find her
curled up on the sofa behind the tray, gazing into the fire; and from
then until eight o'clock, when I had to drive back to the Masonic, we
would sit and talk--mostly of Peter, for it eased her to speak of him,
but also of the war, of life, and death, and many lesser things.

Two years before the war she had joined the A.T.S. Sensibility and
shyness might well have made her unsuited for this service, but when her
family said as much, they merely fortified her in her determination.
After she was commissioned, she fainted on her first parade, but she was
not deterred, and she succeeded. She had left the A.T.S. to marry Peter.
I was not surprised to learn that she had published a novel, nor that she
refused to tell me under what pseudonym, in spite of all my accusations
of inverted snobbery. She wished to see nobody but Colin and me, Peter's
friends; and though often she would have preferred to be alone, she
welcomed me every day nevertheless. So warm and sincere was her nature,
that I might almost have thought myself her only interest. Try as I
would, I could not make her think of herself it was as if she considered
that as a person she was dead. Minutes would go by while she sat lost in
reverie, her chin cupped in her hand. There seemed nothing I could do to
rouse her to consciousness of herself, thaw out that terrible numbness,
breathe life into that beautiful ghost. Concern with self was gone out of
her. I tried pity, I tried understanding, and finally I tried brutality.

It was one evening before dinner, and Denise was leaning against the
mantelpiece, one black heel resting on the fender.

'When are you coming out of mourning?' I asked.

She had been standing with her chin lowered; and now, without lifting it,
she raised her eyes and looked at me a moment.

'I don't know,' she said slowly. 'Maybe I never shall.'

I think she sensed that the seemingly innocent question had been put
deliberately, though she couldn't yet see why. It had surprised her; it
had hurt her, as I had meant it to. Up to now I had been at pains to
tread delicately. Now the time had come, I felt, for a direct attack upon
her sensibility under the guise of outward stupidity.

'Oh, come, Denise,' I said. 'That's not like you. You know life better
than that. You know there's no creeping away to hide in a dream world.
When something really tragic happens--the cutting-off of a man at a
moment when he has most reason to live, when he has planned great things
for himself--the result for those who love him isn't a whimpering
pathos; it's growth, not decline. It makes you a richer person, not a
poorer one; better fitted to tackle life, not less fitted for it. I loved
Peter too. But I'm not going to pretend I feel sorry for you; and you
ought to be grateful to the gods for having enriched you. Instead, you

I knew well enough that she wouldn't go under, that this present numb
resignation was transitory. But I had been worried too long by her
numbness, her rejection of life, and I wanted to end it. She said
nothing, and I dared not look at her. I could see her fingers move as I
went doggedly on.

'You can't run away from life,' I said. 'You're a living vital person.
Your heart tells you that Peter will be with you always, but your senses
know that absence blots people out. Your senses are the boundaries of
your feeling world, and their power stops with death. To go back and back
to places where you were happy with Peter, to touch his clothes, dress in
black for him, say his name, is pure self-deception. You drug your senses
in a world of dreams, but reality cannot be shut out for long.'

Still she said nothing, and I had a quick look at her. This was far worse
than badgering Peter in the train. Her face was tense, slightly flushed,
and her eyes were wide-open and staring with what I hoped was anger, not
pain. I wished to rouse her, and prayed only that I would not reduce her
to tears.

'Death is love's crucifixion,' I said brutally. 'Now you go out with
Colin and me because we were his friends, we are a link. But we are not
only his friends, we are men. When I leave you, and say good-night, it's
not Peter's hand that takes yours, it's mine. It's Colin's touch you feel
when he helps you on with your coat. Colin will go away. I shall go back
to hospital. What are you going to do then? Live alone? You'll try, but
you won't be able. You will go out again-and with people who didn't know
Peter, people your senses will force you to accept as flesh and blood,
and not fellow players in a tragedy.'

She went over to a sofa opposite me and sat looking out of the window. I
could see her breast rise and fall with her breathing. Her face was still
tense. The set of her head on her shoulders was so graceful, the lines of
her figure were so delicate as she sat outlined against the light, that I
became aware with a shock of never before having thought of her as a
woman, a creature of flesh and blood. I who had made the senses the crux
of my argument had never thought of her except as disembodied spirit.
Minutes passed; she said no word; and her silence began almost to
frighten me. If she should go on saying nothing, and I had to do all the
talking, I didn't know quite what I should end by saying. I was about to
attack her again when she spoke, but in a voice so gentle that at first I
had trouble hearing her.

'You're wrong, Richard,' she said. 'You are so afraid of anything
mystical, anything you can't analyse, that you always begin rationalizing
instinctively, in self-defence, fearing your own blind spots. You like to
think of yourself as a man who sees things too clearly, too
realistically, to be able to have any respect for the emotions. Perhaps
you don't feel sorry for me; but I do feel sorry for you.

'I know that everything is not over for Peter and me. I know it with all
the faith that you are so contemptuous of. We shall be together again. We
are together now. I feel him constantly close to me; and that is my
answer to your cheap talk about the senses. Peter lives within me. He
neither comes nor goes, he is ever-present. Even while he was alive there
was never quite the tenderness and closeness between us that now is

She looked straight at me and there was a kind of triumph in her face.
Her voice was now so strong that I felt there was no defeating her any
more, no drawing her out of that morass of mysticism from which I so
instinctively recoiled.

'I suppose you're trying to hurt me to give me strength, Richard,' she
said; 'but you're only hurting yourself. I have the strength. And let me
explain where it comes from, so that we need never revert to the subject
again. I believe that in this life we live as in a room with the blinds
down and the lights on. Once or twice, perhaps, it is granted us to
switch off the lights and raise the blinds. Then for a moment the
darkness outside becomes brightness, and we have a glimpse of what lies
beyond this life. I believe not only in life after death, but in life
before death. This life is to me an intermission lived in spiritual
darkness. In this life we are in a state not of being, but of becoming.

'Peter and I are eternally bound up together; our destinies are the same.
And you, with your unawakened heart, are in some curious way bound up
with us. Oh, yes you are! In spite of all your intellectual subterfuges
and attempts to hide behind the cry of self-realization! You lay in
hospital and saw Peter die as clearly as if you had been with him. You
told me so yourself. Ever since Peter's death you have been different. It
has worked on you; and it's only because it has that I tell you these
things. Colin says he would never have believed that anyone could change
as you have.'

'That,' said I, 'was pure hallucination. I don't pretend to account for
it exactly, but it was that hundredth example of instinct, or intuition,
that people are always boasting of while they never mention the
ninety-nine other premonitions that were pure fantasy.'

'Please, Richard,' she said, 'let's not talk about Peter and me any more.
Your self-realization theory is too glib to stand a real test. To pass
coldly through the death and destruction of war, to stand aloof and watch
your sensibility absorb experience like a photographic plate, so that you
may store it away to use for your own self-development that's what you
had hoped to do, I believe?'

'Of course it is,' I admitted. She was really roused now, and I was

'Well, you can't! You know you can't, despite that Machiavellian pose of
yours. You tell me women are not as I am. I tell you, men are not as you
are. Or rather, were. You remember those photographs taken of you before
the crash that I saw the other day? Well, I believe that then, before the
crash, you could and possibly did feel as you say you still do. I could
never have liked you when you looked like that, looked like the man of
the theory you still vaunt. Have you read Donne's Devotions?'

'Looked through them,' I said.

'In one of them he says this: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I
am involved in Mankind." You too are involved, Richard; and so deeply
that you won't always be able to cover up and protect yourself from the
feelings prompted in you by that involvement. You talk about my
self-deception: do you really believe you can go through life to the end,
always taking and never giving? And do you really imagine that you
haven't given to me, haven't helped me? Well, you have. And what have you
got out of it? Nothing! You have given to me in a way that would have
been impossible for you before Peter's death. You are still giving. You
are conferring value on life by feeling Peter's death as deeply as you
do. And you are bound to feel the death, be recreated by the death, of
the others in the Squadron--if not in the same degree, certainly in the
same way. Certainly you are going to "realize" yourself but it won't be
by leading the egocentric life. The effect that you will have on
everybody you meet will come not only from your own personality, but from
what has been added to you by all the others who are now dead--what you
have so ungratefully absorbed from them.'

She spoke with great feeling and much of what she said struck home. It
was true that Peter was much in my thoughts, that I felt him somewhere
near me, that he was in fact the touchstone of my sensibility at the
moment. It was true that the mystical experience of his death was
something which was outside my understanding, which had still to be
assimilated, and yet, and yet. . . I could not help but feel that with
the passage of time this sense of closeness, of affinity, must fade, that
its very intensity was in part false, occasioned by being ill, and by
meeting Denise so shortly afterwards; a Denise who was no mere shadow of
Peter, but Peter's reincarnation; thus serving to keep the memory and the
experience always before my eyes. While here were two people of an
intense lyrical sensibility, two people so close in thought, feeling, and
ideals, that although one was dead and the other living they were to me
as one, yet I could not feel that their experience was mine, that it
could do more than touch me in passing, for that I had been of any help
to Denise was in a large part due to the fact that we were so dissimilar.
While her thoughts came trailing clouds of glory, mine were of the earth
earthy, and at such a time could help to strike a balance between the
mystical flights of her mind and the material fact of high-explosive
bombs landing in the next street. But though we might travel the same
road for a time, lone voyagers eager for company, yet the time must come
when our ways should part. Right or wrong, her way was not mine and I
should be mistaken in attempting to make it so. We must live how we can.


