Tragic sentiments: memoirs of the Second World War -

Tragic sentiments: memoirs of the Second World War

Every man thinks meanly of himself for not

having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.

—Samuel Johnson

Soldiers returning home from World War Two wanted to repress their disturbing memories, but were reluctant to talk about the wasted lives of both victors and vanquished.  Writers could not yet describe nor civilians understand their recent agony.  But after several decades of patriotic lies and compensatory public monuments people were ready for the truth, for testimonies, not fiction.  During the years that followed the war, these writers moved from chaos and horror to reflection and understanding.  They described not only the battles, but also the physical and psychological effects of war on the traumatised combatants.  Once these writers had absorbed their wartime shock and recovered from their wounds, they were able to master the violent material and refine it into art.  Their wartime experiences shattered their lives, yet drove them into maturity and provided valuable material for their best books.  The survivors went on to have distinguished literary careers.

These six memoirs by an Australian, a Manxman, two Scots and two Americans, all born between 1919 and 1925, were published (with one tragic exception) between 1978 and 1996.  George MacDonald Fraser and Paul Fussell wrote about the army, Frank Kermode and Alan Ross about the navy, Richard Hillary and Samuel Hynes about the air force.  Except for Hillary, killed in the war, all the men lived into their eighties and nineties.  I knew four of these authors, and my recollections provide a more intimate context for their memoirs and later life.

I. Army

George MacDonald Fraser (1925-2008) was born in Carlisle, Cumberland, the son of a Scottish doctor who

d served in East Africa in the Great War.  The ironic title of his memoir Quartered Safe Out Here (1992), from Kipling


Gunga Din,
” grimly suggests the dangers of fighting against the Japanese in Burma.  Fraser

s story begins when he

s sent into war as an infantry private still in his teens, and ends when he

s flown from Burma to India to be examined as a potential officer.  He leaves out the details of his life before and after his time in Burma.  In fact, he passed the Officers

Training Course, was commissioned in the Gordon Highlanders, fought in the Middle East and North Africa, and left the army in 1947.  He then worked as a journalist on the Glasgow Herald and wrote the successful



To set the scene Fraser mentions the Japanese conquest of Burma in 1942-43, and describes his part in the Allied counterattack and victory in 1944-45:

The Japanese were what was left of the great army that had been set to invade India the previous year, the climax of that apparently irresistible tide that had swept across China, Malaya and the Pacific Islands; it broke on the twin rocks of Imphal and Kohima, where the [British] Fourteenth Army had stopped it and driven it back from the gates of India . . . and where Japan had suffered the greatest catastrophe in its military history.”  Fraser

s memoir recalls the part he played in defeating the Japanese.

His Burma campaign did not have the glamour of Joseph Stilwell

s Flying Tigers or Orde Wingate

s Chindits, but Fraser gives a sharp portrait of the brilliant and notorious Wingate:

that gifted guerrilla who revived the military beard, carried an alarm clock to remind everyone what time it was, scrubbed himself with a toothbrush, quoted Holy Writ. . . . Splendid man, especially to stay away from.”  Fraser

s commander General William Slim, a striking contrast to Wingate, was

one of the great captains in mountain, jungle and dry plain, in hot sun and drenching monsoon, and inflicting on one of the great warrior races its most crushing defeat.”  Like all soldiers in Burma, Fraser worshipped Slim, who led them to victory:

His appearance was plain enough: large, heavily built, grim-faced with that hard mouth and bulldog chin; the rakish Gurkha hat was at odds with the slung carbine and untidy trouser bottoms. . . . He had a force that came out of him, a strength of personality. . . . You knew, when he talked of smashing Jap, that to him it meant not only arrows on a map but clearing bunkers and going in under shell-fire; that he had the head of a general with the heart of a private soldier.”


s personal experience was quite different from the official military history, as well as from novels and the movies with Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn that dramatized a romantic and heroic view of war.  Instead, Fraser gives a realistic account. The “Jap” (as Fraser calls the enemy)

was digging in for a last desperate stand on the Rangoon road: if he could hold us at Pyawbwe for just a few weeks, until the monsoon broke, he might stave off defeat indefinitely, for when the rains came they would turn southern Burma into a huge swamp where no armour or truck could operate, where the airfields would be impossible, and where even infantry could not operate effectively.”

Combat ranged from aggressive guerrilla warfare to entrenched static defence as the army waited for the arrival of Sherman tanks before pressing south to Rangoon.  As the spearhead deep inside enemy territory, Fraser remembered how they fought with frenzied violence:

everything had been split-second in crisis, with nothing to do but react at speed, snap-shooting, grabbing for a grenade, throwing it, shooting again.  There had been no time to think.”  Thinking, and morbid imaginings about being captured, wounded or killed, was bad for a soldier.  He was more likely to survive by combining careful training with instinct and impulse.

Fraser always aimed to kill as many Japanese as possible.  He was taught to see them as cruel and barbaric,

subhuman creatures who tortured and starved prisoners of war to death, raped women captives and used civilians for bayonet practice,” but he realised there was no braver soldier in the whole history of war.  They preferred suicide to dishonourable surrender, and it was strange to see their corpses,

because only yesterday they had been alive and trying to kill us.”

The memoir has several effective set-pieces about the fear and excitement he felt during close combat and fights to the death.  Fraser explains

that if you are on the attack, you can

t do a damned thing until you find your enemy, and the only way to do that is to push on, at whatever speed seems prudent, until you see or hear him, or he makes his presence known by letting fly at you.”  In one fight,

a column of Japanese had come up the road from the south in trucks, driven right up to the [protective] wire, and a hand-to-hand battle had broken out.  Most of them had been killed on the road within the village, by grenades.”  The British surprised and dispatched more than fifty Japanese and lost only three men.

