Deliberately she felt the target back towards the outer ring, moving it very slowly, anticipating the violent throbbing of the gun, bracing herself to master this wild thing that she had started with her grip.
She was exultant. This was really living; it was fun!
And suddenly there were two flashes on the little glider, one on the wing and one on the body. It rolled over on its back and one of the wings came off and began to flutter down. The Chief roared in her ear, “Cease Fire!”
Requiem for a Wren, by Nevil Shute, 1955
Reviewed by Everard Cunion in 2006
Re-titled The Breaking Wave in the USA, this is the story of a young woman from an academic family in Oxford, who, during Word-War 2, joins the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS).
I could not keep from thinking of the grey-eyed, homely, competent girl in jersey, bell-bottoms, and duffle coat in the grey-painted fishing boat, whom Bill had loved.
Told in the first person from the viewpoint of an Australian ex fighter pilot finally returning home to his family-owned sheep station, this hard-hitting tale is told in Shute’s masterful and simple no-nonsense style, demonstrating his expert knowledge of aviation and the military of that era. The end game of the plot is given away at the start of the book, if not in the title, in that we know that the young woman who is the subject of the story has died.
With an often-used novelists’ technique, which works well nonetheless, you are left in no doubt about the identity of the dead woman, an Englishwoman working as a maid at the sheep station mansion, although, at first, the narrator does not. The story consists of the latter’s investigations of her personal possessions during his first night at home and – seamlessly interwoven in retrospect – his continent-spanning search for her after the end of the war.
Here is a part of the scene involving a landing craft (L.C.P.) where she first meets her fiancée, a Royal Marines ‘frogman’ (a diver), who is also the narrator’s brother. A tank has submerged when attempting to reach the shore from its landing craft. Its driver drowned:
She sat in the warm sun smoking, looking out over the blue sea of the Solent; on the flat bow of the L.C.P. men in khaki were still labouring over the body of the driver. It was a warm day for March with all the promise of summer, the sort of day when the beach should have been associated with bathers, and small boats, and children making sand castles and paddling, instead of with waterlogged Sherman tanks, soaked uniforms, and dead men.
The story illustrates how serving in the Wrens gave her life meaning. So much so that, during periods of depression after she was discharged, she fixated on getting back into the Wrens, bolstering her hopes with logic: The expanding war in the Pacific after the Germany surrendered, the Korean War, and so on, and Shute details the symptoms of a mental disorder – including religious pseudo-logic – amplified by, if not caused by, overwork and a series of personal disasters.
The work of the shore staffs grew very heavy; as the days lengthened with the coming of the summer the girls found themselves working sixteen or seventeen hours a day, from dawn till dusk.
The first such disaster arises from a moment of triumph aboard a moored tank landing craft (L.C.T.):
As she fired the wheels came down; she knew that something had happened but it meant nothing to her. She went on firing and the glass and perspex nose of the cabin shattered, and three bright stars appeared inside the cabin quickly in succession. It reared up suddenly and passed right over the L.C.T.s in a steep climb towards Mastodon; she scrambled round with the gun to get it on a reverse bearing, but now her own ship blanked her fire.
The ‘granite frigate’ HMS Mastodon, actually Exbury House, near Lymington, was where a Junkers 188 was actually shot down in circumstances much as Shute describes. John Stanley, author of a 2004 book titled The Exbury Junkers: A World War II Mystery, used Shute’s Requiem as a source during his research. (See my review of The Exbury Junkers: A World War II Mystery.)
It is, of course, a love story, but not as straight-forward a love story as you might expect. It has at least two twists, and it all seems to me highly plausible.
…I realized directly I saw her, with the knowledge of her service that I had, that she would look exactly right at the wheel of a motor boat. Perhaps her dress may have put that into my mind, for she wasn’t ready for me yet. She was wearing a dark blue linen overall coat, and she had an artist’s brush in her hand.
This other woman’s art sheds light on the life of her former ship-mate:
It was a vigorous drawing of a Wren firing an Oerlikon at an aeroplane flying very low towards her. The drawing was in sepia crayon. The Wren was a broad-shouldered, dark-haired girl, hatless, leaning back upon the strap that held her in the shoulder rings, tense, unsmiling, intent upon the sights.
Lastly, I found this description of the ex-pilot’s search for his brother’s girl friend particularly evocative:
I said goodbye to Mrs. Pasmanik and walked slowly three or four blocks up the street to the Sunset Hill bus that would take me back to town. These were the streets she must know very well, the surroundings that had formed her in the years that she had spent in this district while I searched for her in England. Here were the stores where she had done the daily shopping for her aunt, the A. & P. and the Safeway, far from her home in Oxford, far from the Beaulieu River and from Oerlikon guns.