No Man’s Land
For all those who gaze in peace toward the night sky, I must recall, for soon it will be too late, a simple yet timeless story where Hell met Earth and ordinary people engaged in selfless acts of sacrifice.
In the maelstroms and the furnaces, where constant fighting in pockets of suffocation and void sapped one’s will to carry on; thus, seems a fitting place to begin to tell this story. Offered in recognition of those who stood in the heat of the arena, whose faces were marred by dust and sweat.
In her final act, she “raged against the dying of the light.” So, after many years of silence it seems a fitting place to start; a time and a place where once there was normality, and after we were cursed with fierce tears.
No Mans Land
London England. July1940
“Can’t you drive with a bit more care? Corporal Sharkey shouted from the back.
From the driver’s seat of a Royal Air Force barrage balloon truck, Ruth turned around to face her three colleagues. “Well if I had any bloomin’ lights I’d be able to see everything I crash into! Corporal.”
Corporal Sharkey leaned across the back seat and in mock admonishment cuffed Ruth over the head. “Of course you would dear, now be a sweetie and try your best, hmm. I want to make it back to base for a nice cup of tea.”
The truck lunged sideways into a ditch. “Sorry!” Ruth glanced down from her side window and blew a heavy sigh of disbelief, “That’s no ditch. That’s the edge of a great big bomb crater.” She whispered.
From bays of aircraft hiding in a black sky, bombs were released and succumbed to gravity and grew to whistling choirs of metal arced to earth, carrying death, delivering misery, pathfinders for mourning.
With great care she picked her way around and over the debris that lay strewn in the road; house-bricks that once were homes.
Photographs of lives at peace lay exposed in the street stained with rivulets of water from the hose pipes of volunteer fire crew. She turned left from Wigmore Street into Chandos street, her foot eased on the accelerator.
Her progress slow. She remained careful not to run over an abandoned Childs doll, it lay with wide sightless eyes staring up from a red cheeked porcelain face, the back of its head sunken and fixed into tarmac that had melted cooled and blistered after successive bombings. Under the slow weight of the trucks wheels the tarmac road cracked and crumbled in complaint.
Ruth needed to cross at least two miles through blackened streets, from Marylebone to East London, before she reached the location she and her crew were assigned for the night.
Her driving instructor taught her, not to rush through a Blitz, but to pick her way with care through the bomb littered ruins; ‘always make progress, keep on the move.’
“Look!” Ruth cried. “There’s The BBC building. With her index finger and thumb she pinched her nose, “This is London calling, from The BBC.”
They paused to look at the irregular shaped building ahead. It occupied the corner of Langham Street and Portland Place.
The air raid sirens continued to peel their piercing unrelenting war cry. The Earth shook to the vibration of a giant’s heavy footstep as bombs destroyed lives off to their left near Regents Park.
Ruth began to turn the large heavy steering wheel about to pull into the junction, she needed to find Mortimer Street, or what might be left of that retail area. “Ruth! Stay here for a few seconds!” Corporal Sharkey ordered above the cacophony of thermal blasts.
She stopped the truck. Tall buildings to her left provided some cover and The Langham Hotel flew its flag of the Union from its facade on her right.”
“You having one of your funny feelings again Corporal?” Ruth heard one of the other girls mock from the back seats.”
Sally, the fourth girl in the crew stirred listlessly from her cat-nap. “Well I for one trust her funny feelings! She’s had them before and they’ve saved us. ”
“I thought you were sleeping Sally!” Ruth shouted over the sirens and echoing bombs.
“No Ruth, I never sleep! I close my eyes because I keep on seeing people who shouldn’t be here. They’re everywhere. It’s the only way I can ignore them. Just be thankful you don’t see them.”
“Yeah I’m having a funny feeling! Corporal Sharkey sighed. “Good to have you back with us Sally.
Just a moment, those bombs are getting clo’…”
From their left with soil and earth in its wake, a large tree flew past, screaming through the air; roots trunk branches and all. It hit the front facade of the Langham hotel; with a crack as loud as any screaming whistling bomb it bedded itself into the wall of the hotel. Ruth had no time to turn to her colleagues for comfort or confirmation, more trees, in single file and uniform order, rifled into the front of the hotel. They smashed windows, ripped guttering and tore into any hapless guest too forgetful to take refuge in an air raid shelter. The heavy footfall of targeted bombing drew nearer. Ruth lifted her hands from the steering wheel; it shook and rattled on its column.
The cumbersome barrage balloon truck trembled under the bombardment, its heavy gas canisters jumped in their moorings.
Ruth turned, her mouth open, “And the cow jumped over the moon!”
Sally placed a hand on Corporal Sharkey’s shoulder, “You’ve done it again Corporal, thanks.”
