INTO THE BLITZ
AN ADDRESS BY
WILLIAM STRANGE Lieutenant-Commander, R.C.N.V.R.
Chairman: The President, Mr. C. R. Sanderson.
Thursday, December 11, 1941
MR. C. R. SANDERSON: Gentlemen of The Empire Club: During these last few days still more places have been temporarily rubbed off the map because they have been standing in the way of a treacherous redrawing, or attempted redrawing, of the pattern of the world according to one man's diabolical desire. The Far Eastern situation is at present in the forefront of our minds. It is, therefore, most opportune that today we should have the privilege of listening to William Strange, in person. Not only has he recently been to England and, as we all know, has just written his latest book Into the Blitz (the royalties of which he is giving to the men of the Merchant Service), but also, a year or two ago, he made a special study of the Far East. He published his conclusions in a book which he called Canada, The Pacific, and The War. And at this moment, when our eyes are so definitely focussed on the East, we are particularly happy to welcome as our speaker--William Strange. (Applause.)
MR. WILLIAM STRANGE: Mr. President and Gentlemen of The Empire Club: No man or woman speaking before any gathering large or small at this time can possibly afford to disregard the gravity of the news that we have been receiving in these past days. On the strength American and Canadian coasts. That was clear, I think, to almost everybody, even when it was believed that the French Navy would look after the Mediterranean and that the British would have much greater naval forces than they now have to deal with Japan, forces not diminished in any way by loss or by the necessity to deal with an Atlantic situation made more acute by the possession of the French bases by the Germans. And, too, at that time we had not expected that the Atlantic situation would be such that a large proportion of the United States navy might have to take on work in the Atlantic. But, even ruling out those possibilities which have since, unfortunately, become certainties, we did not minimize or overlook the possibility that there would be raids on the western coast of this continent.
One might, if one wished, consider, on the other hand, the great risk involved for the Japanese in sending aircraft carriers, of which they have only a strictly limited number, all the way across the Pacific to knock down houses and perhaps damage one or two factories in Vancouver or Seattle or San Francisco. That would, to normal people, appear to be a risk disproportionate to the advantages to be gained. But the Japanese are not normal people; they are savage people with a very different outlook, not only upon the value of human life but also upon methods of warfare, from the outlook that we possess, and I think, therefore, that we shall be very wise to take most definitely into account the fact that such raids are possible.
I think that we have to remember, as we failed to remember in the earlier part of the struggle against the sorry senior partner in this horrible conspiracy, that we are dealing with people who have no scruples and whose thirst for blood is apparently insatiable, people who are prepared to go to any length in order to spread death and destruction in their flaming path.
It is perfectly obvious to me that the words "into the blitz" have ceased to have, from my point of view, any kind of personal flavour: this whole continent is likely to be into a similar kind of blitz at any time from now on. But let us take some comfort from these facts. Such "blitzes" as our Western Pacific coastal towns may possibly receive are hound to be limited, unless, of course, the enemy has something up his sleeve of which we have no present knowledge. An aircraft carrier is a vulnerable ship and it carries only a limited number of planes. It cannot carry a bomber capable of travelling great distances. It is capable, certainly, of staging a hit-and-run raid whose consequences would be noticeable to the inhabitants of the area raided, but, lest there be any unreasoning fear in the hearts of any people who have awakened suddenly to the fact that we are at war and that the war is real, it may be useful to hazard the opinion that, even if the balance of the naval power in the Pacific has been seriously disturbed, the Japanese are not capable of inflicting serious long-term damage to the war effort of the North American democracies.
From what we hear, the cities under threat are going to have to pull their socks up in such matters as blackouts and so on, just as the British had to pull their socks up when the threat first came to them. They may have to learn the strenuous and very active wartime job of the A.R.P., and they may have to learn it in the school of bitter and bloody experience, but in that they surely will not fail. They have before them an example of what can be done in the way of carrying on under circumstances which seem to be in many ways impossible, which will inspire them, as it has inspired the whole world, to new standards of heroism, new standards of endurance, and new determination to see that the world will finally be so ordered that these outrages, this criminal behaviour, can never be repeated.
