So Small a Ditch!
Despite the increase in gun range, the speeding up of aircraft, the Straits of Dover still are— as they have been for nine centuries —an insuperable obstacle to the invaders — Reed
A S I WRITE, we in this Island are approaching the first anniversary of our darkest hours—those hours, last summer, when France collapsed and Britain, direly unready, stood face to face with
the greatest danger in its history. At that time, a year ago, salvation seemed almost beyond hope, so mighty was the enemy and so unprepared were we.
I have been down to Dover to renew the memory of those nightmare days. How narrow is that sheet of water which, once more, seems to have saved us! Never did so many owe so much to so small a ditch ! In fine weather you can clearly see the French coast; last September, when the invasion appeared at last to impend, watchers there counted, without field glasses, nearly forty German ships creeping along the coast.
Since the German air raiders began to lay waste one British city after another, Dover has lost its position as the most sorely tried of our towns, but it still has a peculiar fascination, because of its nearness to the German-held coasts opposite. The very slenderness of the moat which separates it from the invaders brings the danger more vividly home to the mind; shells from the German guns can span it easily, and make the crossing in about sixty seconds, while for a German airman the dash across the Channel, the swoop from the clouds on to one of the barrage ballons, is no more than a kalzensprung, a cat’s leap.
And yet, with all the increase in gun range, with all the speeding up of aircraft, these straits still are today—as they have been for nearly nine centuries—an insuperable obstacle to an invader.
“Steady Under Fire”
IT IS a strange life in Dover, these days. The hotel I use there has no better protection than its brick walls can offer against any German shell that may chance to hit it, and a large shell fragment once tore a hole in the ceiling of my bedroom there; yet the hotel usually has many guests. On my last visit I found, sitting by the fire, an old acquaintance, a Scots naval officer who is still suffering from a leg wound received at Dunkirk, but does not let that stop him from doing his full duty at sea. He had just returned from a trip and was examining a tiny parachute —a pilot-parachute taken from the harness of a German
airman whom he had brought down half-an-hour before. In the fender, drying in the heat of the fire, lay the Scotsman’s cap. It was covered with oil from the German machine, parts of which had crashed onto the decks of his craft. It did not occur to my Scots acquaintance to tell me, until I asked, whence he had the parachute, and the oil on his cap. These were incidents in his daily routine, he seemed to think, of no interest to a third party.
The two chambermaids in this hotel, who are aunt and
niece, one very tall and one very short, are famous characters in those parts. They are cheerful and willing, but not of the highest efficiency; indeed, in normal times exigent guests might find a deal to complain of in their services. But this is wartime, girls are going to the factories and uniformed services, and chambermaids are difficult to come by, especially for a hotel which might any day be destroyed by a shell. So the visitors, mostly naval men, cheerfully suffer the somewhat unskilled ministrations of these two maids and testify that they aie at any rate “steady under fire.” I like to think of them one day receiving a reference from their employer in these terms: “Hard
working and anxious to please, though slow to learn, but can be recommended as steady under fire.”
Dover! That is one aspect of the strange picture of this Britain in wartime. Here in London, since I last wrote for Maclean's, we have had two savage air attacks, and the second of them very nearly deprived the readers of Maclean's of this article, for a bomb fell very near me as I was walking up Regent Street about midnight. I shrank into the doorway of a shop as it came down, and then it exploded, and all London seemed either to be going up or coming down about my ears. I wondered for a moment whether I had already reached the next world, for I found myself almost nose to nose with one of the palest and most accusing visages I have ever seen, on which no trace either of fear or excitement was to be seen, but only dignified reproach.
Only the disdainful imperturbability of this face, in that cataclysmic moment, was one of the most eerie things I
have experienced. It was the night of the full moon, and the moonlight showed me every detail of those classic and emotionless features, the long flowing mustache, the gleaming eyes, the curly hair. Only when I had felt myself and found myself not wanting, was my numbed brain able to realize that I was rubbing noses with a shopkeeper’s dummy.
