In the Foreword of this book, written in May, 1941, novelist Margaret Kennedy looks back over the last year.
A year ago today the French line was broken near Mézières. From that day until the end of the first phase of the Battle of Britain, in October, we in this country were living through a supreme experience: supreme in the collective life which is our history and supreme in our individual lives. Many of us were more frightened than we had ever expected to be. Many, before the year was out, found themselves being braver than they had ever expected to be.. We discovered unsuspected passions and loyalties. We realised which things we valued most.
Where Stands A Wingéd Sentry is Kennedy’s account of life in England from May to September 1940. The book was written up from her diaries of the time, for an American audience. She changed the names of people & places & acknowledges that much has changed even in the short period between the summer of 1940 & 1941 when the book was published. I found it to be an incredibly honest account of the emotions & fears of one woman & her family in a period when a German invasion seemed imminent & inevitable. It reminded me of the comforts of hindsight & of what I really value in the fiction & memoirs I’ve read of this period. The knowledge that we have, that Germany would not invade & that although there would be hardship, destruction & death, Britain would survive, was not available to Margaret Kennedy. No matter how much research a modern novelist does into the period, they can never create the atmosphere & the immediacy of a first-hand account like this one.
In 1940, Margaret Kennedy was living in Surrey with her three children, a friend’s daughter, her mother-in-law & her children’s Nanny. Her husband, David, was a barrister in London, coming down for evenings & weekends. The invasion of France seems unbelievable at first, even after the German invasions of Norway, Holland, Denmark & Belgium. However, the reality soon hits home with air raid drills & road blocks being placed along the coast roads in preparation for Hitler’s inevitable invasion of England.
Cotter says they are hastily putting up log barricades on all the roads and taking down the signposts, and the farmers have orders to put obstructions in large fields where troop-carrying planes might be landed. The British Legion has been told to guard the local telephone exchange. There are notices in the village telling us what to do if we see parachute troops coming down. We are to lock up all cars and bicycles at night and if we leave a car unattended it must pretty well be disembowelled. Apparently it won’t do to just take out the ignition key because the Germans know about hairpins.
Kennedy & her husband decide that she & the children should move to Porthmerryn, a Welsh coastal village where Kennedy lived as a child. David will stay in London to work & also because he’s an air raid warden & his mother will return with him. Nanny & the children go on ahead while Margaret closes up the Surrey house. As the children set off for Porthmerryn, they see trainloads of soldiers returning from the evacuation at Dunkirk. Friends come down to say goodbye & Margaret is reminded of the Munich crisis. The same feelings of unreality & the same conversations with friends canvassing all the many possibilities.
Porthmerryn is a village of three communities. Downalong, where the fisherman & local people live; Upalong, full of retired middle class professionals who’ve bought houses there to take advantage of the fishing & the golf; & the Artists, who live between the two communities. The Artists arrived in the 1890s to paint the coast & the seagulls & more artists come every year to live cheaply & soak up the atmosphere. Kennedy is surprised that Porthmerryn has not changed at all since she was last there. The war doesn’t seem to have touched it at all except that all the fishing boats went off to Dunkirk & haven’t yet returned. even that didn’t matter much because it’s not the fishing season so they weren’t needed. There’s still plenty to eat, the blackout is very sketchily enforced & the weekenders come down for their holidays as usual. People who went to the East coast for their holiday last year have come to Wales this year.
The Kennedys consider sending the children overseas but worry about the dangers of the voyage. They’re also uncomfortable about the inequality of the schemes on offer. Middle class children will have advantages that working class children would never be offered & eventually they decide that the children will not go. In July, the first air raid warning causes considerable panic but, apart from the harbour, there seem to be no obvious targets in the area. Nevertheless everyone goes through their drills & the children take it all in their stride, incorporating air raids into their games & dropping to the ground just as they’ve been taught when a loud bang goes off unexpectedly. Margaret’s reaction to the raids is not so much fear as anger with a rueful realisation that she’s essentially helpless to change her circumstances.
After luncheon I climbed along the cliffs to Spaniard’s Point and sat on the end of it and contemplated the sea. Suddenly a huge plane shot down out of the sky. I don’t know where it cam from, but as it roared over Spaniard’s Point I could see the black crosses on it.
I wasn’t frightened, I was in such a rage. My skin crawled on my bones and I jumped up and shouted:
“You …!” (A word no lady would use.)
And I picked up a small stone and flung it at the plane. At least I meant to fling it at the plane, but it went in the opposite direction, as things always do when I throw them.
There is humour in the book as well as the constant worry & uncertainty about the future. I loved her description, half serious, half embarrassed, about the village’s reaction to the young R.A.F. pilots,
Everybody loves the R.A.F. Today i saw a young pilot walking down Fore Street – one of those pink, stodgy-looking boys who are working these miracles … People turned to look after him, as they passed, with a kind of worship in their eyes. The shop people came to their doors, and all the way up the hill people turned round to stare. We did not cheer. There was a feeling in the air which went far beyond cheering.
Then there’s her description of the influx of those she calls the Gluebottoms, people who have left the cities for the safety of the country but expect all the facilities they had at home. She’s most annoyed at the number of able-bodied young women who seem to have no thought of joining the services.
I look at the Gluebottoms, sitting on the sands until it is safe for them to go back to their comfortable lives. It’s well for them that the shelterers (those who have been left homeless from raids) are not all Communists and that there is such a strong feeling in this country for tolerance and common sense. England after the war is going to belong to the shelterers. And it won’t be the England Bob (a Communist friend) wants, or the Gluebottoms’ England either. It will be a land fir for human beings.
Meanwhile, Margaret worries about David, living in London & spending his nights as an air raid warden. His experiences give a different perspective to the family’s life on the coast.
One of the wardens, bombed out of his sleeping place, pulled himself from the wreckage and walked along the street to get to a friend’s house to ask if he could sleep there the rest of the night. In the blackout he walked into a rope stretched between two houses to stop people going up that street because the houses were unsafe. He fell over the rope and both the houses fell down. In the warden’s log the entry just says, “At 3.30 A.M. Mr Gamble collided with two houses and demolished them.”
Margaret is often worried about the morality or otherwise of the decisions she & David make – about the children, about where they live & the contribution they can make to the war effort. She knows how lucky she is & spends a lot of time praying for the country as well as for her family’s safety, while also realising that Germans & Italians are praying the same prayers to the same God & wondering how to reconcile that. Early in the book, she attends a service for the National Day of Prayer & remembers singing the same hymn, O God our help in ages past, at the memorial service for her brother, killed in Palestine in 1918, then again, only a few months later, at the Armistice. At the end of the summer of 1940, the invasion scare seems to have died away and, although the bombing raids continue, the weather will deter any plans of invasion until the following year.
The leaves are beginning to turn and today I have rinsed through and dried our bathing dresses and put them away till next year. The summer is over.
What a summer!
I was just going to write that I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. But when I think how lucky we have been so far, and what others have had to suffer, I feel I have no right to say that. Some great sorrow may come to this family still. I may then earn my right to say it.
But we have certainly taken life to pieces and found out what it is made of. We have come a long, long way since we all went to church on the National Day of Prayer.
I read about Where Stands A Wingéd Sentry from the extensive list of books on WWII by women on Scott’s blog, Furrowed Middlebrow, & I was able to borrow a PDF copy of the book from Open Library. The title is a quotation from a poem by Henry Vaughan which I posted in Sunday Poetry last weekend.