Oh, To Be In England

by John R. Nilsson
From The Story of the Century

John Nilsson wrote "The Story of the Century" immediately after the War. It was privately published and is now out of print. All efforts to locate Nilsson, who lived in California when the book was written, have failed.

Horace L. Varian

The time, early June of 1943. The mist hung stationary in the night air, and the English countryside, so wan and haggard, wore a dismal coat. The Nissen huts hunched up in the blackout, ghosts at night or, by day huge tin cans ripped in half. It was an airbase, and new, from which the RAF, as Arabs in the night, had pulled up it’s tents and departed.

As an empty city, the base awaited the hurly-burly commerce of war – the raucous noises, the jests, the trepidations, the boredom, from the whole alphabet of human emotions. They would magically transform mortar, bricks, and concrete into a habitation of war. The runways, scars on the good soil, formed an "X" with the oval perimeter, the four mile circumference of the airfield; at night, the gaunt shapes of picket-posts, hanger, tool shops, and other buildings, made grotesque designs against the sky. The city was spread out to one side of the airfield, the huts clustered in six or more colonies.

In the huts, the beds, usually in two tiers, were crammed together, and the stoves were black stumps which impeded traffic through the aisles, and were gluttons for coke and wood; while over the windows muslin was suspended, letting out vagrant scraps of light. The sun had faded the muslin. The searchlights, the long-fingered rapiers which cut through the flesh of the night, came up from here and there, from points unidentifiable on the rim of the black night, where the horizon merged together the earth and sky.

June… a handful of dirt felt of nature’s wholesomeness held in the hand; the sky, when free of clouds, was pale aquamarine; the lungs drew in the rich air. Nature, earth, sky, were the same; but the atmosphere made by man was strange and terrible, for the heavy hand of war had fallen. The Americans, an ocean away from their homes, had come to possess part of the war. Within the huts, the radios spoke from Bremen and Calais, in American accents…the mockery of Goebbels, his scoffs that Allied airplanes should hurt the Reich, his evil worry of faithless wives, and jazz music on the enemy radio was a vicarious voyage home.

They called this base Thorpe Abbotts. It was the "100th." The clerks, bent over their desks, spelled it out, 100thBombardment Group (H)," and the "H" stood for heavy. Coming as the eighth group brought by the Eighth Air Force to the British Isles, the 1500 men of the ground echelon had voyaged over and the airmen had flown. The Flying Fortresses (the spears and shields for new phalanx of warriors) warmed up in the perimeter, sinister on their flat tires. Like love, history is where you find it. Lay out the map of Britain, scan it from Land’s End to Inverness, and you find no ink-speck for Thorpe Abbotts; but the 100th, never-the-less, found its history there, and in the sky towards continental Europe.

The British countryside was haunted by the past, by millions of footsteps anciently crushed into the soil, and blood that has stained it. Thorpe Abbotts, the village, rubbed the sleep from it’s eyes, rustled snugly from it fetters with the old, dead years, and wore its emblems of the past neither proudly nor humbly: its thatched roofs, the well-tended shabbiness, the buildings and churches tired of the world; but neither the village nor its people lent a shred of themselves to the American base which lay nearby, for at the base the bomber engines roared, and the typewriters clacked exuberantly.

Norfolk County, caught by nature in the midst of a yawn, lies back from the North Sea, a pot-pourri of nature, its roads undecided of direction, the myriad villages, the fields looking at though a supernatural painter with huge paintbrushes had splotched them with hues of green; and the farmers, craggy-faced, silent in their small fields, walk by their wagons under the sullen sky. Their daughters with apple-red cheeks and a passing-fair flair for jitterbugging, albeit many preferred the Calais Glide at their village dances.

The public-houses, the pubs, are as British as mutton-pie, and there the villagers gather evening to sip beer, or toss darts. The barmaids says you can have mild and bitter, stout, or Guinness, but nothing else, and she asks: "W’at ye’ have now?," wiping her hands on a blotchy apron, and taking glasses from the table, dipping them into cold, much used water in a basin.

The summer sun in Norfolk county sparkles briefly, iridescently, while in the evening, the fluffy clouds filter and the pink sunsets. But at other season! Sans warning, sans lightning, the rain clouds, dank and low-hanging swagger from the North Sea and the rain drips, as nature seems to wring out washrags in the sky. The winter sky is leaden, the bones feel the chill of the sodden air, and the touch of the earth is clammy.

The girls made friends with the Yanks, not difficult to do, who explored life robustly, impatiently, and its taste was not always green apples. The glamour of the Norfolk girls was a tentative quality; there was pathos in it; the seamed cotton stockings, the dresses mended, the cheap ribbons in the hair, but they listened to tales of the Shangri-la of "the States," and thought: " How wordy these Yanks are! How different from our British boys!" Doubtless some were lissome, sweet of face, but most or the girl’s of Norfolk seemed to conform to a more bulky pattern. Some of the 100thmen sang a lyric epigram:
"in the services, there are naughty women,
Who will do almost anything, if you have a shilling;
WAVES are half a crown, WACS are half a guinea;
Big fat WREN, two pound ten;
ATS, a penny!"

Not a few of the girls though of the Americans "rather pushing," too inclined to ships-passing-in-the-night affairs, although some 100 men from the base married English girls, whom they met at Covent Gardens, the garish dance-hall reeking with smell of cabbages, in London, at the Samson and Hercules in Norwich, or at other trysting places; but many Norfolkers looked at the Americans and preferred Norfolk.

Arising from earth, the Forts awakened the countryside from its sleep with a husky tocsin-cry, and realness of war towered over the differences between Yanks and Norfolkers, because the obstreperous laughter of Yanks in the pubs and their honeyed words in wooing the girls had no echo in the din of bomber engines overhead. There were, besides Thorpe Abbotts village, Eye, Scole, Diss, Dickelburg, and Norwich, the largest, with some 100,000 souls, 20 miles north from Thorpe Abbotts. It’s castle, lordly atop a Roman mound, which was once guarded by archers of King Alfred, its cathedral was built after the conquest 1066 A.D., and you may kneel on benches worn by the vigils of medieval monks. At Scole, between Thorpe Abbotts and the rail town of Diss, Lord Nelson had an "affaire d’amour" a century ago with Lady Hamilton, and ages ago, Danes and Saxons reddened the selfsame soil trod on by Yanks walking to the nearest pubs, or their "laundry lady’s." The contours of Norfolk county, home for much of the Eighth Air Force, formed like a rump on England, but it was a blunt club raised against Germany.

In June, the 657 days, the tumultuous, mad days, started for the 100th, and death would be a nightmare toy played with, or tossed aside. Some 775 men, in the 22 months which followed, were to draw their last breath on earth stepping onto the bombers on the perimeter, while additionally 1061 more fell captives in enemy hands in the 180 bomber which "went down." The crews that touched down at Thorpe Abbotts had not heard of names such as Schweinfurt, Munster, Merseberg…ugly names! Soon, everywhere, fliers would call them, "The Bloody Hundredth."