Blackouts and Such
Enforced darkness, bombings, restrictions have created a new sense of values — Matches and soap are beyond price
H. NAPIER MOORE
Editor, Maclean’s Magazine
In this concluding article of a series of five the editor of Maclean’s gives some vignettes of life in a Britain at war.
TO THE newly arrived in Britain, blackout travel is something of an adventure. After a few nights of it you become accustomed to it. After a few weeks of it your conception of Heaven is that of a place with a floodlight every six feet. When you get back to Canada and look through a train window at electric bulb spangled railway stations, villages and towns, you pinch yourself to make sure that you aren’t already in the anteroom to that Beautiful Beyond.
In Britain railway carriage windows have a wide mourning border of black paint. It leaves a small oblong of transparency through which you may gaze in the daytime. At night, when the shades are drawn, the border prevents chinks of light escaping. Not that there is much light. In the ceiling is one dim bulb housed in a funnel which directs the ray fioorward. You can see people’s feet and lower limbs fairly clearly. Their upper structure is shadowy.
If your destination is a large city terminus the matter of exit isn’t much of a problem. Under the blackened roof of the train shed, blue or dim white lights enable you to debark with some degree of certainty. If you want to get out at an intermediate or wayside station it’s a little more complicated. The station is dark. When the train stops, so that light will not spill out when the carriage door is opened, the bulb either goes out entirely, or might as well go out.
You listen for a voice outside which calls “Wuthrymmmmstoke” or something. If that sounds like the name of the place you are bound for, or if some fellow passenger who knows the stops tells you it is the place, you raise the door shade, lower the window, reach outside for the handle, open the door—and pause. You pause a second so that you can make sure that the platform is on that side. Passengers have been known to step out on the wrong side and drop on to the tracks. That is very inconvenient, particularly if another train is coming in. Inconvenient for you.
So far as the railway companies are concerned the incident would be promptly dealt with. Even major emergencies are taken in their stride. Let a German bomb blow a section of track sky-high, as sometimes happens, and gangs of men appear like mushrooms. The hole is filled, new track laid and traffic resumed in no time at all. If a train is machine-gunned by a hit-and-run raider, as has happened on several occasions, I very much doubt that a dignified collector skips a syllable of his “All tickets ready, please.”
The British railways cover 20,000 route miles; operate 20,000 steam locomotives, a lot of electric trains, and one and a quarter million freight cars. The four main lines and the London Transport system employ some 638,000, of whom 82,000 are women, 50,000 of them recruited since the war began, who do everything from the grooming of locomotives to the handling of luggage.
In spite of the difficulties and impossibilities in the way of replacing equipment, maintaining the permanent way, operating in the blackout, the lines
function with surprising efficiency. They move a vast amount of freight and a vast number of passengers. Wherever you go, trains are jammed in carriages and corridors alike; soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians. If you want a seat on a longdistance train you get to the station from half to three-quarters of an hour ahead of time. On local runs you may stand as often as you sit. Except in rare and special instances there are no dining cars. And sleeping cars are only available to high government, military or naval officials making overnight journeys on urgent business. There are no crack trains for the duration. Wartime necessities have extended the running times; arrivals are sometimes delayed. Removal of passenger buses from paralleling routes has added to an already abnormal
traffic. But the English railways keep on doing a job in the good old surprising way,
Odd Things Happen
IF YOU reach a London station, say Waterloo, burdened with baggage, you queue up for a taxi. The queue generally is a long one. So is the wait. If the hour is late, particularly on a Sunday night, and your hotel is some distance away, you may end up by lugging your bags to bus or tube. If it were late enough for the buses and tubes to have stopped for the night, I don’t know what you’d do.
At the tail of the week end taxis are low on petrol. The drivers will take short runs; not long
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Blackouts and Such
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ones. They might be stranded. If you succeed in capturing a cab you share it with any fellow creatures who are hopeful of going in the same general direction as you are. In the blackness it is hard to see who you’ve got in the cab with you. Odd things happen.
