By Oreste Pinto
Three months later I happened to be near Zutphen and it was then that I decided to solve the mystery of Spitfire Johnny.
I had been given the name and address of a man who had led one of the most successful Resistance groups in the locality and I called on 'him. His name was Harling and he had a small farm a few miles east of Zutphen. He was a big friendly man and he greeted me warmly. His enthusiasm grew when I broached the subject of Spitfire Johnny. He started telling me about the daring exploits that the Englishman organized, the raids on German convoys, the blowing up of railway lines and the thefts from arms dumps. Harling gave a dramatic recital of many of Spitfire Johnny's exploits that lasted nearly an hour. Once during his monologue, I managed to slip a short question into a brief pause when he was helping himself to a generous doze of gin.
"Where's Spitfire Johnny now?" I asked.
He swung round. "Didn't you know? The poor fellow is dead. His body is buried on a farm the other side of Zutphen."
"How did he die?"
"It was sheer bad luck. The irony of fate you might call it. He got himself killed in a stupid accident."
"How did it happen?"
"Well, you know that when the enemy had been driven out of the place for good, orders were given out by your authorities for the Resistance to hand in all weapons and ammunition. On the farm where Johnny had his quarters, he kept some sticks of gelignite which he'd used for blowing up railways and bridges. The stuff was stored in an old wood-shed and he went to sort it out. No one quite knows what actually happened but there was an explosion - and that was the end of Johnny. They buried what was left of him there on the farm. Crazy, isn't it?"
"Were you there at the time?"
"No, I was miles away. I heard about it afterwards through Annie Dykers."
"You haven't met Annie yet? Of course, you've only just arrived in our neighbourhood. You must meet Annie. She knew Johnny better than anyone. It was her farm he ended up at after his plane crashed and she and her young brother nursed him back to health. She became his lieutenant - and what a great fighter she turned out to be! Better than most men round here, though they wouldn't thank you to be reminded of it."
"That was another little bit of irony. Annie and her kid brother Jan had always wanted to join the Resistance but none of the group leaders would take them on. "Who wants to be saddled with a girl and a child," they used to say. Well, along comes Spitfire Johnny and the next thing we all knew, Annie was giving us orders and bossing us around - and, mind you, fighting the Germans more successfully than any man, excepting Johnny himself, of course."
"What did he look like - this Spitfire Johnny?" I asked.
Harling paused and scratched his head. "I don't really know, 1 never saw him properly in the daylight."
"But someone of your comrades must have seen him and mentioned his description. After all, a man cannot spend over a year in one locality and not be seen by anyone."
"Well, Annie and her brother could describe him, of course. They saw enough of him. You know what it's like in the Resistance, Colonel. We didn't talk more than we had to, even to our trusted friends, about other groups and their members. Johnny was a cautious fellow and he used to lie up in the daytime. He didn't want the Gestapo knowing just what he looked like. Besides, I recall now Annie once told me that he had damaged his face badly when his plane crashed. He was sensitive about his appearance, she said, and didn't want people to look at him."
"But you must have caught a glimpse of him when you met at night," I persisted. "Can't you describe him from that?"
Harling reflected. "I suppose you could call him a shade under medium height, slim built - not unlike Annie's young brother as a matter of fact, but probably a bit broader in the shoulders."
I thought to myself that, however good a Resistance fighter my companion had been, he would never make a competent detective. The description could hardly have been more vague. Still I could not really complain. I had learned a few more facts to add to..the dossier and knew where to go for the final phase of questioning. Next morning I started for the Dykers' farm. I wanted my visit to come as a surprise and so I had not sent a message in advance.
The Dykers' farm lay a mile or two off the main road and, in spite of the recent ravages of war, it was as neat and shining as a new toy. As my car drew up, I saw a woman and a youth driving stakes into a gap in the fence, which was shining white with fresh paint. The woman straightened up and came over to greet me, wiping her palms on the sides of her skirt.
She was tall and she moved with a free-striding grace. Her fair hair was tied back in a loose knot and she wore no make up; but she was one of the most handsome women I had seen for many years. She gazed at me with her grey eyes, and, as she drew near, thrust out her hand just like a man. I introduced myself and explained that I had been asked to investigate the death of Spitfire Johnny by the authorities.
Annie accepted the cigarette I offered her and, although there was nothing masculine about her face and figure, I was again struck
by: the mannish way she drew on it and let the smoke trickle 'out slowly as she spoke. It was hard to tell her exact age but she must have been about twenty, give or take a year or so. She was obviously in charge and when she called to her brother to come over to meet me, he dropped the hammer and stakes and ran over at once.
