August 24, 2015

"London Fights the Robots" by Ernest Hemingway

London Fights the Robots
Ernest Hemingway at the Dorchester Hotel in London in 1944 (source)
From Collier's magazine, August 19, 1944, pp. 17, 80-81. (See Hemingway's other World War II essays here.)

Collier's correspondent flies against the French rocket coast and, after a struggle with the censor, still manages to give us a vivid picture of the new R.A.F. plane fighting Hitler's pilotless bombs.

The Tempest is a great, gaunt airplane. It is the fastest pursuit job in the world and is as tough as a mule. It has been reported with a speed of 400 and should dive way ahead of its own noise. Where we were living, its job was to intercept the pilotless planes and shoot them down over the sea or in the open country as they came in on their sputtering roar toward London.

The squadron flew from four o'clock in the morning until midnight. There were always pilots sitting ready in the cockpits to take off when the Very pistol signaled, and there were always a number of planes on permanent patrol in the air. The fastest time I clocked a plane as airborne, from the sound of the pop of the flare pistol that would arc a twin flare over the dispersal area from the door of the Intelligence hut, was fifty-seven seconds.

As the flare popped, you would hear the dry bark of the starting cartridge and the rising scream of the motor, and these hungry, big, long-legged birds would lurch, bounce, and scream off with the noise of two hundred circular saws hitting a mahogany log dead on the nose. They took off downwind, crosswind, any way the weather lay, and grabbed a piece of the sky lurched up into it with the long, high legs folding up under them.

You love a lot of things if you live around them, but there isn't any woman and there isn't any horse, nor any before nor any after, that is as lovely as a great airplane, and men who love them are faithful to them even though they leave them for others. A man has only one virginity to lose in fighters, and if it is a lovely plane he loses it to, there his heart will always be.

Mustang is a tough, good name for a bad, tough, husky, angry plane that could have been friends with Harry Greb if Greb had an engine instead of a heart. Tempest is a sissy name out of Shakespeare, who is a great man anywhere, but they have put it onto an airplane that is sort of like a cross between Man o' War and Tallulah Bankhead in the best year either of them ever had. They were good years, too, and many a man has been taken by the bookies because he looked at a colt that had the swelling Big Red's neck had and not any of the rest of it. And there have been many husky voices since, but none that carried good across the Western ocean.

So now we have this squadron of Tempests. They were running out of terms for meteorological disturbances when they named that one. And all day long they shoot down this nameless weapon, day in and day out. The squadron leader is a fine man, tall, small-spoken the way a leopard is, with the light brown circles under his eyes and the odd purple complexion of a man whose face has been burned away, and he told the story of his exploit to me very quietly and truthfully, standing by the wooden table in the pilots' mess.

He knew it was true and I knew it was true and he was very precise in remembering exactly how it had been, because it was one of the first pilotless aircraft he had shot down, and he was very exact in details. He did not like to say anything personal but it was evidently all right to speak well of the plane. Then he told me about the other sort of shooting down. If you do not explode them in the air, you crash them.

"It is a sort of giant bubble of blast that rises from them," he said. "Bubble" has been quite a venturesome word to use, and he took confidence from it and tried a further word. "It is rather like a huge blossoming of air rising."

We were both embarrassed by this articulateness, and as my mind watched the giant bubble blossoming, all tension was taken away by an American flying in the same squadron, who said, "I dropped one on a greenhouse, and the glass rose straight up a million feet. What am I going to say to the guy who owns that greenhouse when we go into the pub tonight?"

"You can't just say exactly where you'll shoot them down," the squadron leader said, standing there, speaking shyly, patiently, and with strange eagerness, from behind the purple mask he would always wear now for a face. "They go very fast you know."

The Mark of Authority

The wing commander came in, angry, happy. He was short, with a lot of style and a tough, bad tongue. He was twenty-six, I found out later. I had seen him get out of an airplane before I knew he was the wing commander. It did not show then, nor did it show now when he talked. The only way you knew he was the wing commander was the way the other pilots said "Sir." They said "Sir" to the two squadron leaders, one of whom was a tough Belgian like a six-day bicycle racer, and the other was the shy, fine man who lived behind the destroyed face. But they gave a slightly different "Sir" to the wing commander, and the wing commander returned no change from it at all. Nor did he notice it when he pocketed it.

