climbed in to 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 Fuehrer'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 lead 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 gun-button to "Fire," and
let go in a four-second burst with full deflection.
He came right through my sights and I saw
>> note 1 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,
>> note 2 and
we were ordered to our base, my mind began
to work again.
It had happened.
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.
"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
>> note 3 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 bar-maid (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.
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.
>> note 4 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's 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."
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,
>> note 5 aware
vaguely of the ominously tidy gap between
two houses, but further my mind had not
We dug, or rather we pushed, pulled, heaved,
and strained, I somewhat ineffectually because
of my hands; I don't known 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 around me: an A.R.P.
>> note 6 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.
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
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
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
"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 one 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 great-coat and noticed that
I was dripping with sweat. I pulled the cap
down over my eyes and I walked out into the
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 stop.
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 the 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
>> note 7 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 should have been