|Letter to Elizabeth [2/24/1944]
G2 Sec. HQ.FUSAG
APO 655 c/o Postmaster
Feb. 24 1944
I hope you will excuse my typing and, in particular, the discourtesy of sending you a carbon copy. The truth is that the pressure of events is so great that I am so hopelessly behind in letter writing that I can see no other way of ever catching up. A nine hour day on a seven day week leaves little time or energy for correspondence.
Without knowing what the American papers are saying about air raids, I am sure that you will be interested. I will limit my remarks to what I have seen and what the news papers in Britain have published so as not to outrage the censor. The recent raids have been intense. Intense, of course, is strictly a relative term and has to be related to either the so-called "blitz" of 1940-41, or to the current raids on German cities. News correspondents estimate that the Germans have concentrated about 400 bombers for retaliation raids and of this number they will hardly use more than 200 on any night and probably not over 100 of these will attack any one city. In 1940-41, they had twice this number. The difference is that in those days the raids used to last seven or eight hours while now it is usually concentrated into one hour. From this basis the current raids are more intense than during the blitz but they do not last nearly so long. In relation to current maximum raids on German cities, they probably are only about 10% as intense. This relationship will probably continue unless the Germans can succeed in utilizing their "rocket" or pilotless aircraft weapon in conjunction with conventional air attacks.
Any man who says he is not at least a little nervous during an air raid is either a fool or a liar or else he was drunk or had a table at a night club right next to the orchestra. (I recommend the latter as quite the most pleasant way to spend an air raid.) The noise is very great; most of it originating from the AA guns. The AA barrage is very great; most of it originating from the AA guns. The AA barrage on some recent nights is said to have been the greatest of the war. Your bedroom shakes and loose articles rattle around. But if you are logically and statistically minded you are not terrified; you know that the chances of a direct hit on your building are very small and you know that if there is such a hit it will not make much difference where you are or what precautions you have taken. Your feelings are almost identical with those that you have had many times during a really sharp summer thunderstorm; you don't hide under the bed but you are pleased when it is over.
Perhaps the best way of summing up my personal reactions is that when the siren blew in the "scalded cat" raids of last fall I would say "there goes the siren. This may be interesting." Now, it is a little different. My remarks now are likely to be: "Here come those God damn sons 'o bitches again."
Any one is a real fool who does not use ordinary precautions in protecting himself. Whether the Germans have an improved explosive or not, I do not know. But you have only to look at the result of one good hit, see the fronts of the buildings sagging all around, see the broken glass that has flown like shrapnel from windows as much as two blocks away, to learn respect for these things. I cannot mention casualty figures but if a train wreck in the U.S. killed 5% as many people as are casualties in these raids it would make the front page of every newspaper in the country.
In many respects these raids are one of the most encouraging developments of the war. The Germans need to conserve bombers. They have not many of them; they need them in Italy; they need them in Russia, and they will need them to attack our shipping and landing barges when we attempt to establish a bridgehead in Europe. But they waste them futilely because morale is so low in Germany that they must be able to talk abut reprisal raids. We know the thousands of tons of bombs that can be poured on German cities and still they are not "eliminated"; the Germans cannot hope to eliminate big British cities or break British morale with this scale of effort. It means that public morale has reached a point in Germany that forces the military leaders to take unwise military action. This is encouraging and significant.
I stopped this letter with the above paragraph and went out to dinner intending to finish it this evening and say no more about air raids. Now it is a quarter of two the next morning and I know a little more about air raids that I did before. I had dinner with another officer and a very nice English girl. The sirens sounded just about demi-tasse time so we paid our check and decided to look the situation over a bit before we made up our minds as to whether we would risk the two blocks back to the flat or not. Outside the gun fire was really heavy and flack was rattling down a bit too frequently to invite travel so we stayed under the hotel canopy and watched. A pretty thrilling sight. A brilliantly clear star-lit night, the search lights weaving around and occasionally picking up a raider, the flak display really brilliant ---- and around the sky angry glows of red appearing with the hundreds of crooked chimneys etched inky black against billowing red smoke. Suddenly the whining scream of a falling bomb and the very nice English girl, a helmeted warden and two American officers "hit the deck" without hesitation or dignity. No one has to tell you to do it; no one has to knock you down; you just do it instinctively. Simultaneously there is the crash of explosion and the swirl of blast. That one was probably two blocks away actually but you hit the deck just the same. You don't stop to figure it out as to how near it is.