Jan Dykers would have been sixteen or seventeen, slim and wiry, as Harling had described him. There was a definite family likeness between him and his sister but where she was free and easy, I thought 1 detected a certain sense of strain about him, a guardedness which I did not understand.
I apologized for interrupting their work, but Annie Dykers brushed my apologies aside with a smile, inviting me into the farmhouse for a cup of coffee. I sat in the comfortable kitchen while she heated the water on a shining range and we talked as she moved to and fro. Jan was lounging in an armchair, silently observing me from under lowered lids.
She mentioned how one night in January the previous year they had been awakened by strange noises outside. At first they both thought it best to be discreet and to take no notice of the scraping noises on the gravel path outside the house. It didn't pay to be too inquisitive in an occupied country. But then she thought that perhaps some of the livestock had got loose and she went down to investigate before too much damage was done. Jan went with her and they were shocked to see a badly wounded British pilot lying on the path outside the door. They had lugged him inside, half-con-scjous, had undressed him, bathed his wounds and put him to bed in a spare room. The pilot had a severe wound in the fleshy part of his thigh and his face was badly knocked about, the nose swollen and discoloured and his left eyebrow ripped open.
They kept him secretly in the farmhouse for several weeks until hislegand face had healed. In reply to my silent question, she .dded quickly that they had dared not ask the local doctor to call and treat their patient. Harbouring an R. A. F. pilot was an offence punishable by death and it would be neither fair nor discreet to share their secret with an outsider.
She went on to tell me, as we sat in the kitchen sipping our coffee, that when Spitfire Johnny could hobble about with a stick, he started to talk about "having a go at the foe", as he put it. She and her brother hated the Germans with a fierce hate and had tried to join the Resistance on various occasions, but they had always been put off, on the ground of their youth and her sex.
Now with Johnny's drive and ability to make plans, the three of them decided to have their own exclusive group.
At first they carried out minor raids at night on arms dumps, in order to equip themselves for more ambitious tasks. Johnny showed them how to operate various weapons and how to rig up explosive charges with detonators and fuse wire. From then on the scope of their operations grew wider and other groups wanted to join in.
Johnny kept to the background and she acted as liason officer with the other groups..
Finally, when our coffee was finished, she took me outside to see the blackened remains of the store-hut where Johnny had met his sudden and ironic death and the grave they had dug for his body in a field at the back of the house. There was a small wooden cross at the head of the grave and on it the words: Flying Officer John Bruce - Spitfire Johnny. Underneath was the Royal Air Force motto: Per Ardue Ad Astra* and the date.
Back in the farmhouse again, she handed rne his wallet and a> spotted silk scarf he had been wearing the day he crashed. I thanked her for being so helpful and then asked casually, "Now that the war is over and his body has been located, his parents may wish to have it exhumed and taken back to England for proper burial."
Jan Dykers, silent all this while, exclaimed, "No, they can't!"
His sister hastily covered up. "I think my brother means that Johnny would prefer to be buried at the spot where he fought so well."
I said, "Then surely his body should be buried at the spot where his Spitfire crashed, for that's where his fighting finished."
It was as though my words had switched off all sound in the room, except for the ticking of the old-fashioned clock on the mantelpiece. Jan was tense in his chair, like a coiled spring compressed to breaking point. Annie sat watching me with cold grey eyes. Finally when the silence was almost unbearable she added softly, "What do you mean?"
"I am guessing," I answered. "I am putting down figures in my mind and adding them up to see what total they reach. I see two fine young Dutch people, a girl and her brother, who want to fight in the Resistance but no one will have them because everyone foolishly thinks they are too young and weak to make Resistance fighters. And then one night a third figure arrives on the scene by accident, a badly wounded pilot in the R. A. F. They take him in and try to nurse him - but he is too badly wounded to survive. In spite of their later excuses, they could have sent for a doctor, because there are several patriotic doctors in the neighbourhood who would have taken a risk to save a wounded fighter pilot. But this patient is dying, may be dead already - dead men need no doctors. So the girl and her brother bury the dead man in a grave on the farm, having first removed his possessions, his wallet and scarf.
But with his death a legend is born - the legend of Spitfire Johnny. Perhaps the girl got the idea first, she is the natural leader. No one else knows that the pilot is dead - in fact no one else yet knows of his arrival at the farm. If a new Resistance group is started with the fighter pilot apparently leading it, then the other Resistance groups will pay it more respect and give more help than if the girl and the boy alone were playing at underground fighters.
And that's what happens. No one else ever actually sees Spitfire Johnny, who is sensitive about his damaged face. In the dark they see a slight figure who looks rather like the brother Jan. Of course, he does - for it is the brother Jan! And Spitfire Johnny's group goes from strength to strength, inspiring the other groups to yet more daring strikes against the enemy."