Gentlemen, I am not here to pose as an expert on the craft of war-making; neither would I wish the rather distant publication of an insignificant book, most of whose contents have been made irrelevant by subsequent events, to establish me in your minds as an expert on Pacific affairs. I have said what I have said merely because this is necessarily a time when the publication of our unexpected and grievous losses must tend to cause a certain feeling akin to dismay among many. At such time it is essential that steadying facts should be placed before the public wherever it is possible.
I would like to turn the spotlight now to Britain, to that land of what have been described as "the finest hour people", because I believe, by doing that, I can more clearly illuminate the perhaps rather small consolation that I have been attempting to give. It is possible that the Japanese air power is somewhat greater than we had expected. I do not say it is so: I merely say it is possible that it is so. Even at that, however, no man in his right mind could assume, for one moment, that it had even one-quarter of the striking power of what the Germans had at the commencement of that great series of air battles which has now come to be known as "The Battle of Britain". We may take great courage from the fact that the strongest air force in the world has battered at one small island fnr many months, but has failed to make it impossible for British aircraft factories to send Hurricanes to break the villainous intrusion of the Germans and their Italian batmen into Africa; has failed to prevent British munitions factories from making shells, or from sending tanks to Russia where they are being used to such excellent purpose; and has failed to prevent the British from sending Stirling bombers to Berlin, to send the war back in no uncertain fashion to that infamous country from which it came.
You see, if you have been, even though very briefly, into the real blitz, you come back with some ideas in your head which you did not have before. It may be rather wicked of me to say this, but I have felt, since I came back this summer, a sort of only partially suppressed indignation at certain--shall I say?--deficiencies in our attitude in this country towards the war; and, along with others, I have said, from time to time, that the need for the good five cent cigar is past; that what we really need is a good fifty-dollar bomb.
Well, it seems now that there may be in Japanese currency, for whatever that may now be worth, the equivalent of a fifty-dollar bomb dropped on North American soil one of these nights, and I have the feeling that the reverberations have already been felt in advance. People are going about, I notice, with a slightly worried look on their faces, born of a new realization that war is not a football game, that war is not a radio programme, that war is not even "Carry On, Canada". War is GO OUT AND FIGHT! AND DON'T EXPECT SOMEONE ELSE TO GO AND DO THE FIGHTING FOR YOU!
Over these past months, Gentlemen, I have, in a rather humble way, been stumping small tracts of this country, and blasting the ears of listeners from behind the micro phone, in an endeavour to beat these facts into that form of so-called intelligence which pastes a victory "V" on its windshield and then goes for a hundred-mile gasoline-consuming drive into the country. And all of a sudden, on a Sunday afternoon spent by the teeming millions of this continent not in the factories, nor in the A.R.P. stations or auxiliary fire service stations, nor on the coasts on watch for the invader, nor out amid the biting winds of a submarine-infested ocean, but in the almost completely normal calm of homes that most certainly still will be there in the morning,--all of a sudden, into the measured quietitude of this Sunday afternoon, there comes a little yapping voice, saying, "Very sorry, please, but it is time to wake up".
I do firmly believe that it can now be taken that the general public must at last be awake to those dangers of which statesmen and politicians and writers and speakers have so long been warning. The dangers are at last close enough that people, if ever they are to know that they are real, must know it now. These things being so, perhaps it will be well for us to consider how these dangers have been met and met successfully by others.
I believe that the great opportunity that has now come to the United States and Canada to show, as Shakespeare once expressed it, in the words of Henry V, the "mettle of our pasture", has been made possible only by the incredible devotion to duty of four most heroic fighting forces: the Navy, the Army, the Air Force, and the civilian population of Britain. (Applause.) All of these have sustained heavy losses. None of them expects for one moment that the victory will be achieved without great increase in those losses. And losses, Gentlemen, are not merely figures; they are not only ships and planes and tanks and guns and houses and factories and the rest-they are human lives. There is not one man, woman, or child, in Britain today, who may not tomorrow become a casualty. There is indeed not one man, woman, or child, who is not prepared to become a casualty, for the very simple reason that they realize, from bitter and bloody experience, that wars are not won without loss of human life, nor by people who are not prepared to give their lives, if necessary, for some thing which they hold clearer than life itself. (Applause.) The real reason for my brief excursion into the blitz (for, when I was there, there was plenty of blitzing going on) was that I, in my capacity as a writer, would be able to create accurate word pictures of the disturbing truth and, also, of the magnificent and inspirational happenings which form the living pattern of Britain in this war.