The Beauty Shop

I HAD now been in hospital something over two months and it was thought
that I was sufficiently recovered for operation.

Shortly after my arrival at the Masonic the Air Force plastic surgeon, A.
H. McIndoe, had come up to see me, but as I had been blind at the time I
could recollect his visit but vaguely, remembering only that he had
ordered the gentian violet to be removed from my eyes and saline
compresses to be applied instead, with the result that shortly afterwards
I had been able to see.

He was expected this time at about eleven o'clock, but I was ready a good
hour before, bathed and shaved and dressings elaborately correct. The
charge nurse ushered him in fussily. Of medium height, he was thick-set
and the line of his jaw was square. Behind his horn-rimmed spectacles a
pair of tired friendly eyes regarded me speculatively.

'Well,' he said, 'you certainly made a thorough job of it, didn't you?'

He started to undo the dressings on my hands and I noticed his
fingers--blunt, capable, incisive. By now all the tannic had been removed
from my face and hands. He took a scalpel and tapped lightly on something
white showing through the red granulating knuckle of my right forefinger.

'Bone,' he remarked laconically.

He looked at the badly contracted eyelids and the rapidly forming
keloids, and pursed his lips.

'Four new eyelids, I'm afraid, but you're not ready for them yet. I want
all this skin to soften up a lot first. How would you like to go to the
south coast for a bit?'

He mentioned the official R.A.F. convalescent hospital on the south
coast, generously supplied with golf courses, tennis and squash courts.
But as I could not use my hands, and abhorred seaside resorts in winter,
I wasn't very enthusiastic. I asked instead whether I could go down to a
convalescent home a couple of miles from his hospital. He raised no
objection and said that he would fix it with the Commandant.

'And I'll be able to keep an eye on you there,' he added. He had got up
to go when I asked him how long it would be before I should fly again. I
had asked the same question on his previous visit, and when he had said
'Six months' I had been desperately depressed for days. Now when he said,
'Next war for you: those hands are going to be something of a problem,' I
wasn't even surprised. I suppose I had known it for some time. I felt no
emotion at all.

He took his leave and I went off to have lunch with my mother.

Two days later, after the disentangling of a few crossed wires in
official circles, Air Ministry permission came through and I was driven
down to Sussex.

The house was rambling and attractive, and ideal for a convalescent home.
I was greeted at the door by Matron and led in to tea. There were about
twenty other inmates drinking tea, mostly Army men, not particularly
exciting and with not particularly exciting complaints. About them hung
the listless air and furtive manner of undertakers, born no doubt of
their prolonged inactivity combined with the dreary nature of their
intestinal afflictions. By dinner-time I was preparing to resign myself
to a comfortable if not stimulating period of relaxation, when a couple
of genial souls came rolling in very late and I met Colin Hodgkinson and
Tony Tollemache.

Hodgkinson was twenty and in the Fleet Air Arm: it was not until he got
up after dinner that I noticed his two artificial legs. While training in
an Albacore he had come into collision with a Hurricane. His two
companions and the Hurricane pilot were killed instantly and Colin was
found in a field six hours later.

Tony Tollemache had crashed in March, night flying. Coming in to land,
his Blenheim had turned over and caught fire, throwing him free. His
passenger was also thrown free and killed; but under the impression that
he was still inside, Tony had climbed in again and wandered up and down
the flaming machine, looking for him. He had been badly burned on his
face, hands, and, above all, legs. For this action he got the Empire
Gallantry Medal and nearly a year in hospital. He had already had several
operations, and he was due at the hospital in another two days for a
graft on his left hand.

We sat long by the glow of the open fire talking of many things and it
was late when we finally climbed the stairs to bed. As I turned on my
side and closed my eyes I was content. Tomorrow I should have my
breakfast in bed, be given a bath, and come down only for lunch: I was
the autocrat of the bolster, the aristocrat of fine linen: there were
many worse ways of spending the war.

The following afternoon an eye specialist took a look at me: the pupil of
my left eye, dilated by regular treatment with belladonna, interested him

'Can't close your eyes at all, can you?' he asked.

'No, sir,' I said.

'Well, we'll have to get some covering over that left eye or you'll never
use it again.'

He went into the Commandant's office where there was a telephone, and
returned a few minutes later.

'McIndoe is going to give you a new pair of top lids,' he said. 'I know
your eyes are still infected but we'll have to take that chance. You're
to go in with Tollemache tomorrow.'

At the Masonic I had been the only action casualty. I had been very ill
and in a private ward; subsequently I had been outrageously spoiled.
Having little previous experience of hospitals, I had taken it all as a
matter of course. At the convalescent home the food was exceptional and
the living conditions bordering on the luxurious: as a result the new
hospital was something of a shock. It was one of several hundred
Emergency Medical Service hospitals. Taken over by the Ministry of Health
at the beginning of the war, these were nearly all small country-town
hospitals in safe areas. Erected by subscription for the welfare of the
district and run by committees of local publicity-loving figures in the
community, they had been perfectly adequate for that purpose. They were
not, however, geared for a war-time emergency; they were too small. To
overcome this difficulty the Ministry of Health had supplied them with
'blisters' to accommodate the anticipated flow of troops. I had heard of
these 'blisters' and was vaguely aware that they were huts, but this
hospital provided my first introduction to them.

It was of fairly recent construction and of only one storey. There were
two main wards: one reserved for women and filled with residents of the
district; the other for men, one half for local civilians and the other
(eight beds) for action casualties. Then there were the 'blisters'; a
dental hut, and two others set at an angle to the main building.

Ward Three, housing some of the worst cases, stood about fifty yards away
from the hospital. It was a long, low hut, with a door at one end and
twenty beds down each side. The beds were separated from each other only
by lockers, and it was possible without much exertion to reach out and
touch the man in the next bed. Towards the far end the lockers
degenerated into soap-boxes. They constituted the patients' furniture.
Windows were let into the walls at regular intervals on each side: they
were never open. Down the middle there was a table with a wireless on it,
a stove, and a piano. On either side of the entrance passage were four
lavatories and two bathrooms. Immediately on the left of the entrance
passage was the saline bath, a complicated arrangement of pipes that
maintained a constant flow of saline around the bathed patient at a
regulated temperature. McIndoe had been using it with great success for
the rapid healing of extensive burns. Next to this, in a curtained-off
bed, was a little girl of fifteen, by name Joan, terribly burnt by
boiling sugar her first day in a factory. Joan was in this ward because
there was no other saline bath in the hospital (there were only three in
England), and she could not be moved any distance. She screamed fairly
regularly, and always before being lifted into the bath; her voice was
thin and like that of a child of seven. As the time for her bath
approached there was a certain tension throughout the hut; and then
everyone would start talking rather loudly, and the wireless was turned

For the rest, there was a blind man at the far end learning Braille with
the assistance of his wife, a Squadron Leader, several pilot officers, a
Czech, and sundry troops, unlikely to forget Dunkirk as quickly as most.

But my first taste of Ward Three was not yet. It was to the main building
that I went for my new eyelids, and with little graciousness. Tony and I
came in late, a fair measure of whisky inside us, and started noisily to
get undressed. Our beds were next to each other: opposite us were two
Hurricane pilots, one with his legs badly burned and the other with a
six-weeks growth of beard and a thick surgical bandage over his eyes. He
was being fed by a nurse.

'Is he blind?' I whispered to Tony.

'Blind?' he roared. 'Not half as blind as we are, I'll bet. No, me boy.
That's what you're going to look like tomorrow when McIndoe's through
with you.'

'Are you daft, Mr. Tollemache, coming in here late and making all that
noise? If it's trouble you want you'll get it when Sister Hall sees you.
And tell your fine friend to take his shoes off the bed.'

This was my first introduction to the Ward Charge Nurse. She rose from
feeding the man with the bandaged eyes and stood feet apart and hands on
hips, her cap awry, one tooth nibbling her lower lip as though it was

Tony turned to me.

'Begad,' he said, 'I forgot to warn you, it's back in Hell's Kitchen we
are. The ward is lousy with Irish and 'tis better to lie and rot than let
them lay a finger on your dressings. They'll give you a dig for De Valera
as soon as look at you.'

'Ach! you needn't show off now, Mr. Tollemache. That's not funny and I'm
not laughing.'

She drew herself up to her full five feet and stalked majestically from
the ward, somewhat spoiling the effect by a shrill cackle of laughter
when she caught sight of the pair of red pyjamas that I was unpacking.

'It's the wrong address you're at with those passion pants,' she said.
'This is a hospital, not an English country house week-end.'

'Be off with you, woman,' I said, and putting on the offending garments I
climbed into bed and settled down to read.

Shortly afterwards Sister Hall came into the ward, her dark-blue uniform
proclaiming her rank.

'More Ireland,' whispered Tony as she approached.

She stopped at the foot of my bed and I noticed that she was short, that
her hair was grey, and that a permanent struggle between a tight-lipped
mouth and smiling eyes was at the moment being very definitely won by the

'Good evening, Mr. Tollemache,' she said.

'Good evening, Sister Hall,' said Tony in his blandest manner.

She turned to me.

'Mr. Hillary, both you and Mr. Tollemache are to be operated on tomorrow
morning. As you know, you should have been in earlier for preparation;
now it will have to be done in the morning I hope you will settle in here
quickly; but I want it understood that in my ward I will tolerate no bad
language and no rudeness to the nurses.'

