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"Partisans among the people are like fish in a river:
The river can live by itself, But not the fish."
Saying of Chinese Partisans.
LATER on the launching of liaison missions into occupied Europe was to be a common experience. They were to come down in their hundreds and in a dozen different countries, by night and by day, our own fighters humming overhead, almost a routine. So little was it to mean that their base headquarters, bored as only great droves of men compelled to staff duties could be bored, would mark their going—the swinging leap into mid-air that takes the leaper while it lasts into the realm of the utterly unnatural—by nothing more than a simple little paper flag on a much beflagged map and two brief lines in memorandum.
But in those days of 1943 it was an individual gesture to the unknown. The few enthusiasts who had done it before us had never come back to tell the tale, for the sufficient reason that there were no means (or next to no means, unless you knew and could reach a long and weary route that led through the Isles of Greece) of coming back. Of the handful who had done it in the Mediterranean theatre one or two had been captured, one or two had kept going, one or two were "off the air" and unofficially regarded as off the books, too. It was the sort of large and airy hazard which attracted regimental misfits, or men who were secretly ashamed of the tedious jobs behind the lines that had been thrust on them, or people who wanted their war on their own. Sometimes we would get the obviously tough; and they on the whole turned out to be the weaker brethren, for the silence and the isolation would play on their stupidity and lay them low. We learnt to be wary of the tough and tight-muscled and to look for shy men who started like deers when they were inveigled into staff headquarters. They had to be idealists who were caught by the sheer privilege of leaping into the invaded Continent; and at the same time they had to demonstrate a practical talent for staving alive and at large. Dead idealists make splendid history; but they do not really win wars. The perfect BLO (as they were later to be called) was hard indeed to come by. In the end we found it a good general rule to refuse the hard-bitten Commando type and accept the ordinary straightforward chap who had learnt to cut no special kind of caper and, possibly, could put two thougfats together ana make sense.
Later on it was to be a handy business of half-hour flights with rows of Dakotas waiting to take you and supply you afterwards. Operations behind the enemy's lines were to dovetail neatly into tactical plans which in turn were part of great plays of strategy that caused whole fronts to move forward. They were to scale down into a brevity that could be counted in months on the fingers of one hand. Base was to admit that BLOs were human and might need soap and razor blades, letters from home and anti-louse powder. Decorations were to be given. But in Middle East our philosophy knew of none of these things.
In the beginning we had no aircraft at all. The Powers That Be did not believe in cutting their total strength in those days before and directly after Alamein by hazardous stunts which could in no case give more than a long-range military return.
They gave us accordingly four Liberators driven by four magnificent New Zealand crews. When they were in the air there was nothing that could not be asked of these men, and nothing they would not do. They knew the people who jumped: through long weeks of waiting when impatience sawed upon the nerves, over drinks in sweltering Cairo cocktail bars, at the other end of the intercom during long and fmitless cruises when expected signals never came up on the ground, in boredom and bloodiness, sickness and health. (Later on this personal angle was to go by the board when big squadrons were brought in to do the job, and the men who jumped would be simply christened "Joes" and let go at that.)
Unfortunately, our four Liberators were seldom in the air. One was permanently grounded for grave internal reasons which the R.A.F. could never, to our continued frustration, properly formulate. One or two others were normally doing engine repairs. The fourth could usually be reckoned on. But you could not deliver the goods all over the Balkans with one Liberator, no matter how heroic its crew. This meant that the odd characters who jumped in during that early period had to be left more or less to their own devices; and all the more credit is due to them for that.
Even parachute-jumping was thought rather dashing in those early days. It was before the period of mass-production when whole units would be brought out of the desert and put through the drill; and those originals who could sport a parachute badge in Groppi's or Gezireh were credited at least with heroic intentions. And they were indeed an odd crew, for besides the British personnel (who were highly coloured in their own right) there were Greeks and Bulgarians, Maltese and Italians, Serbs, Hungarians, Poles, even two famous Americans who were serving in the British armv and whose hopeful activities had included everything from the manufacture of great vats of secret ink—very secret, very special—to the volunteering for any madcap stunt that came along. It was a notable collection, richly ambitious, cheerfully imbecile, abnormally ignorant—and, since most of us appear to have survived—incredibly lucky.
