Baker, James

Letter
Date:
July 19, 1941
To:
Mom
From:
Jim
July 19th, 1941

Dear Mom,

Yes, I am still here as you can see. I received a lovely parcel from you day before yesterday and a letter. Really Mom, you know you shouldn't spend so much for a parcel. I certainly appreciated that - I can assure you, but can you honestly afford all that? The shaving equipment and cake were especially welcome. The cake goes to a party tomorrow to help out the rations. I hope it is alright. I know it will be though - for you never have failures, do you?

We have had a very interesting day today. It all started at 10.00 this morning when the hospital padre came in and announced, "Quentin Reynolds will give a lecture in the Auditorium at 2.30 this afternoon." There was a ripple of excitement through the ward and everyone resolved to be there. Quentin Reynolds is an American war correspondent very much in the news lately, ever since he broadcast a particularly uncomplimentary and caustic letter to Dr. Goebbels just a few weeks ago. The British propaganda has been taking a particularly heavy beating from public opinion lately. They say it is too wishy-washy, too refined to be of any use. Therefore this strong, direct man-to-man talk was hailed with great enthusiasm.

Well, it seems that everyone in the hospital must have promised himself that he too "would be there" for by 2.30, the room was filled to overflowing with patients, officers and nurses. Every person who could possibly get there was waiting expectantly. Precisely at 2.30 Lady Astor, three men in civilian clothes and the Colonel-in-charge of the hospital took their places on the stage and an expectant hush fell over everyone.

Lady Astor introduced the principle speaker in a fitting manner. The guest of the afternoon then stood up, said a few words to those on the platform and slowly turned to face his expectant audience. A thrill like an electric shock seemed to run through the crowded room as we all waited. He is a big man - big in body, big in mind. A high wide forehead, big eyes set wide apart in a pink fleshy face, big nose and a wide good-humoured mouth. He is the kind of a man who you mentally associate with tremendous enterprises. Your first impression is that here certainly is a typical Western American, a rancher or a wheat farmer. That is why his voice is such a surprise; a slow southern drawl - very deep and resonant, not Texan but rather Virginian or South Carolinian.

He did not say much of importance but what he did say was immensely funny. He has a very caustic tongue and what is more important, is not afraid to use it. But (and this is a very important feature) he says everything in such a good humoured way that it is impossible to take offense at the remarks he makes. He was particularly uncomplimentary in what he said about the way Englishmen were conducting the war. He said: "They are altogether too gentlemanly. They cannot take off their kid gloves. They are not like the Poles for instance. Just a few weeks ago I was with a Polish squadron who are new patrolling the Channel. I was in the Operations Room when the reports of the day's patrols came in, and one of them in particular struck me peculiarly. It read: ‘2 Messerschmit 109s shot down. 50 German soldiers killed'

I thought that was very strange and evidently the CO. did too for he called the pilot in for questioning. "Look here old man," he said. "What's all this drivel about 50 soldiers? You were supposed to be patrolling in mid-Channel. Surely there were no soldiers walking around in the clouds out there!" ‘Oh no,' said the Pole in his broken English. ‘It like this. Me on patrol over Channel when me see Me.109 - 2000 ft. below. Me dive down, go Boom-boom and down he go, all way down. He did! Then me chase another Me.109. He fly away very fast but me fast too. Me catch him and go Boom-boom again. Down he go too. Then me wake up and see coast of France below. Me come down lower over village and see 100 German soldiers in square. ‘Ah-ha' me say, ‘here is a pig-dog who kill my countrymen.' So I go Boom-boom! 50 Germans dead! Then me fly home. Me happy!'

"Yes, but look here...." spluttered the CO. indignantly, "You can't do that sort of thing. Don't you know it is against regulations to fly over France? It is forbidden. It is too great a risk. You might be shot down and then we would lose you - but more important, we would lose your plane too. If you ever do that again, you will be court-marshalled. Do you understand?"

‘Yes sir!' replied the Pole. ‘Me understand: next time me no report!'

Another story illustrating the spirit of these remarkable pilots was as follows: "A young Pole - whose whole family was last heard of in a concentration camp in Poland, was on Patrol over France in one of the recent RAF sweeps. He shot up a Me. 109F pretty badly but the pilot managed to bail out and started to float earthward. Now any British pilot would have let the pilot float peacably down to earth because a gentleman never "shoots a sitting duck"...but not so our Pole! He finished his dive, straightened out and began to circle his prey. Round and round he circled, thinking all the time. ‘Shall me shoot him down? No, me won't shoot him...he brave officer like me. Me shoot him No! But then he pig-German too. Me shoot him Yes! Me shoot him No? Me shoot him Yes? Me dumm! - Me shoot him No! Me got no more damn ammunition!'