'My dear Sister,' I replied, 'I've no doubt that you will find me the
mildest and most soft-spoken of men,' and sitting up in bed I bowed
gravely from the waist. She gave me a hard look and walked through the

Tony waited until she was out of earshot. Then: 'A tough nut, but the
best nurse in the hospital,' he said. 'I don't advise you to get on the
wrong side of her.'

Shortly before the lights were put out McIndoe made a round of the ward
followed by half a dozen assistants, mostly service doctors who were
training under him. 'You're first on the list, Tony,' he said, 'and
you're second. By the looks of you both we'll need to use a stomach pump
before we can give you any anaesthetic.'

He took a look at my eyes. 'They're still pretty mucky,' he said, 'but I
think you'll find it a relief to have some eyelids on them.' He passed on
through the ward and we settled down to sleep.

In the morning we were wakened early and 'prepped' by Taffy, the Welsh
orderly. 'Prepping' consists of sterilizing the area of skin to be used
for the graft and shaving completely any surrounding hair. My eyelids
were to be a 'Thiersch' graft (a layer of skin thin as cigarette paper)
taken from the inside of my left arm, so Taffy shaved the arm and armpit,
then sterilized the arm and bound it up in a loose bandage. He did the
same thing to Tony's leg, from where the skin was to be taken for his
hand, and we were both ready to go. The Charge Nurse then trundled in a
stretcher on wheels, parked it beside Tony's bed, pushed his feet into an
enormous pair of bed socks, and whipped out a hypodermic needle. This
contained an injection to make one drowsy half an hour before being
wheeled into the operating theatre.

'Bet you she's blunted the needle,' said Tony; 'and look at her hand;
it's shaking like an aspen leaf.'

'Be quiet, Mr. Tollemache, let's have less of your sauce now.'

After much protesting she finally caught his arm and stuck him with the
needle. He then climbed on to the trolley, which was screened off, and
after about half an hour he was wheeled away.

I hoped that the operation would not be a lengthy affair, for I was
hungry and could have no food until after I had been sliced up. Finally
Tony was wheeled back, very white on the unburned patches of his face and
breathing ether all over the room. It was my turn for the trolley. The
injection did not make me particularly drowsy, and feeling bored I asked
for a cigarette from one of the others and puffed away contentedly behind
the screen. But I had not counted on the sharp eyes of Sister Hall. For a
second she stared unbelievingly at the thin spiral of smoke; then she was
inside the screen, the confiscated cigarette glowing accusingly in her
hand and herself looking down on me with silent disapproval. I gazed back
innocently; but pulling the screen to with a jerk, she walked on, her
measured tread the silent voice of outraged authority.

It was time for me to go. Two nurses appeared at either end of the
trolley and I was off, Tony's stertorous breathing and the coarse cries
of the others following me down the ward. I was welcomed by the
anaesthetist, vast and genial, with his apparatus that resembled a petrol
station on wheels. As he was tying up my arm with a piece of rubber
tubing, McIndoe came in sharpening his knife and wearing a skull-cap and
multi-coloured gown, for all the world like some Bedouin chieftain. The
anaesthetist took my arm and pushed the needle in gently. 'Well,
good-bye,' he said. A green film rose swiftly up my throat and I lost

When I came round I was not uncomfortable, and unlike Tony I was not
sick. I could not see; but apart from a slight pricking of the eyes I had
no pain, and but for the boring prospect of five days without reading I
was content. Those of us with eyelid grafts had of course to be fed and
given bed baths, but we could (thank God) get up and walk to the
lavatory, escorted by a nurse. Were there no nurses about, the others
would sing out instructions to the needy one until he arrived safely at
his destination.

Being unable to see, had, I discovered, some distinct disadvantages. As I
could not read, I talked; and as everyone knows, there are few more
pleasant pastimes when one is indisposed than grousing and swearing.
After a few unfortunate incidents I always asked Tony if any nurses were
about before opening my mouth, but Tony was unreliable, getting a hideous
pleasure out of watching the consequences. Then--I think it was on the
third day of my incarceration--some nurse further down the ward dropped
a bed-pan with a crash that made me start up in bed.

'Jesus Christ,' I said, 'what a hospital! It stinks like a sewer, it's
about as quiet as a zoo, and instead of nurses we've got a bunch of
moronic Irish amazons.'

'Mister Hillary!' The voice was so close that I almost fell out of bed.

'That's done it,' I thought; and I was right.

'Not another dressing do you get until you apologize.' Sister Hall was
standing at my elbow. Tony, of course, was delighted and I could hear him
chuckling into the bedclothes. I opened my mouth to apologize but no
words came. Instead, I realized with horror that I was laughing, laughing
in a manner that could in no way be passed off as a mere nervous titter,
that could be taken, indeed, for nothing but what it was--a rich fruity

Nothing was said, but I had a sense of impending doom. A few minutes
later my suspicions were confirmed: I felt my bed begin to move.

'What goes on?' I asked.

'Two orderlies are shipping you off next door,' said Tony. 'They're going
to separate us.'

Now I had no wish to be separated from Tony. He was amusing to talk to,
and especially at a time when I could not see, I felt the need of his
presence. Further, there is nothing more depressing than being moved in
hospital just after getting the feel of a ward. So I got out of bed. The
orderlies were for a moment nonplussed; but, as Tony explained to them,
their orders were to move the bed, not me. I could almost see their faces
clear and I heard the bed being pushed through the door.

'Trouble ahead,' said Tony. 'Haven't enjoyed myself so much for ages.'

Sure enough, a few minutes later Sister Hall returned accompanied by one
of the younger surgeons, unhappy and embarrassed by the whole thing.

'Now what's all this?' he asked nervously.

'Well, among other things,' I said, 'I have told Sister Hall that I
object to being treated as though I were still in a kindergarten.'

'He said more than that, Doctor,' said Sister Hall with some truth. 'He
and Mr. Tollemache together make it impossible to run the ward.'

By this time the pettiness of it was boring me, and when the harassed
doctor said that he could not interfere with Sister Hall's running of the
ward I made no demur and allowed myself to be led off to the all-glass
covered-in balcony extension of the ward to which my bed had been moved.
I made some remark to Tony as I passed his bed but Sister had the last

'And we'll have no bad language while I'm in charge here,' she said, and
shut the door firmly behind me.

I found myself next to an Army doctor with smashed insides, sustained
running into a stationary lorry in the black-out. He had difficulty in
getting his breath and roared and whistled all night. I began to regret
the haste of my outburst.

The hospital visiting hours were from two till four in the afternoon, a
change from the Masonic and an arbitrary rule which in my present state
of mind I considered nothing short of monstrous. Denise, who was now back
in the A.T.S. with an important job, could get off only at odd moments
but wanted to come and see me. I asked the Matron if she might be allowed
to come in the morning if she could get down from London, and the Matron
very reasonably agreed. Denise duly arrived and called up from the
station to ask when she might appear. Due to a misunderstanding, she was
told that visiting hours were from two till four, and she had therefore
to kick her heels for several hours in the town. By this time I was so
enjoying my sense of persecution that, even if I had realized that it was
a misunderstanding, I should doubtless have chosen to ignore the fact.
When, therefore, on the stroke of four Sister Hall entered and said
coldly, 'All visitors must leave now,' I would willingly have committed
murder, but Denise laid a warning hand on mine and I held my peace.

The next day McIndoe took down the dressing from my eyes and I saw again.

'A couple of real horse blinkers you've got there,' he said; and indeed
for a day or so that is what they felt like. In order to see in front of
me I had to turn my face up to the ceiling. They moulded in very rapidly,
and soon I could raise and lower them at will. It was a remarkable piece
of surgery, and an operation in which McIndoe had yet to score a failure.

Shortly afterwards I was allowed to have a bath and soak the bandage off
my arm from where the graft had been taken. This laborious and painful
process had already taken me half an hour when Sister Hall came in. I was
down to the last layer, which I was pulling at gingerly, hurting myself
considerably in the process.

'Well, really, Mister Hillary!' she said; and taking hold of it she gave
a quick pull and ripped the whole thing off cleanly and painlessly.

'Christ!' I started involuntarily, but stopped myself and glanced
apprehensively at Sister's face. She was smiling. Yes, there was no doubt
about it, she was smiling. We said nothing, but from that moment we
understood each other.

Tony's graft had been a success, and within a few days we were allowed
out for a fortnight's convalescence before coming in again for further

As I was getting ready to go, Sister took me on one side and slipped a
small package into my hand.

'You'll be wanting to look your best for the girls, Mr. Hillary, and I've
put in some brown make-up powder that should help you.'

I started to protest but she cut me short.

'You'll be in again in a couple of weeks,' she said. 'Time enough for us
to start quarrelling then.'

We returned after a short but very pleasant convalescence--Tony for his
last operation, one top lid, and I for two lower ones.

This time when the dressings were taken down I looked exactly like an
orang-outang. McIndoe had pinched out two semicircular ledges of skin
under my eyes to allow for contraction of the new lids. What was not
absorbed was to be sliced off when I came in for my next operation, a new
upper lip. The relief, however, was enormous, for now I could close my
eyes almost completely and did not sleep with them rolled up and the
whites showing like a frightened negro.