When the British learned that the Japanese were coming down river in boats and rafts, covered by soldiers along the river, they slaughtered them as the light poetically illuminated the dark:

the broad surface of the water was shining with the reflective glare, the far bank lined with little dark figures caught like rabbits in headlights, standing, running, dropping to earth, a raft halfway across crowded with men,” all mowed down with rifles cracking in rapid fire.

Fraser tries to justify his extensive use of Cumberland dialect which, he admits, is

to the outsider the least comprehensible in the English-speaking world.  Rendering them phonetically is difficult, but I have tried because that is the way my comrades talked.”  But his attempt at verisimilitude is a failure: the long passages of dialect are hard to decipher and tedious to read.  His straightforward style is more effective and memorable.  Burned tanks are

brewed.”  He could tell a man was dead

from the way the body seemed to subside, as though something had been let out of it.”  A sixteen-inch centipede has

myriad legs going like the oars of a galley.”  Fierce scavenging kites

swoop down like Spitfires and whip half your breakfast with surgical skill.”  Their reckless Nigerian truck drivers

with tribal cuts on their beaming black faces wouldn

t last thirty seconds in a driving test, not even in Bangkok, but at motoring with two wheels in thin air they were impressive.”  Fraser also had great respect for the Gurkhas, as ferocious as the Japanese, and

probably the most fatal fighting man on earth, whose reckless courage was legendary.”  In one battle they successfully destroyed a fortified bunker armed only with their long knives.

The memoir occasionally relieves the horrific narrative with touches of comedy.  A squalid Burmese village

was just large enough to boast a communal toilet.”  Paraphrasing Christopher Marlowe


Doctor Faustus,

an army poster warned soldiers to avoid attractive whores with venereal disease by asking,

Is this the face that loved a thousand nips?” 
and racist language were common: the apparently swarthy Fraser was told that he

looks like a bloody wog.  Put a dhoti [loincloth] on ye, an

ye could git a job dishin

oot egg banjoes [sandwiches] at Wazir Ali

”  When Fraser is promoted to lance-corporal, having been busted (for unspecified reasons) thrice before, his duties become more serious—and more comical.  Trying while hanging upside-down to get some precious drinking water with his slouch hat, a machine gun opens fire, his men release his legs and he falls into the well.  More dangerous, a Burmese soldier puts a shell nose-first into a mortar barrel.  Luckily, an alert officer dives toward the barrel, pushes it sideways and prevents an explosion that would have killed everyone nearby.

In April 1945, when Fraser

s men were only 300 miles away from reconquering Rangoon, the monsoon broke two weeks early and the attack was forced to halt. 

The old division,” he regretfully notes,

that had endured the retreat three years before, had been in the thick of the great battle that had stopped Jap at the gates of India, and had led the way south, was denied the ultimate prize at the last minute.”

Finally, Fraser considers the dropping of the atomic bombs (discussed in several memoirs) that had forced Japan to surrender. He justifies it by exclaiming:

Our country had been hammered mercilessly from the sky, and so had Germany; we had seen the pictures of Belsen and of the frozen horror of the Russian front; part of our higher education had been devoted to the techniques of killing and destruction; we were not going to lose sleep because the Japanese homeland had taken its turn. . . . By what right, then, should Allied lives have been sacrificed to save the victims of Hiroshima?”

Paul Fussell

s Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic (1996) begins in March 1945 when he was a twenty-year-old infantry lieutenant in Alsace, France.  In a dramatic eight-page episode, he confesses that he was terrified of having to cross a road under heavy machine-gun fire and

a sharp-eyed lieutenant colonel warned me to get myself together or I

d be in a lot of trouble.”  When Fussell and two of his men were bombarded by a tank gun, he did not take cover in a bunker:

virtually accused once of cowardice, I didn

t want to be seen being ostentatiously prudent a second time.”  He was then seriously wounded by shell fragments in his thigh and back.  The men who had followed his lead were killed, and he felt guilty about their deaths.  It was bitterly ironic that this tragedy occurred only seven weeks before VE Day, when the war was already won.

The first half of the book portrays Fussell

s background as the son of a wealthy, puritanical, teetotal lawyer in Pasadena, a posh suburb of Los Angeles, and his education at Pomona College east of the city; his military training, combat experience and recovery from wounds in a military hospital.  In the second half the postwar chapters describe his graduate school, teaching and writing.  Fussell believes that the life of a combat infantryman is

the most extreme experience a human being can go through”; that there is a limited reservoir of courage:

after several months it has all been expended, and it

s time for a breakdown”; and that


that happens to you is your own damn fault.” All human life is destined to failure and the only true response is tragic irony.

Fussell condemns the futility and waste, the inflexibility and uselessness, the humiliation and boredom of his military training, which did, however, enable him to survive. As if nothing at all had been learned from previous disasters, his trench warfare and infantry tactics were remarkably like those in the Great War:

mass attacks in skirmish lines, ambushes, patrols and defence while dug in.” 

The ghastly dead German men and boys, who seem to foreshadow his own fate, make him want to scream and run away, and it

s fortunate when brains leak out of their skulls that the dead don

t know what they look like. He barely survives an artillery attack that would have prevented his men from repelling a German attack.  He moves just in time to miss a mortar barrage that would have blown him to bits.  In yet another near-fatal encounter he grabs a rifle leaning against a tree and kills three Germans before they can unsling their guns.  When his luck runs out, the bumpy ambulance journey to the field hospital and his inevitable love for his angelic nurse recall Hemingway

s gold-standard war novel

A Farewell to Arms


Destined, when he recovered, to be sent to the Pacific to fight against Japan, Fussell convincingly justifies the use of the atomic bomb, which ended that war and saved the lives of thousands of American and Japanese soldiers.  The ferocious battle for Okinawa showed that the enemy would defend their islands until their last man was dead.  When discharged from the army Fussell was determined never to take anyone

s orders again.  He confesses that he was angry,

impudent, insolent, sarcastic, and ostentatiously clever and supercilious.”  He also suffered from postwar trauma: alienation, misery, sudden fear and crying fits. 