I would like on this occasion, if I may, to express my profound gratitude to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for having made it possible for me, at any rate, to attempt that task. I rather have the feeling, as I said at the beginning of this address, that a report of my own personal experience must be somewhat irrelevant. I am sure you gentlemen must have heard many recitations of personal experience, and you must have read very many more, but I would like to tell you something of just one experience that I shared with the several million men and women of London who have not been driven from their wartime job of "carrying on" by the thunder and the lightning of the Luftwaffe.
This is, in part, the story of a raid that took place on the night of April 16th. It has become known, rather curiously from my point of view, to a number of Canadians as "Black Wednesday". Nobody in Britain called it "Black Wednesday". I think, at least when I was there, they used to refer to it as "The Wednesday". The "Black" was my invention, because I wanted a good title for a radio show.
That raid started at about half past nine in the evening and I was sitting, perhaps a trifle reprehensibly, in a bar with a fairly well-known Canadian correspondent, trying to convince some Englishmen around us that I, too, was a Canadian, and receiving, I must say, excellent backing from my friend. The sirens went and we had another drink and waited to see what was going to happen. Nobody was very much disturbed, because, at that time there had been, for the last few nights, some kind of activity over London almost every night. We didn't realize, as we could not possibly realize, actually what was going to happen. What did happen was this. The Germans kept up that raid until almost daylight. They used approximately five hundred planes to do it. They dropped a large quantity of high explosives, not determined, and about a hundred thousand incendiary bombs.
I, being a strictly non-courageous individual determined to get back with my story, if I possibly could, sat in the basement of a large hotel and watched the proceedings, emerging every now and then for a short time, definitely into the blitz, to watch the proceedings from outside.
You will not be surprised, I know, to be told that the people in the basement of the hotel took very little notice of the raid. They were rather annoyed that they had to stay up all night. Many of them went to sleep. In particular, I remember a tall Jewish gentlemen who slept, simply lying on the floor, using one arm as a pillow, and who awoke, I think, only three times during the proceedings. The last time, after a stick of about seven bombs had come down uncomfortably close and shaken the building, he awoke only for a moment-long enough to open one eye and say the one word, "bombs". He said it in a rather bored voice and then went back to sleep. I, personally, was not the least bit bored. If you want a frank confession, I was very frightened. An air raid is a very frightening experience and anybody who tells you to the contrary is not telling the truth.
I don't want to spend time on the basement side of things. Nothing happens in basements. But toward morning I went out into the street. The Warden at the doorway of the hotel told me not to, but I flourished a pass I had, in his face. I find it is a very useful thing to do on such occasions, and I was allowed to go out. Almost immediately a bomb came down in the next street and I found myself a little bruised on picking myself up and brushing my suit. It was the same suit that I am wearing at this moment, only, as I have said on more than one occasion, it has been to the cleaners since. I was assisted in this job by a London policeman who was exerting the usual efficiency which the London Police always do exert in being helpful. That, I think, was the nearest I came to being actually hit, and it was frightening for the moment: but only for the moment.
Then I went on to have a look at London. Now, this is the consoling thing. It won't sound consoling when I first tell you, but you will see in the end that it is. I could not have believed that anything could look so awful as London looked that morning. The whole place seemed on fire. Rushing through the streets were ambulances and fire-reels. The police and all the A.R.P. people were tremendously busy, taxed to the very limit. Fires, fires, everywhere you looked, but fires going out. Casualties? Yes, if you wanted to look for casualties, you would see them; and sometimes, if you did not want to look for casualties, you would see them. But, I can tell you, (and here we come to the consolation), that in spite of all that dreadful damage,--and it would be folly to minimize it; it was dreadful; five hundred planes can do a lot of damage in a night-they got the place cleaned up by the following Saturday. There were new gaps, and, of course, the cleaning-up process was by no means complete, but they had the city working again in three days. Certain railway stations-I can't give you particulars for obvious reasons-had been damaged, but they had them working again by the following Saturday. The city, the metropolis,--because I wish to refer not only to what is called the City of London but to the whole of London,--survived the raid apparently quite easily. True, a lot of places were knocked down, a lot of people were killed, and a lot of others were wounded, but, if ever there was a true slogan coined, it is the slogan, "London can take it". Certainly London took it that night.
