My father, Michael Adams, was a 19-year-old university student in England when World War Two broke out in 1939. He quit his studies to become a Royal Air Force pilot, and shortly after he turned 21 he was shot down over the sea, captured and became a prisoner of war.
Thankfully, I don’t have to wonder what it was like living through those times because he left behind his own vivid account, handwritten in diaries he kept. They have served me as a constant reminder of how fortunate I am not to have experienced wartime, except from the relatively comfortable position of a journalist covering a few wars.
His diaries have also made me think about the covid-19 pandemic we are living through today, helping me put it in some perspective. To save lives, we’re being asked to wear facemasks, wash our hands frequently, stay six feet away from other people and, well, watch a lot of Netflix.
In contrast to that, I think of my father’s last Christmas before becoming a prisoner. Aged 20, he was no longer studying history in the comfort of Oxford University, rather he was learning to fly in what were in those days fairly rudimentary airplanes.
He never complained. After all, he was one of the lucky ones. He got to come home eventually at the end of the war in 1945, unlike almost of his school and university friends.
This pandemic has put more Americans out of work than any time since the Great Depression, and more Americans have died - 330,000 - than perished in combat in World War Two. The ‘corona class of 2020’ missed their proms and many parents are sick of seeing their children dealing with online learning.
Yet, I wonder what have we learned from it?
In later years my father liked to say he learned a lot in prison camp, where he and his fellow inmates taught each other everything they knew, and read voraciously, because there was nothing else to do – when they weren’t digging tunnels to try to escape.
I also think of my mother, now aged 84, who at the outbreak of World War Two was sent away from her parents in London to the countryside to avoid ‘the blitz’, Hitler’s nightly bombing raids on London that lasted several months from September 1940 to May 1941.
At this time of reflection at the end of a difficult year for those of us in 2020, this is my father’s story of how his generation dealt with their own era of adversity.
The possibility of war
In the months building up to the declaration of war my father’s diaries reveal a creeping evolution in his awareness from the distant possibility of war – and his involvement in it – to its gradually becoming a reality.
In his first year at university, he writes at the time: “the idea of war seemed still barely more than a hallucination, a bogey thrust in our faces by that raggle-taggle figure with the toothbrush moustache whom we were only now learning to take seriously.”
But gradually reality sunk in. “the atmosphere was electric and my brothers and I began to think and talk of war as something that could reach out beyond the headlines of the newspapers to affect our own lives.”
He notes “work getting too little attention.” He adds: “it was not surprising, for it was clearly an open question whether this first summer of ours at Oxford would also be the last.”
At the end of his first year he went biking in France, with some Medieval history books to study. After climbing a mountain, he writes that it was “the last completely untroubled vision of my boyhood.” He called it the “the end of the age of innocence.”
He climbed the mountain and slept near the summit because the family he was staying with told him the sunrise was spectacular from the top. When he came down the next day. He learned Germany has invaded Poland.
He took the train home and describes sees French soldiers mobilizing at train stations along the way. A few days before the new semester started, he and his friends went to the recruiting offices in Oxford for the different military branches.
He chose the Royal Air Force. He knew nothing about navigation or flying. But he told the interviewer that he found the thought of marching in the Army and doing rifle drills boring, and he said he would be no use in the Navy as he got seasick. They told him to wait for a call.
He describes parting company with his friends. His diary records it as “a cheerful occasion, we exchanged notes about our interviews and forecast adventurous and distinguished careers for each other.”
London at the time was no fun. Taxes were put on cigarettes and beer. Income tax rose 30%. There was nighttime blackout. Cinemas were closed. And everyone had to run to the bomb shelters when the sirens sounded.
In the end, my father got impatient, and decided to travel to Egypt where his parents lived – his father was a banker and Egypt was a British colony in those days. His plan was to see if he could accelerate his training by joining the RAF in Cairo.
So, in early May 1940 he set off. He decided to fly to Paris, rather than take the boat and train. “After all, I had joined the Air Force, I might as well see what flying was like,” he writes. From there he took a train to Venice and ship to Egypt.
On June 14 he listened to the radio as Nazi troops marched down the Champs-Elysees in Paris where he had been six weeks earlier.
His plan worked and he was put on a plane from Cairo to Nairobi, Kenya. It was a bumpy ride – almost 2,000 miles - on a small De Havilland Dragonfly , hopping from Khartoum in the Sudan, to Uganda and eventually Kenya.
On August 12, 1940, his diary records that Hitler launched the ‘Battle of Britain’; the biggest aerial combat in history. For three months German and British war planes fought in the skies over the skies of southeast England. Out of 5,000 aircraft involved, 3,700 were shot down, and 3,000 airmen killed.
It was that battle that inspired the famous words of Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
About 5,000 miles away, my father listened to the news from London on the radio in the mess each night. “There were anxious questions in our minds about the numbers in reserve, not only of aircraft but of pilots as well,” he writes.
Training to fly
He expressed frustration that his own flying course had not begun. He was limited to performing guard duty at the airfield “wondering if I should ever cease to be a distant observer and become a participant in these great events.”
Three days later, Aug 15, he records that training started: “the change puts a completely new complexion in life. I am as happy as a king at having work to do and at feeling that after all this time I am on the road to somewhere.”