Though I am fifteen years younger than Fussell, grew up in New York and came from a very different background, we had some surprisingly similar experiences in childhood and high school, at Harvard and as college professors.  I too had to recite meaningless bedtime prayers and submit to degrading enemas.  I was bored and impatient in school and skipped two grades when he skipped one.  I also did poorly in math and science, had great difficulty with Latin and took Spanish as the easiest foreign language.

Glad to escape the tedium of high school and get a head start in life, I didn

t mind being two years younger than my classmates and girlfriends, and held my own with them. 

Like Fussell in grad school at Harvard, I mastered Albert Baugh

s massive Literary History of England, and struggled with the Latin, required for the Ph.D.  He failed twice and barely passed it on the third try.  After I

d passed it, a senior professor returned from leave and unfairly failed me, and I had to waste more time doing it over again.  I agreed that the Harvard English faculty was snotty to grad students and that the teaching by many dullards was pretty poor.  The brilliant Harry Levin terrified the students; and I was astonished, when writing my life of Edmund Wilson thirty-five years later, to have Levin (dying of leukaemia) actually beg me to ignore Wilson

s harsh comments about him and conclude that they had been good friends.  Fussell writes,

Harvard was really no more demanding and exciting than the University of California.”  I thought California was superior and transferred to Berkeley after a year at Harvard.

My teaching experience at the University of Colorado was similar to Fussell

s at Rutgers University in New Jersey. 

Condemned to an atmosphere of insignificance and ineffectiveness,” he ridiculed his


preposterous theories” and raised his

eyebrows at their stupid remarks.”  He contradicts himself, unless he is being ironic, by noting

the twenty-eight years I

d spent happily teaching at Rutgers.”  I, too, left teaching to become a full-time writer (though Fussell returned to the security of academic life), and also wrote a book on my literary hero Samuel Johnson.  Even more attached to Europe than Fussell, I lived for four years in Britain and four years in Spain.

I exchanged complimentary letters with Fussell in 1976.  He and Randall Jarrell

s ex-wife had been colleagues at Connecticut College for Women.  When I interviewed him in 1980 about the poet, Fussell was condescending, dogmatic and arrogant.  He told me (and my wife was present to confirm this) that Jarrell was a heavy drinker.  I published this in

The Death of Randall Jarrell,” Virginia Quarterly Review (Summer 1982) and was attacked for this inaccuracy.  When I told Fussell that I was going to cite him as the source in my book Manic Power (1987), he falsely claimed in a letter of September 9,1987,

I never saw him either drunk or sober, and so far as I know he never visited Conn College.” 
—bitter about never getting a position at Princeton—was either drunk during our interview, forgot the truth about Jarrell or as a lark deliberately misled me.

II. Navy

Fussell and Frank Kermode (1919-2010) describe their early life, their experiences in war and their academic careers.  In childhood they were fat, unathletic and physically inept, advanced in school and one or two years younger than their classmates.  Both thought the war had destroyed their youthful innocence.  Neither felt comradeship in battle, both felt fear.  Fussell believed that men had only a limited amount of courage; Kermode, also sensing danger, noted,


s extraordinary how much, in a lifetime, the lucky can get away with, or the less lucky when in the shadow of the lucky.”  Like Fussell, Kermode thought the atomic bomb

saved our lives, and we were unethically pleased about this”.

They were distinguished professors and elegant stylists who stimulated their readers with many literary quotes and allusions.  Fussell was a critic; the more learned Kermode was also a scholar and wrote about Renaissance poets and the Greek New Testament.  Both had two wives and two children.  They were caustic about academic life, reached a wide audience as highbrow journalists, and earned enough money to leave teaching and become full-time writers.  In 1991 Kermode was knighted for his services to literature.

Not Entitled

(1995) describes Kermode

s lower-middle-class family on the Isle of Man.  His father, who

d been a private in the Great War, was a warehouseman, his mother a waitress.  In his teens Kermode sold magazines and collected tickets on ships that carried summer trippers across the Irish Sea from Liverpool.  A master of amusing and rueful self-deprecation, he was panic-stricken at the piercing sound of sirens and terrified to board a ship by climbing up a rope ladder from a wildly pitching cutter.  A

hopeless outsider, or non-belonger” (who later became an extremely effective insider), sometimes reckless and self-destructive, he confessed that he was

not the sort of person I should choose to know.”  Affable and apparently timid, he condemns himself by stating,

there is nothing intrepid in my character, no conscious love of risk, no physical courage.” 


s chapter

My Mad Captains” (alluding to

my sad captains” in Antony and Cleopatra) describes his unbalanced commanders, all incompetent and one illiterate.  The first fell down stairs and broke his legs; the second killed himself; the third, autocratic and selfish, was a compulsive thief who by grabbing and cheating managed to fill his entire cabin with food and drink sufficient for a thousand men.  After the war he deviously smuggled it all through English customs (though Kermode doesn

t reveal how) and made a considerable fortune. 

Kermode spent almost two years in Iceland and saw almost no action during the war.  His decrepit ship was supposed to lay an anti-submarine boom across the mouth of a great fjord and prevent German ships from penetrating the strategic port.  But the equipment was inadequate, the auxiliary craft inefficient, and fierce 130-knot gales shot down the coast and almost sunk their ship. 

