I have been watching much of The Battle of Britain series on BBC4 half hiding behind the sofa cushions in fear, and half riotous with national indignation. I knew about the war, obviously. But so many programmes have broken out like a rash on the BBC schedules this week that most mornings I wake up thinking it is 1940, and wonder where I have put my powdered egg.
The central, dual force of Senior Snow (Peter) and Sq Ldr Junior Snow (Dan) is a suitable guide for the War on Terror, 1940s style. They radiate a sort of English certitude. I feel as safe with Senior Snow as I did when, high on strong tea during election nights past, he would amaze us by getting his Swing-o-meter out. Whatever dubious politicians gain power in elections, and whatever shivers of dread we may be feeling about it, Peter would turn up, explain the statistics, talk about “seats” and “house” and “swinging power!” and make it all mean something a little less ghastly.
In 1940, “Swinging power!” was what happened when you’d left your Glenn Miller record on in the officer’s mess. The Battle of Britain programme was terrifying. I learned a lot I didn’t know; firstly, on September 7th, the German Air Force squadrons filled the sky so intensely that they spread over a 2 mile high wave over London. I also learned that night nine miles of Thames dockland was burned and destroyed and that the East End was disintegrated ‘in seconds’.
It was Stanley Baldwin who, in The House of Commons, said the quote above in 1931, that ‘the bomber will always get through’. And he’s right. There is no defence insurable against someone determined to fly over you and blow you up – unless you fly over him and blow him up first, of course. However, the onslaught of air attacks came a year after war was declared – a war that Air Staff thought would involve 3,500 tons of bombs dropping on London in the first 24 hours, killing 58,000 Londoners immediately. The Battle of Britain – the nearest thing in our history, which could so easily have been lost – marked a brutal end to the concept of the ‘phoney’ war. The overriding sense I got from this impressive programme was a dreadful nausea rife with impending doom. It was a very, very, very near thing, so near that I was incredulous that the RAF squadrons, whose numbers were much smaller than the technologically superior German Air Force, were victorious at all. My anti-German sentiment progressed solidly throughout the hour. By the time Dan and Peter Snow had put away their little charts and stopped playing with their special lovely radar buttons, I was ready to declare war again. I went to bed, feverishly dreaming of eating sausage.
My grandfather was an RAF pilot – not a bomber but something to do with a Telecommunications Fighting Unit involved in operations in early radar development and night-flying – but who ended up being killed in one of these operations in a Shropshire airfield when he was 24 in December 1943, so I can’t ask him what it was all about. But I dread to think what my reaction is going to be when they start showing programmes about the blitz. I go nuts when I hear of Germans destroying London. Absolutely. Ruinously mad. Hopping mad, even. And I think it’s lovely that people keep banging on about the “blitz spirit” and all that, and how everyone pluckily got on with singing Rolll Ahht the Barrel and everything, but don’t half think people talk a lot of tosh about the war. They think that everyone respected each other, children got a clip round the ear and an orange at Christmas (thrown at their heads) if they were lucky, and that people went about their business dutifully and carried on uncomplainingly. Because they were nice and British and that. Now, to be fair, most of them did but some of them also had nervous breakdowns. Some of them took advantage of the lack of railings and gates in London’s parks and spent all night fucking in the Regents Park Rose Gardens, but you don’t read about that, people. And don’t get me started on that boorish and contrite saying that comes out again and again, that people “knew their place in those days, you know!” and all that rot. The most marvellous things about the British is their general refusal to know their place, their penchant for riots and revolt, and their desire to bay for the blood of kings from the gates of Buckingham Palace no less than three times in the last 150 years.
If it’s true that everyone at the end of the 1930s was sunny and full of noble, British pluck, why did The Committee of Imperial Defence believe that maintaining public order would be the biggest problem in the early days of the war, and troops must be assigned to the purpose? Why did the Government fear that some of the nation wouldn’t pull together at all in the event of a national crisis, that Marxist sentiment amongst the urban poor would provoke revolutionary fears, and that, when war was declared, what the Government really thought would happen was rioting, window smashing and general widespread panic? The kind of people who think that people knew their place in the war are probably the kind of boorish, out-of-touch recidivists who believe that National Service broadens the outlook, feeds the soul and benefits the nation (which it doesn’t because it costs too much).
