Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Two Laments for Cologne 30th May 1942 -First Thousand Bomber Raid

                 Cologne 30th May 1942  -Thousand Bomber Raid 
                                             Mary E. Harrison/Vera Brittain


                                         The National Archives UK (Mass bomber raid on Cologne)-artist unknown

          On the night of 30th May 1942/31st May 1942 the first of Bomber Command's Thousand Bomber Raids was directed against Cologne.  Found two poems related to the attack, both by British women. 

Mary E. Harrison 

 As a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force ( WAAF) and an artist, Mary E. Harrison made a model of Cologne that was used in the planning of the raid of 30th May/31st May 1942. She was horrified to see photographs of the results of the bombing, which inspired her poem 'My Hands'

The poem was published in two Oasis Salamander Trust anthologies,  'More Poems of the Second World War ;the Oasis Selection''. (1989), also in 'The Voice of War' Poems of the Second World War ' (1995) . Then again in  'Shadows of War- British Women's Poetry of the Second World War' edited by Anne Powell, ( 1999). Not clear when it was first written or published. 

The biographical information on Mary in the 1995 'Oasis' anthology advised that she trained as a model maker at RAF Nuneham Courtney, Oxfordshire, and posted to Allied Central Interpretation Unit (Photographic Intelligence) RAF Medmenham , Bucks. 'My Hands' is the only poem that I have found by her in print, or referenced on line.

The poem's strength is the way that  forged connections between an artist's model and  reality. There is no attempt to talk about war in oblique detached terms. 

My Hands

" Do you know what it is like to have death in your hands?
When you haven't a murderer's mind?
Do you know how it feels when you could be the cause
Of a child being blind?.
How many people have died through me
From the skill in my finger tips?
For I fashion the clay and portray the landscape
As the fliers are briefed for their trips."

I have reproduced the first verse, a longer extract can be found on the Oasis Trust Website

Vera Brittain  

Vera Brittain was a pacifist  during World War 2, and leading member of the Peace Pledge Union. Though more famous for her writing relating to World War 1, Vera wrote extensively about World War 2 as well. 

Lament for Cologne 

"You stood so proudly on the flowing Rhine,
Your history mankind's, your climbing spires
Crowned with the living light that man desires
To gild his path from bestial to divine
Today, consumed by war's unpitying fires,
You lie in ruins,weeping for your dead
Your shattered monuments the funeral pyres

Perhaps, when passions die and slaughters cease
The mothers on whose homes destruction fell,
Who waiting sought their children through the hell
Of London, Warsaw, Rotterdam, Belgrade, 
Will seek Cologne's sad women, unafraid
And cry's God's cause is ours. Let there be peace.! " 

Reproduced by kind permission of Mark Bostridge and T.J. Brittain-Catlin, Literary Executors for the Estate of Vera Brittain 1970.

The poem was re-published in Vera's 'Seed of Chaos' (1944) ,but  originally published in 'The Friend' magazine on 19th June 1942. 'Seeds of Chaos' contained a  survey of Allied attacks on German cities. Vera stated that  Cologne had been subjected to repeated raids as from 30th May 1942 and by the time of writing the devastation of this  city was the equivalent of 'seventeen Coventries ' ; a reference to the notorious Coventry air raid of the 14th November 1940. In her memoir of 1925- 1950, 'Testament of Experience' ( 1957),, Vera claimed that  "news bulletins, boasted that 70,000 were killed or injured " during the 30th May 1942 night raid on Cologne : RAF figures mention 500 dead, with 5,000 injured. 

I am fascinated, and sometimes exasperated, by the writing of Vera Brittain and other pacifists of World War 2. The hopeless naivete, , the endless call for 'negotiations' with Germany when Appeasement had clearly failed, and their  lack of any coherent tactics to oppose Nazism. Moreover, I totally understand criticism  that the deaths incurred during the raid on Cologne 30th May 1942 are not extensive  compared with the millions of casualties incurred during the Eastern Front, the Holocaust. the Japanese invasion of China, the vast numbers of Polish slave labourers worked to death by the Germans, the hundreds of thousands of victims of the pro-Nazi Croatian Ustasha let loose in Yugoslavia, and more. 

 I can even see the objection that George Orwell and also some 'absolutist' pacifists had, albeit from opposing viewpoints, that Vera and the Bombing Restriction Committee were somehow trying to 'humanize' war via campaigning against the 'saturation' bombing of cities. 

But it's hard to remain aloof when Vera connects Cologne with other bombed cities of Europe. Her poem was drawing on the notion that there is something essential about all human experience during a bombing raid. That there's still a human price to pay in fighting even a 'just' war. Poetry is an obvious vehicle to remind one of this fact. Most of all, a writer of Vera's standing, publishing a statement lamenting the German losses that resulted from RAF bombing, was a courageous act in 1942. 

'Seed of Chaos' was reprinted along with 'Humiliation of Honour' under the title 'One Voice-Pacifist Writings from the Second World War' -Vera Brittain, with a foreword by Shirley Williams. ( Continuum, 2005) 

An alternative view : George Orwell v, Vera Brittain

George Orwell was highly critical of 'Seed of Chaos' . 

 " Pacifism is a tenable position, provided that you are willing to take the consequences. But all talk of 'limiting' or 'humanizing' (sic) war is sheer humbug, based on the fact that the average human being never bother to examine catchwords. "

Tribune 19th May 1944.

The George Orwell v. Vera Brittain disagreement re-emerged in recent years, with an accusation that Vera falsely claimed that George Orwell changed his views on civilian bombing  in her book 'Testament of Experience' , which was  published well after Orwell's death in 1950.  The Orwell Society website  below links to a piece 'Vera Brittain v. George Orwell' by Richard Westwood , from February 12th 2012. 