Once again we retired to our convalescent home, where our hostess did
everything possible to relieve the monotony of our existence. She gave a
large party on Christmas night, and every few weeks brought down stage or
screen people to cheer up the patients.

There had been some changes among the other inmates since our last visit,
and two of de Gaulle's Frenchmen had arrived from an Aldershot hospital.
One of them, an Army officer, had been in plaster since Dunkirk, where he
got an explosive bullet in the arm. The other had been in the French Air
Force but had decidedly un-Gallic features. When I first saw him he was
wearing a beard and looked like a Renaissance Christ. Later he shaved it
off and was indistinguishable from any chorus-boy in the second row.

When France fell he was completing his flying training in Morocco. He had
taken off in an antiquated trainer and landed at Gibraltar. Eventually he
managed to reach England and to continue his training on Magisters with
French instructors whom he described as old, blind, and incompetent.
Apparently he was sent up to practise spins without having been told how
to come out of them. His command of English was picturesque and somewhat
erratic, yet he managed to convey to me a vivid picture of his crash.

'I am diving at about 4000 feet,' he said, 'when I start the spin. I am
told only two turns, so after these I think I centralize the stick and
rudder and come out. Nothing happens, so I cross the controls, open the
gas and push the stick further forward. I do not wish to jump out, you
understand, as I have done this before and do not like. So I try an
inverted loop but nothing happens. By this time I have done many turns
and am feeling dizzy, so I say to myself, "I must now bale out," and I
undo my straps and stand up. When I look over the side a haystack is
spinning round the plane and I am stepping over the side, when crash! And
we are no more.'

A most remarkable recital! His back and one foot were broken. His body
and leg were swathed in plaster of Paris, and his fellow-countryman, who
was an artist, had painted the picture of the crash across his chest.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays the inmates always drove into town in the
station wagon to go to the pictures. This involved sitting in the local
tea-shop for an hour afterwards, eating sickening cakes and waiting for
the car to drive them back. As tea-shops have the most appalling effect
on me, depression descending like a fog, I seldom went along. Eliot has
said the final word about them:

          Over buttered scones and crumpets
          Weeping, weeping multitudes
          Droop in a hundred A B C's.

But on our first Thursday out of the hospital our two Frenchmen asked
Tony and me to accompany them, and we duly set off.

We were having tea when a pretty waitress came up and said to my bearded
friend, 'Vous tes Franais?'

'Oui, et vous?'


'Dommage que je n'aille mieux. J'aimerais vous prouver que je vous trouve

'Faudrait aussi que je le veuille!'

'N'importe. J'aimerais toujours tenter la chance.'

The rest of us sat there like cold suet.

Tony and I went often to London, where we settled ourselves down in some
restaurant, ordered a most excellent dinner, and surveyed the youth and
beauty around us with a fatherly eye. For while we were now medically fit
and perfectly content, yet we were still naturally enough drained of any
exuberance of youthful vitality.

One night over a particularly good dinner I summed it up to Tony. 'Well,'
I said, waving a vague hand at the crowded dance floor, 'we're a lucky
pair. Here we are enjoying all the pleasures of old men of sixty. To us
it has been granted to pass through all the ages of man in a moment of
time, and now we know the joys of the twilight of man's existence. We
have come upon that great truth, that the warmth in the belly brought on
by brandy and cigars leaves a glow that is the supreme carnal pleasure.
Not for us the exacerbation of youthful flesh-twitchings, not for us
palpitations and agony of spirit at a pretty smile, a slender waist. We
see these things with pleasure, but we see them after our own
fashion--as beauty, yes, and as a joy for ever, but as beauty should be
seen, from afar and with reverence and with no desire to touch. We are
free of the lusts of youth. We can see a patch of virgin snow and we do
not have to rush out and leave our footprint. We are as David in the Bible
when "they brought unto him a virgin but he gat no heat."

Tony nodded owlishly and lit a cigar. Then, jabbing it through the air to
emphasize his words, he spoke. Slowly and deliberately and with great
sorrow he spoke.

'Alas,' he said, 'it is but a dream, a beautiful, beautiful dream, but
still a dream. Youth will catch us up again. Youth with all her
temptations, trials, and worries. There is no escape.' He lowered his
voice and glanced nervously over his shoulder. 'Why, even now I feel her
wings fluttering behind me. I am nearly the man I was. For you there is
still a little time, not much but a little. Let us then enjoy ourselves
while yet we may. Waiter, more brandy!'

One night when we were in town we walked around to see Rosa Lewis at the
Cavendish Hotel. Suddenly caught by a stroke, she had been rushed to the
London Clinic, where she refused to allow any of the nurses to touch her.
After a week she saw the bill and immediately got up and left.

When we arrived, there she was, seventy-six years old, shrieking with
laughter and waving a glass of champagne, apparently none the worse. She
grabbed me by the arm and peered into my face. 'God, aren't you dead yet
either, young Hillary? Come here and I'll tell you something. Don't you
ever die. In the last two weeks I've been right up to the gates of 'eaven
and 'ell and they're both bloody!'

A few weeks later a heavy bomb landed right on the Cavendish, but Rosa
emerged triumphant, pulling bits of glass out of her hair and trumpeting
with rage. Whatever else may go in this war, we shall still have Rosa
Lewis and the Albert Memorial at the end.

Thus did I while away the time between operations, living from day to
day, sometimes a little bored, a little depressed, aware of being
restless, but analysing this restlessness no further than as the
inevitable result of months in bed.


The Last of the Long-Haired Boys

IT was already January of 1941 when I returned to the hospital for the
removal of the ledges under my eyes and the grafting of my new upper lip.

I had lunch at home, saying good-bye to London with two dozen oysters and
a bottle of Pol Roget, and just caught my train. On the way down I began
to regret the richness of my lunch and I was in no way cheered by the
discovery that the only available bed was in Ward Three. McIndoe came
round on his tour of the ward, and I asked if I might be first on the
list, feeling that the great man would be at his best in the early
morning. It was true that he never seemed to tire. Indeed he had been
known to operate all day, and finally at ten o'clock at night, stretch
himself comfortably and say to an exhausted theatre staff, 'Now let's do

I was wakened early to have my arm 'prepped' by one of the orderlies. I
had decided on the arm, and not the leg, in order to be spared the bother
of shaving my new upper lip. We chose a piece of skin bounded on one side
by a vaccination mark and on the other by the faint scar of what are now
my upper lids.

Sister gave me an injection at about nine o'clock, and an hour later,
wearing my red pyjamas for luck, I climbed on to the trolley and was
wheeled across the fifty yards of open space to the hospital. There was
something a little lowering about this journey on a cold morning, but I
reached the theatre feeling quite emotionless, rather like a business man
arriving at his office. The anaesthetist gave me an injection and I lost

On coming round, I realized that I was bandaged from forehead to lip and
unable to breathe through my nose. At about three o'clock Tony Tollemache
and his mother came to see me; I had by then developed a delicate froth
on both lips and must have resembled a perhaps refined stallion. They
were very kind, and talked to me quite normally. I'm afraid I replied
little, as I needed my mouth to breathe with. They went at about four.
After that the day was a blur: a thin wailing scream, the radio playing
'Each day is one day nearer,' injections, a little singing, much
laughter, and a voice saying, 'Naow, Charlie, you can't do it; naow,
Charlie, you can't do it; naow, Charlie, you can't do it.' After this,
oblivion, thank God.

The next morning I awoke in a cold sweat after a nightmare in which my
eyelids were sewn together and I was leading the Squadron in an Avro
Tutor. In the evening one of the doctors took the bandages off my eyes. I
was left with a thick dressing across my upper lip which pressed against
my nose, and two sets of semicircular stitches under my eyes. Peering
into a mirror, I noticed that my right eyebrow had been lifted up higher
to pair it off with the left. This was also stitched. Later McIndoe made
a round and peered anxiously at the scar under my right eye, which was
blue and swollen. He moved on. There was comparatively little noise, but
the ward smelt and I was depressed.

The next few days remain in my memory as a rather unpleasant dream.
Rumour started that eight of us were to be isolated, owing to suspicion
of a bug. It proved true. We climbed on to trolleys and were pushed
across the yard to one of the main wards, from which a bunch of
protesting old women had been evacuated. On the way over I passed a new
victim of tannic acid being wheeled in to take my bed: all I could see
was an ebony-coloured face enveloped in a white cowl. As we were pushed
up the steps to our new quarters we were greeted by four nurses wearing
masks, white aprons, and rubber gloves. Our luggage followed, and was
tipped into the store-room outside.

Opposite me was Squadron Leader Gleave with a flap graft on his nose and
an exposed nerve on his forehead: in Ward Three he had been unable to
sleep, nor could the night nurse drug him enough to stop the pain. Next
to him was Eric Lock, a tough little Shropshireman who had been with me
at Hornchurch and collected twenty-three planes, a D.S.O., a D.F.C. and a
bar: he had cannon-shell wounds in the arms and legs. On my left was Mark
Mounsdon who trained with me in Scotland and was awaiting an operation on
his eyelids. Beyond the partition was Joseph, the Czech sergeant pilot,
also with a nose graft; Yorkey Law, a bombardier, blown up twice and
burned at Dunkirk, with a complete new face taken in bacon strips from
his legs, and no hands; and Neft, a clever young Jew (disliked for it by
the others), with a broken leg from a motor-cycle accident.

We were of course allowed no visitors and could write no letters.

