From ‘The Ripening World’ – the last part of the autobiography of H E Bates
The Battle that presently began in that torturingly beautiful summer will always be known as the Battle of Britain. Of its supreme importance I will say more in a moment. But geographically, of course, it covered no more than a tiny fraction of Britain. The area of combat took place in a cube roughly eighty miles long, nearly forty broad and five to six miles high. The vortex of all this was the Maidstone, Canterbury, Ashford, Dover, Dungeness area, in which Spitfires largely operated, with the further rear centre of combat between Tunbridge Wells, Maidstone and London, largely commanded by Hurricanes. Sometimes in the frontal area as many as 150 to 200 individual combats would take place in the space of half an hour.
To the civilian population below, who were able to see something of a battle for the possession of their island for the first time for centuries, the entire affair was strangely, uncannily, weirdly unreal. The housewife with her shopping basket, the farm labourer herding home his cows, the shepherd with his flock, the farmer turning his hay: all of them, going about their daily tasks, could look up and see, far, far above them, little silver moths apparently playing against the sun in a game not unlike a celestial ballet. Now and then a splutter of machine-gun fire cracked the heavens open, leaving ominous silence behind. Now and then a parachute opened and fell lazily, like a white upturned convolvulus flower, through the midsummer sky. But for the most part it all had a remoteness so unreal that the spectator over and over again wondered if it was taking place at all, Nor was it often possible to detect the falling convolvulus flower contained enemy or friend, and often the same was true of aircraft, so that the battle was watched in the strangest state of suspense, with little open or vocal jubilation.
It was of course, with its combatants, much glamorised by newspapers but Richard Hillary was right when he said “much that is untrue and misleading has been written on the pilot of this era. Within one short year he has become the nation’s hero and the attempt to live up to this false conception bores him….. The pilot is of a race of men who since time immemoriaI have been inarticulate; who, through their daily contact with death, have realised, 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”. This was just as true of the far less glamorised bomber pilots, as I was later to discover.
Remote though it may have seemed to the spectator below there can however be no shadow of doubt that the Battle of Britain was the most decisive of the war. Its closest parallel is Trafalgar. Both were the beginning and not the end of the long road to victory. A good many years were to elapse between Trafalgar and Waterloo; another five of bitter and extensive combat on air, sea and land were to elapse between mid-September 1940 and the surrender of the German armies at Luneburg Heath in 1945. This book offers no space in which to argue over the inter-allied conflicts and duplicity that went on in those years, bitter though their results may now seem to the British mind; it simply remains to say that if the Luftwaffe had knocked out the RAF in that unbearably beautiful summer of 1940 it is scarcely possible that we would have hoped to achieve another Waterloo.
Throughout it all I wrote little. It was a world in which you felt there was no tomorrow. You lived for the day, and the day, you hoped, by the grace of God, would be enfolded mercifully by a night in which men didn’t kill each other. The nights, as I remember them, were of a marvellous starlit calm. The days broke limpid and soft and flowered into a perfection that mocked and pained by its beauty. Like an old hen protecting its brood I hovered protectively about my young family, holding it to be my duty, for the present, to see that they at least had a protective umbrella held above them. They, after the manner of children, grew to accept it all more readily than their parents, so that there came a day when a great blast of thunder broke out above the house and all of us dived under the kitchen table, the children weeping with fear until pacified by their parents’ soothing words: ‘There’s nothing to worry about. It isn’t thunder. Only bombs,’ so that tears were silent and dried in a moment or two.
As the summer drew on, growing always in beauty, until once again the wheat was the colour of brandy in the fields, it became clearer and clearer that the climax of the battle was still to come. You felt your nerves begin to stretch to breaking point. Not only did it presently seem as if there were no tomorrows; there were no todays either. At this moment Madge’s brother paid us a week-end visit. Far away in Northamptonshire he had been as remote from battle as a nurse in Kensington Gardens might have been from Sevastopol or Khartoum. He found it impossible to believe that war was being waged above his head. I don’t think he slept well; but in the morning he came forth with a marvellously sensible suggestion. We would go fishing. I myself hadn’t fished for years and neither of us had a hook or line to our name. Accordingly we went out and spent some magnificent sum, about two pounds I imagine, on the two cheapest rods we could find, hooks, lines, floats and shot. We dug vast quantities of worms and mixed great puddings of paste. We then armed ourselves with beer, cheese and sandwiches and set off finally for the two pretty little lakes that lie in the centre of the village, one of them containing an island of quince trees, with the limpid narrow young River Stour running alongside them by woods of alder and hazel and here and there under big old horse chestnuts and half drowned ancient willows.