Orwell Society

Friday, 5 May 2017

Latest News May 2017 and some thoughts on Keidrych Rhys

                            Latest news 

                                            Image: Nijmegen, kerkhof Graafseweg, monument vergissingsbombardement 
                                          ( to commemorate the casualties from the Allied bombardment of  22nd February 1943)
                                           With thanks to Wikipedia commons 

The Great War at Sea Poetry 'Weebly' website has now closed. Thank you to everyone who has offered support over the last three years.  Posts from the website have been archived at

Have been very pleased to publish 'The World is a Broken Place' parts 1 & 2 ', interview with Professor John Guzlowski , and his writing about his parents' experience as Polish slave labourers during World War 2 and the family's subsequent lives as 'Polack' immigrants to the US. His last collection of poetry and short prose 'Echoes of Tattered Tongues' has already been reviewed on this blog a few weeks ago.
Full interview is also to be found at

I have written an article about the poetry of the North African campaign 1940-1943 which the Second World War Experience Centre (SSWEC)  are considering publishing in their magazine 'Everyone's War'- and on line-  later this year,  Their website can be found here. SWWEC.


                                                        Keidrych Rees         


                                                     image courtesy of the National Gallery 
                                                     Photo of Kedrych Rhys taken in 1943.

Currently reading Keidrych Rhys  'The Van Pool : Collected Poems'  edited by Charles Mundye, published by Seren, 2012. Extremely helpful in supplying biographical information and also great to have a definitive collection of Rhys' work. 

                             "Worse than branched antlers in the blood stream
                             Worse than the tapping pain of madness in the veins
                             For grieving mother's is her boy's death
                             In the smoke -plumed spinning reaches of smooth air."
                             'Lament '

This collection reprints the whole of the original book ' The Van Pool and Other Poems' that was first published in 1942. Further poems are added, along with translations from Welsh that  Keidrych Rhys  worked on. 

 Keidrych Rhys ( 1915- 1987)  was born William Ronald Rees Jones, and took the name Keidrych Rhys in 1940. He served in the London Welsh Regiment as an anti-aircraft gunner after being called up in 1940, and was stationed in Kent during the Battle of Britain, later in Suffolk, and also at Scapa Flow.  In 1943, Rhys was invalided out of the army after a spell at Northfield Hospital , near Birmingham, which specialised in treating psychiatric conditions.

Rhys was married to the poet Lynette Roberts from 1939- 1949.  He edited the magazine 'Wales'  from 1937- 1949, a publication crucial to the development of 'Anglo-Welsh' culture though there was a three year intermission due to the War from 1940-1943.:

"No, I'm not an Englishman with a partisan religion

My root lie in another region
Though ranged alongside yours' "

-'Tragic Guilt'

His contribution to World War 2 poetry is immense, Keidrych Rees edited an anthology titled ' Poems from the Forces' in 1941, and its successor ' More Poems From The Forces -A Collection of Verses By Serving Members of the Navy, Army and Air Force' published in 1943 .This anthology included some of Keith Douglas' earlier work (before the 'War in the Desert' poetry) , and also featured work by Alun Lewis and Gavin Ewart.  By contrast to World War 1, it seemed that war poetry anthologies were slow to emerge in World War 2. 1943 also saw the publication of the classic anthology 'Oasis -The Middle East Anthology of Poetry from the Forces' ,a Cairo based initiative

Death of a Hurricane Pilot 

Too late; the Pilot dead inside
An RAF officer soon came but interrogated nothing,
More concerned with the marvellous stress of aluminium 
Gee what stress they take-wizard workmanship"

- 'Death of a Hurricane Pilot'

The Poem 'Death of a Hurricane Pilot ' is perhaps the most famous poem that Rhys wrote. Marking the death of a Belgian pilot Roger Emile d' Cannart  D'Hamale  fighting for Britain in the , 46 Sqdn, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, shot down over Kent on 1st November 1940 . He subsequently was re-buried at the Brussels Town Cemetery Belgian Airmen's Field of Honour.  Rhys' poem depicts a scene of indifference to the fate of the dead pilot. An RAF official is more interested on the crash landing's impact on the plane's wreckage. The behaviour of the rest of the crowd is worse.

 "Children, ghastly souvenir hunters, forty yards away, kick the skull."

Keidrych Rhys was friends  with some of  the literary luminaries of the time.  Dylan Thomas was his best man, borrowed a suit from fellow poet Vernon Watkins for the occasion. Rhys also managed to maintain a presence  with the Fitzrovia  literary set whilst stationed in Kent, and was therefore ideal to develop what we would now call a network to stimulate the genre of  World War 2 poetry.

But in regard to World War 2 related literature,  he somehow lost momentum . Something made him move away from a role of being a literary advocate for World War 2 poetry. And his work offers us a clue- 'Poem Being Invalided Out Of Army '  -which was  written long after the 'Van Pool'  collection -   refers to " Terrible accusing patterns  "  that seem ingrained to a discharged man's mind, making him belong to a category of

" despised anonymous personalities
admonished by the other half from whose callous sanity
the whole mad recognising world is unanimous in self-redemption."

A  review of Lynette Roberts collected poems by Alan Tucker, written in 2010 , which suggested that Rhys had gone AWOL in 1942. If correct, Keidrych Rhys would be the only other  known World War 2  poet to have absconded besides Vernon Scannell. 

Keidrych Rhys, as a literary editor, went on to promote the work of R.S. Thomas and John Cooper Powys. Along with Lynette Roberts, he encouraged Robert Graves writing of 'The White Goddess' . Three provisional extracts from this book were published in the magazine 'Wales'. 

A longer article about Keidrych Rhys will follow. 

For more information

Lynette Roberts