One Sunday night I stood wistfully on the curb outside of Waterloo, when a U.S. officer who had charged into the night and miraculously reappeared inside a cab, pulled up and collected first myself then another stranger nearby. To make conversation, I asked the officer where he came from. He said Washington. I said I had been there a short time ago. He said “That’s nothing. I was there last Sunday.” 1 said, “That’s nothing, I was in Montreal last Tuesday.” He said, “Do you know Doug McCurdy?” I said, “If you mean -J. A. I). McCurdy, the first man to fly a plane over Canadian soil, I do.” “So do I,” said he. “I have known him ever since he was experimenting with his kite at Baddeck. And I have a summer home at Baddeck. Tell him you met Colonel
— of the U.S. Air Corps.”
The Colonel got out. The other passenger, who had been silent up to that moment, said, “I thought you were from the other side. I got a glimpse of your hat.” I wanted to know what was the matter with my hat. He said, “Nothing. But you don’t see grey fedoras here unless they are on people from the other side.” 1 said he didn’t sound as if he were born within the sound of Bow Bell-, either. He replied, “I come from Winnipeg. I used to be in newspaper work there. And there’s
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something familiar about your voice.”
I identified myself. We had met before in Winnipeg. Three people, | plucked out of the blackout into a j London taxi; all with mutual contacts Î
Incidentally, there is a subject for scientific research in the matter of how London taxi drivers find their way around in the blackout. Their headlights, masked and hooded, serve merely as an indication to other vehicles that something is coming. Apart from the small green, yellow and red crosses on the hooded traffic lights, there is no illumination whatever. Yet no address stumps them.
They are the same old London taxi drivers. Humorous; imperturbable.
At one o’clock on a Saturday afternoon I got into a cab to go to a meeting with Air Marshal Edwards at R.C.A.F. headquarters. The air raid warning sirens were wailing, and as the cab stopped on a traffic signal, the ack-ack guns opened up. As casually as I could I looked out of the window at the distant shell puffs in the sky. The driver turned; jerked his head in the direction of where, out of sight above the clouds, an enemy plane might be, and said: “ ’E don’t know it’s arfter one o’clock, ’e don’t.”
AS FOR the general public, when • the Wailing Willies go, people keep on with whatever they happen to be doing at the moment. If inside they don’t bother to look out. If outside they don’t go in.
In areas near the south coast police and wardens told us it was wise to be prudent; that it didn’t matter so much about getting out of the way when the sirens went off, but that if we were in bed when the guns began to bang it would be a good idea to get up and take shelter. Nobody api peared to do that. Implicit reliance ; seemed to be placed in such signs as | that placed on the bedroom door in an old hotel in which we were quartered for a night or two:—
Visitors wishing to be called when an alert warning is received
are requested to instruct the night porter. Otherwise they will not be disturbed unless it is considered that a state of emergency has arisen.
In London, listening to people converse, you frequently hear such phrases as “That would be the Wednesday," or “On the Saturday,” or “It was just after the Sunday." No calendar clue is spoken, but to those conversing none is needed. The references are to the worst nights in the autumn and winter blitz of 1940. In casual talk with strangers they are not mentioned. But when you chat with friends, they speak with emotion of the long hours spent night after night in shelters, in basements, under stairs, under kitchen tables; with their children’s arms about them; listening to the whinnying of falling bombs; wondering whether the next one would mean their extermination.
A vast amount of the debris has been cleared away. The ruined areas have become so part of the general scene that they are passed unnoticed. But, underneath the calm and composure of the English men and women, the experiences of more than ninety consecutive nights of bombing are burned into their memories.
And, at the time of my visit, these men and women were lined up by the thousand, waiting to get into cinemas to see—what do you think? “Mrs. Miniver."
Underground Nerve Centres
INVENTS of the past few months J have postponed indefinitely, if not cancelled altogether, Herr Hitler’s plans for an invasion of Britain. Had he launched an attack immediately after Dunkirk, he would have stood a pretty good chance of succeeding, for there wasn’t much to stop him. But once the British got their breath, no time was lost in improving their defenses and protecting those nerve centres without which no defense systems, military or civilian, could be co-ordinated, carried on.
Parachute troops and saboteurs who might land, even if they eluded the vigilance of the Army and the Home Guard, would have a discouraging time finding the more vital of these nerve centres, and a still more discouraging time getting at them did they somehow manage to reach the vicinity.
The whereabouts of such things as the central control of the R.A.F.’s attacking and defending forces and of the radio interception organization are, of course, well-kept secrets. But even in the case of vital organizations whose locations cannot be veiled from large numbers of people, every possible safeguard has been devised to enable them to continue to function no matter what emergency arises. Far below ground, tucked behind gas-lock doors, duplicate set-ups are established, with sleeping accommodation and canteen facilities for their staffs; with food, water and other supplies sufficient to withstand a long siege.
