Many years ago, I had a period of illness during which I wasn’t able to do any drawing or writing at all, and then came out of it with two especially clear strong drives – one was to take my lifelong curiosity about history down to a more personal level – and the other was to start drawing with much more imprecision and risk.
The drawing choice was easy, I just stopped doing under-pencils (having already discarded rulers, years before this) and hit the blank page fast with hard ink instead, trusting in the curious goodness of contour line to overpower such imprecisions as resulted.
To go after the human in history, I found myself thinking about the question of how my grandmother and so many other perfectly normal people, made it through the war (WWII). She was in Coventry when it was devastated by an especially horrifying early German area-bombing attack – and was promptly moved to London, where it was thought by all that she’d be a great deal safer.
Arriving in London she found work as an air-raid warden – which means she was not ever entitled to hide or look away from the very worst of the blitz to come.
Sadly, by the time I became obsessed with this subject it was too late to discuss it with her, or even with my aunties, still living “over ‘ome” in England.
But my growing stack of drawings and the reading I am forever doing did help me approach other living witnesses, empathize better, and see new complexities and lessons – usually papered-over by celebratory propaganda we keep renewing even to this day.
Bearmore (Top Picture)
This is always the point and problem with war – and we mustn’t ever forget it – war is the thing that turns a house into a pyre, a nice street into a disaster – nothing good about it at all – nothing to cheer – nothing to celebrate – it is not sports, it is death.
It is also important to remember that in most wars those who fight are not given any more choice in the matter than the civilians. Nobody deserves any of it.
One day, I was out on a regular errand – picking up cat food and litter for a friend who had medical issues and couldn’t carry it himself, when I started chatting to Archie, the elderly owner of the pet shop, about my history drawings. I even had a few photocopies in my knapsack (to show my cat-loving pal), so I pulled them out to show him – and we both got a real surprise.
“The Rusty-Guts!” Archie’s eyes went wide. “I served on her.”
HMCS Restigouche (The Rusty-Guts)
I was amazed by the coincidence and begged him for his story, explaining a bit about the idea I had, of exploring my grandmother’s time and experience.
He insisted that he was no hero. I insisted that I wanted normal-people stories most of all, so he told me the one thing he couldn’t forget. He was stationed on the side of the ship, manning a weapon as part of a small crew – one time when he was away from his station to use the head (washroom) the ship came under torpedo attack, and the torpedo hit just where he should have been, and killed the man who was standing-in for him.
His daughter was there to give him a hug (which was nice), but then he got suspicious. “You aren’t going to write about us being just as bad, are you?”
No Archie – I won’t ever say that. But we must be honest if we are to learn, and we also did many savage and violent things on an industrial scale. Sadly, by the time the Spanish civil war was lost – emboldening fascists everywhere – and convincing them that the established powers were feeble and decadent, there was little left but to confront and kill Hitler and any who were following his psychosis writ-large. (Should and could have been avoided, but then finally had to be done).
Corvette (Flower class?)
Unlike the US, which reserved full commitment until it was directly attacked in late 1941 – Canada began a massive operation to supply Britain immediately, as soon as hostilities opened in the fall of 1939 – which was very important, because Britain’s population is significantly greater than it’s capacity for food production – the UK required constant imports, simply to eat – let alone to manufacture an effective defence against terrifyingly successful Blitzkrieging Nazis.
Here’s a cute side-note about just how dumb the logic of nationalism can be (even in Canada, where disdaining nationalism is widely prized). I remember several older folks telling me when I was a kid, that Canada had ended the war with the third largest navy in the world. Technically true, in the silliest possible way. That is, if you counted number of hulls only (not displacement, armament, armour, speed, usefulness – or any other crucial quality), and also counted the captured fleets of the defeated enemies as ‘targets’ instead of vessels (many used for early nuclear testing), we just barely slid into third.
But while our Navy and merchant marine both did truly heroic service in the longest and in some ways most crucial battle of the European theatre (supplying life itself) the vessels in which they served, while numerous, were also, for the most part, relatively small.
Restigouche was one of many frigates, but the most distinctively Canadian ships of all were the Corvettes, which were built in huge numbers for convoy escort duty – definitely the profile you wanted to see steaming nearby, if you were sailing in an unarmed freighter in a huge, slow (very tempting U-boat target) convoy.
Corvette Stokers (should’ve stayed in the mines)
Crucial as the Corvettes were to the war, it was often extremely unpleasant to to sail them – the rounded-hull design of the ships meant they got tossed around rather badly in even a moderate sea, and for those stuck below, feeding the ever ravenous furnace, we can add backbreaking and lung-blacking to the sick-making roll which was experienced by all aboard.
While doing my drawings, I was always on the lookout for pictures that showed ordinary people doing their part. Not the swaggering officers (back then, still drawn mostly from the upper-class, rather than promoted on merit).
The crappy job, I’ve always assumed, would have certainly been my own gig.
But not every underdog stays down below, even when he’s rudely banished. Douglas Bader is a striking example of a whole lot of things (including a very normal, complex and flawed human being, who, through no fault of his own, was turned into a cartoon paragon, entirely for propaganda purposes).
He was a pilot in the RAF and lost his legs in a flying accident in 1931. They kicked him out of the airforce, called him rather nasty names (useless gimp) and said he’d never fly again – but he was unusually determined.
When the RAF became desperate for experienced pilots in 1939 he finally got his chance, and soon proved to be a superior fighter to many of his comrades. Because he had no legs, there was nowhere far from his core for his blood to pool in a high-G turn (and in a dogfight, he who turns hardest, can bring his guns to bear first).
He was also a very opinionated guy and fought hard for the RAF to launch everything at once to confront the Luftwaffe’s raids with overwhelming force. Dowding (who commanded the battle with unbelievable, and ultimately triumphant mathematical restraint and discipline, resisting many pressures from the powerful along the way) considered Bader’s suggestions irresponsible. A pragmatic view in terms of logistics.
Ultimately, Dowding was right about the restraint required to make sure they still had enough forces left to finally win the overall battle of Britain – but quite late in the battle, Bader (using his propoganda fame) finally won enough powerful allies to his “Big Wing” idea, for the RAF to stage the massive formations he’d long envisaged. (The ultimate super-Balbo!)
Somewhat like the Tet Offensive, many years later – the Big Wing still was not a brilliant tactical play (all those planes waste a lot of very precious fuel and intercept-time, just getting into formation). On the other hand…
When the exhausted battle worn Luftwaffe pilots, who had been told by their commanders that their sacrifices were worthwhile because the RAF was almost completely defeated, suddenly saw more enemy planes in the sky to oppose them than they had ever seen before – even at the start of the battle, their confidence was completely smashed.
It was the first time that sort of an overwhelming drubbing had been given to the Luftwaffe since the start of the war. Not just a key reverse either, it also proved that there would be no effective air-cover for the hundreds of barges that Hitler was hoping to use to invade England. Soon after the invasion of England was postponed indefinitely and thanks to other pressing matters, never seriously tried again.
So, to review – Bader was unjustly kicked out – fought his way back in, then fought his way through – then he was totally wrong, but by the time he won the right to do his wrong-thing, it was just enough right that he actually did manage to have quite a profound and helpful effect on the battle and war.
Certainly beats the heck out of slinking away and just watching the proceedings from the sidelines, the way they said the ‘useless gimp’ Bader ought to. And I’m willing to bet that for the rest of his life, he never once had to pay for a drink.
- More about the regular folks side of that now almost entirely mythologized war coming up in the very next post! Stay chewned!