A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 17: The war starts

Chapter 17: The war starts

Author: Alistair Knox

The latest German attack began with massive tank and dive-bomber spearheads, and the result was immediate and fearful. Holland, Belgium, and the Low Countries were conquered, in essence, in a matter of days. Resistance points were bypassed and cleared up later. The retreating populations which jammed the roads hampered any Allied resistance. The Allies had no understanding of this new mobile warfare. It quickly became apparent that the Maginot Line would be the only worthwhile resistance against the highly-skilled mobile German attack. The daily maps in the press showed Nazi spearheads, pointed towards the Channel and Paris, growing bigger and more menacing all the time.

Neville Chamberlain Neville Chamberlain

The 'real' war started immediately Chamberlain resigned and Churchill replaced him as prime minister. The Tory Peace party was finally seen for what it was on in deadly earnest. It had, however, only recently been understood that the Maginot Line did not extend to the coast but - for some inexplicable lack of understanding of the nature of modern warfare - stopped at the Belgian border. It dawned on us that it would be bypassed. In horror we watched Hitler as he struck both south towards Paris and west towards England, almost at will. He chose to attack Paris first, then proposing to deal with the undefended British without interception. The next wave of disbelief came when Paris was declared an open city, which saw the Nazi War juggernaut trundle down the Boulevards to the Champs Elysees in triumph. An Armistice was signed soon afterwards in the same carriage the Allies had used for the German Surrender in 1918. The Vichy puppet government was set up at Versailles under the eighty-four-year-old First World War General Petain. There had been some talk of Britain and France becoming a force under a single command, but the result proved as futile as all the other attempts at such international solidarity had been.

Dunkirk Dunkirk where 338,226 British and French soldiers were evacuated in nine days

The slight delay that the Paris diversion permitted did, however, give the British a little respite, which enabled them to retreat towards the coastal town of Dunkirk in some sort of order. It may well have been the factor that prevented England having to sue for peace at that time. A miraculous mist that came down over the Channel for five critical days allowed nearly ninety percent of the trapped Army to be ferried across the Channel by a vast mosquito fleet of ferries, pleasure boats, and the like, but all their guns and ammunition stayed in Europe. There were press photographs of crack troops standing in the sand and then walking into the water up to their shoulders with their rifles above their heads, waiting to be taken back to the island they had left some months earlier. There were national prayers for deliverance, but few plans for the future. It was Churchill's finest hour. With words alone he rallied not only Britain but the whole Free World from its despair. His speeches about fighting on the beaches and in the streets and blood were products of the mind, rather than the hard facts of staying alive. But they ultimately proved that the pen was mightier than the sword. Even in Australia, twelve thousand miles from the scene of action, we felt we were right in it all and that in the end we would win. It was the greatest morale-maker, in the midst of the greatest disaster the whole world has known at one time. The United States was rapidly and inevitably realising that she could not remain in isolated security. With considerable political skill, Roosevelt set about releasing materiel and other war equipment to the Allies, including fifty superseded First World War destroyers under the Lend-Lease proposals; these vessels kept the sea lanes open and thus prepared for the long, long journey back. Britain became an island fortress separated by twenty miles from the European mainland, and in our heart of hearts we remained doubtful that this barrier could be effective against the enemy. We comforted ourselves by thinking of how it had once stopped Napoleon - but that had been a long time ago.

It was obvious that the enormous German Air Force under Field Marshall Goering would soon begin saturation daylight bombing and that its overwhelming superiority could bring hostilities to an end in a week or so. There was nothing for us to do but wait and hope. I was still at the Clifton Hill office and had suddenly been promoted from junior to senior clerk within a couple of dizzy months. One day our senior clerk visited his doctor, and we received a medical certificate stating that he had contracted TB and would not be back for an indefinite period. I became the assistant teller, a task I did not much like, because 'when on the counter' I was forced to play with my own money, and it was quite possible to mis-count a pound or a fiver at any time and have to make it good from my own resources. My major asset was my memory. When I occasionally balanced up short or over, I found that by going over things in my mind in a kind of trance, I could somehow remember what had occurred. I don't think I ever lost any sum over a shilling or two, whereas infinitely superior tellers would balance without trouble day after day for six months and then unaccountably lose a fiver cold.