"But at last the war ends and now what is to happen to Spitfire Johnny? The girl and her brother realize that now he is able to rejoin his R.A.F. unit. Soon people like me will come round asking questions and wanting to meet this legendary figure. So the ghost has to be buried once and for all. An accident is staged and a wood-shed is blown up. Spitfire Johnny goes up with it. A new cross is placed on the existing grave and the hero is finally put to rest.
This is how I add up the facts. Perhaps you can tell me if the answer is correct?"
"A clever man can make the same facts come out to many different answers," Annie Dykers observed. "But where is the proof?"
"Lying there under that white cross," I replied. "If my version is right, there will be a body lying there that has been under ground for about eighteen months. If your story is true, there will be the fragments of a blown up body that was only buried a couple of months ago. Shall we dig up the grave?" I asked, half rising from my chair. "That would prove it one way or the other."
Annie held out a restraining hand. "There is no need," she said, "you are right, of course. What are you going to do now?"
I stood up. "Nothing - except to ask if I may have the honour of shaking hands with the young patriots who did what they thought was best for their country and who fought so well."
I shook hands with them solemnly and then made for the door. As I was leaving, Jan Dykers spoke for almost the first time since we met. "What about the body of the pilot?" he asked.
"Let it lie in peace," I said. "It is not every young fighter who goes on fighting after his death."
I climbed into my car and drove back to Zutphen.
The sea around the little stony island seemed a boundless desert, stretching miles and miles to the horizon. Nothing disturbed its. surface. From time to time the dim outline of a German warship appeared in the distance. And then as if by magic, one of the huge cliffs on the seemingly dead shore of the island moved noiselessly aside revealing a cave inside of which were three long-range guns. They aimed at the ship and fired. A distant explosion was heard and the ship disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
The island was completely surrounded by enemy ships. All communications with the main Soviet forces were cut off. For more than a month, a handful of courageous Soviet seamen had been defending
this little fortress from the continuous attacks of the German navy and air force.
The enemy had made several attempts to approach the island, but each time was beaten back by the artillery hidden in the cliffs.
Supplies of ammunition and food were coming to an end.
"Well?" said the commissar.
"That's the end," replied the commander.
"Put it down in the log."
The commander opened the log-book, looked at his watch and slowly wrote: "October 20. The guns fired their last round at 17.45 p.m. One enemy ship sunk. No more ammunition. Food supplies will last one more day."
He closed the book, balanced it on the palm of his hand as if estimating its weight, and put it back on the shelf.
"That's how things stand, commissar," he said without a smile.
There was a knock at the door.
The sailor .on duty entered the room.
"A message, comrade Captain," he said.
"A German plane dropped it."
The message was written in broken Russian. It read:
"Mr. Soviet Commander, you are surrounded. I advise you to surrender. At 6 a. in. tomorrow there must be a white flag on the top of the cliff. If you do not do this, you will all be killed. Surrender!
Rear-Admiral von Eversharp."
"They want to see a flag," the commander said slowly. "They will. It will be a very large flag, as large as we can possibly make it. Then they won't fail to see it. What do you think, commissar, shall we have time to make it?"
"We must have enough time - we have all night. The men will -sew it. I give you my word, it will be enormous."
The sailors sat up all night long sewing. It was indeed a huge flag. Every piece of cloth that could be found was used. The men sewed it with their thick needles and rough thread. Shortly before dawn the flag was ready. The seamen shaved, cleaned up their uniforms and one by one went out of the cave into the open air with automatic rifles and cartridges slung around their necks.
At daybreak von Eversharp was already up and fully dressed when the morning watch knocked at the door of his cabin. He let the officer in. The latter looked very excited.
"Is there a flag on the cliff?" the Rear-Admiral asked abruptly.
"Yes, sir. They've made up their minds to surrender."
"Excellent. You've brought good news. See that all the men are on deck."
Von Eversharp himself was up on deck a minute later. Day was just breaking. He put his field-glasses to his eyes. On the horizon
he saw the little stony island. In the morning light the flag looked dark, almost black.
"They must have used all their sheets to make such a big flag," he said to one of the officers.
He gave orders.
A flotilla of torpedo-boats and landing craft made its way towards the island. With the naked eye they could see a handful of Soviet seamen standing at the top of the cliff near the flag. At that moment the sun appeared. Its rays lighted up the island, making the flag look red.
On his flagship the Rear-Admiral laughed as he watched the scene.
"The sun has played a nice joke on the Bolsheviks, he said. "It has dyed their white flag red. But we shall make it turn white again."
The German flotilla reached the shore.
