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Lunch at the Eagle Pub

Photo: Xavier de Jauréguiberry

By Dave O’Malley

There are places in this world that are imbued with a spiritual power beyond their utility. Most are grand. Westminster Abbey for instance contains the history, the power, the empire and even the bones of all England. The Hermitage in St Petersburg rises grandly from the banks of the Neva, containing within its baroque flourish the wealth and tragedy of the Romanoffs, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul resounds with the glory of Islam. These are the repositories of human emotion, religious belief, and political tectonics—nexus points in a shared remembrance. In them lives a soul—palpable, unavoidable, life changing. Not all these nexuses are on the scale of Westminster Abbey. Some reveal their ghosts only to acolytes, and to those who search. Some are so ordinary, they are not even on maps.

In Cambridge, England, near the slow drift of the River Cam, on the north side of Bene’t Street, stands the Eagle Pub, one of these rare holy places. A public house like thousands throughout the United Kingdom, The Eagle might never reveal itself to the ordinary thirsty tourist and student. But if they take the time and look up to the deep red and burnished lacquer of the ceiling scrawled with strange runes, they might see into the past, and if they cock their heads just right, they may hear the voices. Those young voices.

The writer sits at the window where, nearly 70 years ago, the blackout curtains were drawn and the war temporarily shut out. Photo: Susan Kirkpatrick

Imagine, if you will. It’s late in the evening on a cold and damp East Anglian winter night in 1943. The blackout curtains are drawn tight, though there is not much chance of German bombers overhead Cambridge lately. Outside, in the dark, lightless sky, the last remnants of a Lancaster raid thunder towards the Channel—the last sound from a hundred lost lives this night. Inside the air is blue with tobacco smoke, layered and swirling, the floors sticky with Green King Ale, and the walls glow orange from the dim electric lights and the flicker of the coal fireplace. Shoulder to shoulder at the bar and on the benches, are young men, boys by today’s measure. They wear the rough blue serge of the RAF and Commonwealth air forces. Small groups wear the browns and greens of the USAAF. They are loud and bawdy and many are drunk. All are on a reprieve for the next few hours—from the war, their duty, and uncertain futures. They sing louder, shout rougher words and laugh more forcibly than they have ever done.

There are other pubs across Cambridge where the same thing is happening—for there are many men who have come into town tonightfrom the surrounding fighter bases of Duxford, Debden or Fowlmere, the big bomber bases of Oakington, Alconbury, Mildenhall and Bassingbourn. They jostle and shove and shout as they enter the pubs—tonight they will get drunk. They have a few comrades to remember and a thousand things to forget.

Bert’s Boys, 196 Squadron. Bert was one of Sir Arthur Harris’ nicknames (including Butcher and Bomber), placing this graffiti between July 1943 and November of that year, when 196 Squadron left Bomber Command for the Allied Expeditionary Air Force. At this time they were stationed at RAF Witchford, near Cambridge. They flew both Vickers Wellingtons and Short Stirlings from this base. Photo: Dave O’Malley

Sometime after ten in the back room of the Eagle Pub on Bene’t Street, one boisterous Royal Air Force Mosquito navigator shoves the glasses of beer aside on his table and places his chair on top. Amid the shouts of his friends, he climbs the table and the chair and, teetering there, pulls out his Zippo, clinks the top open and thumb-rolls it to life. Carefully, with one hand steadying him on the ceiling he traces the number of his squadron using the black smudge of the soot that rises from the dancing flame. Slowly, the numbers form 139—a Pathfinder Squadron. Its pilots and navigators, like this 22-year-old from Moncton, New Brunswick are the best of the best—and they know it. And they love to proclaim it. As he traces the numbers, the other boys from other squadrons shout encouragement in the form of expletives. Laughter and hearty songs rise like flames from the crowd. Much of it you can tell is forced. As he finishes, the navigator, a Flight Sergeant, steps down from the chair but slips on a puddle of beer on the table. There is a clatter, the chair tumbles, glass breaks and he falls back to be caught by his comrades, cigarette still dangling from his lip like a warrior. The entire pub cheers. 

An anchor and the acronym for Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm (bottom) tell us it was not always air force blue sitting at the tables and standing at the bar. Photo: Dale Haussner

One of the boldest inscriptions is the name of a B-17 bomber by the name of The Wild Hare, based at nearby RAF Bassingbourn (according to the display at the pub which outlines the source of much of the graffiti). The Wild Hare, like so many Eighth Air Force bombers, was lost on operationson 26 November 1944 during a mission to Bremen, Germany. Photo: Janet59@Flickr.com

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress (Serial number 42-31515) named The Wild Hare, based at RAF Bassingbourn. This aircraft was shot down near Altenbeken, Germany on 26 November 1944. Photo via AmericanAirMuseum.com

Among the scores of squadron numbers, we find a Latin phrase: “Alis Nocturnus”—“On the Wings of the Night”. It is the motto of 58 Squadron, Royal Air Force, a bomber squadron of the RAF which was in Coastal Command and operated from RAF St. Eval in Cornwall. It is possible that the crew or a crew member was visiting Cambridge. At the bottom of this photo we see the faux-Chinese saying “Ding Hy!” similar to Ding Hao!, an expression in common usage in the USAAF in the Second World War, meaning Very Good or The Best or Number One!—first used by American Volunteer Group pilot and ace Colonel James Howard on his famous P-51B Ding Hao! Photo: Dale Haussner

Not to be outdone, an American lieutenant, a tall B-17 pilot from nearby Bassingbourn, stands on a table in the middle of the main room. He calls to a local girl sitting below him—asking for her lipstick. It’s hard to come by these days, but she is in the moment too, and surely taken by the free-spending, pomaded, young man from Hopkinsville, Tennessee. She tosses him a gold tube from her purse. With his buddies cheering and the girls watching, his head cocked way back, he draws a large, crude effigy of a naked woman wearing naught but a cigarette, drawn over dozens of smoky squadron numbers, aircraft nicknames and bomber group numbers. Perhaps it is a copy of his bomber’s nose art. The crowd howls with every stroke. He lingers on the details of the breasts. The women look slightly bemused, even a bit embarrassed. The young boys love it. The Tennessee Volunteer declares that the vixen be hereafter named after Ethel, the landlady of the pub, who has thrown him out on occasion.