That night, when I reached home, I looked out from the still unshattered windows of my flat, which lies on an upper
story, over a London red with raging fires beneath a great lamp-like moon—a fantastic sight. It seemed that night, as it always seems on such a night, that the morning would show a picture of indescribable havoc; but when morning came, London still stood, once again. Parliament, the Abbey, the British Museum, and many other places famous and obscure have been casualties, but the great mass of London still remains. You might as well seek to destroy this planet as raze London. And next morning, as usual, the milkman and the postman went their rounds; the great daily trek of workers to the city set in as ever. The debris is being cleared, the broken cables and burst gas mains are being mended. Life goes on.
True, if a man stopped to think, the tale
of our times might appall him. In 1913 the whole world rocked with indignation because a crippled cobbler was struck down by the sword of an arrogant Prussian officer. Even in recent years the same world shivered with horror when Colonel Lindbergh's baby was kidnapped and murdered. But today? Today the blotting out of human life has become so normal a thing that the senses refuse any longer to vibrate to the news. Recently, in this country, a man and his wife set out to go to the station, where they meant to take a train and visit friends in a distant town. They never arrived, and their fate might never have been known but that the expectant friends at the other end of their journey became anxious and enquired about them. On their way to the station they had been killed by a bomb and, for lack of identification, buried in nameless graves.
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Continued, from page 13
In the last war millions of men were killed, and in this war. as yet and thank God, the number of deaths does not approach that of 1914-1918. But in those days, at least, the names of the men who were killed were published daily in the newspapers of all the countries concerned. In this war men, women and children are killed by bombs every night and pass as if they never had been.
The Hess Fantasy
TN WHAT other war but this, in what
other country but Britain, would the fantastic events of that one Saturday night have been possible? London was undergoing its most murderous attack; the city was alight with fires; the noise of the bombs hardly ceased from midnight to dawn; everywhere gallant men and women were dying as they fought the flames. At the very same time—midnight —Hitler’s closest friend and associate, the Deputy Leader of the National Socialist Party, was landing by parachute in Scotland and being offered the now proverbial cup of tea by the Scottish plowman who first saw him !
Soon, perhaps, an explanation will have been given of this, the most dramatic event in the war to date. For the present I confess that I neither understand nor like it. If the truth is as it appears to be on the surface—that Rudolf Hess fled from Germany—this event is the best possible proof of the argument I have advanced since I began to write these monthly articles for Macleans; that Germany is not, as she may appear to the distant spectator, invincibly strong, or almost invincibly strong, but that she is in truth very weak and much nearer to defeat—from causes which only those who know Germany intimately can thoroughly appreciate—than is generally believed.
For Hess, who appeared but little in the front line of German politics, was Hitler’s shadow, disciple, bosom companion and prophet, a man far more deeply devoted to his Leader than any of the other National Socialist leaders. If this man, of all men, has really shaken the dust of Germany from his shoes and fled to Britain, it can mean only one of two things—that he is in fear of his life from rivals among the other National Socialist leaders (incidentally, he fiercely and eloquently defended Hitler’s mass murder of other Nazi leaders in 1934) or that he has no further hope of Germany’s victory in the war and wants to get out in time.
But I know Hess and find it difficult to attribute either of these two motives to him—he is one of the very few sympathetic personalities among the Nazi leaders—or to believe that he would have taken this particular course if he has either of these motives. It may be so; I hope it is. But there are things about his extraordinarily dramatic descent upon this country that I don’t understand, and until they are cleared up caution is necessary. He landed in this country at midnight on Saturday; the news was first made public by the Ministry of Information at midnight on Monday, forty-eight hours later, after it had been published in Germany. A spate of jubilant editorial comment in the British press would have been the natural result. There has not yet been any.
Hess, in fact, has been so very much the intimate and most trusted confidant of Hitler for twenty years that, until evidence to the contrary has been given, I shall suspect his motives for coming, and shall wonder whether he did flee from Germany, or was sent. I f he was sent, then why?