Sharkey shook her head, “It was nothing. The Luftwaffe has been trying to bomb that old BBC building for ages. There are simply a few buildings that, try as they might they cannot hit. The BBC is one of them.”
“My goodness!” Jane said. “I’ll not doubt your funny feelings again Corporal.
“Ruth! Get going.
Ruth found Mortimer Street. It was not difficult. It was on fire. She stopped the truck, its engine idling.
“Ruth! What are you doing?” Sharkey shouted.
Ruth hunched her shoulders and pointed into the road. “He’s a handsome one, Corporal!”
“He is that. But what does he think he’s playing at?”
Standing in front of the truck looking up at them, a fireman took a hose-reel he carried from his shoulder and rolled it along the road to the side of the truck. Again he looked up and locked eyes with Ruth. He cocked his head to one side and raised an arm, offering her a lazy wave.
“Does he think we’re out for a stroll in Hyde Park?” Ruth wound her window down, “you might look like Errol Flynn in your overalls, love! But you’re in my way, move!”
The Fireman smiled and even in the wan light of incendiaries Ruth recognised perfect white teeth set in a lantern square jaw. He walked over to the truck and leapt up onto the step just below the driver’s door.
“I beg your pardon me’ lady. Mortimer Street is badly hit. We’ve lost a couple of lads down there already. It’s far too dangerous; it’s hell down there! I wouldn’t want to lose you too.” He held out an open black oily hand.
Ruth blushed. She noticed his dimples on each cheek and his smile grew even larger. “Well why didn’t you say that instead of standing there like a…” She thought of ‘movie star,’ but bit her tongue.
Corporal Sharkey stuck her head over Ruth’s shoulder and in doing so saved Ruth’s blushes. “Listen fella,’ we have work to do, and we’re going down there.
She pointed into the road and another part of it exploded. “So when you’ve finished looking all starry eyed and lustful at my driver, perhaps we can get on. There’s a pot of tea and a warm scone waiting with my name on it.”
The Fireman looked at Corporal Sharkey, his eyebrow raised; she too began to blush. “I’m sorry, of course. Please ladies, keep to the centre of the road where you can. There’s a dead body about two hundred yards up on the left and most of the fires are on the left too. But the blast causes the buildings down to the right to collapse, some of them are in no rush to fall down.”
He began to climb off the step. Ruth grasped hold of his hand. He stopped and looked at her, his smile returned. “I’ve seen you around. Are you free tomorrow night?”
“Yes. Yes I am.”
“There’s a Glen Miller party at The Kensington Ballroom, starts at eight. I’ll see you out front.” Without waiting for a response he jumped from the side of the truck and jogged into a smouldering house.
Sharkey tapped her on the shoulder, she turned and all three girls were looking at her, flirtatious smiles and giggles erupted throughout the cab. “Ooooh! I wouldn’t want to lose you too!” they cried in chorus.
“He should be so lucky! But why did he run off like that?”
“That’s what Firemen do! They run into burning buildings.” Sharkey whispered.
“We’ve some taller buildings all around. I bet they wouldn’t run into them if they were on fire!” Jane said.
“Hmm, I reckon you could set fire to buildings that scraped the sky and still get men like him to run into them.” Sharkey replied.
Ruth raised her eyebrows and began to move off, smiling at the possibility of her first dance.
Again Sally closed her eyes, trying to suppress her fear she began to sing, Jane joined in with her tone deaf accompaniment of; ‘there’ll be Blue Birds over the white cliffs of Dover.’
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Blue Bird.” Ruth said
“You’re hardly likely to either my dear, “Sharkey replied, “There’s nothing over the white cliffs of Dover, except bombers.”
“Well that’s put the dampeners on it.” Sally cried. “OK let’s sing, it’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”
“Where is Tipperary anyway?” Ruth asked, her eyes searching out ten yards of safe road passage.
“Somewhere near Piccadilly I think!” Sally said.
“I think it’s in Ireland.” Sharkey cut in.
“What’s it doing in Ireland?” Ruth shouted.
“Trying to stay neutral like our other so called allies I imagine.” Sharkey replied. “Ruth! Watch that building to your far right. It’s collapsing.”
“Thanks Corporal. Got it!”
“Are we really on our own? Jane asked.
No. Not at all. We have the Canadians, the Aussies and The New Zealanders are busy with the Japanese, and look at the Poles. You only have to point them in the general direction of the fight and they’re off and at it!”
Keeping her eyes on the dark road ahead, Ruth nodded her agreement.
“We feel alone.” Sharkey continued, “Because appeasement and turning a blind eye to tyranny and dictators for too long has meant Europe has fallen. Our allies have been asked to stand and be counted and some have not answered the call.
