The Face of War by Martha Gelhorn — Extract

In the late 80s, early 90s, I put together Business as Usual, a stage show about life on the Home Front in the UK during the Second World War. I gathered all manner of items from memoirs and contemporary entertainment. One of the pieces was this extract from The Face of War, which I had just finished reading.

It is a book I cannot recommend too highly. Martha Gellhorn’s writing, as I believe this extract shows, recreates her experiences beautifully.

Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998) was a war correspondent for nearly fifty years. From the Spanish Civil War in 1937 through the wars in Central America in the mid-eighties, her candid reports reflected her feelings for people no matter what their political ideologies, and the openness and vulnerability of her conscience. “I wrote very fast, as I had to,” she says, “afraid that I would forget the exact sound, smell, words, gestures, which were special to this moment and this place.” Whether in Java, Finland, the Middle East, or Vietnam, she used the same vigorous approach. Collected here together for the first time, The Face of War is what The New York Times called “a brilliant anti-war book.” Amazon blurb.

The moon was skimmed over with cloud, and around the field the great black Lancasters waited.  Every man went tight and concentrated into himself, ready for the job ahead; those who  were going together made a solid unit, and anyone who had not done what they did and would never go where they were going could not understand and had no right to intrude.  We could only stand in the cold darkness and feel how hard we were all waiting.

We drove to the control station, which looked like a trailer painted in yellow and black checks, and though there was no wind the cold ate into us.  The motors were warming up, humming and heavy.  One by one the big black Lancasters rolled around the perimeter and got into position on the runway.  A green light blinked and there was a roar  that beat back in an echo from the sky.

The first plane was gone into the blackness, not seeming to move very fast, and we saw the tail-light lifting, and presently the thirteen planes floated against the sky.  Then they changed into distant slow-moving stars.  That was that.  The chaps were off.  The airdrome felt bleak.   First you wait for them to go and then you wait for them to get back.

At around four o’clock in the morning  the duty officers go to the control tower.  The operations officers walk about  and smoke pipes and say casual things to each other and the waiting gets to be a thing you can touch.  Then the first plane calls in to the control tower.  Two WAAFs, who have been up all night and are still looking wide-awake, perfectly collected, begin to direct the planes in:

‘Hello George pancake over.’

In the glassed-in room you hear the pilots answer.  Then the girl again.

‘Hello Queen airdrome one thousand over.’

The quiet  night suddenly becomes alive  with the great searchlights  over the runway and the wing lights of the plane far off and then nearer, the noise of their motors circling the field, the ambulances rolling out, and the girls’ voices going on and on, cool, efficient, unchanging.

‘Hello Uncle airdrome twelve fifty over.’

The planes come in slowly at first and then four of them circling and landing.  The more planes that come in and are marked up on the blackboard, the worse the waiting gets.  None of this shows.  No voice changes, no one makes a movement that is in any way unusual, the routine proceeds as normally as if people were waiting in line to buy theater tickets.  Nothing shows and nothing is said and it is all there.

Finally all the planes were in except P for Peter and J for Jig.  They were late.  The job was a piece of cake.  They should be in.  They would of course be in.  Obviously.  Any minute now.  No one mentioned the delay.  We started to go down to the interrogation room and the Group Captain remarked without emphasis that he would ‘Stay up here for a bit until the chaps got in.’

The crews of the eleven planes that had returned were coming into the basement operations room for questioning.  They looked tireder and  lines under their eyes were deeply marked. The Group Captain in command sat on a table and spoke to the crew members by name, saying, ‘Have a good trip, Bill?’ ‘Fairly good, sir.’ ‘Have a good trip, Bob?’ ‘Not bad, sir.’ ‘Have a good trip, Tom?’ ‘Quite good, sir.’

That was all there was to that.  Then he said, ‘Anyone get angry with you?’ ‘No, sir, didn’t see a thing.

Then it was known that all the planes were back, and all undamaged and no one hurt, and there was a visible relief.  But everyone was tired, anxious to get through the questioning and back to the mess, back to the famous operational fried egg, and fried potatoes, the margarine and the marmalade and the bread that seems to be partially made of sand, and then to sleep.