This question throws up other, gigantic questions. I have tried in earlier articles to explain that, if Hitler cannot invade Britain, the war is psychologically lost for him, and that in my opinion he cannot now
hope to achieve this. No amount of success in the Near East or Africa can change that fact. If he does not successfully invade Britain the war goes on, and, with U.S. support gathering momentum and the prospect of U.S. entry into the war increasing, his ultimate defeat is inevitable.
Hitler And Russia
T-JITLER knows that. At this moment, therefore, he must be looking with great longing at another card which he holds in his hand—an attack on Russia. Could he obtain favorable terms from his present enemies for the cessation of hostilities now, or soon, if he were to turn against Russia? This has always been a card which he was likely to play, or try to play, as soon as the realization of defeat, even of distant defeat, dawned in his mind. (Napoleon, thwarted by his naval defeat at Trafalgar in his hopes of invading England, also turned on Russia.)
It is most significant that Germaninspired sources, at this very moment, have been putting about innumerable rumors of an impending Nazi attack on Russia. The danger of all this is, that any arrangement with Germany which, attractive though it might look at the moment, left her undefeated and in possession of her conquests, would ultimately mean exactly what the armistice of 1918 meant—a respite for Germany, another chance to rearm and, in the end, a third German attempt at world conquest.
It is only the history of British policy in recent years that makes such a development even conceivable. Fortunately, with our present leaders, it is improbable almost to the point of impossibility.
Whatever the real truth about Rudolf Hess, his flight to Britain (and I mean this in the sense of aerial journey) is the most dramatic story of the war and of many years before it. Instantly seized upon and used to its full extent by our propaganda services, it could have been exploited to deliver a smashing blow to the German morale, and as I have from the beginning written, it is in the psychological field that we could win this war if we would.
That the incident was not thus exploited, but was only published after forty-eight hours, and then after the German news service had had time to prepare the German public for it, and then made known in a tame and unvarnished fashion, is one of the major riddles of this war to date. It is as if we had had a chance to drop a bomb upon Hitler, all the foremost Nazi leaders, the entire German General Staff, the Gestapo, and the whole German air force, and for some reason had refrained from doing this. Perhaps we shall yet make good some of the lost opportunity. I hope so.
The larger picture of the war has not much changed since last I wrote. With the coming of the fine weather the air attacks on this Island have regained all their ferocity, but on moonlit nights at least the British Air Force takes an increasing toll of the raiders. In spite of the damage that is done, the confidence of the population grows, and the night life of restaurants, theatres and cinemas is being renewed. This confidence of the people in the issue of the war seems to come from some deep inner assurance that defies every ordeal, and none believes that the German assault on our lifeline to America, in spite of the enormous shipping losses that this is causing, will succeed to the point of starving us out.
TN THE Balkans, as I foretold, Greece A and Jugoslavia were quickly overrun, and the German success in transporting by stealth a great army to Libya did
undoubtedly disconcert and depress British opinion, which had been exalted by our successes there and had looked for more wariness, after so many hard lessons, from those whose business it is to watch the enemy’s moves. However, as I write, some of that remissness seems to have been made good, and for some weeks past the enemy has not been aille to press forward over the borders of Egypt.
He obviously means to press on, if he can, to outflank rather than to attack Turkey, and then to strike at the Suez Canal from both sides, from east and from west. But our strength is growing, and for the first time I have the impression that his assault is flagging a little, here and there. And we do not need, in order to win this war psychologically, to rout enormous German armies and take hundreds of thousands of prisoners; we need
only once, decisively to halt and smash German attack and to hold on until the winter—and to utilize such a chance, when it comes our way, as the landing in Britain of Rudolf Hess. If we do not use a chance like that, or such chances as that, we cannot, of course, win the war as quickly as we otherwise should.
I am sorry not to know the whole truth about Herr Rudolf Hess, whom I knew well in Germany as the most devoted, and even fanatical, friend and follower of Adolf Hitler. If I knew more about that, I should be able to tell more about the course of coming events. Lacking that knowledge, I can only repeat, this time with increasing conviction, that we can win this war psychologically by the autumn. How soon after that we can actually finish it, depends on the use we make of our chances.