(Sir Harold Evans is Reuters Editor at Large. A former editor of The Times and the Sunday Times of London, Evans was knighted for services to journalism in 2004. Opinions expressed here are his own.)
By Harold Evans
NEW YORK (Reuters) – It’s 1940. The winter evenings are getting colder. I’m huddled with my parents around the radio listening to future Queen Elizabeth calm us with her promise that “the world of tomorrow will be a better and happier place.” It’s much more effective than Neville Chamberlain’s woeful announcement months before in 1939 that we were at war with Germany. “He feels more sorry for himself than he does for us,” said my mother at the time. Elizabeth cheers us.
We needed it. Just a few weeks earlier, one year and six days on from the start of Hitler’s war to seize the whole of Europe, the sky above London had become clouded with German Heinkels. The dark line stretched on and on across the horizon. Royal Air Force Hurricanes and Spitfires scrambled to reach the German bombers screened by layers of yellow-nosed Messerschmitts, 617 of them to escort 348 raiders. A second wave arrived at 6 p.m. over a blazing dockland. At 8:07 p.m., British military command sent all units a one-word signal: Cromwell. It let them know the invasion was about to begin. Church bells rang.
It was a false alarm; the invasion never came. But the devastation from the 337 tons of bombs was real. Some 448 Londoners died, 250,000 were made homeless, 170,000 were driven to sleep in underground stations. The blitz went on for 76 nights, but never broke the spirit expressed in the emblematic photograph of St Paul’s cathedral, shining whole and undamaged amid the smoke and fires.
My family escaped much of that since at the time we were living in blissful ignorance 220 miles to the north in Manchester, home base for my father, a locomotive driver, who was out there in the blackness delivering truckloads of shells for anti-aircraft defenses. “You’ll see they won’t want to bother us, we’re too far north” was the street wisdom, as if the Germans would fail to notice our great Manchester factories producing hundreds of bombers, including the legendary Lancaster (“dam buster”) bombers.
I concentrated on collecting every scrap of good news brought into the house by The Daily Express and still have the series of pages I pasted up to celebrate RAF raids against Germany and the sinking of U-boats. I ignored all our setbacks. I felt so passionately we should win the war. I devoured movies of adventure and heroism like “Stagecoach” and “Custer’s Last Stand,” looking for “can do” stories of American resolution.
The ferocity was turned against us in Manchester in two nights, one marking Christmas Eve 1940. Minutes from dusk, the sound of the siren was no fake alarm. Mum bundled us into our air raid shelter (a curve of tin loaded with sods over our heads). They were unpopular, had little security and were often flooded. While we shivered in the cavernous shelter by candlelight, we could hear the scream of bombs descending and the rain of “ack ack” guns that aimed to stop them getting through.
Most still did. The German bombers killed 684 Manchester residents and wounded 2,300. One of the raids killed 11 people in a house, including an 11-year-old boy. The fire and smoke lingered when we came out of the shelter the next morning. My uncle’s house had been burned to the ground. He’d been the one most confident we would get through it all unharmed. After all, as a merchant marine, he’d seen endless days at sea looking out for U-Boats and enemy destroyers.
The enemy that terrified us then, as now, was invisible. We had no idea till later that we were in the middle of the bombers’ sights, our street clearly seen on the high-level reconnaissance photographs of targets made by the German planes. The pandemic, too, has descended seemingly out of thin air. We hide and wait for it to pass, hoping it will somehow miss us. Once again I find refuge in entertainment, but this time my wife and I consume medical dramas and prescient pandemic flicks like “Contagion.”
So how comforting to hear the Queen’s voice again, convincing in its resolve. This time, her quiet poise echoed out of YouTube, rather than an old radio. And her last allusion to the war-time anthem “We’ll Meet Again” sung by World War Two sweetheart Vera Lynn instantly sent the vintage classic to number 22 on the iTunes chart. But the message is the same: Only united can we take on such a devastating challenge. Only then can we meet again.
Edited by Simon Robinson