GENERAL ATICLES

LONDON LETTER

Wanted —An Imperial War Council

Beverly Baxter July 1 1941
GENERAL ATICLES

LONDON LETTER

Wanted —An Imperial War Council

Beverly Baxter July 1 1941

LONDON LETTER

Beverly Baxter

Wanted —An Imperial War Council

LONDON, June ll. Last night in Parliament I put forward a plan for Prime Minister Churchill, Premier Jan Smuts of South Africa, Premier Robert Menzies of Australia and Lieut.-General A. G. L. McNaughton of Canada to comprise a supreme directorate for war strategy. I had already suggested this in last Sunday’s Graphic but was fortunate in being able to amplify it in the Churchill debate on Crete.

The reception among Conservatives was cordial and in many cases enthusiastic. Among the public there seems to be a genuine desire for some such move. On the other hand 1 found the Labor party in Parliament inclined to be critical. It may be that they doubted the workability of such a super directorate, and especially whether Smuts could be spared from the difficult internal situation in South Africa. I also sensed suspicion on their part that such a supreme body might lessen the rapidly growing political power of labor.

Oddly enough the name of McNaughton, although the least well-known of the four, has roused greatest enthusiasm among supporters of the idea. The spectacle of a nonpolitical figure in the political holy of holies strikes many people as an admirable and welcome innovation.

This morning’s London press gives considerable prominence to the plan, carrying it on the front pages of the Mail, Sketch, Express and Chronicle. Editorial comment, however, was confined to Churchill’s address. At any rate I have done my best to put forward the realization that this is an Empire war and that strategy should be determined by Empire leaders.

An Imperial war directorate in one form or another must come.

A Night In London

BUT ENOUGH of politics. In this letter I want to tell you the story of as strange a night as I have ever lived. It started in a thoroughly prosaic manner by three of us. three men, sitting down to dinner at my house in St. John’s Wood.

My brother-in-law, Major Gordon Letson, of Vancouver, was one. The other was Bill Sharpe, a Scottish friend of mine. We had hardly started our meal when my newspaper chief telephoned me from the Ritz and suggested that we should join him there. With some regard for the susceptibilities of my cook I said that we would join him for coffee after dinner.

At nine o’clock Bill Sharpe and I got the car out of the garage and started off for the Ritz,

Gordon Letson having decided that he would have a quiet night and go to bed early. There had been an air-raid warning but we paid no attention to that. There had been many warnings without anything much happening and life could not stop merely because a siren wailed.

Leaving the car down the street from the Ritz we joined our host, when suddenly the Hyde Park guns broke into a furious bombardment of the skies. Telephone messages from our newspaper offices told of widespread attacks on London. We all agreed that it looked like business this time.

To you who have not had the experience of air raids I must explain that there is a comforting, if illusory, sense of security in merely being indoors.

The signs of ordered existence are all about you. the telephone, the chuckling fire in the grate, the electric lights, the refreshment on the table, the newspapers and magazines. The battle of the guns and bombers outside becomes something

rathdr like a thunderstorm which merely adds to the coziness of indoors.

So we chatted until midnight when Sharpe, who was staying the night with me, suggested that we ought to go. Our host protested that the streets would be dangerous and that we would be wiser to spend the night at the hotel. We said that we would make a dash for it and after the usual good-night courtesies we went downstairs and reached the swing doors that take you from the electric brilliance of the Ritz into the blackout of the streets.

What happened is not without a certain grim humor. You will recall in old-fashioned melodramas how the virtuous but misjudged heroine, going out into the night, was always met by a howl of wind and driving snow as she opened the door. The effect on us was much the same.

There was the shriek of one bomb, the wild whistle of another, the guttural galump of an oil bomb travelling drunkenly through the air, the staccato bolero of incendiaries and the earth-shattering explosion of near-by guns, with the angry drone of massed airplanes that seemed only a few hundred feet above.