We learnt our parachute jumping at Kabrit above a nice piece of rolling desert alongside the Canal; nearby was a pleasant sandy mess we shared with people who were learning to destroy tanks. Others will write about the magic of the desert; yet even Kabrit, in those low-lying dunes beside the Canal, was not entirely without its charm. There was a crispness in the early morning air that brought you out of your camp bed into the clear cool dawn, with the stars still up and the sun only a faint glow beyond the camp wire and the horizon of the Great Bitter Lake; later on, the morning's misery past and the training Wimpeys tuning their engines for someone else's turn, you could go swimming beyond the lighthouse on the point. Here were the only trees in sight, a few straggling palms part-masking the white walls of the lighthouse. The keeper of the lighthouse was a Frenchman, and his daughters liked to go swimming, too. A notice on the quay advised you primly:
"Officers are Warned that Exposing Themselves in the Nude is Forbidden."
The Great Bitter Lake is warm and dirty and vastly too bitter; and when you swim in it you quickly rime over powdery-white in the sun. We used to swim out and sit on a bollard and watch the ships go by. It was an easy, unproblematical existence. And it was all so very far from the Balkans, our destination, from Europe, that we achieved an air of total unreality.
In Cairo I used to live in a riverside flat in Gezireh (who didn't?) with a splendid view over the palms and waters of the Nile. Felluccas with lateen yards five storeys high and more would drift downstream; there was the song and hum of traffic coming across Bulaq Bridge up and down the Fuad el Auwal and across into Zamaiek on the road to Gizeh; and the only hint of Europe was the Nile, looking here a little like the Danube as I remembered from before the war, like all great rivers which flow through great cities, oily and dun-coloured, rippling, suggestive of filth, scarcely reflecting the daylight. But in darkness how brilliantly it reflected the moon! Then the high date palms would lean in long shadows out across the river, and the moored houseboats be like'pale ghosts, and the water sprinkled with silver; and there would be no noise of traffic, only a far-off murmur of humanity and the honking of frogs.
In those days before the landings in North Africa the thoughts of everyone at Base were turned towards the Western Desert and the fortunes of the battle there. Landings on the Continent were far beyond the margin of the general picture. Those few individuals whose business it was to go into the invaded Continent were turning their backs on the front line in favour of some Cloud Cuckoo-land of which next to nothing was known. The real fighting was in the Desert; the rest was still a sideshow, amusing, perhaps, but not really important. News from the occupied countries trickled out through tortuous channels, often much distorted on the way, and there were occasional travellers whose credentials were not always sure; but on the whole it was anybody's guess as to what might be happening there. People went in with the sketchiest of directives; and once they were gone it was too late to tell them better. They had gone for good.
I used to go and see them off sometimes in the days before my own turn came. The aerodrome affected by our four old crocks would depend on the state of the front; later on it would be beyond Mersa, then beyond El Adem, then at Derna, finally beyond Benghazi, but before Alamein it was inconveniently close to Cairo at Fayid, beside the Canal, reached by the main road that runs out of Cairo alongside the irrigation ditches towards Ismailieh. Children in once-white shirts ran about in the road; donkeys stood with eternal patience before dark doorways or moved at a snail's pace down the road besides the canals with baskets of fruit and greenstuff on their backs. Flies crawled over everything. The smell of Egypt lay thick and heavy on the air; the world was one of sand and shit. Nothing had changed in a million years.
And then, once past the canals the irrigation and the lines of palms would disappear and we were out on the open desert; and abruptly the whole focus would shift into another world, and huge aeroplanes would be scattered about the sand as far as one could see, aeroplanes capable of flying right out of this world we knew and dropping bombs in Italy, in the Balkans, indeed in Europe. And there, amidst this wealth and splendour, would be our four black Liberators, four big bombers possibly capable of flight. We would stop the staff car and get out and stumble over the sand; and sometimes to our agonized gaze there would be one engine running, sometimes two or three or all four, but more often there was desolation and silence and complete absence of humanity such as only the desert Air Force in its Olympian indifference could realize. Finally, in all that waste of sun and space and abandoned aircraft, some ' casual figure would be discerned; and anyone given to philosophy could reflect, if he could be bothered, on that most surprising interplay of men and machines which made up desert warfare.
