Wings Over Cambridge
Wartime Air Force Poetry

Above: A stained glass window in the Auckland War Memorial Museum dedicated to the RNZAF

FIGHTER PILOT
William Kean Seymour

The tardy dawn has burst in sullen fire,
Grey mists along the level acres lift,
The pilot looks upon his heart's desire,
A clean sky with the westering cloud adrift.
There in the height of his plane
Will mount, and climb again,
And there his spirit, breathing power, will rise
Swift as a swallow's, free, in English skies.

So clear the air; he drinks it as he smiles.
This is his element, his realm of dreams,
In measureless immensity of miles,
Swirling beneath a vault of stellar beams.
For this he grew and planned,
To claim with eye and hand
Unhindered passage where no feet may tread,
Where men, like migrant birds, use wings instead.

His helmet fixed, he gives the word and then,
Waving his squadron as their engines start,
He soars and sings above the world of men,
The beat of battle racing in his heart.
In mortal combat there,
Far in the upper air,
He fights for freedom, one of freedom's sons,
Lone in his aery sphere of blue and bronze.

What destiny is his he does not know;
He does not ask, for asking names a fate;
He goes where duty summons him to go,
He'd sweep undaunted up to heaven's gate.
He holds one purpose well,
In flying to excel,
To roll and loop and bank and dive and spin,
To meet the foe in battle, and to win.

This is the Happy Warrior, this is he.
On his gay courage all we love depends;
His is the valiant heart that keeps us free;
By him a Commonwealth its life defends.
We praise he hands and eyes,
Knight of our war-torn skies,
True son of Britain , fearless in his faith,
Ready to serve her, even unto death.

 

 

HIGH FLIGHT

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

 

NIGHT FIGHTER
By M.D. Webster
(from RNZAF Contact, July 1942)

The stars are close and friendly, in my grasp,
They seem to lie.
The clouds are soft and white like feather-beds
Across the open sky.
Beneath, the far-seen glint of shining sea,
So far below.
Is like a star dropped from from some universe
I do not know,
There is no world beneath - no world but this,
The sky and me,
And with the night I keep a rendezvous
With Destiny.
The motors croon about me like a loom
To weave a cloak
That wraps me in a harmony of sound
Their lays evoke
The spirits of the air to speed me through
The star-spread night
There is an ecstasy in being held
In watchful flight.
The pulsing power at rest beneath my hand,
I ride the skies
On tireless wings that keep me to my trust -
A Nation's eyes.

 

PER ARDUA AD ASTRA

In no sequestered plot of hallowed ground our ashes lie,
but in the stormy seas,
from Norway to the purple Hebrides .
On tall Italian hilltops, fortress crowned
In the fair fields of Kent , the Flanders plain,
we fell to earth,
clawed from the embattled skies.

But though this unending day may die,
not all of us are dead
nor dead in vain.
Now, other eyes this ceaseless watch are keeping,
as ours, undaunted by the allied host.
No fear and no reproach our requiem mars,
Our emblem sings from coast to distant coast
"Through hardship to the stars"

 

RETURN AT DAWN
By Morris Marshall
(RNZAF Overseas, from Contact, Feb 1944)


The early dawn has seen their first homecoming,
Has seen them stuggle grimly through the skies.
The skylark hearkens to the engines' pulsing
and feels akin to every man who flies.

The grazing beast lifts gentle eyes in wonder
To gaze upon the victors' brave return
But knows not of the dangers that beset them
Who flew into the dark of early morn.

And winging back from out the far horizons,
Now hidden deep in smoke from work well done
The bomber crews give thanks to One Almighty
Who gave them strength to battle till they won.

 

THREE CHEERS FOR THE MAN ON THE GROUND
By Flight Mechanic E. Sykes (1942)

Wherever you walk, you will hear people talk,
of the men who go up in the air,
of the daredevil way, they go into the fray;
Facing death without turning a hair.

They'll raise a big cheer and buy lots of beer,
for the pilot who's come home on leave,
but they don't give a jigger, for a flight mech or rigger,
with nothing but "props" on his sleeve.

They just say "Nice day" - and then turn away,
with never a mention of praise,
for the poor bloody erk, who does all the work,
and just orders his own beer - and pays !

They've never been told, of the hours in the cold,
that he spends sealing Germany 's fate,
how he works on a kite, till all hours of the night,
and then turns up next morning at eight.

He gets no rake-off, for working 'til take-off,
or helping the aircrew prepare,
but whenever there's trouble - it's "Quick at the double",
the man on the ground must be there.

Each flying crew, could confirm it as true,
that they know what this man's really worth,
they know that he's part of the RAF's heart,
even though he stays close to the earth.

He doesn't want glory, but please tell his story,
spread a little of his fame around,
He's just one of a few - so give him his due,
and "Three Cheers for the man on the ground

 

ON WINGS OF VALOUR
(Anon., from Contact Sept-Oct 1942)

Not looking back to ask the reason why
Our plane is set along this course,
Gladly we shall go, unsullied by remorse;
Nor blaming now the mundane evils of the past
Or that idolatry which planned our flight; we die
To live enthroned forever with the fold
That dwells immortal in the Halls of great Valhalla.
Long-dormant Viking hearts awake at last -
We take in hands as bold as those of old
The helm of our own destiny; and for our vast
Ocean of adventure, instead of waves, the boundless sky.
Once more, inviolate, erect and proud
As those who never down to tyranny have bowed.
On wings of valour. Woden-borne, we fly.

 

TROPICALIA
Credited to M.J.G.
(from Contact, August, 1944)

In the depth of the jungle lurk death and disease
The fever mosquito breeds thick mid the trees
No place for a white man in freedom to roam
You dream of your clean-smelling fever-free home

- But the white line of reef and the turquoise blue bay
Seem to sing to you softly, "Stay, Stranger, Stay."

The heat is oppressive, the atmosphere dead,
Not a breath stirs the palm-fronds - there's thunder overhead,
Waste naked you work, while you curse you sweat,
And long for the day when you'll leave and forget.

- But a cool breeze at dusk blows oppression away,
And the bright hues of sunset entice you to stay.

When morning dawns humid, and thunderclouds tower,
And lightning plays bright through each swift passing shower,
And roads turn to torrents, overflowing each drain,
You must needs fare you forth, and you're drenched by the rain.

- But at night, clear and starbright, a soft wand'ring breeze,
Breathes "Stay, Stranger, Stay." And is gone through the trees.

A strange land of contrast, this tropical isle,
Where nature is fickle, with frown and with smile,
She'll scornfully beat you with storm or with rain,
Then woo you with soft nights and moonlight again.

- Forever conspiring to drive you away,
Forever relenting, to tempt you to stay

 

AN IRISH AIRMAN FORESEES HIS DEATH
William Butler Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love.
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds.
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

 

THE ODE FOR THE FALLEN
Laurence Binyon
(1869 - 1943)

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn in drums thrill: Death august and royal
Signs sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.


They mingle not with their laughing comrades again:
They sit no more at familiar tables at home;
They have no lot in our labor of the daytime;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
felt as a wellspring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars that are known to the Night.

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
to the end, to the end, they remain.

The Ode is taken from the elegy For The Fallen , by English poet and writer Laurence Binyon and was published in London in The Winnowing Fan; Poems of the Great War in 1914. The fourth verse, seen above in italics, was adopted by both the Royal New Zealand Returned Services Association and the Australian Returned Services League to become the ANZAC Ode, which is heard at all ANZAC Day commemoration services in New Zealand and Australia. It also adorns War Memorials throughout the British Commonwealth.