“Do Not Despair
for Johnny Head-in-Air.
He sleeps as sound
as Johnny Underground.”
Flight Lieutenant William Grayson Huddart 410128
This year, he would be 98. Perhaps in line
for honours or a knighthood, an
obit in the Times – a hero age respects.
Survives his wife, new knee, new hip,
with grand kids dewy-eyed with love.
He doesn’t make the VE day of days,
with girls, and lamp-posts shinned, and fountains.
No nation waits on him. He’s 22 – and missing.
A letter has been penned, a telegram dispatched,
belongings gathered. Gone. And in a Melbourne street,
a widowed father, staring, in the shadow of the door.
A world away. Australia, Outback and Frontier.
A time of white dominions, links with home,
and endless promise. Of being British underneath
the Southern Cross. Between the two, great liners
sail the routes that bind, conveying brothers,
uncles, English, to warmth of sun or hearth,
to riches. Bill’s 2nd Gen – a native
Aussie Brit. Bob, his dad, the migrant salesman,
takes the passage, leaving family and footsteps
far behind. It’s 1913, and he arrives in time
to serve in war. At 33 he’s old enough to live,
is out at 39, and married the next year.
In 1922 his son is born.
And Bill succeeds at school. He shines. He’s soon
employed as Clerk in Collins Street, downtown:
“The Trustees Executors and Agency Company Ltd”
still shines gold above a bistro, though it collapsed
In fraud after a discreet and inlaid 90 years.
But wills and legacies don’t cast a spell
for long before the 2nd War and service calls.
For all its marbled front, the office job
does not command excitement like the air.
One Saturday, he takes the train to town
and signs away his life for pilot’s wings.
Suite in B flat
In fact, the Air Force that he joins in ‘41
takes care – it will record his chest, his height, his weight.
and keep each step and badge, each course,
each Tiger Moth, each loss of days to leave.
A manilla file, with “Officer” emblazoned twice,
survives to save the continents he crossed to train;
and ranks he climbed; the squadrons that he served.
It keeps his photo as he joins, with open shirt,
a flick of hair, grey eyes, as if already gone to war.
Three years condensed to forms and pages,
Initials, dates and codes. It notes he was late
for a parade one time, and, then, that he was late, no more.
Allegro con Brio
It takes him the final winter of the war.
He’s flown above the Normandy Bocage
In Mustangs, invasion striped to keep away your friends.
Then 168, his squadron, muster new Typhoons –
a 7-ton fighter with a bruiser’s chin, 4 cannon,
and a cockpit often filled with heat and fumes.
As well as war, their task to handle their craft’s great
power, its mighty wings, its often-fragile tail.
Moving through autumn and the leapfrog fields of France,
hope springs. They follow battle as the Wehrmacht shrinks,
the Luftwaffe leaves the skies, the end begins.
And so November comes, and Eindhoven.
The Phillips factory site, this giant base
is now a heave of squadrons and their planes –
muscling in to Germany, nibbling at its trains,
its roads, its futile rear-guards, its defeats.
No pretty airfield with flag and flowers
at the gate. Another number – B-78. A plain of
muddy grass, and winter pools, and jerrycans
of fuel in heaps. The boys are convent billeted,
fed on Marmite, marrow soup, and meat in tins.
The nuns sew on their buttons, grateful to be free,
and short of planes, they carry on. The daily start
of engines stiff with cold, they’re pushed into the air
as escorts, rising on their laughter and their drills.
Andante con moto
Then comes December and the shortest odds.
A Sunday concert on the 3rd – The Station Malcolm Club
looking to the welfare of the mind and heart,
brings on the Philips Orchestra to render Bach,
and Beethoven at his breezy best. They too are
newly freed. The boys see warmth. They go.
The Fifth scrapes up a victory in its chords
for airmen whose ears have thrummed
with war, whose cockpit rhythm has
known only a Sabre engine’s shaking bark and bile,
the RT hiss, the whine of orders in their ears.
Perhaps their heads now ring with purpose.
whistling da-da-da-daaaa into the night.
The evening encore is a strafing run
from a lone and desperate Focke Wulf
whose pilot too has only days to live,
as they go back to their dormitory’s cots,
and giggling share a round of final smokes.
Next day, the 4th, and a promotion – Flight Lieutenant
– Bill gets a 7 day leave, awarded often
to the combat tired. He’ll hitch a flight
to England – where else to take it –
and to Martha Bowe in Cockermouth, his aunt.
His father’s favourite sister, childless, she’s
married to a draper, in a neat colonial
bungalow straight out of town. With views of fells
and walks amongst the air of mountains,
and the winter clouds. With love-seasoned wartime rations
and family photos, and the front room fireside.