RAF fighter pilots go into battle in 1940 during the Battle of Britain RAF fighter pilots go into battle in 1940 during the Battle of Britain

The Battle for Britain started, in an exploratory manner, after the defeat of France. There were roughly equal losses on both sides at first, but they were not numerically significant. The Empire Air Scheme was training pilots in both Canada and England, and there were nine modern Hurricane fighters available for defence. At the beginning of the real hassle, the expected supply of Spitfire fighters began to arrive. But there were still more men than aircraft to carry them at that critical moment, and it was an extraordinary experience to leave the office and pick up an early copy of the evening paper in order to find out the number of enemy destroyed - and whether he would still be fighting the next day. We realised that civilisation as we knew it was in the hands of a few thousand young men from Britain, the colonies, the Free French, the Poles, and all those pockets of resistance that had escaped the Nazi net. Stories of losses and wins - possible and probable - were all set out in detail. It was a bit like a game of cricket in a three-way contest. German bombers and fighters were being met by Allied fighters, whose numerical strength was rising at about the same rate as they were being destroyed in combat. A significant fact started to emerge: although hopelessly outnumbered, the Allies and their strategists seemed to know where the flocks of Red Raiders were coming from, and something about their height and numbers. Later we learned this was due to the new technical advancement called RADAR. The German planes were also generally bombers and somewhat slower than our fighters, but they felt their overwhelming numerical superiority would rapidly reduce our resistance.

Each day, the tempo rose. There were dogfights going on all over the skies of southern England, and invasion by air and sea were our daily expectation. Then came the great final day when there were almost two hundred 'certain' German planes shot down, in addition to well over one hundred 'probables'. Still, the defenders held out until late that afternoon when, to everyone's disbelief, the next wave of raiders failed to appear through the setting sun. There simply were no more remaining which could have been airborne in time to fight. The daylight battle had been won, and for the first time the free world could stop and begin to count its losses. Half a century later, it still is not possible to fully comprehend how it happened. The sea still formed a formidable barrier, and there were limits to the deployment of forces in a field of battle even if the front were several hundred miles long. But neither any nor all of these factors would account for the results. There is a destiny, which they fail to understand or acknowledge, that transcends men's aims and hopes in global conflicts. It surpasses reason, logic, understanding, and power. It is the simple fact that in the final event there is a Creative force at work which says 'thus far - and no further'. On the last day of the battle, Churchill and Field Marshall Dowding had stood in the underground strategy dugout watching the aircraft being moved across the board. It was essential that only one third of the fighting force be in the air simultaneously, so that refuelling and maintenance could continue. Late in the afternoon, Churchill asked Dowding how many reserves he had. 'None', came the answer; and that was the precise moment at which the Germans were unable to muster further planes. Over the course of hostilities, there were several other such equally inexplicable crises. Many years later I discovered the only real reason behind the fact that though we had lost the war on several occasions, the enemy had been unable to consummate a victory at any of those times.

There was a small group of prayer-empowered men in England who believed that only Divine intervention could prevent the twilight of the world; they spent all of their time in prayer to a Creator who intervenes in the affairs of men. When great crises arose they continued, without ceasing, twenty-four hours a day - until it was over. The author of a book Rhys Howell's Intercessor one of this group is by far the most likely explanation of the outcome of these momentous times. No matter how much Hitler fumed, Goering snarled, or Goebbels sneered, they could not alter what the final result would be despite all their preparation, insight, or power. And there were at least four occasions when, although there was no further viable resistance to their attacks, they were still unable to gain the vital decision. One occurred in North Africa when Rommel's all-conquering Panzers swept westward and arrived within fifty miles of Alexandria, the key to the Suez Canal. Had they succeeded at this point, the whole war strategy would have to have changed - with awful and probably terminal results. Desert warfare was extremely mobile, and advancing troops had to survive on whatever the retreating troops left behind. What must have preoccupied the defenders' thoughts as the men spread out in thin lines across the hot Egyptian landscape is not recorded, but the fact that their fears did not materialise certainly is. As the lines of dust began to reveal the shapes of deadly tanks, there would have been left very little hope of comfort or of survival. Then all of a sudden the tanks halted and they opened, and out sprang the indomitable crews, with their hands raised in surrender. In due course they were captured, and the near-certain defeat was averted by default. Their explanation was as unexpected as it was real. A new water supply plant was being prepared for Alexandria and had been completed a day or so before. As a final test, it had been filled with salt water so that there would be no loss of potable water should it malfunction. The oncoming Panzer forces had seen the water pipes lying on the surface and, being short of water, had shot holes in the pipelines and advanced thirstily to obtain water supplies. Twenty-four hours later the salt water was driving them mad with thirst, and they were taken without a fight.