Another funny story to illustrate one of the many mistakes the English are making: "A few months ago as I was going into Broadcasting House in London, I ran into a corporal of the Balloon Barrage and we got talking. During the course of our chat he told me he was going to broadcast in about half an hour. ‘But why were you picked for this special honor?" I asked, "Surely there are several thousand Balloon Barrage men in London. Why were you picked in particular?" ‘Oh!' he replied: ‘I am in charge of a crew who had a very brilliant record. We have (or rather our Balloon has) brought down 3 planes in the last 3 months.' "That's wonderful!" I said: "What kind were they?" He replied with the most innocent look you ever saw, ‘A Dornier and two Hurricanes!'

"Early last fall I was attending a memorial service held in the St. Paul's Cathedral to Billy Bishop, the first American ‘killed in action'. I came outside with two friends of mine - both Americans and both Pilot Officers in the RAF. As we walked down the street we passed the Daily Express building and we noticed a huge American flag hanging out the window. ‘Say' said one of my friends, ‘Isn't that the Daily Express building?' "Yes", I said. ‘And the owner is Lord Beaverbrook, isn't he?' "Yes" I said again. ‘And Lord Beaverbrook is a Canadian, isn't he?' "Yes, I said for the third time, but what of it?" I asked. ‘Well that's pretty damn good isn't it? An English newspaper - owned by a Canadian, flying an American flag. That really represents something doesn't it? Yes siree, that's pretty damn good!' "Yes", I said: "That's pretty God-damned good!"

Mr Reynolds sat down amidst loud and long applause - and when she could be heard over the din, Lady Astor thanked him and then turned to introduce the second speaker, "Mr. Whittaker. He has just spent fifteen months in Italy so I am sure he will be able to tell us much about that unhappy country."

Mr. Whittaker stood up and - what a contrast! A thin dapper gentleman of average height, very neatly and quietly dressed, with a sharp expressive face, the dark complexion that is the Mediteranean's gift to its visitors, darting black eyes in which lurked a good humoured twinkle and white long-fingered sensitive hands which had a nervous habit of intertwining themselves in front of the owner's second button, seemingly without his volition. But again the most remarkable feature was the voice; a soft, carressing voice, low-pitched but penetrating with a most charming South Virginian accent.

"Well ladies and gentlemen, I am afraid there is not much I can tell you about Italy for I have found that English people are - on the whole, extraordinarily familiar with the state of affairs in that unhappy country. When I left, the best men of the nations were prisoners in British hands - nearly 200,000 of them and the rest were hardly better than German puppets, moving only when pulled by a string in German hands. The people are very disconsolate and unhappy. I have seldom seen such universal unhappiness. Italy never expected to enter the war so soon, no one wanted war with France. One man alone wanted war...that man was Mussolini. He was afraid that after the collapse of France - which he could see coming, the British could never withstand the German onslaught...the war would be over and Italy would never get anything. She would be left outside when the spoils were divided. Germany would get everything, Italy nothing. So he declared war on helpless France hoping to grab a share of the loot. There was absolutely no preparation, the Navy was caught napping, the Army knew nothing about it. What happened is now a matter for history to describe.

The Italians have completely lost faith in their government. No government official is trusted anymore. Least of all do they trust Mussilini. The Italian peasants have a very unpleasant way of rubbing their hands very suggestively together and saying "When the Germans crack we will get rid of Mussilini". Mussilini is tottering from his seat. He is unwell and very, very unhappy.

Count Ciano is a peculiar man. He is convinced that the British will ultimately win and with that foreboding forever lurking in the back of his mind, he is converting all his money and government bonds into real estate as fast as he can. The Italian people know this and his fears are the laughing stock of Italy. Each new transaction is known the length and breadth of Italy as soon as it is completed. For instance: it is known that Ciano once approached a merchant who deals exclusively in mother-of-pearl and wanted to buy an interest in the business. The merchant refused but suggested that if Ciano wanted to invest his money soundly, he might buy some "stock". Ciano did and now Italians in the district laugh amongst themselves and point scornfully to a house high on a hill which is like a huge oyster shell inside. Mother-of-pearl door handles, telephones, bell pulls, electric-light switches, everything it is possible to have, is mother-of-pearl. The Italians have a most efficient grapevine system by which the true state of affairs as broadcast by the BBC is spread amongst the people. Everyone listens to the BBC news bulletins - your barber, your cabby, your porter, they can all tell you what the news on the BBC broadcast was all about 10 minutes after it has happened. They also have a malicious way of disconcerting their own government officials by spreading fantastic stories of the success of Italian armies - which no one believes, but spread as assiduously as possible to embarrass their government. For instance, one of the stories they spread after the Italian armies disastrous defeats in Libya (which news incidentally they received from the BBC) was to the effect that 200,000 British troops had been taken prisoner. Well, Italians had been taken prisoner!