Knee-deep in water, carrying their tommy guns above their heads, the enemy made their way towards the fort.
Suddenly an explosion of terrific force shook the island. Guns, stones, blood-stained clothes and torn German bodies shot up into the air.
"Scoundrels! They're blowing the battery! They've broken the terms of capitulation!" shouted the admiral, his face disfigured with anger.
At that moment a cloud hid the sun. The red light which had coloured the island and the sea faded out. Everything became monotonously grey. Everything except the flag on the top of the cliff. The German commander thought there was something wrong with his eyes. Contrary to all the laws of physics the huge flag remained red. Against the grey background its colour became even deeper. It hurt the eye. The flag had never been white. It had always been red. It could be no other colour. The German had forgotten that it was Soviet men he was fighting against. The sun had not deceived him. He had deceived himself.
He gave new orders. Bombers and fighters rose into the air. Landing craft and destroyers surrounded the island. Parachutists dropped down on it.
And in the midst of this hell on the top of the cliff, there were thirty Soviet seamen, armed with tommy guns and machine guns, and firing in all directions. In this final hour, not one of them thought of life. They knew they would die. But though they were doomed, they wanted to destroy as many of the enemy as they'could. This was their last assignment, and they fulfilled it heroically. Not a single bullet missed, not a single hand-grenade failed to hit its target. Hundreds of fascists lay dead on the approaches to the cliff.
But the forces were not equal. The Soviet men fought to the last, but one by one they fell and died.
Above them waved the flag, as if some invisible giant was firmly carrying it through the smoke of battle, forward to Victory.
(After V. Katayev)
KHATYN - MEMORIAL TO MURDERED TOWNS
No monument, no work of art, can be more eloquent than the tragedy itself. All over the Soviet Union there are monuments that mark the horrors the Nazis perpetrated here, but telling though they are, they cannot capture the dimensions of those horrors.
Often these war monuments are no more than raw stone, jagged-edged, unfinished, gray and cold. There are just such "monuments'* at Khatyn in Byelorussia, as there are in Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslpvakia, even in Germany itself. But here at Khatyn, the Nazis were most methodical in their calculated policy of wiping out Byelorussian villages and the population itself.
It was not cruelty, first, or even foremost. It was worse. It was policy. It was ideology. It was class murder.
The aim of the Nazi - that is German imperialism - was to eliminate physically as many Byelorussians as was necessary to subdue them in order to clear the territory for German settlers. Lebensraum - living space for Germans - meant death for Byelorussians: 2,360,000 of them.
Here, in Khatyn, visited annually by tens of thousands, and written about by many journalists, no attempt has been made to soften the blow by placing art between you and the reality. The villages that stood here once remain as ghosts on their stone foundations. On each one rises a chimney - a bleak chimney - at whose summit an iron bell clangs discordantly. A concrete wall has been built which reproduces the walls of concentration camps. At intervals, cuts in the wall are blocked by a sinister grill, each one bearing the names of a death camp and the names of the victims. These names run into the tens of thousands.
At no time, faced though they were with actual extinction, did the Byelorussians give up. They ran into the woods and swamps by the thousands. And from there they fought the enemy until the enemy turned and ran and died in Berlin.
Anyone who wants to understand Soviet patriotism, the people's infinite identification with their country, and their contempt for those who betray it, must remember that hardly a Soviet citizen exists who has not lost someone in that war. Over 30 years later, they feel it still. Their children have inherited a sense of blood identity. Socialism is sealed with blood into people. It was a just war of defense. It cost dearly. But those who survived possess their country in their very souls.
(From "World Magazine", April 29, 1978)
Topics for Oral and Written Composition
Make use of the additional texts as well as other sources.
Heroism of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War
a) A her,oic deed (on land, at sea, in the air), b) A great battle,
c) Guerrilla warfare, d) A hero, e) A hero-city, f) War memorials.
Render the contents of the poem in prose:
LET'S TURN OUR HANDS
By J. Wallace
| Let's turn our hands to useful things
And make this land we prize
With all our sinews and our skills
A people's paradise
Where all may have and all may hope
On factories and farms:
Brothers, it's time to raise our hearts
And time to drop our arms.
Let's turn our hands to gentle things:
To strike a maiden's hair
To lift a baby shoulder high
To ease an old man's care.
Too long - how long! - we've spent our strength
On wars and war's alarms:
Brothers, it's time to raise our hearts
And time to drop our arms.
Let's turn our hands to loveliness
That each of us may know.
From fires we did not recognize
Creation's kindling glow
So we may grow in nobleness
To match our country's charms:
Brothers, it's time to raise our hearts
And time to drop our arms.
*Lot, Through rough ways to the stars ("Через мужество к звездам")