Weeks and months might pass while we waited for new supplies from Scotland,” he recalled, ”and during these times we had almost nothing to do.”  He handed out conveniently numbered letters from home that followed the course of love from longing to desertion, and was depressed as

lightless winter followed nightless summer.”  Still, it was a lot better than life in submarines, tank turrets and prison camps.

His first naval action took place off the Atlantic coast of Gibraltar when his ship shot down a dangerously low-flying plane that turned out to be Canadian.  When transferred to an aircraft carrier and unheroically put in charge of stores, he saw many planes with high landing speeds break the arrester wire and twist into the sea.  The rest of his around-the-world career—so different from Fussell

s fixed and permanent danger—seemed meaningless and unreal.  After Reykjavik he drifted wildly to Liverpool, Algiers, New York and Portland Oregon; through the Panama Canal to Sheerness, Clyde and London; to Sydney and Hong Kong; and back to England via Ceylon, Karachi, Cairo and Malta. Finally, with frozen emotions and

petrified sensibility,” he was discharged in Manchester.


s peripatetic career in the navy was followed by a similar series of sudden moves in his academic and personal life.  He never felt at home on the Isle of Man, and didn

t belong in any other place after that.  He frequently felt, like D. H. Lawrence in Sea and Sardinia, that there

comes over one an absolute necessity to move.”  Restive,


in gamba,

he was never content to remain in one place and always too ready

to abandon one exile for another.”  He often taught in alien America, but felt he was abroad when home in England.  Silently quoting Yeats
’ “
A Prayer for My Daughter,” he sadly and wittily concludes,

it would have been helpful to seek holiness by staying in one dear perpetual place instead of being a sort of one-man diaspora.”  The scholar-gipsy

s academic perambulations, which read like Bradshaw

s railway timetable, jolted him through universities in Liverpool, Durham, Reading, Manchester, Bristol, London and Cambridge as well as Harvard, Columbia and Cal Tech.  Even when supposedly settled in London, he shifted about from Golders Green and Battersea to Hampstead, Dulwich and Regent

s Park. 

Kermode was as critical as Fussell about academic life.  His English departments were filled with the usual cadre of alcoholics and slackers, who resented his achievements and were vicious and malignant.  Only the brilliant and rebellious novelist and critic John Wain redeemed the faculty at Reading.  Though averse to contention, Kermode resigned as co-editor of Encounter when he belatedly discovered that it was secretly funded by the CIA.  When appointed to the exalted King Edward VII Professorship of English and became a fellow of King

s College, he bitterly alludes to St. Augustine and declares,

To Cambridge then I came, where a cauldron of unholy hates hissed all about me.”  Though hostile to the plague of French theory, which helped destroy the study of literature, he felt obliged to resign from Cambridge when the (unnamed) theorist Colin MacCabe was unfairly attacked and denied tenure.

Not Entitled
is a brilliant title.  In the navy it defined a sailor who accumulated so many punitive fines that he received no pay at all.  Applied to Kermode himself, it emphasises his humble background, which did not entitle him to a privileged life and to what he calls

his log-cabin-to-White-House” career.  He claims to be unqualified to play the part that he successfully played in the great world, that he was adept at

looking the part while not being quite equal to it.”  He concludes that he was, despite his impressive attainments,

a sort of nobody, yet a nobody with a title, with a carnival crown.”  His readers, of course, get the opposite impression.

Kermode sent five handwritten letters to me, addressed with increasing familiarity and respect, as Mr., Dr., Jeffrey, Prof. and Professor.  Characteristically sent from London University, Cambridge, Columbia and Cal Tech, they discussed D. H. Lawrence scholars and our works on Lawrence, and politely declined to contribute to my book of original essays on The Biographer

s Art

.  While

idling among the scientists in California,” he generously commented,



t idle.  I follow your career with astonishment.”

In his Tanner lecture at Berkeley in 2001 Kermode, just out of the hospital but as lively as ever, had a revealing public exchange with the Yale professor Geoffrey Hartman.  Kermode reminded him that when they first met, more than half a century ago, Hartman declared,


m a scholar; you

re only a critic.”  Hartman, who thought his white beard and German accent would let him  get away with it, denied making this comment.  Kermode harpooned him by insisting,


s the kind of remark you

d like to forget and I

ll always remember.”  After his lecture, when I reminded him of our previous meetings and asked him to sign twelve of his books, the tall Kermode, titling his head backward with a sign of recognition and identifying me with my biographical subject, said,

Ah, yes . . . Hemingway.”

Kermode notes that when he was in Iceland

fleets that steamed confidently into the unprotected harbour included those convoys which were to proceed, all too slowly, around North Cape [of Norway] to Murmansk.”  Like Kermode, Alan Ross (1922-2001) sailed in the Arctic Ocean around Iceland, where huge gale-driven waves threatened to swamp his ship, and had an officer who stole, smuggled and sold great quantities of naval stores.

Born in Calcutta, Ross spent his first privileged years in India, and recalls the redolent atmosphere of the Bengal Club:

leather, whisky, cigars, the cries of

Quoi Hai

[anyone there?] and the ricocheting of billiard balls.”  His father had served in the Middle East in the Great War and owned numerous coal mines in Bengal.  Ross, aged seven, was sent to prep school in Falmouth, and then to Haileybury, thirty miles north of London, where he was bullied by the older boys.  He sneaked away to watch tennis at Wimbledon, but was unluckily exposed when his photo appeared as part of the crowd in The Times. He was also beaten by a master and surprised by how much it hurt.  At St. John

s College, Oxford, he was a contemporary of Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and John Wain.  His memoir includes many of his poems and long passages on his lifelong passion for cricket; he could not decide if he had been a poetic aesthete or an athletic hearty.