Soon it quieted a bit and we made our way, with some haste, back to the flat. But you can't be as old as I am and have chased fire engines all your life and sit still under such conditions. The sky glows an angry red with a brilliant flaring area here and there. You just can't sit still when the barrage balloons are lit up from the wrong side --- when the flames from the ground turn their under sides into glowing silver. You soon learn to recognize when the raid is passing even long before the "all clear" has sounded and then you set out. The deserted city begins to stir, dark figures begin to emerge from nowhere like ants from a stepped-on ant hill.
The scene on an incident --- and an incident usually covers several blocks since it results from the simultaneous dropping of a "stick" of HEs and a load of IBs --- is incredible. The first impression is the complete calm and the seeming competence of everyone. There is no excitement, no shouting, no crowds. Fire apparatus continues to arrive and the ambulances come and go with no sirens, no rush and only the moderately tinkling of a bell. All seems to be calm in the midst of conditions that are excitement producing. You literally walk on a carpet of broken glass as you approach the incident and when you are at the heart of it you stumble and climb over two or three feet of broken stone, masonry and timbers that completely fill the street. I walked through two blocks of a street that is comparable with High Street in Boston; at one end a huge flame of unbelievable brilliance burned where a large gas main was on fire.
But more impressive to me as I walked down this non-crowded street was the fact that nearly every building was burning. Most of them were not burning fiercely, just little flames licking around window frames or on roofs but no one was paying the least attention to them. All attention was centered on four or five buildings that were roaring infernos. Even around these there is no excitement; just four or six trailer pumps with their volunteer crews pouring water on adjoining buildings or on the fire itself. The chief excitement is when a hose breaks and wets the nearby crews, --- a not infrequent occurrence since the mortality rate on linen hose half buried in rubble and broken glass and frequently run over by fire apparatus and ambulances is very high. One wonders about the buildings that are just beginning to burn but the answer is --- take care of the big ones and let the little ones go until later on. Remember if the Hun comes back, he will aim at the big fires. Saving property is not the big consideration so just do the best you can with what you have. If it could have been spared Headquarters would have sent you more equipment.
"Hy sye, Sor! My bloody torch is gone. Will you give us a hand looking through hyar with your torch?" *** "Hye, just got out 'o the bloody Plice and down it comes." *** "Bill, Bill, did you see Pete? I ain't seen 'im since it 'it! "Yuss, 'es awright. 'E's down there on the 'ose." *** So you catch snatches of conversation. Sometimes you can help; Mostly you try not to interfere with people who know and who are doing their jobs. Some times you are thrilled with the beauty and action of it; often you are wrung by a bit of pathos. An old woman staggers by with all her bedding in her arms mumbling to herself: "Oh, Gawd, the city is burning again. All is burning." Poor soul, her city is probably only three blocks wide and it is burning.
So finally you trudge home through the dark wondering what it all means; what it is all about. It is now an hour since the "All clear" has sounded and except for the areas immediately around the incidents the city is perfectly quiet. You're finding your thoughts drifting into British phrases: Well, we've had it. Might as well go to sleep. They'll be back again tomorrow night.
But out of it all comes one definite thought. What a tribute it all is to the British character. Maybe we would do as well, maybe the German does as well. But you know that the British does well and your admiration moves up another notch. These people just don't quit.
This letter is already far too long and there are several other subjects that I had meant to write about. They will just have to wait as it is now really late in the morning. Just one prediction --- and people used to even pay me for predictions --- the heavy raids that you have read about in the past week on German fighter production, Leipzig, Brunswick, Oschersleben, Regensburg, Schweinfurth and the rest, mark the beginning of the end of the German fighter air force. And the end of the German fighter air force will mark the beginning of the end of the war. It is perhaps the most important battle of the war; if it costs the lives of thousands of airmen it will save the live of tens of thousands of men of the ground. It is a battle that has occupied much of my thoughts and been much of my work for several months.
Apologies again for this type of letter but time is pressing here and I thought that these observations might be of some interest even though they are very tame compared with those of millions of young men who are actually fighting the war. Best wishes to all.