Seeing them, one marvels at the amount of steel, concrete, brick and labor involved; at the speed with
which the work was carried out under every conceivable handicap. When it can be told the full story of how Britain dug herself in will make great reading.
Fleet Street Paradise
IN MAGAZINE and newspaper circles they tell you with relish that it is no uncommon sight to see an advertiser and his agency executives treating the advertising manager of some publication to an expensive luncheon at the Savoy and begging him to see what can be done about getting them an extra half inch of space. The invariable response of the advertising manager is “Sorry, old boy, but it can’t be done."
This fantastic situation has been brought about by the reduced, standardized sizes laid down for all publications. The average daily paper is one of four pages instead of the pre-war twenty. Its circulation is fixed at roughly a third less than it was in 1939. Its advertising lineage also is on a fixed quota. In the case of display advertisements, maximum size is five and one-half inches by two columns. Only a Government advertisement may exceed that, and it is never more than eight inches deep. Classified advertisements are taken in turn; rotated. If you want to advertise for some article it may take you three weeks to get it in.
Advertising rates have been increased by as much as sixty or seventy-five per cent. With a surplus of advertising there are practically no selling costs. Because of smaller issues production costs are low. Circulation being controlled, allotted to districts on the quota system, its costs are minute. There are no returns.
Newspapers and many magazines are making more money than they ever made in peacetime.
As for the book business, I went to call on the sales manager of one of the largest publishing houses. He was at the telephone when I went into his office. All he was saying was, “No. No. No.” “We can’t fill more than a third of our orders,” he told me. “There’s such a demand for reading matter that if you printed “Hello" on a piece of tissue paper you could sell half a million copies. But you couldn’t get the paper.”
House Charge, 7/6
IN THE foregoing paragraph I mentioned an expensive luncheon. Yes, in such places as the Savoy, the Dorchester, the Grosvenor House, and in the crack restaurants, you can, if you want to, spend a lot of money and get a tasty, well-served meal with such accoutrements as a stiff linen napkin and a menu in French. But aren’t meal prices fixed by law? They are. The maximum price for dinner, for instance, is five shillings. But hostelries which have high overhead, maintain something approaching de luxe service, are permitted to add house charges. They do. They add seven shillings and sixpence, plus two shillings and sixpence for orchestra. Making a total of fifteen shillings. Of foods that are rationed you get no more than you would get in a Lyons corner
house. You get no more than three courses. You do get unrationed things, such as fowl, game, etc., as they are available. And, of course, they are expensive.
I must confess that it did strike me as a bit thick that people with money could secure more variety than could those without money. I talked with the Food Ministry about it. They said, “On the surface it doesn’t seem quite fair, does it? But there is another side to it. We are reviewing the matter of house charges; there will be revisions. The amount of food consumed in the high-class hotels and restaurants is very, very small in comparison with the whole. In the matter of rationed foods they are on the same basis as anyone else. In the matter of unrationed foods and, shall we say luxury service, which isn’t by any means what it used to be, while a small number of people who stiff have money can fare better than the majority, it’s a question of whether you are going to eliminate all such restaurants entirely, or leave them so that a chap who is on leave after nights of bombing Germany can enjoy a bit of glitter."
Put that way, it’s a difficult question to answer.
At the same time, not a few questions have been asked in the House of Commons concerning the number of foreign waiters who are employed in London’s West End.
YOU would read recently that at a Mansion House do held to signalize the British victory in Egypt, each guest was presented with a box of matches. Nobody could have thought of a souvenir which, whilst fleeting, would be more treasured. Matches are scarce in Britain. Some day, when the war is over, I hope the present Sheriff of Bristol, Mr. Hosegood, will again visit Canada (he and his family were here a year or two ago) so that I can attempt to repay in part the hospitality he extended to me during a stay in his city. He gave me two boxes of matches and a cake of soap. Soap, too, is scarce. You will find it in very few hotel bathrooms.