In 1941, aged nineteen, Ross left Oxford and joined the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman.  The last half of Blindfold Games (1986), his metaphor for battle, describes his war.  Soon after enlisting he had a contretemps similar to the one at school.  On temporary sentry duty at the entrance to an airfield, he was supposed to be relieved at four o

clock and wanted to catch a train at five for an eagerly awaited romantic rendezvous in London.  When his replacement failed to appear, Ross left his post for two minutes and rang the Master-at-Arms from a call box across the road.  At that very moment a senior officer drove through the gate.  Ross got off lightly with fourteen days of drill and confinement, and was released in time to play cricket for the Navy at Lord


Ross then joined a destroyer convoy that escorted supply ships from Iceland to Murmansk in the northwest tip of Russia.  The fourteen ships carried 120 aircraft, 200 tanks, 2,000 trucks and 28,000  gallons of fuel.  Just before Ross met the convoy, 21 of the 34 ships that had already set out were sunk by German aircraft or U-boats.  Over a thousand ships went down in a single year and the chances of survival were slim.

In the most dramatic moment of his memoir Ross

ship is hit by enemy guns. Sealed in and completely alone below deck, he

s ordered to control the raging fire and prevent an explosion that would sink the ship.  Threatened by burning or drowning, he memorably writes:

I directed the hose in my hands towards the heat, a pathetically inadequate gesture in relation to the volume of sea swirling only yards away.  I was waist-deep in water and each time I moved I stumbled on one of the bodies that rolled like sodden hammocks beneath me.  Somewhere under my feet two whole gun crews, wiped out in their entirety, began to pile up with the increasing list of the ship.  Occasionally a face washed through the surface, all expression sponged away from the features. . . . At the mercy of a vastly superior German force, the chances of anyone checking to see whether a solitary ordinary seaman was still left alive were remote.

The cold was so intense that shells became iced over and stuck in the breeches of the guns.  The hair of the drowned men drifted like seaweed.  He felt as if he were in the ante-room of death.  As the Battle of the Barents Sea raged, an officer appeared like a ghost in the smoke and declared,

I think you

ve been in here long enough.  You

d better come out.”

The British victory had a tremendous impact.  The captain of the ship won a Victoria Cross for his superb handling of destroyers in action against heavier forces.  Hitler, outraged by the German failure, withdrew all his battleships and cruisers:

The German High Seas Fleet never sailed again.  Henceforth, it was to be a U-boat war.”


main job was to intercept and decipher German codes, and send their attack plans to British ships, which took evasive action and saved many lives.  After passing an officers

training course, he continued to do the same specialised job.  It was clear in 1944-45 that the Germans were going to lose the war, but they continued their hopeless fight and killed many British sailors who hoped to survive till the finish.  After the Germans finally surrendered in May 1945, Ross had the pleasurable duty of directing their naval captains to take their ships to British bases.

An expert in German, Ross was next posted to Buxtehude, near Hamburg in occupied Germany, where he interrogated specialist officers on technical aspects of their ships, and sought out Nazi war criminals.  Amid the postwar annihilation and distress, the wrecked cities and desperate people, Ross was surprised by the unregenerate reaction of the German officers:

Far from expressing remorse or feelings of guilt, they seemed merely to regret that their plans for domination had misfired and that they had been misled to the very last by their leaders.”

Ross wanted to become a writer and, released from the navy in October 1946, he decided not to return for his last two years at Oxford.  His memoir concludes with a concise account of his youthful selves and wonders, as he matured, what they all had in common:

The frail child wracked by undissolved fears and fevers who landed from India on a farm in Cornwall, the adolescent consumed by a passion for cricket, the undergraduate and the poetry-obsessed ordinary seaman, the twenty-three-year-old staff officer taking his first steps in a ravaged Europe.”

Alan Ross was my benefactor,

de haut en bas,

when I was living in London in 1972 and starting out as a writer.  I saw him only once when he took me to lunch.  We met in his office in Thurloe Place, and I noticed his expensive handmade shoes and photos of the racehorses he owned.  Tall and good-looking, he was married to a Fry

s Chocolate heiress who supported the

London Magazine,

which he edited from 1961 to 2001.  Alan wrote excellent poetry, autobiographies, travel books on Corsica and Sardinia, and many works on cricket.  There

s a lot about Alan, a great seducer of women, in Jeremy Lewis

life of Cyril Connolly.

When I sent him my essay on Roger Casement, he rejected it.  I asked why and he said he didn

t know anything about Casement.  I suggested he send it to a historian, the expert liked it and Alan published it.  This was a rare case of an editor admitting his limitations and changing his mind.  Alan published twenty-three of my essays, but didn

t send proofs and was pretty cavalier about errors.  When I pointed out that he

d carelessly said Andr
Malraux had died at age three, he replied,

No one will notice.”

Alan got my controversial essay on

D. H. Lawrence and Homosexuality”
into Stephen Spender

s prestigious collection of essays

D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, Poet, Prophet

(1973).  His London Magazine Editions also published my first two biographical books: A Fever at the Core: The Idealist in Politics (1976), which the Library of Congress mistakenly classified under Infectious Diseases; and Married to Genius (1977),which emphasised the importance of writers

wives and influenced feminist books on Zelda, Frieda, Vera and many others.

III. Air Force

Just before he sailed to Russia, Ross read Richard Hillary

s The Last Enemy (1942) and called it

the product of an essentially romantic temperament, a disfigured hero in love with death. . . . If Death wanted me, I thought, he was not likely to get many better chances” than on the Murmansk run.