An immense peace enshrouded us; in a garden an old man placed an even older ladder against an apple tree glowing with early red fruit as with lanterns; a kingfisher streaked, copper and blue, through the dark tunnel of alders; a flight of mallards winged away above the quince trees; moorhens dived and disappeared and pranced their delicate way among the tall thick summer reeds. It was hard to believe that this was a battlefield. The paradox of war and the ethereal exquisite nature of summer dissolved together to form a sort of opiate, a state where time and its senseless, fragmentary paroxyms of pain and fear no longer existed. We simply were; we sat beside the still waters and there was nothing else that mattered.
The little river hadn’t been fished for years and as we cast in our lines it was like taking chocolate from innocent and unprotected children. Fat perch and roach, sometimes a small pike, an occasional rudd or silver bream: all came to us as if we were hypnotists. Even in the heat of the day we went on hauling them in. Then suddenly the opiate heat of noon was shattered. A dog fight broke out above us with such unexpected suddenness that I thought it was the boughs of the big tall poplars catching noisy fire above our heads. Machine-gun shells spattered down the full centre of the lake, rousing a thousand fish, big and small, from August slumber, so that they leapt out of the water in silver frightened shoals as if pursued by some monstrous legendary pike. We angled with a little more circumspection after that, seeking the shelter of trees; but though we heard once or twice again the rattle of machine-gun fire there was really nothing that could ever destroy the suspended beauty of that day, which had calmed at least one troubled mind and given it hope for the future.
The immediate future was in fact to be one of blackness. With the coming of September the Germans were to make another full and deliberate attempt to destroy Britain. The full premeditated nature of the attack, based on Goering’s personal orders from France, was clear: it was to smash London and with it, if possible, the entire morale of the people. The first attack, on September 7th, was the heaviest the country had ever had to face. Very heavy bombers, Dornier 215s (sic), were used, escorted by powerful fighters, including the new Heinkel 113 (sic). The Luftwaffe bomber force, outnumbering the RAF many times over, was over London for hours, commanding the sky. Docks, stores, warehouses, masses of working-class houses and buildings of all kinds were smashed. By night, from fifty miles away, we could see from our Kentish fields the great red-orange light of London burning. Throughout it all the outnumbered RAF fought like tigers and though in the heat of battle it is never easy to assess casualties with any accuracy we claimed to have shot down a hundred Nazi planes. Against this over 300 Londoners were dead and another 1600 injured.
This was by no means the end. On September 15th a new great mass of bombers with their fighter escorts was again pitched against us, London again the main target. In one of these desperate moments when something has to be done to hide fear from children and distract them from a catastrophe about to blow up in their faces we had trundled off, pram, kettle, food, fishing rods and all, to picnic by the lake. The quinces were already turning gold on the trees by the water and the day was as golden as the ripening fruit. We had scarcely begun to fish when the sky, from the south-east, the direction of Dover, began to blacken. It was darkened all over by what seemed to be a monstrous gathering of giant starlings. Helplessly we watched them, at no height at all, flying above our heads, in relentless formation, on their way to London. As they passed there was suddenly, among the reeds along the lake, an explosion, followed by another. Though by no means loud, it frightened us more than the bombers, even long after we had discovered that it had been caused by two addled wild-duck eggs bursting in the summer heat.
Again a small, ludicrous event, remembered after nearly thirty years, illuminates an affair of far more sinister import. In the recollection of the exploding duck-eggs lies the thought, tenuous but satisfactory, that that day, September 15th, was virtually the end of Goering’s effort to destroy us. Fat duck-egg as he himself looked, it was he, not us, who was that day exploded. We claimed – again, probably in the heat of battle, mistakenly – 185 Nazi planes destroyed. The precise number hardly mattered to a dozen one way or the other. On the 18th, 27th and 30th we claimed a further 230 and after that the Luftwaffe fire was virtually expended.
Those who lived in the south-east that summer will never forget the irony of its ethereal beauty and its deathly, deathless conflict. When the weather broke at last, bringing autumn rain, it also brought an odd, repeated phenomenon. I had never seen it before and I have never seen it since.
It was a sun-dog: a kind of evanescent circular rainbow that, in unsettled weather, appears just a little away from the perimeter of the sun. It had about it a kind of ominous beauty. It might almost have been a sign from heaven: a portent, but of what you were too tired or shattered or relieved to wonder.