I think I would have been hugely beneficial to the nation at large in the event of international warfare. I’d have put gravy browning on my legs with the best of them and worn one of those headscarves over bangs, and shown Field Marshalls what was what. I am very good at fortitude, and would be useful making strong cups of tea in those strange institutional green cups and saucers they had. I could competently look after the filing and talk on the telephone, which is pretty much what I do in my job now, but without the international intrigue. I’d have been good at clearing and sweeping up and helping people and would have got a job in the Foreign Office and gone clickety clack clickety clack on my manual typewriter (Bluebird, obviously) all day long in triplicate, sending out secret codes to airfields. I’d like to think I would have been a cross between Biggles and Jessica Fletcher, daredevil raids interspersed with the odd episode of sleuthing and finding out who was going to kill whom. Then I would find out where those silly German aeroplanes were coming from and stop them. I would have urgently whispered telephone conversations with Frenchmen working for the Resistance and hiding in haystacks. In Rhyl. For this look I am channelling Kate Winslet in Enigma but with far, far better hair. I would find a way to get hold of one of those fancy leather flying jacket things (sheepskin lining, please) and drape it over my shoulders in secret night-time meetings in Churchill’s bunker, where we would all chuckle knowingly at his hilarious Stalin impression and where he would have looked at me wryly and said “Oh yes, Mrs Fletcher! We bow to you and your immaculate sleuthing capabilities. Would you like a brandy?” Oh yes, I would have been v important to my country, you know. Chocks away. Not that I want a war of course. Not without the 1940s hair and make–up, anyway. For a start I wouldn’t have understood what they were on about most of the time and would think I was in an Armstrong & Miller sketch.
arsy-tarsy – Air Crew Reception Centre
arse-end Charlies – rear bombers
Gone for a Burton – killed in action, probably taken from an old advert for Burton Ale
brassed off / browned off – unhappy
brown jobs – the Army
bods – squadron personnel
brass, or The brasshats – top officers at Wing or Group level
cookie / blockbuster – a 4000 HC bomb with two cylinders filled with amitol, designed to destroy brick work structures
close the hangar doors – shut up shop (stop talking about RAF matters)
to court a cat – take your girlfriend out
dicky seat – the seat originally designed for a second pilot
dobhi – one’s laundry
egg – a bomb or mine
erk – ground crew
Faithful Annie – Avro Anson
fishheads – the navy
Flying Suitcase – Handley Page Hampden
Flying Tin Opener – a Hurricane in tank-busting role
greenhouse – cockpit window
grope – ground operational exercise
groceries – bombs
huffy – a WAAF disdainful of approaches
homework – sweetheart
jink away – sudden, sharp and evasive manoeuvre
to lose one’s wool – to lose composure
Mae West – inflatable life vest
oboe – ground-controlled radar system of blind bombing
pancake – to land
piece of cake – an easy target
pickled / pie-eyed – drunk
plaster – to bomb heavily
plonk – cheap wine ( from AC Plonk – A/C2 – the lowest rank in the RAF)
poop off – open fire
popsie – young lady
rhubarb – low-level strike operation mounted in cloudy conditions
schooly – education officer
scrambled egg – gold braid on Group Captain’s hats
scrub – to cancel an operation
Shagbat – Supermarine Walrus aircraft
shot up – very drunk
shot to ribbons – incapable through drink
silver sausage – barrage balloon
snake – a lively or noisy party
snake-charmers – a dance band
Snow Drop – RAF / Military police
sprog – new boy, fresh from training
stooging – flying around, waiting for something to happen.
Toodle pip then chaps, until next week for another top hole smattering of wordstuffs from the Bluebird’s Officers mess. Over and out.
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