Incidentally, staying in a hotel that has been blitzed gives one a new perspective. I lived at the Royal, in Bristol, for eight days. During one of the twenty-nine major air attacks on that city, a bomb fell at the back of the hotel, blew out eighty bedrooms, shattered the big, stonepillared dining room, demolished the kitchens. The head porter, who was blown round a pillar and landed fifty feet away, with severe head injuries, is back on the job. He will take you round to see the damage; show you the spot from which he was blown and the spot whereon he landed. Wonderment that he is still there is mutual. The staff—manageress, waitresses, chambermaids and the few men available—fought and extinguished the fires; fought and helped extinguish the fires which gutted the parish church next door; then began to clean out the debris in the front part of the hotel. A day later, in an improvised dining room, they were
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serving meals cooked in an impro-
vised kitchen. They’ve never stopped since.
In the front part of the hotel, which remains, it is hard to find a spot where there isn’t any draft. You go to close a window and find there isn’t any glass in the frame; just a piece of cotton or cardboard nailed over it. There are patched ceilings and blast-cracked walls. But seldom have I encountered a cheerier lot of people than those who did their best to cater to one’s needs. You just couldn’t raise your eyebrows because there wasn’t any toast to be had. There wasn’t any toaster. There wasn’t much chance of getting one. So what?
WE DEPARTED from England in a British Overseas Airways flying boat. It took off carrying sixty-nine passengers, all their baggage and a crew of eleven. Eighty people altogether. It landed at a transfer point without a splash.
There the passengers were dispersed among their respective transatlantic aircraft. In a comfortable Sikorsky American Export Ace our party took off in the wake of a PanAmerican Clipper one minute behind. Early next morning we landed in Canadian waters. One minute later, the Pan-American Clipper touched the sea; came to rest alongside of us. In elapsed flying time, over nearly two thousand miles of ocean, we were a fraction over two minutes apart.
It’s All One Front
TWO WEEKS after landing on the Atlantic Coast I was on Vancouver Island. This, therefore, com-
pletes the chronicle of a journey of more than thirteen thousand miles. That is an important distance because it covers Canada’s war front. Not the entire Canadian front. It doesn’t include our air forces in Alaska, in North Africa, in Malta.
Two thousand of those miles crisscrossed Britain. There it was that I talked with the troops immediately on their return from Dieppe; with the wounded in hospital, with those who returned unharmed. There it was that in defense areas 1 visited the Canadian overseas Army in the field and in replacement and training camps. There it was that I saw the Royal Canadian Air Force engaged in actual operations—the night bomber squadrons taking off to bomb Germany—the night fighters—the day fighters — the coastal command squadrons—the Army co-operation squadrons.
Thirty-eight hundred of those miles covered a double crossing of the Atlantic by air. And the actual flying time, going and returning, was just one hour less than it took me to get from Toronto to Winnipeg by train.
From above the clouds they couldn’t be seen. But below us, patrolling that vast stretch of tumbling ocean; convoying ships carrying men, carrying supplies, were destroyers and corvettes of the Royal Canadian Navy, manned by the youth of not only our seagirt provinces, but of the prairie and our hard-rock North.
More than seven thousand of those miles have been covered in Canada; from the tidal waters of Fundy to Vancouver Island; there and back by different routes. That, too, is Canada’s front. That is its home
front. Geographically, it’s a long way from the Canadians who stormed those death-sweeping beaches at Dieppe. It’s a long way from the airdromes from which Canadian lads lift Spitfires or Lancasters, Hurricanes or Halifaxes, Mustangs or WellingtoMs. It’s a long way from the wailing, in earnest, of air-raid sirens; from the bark of anti-aircraft guns; from the crump of enemy bombs. It’s a long way from the piles of debris which once were people’s homes, or churches, or schools. It’s a long way from the perpetual blackout.
It’s a long way—geographically. And may I tell you bluntly that my observation is that in too many places there are still too many people to whom it is far away mentally.
To them I say, with all theemphasis I can summon, that IT’S ALL ONE FRONT.
We can be protected by the seas only so long as we command those seas. We can be protected against aerial attack only so long as there is maintained on the other side of the Atlantic a curtain of air might. We can be protected from fighting enemy troops on this soil only by fighting and beating them on the soils they occupy today and by keeping them out of our outer fortress, which is Britain.
And these protections can only be adequately maintained if in the minds of every man and every woman in this Dominion—in the factories, in offices, in the home— the DOMINANT thought is the full prosecution of the war. It MUST come first. Nothing we have; nothing we want to have, can be kept or achieved unless we emerge from the war ON TOP. The End