So with his aunt and uncle his final visit ends.
A slow and crowded train leaves Carlisle for the south,
and thoughtful men returning, avoiding Christmas calls,
with helmets, gas masks, kitbags, greatcoats. There passes
England – damp and grey with shortages and queues –
With taped and unwashed glass, beyond the stations.
Uniforms from everywhere in transit to junctions
somewhere else. It smells of Brylcreme, cigarettes
and carry on, of struggle not quite won. Australia
warm and safe, is well beyond the winter days.
A longer journey that has taken many turns,
and skills he’s shown and learnt. He’s stepped out
in space, and felt it hold his breath. And swooping through
has felt the world spin effortless to heel. He’s mastered it,
amongst the solemn rituals, the manuals of flight –
of starting up, of losing and staying in control;
of terror at the touch of fire or ditching in a cold
and gasping sea. Of holding on for rescue
never comes. Of making war, of dealing
in the to and fro of death, and never in the currency
of love or touch. No girl from village pub,
or WAAF who talks him down and in to land.
And likely none at home, to miss or mourn.
Only this. To get back to the smell of war, and oil.
The burnt cordite in the guns, the sweat and leather,
and the taste. The singing warmth of messroom beer,
the ever-changing roll of names of new boys
whose eager fear so quickly dies, as they do,
or become old hands and leaders, still there at 22.
Soon enough, the terminus. Bill stands upon the wet
and sodden grass of Holland, and the allied squadrons
queuing up to fly the Rhine. Within 3 days, the
Bulge offensive has begun, and bad weather
marshals on the Axis side. It lifts and 168
Is back on point. Bastogne is held
as winter opens up its throat and roars.
He’s in the thick as 44 bows out.
The 29th an ambush on 6-8’s 9 planes. A staffel
Of Focke Wulfs shoots down two, but loses more,
leaves Bill a quarter [and his only] “kill” confirmed.
In the centrifuge of combat, the shifting, wordless pitch
and toss of fighting in the air, the chance to win
and save your life, would fire many unslept nights,
if you survived. He does, his fleeting foe spins in,
buries it’s long nose in earth, the last to fall
that year, on borrowed time, and waiting him.
So comes January and a last few days.
Back onto convoys, tanks and trains,
feeling for the pulse that weakens more and more,
and three weeks in, amongst the everyday,
his final moment comes. A Monday, past
mid-day. He leads a flight of 5, and
over Waltern-am-See they go to beat the air.
In 30 minutes from the field they’re overhead –
and open country, small towns and hamlets, homes,
woods, and lakes. Winter light is draining,
unseen kitchen fires are giving up their meagre warmth.
It’s after three and darkness is an hour upon them all.
Just in time, a railway line appears, a train
dares cross their path, and down they go
to burst upon its progress with their guns.
A wingman sees him shoot and pull away,
steam from the bursting loco marks his path.
He disappears. Just one more, gone to ground.
Back at the makeshift tent that gathers in
their news, there is no sign. His last Typhoon,
only a month from new, has taken him.
The form is ticked, and those who live presume
and shrug. In ten days time, their squadron too is gone –
the first to be withdrawn from war, to listen
to the wind – that twists through silenced props,
and ripples grass and inky airfield pools.
Allegro – Presto
Back home they wait two years for news.
He’s long gone from Air Force books. And that April,
as a German spring begins, his body’s found,
near where he crashed. A village burial has kept
the ruins of his end. Ack-ack had brought him down.
A low and lucky shot. The leader, they would not
have time to load, and shoot again – his death
a saviour to his men. A calling, calling in.
The war graves men, a concentration team,
gather in the seeds and tares, prepare the
forms and limestone headings for a final post.
They take the fragments death has left
and lay him in a woody cemetery at Kleve
with scores of others, from other moments
In the noise of war. More messages go out
to families whose hopes have long since gone,
who’ve seen it through, and, nodding, paid the price.
And slowly from the ash of millions, the tortured
cities that they fled, new paths are laid, as
orders change and empires fall and rise.
And what remains? The Air Force folder, now online.
apart from Rhineland grave, he lives in it. A warehouse
keeps the paperwork, as does the German cemetery
his young and tested, broken bones. And though he was
not ours to know, connected, in our hearts, he’s there
behind me, diving, diving, for that train, and unembraced.
A major – and unique? – achievement, John, to create a poem which is a very detailed, comprehensive, vivid, reflective and moving account of this young man’s life and death, and the war in the air. Thank you.
Thanks, David. And so quick!