The trainees had to rotate aircraft as there were only four Tiger Moth biplanes for the 35 eager pilots.
Despite having no idea about flying “I was relieved to find that I took to it as readily as anyone and was one of the first to attain the dignity of ‘going solo.’”
In October 1940, after a short three months in Kenya, they were told they were ready for combat.
They sailed back to England from Mombasa on the Athlone Castle, one of the most modern passenger liners in its day. It was a relaxing few weeks playing poker on deck, reading and listening to music.
The passengers took turns doing look-out duty for German submarines, the dreaded U-boats, that were wreaking havoc on British supply ships. But that didn’t seem to spoil his enjoyment of the trip.
“Today the world is very nearly perfect for 25 unprophetic airmen in the south Atlantic: a huge liner, a calm and vast blue sea, books and deckchairs and a complete lack of the slightest need to do anything,” he writes. “This really is a delightful journey, and as we plunge along at 20 knots in the face of a generous breeze, there could only be one improvement: there’s not a woman on board.”
Air Force "wings"
Arriving back in England in early December, he was immediately sent to train on another bigger plane, an Oxford Airspeed, with no break for Christmas.
After the New Year, he completed his training and earned his flying badge, or “wings.”
After one training flight he watched as one of his fellow pilots crashed the same plane he had been flying earlier. The pilot died, burned alive in his cockpit, just one hour short of completing his training and being allowed to join the others for a few days leave.
Clearly in shock, my father’s diary went silent for a week. When he picked up his pen again, he describes visiting his two brothers in London, to hear their bomb stories from the blitz, before heading to Scotland to join his new Squadron for a final round of training on his assigned plane, the Wellington bomber.
He was a bit disappointed that he wasn’t assigned to be a fighter pilot which he thought was more glamorous and exhilarating, especially after the heroics of the pilots in the Battle of Britain.
“Our role,” he wrote, “was to be what we considered the much more mundane task of carrying the fight to the enemy in the primitive bombers of the day, which were starting to go lumbering out across France and the Rhineland in night raids on German factories and marshalling yards.”
Not did he think dropping bombs was a great strategy. “I don’t relish the job. I don’t think it does much good,” he writes, suggesting that military targets lacked precision. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my days bombing civilians,” he adds.
On May 31 1941, he celebrated his 21st birthday in Lossiemouth in the north of Scotland, learning the technique of night flying.
He wrote later in his memoirs: “It appalls me now, to think of myself just 21, with so rudimentary a training behind me. In charge of 13 tons of valuable equipment, not to mention the bombs, and answerable for the safety of five other airmen as inexperienced as I was.”
The war wasn’t going so well. As he was finishing his night training in Scotland, he learned of the sinking of the HMS Hood, a British battleship, with 1,000 men.
And next it was the German invasion of Russia. In a rare moment of gloom, he observed; “I must say that at present I can see no way in which we can gain the victory – yet I have confidence that in the end we shall. It is illogical, but not stupid, to my mind. HOW we can win is a question of strategy and from that point of view a victory for us is impossible in the circumstances which prevail. WHETHER we shall win is a question of spirit, and in that respect, I don’t think we can be beaten.”
He was ordered to report to RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk to join 149 Squadron, not far from the east coast. It’s still a military airfield, now home to a US Air Force base, for refueling planes.
First boming raid
His diary entry for the first time hinted at some personal concern.
“I look as though I shall be on operations within a week or so, which is both pleasing and, shall we say, disquieting. Anyway, here we go.”
On his first evening at Mildenhall he watched as 14 planes took off and only 10 returned, two other damaged planes landed at other airfields he learned later.
His first assignment was to test a big bomb – it was so big it didn’t fit in the bomb doors. He described it as a large black outsize garbage bin. It turned out it was too big. They crashed on take-off. “Miraculously” the plane did not burst into fire, despite carrying full fuel tanks.
His next plane he also crashed, on landing this time. He forgot to put the flaps down and collapsed the undercarriage trying to turn to avoid other parked planes on the tarmac. That earned him a week’s leave. He spent it relaxing in the sun with friends bringing in the hay at a farm nearby.
He describes it as very serene: “Perhaps my hosts, older and wiser that I, guessed, as we brought in the hay together on those long summer evenings, that time might be running out for me before long.”
When he returned, he was put through his paces testing out his new plane ‘O for Orange’. His commander wanted to make absolutely sure he could land it.
That same night they got their flight orders. It was July 14, 1941. They were to be part of a large night raid on Bremen: 153 bombers attacking railway yards and nearby targets.
His last entry he noted that one his friends from night training in Scotland was already missing from a raid over Germany. “A pity,” he wrote, “as he was the most likeable chap I met up there and even younger than I am, only 20. “Let’s hope he’s a prisoner-of-war.”
His plane was one of those that never returned from that raid. They took a lot of flak over Bremen, lost some fuel, and eventually crash landed in the North Sea off Holland. They were lucky, it was full moon and a still sea.
They spent a week in a dinghy before they were picked up by a German seaplane, and was a prisoner-of-war until 1945.
(My father returned to Oxford in 1945 to finish his studies. He later went on to have career as a journalist. He died in 2005, aged 84).