Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Deadly Skies

"He was hit by shrapnel in his hotel room while standing at the window watching the bombing," wrote my grandfather-in-law in his memoirs. This happened to his colleague who was on leave in London during a Zeppelin raid, and had just mentioned to his friends how ironic it would be to die in an air raid on London after surviving so well at the Front.

Zeppelins over London

My characters have a few encounters with London raids. The following scene is from Elusive Dawn, and describes the first successful downing of an airship in Britain, in Sept. 1916, for which pilot Leefe Robinson received a Victoria Cross.

The thunder of distant explosions seemed to punctuate her statement.

“An air raid!” Sid cried with glee. She turned out the lights and went to the window, drawing back the blackout curtains, which were now mandatory. “Oh look, there’s a Zepp to the north, heading our way.”

The graceful, silvery behemoth was pinned in the beams of dozens of searchlights. Anti-aircraft fire burst around it like holiday fireworks. As if in celebratory greeting. Even though it appeared to be on the outskirts of London, they could hear the whine of shells and the cacophony of explosions.

“Oooh, there are a few more in the distance. They’ve just been spotted by the lights.” And began dropping their bombs.

“We should go to a shelter, or at least your cellar,” Jack suggested half-heartedly.

“Don’t be absurd, darling. The basement is the servants’ domain. This is the only excitement I get. I really can understand why you men want to go to the Front. There’s something deliciously stimulating, almost erotic, about danger. It makes you realize that you’re alive.”

“Aren’t you worried about your reputation – if we should be killed and they find our naked bodies?” Jack teased as he draped her silk peignoir around her shoulders.

“I don’t give a damn! Let the sanctimonious prudes realize that I lived and loved and had more fun than they did.”  . . .   “Oh, look! It’s been hit!”

The Zeppelin had been twisting in different directions, as if it were impaled on the beams of light and writhing to free itself. Suddenly it burst into flames, its nose drooping down, fire scrambling up the sides until it was completely ablaze and plummeting toward the ground.

“Poor bloody buggers,” Jack couldn’t help saying. Fire was the aviators’ worst fear . . .  He and Chas always took along their revolvers when flying. Just in case.

The Zepp was exploding as well, from the ammunition on board. The city was like a stage suddenly illuminated, and they could see people out in the streets. Cheering.

The other Zeppelins must have turned back or headed elsewhere, since they were no longer in view.

“They didn’t get very close,” Sid said, as if disappointed the Zeppelins hadn’t dropped bombs around her house.

Jack found himself perturbed and annoyed by that blasé civilian attitude that some espoused – that war was a fun diversion for a while.

He couldn’t help thinking about the aircrew who had just been doing their duty for their country, as he did, and who perhaps had wives and mothers and children awaiting them back home.

His ardour dampened, he knew it was time to leave.

During air raids, London policemen rode about on bicycles or in cars with placards announcing that people should take cover. Boy scouts bugled the "All Clear" when the raids were over.

Zeppelin bombing raids during the four years of the war killed 557 people, injured 1358, and caused £3 million damage. During the last two years if the war, the new German Gotha bombers killed an additional 836 people, injured 2,000, and caused a further £1.5 million damage. This first “Battle of Britain” served to terrorize the population, disrupt factory production, and draw pilots and resources away from the front lines for Home Defence.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Storm Begins

The calm before the storm  - Muskoka - copyright Melanie Wills

The summer of 1914 was stiflingly hot, punctuated by the occasional violent storm. People sweltering in Toronto could cool down at the local beaches, Toronto Island being a favourite spot that also included hotels, an amusement park, and a stadium where Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run in 1914.

People with time and money escaped to the tranquil northern lakes, the majestic Muskoka region being popular with Americans as well as Canadians. Canada’s Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, was enjoying a holiday at the grandest of the many resorts, the Royal Muskoka Hotel (mentioned in a previous blog). He was to award the prizes at the annual Muskoka Lakes Association Regatta on the Civic holiday weekend. But a couple of days before, he was hastily recalled to Ottawa. Canada and the world were suddenly bracing for the worst storm of all in that feverish summer.

It’s hard now to believe that there was cheering in the streets when the Toronto Star headline blared “WAR” on August 5th. Within weeks, 33,000 eager and naïve young men had volunteered to fight. They were farm boys and factory workers, professionals and adventure-seekers, university students and those barely out of elementary school. Several of my characters in  The Summer Before the Storm are among them.

Interestingly, a married man had to have his wife’s permission to join up. This regulation was later rescinded when more manpower was desperately needed. Altogether over 600,000 Canadians enlisted and 68,000 never returned.