There were so many actions of all kinds - in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, on the high seas, and in the Mediterranean - going on simultaneously that one could only stand back, watch, and be glad to be living in the opposite hemisphere. Looking back forty-four years makes it confusing in total - but absolutely clear in individual campaigns such as Greece and Crete, where Australians fought, without proper air support or supplies, for utterly unattainable objectives.

Our 'home' front attended to daily tasks in the usual manner. We caught the same trains and buses and studied the same newspaper reports. There were daily accounts that Hitler was gathering a huge invasion fleet along the Channel port despite the incursions the Allied bombing had carried out. There were two or three occasions when the actions of invasion fleets filled us with apprehension. It was being reported that Britain's first defence would be to set the Channel on fire with oil, and that this had actually happened on more than one occasion. At that time we could never ascertain whether this was so or not. Yet as the crisis days continued, we had still managed to live on.

Volunteer Defence Force guerilla training Volunteer Defence Force guerilla training

I joined the VDC (Volunteer Defence Corps) - which was initiated at that time - with Angus McLennan, my sister's second husband. The VDC had the hallmarks of frustration, courage, and discipline we came to appreciate in the much-repeated TV series Dad's Army. It was all infinitely more remote, of course - being twelve thousand miles further away from the English Channel and the swastika-sporting fiends that the local bank manager Captain Mainwaring had had to outwit - but in its own way, it was nearly as good. Best of all, it was very serious in all its decisions, and it scrupulously studied every possible outcome which might ensue from those decisions. There was an upper echelon of First World War men - most of whom had never quite made the action - along with a few 'Do Gooders' who were still regretting they had been confronted, by a strange quirk of Divine providence, with being unable to lay their life on the line for King and Country. The 'vintage wine' was the group that had been through it all and had come back home to live in suburbia; they still retained their wonderful outback wit, which they passed on from man to man without moving their upper lips. We were supplied with uniforms, but were not issued toy guns to drill with because ours was as much a medical unit as a front-line fighting force.

On some Saturdays we trained out at Banyule, further up the Yarra Valley, which was then devoid of buildings except for the Banyule homestead and Bartam's barns and silos. On one suspicious occasion, we joined in a large-scale exercise to seek and destroy the enemy in the western plains near Sunshine. I remember getting very hungry as our unit, which was under the command of a couple of between-war sergeants, sent us off on various missions to apprehend the invaders; we were unsuccessful. I surreptitiously kept eating my Strasberg Sausage sandwiches ahead of time, all the while enjoying the sweet scent of the long grass as it mingled with the gentle dust our feet raised. The enemy never materialised. There was a report or two that 'they' were somewhere over to the right, but it was all too invisible for me to see. Then came the order to return home, and we set off no wiser than we had come. But it was touted as a 'great' exercise. The gravity of my personal situation did not register itself until we were all back in the train: where we were told that our unit had all been reported killed earlier in the afternoon. Some are born brave, and others have bravery thrust upon them.

Australia's remoteness from Europe never seemed to alter our belief in our destiny and I believe that had the situation demanded it, every VDC private would have given his life for his country, even if only with his broomstick gun in one hand and his thrice-wound practice bandages in the other. We escaped most of the food shortages that were so serious in Europe, but we did have our queues. We joined them if they weren't too long, hoping to be able to buy a Violet Crumble or a Polly Waffle for our efforts. Our souls longed for those vanished sweetmeats, but still I was surprised when Mernda came home one day to tell me that she had joined a queue for five minutes: she wanted chewing gum.

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