But I came out of that experience with another slogan in my mind, Gentlemen, a slogan with a great big question mark at the end: How long can London go on taking it like that? And I do have the feeling, most definitely--now that we have the great United States with us, one may have that feeling more confidently--there must be much less taking it from now on and a great deal more dishing it out.
I should like, if I may, to read to you a thing that I wrote for a radio play and which arose out of that experience. It is more or less self-explanatory, but I should preface it by telling you that, on that morning, I came across a sight which filled me with an indignation so deep that I cannot describe it: a little girl being dug from a basement. When the time came to write of it I wrote these words
She lay there, very still and white,
Untouched by the blast that had brought life to its outrageous end;
She lay upon the stones where only yesterday
She'd walked, her little hand clasped in her mother's hand.
And the red light of the fires, and the gold of rising sunshine
Glinted on her hair, stirred by a little cold breeze of morning.
And it was the end. Not for her that welcome dawning,
That prayed-for coming of the day when flying devils go their cowards' way
Winging back to safety and the land.
She lay there, mute and pale, a lifeless monument
To unleashed villainy such as man has not known.
Another life unlived, another flower ungrown,
To the mills of Mars a tiny speck of grist,
Another innocence clenched in the mailed fist.
And the light came up, and the clay grew fast,
And great London's well-appointed rhythm pulsed again,
But she lay there, on the stone, for her all past,
A silent symbol of great London's pain.
And so, Gentlemen, when we have before us pictures of that kind, when we have the knowledge that nights such as that may be repeated within these coming weeks or months in Britain, I believe that we of this hitherto unscathed and partially complacent continent may feel very proud of the great opportunity that we now have as brothers in arms to go more extensively into the blitz and indeed to come, please God, to the stage where we shall bring about the Nazi-annihilating blitzkrieg of righteously indignant democracy.
I should like to conclude this address with words that I spoke on the CRC's national network shortly after my return from Britain. I make no apology for the repetition, because they say something which needed then to be said, and which I think still needs to be said: "Long since, indeed now for some years, our enemies-taking full advantage of the totalitarian machine-have drilled their people into a mass effort which, say what you will, has produced terrible results which may yet mean the end of all that we have, all that we are, and all that we hope to be. And, say what you will, we have not even yet replied to this with a similar weight of endeavour. We shall have to do it. We shall have to make many sacrifices, and take a real part in the toil which is the fortunate lot of those who do not live within the wide-spread lines of battle. We shall have to stop our easy-going semi-belligerent way of thinking, our pleasure in the making of money, and our enjoyment of ease. We shall have to develop a much greater understanding of the clanger of our position, and a more solid determination to face that danger in an intelligently active way. These things do not come from governments: THEY COME FROM PEOPLES.
And if, in this time of awful danger, of brutality unleashed, of rampant misery, of the semi-slavery of more than half of Europe, of the continuing success of the most evil tyranny of all--if in this time, and faced with these things, we fail herein through not having heard the voices, or read the written words--then we shall have to say, with Shakespeare:
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings." (Applause.)
MR. C. R. SANDERSON: Mr. Strange, it is my privilege, and it is a real privilege, to say "Thank you" for that moving as well as informative address. If I interpret rightly what you have been telling us, it amounts to this that the expansion of this war means also its shrinkage, and that it is very rapidly coming nearer and nearer home; and that you, Sir, are convinced, not only that this continent needs to stiffen up, but also that, with or without the substitute of a fifty-dollar bomb for a five-cent cigar, it will stiffen up and in its turn will become as tough as Great Britain has become. (Applause.)
I think, Gentlemen, you will be happy to know, that, as one symptom of that stiffening up, a message has been handed to this head table during the meeting saying that this broadcast was broken into by the station in order to make an official announcement that President Roosevelt has just asked Congress for a declaration of war on Germany. Truly, as the war expands it also shrinks and comes nearer home. (Applause.)
Gentlemen, in your name I offer Mr. Strange our warm thanks for talking to us today out of his own experiences, and for describing those experiences in the particularly charming language which is one of his many gifts. (Applause.)