18 AUGUST 1939, Page 13



HAD been reading Halevy's Epilogue to his History of I the English People on the way to the aerodrome, bump- ing through the fiat salty eastern county when the first labourers were going to work; yesterday's posters still up outside the little newsagent's which sold odd antique highly- coloured sweets ; the squat churches surrounded by the graves of those who had had placid deaths. Halevy is depressing reading-1895-19o5 ; the old power politics which have returned today: secret arrangements between politicians: words astutely spoken at social gatherings: agreements which were anything but gentlemen's: the sense of middle-aged men with big ideas in a shady racket. One always prefers the ruled to the rulers, and the servants of a policy to its dictators: this hardbitten unbeautiful countryside, this aerodrome—belonging to Eastland—where none of the officers flying the huge camouflaged Wellington bombers was over twenty-three.

Presumably the war between Eastland and Westland had the same political background one found in Halevy—human nature doesn't change ; but the war was on and nothing mattered except careful navigation, so that you descended from the clouds on the right target, and a delicate hand and eye, so that you didn't crash while hedge-hopping half a dozen counties at zoo miles an hour. You could even enjoy yourself now that war was on. At tea time a bomber zoomed down and up, almost brushing (so it seemed to the in- accurate eye) the mess room window, making everybody jump—you could shoot the mess up without a court-martial because it gave practice to the machine gunners round the aerodrome in sighting an enemy target.

I hadn't realised the amount of clothes one had to wear ; one felt like a deep-sea diver, in overalls, with the heavy shoulder-straps and steel clamps of the parachute equip- ment and the inflated waistcoat for saving one's life at sea, the helmet with the padded ear-pieces and the microphone attachment dangling by the mouth with a long flex to be attached to a point near one's chair. But then this is not the kind of war which entails much walking ; it is a sitting war from which it is impossible to run. Nor, knowing only passenger planes, had I realised the fragile look of the huge bombers inside, all glass and aluminium, tubes coiling every- where, a long empty tunnel like a half-built Underground leading to the rear gun ; a little cramped space in front behind the cockpit for the navigator at his table and the wireless operator. In the cockpit you feel raised over the whole world, even over your plane: space between your legs and glass under your feet and glass all round, enclosed in something like the transparent bullet-nose of a chlorotone capsule.

Under the feet at first there was water as we drove for half an hour out over the North Sea, climbing to 12,000 feet, hands and toes chilling. We were the leading plane of four, and it was odd up there in the huge din (the Wellington is the noisiest bomber these pilots have handled), in the immense waste of air, to see the pilot use the same trivial gestures through a side window as a man might make signalling to a car behind. Then as an indication to the other pilots that he needed room, he wobbled his plane and the whole squadron turned, a lovely movement in the cold clear high altitude light: the great green-brown planes sweeping round in formation towards Westland and the distant inland target.

Then the Blackwater: Gravesend—with the oil tanks like white counters on the Tilbury side. Cloud obscured every- thing, and afterwards it seemed no time at all before the engines were shut off and each plane in turn dived steeply down, cutting through the great summer castles of cloud, and it was Hampshire below. So far no fighter squadron had intercepted us ; whether we had been a mark for anti-aircraft guns we couldn't tell, but they had had their last chance. It was low flying from now on to the target in Berkshire—a maximum height of about 200 feet at 200 m.p.h., too low for gunfire; nor could any fighter squadron in the upper air observe us as we bumped just above the hills and woods the same colour as ourselves. Once, miles away, little black flies at perhaps 8,000 feet, three fighters patrolled a parallel track and slowly dropped behind: we were unspotted. One felt a momentary horror at the exposure of a whole quiet landscape to machine-gun fire— this was an area for evacuation, of small villages and farms where children's camps might possibly be built, and it was completely open to the four aircraft which swept undetected from behind the trees and between the hills. There was room for a hundred English Guernicas.

In an air liner one doesn't recognise speed—a Hercules seems slower than a cross-country train, objects below move so slowly across the window pane at three thousand feet ; but at 200, and we were often at too and sometimes as low as 5o, the world does really flash—county giving place to county, one style of scenery to another, almost as quickly as you would turn the pages of an atlas. We were out of Hampshire, climbing a down so close to the turf that it was like combing a head, up the forehead and over, into Berk- shire, above our target, wheeling round, one great wing revolving like the sail of a windmill against the bright summer sky, off again, and five minutes later cutting across a fighter aerodrome, with the planes lined up and the men idling and no chance of taking off before we were away, driving a long route home along the Thames, above the film studios of North London and back into the flat Dane-drenched eastern counties. It must be the most exciting sport in the world, low flying, but the bumps are hard on the stomach and I wasn't the only one sick—the second pilot was sick, too, and the navigator passed me an encouraging note—" Not feeling too good myself."

Over the coast at too feet, the popular resort, people resting on the beach after boarding-house luncheon or taking reluctant exercise on the pier, and out to sea again, climbing into the comfortable smooth upper air: then the last turn, the pilot signalling to his squadron, and the four planes closing up—the sense of racing home. Everybody began to smile, the navigator packed up his maps and instruments and drawing pins in a big green canvas bag, and the Wellingtons drove back in close formation at 26o miles an hour. It had been a good day: even if the war had been a real one, it would still have been a good day—the six-hour flight over, sweeping along to the buttered toast and the egg with the tea and the radio playing in the mess. Whatever causes a future Halevy might unearth of the war between Westland and Eastland, these men would not be responsible —action has a moral simplicity which thought lacks.