'Bombe Surprise'

by Victor Dial

Avant Propos:

I was born in June of 1938 in Long Beach, California, home to a large Navy base where my father, an Annapolis-educated career naval officer was stationed. In the summer of 1941, he was ordered to the Philippines to assume command of the USS Napa, based in Manila. Sadly, he never returned, having endured two and a half miserable years as a POW. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his role in the defense of Corregidor, and is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery. The only war that interested me was in the Pacific.

Recently a learned friend recommended a newly-published book with the intriguing title of “The Splendid and the Vile”, an in-depth history of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s leadership during the early part of WWII, when the British Isles were subjected to months of German night-time air bombardment, virtually unopposed. In spite of all the attention that has rightly been paid to the great Winston Churchill I realized how little I appreciated the suffering of British citizenry during the period that would become known as the Blitz.

During the weeks and months that followed the evacuation of allied troops from Dunkerque, and the French surrender in June 1940, Britain was virtually alone in combatting the Germans. Beginning in early September British Spitfires and Hurricanes, often outnumbered, fought well-equipped and more experienced Luftwaffe pilots flying Messerschmitt 109s. The month-long air Battle of Britain in that crucial month is generally considered to have been more or less of a draw, perhaps even a victory, as British resistance contributed importantly to Hitler’s decision to postpone and ultimately abandon his plan to invade Britain. But what I hadn’t realised (or perhaps had just forgotten) was that the fighter war of September 1940 was just the beginning of a year-long all-out bombing campaign of the British mainland. Technology enabling British fighters to find German bombers at night didn’t yet exist, so the British were powerless to prevent night-time attacks. Conversely, German bombers had a difficult (but not impossible) time identifying strategic targets. Throughout this terrible year the British people sheltered as best they could from the terrible onslaught of hap-hazard bombing not just of military targets, but of civilians; women and children obviously included. Londoners who survived never forgot.

London, September, 1971

My wife Alix (née Montgomery) and I had left the suburbs of Paris some months earlier and were enjoying our new life in Knightsbridge, central London. Memories of happenings from long ago sometime dim with age, but not this one.

One day we received an invitation from James “Jimmy” Van Alen to a black tie dinner at the Ritz Hotel. Van Alen was an elegant and aristocratic gentleman from the Philadelphia main line, a contemporary and neighbor of my wife’s family, and in particular of her aunt, Hope (Montgomery) Scott. Hope was a remarkable woman, widely thought to have been the inspiration for Tracy Lord, the principal character of the film “The Philadelphia Story”, and years later “High Society”. Van Alen had many friends in London and this was his way of announcing his arrival for a month-long stay.

Jimmy was born in Newport in 1902, where the grass was very green and learned to play tennis at an early age. He was a very good player, competing in early rounds of several “major” tournaments in the ’20s. He also founded the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport in 1954. But his real claim to tennis fame came in the late ‘60s when he came up with what he called the V.A.S.S.S., the Van Alen Simplified Scoring System, known today as the “tie break.” I can’t say I knew him well, but I got to know his son “Jimbo” when I was courting Alix.

Back to the dinner. It was held in an elegant banquet room, replete with a Carson-like butler[1] announcing the names (and sometimes title) of the 40 or so guests as they joined the receiving line. The ladies were wearing long dresses: it was a classy affair. Shortly after sitting down, Jimmy made a short welcoming speech, encouraging his guests to enjoy themselves, the dinner, and the wine. My dinner companion was a soft-spoken somewhat elderly English lady, a contemporary of Jimmy’s, attractive and friendly.

We were mid-way through our second course when “Carson” made an unscripted appearance, begging silence. In stentorian tones he announced that the hotel had received a telephoned threat from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) announcing that they’d planted a bomb somewhere in the hotel, set to explode. We were invited to evacuate the hotel calmly, but without delay.

I rose at once to help my dinner partner with her chair. But she didn’t move, remaining seated. She (looking up at me quizzically): “What are you doing young man?” Me: “I thought you might want my help getting up.” She: “My dear sir, I lived in London throughout the Blitz, refusing to be cowed by Hitler and his bombs. I resist the IRA as I resisted Hitler – I will not allow a bunch of trumped-up Irish thugs to interfere with my dinner!” Me (increasingly panicked, but trying not to show it): “Does that mean you intend to remain seated here?” She: “Yes.”

The situation was taking a terrible turn for the worse. What was I expected to do? I saw three options: (1) sit down again beside a woman I’d only just met and await, Titanic-like, our doom; (2) abandon her to her fate, and sprint to the nearest exit with whatever dignity I could salvage; (3) pick her up forcibly and carry her (kicking and screaming?) to safety. None of these options looked good.

As I was pondering these dreadful choices, the clock was ticking, so to speak. Just then, help arrived in the person of our host, Jimmy!! I quickly explained the situation. “I see,” he said, “I’ll handle it.” Whereupon he turned to the lady: “Madame I perfectly understand how you feel. However, as your host I am personally responsible for you, and out of respect for me, I ask you to kindly accompany me as the three of us leave together.”

It was brilliant. She couldn’t resist her host’s request without being rude – an unthinkable affront.

As calmly and sedately as possible we made our way outside to join the guests having already taken refuge on the sidewalk of Piccadilly, across the street. The all-clear signal came about half an hour later. The IRA bomb threat turned out to be a hoax, but an important life lesson was demonstrated: Jimmy had stayed behind to ensure the safe evacuation of all his guests before he himself left the room. (I was also surprised at my own ability, I hoped, to hide my fear and sense of panic.)

We returned to the banquet with a lot to talk about as dinner resumed. The rest of the evening was loud and animated — wine consumption shot up alongside our collective relief! My elderly dinner companion enthralled our end of the table with reminiscences of her experience during the Blitz; beneath her modest demeanor lurked a very determined lady indeed. Other Brits opened up. What courage and stoicism they displayed during that awful year!

Jimmy made an elegant after-dinner speech (a Philadelphia specialty) including a witty comment about not having realized that a “Bombe Surprise” had been added to the dessert menu, bringing the house down.

An unforgettable event, an indomitable lady, and a memorable gentleman.

[1] Of Downton Abbey fame

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