Hillary (1919-43) doesn

t say that he was born in Australia and came to England when he was three years old.  His father had served in India and Mesopotamia in the Great War, and became a government official in the Sudan.  Hillary was educated at Shrewsbury School and Trinity College, Oxford.  Passionate about rowing, he was, like Ross, both hearty and aesthete.  He flew in the University Air Squadron and, unlike Fraser and Fussell fighting on the ground, could be romantic about aerial warfare.  Like the jousting of medieval knights,

it was individual combat between two people, in which one either kills or is killed.  It

s exciting, it

s individual and it

s disinterested. . . . To be up there alone, confident that the machine would answer the least touch on the controls, to be isolated, entirely responsible for one

s own return to earth—this was every man

s ambition.
”  In

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” Yeats imagines the pilot reflecting on the possibilities of his past and future, balancing his life with death, seeking glory and submitting to his predestined fate:

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

The title of The Last Enemy comes from I Corinthians 15:26:

The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” After death there is no enemy.  The title also means that Hillary, the last survivor of his original Oxford group, remained an enemy of Germany and also seemed destined to be destroyed by death.  The first two-thirds of his memoir describes Oxford, training and flying; the rest focuses on his crash and rescue, burns and treatment, hospitals and operations.

The German strategy in the Battle of Britain, in which Hillary fought, was to destroy the Royal Air Force by drawing it into combat with their supposedly superior Messerschmitts, clearing the way for their bombers to smash Britain into submission.  The RAF’s victory saved England from a German invasion.  Hillary begins with a dramatic account of his plane crash on September 3, 1940.  He casually mentions a small problem, which he had no time to fix and had disastrous effects: his new cockpit hood would not slide open along its groove and he would not be able to bale out in a hurry.  He also did not wear gloves or goggles that would have protected him when he was shot down by a German plane off the Kentish coast, and trapped and roasted in the blazing cockpit:

At that moment I felt a terrific explosion which knocked the control stick from my hand, and the whole machine quivered like a stricken animal.  In a second, the cockpit was a mass of flames: instinctively, I reached up to open the hood.  It would not move.  I tore off my straps and managed to force it back. . . . Then, for the first time, I noticed how burnt my hands were: down to the wrist, the skin was dead white and hung in shreds: I felt faintly sick from the smell of burnt flesh.  By closing one eye I could see my lips, jutting out like motor tyres. 

Hillary’s description is at once personal and remote.  The plane itself, as well as its pilot, is a

stricken animal.
”  His skin, like his moribund body, is

dead white.”  He

s not only burnt alive, but also nauseated by the odour of his own seared flesh.  He first compares the plane to a living thing, then compares his bloated lips to part of the plane. 

In The Fatal Englishman (1996), Sebastian Faulks adds:

His oxygen cylinder was on fire and there were flames inside his mask.  The heat was so strong that he fainted.  The pilotless plane went into a spin and, by some chance of gravity, chucked him out of the half-open hood.”  Hillary notices his burns and thinks he

s gone blind; certain that he

s going to die, he experiences a terrible loneliness.  He tries to drown himself, but his parachute keeps him afloat.  Rescued by a Margate lifeboat, he thaws out, feels the pain of his scorched face and hands, and wants to cry out in hopeless agony.

After his account of the crash, Hillary turns back in time to recollections of Oxford and flight training.  He describes the wicked simplicity of his single-seat Spitfire, as well as its limited visibility and the danger of landing at high speed.  As the German raiders cross the North Sea from Norway, he feels invulnerable.  He

s thrilled by his first kill and hits an enemy plane that spins out of sight in a jet of red flame.  Exalted by the delirium of the brave, he explains,

the fighter pilot

s emotions are those of the duellist—cool, precise, impersonal.  He is privileged to kill well.”  After surviving the dogfight, he

s nearly killed on the ground.  He refuses a lift in a lorry, which is immediately destroyed by a bomb.

His friend Arthur Koestler writes in The Yogi and the Commissar (1945) that Hillary

s burns were first treated in

the horror-cabinet of plastic surgery in the hospital, where noses grow from foreheads, grafted white lips are painted red with mercurochrome, grafted eyelids which have not taken are torn off again and thrown into the bucket.”  Hillary was unable to close his eyes, and to prevent blindness he needed four new eyelids grafted from the skin on his arm.  After the operation the doctor decisively declared, with menacing understatement,

Next war for you: those hands are going to be something of a problem.”

Hillary was sliced up in many gruesome operations, some of which failed, and he suffered a slow and painful convalescence.  His body was swathed in bandages and his permanently clawed hands were frozen on his chest.  His eyes were painted with gentian violet, and his face and hands covered with black tannic acid, which turned into a crust and had to be cut off.  To hide his hideous scars and disfigurement, his face was draped with white gauze, with slits for the eyes and lips.  He resembled a mummy floating in a sea of pain and prepared for burial.

While he was trembling between morphine and delirium, his hospital was bombed and one shell remained dangerously unexploded.  At the end of his agonising series of operations, he found he was worse than ever and bitterly writes,

I had come into the hospital with two scars on my upper lip: now I had a lip that was pox-ridden and [a mastoid] ear with enough infection in it to kill a regiment.  There was only one thing to be said for the British medical profession: it started where the


left off.”  Hillary became the model for the horribly burned hero of Michael Ondaatje

s The English Patient (1992).

Hillary notes that

the worst-burned pilot in the Air Force

to live

, who had been trapped inside and fried for several minutes before they dragged him out,” provided some useful perspective on his less extreme case.  He

s embarrassed by the misplaced pity of well-intentioned comforters, and is moved by a dying woman, pulled out of a bombed house, whose last bitter words are,

I see they got you too.” 

The only real consolation comes from Denise, the attractive, idealised
e of his dead best friend, to whom he dedicated his memoir.  The grieving Denise feels dead and wants to die, and he tries to coax her back to life. 

She had an inner beauty,” he rapturously exclaims,

a serenity which no listing of features can convey.  She had a perfection of carriage and a grace of movement,” and he seems to fall in love with her. 

