Black Boomerang - Chapter Three cont - Sefton Delmer

Not that I felt as gay and cheerful as the Battle of Britain ended and the Blitz began as I tried to convey to the Germans in these talks on the B.B.C. The very reverse. Maybe I was too intolerant and too intense in those crisis weeks of 1940. But the sight of thousands of London families during the blitz cowering night and day in the caverns of the London Underground filled me, not with compassion, but with gloom and anger.

Of course, there were many tube dwellers who sheltered there , only during the raids or while they got some sleep and then went to their factories from the tubes. But there were all too many of the permanents for my peace of mind. And when my American colleagues praised the courage with which London was `taking it' I thought, with shame, of these able-bodied proletarians, male and female, absenting themselves from their workshops while they lay on their mattresses in the Underground, publicly copulating on the platforms, and blocking up the stations for those who had to go to work. Whether I was right or wrong in my judgment, for me at the time the panic slum on the Underground was a London counterpart to the abject hordes of French civilians I had seen earlier in the year clogging the strategically vital roads in the stampede before the German armies.

I thanked heaven that these tube dwellers were not representative of the majority. Most of us Londoners did go on with our work, regardless of the blitz. My own friends and I perhaps even overdid the fatalistic `carry on as usual' spirit. We even carried on with our parties. And it was when Isabel and I were giving a small and select dinner party that an appropriately small and select bomb dropped on my flat in Lincoln's Inn, blowing up the entrance hall, smashing the 2oo-year-old staircase to the street, but fortunately failing to injure any of us.

It had been a cheerful evening, and none of us had thought of descending to the air-raid shelter, not even when we could hear the bombers overhead, and the bomb explosions getting nearer and nearer. The bombs had fallen all around in previous raids without hitting us. Two nights before, the Chancery Lane `Safe Deposit' Building had been burned down right opposite our windows.

The previous evening, a bomb had severed our gas main. We were sublimely confident that the bombs would continue to fall all around but miss us and our flat. 'Martha Huysmans, the daughter of the Belgian Prime Minister, was one of the guests, my old friend Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands was another. So were Ian Fleming, now very important in his naval uniform as the Personal Assistant of the Director of Naval Intelligence at the Admiralty, pretty Anna McLaren, our companion on the Madura, and Leonard Ingrams, the banker, with his wife, Victoria. Bernhard had been through a tough time in Holland, shooting at German parachutists and snipers from the roof and windows of his palace.

After bringing Juliana and their daughters to Britain, he had gone back to fight the Germans, and had just missed being caught by them.Now, he was telling us with much laughter of his exploit at Claridges the evening before, when he had tried to shoot out a light which was shining brightly in an unoccupied and uncurtained penthouse about two hundred yards away in Oxford Street.

" I fired several bursts from my tommy-gun," he was saying, "but I only smashed some windows, not the light. It went on burning more brightly than ever." Bernhard laughed. "The Scotland Yard man who asked me to try and shoot the light out-he is my mother-in-law's bodyguard you know-decided we had better go down to the entrance, and notify the police about the light. As we made for the stairs, a sort of colonel fellow with huge bristly moustaches came dashing out of his room shouting: `Did you hear that shooting? Sabotage! Sabotage! The Fifth Column! Call the Police!' So I told him that was exactly what we were doing, calling the police. Heavens, how that man was scared!"

We were all laughing about the unimaginative blimp to whom it had not occurred that someone might try to put out a light with a tommy-gun, and I had just persuaded Bernhard he was putting on his coat to leave-that he must stay for a last brandy, when what seemed an end-of-the-world explosion sent us all sprawling. The building heaved as in an earthquake.

The lights were gone. Smoke and brickdust covered everyone and everything. After a few numbed seconds I walked over to the entrance hall and opened the door. " It's nothing," I said grandly. Bernhard came up behind me to take a look too. " That's right," he said drily and flashed a torch into the black smoky hole, where the entrance had been. "It's nothing! Good thing you made me have that last brandy though, Tom, or I would be nothing too! I would have been right here where it fell. Moral: always have a last brandy!" Then he went back into the flat to look down from the window. His car was still in the road below. It looked as though it might still be drivable." I think that bomb was a gentle hint that I really must be getting along," said Bernhard. So after politely thanking Isabel once more for `a most enjoyable evening' he lowered himself twenty feet to the nearest bit of staircase left standing, and clambered down it into the street. His car was undamaged, and off he went.

But the rest of us stayed where we were. We lit some candles and continued to gossip and drink champagne as if nothing had happened. Until a Lincoln's Inn Official, who was the local A.R.P. warden, arrived under our window, and started an indignant tirade of protest. " This is the Senior Air Raid Warden speaking," he barked, "I order you to cease your disgusting orgy, and come down immediately; the building is about to collapse." Not that it did collapse.

And the next morning when I called on him, he apologised for his allegations about the `disgusting orgy'. But the Air Raid Warden had not been the only overwrought spirit in the Inn that night. For that same morning two C.I.D. men called on me at the Savoy Hotel where we had taken refuge. Someone had informed them, they said, that my guests had been speaking foreign languages and signalling to the raiders with electric torches. Could I please say what had happened, and give them a list of my guests. Snob that I am, I did so with relish.

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