On the second day Neft's face began to suppurate and a small colony of
streptococci settled comfortably on the Squadron Leader's nose. The rest
of us waited grimly. Neft showed a tendency to complain, which caused
Eric Lock to point out that some of us had been fighting the war with
real bullets and would be infinitely grateful for his silence.

On the third day in our new quarters the smell of the bandage under my
nose became so powerful that I took to dosing it liberally with
eau-de-cologne. I have since been unable to repress a feeling of nausea
whenever at a party or in company I have caught a whiff of this scent.

Our heads were shorn and our scalps rubbed with special soap and anointed
with M & B powder. We submitted to this with a varying amount of
protestation: the Squadron Leader was too ill to complain, but Eric Lock
was vociferous and the rest of us sullen. A somewhat grim sense of humour
helped us to pass this day, punctuated by half-hours during which Neft
was an object of rather cruel mockery. He had been a pork butcher before
the war and of quite moderate means, but he made the mistake of
mentioning this fact and adding that foul-mouthed talk amused him not at
all. From that moment Yorkey Law, our bombardier, gave him no peace and
plied him with anecdotes which even curled what was left of my hair. By
the evening Neft had retired completely under the bed-clothes, taking his
suppurating face with him.

After the huts our new ward was luxurious: the beds were more
comfortable, and above each a pair of ear-phones hung on the wall. A
large plain window ran the whole length of one side and ensured an
adequate ventilation: the ward was kept dusted and tidy.

The nurses were efficient and not unfriendly, though the enforced wearing
of masks and rubber gloves made them a little impersonal. Our language
was always rough and sometimes offensive; Eric, with an amiable grin on
his face, would curse them roundly from dawn till dusk, but they seldom
complained. They did their best to make up to us for our lack of
visitors. Tony Tollemache came down once from the convalescent home and
said good-bye through the window: he was returning to Hornchurch.
Otherwise we saw nobody.

It was announced that our swabs had returned. We all clamoured to know
who was, and who was not, infected. Apparently two were not, but which
two the doctors would not say.

On February 14 I developed earache. Short of breath and completely
blocked in the nose, I gave a snort and felt something crack in my right
ear. Never having had earache before, I found the experience disagreeable
to a degree: it was as though someone with a sharp needle was driving it
at regular intervals into the side of my head.

An ear, nose, and throat man, on a course of plastic surgery under
McIndoe, came along to see me. He regarded me dispassionately for a
minute, and then withdrew with Sister to the other end of the ward. That
night I was put on to Prontosil and knew beyond any doubt that I had the

I slept fitfully, aided in my wakefulness by the pain in my ear, Eric's
snores, and the groans of the Squadron Leader.

In the morning the pain in my ear was considerable and I felt sick from
the Prontosil. But it was now eight days since my operation, and the
dressing on my lip was due to be taken down. For this mercy I was
grateful, as the smell under my nose was proving too strong for even the
most frequent doses of eau-de-cologne. At lunch-time one of the doctors
took off the bandages and removed the stitches, at the same time cutting
the stitches from under my eyes to the accompaniment of appreciative
purrs from his satellites. I asked for a mirror and gazed at the result.
It was a blow to my vanity: the new lip was dead white, and thinner than
its predecessor.

In point of fact it was a surgical masterpiece, but I was not in the mood
to appreciate it. I fear I was not very gracious. The lip was duly
painted with mercurochrome, and the doctors departed. The relief at
having the bandages removed was enormous, but I still dared not blow my
nose for fear that I should blow the graft away. I took a bath and soaked
the bandage off the arm from which my lip had been taken. This was a
painful process lasting three-quarters of an hour, at the end of which
time was revealed a deep narrow scar, neatly stitched. Sister then
removed the stitches. During this little operation an unfortunate
incident occurred. As soon as the stitches were out, instead of behaving
in an approved and conventional manner and remaining pressed together,
the two lips of the wound opened out like a fan, exposing a raw surface
the size of a half orange. Everyone clustered round to inspect this
interesting phenomenon but were hastily ordered back to bed by a somewhat
harassed Sister.

That night I slept not at all: the pain in my ear was a continuous
throbbing and I felt violently sick from the Prontosil. At about two
o'clock I got up and started pacing the ward. A night nurse ordered me
back to bed. I invited her to go to hell with considerable vigour, but I
felt no better. She called me a wicked ungrateful boy and I fear that I
called her a cow. Finally I returned to bed and attempted to read until

In the conversation of the next twenty-four hours I took little part but
lay, propped up in bed, watching the Squadron Leader rubbing his eye with
pieces of cotton-wool. The hair from his scalp was making it acutely
uncomfortable. This is not so odd as it sounds, for during a flap graft
on the nose the scalp is brought down to the top of one's eyebrow where
it is neatly rolled and feeds the new nose. It is of course shaved but
the hair tends to grow again.

February 17 was a Friday, the day on which an ear, nose, and throat
specialist was in the habit of visiting the hospital. It was arranged for
me to see him, and putting on my dressing-gown, I walked along to the
Out-patients' Department. His manner was reassuring. He felt behind my
ear and inquired if it pained me. I replied that it did.

That being so he regretted the necessity, but he must operate within half
an hour for what appeared to be a most unpleasant mastoid. I asked if I
might be moved to Sister Hall's ward, and after one look at my face the
doctors very decently agreed.

I went back, changed into my red pyjamas and climbed once more on to the
trolley. I was wheeled along to the Horsebox, the title affectionately
bestowed on the emergency theatre which was the converted end of the
children's ward. McIndoe was already at work in the main theatre.

With the usual feeling of relief I felt the hypodermic needle pushed into
my arm, and within five seconds I was unconscious.

For the next week I was very ill, though quite how seriously I could only
judge by the alacrity with which all my requests were granted. I was
again in the glass extension of Sister Hall's ward and she nursed me all
day and most of the night. I had regular morphia injections and for long
periods at a time I was delirious. The bug had got into my lip and was
biting deep into the skin at three places. I remember being in worse pain
than at any time since my crash. After the plastic operations I had felt
no discomfort, but now with the continuous throbbing agony in my head I
thought that I must soon go mad. I would listen with dread for the
footsteps of the doctors, knowing that the time was come for my
dressings, for the piercing of the hole behind my ear with a thin steel
probe to keep it open for draining, a sensation that made me contract
within myself at the mere touch of the probe on the skin.

It was during my second night in the glass extension that a 2500 lb. bomb
landed a hundred yards away but did not explode. I heard it coming down
with a curious whirring rustle, and as I heard it I prayed, prayed that
it would be near and bring with it peace, that it would explode and take
with it me, the extension, the ward, the huts, everything. For a moment I
thought it had, so great was the force of impact, but as I realized
slowly that it had not exploded I found that the tears were pouring down
my face: I was sobbing with mingled pain, rage, and frustration. Sister
immediately gave me another morphia injection.

It was decided that while the excavation squad was digging it out,
everybody possible must be evacuated to the convalescent home. Those who
were too ill to be moved would go to Ward Three on the far side of the
hospital. I imagined that I would go along with the others, but after
taking a look at me McIndoe decided that it would be too dangerous to
move me. Sister Hall offered to send a special nurse with me, but they
thought even so the risk was too great.

Sister looked at me: 'I'm afraid that means the huts,' she said. At that
something exploded inside me. McIndoe's chief assistant came into the
ward to arrange for me to be moved and I let fly. I had not spoken since
my operation and I saw the surprise in his face as I hauled myself up in
bed and opened my mouth. Wild horses, I said, would not drag me back to
that garbage-can of human refuse. If anyone laid a finger on my bed I
would get up and start to walk to London. I preferred to die in the open
rather than return to that stinking kitchen of fried flesh. I had come
into the hospital with two scars on my upper lip: now I had a lip that
was pox-ridden and an ear with enough infection in it to kill a regiment.
There was only one thing to be said for the British medical profession:
it started where the Luftwaffe left off. An outburst to which I now
confess with shame, but which at the time relieved my feelings

'You're not making this very easy,' he answered mildly.

'You're damn right, I'm not,' I said, and then felt very sick and lay

It was then that Sister Hall was magnificent.

'I think perhaps he should stay here in his present state, sir,' she
said. 'I'll see if I can fix up something.'

The doctor, only too willing to have the problem off his hands, looked
grateful, and left. I saw that she was smiling.

'Well, Mr. Hillary,' she said, 'quite like old times,' and went off to
see what she could arrange. Somehow she obtained permission to convert
one of the consulting rooms further down the hospital into a ward, and my
bed was pushed along.

That night McIndoe came in to see me. He was still wearing his operating
robes and sat down on the end of the bed. He talked to me for some time
of the difficulties of running a unit such as this, of the inevitable
trials and setbacks which must somehow be met. He knew, he said, that I
had had a tough break, but I must try not to let it get me down. I
noticed that he looked tired, dead tired, and remembered that he had been
operating all day. I felt a little ashamed. The next day my mother and
Denise motored down to see me. I was grey in the face from all the
Prontosil that I was taking and they both thought that I was on the way
out, though of this they gave no sign. Poor Mother. The crash, the sea,
the hospital, the operations--she had weathered them all magnificently.
But this last shock was almost too much. She did not look very well.

During the last five months I had gradually built up to my usual weight
of twelve stone, but in the next week I sweated my temperature down to
normal and my weight down to nine stone. I also began to feel more human,
and as the bomb had been removed and the evacuated ones brought back, I
returned to the main ward and the regular hospital routine.

