Friday, April 1, 2022

Wartime novel captured drama of escape from France

Cars fleeing German Army jam street in 1940.
British Army and French civilians jam streets of Le Neubourg in flight from the German Army in June, 1940. (Geoffrey Keating Photo, Imperial War Museum Collections F 4722) 

 It is amazing that a Royal Enfield military motorcycle, abandoned by the British Army in its flight from France in 1940, was found and restored. Even more remarkable is that its rider was identified from the 1940 photograph of the motorcycle, made at the front as the Germany army broke through British lines. 

The rider was Lt. Geoffrey Keating, a War Department photographer, and the sequence of his photos in the archives of the Imperial War Museum makes it possible to sketch his escape route, although whether he made his way to the channel on the Royal Enfield is unknown. 

The little group of enthusiasts devoted to Royal Enfield military motorcycles of World War II can be justly proud of this find. It brings to mind a dramatic crisis point in history. 

Reader and Royal Enfield enthusiast Mark Mumford noticed my interest and suggested I read "Pied Piper," a novel depicting an escape from France in just that period.

The author is Nevil Shute. He also wrote "On the Beach" and "A Town Like Alice," novels that became notable film productions. "Pied Piper" is less well known, although it has been filmed.

As the title suggests, the main character is a man, elderly and British, who ends up with a collection of children in tow as he attempts to get out of France ahead of the Germans. Credibility stretches a bit as the children eventually come to include even a German girl trained to snap off stiff-armed salutes.

Never mind that. The book is itself a marvelous example of its moment in history. Written and first published before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, it depicts the British as defeated but unshaken and always hopeful. Whether that is accurate or not is beside the point. It's marvelously stirring.

Which was the point: it's propaganda, and it's not propaganda aimed at a British audience (which might have been conscious of a more nuanced situation).

"Pied Piper" was first published not in Britain, but in the U.S., as a serial in Collier's magazine, running from Nov. 1, 1941 to Jan. 3, 1942. When the serial began America was at peace. As it wrapped up, the U.S. was at war, on Britain's side.

The best part of the book is as the old man, by now back in London but hardly safe there, tells his story to a weary officer seated in a comfortable chair at their club. The Blitz is going strong on this night, but the two men resolve to remain upstairs rather than go to the cellar.

Outside, bombs fall. One hits very near. The next shatters the club windows. The whine of the third bomb is now heard.

It bursts on the other side of the building.

"Straddled," the old man comments.

It's a wonderful moment, bound to excite Colliers readers with the calm courage of the British. The advertising message here is that the British will make great allies in the war to come.

Although he's writing in early 1941, as Britain stands alone (not even the June, 1941 addition of the Soviet Union as an ally is mentioned) the book gets quite right much history that is still yet to happen. 

Shute writes:

"Bad times were coming for France; he and his children must get out of it, damn quick. If the Germans conquered they would bring with them, inevitably, their trail of pillage and starvation, gradually mounting towards anarchy as they faced the inevitable defeat."

Considering the audience for all this is American, the book's confidence that the Americans will help is perhaps not surprising. The old gentlemen wants to get his collection of children to America, ultimately, where they will be safe with a daughter of his there. Naturally, people he encounters are skeptical of his audacious plans. He explains:

"They are a generous people. These children will be quite all right if I can get them there, because my daughter will look after them. But even without her, there would be many people in America willing to provide for them. Americans are like that."

But what about the money it would cost to care for so many children? No worries. America would not balk at the cost, the character assures us.

"'It's just the sort of thing they do do,' said the old man. 'They would pour out their money in a cause like that.'"

The old gentleman expresses confidence that, yes, America would accommodate even the Jewish kid.

Sheltering foreign children so easily was probably too hopeful to be true in 1941, and it's no sure bet in America in 2022. But the American heart still swells, reading this, and that surely was the author's intention.

Money is an all-purpose solution in the novel; the old gentleman has it and it enables many narrow escapes. He has the money, he assures one character, to fly a child to America on the Clipper (a huge expense in 1941) if necessary. Well. It's fiction.

Readers also have to accept as plot devices two comical British soldiers speaking in stereotypical Cockney, the customary brave and beautiful French woman, and the ever popular ruthless Gestapo officer. The children are somewhat wooden figures and eventually the reader begins to lose track of them as individuals.

Great writing? It is good enough. And it was all written, quite literally, in a good cause.

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