“Suddenly, There Were The Americans”


And as spring became summer in 1944, yet more exciting manifestations of American military power thrust themselves on our attention. The GI’s whom we had got to know had been, we now grasped, engineers, builders, and truck drivers who were creating settlements for the fighting troops still to come. And now the troops were among us. With them they brought a new wave of equipment, half-track scout cars, amphibious trucks, and gigantic transporters laden with tanks and bulldozers—the last a machine previously unknown in Britain—which held to the main roads and, when in convoy, were usually seen heading southward, toward the ports of Hampshire and Dorset, on the Channel coast opposite France. American aircraft, too, appeared in great numbers: Liberators, Dakotas, and occasionally the dramatically twin-boomed P-38 Lightning, glimpsed rocketing across the sky like a shape of things to come. Dakotas were the commonest and the source of the most arresting experience I underwent that fresh, green spring. Some forgotten journey brought me unexpectedly upon an airfield, over which a cloud of aircraft hung, turning and swooping. But it was unlike any formation I had ever seen, in that the planes were linked together in pairs by spider-thin cables. Suddenly and successively the cables fell slack and the second in each pair of aircraft began to descend toward the runway. Strangest of all, they had neither propellers nor engines, their descent was silent, and when they touched ground, they came to a halt within a few yards. From their interiors men tumbled out and formed ranks, from which brilliant red and green flares were shot in sputtering arcs toward the departing Dakota tugs. I had had my first sight of a method of war of which I had not dreamt: a glider assault.

One evening some weeks later the sky over our house began to fill with the sound of aircraft, which swelled until it overflowed the darkness from edge to edge. Its first tremors had taken my parents into the garden, and as the roar grew, I followed and stood between them to gaze awestruck at the constellation of red, green, and yellow lights that rode across the heavens and streamed southward toward the sea. It seemed as if every aircraft in the world was in flight, as wave followed wave without intermission, dimly discernible as dark corpuscles on the black plasma of the clouds, which the moon had not yet risen to illuminate. The noise in which they swam became solid, blocking our ears, entering our lungs, and beating the ground beneath our feet with the relentless surge of an ocean swell. Long after the last had passed from view and the thunder of their passage had died into the silence of the night, we remained transfixed and wordless on the spot where we stood, gripped by a wild surmise at what the power, majesty, and menace of the great migratory flight could portend.

Next day we knew. The Americans had gone. The camps they had built were emptied overnight. The roads were deserted. No doubt, had we been keeping check, we would have noticed a gradual efflux of their numbers. But it had been disguised until the last moment, and the outrush had then been sudden. The BBC news bulletin told us why. “Early this morning, units of the Allied Armies began landing on the coast of France.” The message was transmitted often that morning, June 6,1944, drawing listeners anxiously to their sets before each advertised broadcast in the hope of hearing some heartening change in the anodyne form of words passed by the censor. I had no patience with their incertitude. The doorman at my father’s office, a figure of weight and importance to me because, as a retired policeman, he was allowed to keep a pistol (the better to repel any fifth-columnist bent on capturing the files of the County Education Committee), caused particular irritation by being too busy with the controls of his set—bending his head to the speaker and fussily adjusting the volume—to show me the gun as he usually did. He just, he said, wanted to hear how things were going. Irritation gave way to scorn. What was the point of wondering how things were going? A cross-Channel invasion was not, as it happened, how I had visualized the war would be won. I had formed no picture at all of the means by which the German army was going to be brought to decisive battle. If anything, I had imagined some gigantic, climacteric duel of aircraft, in which Spitfires without number would have overwhelmed the Germans first in the sky and then on the ground. But if a cross-Channel invasion it was to be, that was an end to it. The Allies had determined a means different from that I had visualized. But the outcome was no more in doubt than it had ever been. They were going to win. The Germans were going to lose. News of events would add color and interest while we waited and should be enjoyed in that spirit. But the outcome was not in doubt.