Censorship, in war, is a very necessary thing. It is especially necessary about aircraft because, until a new aircraft has fallen into enemy hands, no information as to the exact speeds, dimensions, characteristics or armament should be written, since all of that furnishes information the enemy wants and needs.

It is appearance, characteristics and performance that make a man love an airplane, and they, told truly, are what put the emotion into an article about one. They are all out of this article now. I hope the enemy never shoots down a Tempest, that the Tempest will never be released from the secret list, and that all I know and care about them can never be published until after the war.

All information about tactics employed in the shooting down of pilotless aircraft is out, too, along with all the conversation that would let you know how the types feel that do the shooting down. Because you cannot have the conversation without conveying the tactics. So there isn't much of this airplane now, except a guy loving an airplane.

It is written in a tough language because this was, in the main, a tough-speaking outfit. The only exception was the squadron leader, fragments of whose conversation are given. Some outfits in the R.A.F. are very rough spoken, and some speak as gently and correctly as in the film, Target for Tonight. I like ("like" is a very mild term to employ for the emotion felt) both kinds, and sometime, if it is ever possible to write anything interesting that the censor can conscientiously pass, I would like to try to show both kinds. In the meantime you get this.

Writing under censorship is necessary and proper in time of war, and we all censor out ourselves everything we think might be of any possible interest to the enemy. But in writing anything about the air on the basis of trying to include color, detail and emotion, there is a certain analogy to sports writing.

It is sort of as though in the old days you had found Harry Greb having a breakfast of double orders of ham and eggs and hashed brown potatoes in bed at nine o'clock in the morning on the day he was to fight Mickey Walker. Greb, placed on the scales, weighed exactly 12 pounds over the 162 he was to make at two o'clock that afternoon. Now suppose you had seen the weight rubbed and pounded off of him and got rid of by several other means, and him carried on the scales too weak to walk and almost too weak to curse you.

Then suppose you had seen the meal he ate and seen him enter the ring weighing exactly the same weight he had left bed with that morning. Then suppose you had seen the great, crowding, smashing, take it, come in again, thumbing, butting, mean, nasty, bloody, lovely fight he made, and you had to sum up the whole business on these terms: One of our fighters named Greb whose characteristics have not been revealed was reported to have encountered an M. Walker last night. Further details will be released in due course.

If this ever seems a screwy story, remember that through the sky at all times are passing pilotless aircraft which look, in flight, rather like an ugly metal dart with a white-hot bunghole, travel at speed up to 400 miles an hour, carry, as of this writing, 2,200 pounds of explosive in their noses, make a noise like a glorified motorcycle and, at this moment, are passing overhead the place where this is written.

One of my most esteemed colleagues told me in New York that he was not returning to the European theater because anything he might write would merely be a repetition of what he had already written. At this point I am authorized to state to my most esteemed colleague that the danger of repetition in a story is one of the more negligible hazards that his old co-workers are at present confronted with.

Now if you are following this piece closely—which I am not, due to a certain amount of windowpane trouble—we should be somewhere in southern England where a group of Tempest pilots have in seven days shot down their share of pilotless aircraft. Lots of people call this weapon the doodlebug, the robot bomb, the buzz bomb and other names hatched in the brains of the keener Fleet Street types, but so far nobody I have ever known who has fought him has referred to Joe Louis as Toots. So we will continue to refer to this weapon as the pilotless aircraft in this release from your pilotless-aircraft editor, and you can call it any of those quaint or coy names you wish, but only when you are alone.

The day before your pilotless-aircraft editor started studying the interception angle, he or I (I guess it is I, although sometimes it doesn't seem the right man in the right place and I have thought some of leaving the whole thing and going back to writing books in stiff covers), went out in one of forty-eight Mitchell bombers—that is, eight boxes of six bombers each—to bomb one of the sites from which the pilotless aircraft are launched.

