An Ordinary Man (2) by Dennis Hamley
To read Dennis Hamley's fascinating account of his father's life, which appeared here earlier today, scroll down. Over to Dennis.
Here is the extract from Divided Loyalties which fleetingly introduces Dad as a character. I've taken two liberties here. WS Morrison's letter does not mention the fact that Dad found the airmen's shelter already shut, nor, even if he had, would he have mentioned the emotional WAAF. So I have shifted both episodes in the interests of the plot. They no longer happen to Dad but to my own character, Walter, RAF engineer mechanic and disaffected, estranged son of Ellen and Matthias.
He has seen Julie from afar but has not really met her. Their little epiphany at the end has profound consequences for the novel. Walter's enigmatic remark at the end refers to a meeting with his old friend Harry Brindley, who has skived off military service and got into the black market: a sort of Dad's Army Private Walker.
I don't think this has done violence to either the novel or to Dad's memory. He and Walter have a lot in common!
The two WAAF telephonists who the engineer and Walter find already in the exchange refers to a well-recorded fact about the raid (Dad's intervention is not mentioned in any official account). The two WAAFs were on duty next day when a second raid started. They carried on working until the direct hit came and both won the Military Medal. I have conflated the two episodes into one, with Walter as an observer.
Walter runs with the rest. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Julie. In spite of the danger he pauses, changes course and runs towards her. He mustn’t be killed before he has had a chance to speak to her.
“Julie, come with me,” he shouts. “I’ll look after you.”
“I don’t need looking after,” she shouts back. “I know where I’m going.” And then she is swallowed up in the fog of flame, smoke and ruin which the Junkers 88s have spread.
Walter’s diversion has cost vital seconds. The airmen’s shelter is already shut. He doesn’t panic. He just says, “Well, Wally, it looks like this is it,” and almost nonchalantly walks away as the Junkers 88s scream over the airfield on their second run.
Planes parked on the airfield will be destroyed where they stand. They are his children and he cannot see them perish. Futilely he runs towards them as if he can ward off these murderous attacks. But the first receives a direct hit and he sees it disintegrate in a sheet of flame. The noise assaults his ears and the blast hurls him to the ground.
He picks himself up, dizzy. The Ops Block is badly damaged: other buildings are burning. He is looking at a vision of the apocalypse.
The Junkers 88s come in again. Walter is running blindly to nowhere, until a sudden impulse makes him stop. He is standing on the edge of a trench. Instinct has stopped him falling straight into it. The Post Office people are laying telephone cables under the ground because slinging them from poles is the quickest way for the Luftwaffe to cut them.
A trench means protection. He jumps in and crouches below the parapet. A civilian is crouching there too. Walter is suspicious. “You’re a civvy. What are you doing here?”
The man flashes a little red book at him. “My station pass,” he says. “Telephone engineer.”
“Sorry, mate,” says Walter. “I thought you were a Jerry spy.”
He doesn’t hear the engineer’s reply because there is a violent explosion not a hundred feet away. He just has time to think missed when the blast reaches them. It’s as if a giant hand picks him up and deposits him eight feet from the trench. When he opens his eyes he finds he’s sprawled on the ground. Beside him, the telephone engineer picks himself up.
“You all right?” Walter gasps.
“I’ve felt better,” is the reply.
The Junkers’ farewell consists of machine gun strafing. Walter wants to get back in the trench. But when he looks he sees it has collapsed into a small sea of clods of earth.
The engineer starts running towards the smoking buildings. Walter shouts, “Come back, you daft bugger” and then sets off after him. He seems outside himself looking on, leading a charmed, inviolable life amid the smoke, fire and chaos. He catches the man up and says, “Are you off your rocker? Where are we going?”
“Ops Block,” the engineer pants. “If my telephones still work, someone’s got to operate them.”
“You’re mad,” says Walter but follows just the same.
They run and run, their lungs bursting. Thankfully the Junkers 88s are tired of strafing the airfield: they must save ammunition for the flight home. But the Ops Block is half-destroyed and Walter doubts that any telephone will be intact.
He follows the engineer through the doorless entrance, picks his way over piles of bricks in what remains of a corridor and sees a large switchboard. Two WAAFs sit at it, headsets on, calmly connecting calls -- “Number please: trying to connect you: the number is ringing, caller.” The engineer jumps into the nearest empty chair, puts a headset on and is soon going through the same routine. Walter looks on amazed. It’s almost like a country exchange on a peaceful Sunday afternoon.
But then he hears the familiar ominous drone above: the Junkers 88s were just the advance guard. Snarling whistles of bombs, deafening, reverberating explosions – and suddenly the engineer pulls his headset off and shouts, “Sod the bastards, they’ve cut the cables again. It’s no use, girls.”