That—and streaks of flames all round leaping toward the sky as if to have their own revenge upon the bombers —decided us. We were back inside the Ritz with the promptness of Japanese acrobats. In fact we were only outside on the steps long enough to count two swings of the door. Never have two men more promptly proved the old adage that the door which lets you out can let you in again.

It had come at last—the super-blitz. This was something

which had never been seen before. Hitler, the eternal and flamboyant showman, had massed his bombers to attack London on an unprecedented scale with two things in mind: He wanted to frighten us into stopping the bombing of Berlin by a policy of five teeth

for a tooth. This, as he

announced, was a reprisal.

His other purpose was to reveal to the world that although heavily engaged on the Balkan front he was so powerful that he could stage the biggest raid of all time in the West.

If Hitler had not become a dictator he could have been a supremely successful circus proprietor with more than enough ability to play the leading clown if need be. He pays more attention to the thunder than the lightning, to the effect than the cause, to reaction than action.

However, these musings did not solve the difficulty of what to do with ourselves for the rest of the night, so we engaged a couple of single rooms and retired to rest on the second floor. When I had put out the lights I drew back the curtains and opened the window. A lazy, bilious new moon was rising in a sky that was ominously tinged with red.

"Orphans Of the Storm”

I DON’T know how long I slept through the din, perhaps an hour, when I woke with the feeling that the window was on fire. Certainly the glass seemed to be wrapped in flames, but on leaping out to examine it I realized that it was an adjoining building that was burning. And then I saw a strange sight. Here and there on the roofs of London’s

West End there were fires of all dimensions. Some were well-behaved, as if in no hurry, while others were angry, boisterous things as if out to destroy the centre of London’s luxury life as swiftly as possible and build a new social order on the ruins.

The bombs and the guns were making more noise than ever. The whole building trembled with the violence of the battle as if the very earth might engulf us all. One thing was quite clear. With the West End in flames we were too exposed a target for safety, so I dressed again and went downstairs in the foyer where many of the residents had already gathered.

There was no panic of any kind, but just a sensible realization that we had better take such shelter as was available. The obvious place was in the deserted grillroom and cocktail bar which was one floor below ground level. There at least we would be away from the danger of flying glass from the acreage of mirrors all about.

So, the strangely assorted orphans of the storm straggled downstairs. And almost at once the infinite variety of human nature began to assert itself. There was a young subaltern, very much of the “cheerio” type of the last, war, who had apparently been entertaining a pretty girl to dinner and had been unable to get away on account of the blitz. She was asleep in a corner on the floor, while he walked about full of life and good spirits.

A Cabinet Minister in a dressing gown sat on one chair with his pyjama-ed legs resting on another. A Dutch diplomat stood stolidly, as if waiting for a call to the guillotine. Bill Sharpe of Scotland sat on the stairs. And about then the battle took its fiercest turn. The hounds of the sky had gathered for the kill and the air was full of death. Some wounded refugees arrived from an adjoining street. In an instant the “cheerio” subaltern became the man of action. Taking

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three steps at a time he went up to the foyer and came back with bandages and basins.

With kindly words and deft fingers he bathed and bandaged an old man’s head, found some cushions and made the poor old fellow comfortable. A moment later he was helping a trembling old lady down the stairs, guiding her footsteps carefully and telling her that everything was jolly well all right.

In all these things he had the hearty assistance of Bill Sharpe of Scotland who produced tea and more bandages and even, with the true instinct of his race, a bottle of Scotch. An elegant young man, a critic or a poet or a gambler—I could not tell which—looked on like the Greek chorus in a play of Euripides.

There was a shout upstairs—something about trouble on the roof. Up darted the subaltern, closely followed by Bill. In half an hour they came down in a pretty grimy condition, for which the subaltern apologized to us generally.

And then it came. The crash was terrific and there was the sound of shattered glass above. There was a half cry from an old lady, but the rest of us just condensed ourselves physically to a smaller size. It really seemed that the hotel had been hit and might come down on our ears.