These sites can be readily identified by the merest tyro by the quantity of old Mitchell bombers which are strewed around them and by the fact that, when you get close to them, large, black circular rings of smoke appear alongside of the vehicle you are riding in. These circular black rings of smoke are called flak, and this flak is the author of that old piece of understatement about two of our aircraft failed to return.

Sky View of the Target

Well, we (that is Wing Commander Lynn, who is nice company in an airplane and who has exactly the same voice on the intercom when Kees, the bombardier, has her held in on the run and is saying, "Bombing—Bombing—Bombing—Bombing—" as though you were not on the last mile) bombed this site with proverbial pin-point accuracy. I had a nice look at the site which appeared to be a gigantic concrete construction lying on its side or its belly (depending on whether you saw it just before the run or just after it) in a woods completely surrounded by bomb craters. There were two small clouds that didn't look lonely the way clouds were in "I wandered lonely as a cloud."

There were many rings of black smoke in a line coming right straight alongside of us inside the box between us where the other Mitchell on our right was going along in the air, looking just like a picture of a Mitchell in an advertisement by the manufacturers. Then, with the smoke rings forming along her side, the belly of this kite—looking just like in moving pictures—opened, pushing out against the air, and the bombs all dropped out sideways as if she were having eight long metal kittens in a hurry.

We all were doing this, although you could not see what anybody did except this one. Then we all went home just as fast as we could go home, and that is bombing. Unlike a lot of other things, the best part is afterward. It isn't so much how much you learn. It is the wonderful people you meet.

Your pilotless-aircraft editor never went to college (here we call it a university), so now he is going to the R.A.F. instead, and the main subject he is studying is trying to understand English on the radio telephone. Face to face with an Englishman, I can understand almost everything he says. I can speak, read and write Canadian clearly and have a smattering of Scottish and a few words of New Zealand. I can understand enough Australian to draw cards and order drinks and to shove my way into a bar if it is crowded. South African I dominate as a spoken tongue almost as well as I do Basque, but English over the RT is just a glorious mystery.

Close up, over the intercom of a bomber, I get most of it. When you press the button on the stick, that isolates conversation to what is said in the cockpit, so you have those long, intimate chats that go, "Wonder who that b— is that's talking," and you answer, "Don't know. Must be the same Jerry that on the night of D-Day kept saying 'Turn back. Turn back. The operation has been canceled!'"

"Wonder how he gets on our wave length?"

You shrug your shoulders and take your thumb off the button. That close conversation I get all right, but when real Englishmen speaking English start talking to one another between one kite and another kite and back and forth from control, I just study it hard like homework, as if you had brought home somebody's calculus book and were still on plane geometry.

Actually, I cannot understand English very well yet on the ordinary telephone, so, having been indoctrinated in the Good Neighbor policy, I always say, "Yes." and just make them repeat the time the car will be around in the morning to take us to whatever field we will be starting from.

How Not to Avoid Danger

This accounts for many of the curious sorties your pilotless-aircraft correspondent goes on. He is not a man who has a perpetual urge to seek peril in the sky or to defy the laws of gravity; he is simply a man who, not understanding very well the nature of the propositions offered over the telephone due to faulty earwork, constantly finds himself involved in the destruction of these monsters in their hellish lairs or in attempts at interception in that fine, 400-mile-an-hour airplane, the Mosquito.

At present, your pilotless-aircraft editor has stopped all telephone calls of any description in order to attempt to bring the story up to date before someone proposes something so startling and so generous that your editor in the nature of an operation that he would fail in his duties to this great book to have recorded what has happened up to this time. However, before all calls were stopped, two or three rather lovely propositions were received, and I understand that there is a feeling freely expressed in some quarters that, "Ernie is yellow. With a chance to go on absolutely wizard ops, he is up in his room at that pub, doing what do you think?"

"What?" in a horrified tone.


"My God! The old boy's had it!"