If there is one thing I really loathe it is to be awakened an hour
earlier than necessary with a cup of cold brown tea. Unfortunately I
could not approach Tony's imperious sarcasm, which was proof against all
nurses until nine o'clock, but I finally hit on an idea for stopping this
persecution. Nurse Courtney promised that if I made no more remarks about
Ireland, she would no longer wake me with tea. I agreed with alacrity,
saying that I could easily dispense with both. She at once bristled but
was calmed down by Sister.

My God, I thought, who would be a nurse! They must suffer all the
inconveniences of convent celibacy without the consolation of that inner
glow which I take to be an integral part of the spiritual life.

It was shortly after this that Edmonds was readmitted to the hospital and
placed in the bed next to mine. He was the worst-burned pilot in the Air
Force to live. Taking off for his first solo in a Hampden at night, he
had swung a little at the end of his run and put a wing in. The machine
had immediately turned over and burst into flames. He had been trapped
inside and fried for several minutes before they dragged him out. When he
had first been brought to McIndoe he had been unrecogniszable and had
lain for months in a bath of his own suppuration. McIndoe performed two
emergency operations and then left it to time and careful dressings to
heal him enough for more.

Never once had Edmonds complained. After nine months McIndoe had sent him
away to build up his strength. Now he was back. It would take years to
build him a new face. He was completely cheerful, and such was his charm
that after two minutes one never noticed his disfigurement.

He was first on the list for operation the day after his readmission.
Both his top lids and his lower lip were done together and he was brought
back to the ward, even-tempered as ever. The man on his other side
diverted him for most of the day with endless funny stories of crashes.
Sometimes I think it would be very pleasant to be invested with the
powers of life and death.

Three days went by and I noticed an ominous dribble down Edmonds' right
cheek from under the dressing across his eyes. That night McIndoe took
the dressing down: the right eyelid graft had not taken. He took it off
and threw it away: it was the streptococcus at work again, and bitterly
ironical that McIndoe's first eyelid failure should be on Edmonds. He was
immediately put on to Prontosil and by the next morning was a greeny
blue, with his lower lip jutting out like an African tribeswoman's.

After lunch some idiotic woman came in and exclaimed at how marvelously
well he looked. I held my breath but I need not have worried. Instead of
turning his face to the wall or damning her soul, he managed to smile and

'Yes, and I'm feeling much better too.'

I could not but marvel at his self-control and unruffled good manners. I
remembered a few of my own recent outbursts and felt rather small.

Here was a twenty-six-year-old South African with no ties in this
country, no mere boy with his whole life to make, terribly injured
without even the satisfaction of having been in action. Sometimes he
behaved as though he had been almost guilty not to have been shot down,
as though he were in the hospital under false pretences; but if ever a
pilot deserved a medal it was he. He read little, was not musical, yet
somehow he carried on. How? What was it that gave not only him but all
these men the courage to go on and fight their way back to life? Was it
in some way bound up with the consciousness of death? This was a subject
which fascinated me and I had discussed it with McIndoe. Did people know
when they were about to die? He maintained that they did not, having seen
over two hundred go, none of them conscious that their last moment had

'How about Charles the Second's apology for being such an unconscionable
time a-dying?'

He admitted that in some cases people might have a premonition of death,
but in cases of terrible physical injury he would say never. Their
physical and mental conditions were not on a different plane: the first
weakened the second (if I report him accurately), and there was neither
consciousness of great pain nor realization of the finality of physical

That, then, would account for my calmness when in the sea. I knew well
enough, meanwhile, that sheer anger had pulled me through my mastoid
complication. But what of the men who, after the first instinctive fight
to live, after surviving the original physical shock, went on fighting to
live, cheerfully aware that for them there was only a half-life? The
blind and the utterly maimed--what of them? Their mental state could not
remain in the same dazed condition after their bodies began to heal.
Where did they get the courage to go on?

It worried me all day. Finally I decided that the will to live must be
entirely instinctive and in no way related to courage.

This nicely resolved any suspicion that I might recently have behaved
rather worse than any of the others, might have caused unnecessary
trouble and confusion. Delighted with my analysis of the problem, I
settled myself to sleep.

The following day my ear surgeon told me that I might go back to the
convalescent home in a week, McIndoe told me that he would not operate on
me again for three months, and my mother came down from town and told me
that Noel Agazarian had been killed.

At first I did not believe it. Not Noel. It couldn't happen to him. Then
I realized it must be true. That left only me--the last of the
long-haired boys. I was horrified to find that I felt no emotion at all.


'I see they got you too'

I WAS back at the convalescent home when the letter came. I was very
comfortable, but I had a flat, let-down feeling. I suppose it was natural
enough after the mastoid; but I knew it went deeper than that. The last
few months in the hospital had most certainly been an experience. I had
asked no more than that of the war. I was by no means regretting it, but
it was still too near in time for me to focus it clearly. I had, I
thought, observed the people around me disinterestedly. Their suffering
and pain had in no way affected my attitude to the war. I had come
through it without falling a victim to the cloying emotions of false
pity. I could congratulate myself that I was self-centred enough to have
survived any attack on my position as an egocentric. I had a fleeting
suspicion that that might be because the others had been so much an
integral part of my own experience that I could consider them only in
relation to myself; but I dismissed the idea. And yet something was
wrong. My thoughts were no longer tuned to Peter: there was no contact,
not even through Denise. All this was now as nothing. I was back where I
had started. It had been a mere passing emotional disturbance, occasioned
by my weakened condition. With the passage of time, as I had foreseen,
the whole relationship took on its normal proportions. Indeed I was a
little irritated with Denise. What had seemed sensibility now seemed
sentimentality: life was not all giving and selflessness, and no
projection of the imagination could make it so. The realization that I
had felt so deeply the need for the ghostly awareness of Peter now
angered me. Still, I had not expected it to last. Why, then, this absurd
feeling of futility?

I was suddenly tired. The first intimation of spring was in the air and I
went for walks in the garden. Crocuses were bursting out of the ground,
the trembling livingness of the earth seemed urgent through the soles of
one's shoes; it was the time of poetry and the first glance of love; yet
I turned from it. It seemed to me that my mind was dry bone. I had an
idea for a play to be called Dispersal Point, a study in Air Force
mentality more or less on the lines of Journey's End, but the idea was
stillborn. I was cold and emptied of feeling. It was as though I were
again at school, at school and for Sunday lunch: the bars on the windows,
the cracked plaster above the empty grate, the housemaster
surreptitiously picking his teeth with a penknife, and the boys, their
long-tailed coats drooping over the hardwood benches, crouched
dispiritedly above sickening plates of cold trifle. And then one morning,
the letter.

It was from David Rutter: he had read the notice about Noel in the paper
and asked if I could come to see him. David Rutter, a man with, in a
different way, as great an integrity as Peter's; David and the awful
sincerity of his pacificism, rationalized at Oxford by talk of the Middle
Ages, field-boots under the surplice, a different war for the unemployed
labourer and the Duke of Westminster; but with an instinctive,
deep-rooted hatred of killing which no argument could touch.

I had not seen him since that day more than a year before when Noel and I
had got our commissions. We were in the bar of a London club,
celebrating. David Rutter had come in. His first appeal as a
conscientious objector had been turned down by the board that morning. We
told him our news.

'You always were the lucky bastard, Richard,' he said, and laughed. He
had a drink with us and left. And now he was working on the land. I was
eager to see if and how he had changed. I remembered our conversation at
Oxford: I wasn't going to get hurt; I should get killed or win some putty
medals while he went to jail. Well, I had to admit it hadn't worked out
quite like that.

The letter came as a relief. I was eager to go, was sure that something
would come of the visit. I thought I might go to London for the night
afterwards: it would be a change. I applied for two days' leave and
caught a train to Norfolk.

David met me at the station. A lock of hair hung over his forehead and he
wore an old tweed jacket and corduroy trousers: he looked very fit. He
seemed glad to see me, and as we climbed into his small car he told me
shyly that he was married. I said little while we drove. I was uncertain
what approach to take and felt it safer to let him make the first move.
He was uneasy and I felt guilty: I had such an unfair advantage. We drew
up outside a square brick bungalow and got out.

'Well, here we are,' said David with an attempt at a smile. 'Come and
meet Mary.'

His wife greeted me politely but defensively. She was a large,
good-looking girl, blond hair hanging loosely forward over her shoulders.
She began at once to talk--about birds and their use as an alarm clock.
She resented my face. I was amused and relieved, for the usual feminine
opening of 'Poor boy, how you must have suffered' embarrassed me;
embarrassed me not because it was tactless, but because I could not
immediately disabuse my sympathizers of their misplaced pity without
appearing mock-modest or slightly insane. And so I remained an impostor.
They would say, 'I hope someone got the swine who got you: how you must
hate those devils!' and I would say weakly, 'Oh, I don't know,' and leave
it at that. I could not explain that I had not been injured in their war,
that no thoughts of 'our island fortress' or of 'making the world safe
for democracy' had bolstered me up when going into combat. I could not
explain that what I had suffered I in no way regretted; that I had
welcomed it; and that now that it was over I was in a sense grateful for
it and certain that in time it would help me along the road of my own
private development.

Well, here at least I need not worry.

Mary was still talking, this time about books, in an aggressive monologue
which I was pretty certain masked a rawly sensitive nature.