But the good old Ritz trembled and shook but stood its ground. (. . . Sentence deleted by censor . . . )

There was a deep and solemn silence among us for a moment and then the exquisite young man who might have been a poet or a critic or a gambler half shook his fist'.

“And to think,” he said, “that all this is happening because those crazy professors in Vienna would not accept his wretched paintings for their academy.”

No one spoke.

“If it were not for those professors,” he went on, “he would today be painting frightful, perfect likenesses of the ‘Burgomeister of Vienna.’ ”

No one said a word.

“Just imagine,” said the young man, “if every artist whose pictures were rejected by the Royal Academy had an air force with which to wreak his vengeance on society ! It makes me quite sick. It makes me bloody sick. I am going home to bed.” Whereupon he walked up the stairs and disappeared from the hotel and this story.

The subaltern reappeared as clean as ever, having secured a brush and wash somewhere. He had in tow a waiter in evening dress who dispensed sandwiches with as much deference and professionalism as if the occasion were a perfectly normal one. The pyjama-ed Cabinet Minister sat unmoved upon his two chairs.

London Afire

JUST then I heard a familiar voice. It was Robert Boothby, a fellow member of Parliament who had abandoned his flat in Pall Mall and sought the solace of

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companionship at the Ritz. It was nearly four o’clock and soon the first streaks of dawn would send the vandals of the sky scurrying across the Channel to safety.

“Let’s go on the roof,” said Boothby. “It must be a magnificent sight.” Bill Sharpe agreed. With modified enthusiasm I did too. We found the elevator with no operator, but the sturdy Boothby urged us to get in. With a Falstaffian laugh he turned the handle and we started upward. By a fortunate guess we stopped at the top floor and groped our way through a darkened passage and up some stairs until we reached the open air.

And what we saw left us without words.

Tragic, pitiful but magnificent. There, spread before us, was the greatest city of all time surmounted by a red revengeful sky fed by a hundred fires.

It is hard to describe the awe and majesty of eternal London that night. Far to the north one could see purplish flames as if an emperor’s palace or Valhalla were alight. There was no wind, and a strange silence was over the scene. Nearby, a block of flats was burning with fierce, yellow flames as if determined to consume the last brick and the last girder.

Yet never did London look so imperishable, so immortal. This vast world built on the banks of the Thames could never be destroyed. Destiny conceived her and the centuries reared her. No crazed, fanatical young murderers in the skies could end her proud existence.

The droning of the bombers grew less. A grey dawn was breaking and one became conscious of the still-sickly moon lurking in the sky. “Well," said Boothby, “who’s for home?—providing any of us has a home.”

We descended safely in the elevator and said our farewells to the orphans of the storm. The subaltern was sitting beside the old lady. “We’ll get the all clear any time now,” he said comfortingly. The little blonde on the floor still slept like a child.

Bill and I went out in the streets once more and made our way to the good old car which was still there. Alas! Its rear lights and one or two essential parts of its anatomy had been blown away. We left it and started to walk home.

It was a ghostly walk through streets littered with glass and debris. A.R.P. workers, both men and women, were going about their devious tasks, while quiet-voiced policemen warned us to the left or right because of unexploded bombs. A dead man lay on the pavement covered by a sack and we heard the gong of the ambulance coming to take him away.

Special constables were putting up “Diversion” signs for the approaching daylight when London would be going about its normal business. There was no excitement, no shouting, no laughter. London had suffered cruelly but her pride was too great for tears or ribaldry.

Emerging from the stricken West End we reached the sanctuary of Regent’s Park and St. John’s Wood where the houses were sleeping soundly with no visible sign that it had been different from any other night. Gordon Letson met us at the door.

“Was it bad where you were?” he asked. “It was terrific up here.”

We looked at him pityingly, looked at him like veterans from the front line listening to a rookie's story of danger at the base.

“Come down to the kitchen,” I said, “and we will tell you all about it.”

And it was even so. Nor did we stop until there was not a drop of milk left for the morning and a month’s rations of cheese and biscuits had disapjieared.