So that half its country can remain free, France is paying the Germans and providing labour for their factories. They use that money and French labour to fight us. France is even considering declaring war on us!
The only thing standing in the way of a new world order is this small stubborn Island nation. America is our lifeline and they will join the war soon; they will have no choice. It might take some catastrophic event to wake that sleeping giant, but they will take part.”
“How do you know all this, Corporal? Jane shouted.
“Before I trained to launch barrage balloons to confuse German Bombers I was training to be a teacher of modern history.”
The truck sank to the right into a large pothole. “Sorry!”
“What about you Jane? What were you doing before someone decided to set the sky on fire?”
“It seems ages ago. I’ve already forgotten!” Jane replied. “Oh yes! I was a nanny, looking after two little boys.”
“And you Sally! What about you?”
Sally opened her eyes and glanced out of her window. “I was training to compete in the UK swimming championships. I had a good chance too! What about our driver?”
Ruth steered around a broken and twisted bicycle in the middle of the road; she turned left into Old Broad Street. “Oh I wasn’t doing much really, just looking after my younger brothers. One day I would like a family of my own.”
“You’re barely old enough!” Sharkey scoffed.
“You’re right Corporal. I’ve never had a boyfriend!” She laughed. “But one day I’d like to have a son.”
In darkness she turned left from Old Broad Street onto Great Winchester Street. The only light to guide her came from bombs the Luftwaffe dropped, or incendiaries that lit up buildings transforming them into slow burn masonry candles.
“Corporal Sharkey!” Ruth pointed to a barrage balloon truck they were assigned to relieve. It was positioned in the middle of a large court-yard square, with tall Victorian houses on all four sides.
Its crew of four women were busy retrieving their barrage balloon from its metal rope tethers; keen to rest out this latest Blitzkrieg of London.
“I know, I see them. Park up alongside, by that high wall.” Sharkey, twenty one years of age, placed a hand on Ruth’s shoulder. “Stay alert.”
Without warning a shock wave lifted Ruth’s truck from the front and threw it sideways like a slap across the face. Her hands were thrown from the steering wheel; she hit her head against the “A” post. The truck lifted with ease onto its off-side wheels then with a loud thud that broke the suspension it righted itself.
“That’s my girl!” cried Ruth. “Sorr….!”
The blast from a second explosion ripped through them, shattering the windscreen. Shards of glass sandblasted her face; her hair turned to gaseous wisps and disappeared. The driver’s door flew open and crumpled like paper as it tore with ease from its hinges. Ruth felt the air dragged from her lungs. The heat in the cab became unbearable and she threw herself onto a road that shook, its tarmac surface melting in liquefaction under heat and tremor.
In desperation she crawled and stumbled on all fours toward the relative sanctuary of the nearby high wall. Exhausted she collapsed. With the last of her ebbing strength she turned and looked toward the black sky.
She watched entranced as thousands of tiny illuminated dots danced and raced airborne from the ground and then with reluctance one or two larger moving burning stars tumbled quietly from that void. It struck her as a serene and beautiful sight. In silence, with all her strength spent she raged, refusing to the very last to close her eyes.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and peeled her face from the sticky oily tarmac. “Hello Corporal!”
“Come on Ruth. Get back in the truck. We’ve work to finish.”
“No buts! That’s an order!
At the end of Great Winchester Street Ruth spotted another, newer crater. The truck and the crew she was sent to relieve no longer existed, in their place a mass of tangled metal and the shell of a burning truck turned on its side, its winch still attached.
The fire licked at the barrage balloon only a hundred feet in the air.
The balloon lit up the night sky all around them as the gas contained within it ignited.
Ruth drove on toward the carnage just as the metal rope fell back to earth on fire, whipping and dancing on the ground before it settled.
She pulled up at the newly formed crater, the wall, not thirty yards away was still intact; the only sign of damage a burn mark ten feet across from its base to its top, twenty feet above them.
“Right you lot! Get to it! We have a winch to set up and a barrage balloon to get in the air to confound those awful bombers! Get a wiggle on.” Corporal Sharkey gazed at the wall and gave away her feelings with a grimace as she realised a severed and bloody arm rested atop in precarious isolation.
She pointed at all of them in turn. “It will be horrible here! Remember your training.”
All four jumped from the truck and set about their tasks, hoisting the barrage balloon in the air within minutes.
It caught the breeze in violent swings. Sharkey adjusted the tensions of its tethering ropes and it began to settle.
Bombs fell all around, shock wave after shock wave; a carpet of thermal blasts. Anti Aircraft tracer rounds arced reassuringly skyward.
Now and then a search light would loc