But David cut in.

'It's all right, Mary,' he said in a tired voice, 'Richard's not
belligerent.' He turned to me apologetically: 'I'm afraid I don't see
many of my old friends any more and when I do there's usually a scene, so
Mary's a bit on the defensive.'

We talked for a while on safe subjects--his work on the land, the
district, and his evening visits to the local pub to gossip with the
villagers. David was restless, pacing continuously up and down the room
and rubbing a nervous hand over his hair. His wife followed his every
movement; her eyes never left him. I realized that she was a very unhappy
woman. It was not that she had no faith in David, for she was desperately
loyal; it was that he no longer had any faith in himself.

I wanted to start him off, so I asked him what the C.O. boards had been

'Oh, moronic but well-meaning,' he said. 'Yes, they were certainly
moronic; but they were right. That's the hell of it.'

He sat down and stared moodily into the fire.

Then: 'I'm sorry about Noel,' he said.

'Yes,' I said.

For a moment he sat in silence. Then he lay back in his chair and began
to talk. From time to time he would glance up at my face, and as he
talked I realized that while I might carry my scars for a few years, the
scars of his action would be with him always. For he was a broken man. In
the last year he had stood by and watched his ideals shattered, one by
one. As country after country had fallen to Hitler his carefully reasoned
arguments had been split wide open: it was as much the war of the
unemployed labourer as of the Duke of Westminster. Never in the course of
history had there been a struggle in which the issues were so clearly
defined. Although our peculiar form of education would never allow him to
admit it, he knew well enough that it had become a crusade. All this he
could have borne. It was the painful death of his passionate fundamental
belief that he should raise his hand against no man which finally brought
his world crumbling about his ears.

It started as a suspicion, at first faint, then insistent, and finally a
dominant conviction, that in this too, this in which he believed above
all things, he had been wrong.

'After much heart-searching,' he said, 'I finally decided that with the
outbreak of war I had failed in my own particular struggle. I had not now
the right to refuse to fight: it was no longer a question for personal
conscience but for the conscience of civilization. Civilization had
decided, and it would be intolerable arrogance for me to question that

He gave me a wry smile.

'It is to be regretted,' he said, 'that it has taken me more than a year
to see this. Now I suppose I shall join up. Do you think I should?'

I started: the question had caught me unawares. I looked at David's set
face and the taut expectant figure of his wife, and sitting there smugly
with the 'honourable' scars of a battle that was not mine I felt of a
sudden very small.

'I don't know, David,' I said. 'That's a question which only you can

When I rose to leave it was already dark. I said good-bye to his wife,
and David drove me to my train up to London. As we got out of the car the
searchlights were making a crisscross pattern of light in the sky: all
around us was the steady roar of anti-aircraft fire.

David held out his hand.

'Good-bye, Richard,' he said. 'You always were the lucky bastard.'

And this time he meant it.

There was a heavy raid on and the train crawled interminably, only the
dull-blue light in the ceiling and the occasional glow of a cigarette
revealing the presence of the passengers. David by now would be home
again, pacing the floor, up and down, up and down, while Mary sat by
helpless. David, so lost and without purpose; I had never expected to
find him like that. I thought of Noel, of the two Peters, of the others
in the Squadron, all dead; and how the David that I had known was dead
too. They had all, in their different ways, given so much: it was
ironical that I who had given least should alone have survived.

Liverpool Street Station was a dull-grey blur of noise and movement. I
managed somehow to get hold of a taxi and make a start across London, but
my driver seemed doubtful whether we should be able to go very far. Some
machine dropped a flare, and in the sudden brightness before it was put
out I saw that the street was empty. 'What cars there were, were parked
along the kerb and deserted.

'I'm afraid we'll be stopped soon, sir,' said the taxi-driver. At that
moment there was a heavy cramp unpleasantly close and glass flew across
the street.

'See if you can find a pub and we'll stop there,' I shouted. A few yards
further on he drew into the kerb and we got out and ran to a door under a
dimly lit sign of 'The George and Dragon.' Inside there was a welcoming
glow of bright lights and beery breaths, and we soon had our faces deep
in a couple of mugs of mild and bitter.

In one corner on a circular bench that ran round a stained wooden table
sat a private in battle-dress and a girl, the girl drinking Scotch. She
had light-brown hair and quite good features. I suppose if one had taken
her outside and washed her face under a pump she would have had a rather
mousy look, but she would still have been pretty. She was pretty now in
spite of the efforts that she had made to improve on nature, had made and
continued to make, for every few minutes she would take out a vanity
case, pull a face into the mirror, lick her lower lip and dash her
lipstick in a petulant streak of scarlet across her mouth. She was also
talking very loud and laughing immoderately. I caught the barmaid's eye.
She gave me a conspiratorial wink and shook her head knowingly; ah yes,
we understood, we two. But she was wrong: the girl was not drunk, she was
very, very frightened; and, I thought, with good reason. For though at
the Masonic I had dozed off regularly to the lullaby of the German night
offensive, I had never before heard anything like this. The volume of
noise shut out all thought, there was no lull, no second in which to
breathe and follow carefully the note of an oncoming bomber. It was an
orchestra of madmen playing in a cupboard. I thought, 'God! what a stupid
waste if I were to die now.' I wished with all my heart that I was down a

'We'd be better off underground tonight, sir, and no mistake.' It was my
taxi-driver speaking.

'Nonsense,' I said. 'We couldn't be drinking this down there,' and I took
a long pull at my beer.

I was pushing the glass across the counter for a refill when we heard it
coming. The girl in the corner was still laughing and for the first time
I heard her soldier speak. 'Shut up!' he said, and the laugh was cut off
like the sound track in a movie. Then everyone was diving for the floor.
The barmaid (she was of considerable bulk) sank from view with a
desperate slowness behind the counter and I flung myself tight up against
the other side, my taxi-driver beside me. He still had his glass in his
hand and the beer shot across the floor, making a dark stain and setting
the sawdust afloat. The soldier too had made for the bar counter and
wedged the girl on his inside. One of her shoes had nearly come off. It
was an inch from my nose: she had a ladder in her stocking.

My hands were tight-pressed over my ears but the detonation deafened me.
The floor rose up and smashed against my face, the swing-door tore off
its hinges and crashed over a table, glass splinters flew across the
room, and behind the bar every bottle in the place seemed to be breaking.
The lights went out, but there was no darkness. An orange glow from
across the street shone through the wall and threw everything into a
strong relief.

I scrambled unsteadily to my feet and was leaning over the bar to see
what had happened to the unfortunate barmaid when a voice said, 'Anyone
hurt?' and there was an A.F.S. man shining a torch. At that everyone
began to move, but slowly and reluctantly as though coming out of a
dream. The girl stood white and shaken in a corner, her arm about her
companion, but she was unhurt and had stopped talking. Only the barmaid
failed to get up.

'I think there is someone hurt behind the bar,' I said. The fireman
nodded and went out, to return almost immediately with two
stretcher-bearers who made a cursory inspection and discovered that she
had escaped with no more than a severe cut on the head. They got her on
to the stretcher and disappeared.

Together with the man in the A.F.S., the taxi-driver and I found our way
out into the street. He turned to us almost apologetically. 'If you have
nothing very urgent on hand,' he said, 'I wonder if you'd help here for a
bit. You see it was the house next to you that was hit and there's
someone buried in there.'

I turned and looked on a heap of bricks and mortar, wooden beams and
doors, and one framed picture, unbroken. It was the first time that I had
seen a building newly blasted. Often had I left the flat in the morning
and walked up Piccadilly, aware vaguely of the ominously tidy gap between
two houses, but further my mind had not gone.

We dug, or rather we pushed, pulled, heaved, and strained, I somewhat
ineffectually because of my hands; I don't know for how long, but I
suppose for a short enough while. And yet it seemed endless. From time to
time I was aware of figures round me: an A.R.P. warden, his face
expressionless under a steel helmet; once a soldier swearing savagely in
a quiet monotone; and the taxi-driver, his face pouring sweat.

And so we came to the woman. It was her feet that we saw first, and
whereas before we had worked doggedly, now we worked with a sort of
frenzy, like prospectors at the first glint of gold. She was not quite
buried, and through the gap between two beams we could see that she was
still alive. We got the child out first. It was passed back carefully and
with an odd sort of reverence by the warden, but it was dead. She must
have been holding it to her in the bed when the bomb came.

Finally we made a gap wide enough for the bed to be drawn out. The woman
who lay there looked middle-aged. She lay on her back and her eyes were
closed. Her face, through the dirt and streaked blood, was the face of a
thousand working women; her body under the cotton nightdress was heavy.
The nightdress was drawn up to her knees and one leg was twisted under
her. There was no dignity about that figure.

Around me I heard voices. 'Where's the ambulance?' 'For Christ's sake
don't move her!' 'Let her have some air!'

I was at the head of the bed, and looking down into that tired,
blood-streaked, work-worn face I had a sense of complete unreality. I
took the brandy flask from my hip pocket and held it to her lips. Most of
it ran down her chin but a little flowed between those clenched teeth.
She opened her eyes and reached out her arms instinctively for the child.
Then she started to weep. Quite soundlessly, and with no sobbing, the
tears were running down her cheeks when she lifted her eyes to mine.

'Thank you, sir,' she said, and took my hand in hers. And then, looking
at me again, she said after a pause, 'I see they got you too.'