Following his last eyelid operation he moves from blindness to sight and tries to fight his way back to life.  But, once exceptionally handsome, he doesn

t want to live while mentally tortured, physically crippled and permanently disfigured, and finally succumbs to his death wish.  The memoir ends with his hopeless assertion,

I saw the months ahead of me, hospital, hospital, hospital, operation after operation, and I was in despair.”


The Last Enemy

was published and praised, Hillary, though clearly not fit to fly, rushed to his predestined tragedy. 

His hands,”
Koestler states,
“which looked like bird-like claws and held knife and fork like chop-sticks, had not enough strength to work the brakes of the heavy twin-engined craft.”  His new lids did not protect his eyes and he suffered extreme headaches.  Instead of stating that they could not afford to lose more planes or the navigator who depended on Hillary to keep him alive, the RAF allowed him to fly and join his dead comrades.  Ignoring the doctor

s strong warning, Hillary

s last commander, sorry about his sacrificial wounds, felt obliged to give in to his mad demands and accept him for training as a night-fighter pilot.  Hillary didn

t die in his first crash, but kept death on hold and waited for an even less auspicious occasion to complete his suicidal mission.  On January 7, 1943, unable to respond to an emergency, he lost control while circling in a cloud, smashed into the ground near Berwick, Scotland, and was completely annihilated.

Koestler declared that The Last Enemy

has all the qualities of first-rate reportage”: precision, vividness, brilliance, economy and excitement.  In The Soldier

s Tale

(1997), the war pilot Samuel Hynes concluded that Hillary

s memoir is

about learning to fly and the joy of mastering a difficult, beautiful skill, about the comradeship of young men. . . . The will to survive great injury and pain is a long act of courage, as great as courage in battle, and the story of his wounds is the heart of his story. . . . Its cruel irony contrasts the expectations of the beautiful youth who flew so romantically into combat  with the things war did to him.”

Hynes (1924-2019) was born in Chicago, grew up in Minneapolis and completed a year at the University of Minnesota.  Still in his teens when he enlisted in March 1943, he served in the Marine torpedo-bombing squadron, survived 78 aerial missions in the Caroline Islands and Okinawa, won the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism in combat and reached the rank of major.  Recalled to military service in 1952-53, he flew more combat missions during the Korean War.  He later taught at Swarthmore, Northwestern and Princeton, and became a distinguished critic.

His reticent, inarticulate father worked in a Chicago factory that made military machines, and Hynes calls himself a provincial and puritanical Midwesterner.  The other memoir-writers hoped to survive till the end of the war; Hynes hoped to fight before the war ended.  He adopts Christopher Isherwood

s idea of The Test of courage, which he must repeatedly face and pass, and applies it to several aspects of his personal and military life: the Test of sex and marriage, of training and flying planes, of expertise and combat in the real war.

Training took Hynes to naval air bases all around America: to Dallas and Denton, Texas, Athens, Georgia and Memphis, Pensacola, Florida and San Diego.  Flights of Passage (1988) recounts his extensive two-year training in instruments, navigation, diving, gunnery, bombing, aerial torpedoes and night-flying.  Inexperience, bad luck, bad weather and faulty planes caused frequent accidents, and in Florida in 1944 one dive-bomber pilot died every day.

Hynes had to make two crucial choices.  Did he want to fly with the Navy or with the Marines?  What kind of planes did he want to fly?  He chose the

tough, romantic and elitist Marines,” who usually got into combat.  But the Marines, unlike Hynes, were pretty crude and uneducated.  He carried War and Peace through the war but rarely read it. Instead, he spent most of his free time at drunken parties: singing, fighting and whoring.  He passed his first sexual Test by performing with a disappointing whore, but got more fun from flying.  He was surprised, when at war and away from women for a year, that he felt no sexual urge and thought

sex is a form of aggression like war, and that one form drives out the other.”  He didn

t see himself as a heroic killer and fighter pilot. Hynes decided that was one Test he didn

t have to take and chose the less glamorous dive-bombers.

Finally, in February 1945, his squadron was sent on a slow Liberty ship to the South Pacific.  In Pearl Harbor he saw

the superstructures of the sunken ships still thrust up out of the water, with their trapped dead below.”  This 

memento mori

contrasted with the heroic portrayals of war in romantic novels and movies.  They lured na
ve men into battle, but their glamour was demolished when he witnessed the reality of war and the endless series of horrible deaths.  He recalls seeing Wings and For Whom the Bell Tolls, To Have and Have Not and


, and emphasises

the influence of Gary Cooper and Bogart on American military procedures.”  Celebrity officers appeared to enhance the illusion: the baseball star Ted Williams; the film star Tyrone Power making a precarious landing; the greatest fighter ace, like a knight in some old poem, Pappy Boyington, awarded the Medal of Honor.  Flickering images of pilots


came back like film clips,” and outdoor movies, shown at night, were interrupted by enemy bombs and resumed when the raids were over.  Rumour had it that Japanese snipers sneaked out of their caves to watch the Yanks defeat them on screen.

Though Hynes tells the story in the guise of his young self, his professorial voice occasionally appears with literary allusions that alert the reader and enliven the text.  He compares being washed out of flight school to being cast into

outer darkness
” in Matthew 22:13; Ezra Pound


Petals on a wet, black bough” becomes

like flowers against the dark, wet earth.”  The title of Hemingway

s story is folded into

it was the end of something that had been good”; and he echoes Hemingway

s suggestive style:

By then it was evening, and the hangar cast a long shadow across the landing mat, and the water of the lagoon was dark.”

emphasises the excitement of danger, the reckless exploits and the fear of capture when (in the last quarter of the book) he finally goes into combat.  He wonders

what it would be like, flying from a Pacific island, diving on a real target, being shot at, shooting back?  It wasn

t exactly fear that I felt, not fear of any specific thing, not death or wounds or even being a coward; it was vaguer than that, an emptiness at the centre, a void, a drawn breath in a dark room.”  He goes on anti-submarine patrols to protect ships in the harbours, and (comparing it with sex) is harmlessly hit by enemy fire:

Not as dramatic as losing your virginity, not even like a first drink; just four or five holes the size of quarters in the smooth dark metal.” 