The small black figure would approach and grow larger and turn into a shock-haired mechanic who appeared to own the whole Air Force, and this all-powerful oracle would pronounce the fatal sentence dreaded by all who had waited weeks to go: "She's u.s." And we would look savagely at that big black bomber with its four miserable engines, and shake our heads, get back into the staff car and return to the hated fleshpots of the Qasr-el-NiL
But every now and then all four propellers would turn at once, and W for Willy, or one of his mates, X, Y, and Z, would be pronounced "on." And then it was with a different emotion that we stood on the warm sand in the glare of the desert, beneath the enamel sky and a sun blazing like incandescent brass, and listened to the terrific roar of Willy's four engines being warmed-up.
The man who was going, who had shared the Middle East with us for so long that we had almost forgotten its discomfort, would come out of the dresser's tent—a tiny affair two feet high—in all the fussy paraphernalia of operational jumping, wonderfully transformed. The padded strip tease and the windproof Sidcot that were regulation wear against the cold of high altitude flying in an unheated fuselage would be stuffed with his revolver and his bag of gold, his maps and flashlight, compass, odds and ends. He was unbearably hot and very angry about some tedious detail; his Sidcot didn't fit, someone had given him the wrong ammunition, he was absolutely convinced that the essential wireless transmitter hadn't been packed in the load to be dropped with him. God knows what they hadn't done with his stores. In that time and place he filled the whole world and was the centre of the universe.
And there was something right and proper about this; we felt towards him as towards a man who was voyaging to another planet, a man we might perhaps be seeing for the last time, a man whose voice henceforth (if we heard it at all) would be ciphered into code and sent us in morse. At the back of all our minds was the unanswered question: "What will it be like?" and we fussed over him and soothed him rather as if we were helping him into the next world. His destination would be anything up to twelve hundred miles away, but for us it might have been a million. We leant against the rushing mighty wind of Willy's engines, and tried to make ourselves heard. The air would be heavy with the sour-sweet smell of aero-petrol. The man who was going would be cheerfully certain that the flight would be a flop, that even if he got there and found the fires—this might be his third or fourth or fifth attempt to find them—and dropped, it would then turn out that all the important things had been forgotten in the load, or they would drop him in the wrong place, or they would get there and the signals fail to come up, or anything might happen; but by this time the heat and the clothing and the tension of having to say goodbye had brought him to such a pitch of desperation that he wanted nothing better than to be gone.
Once in the plane and off the ground, with Willy's engines evened down to a level hum of efficiency, his thoughts would clear and he would stop being angry.
Hours would pass; and over the sea the night would fall and Willy would be blacked-out, a noise in the sky and nothing more. Then it was that he would begin to feel the nearness of the unseen Continent, its enmity and strangeness as it lay there beyond the night; and this feeling would become a quick thrill of triumph when he sighted the coast of Greece, stark and clearly cut far down below him, the rising moon giving edge to wildly rising mountains and lying milkily across the sea. He would lie in the glass nose of the navigator's cockpit and discover how Corfu came out of the sea in combed mountains that were covered with dark silver rocks, a watery gleaming on ragged crumpled cloth. Tiny waves would turn silver in the moonlight like gently moving lips. Willy's four engines would never falter; the pilot in the cockpit seemed made of stone.
These were the elements of his adventure; an assembly of men and machinery, convenient to normal life, that suddenly had combined together to convey him into utter abnormality; and there was a paradox in this that would mingle with his thrill of triumph, give added point to the strangeness of those rocky silent coastlines in their moonstruck desolation, foretell his loneliness.
Further up the coast, with the mountains still gleaming like watery silver cloth, cut deep here and there with appalling shadows, W for Willy would bank gently inwards, leaving the sea behind.
The man who was going would work his way back to the fuselage; the queasy moments before dropping were almost here. The despatcher would fit on parachutes and try to look cheerful; a bottle of rum would go from mouth to mouth; tongues would be drier even than before.
Came the moment to link-up static lines, and the agonizing wait on the edge of the hole while W for Willy circled round and round looking for the signals, and then the moment when the signals were sighted, improbable points of red light flickering and flaring in the darkness below, and then the preliminary run in, and then the run in to drop the Mark "C" containers that held the stores, and then another run and then another; and then, with the despatcher's voice hoarse in your ear you would watch for the red light and when the red light came on you would watch for the green light, measuring the sickening seconds, and then your heart would leap up into your mouth and you would go pelting downwards into the darkness.
And as you went your whole being and existence would echo one central question: "What will it be like?"