That Morning

June 06, 1994|By JOHN BRAIN

That morning we awoke to hear the sound of airplane engines very loud. Rushing outside, we saw wave upon wave of bombers, heading south, toward France, flying low over the rooftops. They were ours, thank God, Marauders and Mitchells and Typhoons and Mosquitos, and all of them had bold black and white stripes under their wings, not the usual drab camouflage.

This was it, we said. At last, the invasion of Europe, the beginning of the end.

Fifty years later it's impossible to say exactly what a 13-year-old thought or felt at that moment. Excitement, of course. Anticipation that after so long the war was entering its final phase.

It had all begun five years earlier, when as an 8-year-old I and thousands of other city kids tied with labels and hung with gas masks round our necks crowded onto trains to take us out of London, into the country, to live with foster parents for the duration of the war. For a while nothing happened; then there was Dunkirk, the invasion scare, the Battle of Britain in the air over Southern England, the London Blitz, the African campaign, the Italian campaign, and far away, the Russian front and the war in the Far East.

For five years we had thought of nothing but the war, war news in the papers, war news on the radio, war news in the cinema, the head lines and bulletins and speeches -- especially the speeches of Winston Churchill, the man of the century, who told us who we were and what we had to do.

Five years in the life of a child is eternity. We all longed for peace, just to go home again -- although the world we had left as little kids was dim and distant in our minds. We couldn't imagine a life not dominated by the war and its news: bridgeheads secured, prisoners taken, missions flown, planes shot down, ships sunk. All told in impeccable tones by calm announcers who never lost their cool: ''This is the BBC Home Service. Here is the news, and this is Alvar Liddell reading it.''

Our younger teachers had all gone to the war; only the old ones remained, soldiering on into their seventies in the classrooms and the chemistry lab. Many of us had older brothers and sisters or uncles and cousins serving, and a few younger dads too. Troops were everywhere, in uniforms of many nations. The houses were blacked out, windows taped and shuttered against the blast, and so as not to give us away to enemy bombers.

Nazi Germany to us was the enemy, real planes that dropped real bombs on real people, but even so a clownish regime led by a ranting madman no one could take seriously.

When the Fuehrer says 'we are the master race,'

We Heil! (brrrp) Heil! (brrrp) right in the Fuehrer's face.

We sang, blowing raspberries of raucous contempt. We knew nothing then of the death camps, the exterminations, only that Hitler was a would-be world conqueror who had to be stopped.

America then was our lifeline, lend-lease, sending not only munitions but also powdered eggs and powdered milk and Spam, a delicacy that lightened the dreary routine of ration books and scarcity. Today I can't open a can without tasting the gratitude along with the meat. God bless America! we said, the home of Spam.

D-Day was a watershed, a turning of the tide, but much of the war remained to be fought. At home there were the V-1s, the buzz bombs, and the V-2s, the huge silent rockets that hurtled down on helpless civilians while they shopped or slept.

And when peace came at last, victory in Europe, with Hitler dead and the Nazi leaders rounded up and on trial at Nuremburg, there was still Japan and the Far East war. And when that was concluded after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Britain was still an exhausted nation, battered and bombed out, and there followed years of austerity, making do, with little to spend. But we had lived through it, we had survived, and were grateful.

John Brain is a Baltimore writer.

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