Vignettes of Boyhood 1 – 1940 and on
“Portsmouth: Sunday, Sept., 15th 1805. At day weighed with light airs Northerly.’ Extract from Nelson’s Diary written aboard the Victory before Trafalgar.
Units of the Home Fleet put into Spithead – August, 1940.
A clear, full moon and cloudless sky,
And in the gathering gloom,
Across the still and limpid sea
The silent warships loom.
The signals flash from bridge to bridge,
Like tiny, glowing sparks:
The mighty turbines slowly die –
The giants rest in the dark.
Then the wailing of the sirens,
And the deep, low drone of ‘planes,
The searchlights and exploding bombs,
And Portsmouth crowned in flames:
And etched against the ghostly light
Of a gently falling flare,
The Victory’s masts rise gaunt and black
In the brilliant, silver glare
Of another Trafalgar – here.
The stench of a burning city;
And the rolling banks of smoke,
As a tanker slowly settles,
And her clawing seamen choke,
And on the beach next morning,
‘Mid the charr’d and oily dross,
The body of a merchantman
Tattooed with a rose and cross.
The joy of search – and finding,
A burnt-out One-O-Nine,*
The stab of fear as the Stukas* struck
Like screaming hawks in line.
Long vapour trails that smudge and fade
In the blue and lovely skies
Where, like an angel’s shining sword,
The sylphine Spitfires wait:
The swarming blocks of bombers,
That scab the sky with mange,
And stepped-up high in the warming sun
The glinting fighters range:
Or standing high on the roof-top,
By the “Grecian” statues tall,
To watch the raucous Flying-Bombs*
In sudden silence fall.
Or diving, in a cricket match,
On coils of rolled-up wire,
As a Junkers roared at tree-top height,
Machine-guns blazing fire.
And later still, the exuberant Yanks,
Who came from “Over there” – “swell!”
The Memphis Belles who gave us gum –
And gave their lives as well.
The massed armada of shipping
On D-Day minus One;
And the heavy, foreboding silence
That descended when all had gone
To meet their fates on the beaches
And the white-hot cauldron of Caen.
And now and then, through tears and cheers,
“A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square”,
But where, O where have the people gone.
And where, O where the years?
© 2012 Thurstan Bassett• One-O-Nine. Messerschmidt 109E-3. Main German fighter in the Battle of Britain.
• Stuka. Junkers 87B dive-bomber
• V-1 short for Vergeltungwaffe Eins. Nicknamed the Doodlebug .