In 1945 he spent six months on Okinawa, an island south of and part of Japan.  (Twenty years later I spent four months there and recognised his description of the night soil and burial tombs, the peaceful north away from the military, the capital Naha replete with whores, the take-offs at Kadena air base, and planes insecurely grounded and wrecked by a 150-knot typhoon.)  The Hairy Ainus he expected to find on Okinawa were actually bearded indigenous people on the northern island of Hokkaido. 

Hynes is admirably honest about his own failures and accidents.  He mistakenly led his men into a restricted area for anti-aircraft crews, which provoked his friend

s down-home remark,


t everybody can lead a flight into combat in Southern California.”  He recalls that

taxiing from another flight, I followed a linesman

s signals, swung my plane around to park it in front of the hangar, and ran the tail into the hangar door.” 

In his first plane wreck, his description is complete with sound effects and the mournful “ow” sound of blowing, power, lowered, and tower:

I touched down—not with a bounce and a roll, but with a screaming, scraping cry of anguished metal that ended suddenly as the plane stopped.  Then there was only the horn blowing, and the siren of the crash-truck approaching.  I had landed wheels-up.  The horn I had heard was the warning horn, which blew if you cut off power before you lowered your wheels, the lights were signal lights from the tower, the radio hysterics had all been for me.  But I had simply concentrated them all out of my consciousness, and I had wrecked my first plane.

He wrecked his second plane when the brakes failed on the landing, he hit a palm-tree log at the far edge of the runway and tore his tail.  The third time he tried a risky ascent to show off to the more dashing fighter pilots.  Instead, the wheels folded into the wings, the power dropped and he was no longer airborne.  He confesses with bitter irony:

The plane touched the runway with a scream of offended metal, a blade of the propeller broke away and skittered across the runway, and we skidded to a stop, one wing down, in a cloud of dust.  I sat in the cockpit, helpless with misery.  I had busted another one.  At this rate, I thought, I

ll be a Japanese ace before the war is over.”  The only time he suffered a war wound was when his jeep crashed into a heavy landing craft and bloodied his forehead.  He was lucky, every time, to escape serious injury and severe punishment.

He did, however, witness a spectacular but strangely quiet mid-air crash of two American aircraft.  One plane fell cinematically and almost sexually to disaster.  When a pilot

s parachute failed to open he also dived balletically into the sea:

There was no noise, no explosion or any of the accompaniments of violence; they simply seemed to enter each other for a moment, and to emerge broken.  One plane dropped gently into a shallow dive, and flew at that exact and careful angle into the sea; as it dove, a figure fell free, and a parachute whipped out behind it, but the chute did not open, and the figure dropped with the chute lines streaming into the shallows of the bay.

These episodes were a tremendous contrast  to the boring postwar patrols when nobody ever saw anything.  He recalls,

I took my mail and a cigar with me, and I would put the plane on automatic pilot, and tune the radio to Shanghai while I read and smoked.”

The atomic bomb saved Hynes—as it had saved Fraser, Fussell and Kermode—from possible death at the very end of the war as the Japanese desperately defended their homeland in an endless series of suicidal attacks.  But his squadron did have the satisfaction of bombing Kyushu at the southern edge of the Japanese mainland.


dominant theme, like Wilfred Owen

s, is

War, and the pity of War” in the tormented mid-twentieth century.  He portrays flight training, intense camaraderie, romantic liaisons, tedium and exhilaration, the fear and thrill of combat, the ecstasy of flying and the death of close friends.  His memoir matches the best book on the Korean conflict,

Burning the Days

(1991), by the fighter pilot and novelist James Salter.

Hynes passed his rented Hampstead flat on to me when I had a Guggenheim year in London, and warned me that I would not finish my biography of Wyndham Lewis because I

d hate him too much.  Inspired by his admonition I felt challenged to complete the book.  Hynes wrote five letters to me.  He thanked me for articles I

d sent him on Hemingway and Lewis.  I

d interviewed Rebecca West for my life of Lewis, and Hynes gave me excellent advice about the possibility of writing her biography.  He responded to my letter about his book

The Soldiers’


and suggested to Stanford that I write about Ian Watt

s prisoner-of-war memoirs in their tribute to him.  Hynes would have liked to see my life of Ted Roethke, and was pleased that I wanted a copy of his early book on Thomas Hardy.  In 1997 he concluded, five years after I

d left university teaching,

Good luck with your pursuit of support.  It

s a bad time to be a free-lance writer.”  Hynes was a fierce warrior, as well as a kind, humane and gentle man.

The memoir-writers and most of their fathers fought in world wars.  The sons were still in their teens when they began to serve, and could say with Walt Whitman:

I was the man, I suffered, I was there.”  The need to remember and record, if not to redeem war, began with Homer and is one of the essential subjects of the human imagination.  Five of these six men survived the war, and all felt obliged to testify and pay tribute to their dead comrades.  Their skilful, truthful memoirs not only provide vivid glimpses of fighting, but also show how these experiences shaped their lives and characters.  They recognise that combat results from a primal instinct in man — an insight of which younger generations may need reminding just now. As Hynes learned,

war is not an occasional interruption of a normality called peace; it is a climate in which we live.” 

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