I’ve recently been in touch with Cameron Self, a poet based in East Anglia in the United Kingdom. Specifically, he’s in the city of Norwich, county of Norfolk, and runs the Literary Norfolk website. During World War II, that region of England was the nerve center of the Allied military operations that led to the successful D-Day invasion of Normandy and the subsequent victory over the Axis powers in 1945. I had been to Norwich myself two years ago, visiting the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library, which houses many reference works, letters, and other memorabilia relating to the American presence there.
Hundreds of thousands of American troops were stationed in Norfolk, at 67 airbases, including Shipdham, which inspired Hyam Plutzik to write two of his most significant war poems, “Bomber Base” and “On the Airfield at Shipdham.”
Cameron Self was so impressed with these two poems that he posted them on Literary Norfolk, making Hyam the only non-English poet to be so honored. He told me he drove out to Shipdham the following day to photograph the long-abandoned buildings, which can be viewed on the Literary Norfolk site.
As I gazed at the crumbling buildings at Shipdham, I immediately envisioned the site as a most theatrical venue. Suddenly, the old air base was no longer a 1940s relic but an ancient castle from East Anglia’s storied past, when Vikings and Saxons roamed the countryside. Hyam Plutzik was so inspired by this historic landscape that he drafted the prologue to Horatio, his long narrative poem published in 1961 that won him finalist status for the Pulitzer Prize. When I looked at the parapets of the Shipdham base, I could envision Horatio, friend and confidant to Hamlet, as he
went out on the platform, where the guard stood—
Bernardo, my friend—staring down at the city.
“What ghosts could come tonight if they so wished?”
It is obvious that the Norfolk countryside had a profound impact on Hyam Plutzik’s evolution as a poet. Through his wartime duties as an Ordnance and Information Officer at his base, he spent much time visiting local landmarks and meeting the movers and shakers of Norfolk’s literary culture, including the author Ralph Hale Mottram (later Lord Mayor of Norwich) and Lady Ironside, wife of the commander of the British forces in the early days of the war.
Cameron Self tells me that the British are planning a three-year-long program of events to commemorate the contributions of the American forces in Norwich during World War II. The poems, letters, and journals of Hyam Plutzik provide valuable insights into what life was like for military personnel during this crucial juncture in world history.
I am particularly moved by a letter he wrote to his wife, Tanya, on the eve of the D-Day invasion, just as the bombers were taking off for the invasion of France. When Hyam wrote this letter, he had no idea whether their mission would be successful or not. Enjoying the vantage point of hindsight, we know the outcome. But on the evening of June 5, 1944, nothing was certain, adding a deep poignancy to these words:
June 5, 1944
The invasion of France began this morning, after all the years of preparation and all the wrongs suffered at the hands of the evil ones. It has been a cold and bitter day and now in the evening the sky is overcast and a drizzle is falling. The planes are out on a mission. Another officer and I stood under the wing of a grounded plane and saw them take off, one after the other, roaring in the long takeoff and then rising laboriously in the air. For hours later a roar could be heard above the clouds.
How cold it must be in the sky now, and on the coasts of France!
I went around with the men as they loaded three of the planes. The hoisting contrivance for the 500-lb’ers is ingenious. They worked as though fiends were pursuing them. Then when the bombs were up in the plane’s belly, we fuzed them and threaded the arming wire. It was such a routine task, yet to think that this was a load of death for the enemy. The men are almost nonchalant in their work, except for their haste, yet even still they have a detestation for the fragmentate [sic] bombs.
On a bomber base in England, with a farmer harrowing an adjacent field behind a plodding horse, I pass the D-day of this war.