Very carefully I screwed the top on to the brandy flask, unscrewed it
once and screwed it on again, for I had caught it on the wrong thread. I
put the flask into my hip pocket and did up the button. I pulled across
the buckle on my greatcoat and noticed that I was dripping with sweat. I
pulled the cap down over my eyes and walked out into the street.

Someone caught me by the arm, I think it was the soldier with the girl,
and said: 'You'd better take some of that brandy yourself. You don't look
too good'; but I shook him off. With difficulty I kept my pace to a walk,
forcing myself not to run. For I wanted to run, to run anywhere away from
that scene, from myself, from the terror that was inside me, the terror
of something that was about to happen and which I had not the power to

It started small, small but insistent deep inside of me, sharp as a
needle, then welling up uncontrollable, spurting, flowing over, choking
me. I was drowning, helpless in a rage that caught and twisted and hurled
me on, mouthing in a blind unthinking frenzy. I heard myself cursing, the
words pouring out, shrill, meaningless, and as my mind cleared a little I
knew that it was the woman I cursed. Yes, the woman that I reviled,
hating her that she should die like that for me to see, loathing that
silly bloody twisted face that had said those words: 'I see they got you
too.' That she should have spoken to me, why, oh Christ, to me? Could she
not have died the next night, ten minutes later, or in the next street?
Could she not have died without speaking, without raising those cow eyes
to mine?

'I see they got you too.' All humanity had been in those few words, and I
had cursed her. Slowly the frenzy died in me, the rage oozed out of me,
leaving me cold, shivering, and bitterly ashamed. I had cursed her,
cursed her, I realized as I grew calmer, for she had been the one thing
that my rage surging uncontrollably had had to fasten on, the one thing
to which my mind, overwhelmed by the sense of something so huge and
beyond the range of thought, could cling. Her death was unjust, a crime,
an outrage, a sin against mankind--weak inadequate words which even as
they passed through my mind mocked me with their futility.

That that woman should so die was an enormity so great that it was
terrifying in its implications, in its lifting of the veil on
possibilities of thought so far beyond the grasp of the human mind. It
was not just the German bombs, or the German Air Force, or even the
German mentality, but a feeling of the very essence of anti-life that no
words could convey. This was what I had been cursing--in part, for I had
recognized in that moment what it was that Peter and the others had
instantly recognized as evil and to be destroyed utterly. I saw now that
it was not crime; it was Evil itself--something of which until then I
had not even sensed the existence. And it was in the end, at bottom,
myself against which I had raged, myself I had cursed. With awful clarity
I saw myself suddenly as I was. Great God, that I could have been so

How long I had been walking I don't know, but the drone of aircraft had
ceased, so the All Clear must have sounded. I had a horror of thinking,
of allowing my mind to look back armed with this new consciousness, but
memories of faces, scenes, conversations flooded in, each a shock greater
than the last. I was again in the train with Peter, on the way to
Edinburgh, sitting forward on the seat, ridiculing his belief with glib
patronizing assurance. Once again I was drawing from him his hopes and
fears, his aspirations for a better life, extracting them painfully one
by one, and then triumphant, holding them up to the light, turning them
this way and that, playing with them for a moment only to puncture them
with ridicule and, delighted with my own wit, to throw them carelessly
aside. Once again Peter was sitting opposite me, unruffled and tolerant,
saying that I was not quite unfeeling, predicting that some shock of
anger or of pity would serve to shake me from the complacency of my ivory
tower, Peter quoting Tolstoi to me:

          Man, man, you cannot live entirely without pity!

words which I had taken it upon myself to dismiss as the sentimental gub
of an old man in his dotage.

Oh, God, that memory might be blotted out; but it was remorseless.
Peter's death lived by me in all its vivid intensity, offering me yet
again the full life by all its implications, but rejected by me later to
Denise. Rejected brutally, 'Let the dead bury their dead,' close the door
on the past, be grateful for the experience, use it, but understand that
there is no communication, no message, no spiritual guidance, no bridge
between life and death. Go on, do not look back, there is nothing there,
nothing; it is all over. Denise, who had not been angry, who was now
working day and night with Peter beside her, who had shown me the way,
who with patience and understanding had let me look into her heart that I
might learn. And I who, having looked, closed my eyes and turned away not
wishing to believe, turned away irritated. Something there to be absorbed
perhaps, an experience which might be useful; very interesting
emotionally of course, but nothing more. No, decidedly not. Dangerous
morbid introspection; must get away.

Noel, Peter Howes, Bubble, and the others--their deaths. Not felt quite
as fully as one had expected perhaps, but then there was a war on, people
dying every minute, one must harden one's heart. They were gone; good
friends all of them, but there it was, nothing there for me, no
responsibility, no answering to them for my actions before or after.

And the hospital. I saw myself again that first day in Sussex, standing
in the doorway and looking down Ward Three. Once again I saw Joan in the
bed by the saline bath, saw her hairless head, her thin emaciated face,
and heard that voice like a child of seven's whimpering, saw myself
register it vaguely and pass on to look with interest at the others. The
blind man learning Braille, utterly dependent on his wife; bad that,
should be helping himself. Joseph the Czech and his nose growing from his
forehead; his hands messy stumps and his eyes stupidly trusting. The one
with practically no face at all, just a pair of eyes; unable to talk of
course, but interesting, oh yes, particularly interesting: Yorkey Law the
bombardier, later to be invalided out, but quite fascinating with all
those bacon strips off his legs gradually forming a face. And the others;
one after another I remembered them until finally Edmonds--Edmonds and
his year of pain and disfigurement and my nice comfortable little theory
on his will to live.

I remembered them all, remembered how at first they had interested me in
their different ways, and then how they had irritated me with their dumb
acceptance of the hospital conditions, their gratitude for what was being
done for them, and above all their silent, uncomplaining endurance. It
had baffled me. I had felt their suffering a little, had seen it, but
through a glass darkly. They were too close to me, too much a part of my
own suffering for me to focus it like this thing tonight.

Tonight. Had it really been such a short time ago, had it been today that
I had talked to David Rutter?

Again memory dragged me back. It had been this very day who had sat back
smoking cigarettes while David had poured out his heart, while his wife
had watched me, taut, hoping. But I had failed. I had been disturbed a
little, yes, but when he was finished I had said nothing, given no sign,
offered no assurance that he was now right. I saw it so clearly.

'Do you think I should join up?' On my answer had depended many things,
his self-respect, his confidence for the future, his final good-bye to
the past. And I had said nothing, shying away from the question, even
then not seeing. In the train I had crossed my legs and sat back, amused,
God help me, by the irony of it all. They had given so much and were
dead. I had given so little and was alive. Ah, well!

I was very grateful for the night and my solitude. I who had always
repeated the maxim 'Know thyself' was seeing now what it meant to live by
that maxim. 'Le sentiment d'tre tout et l'vidence de n'tre rien.' That
was me. The feeling that I was everything and the evidence that I was

So Peter had been right. It was impossible to look only to oneself, to
take from life and not to give except by accident, deliberately to look
at humanity and then pass by on the other side. No longer could one say
'The world's my oyster and the hell with the rest.' What was it Denise
had said? 'Yes, you can realize yourself, but not by leading the
egocentric life. By feeling deeply the deaths of the others you are
conferring value on life.'

For a moment I had had it, had that feeling, but I had let it go, had
encouraged it to go, distrusting it, and now, and now... was it, then,
too late?

I stopped and looked up into the night. They were there somewhere, all of
them around me; dead perhaps, but not gone. Through Peter they had spoken
to me, not once but often. I had heard and shrugged my shoulders; I had
gone my way unheeding, not bitter, either on their account or mine, but
in some curious way suspended, blind, lifeless, as they could never be.

Not so the others. Not so the Berrys, the Stapletons, the Carburys. Again
instinct had served. They hadn't had even the need of a Peter. They had
felt their universe, not rationalized it. Each time they climbed into
their machines and took off into combat, they were paying instinctive
tribute to their comrades who were dead. Not so those men in hospital.
They too knew, knew that no price was too dear to achieve this victory,
knew that their discomforts, their suffering, were as nothing if they
could but get back, and should they never get back they knew that silence
was their role.

But I! What had I done? What could I do now?

I wanted to seize a gun and fire it, hit somebody, break a window,
anything. I saw the months ahead of me, hospital, hospital, hospital,
operation after operation, and I was in despair. Somehow I got myself
home, undressed, and into bed and fell into a troubled sleep. But I did
not rest; when I awoke the problem was still within me. Surely there must
be something.

Then after a while it came to me.

I could write. Later there would be other things, but now I could write.
I had talked about it long enough, I was to be a writer, just like that.
I was to be a writer, but in a vacuum. Well, here was my chance. To write
I needed two things, a subject and a public. Now I knew well enough my
subject. I would write of these men, of Peter and of the others. I would
write for them and would write with them. They would be at my side. And
to whom would I address this book, to whom would I be speaking when I
spoke of these men? And that, too, I knew. To Humanity, for Humanity must
be the public of any book. Yes, that despised Humanity which I had so
scorned and ridiculed to Peter.

If I could do this thing, could tell a little of the lives of these men,
I would have justified, at least in some measure, my right to fellowship
with my dead, and to the friendship of those with courage and
steadfastness who were still living and who would go on fighting until
the ideals for which their comrades had died were stamped for ever on the
future of civilization.

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