The WAAFs tear off their headsets as well and they all crouch under the switchboard. Then the tearing shriek of a bomb sounds too near. There is an ear-splitting explosion and an overpowering shock-wave. The far wall of the exchange collapses and the ceiling with it: they are smothered in powdered plaster, brick dust and wooden joists. The four fugitives cough and splutter. For the first time that afternoon, Walter is afraid: that was nearly a direct hit. The cramped fearful wait under the ruins lasts for an eternity. The all-clear when it comes sounds unreal, impossible. They crawl out and look at each other, amazed they have survived. They are white as ghosts with plaster.
Suddenly, the engineer moans, “I feel terrible,” and collapses.
“Shell-shock,” says Walter. “Let’s get him to the sickbay before we all flake out.”
But there’s no need: the fire crews and ambulances have arrived. Before he is helped into the ambulance Walter looks at the WAAFs: it has just occurred to him that Julie may be one of them. But he’s seen neither before. “Where did you come from?” he asks.
“We were here all the time,” one says. “We never left our seats,” says the other. He looks from them to the engineer on a stretcher and says, “You deserve medals, all three of you.”
Walter spends three days in the sickbay. He too is shell-shocked, though mildly compared to the engineer. He is hardly aware of next day’s raid. When he is let out he still feels weak and lightheaded. But he’s been promised a week’s leave, though not until things are quieter. If I knew Julie well enough, he thinks, I could wangle it so I’m on leave when she is.
While in the sickbay he hears terrible things. The airmen’s shelter he was shut out of received a direct hit. All thirty-nine inside were killed. He feels a cold hand clutch at his heart. The WAAFs’ shelter was hit as well. Only one WAAF was killed but many were injured. Walter hopes and prays that Julie isn’t one of them.
When he’s discharged from the sickbay he sees devastation all round him. Yet the airfield is operational: the craters on the runways have been filled, temporary telephone lines put up and it’s business as usual. Besides, the Luftwaffe seems to have tired of bombing airfields. They’re bombing London instead.
He makes a resolution. “I’m sick of being bombed and shot at. I want do the shooting and bombing myself and I bloody well will.”
A woman’s voice calls his name. “Wally!” No, it can’t be true – but it is, it is. It’s Julie. She runs towards him, arms outstretched. “Wally!” she cries again. She reaches him and stops. She is not smiling. She reaches out a hand and touches his face shyly, almost fearfully. “Wally,” she breathes. “You’re not a ghost. It’s really you.”
“Of course it’s me,” says Walter. “How did you know my name?”
“I found out the same way you did mine,” she replies. “I asked around.”
Now she does smile, that wonderful, radiant smile she gave him before. “Oh, Wally, Wally, Wally, I thought you were dead. I thought you were in the airmen’s shelter. Oh, Wally.” And she throws her arms round him and kisses him, long, passionately, and Walter responds and thinks that the terrible raid of 30th August might just turn out to be one of the greatest events of his life. He looks at her small, beautiful face, sees the blonde hair under her cap, her happy, sparkling eyes. His heart beats fast and he tries to find something to say which will fit this momentous occasion. Finally he comes out with, “Would three boxes of chocolates and six pairs of silk stockings be any use to you?”
Published by Walker Books 2008
Reviews of Divided Loyalties…The various parts of the plot are linked so effectively that the reader is carried enthralled through the story, engaging with each character in turn as their stories interlock, sometimes in surprising ways. Dennis Hamley's thorough background knowledge is used to great effect but the research is never allowed to dominate the story and we're swept up in the thrilling, perilous situations… Divided Loyalties is a magnificent achievement which should surely endure for years as an outstanding novel of the Second World War for young readers. Linda Newbery, Armadillo
I was rivetted by Divided Loyalties. It's a novel of startling resonance. The history is accurate, nobody betrays a trace of twenty-first century sensibilities and wartime Britain comes alive on the pages. While fascism is thoroughly excoriated, much attention is paid to the effects of the RAF's bombing campaigns on the Axis civilian populations. When Walter bails out over Germany, he is called a terror bomber by locals. It isn't a one-sided tale hiding behind the window dressing of a mixed marriage - it's a genuine attempt to bring these times to young readers. And it does a marvellous job. Jill Murphy, Bookbag
…should provoke much thought about how people apply their moral codes when they find themselves at war with their own country. Northern Echo
This is a superior fiction from a master of the history for children genre. Verbal Magazine / Belfast News Letter Group
DIVIDED LOYALTIES IS NOW AVAILABLE AS AN EBOOK ON KINDLE. I HOPE IT WILL SOON BE REISSUED IN PAPERBACK.