You know I wasn't expelled from Italy by the Italians. It was the Germans who had me expelled. The Italians were very apologetic about the whole matter. When the official came to tell me about it (an old friend of mine) he said: ‘Please do not let me expel you for if you do that, you will have a police record and then you will have difficulty getting back into the country when the war is over. Why don't you give up your post voluntarily and thus save us both many difficulties?' "Oh, don't worry about that" I said: "I expect to be back here in six months. But - I hope it will be in uniform with the American Expeditionary Force!"

In answer to a question: "What do the people think of their Pope?", Mr. Whittaker laughingly replied "Italian people say the Pope is the best anti-Aircraft defence we ever had!" When asked about the reaction to the sabotage caused by the British parachutists was - he said, They were tremendously enthusiastic about it and admired them for it." He also told us a funny story about them which the American Consul had told all the journalists at a press conference. It seems that when the British had landed and rendezvoused in a tiny Italian village, they found that the only foreign language amongst them was German...so they resolved to pose as German troops. They then approached the villagers and asked them to carry their explosives for them. The villagers consented - more from fear of the supposed Germans than from any desire to oblige them. And thus - all unwittingly, they helped blow up their own public works!

Mr. Whittaker said that the paratroops - after they had been taken prisoner (incidently each one carried out his particular task successfully, in fact it was the most complete job of sabotage that anyone could wish for) they were all in excellent spirits and were continually boasting how they would escape. Once they did escape but unfortunately, were caught again and imprisoned. An officer came ‘round and severely reprimanded them for trying to escape. One of their number piped up when the officer's angry voice had died down, "That's all right matey. We'll try to escape whenever we can. And next time we do, we'll turn the whole bloomin' camp loose as well!" ‘But how will you escape from Italy?' asked the dumbfounded officer. "Oh! we'll steal one of your destroyers out there in the bay and go join the bloomin' British Navy..." said our irrepressible Englishman.

Mr. Whittaker also spoke of an incident that took place in Lisbon where he was stranded for two months waiting for transportation. He got talking to two American journalists who had recently been expelled from Germany. They told him that the general opinion among higher military circles in Berlin was that Germany could not possibly beat Britain now. The best they could do would be to produce a stalemate lasting several years. If it weren't for the Russian menace on their flank they could almost feel safe. So they resolved to attack the Russians - and annihilate them, for they felt certain that they would receive better treatment from British hands than they would from Russian hands when the final reckoning came. Two weeks before the declared war in Russia, they began their preparations with results that we have since seen."

Lady Astor then thanked Mr. Whittaker and introduced the third speaker - Mr. Ben Robinson from T----. He told us many funny stories about Lady Astor. One of them was about Lady Astor's house in Plymouth. Lady Astor has a house down in Plymouth where she has lived for many years. Last fall when the raids were very bad and the south coast towns were being heavily blitzed, she resolved to go down to Plymouth and "be with her people" as she said. Mr. Robinson accompanied her. One day they had the King and Queen for supper. After supper Lady Astor had a premonition that a raid was due and she advised their Majesties to go before it came, which they did, leaving at 6.30. Sure enough, about 8.30 the sirens wailed, the guns started barking and bombs came screaming down. Lady Astor went outside on the porch to watch but a warden ordered her inside. They all went down into the cellar and sat there, huddled together, listening to the progress of the raid. Bombs were falling all around them and they were all very frightened, fully expecting the house to be hit in the next minute or so. Lady Astor began to recite the Psalm, "Thou art my comfort and my strength O God. In Thee I place my trust". Just then the warden stuck his head into the shelter and shouted, "There's an incendiary bomb on the roof!" Lady Astor was immediately transformed: "Quick! Quick! out you go - everybody! Get the pumps, get the sand buckets. Here you - get the sand buckets! Oh H---! where are those d--- sand buckets!!!" Evidently the old lady didn't trust God too far!
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