The RAF fighter boys boo and shout, somewhat jealous of the free-spending Yanks, but they are all in it together. There are no bare-knuckle fistfights tonight, but there have been a few before. Tomorrow they will launch ramrods over the Channel. They save their anger for the Germans. Tomorrow night, next week, next month, some who were in the bar tonight would not return, their smoky writing on the ceiling the only witness that they had been this way.

An approximation of a naked woman, drawn in lipstick on the ceiling, speaks to the bawdy nights, the alcohol and puerile tendencies of young men in the throes of war. Photo: Dale Haussner

Buried among the scores of fighter and bomber squadron names, we find a cryptic numeral 46455. To some this is just a number, to others, perhaps the crew chief of Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress 42-46455, it was a way of immortalizing their charge. B-17 42-46455 finished the war safely with 58 missionsa true warhorse. She was scrapped along with hundreds of other B-17s at Kingman AFB, Arizona. Photo: Dale Haussner

By the end of the war, the ceiling of the Eagle Pub would be covered deep in this graffiti of nights and years of heartbreak and sodden releasesooted in place by candles, burnt corks or Zippos, written in the hazy smoke of memory. The tradition of writing on the ceiling of The Eagle’s was started in 1940 by an English airman by the name of P.E. Turner, who wrote his name there. Following his lead, flyers and infantrymen would inscribe their units, groups, aircraft nicknames and airfield names for nearly ten years.

Back in the early 1980s, the meaning of the writings on the ceiling had long since drifted away as did the airmenback to their homes. The strange numerals and letters looked to most like meaningless graffiti from another time. A former RAF technician named James Chainey decided to research the numbers and names and record them for posterity. Today, a list of all the names and numbers and their meanings is written and hung on the wall, so that visitors can come to understand.

This past week with my beloved Susan, I drank a Green King Ale and bellied up to a hearty plate of Bangers and Mash, sitting at the window of the RAF Bar of the Eagle. Next to us a young Canadian student was trying to impress a blonde from Australia, and tourists chattered loudly. I could not take my eyes off that ceiling, nor could I stop myself from sensing the ghosts, hearing the voices. Here I was where they had been, where they had left their marks. I knew that they were written here as a form of piss-posting, marking territory, elbowing for identity. Little did they know, nor probably care, that these marks would remain for nearly 70 years and perhaps for centuries. In Canada, they would have been removed for a remodeling, and the Eagle Pub would have become a soulless clubwith a name like “e” (lower case intended) or “Live”. But in England, where just 70 years before, the skies above had filled with the thunder of a thousand-plane raid, where thousands of young men were sacrificed at the altar of freedom, the memory of those boys would never have been consigned to the landfill.

If you are at The Eagle and ask for a warm goat cheese salad and a glass of Chablisyou have no clue. Bangers and mash are the order of the day. Hmmmm, the author was happy. The food is varied and excellent, the beers numerous. Photo: Susan Kirkpatrick (Not so happy with my menu choice)

The warm and friendly bar at The Eagle Pub—welcomed airmen during the war years—today veterans from those days still make their way to the pub to remember and have another Green King. Though hundreds of years old, it is the modern history for which visitors come—in fact The Eagle Pub is the place that Cambridge scientists James Watson and Francis Crick came to celebrate their discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA back in 1953. Almost as important as the ceiling! Photo: Bill Holmes

The Eagle Pub is a charming place, made all the more compelling by the layers of military aviation history in the form of graffiti and unit “zappers”. Photo: Dale Haussner

The RAF Bar at The Eagle Pub off Bene’t Street. Photo: Dave O’Malley

Should you ever find yourself in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk or England for that matter, you must quaff an ale at The Eagle. Take the time to read the names and numbers, to hear the voices. For they are the voices of our fathers and our grandfathers. Some are the voices of young men who never lived long enough to be either.

As I left The Eagle, I looked down the lane to the RAF Bar, imagined pilots and navigators and gunners smoking outside, chatting up the “birds”. Out on Bene’t Street, I imagined I saw those boys in blue, backs to me, walking away, singing, arm in arm... fading into the darkness of a blacked-out night. The stone walls of the narrow streets resounding with their song. I could almost hear the echoing refrains of that wartime favourite of servicemen:

“Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me
Anyone else but me, anyone else but me, no, no, no
Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me
’Til I come marchin’ home”

Sadly, many of them did not come marching home.

Dave O’Malley

Sharpies and Zappers—the modern equivalent of the ceiling’s markings—perhaps not as romantic, but still keeping the tradition alive 70 years later. These can be found on the walls and the bar at The Eagle and come primarily from USAF personnel visiting nearby Mildenhall. However, these particular autographs show us that The Eagle is an important place in American history. At the bottom is none other than Robin Olds, fighter pilot of the Second World War and even more famous as a rare ace of the Vietnam War. Photo: Dave O’Malley

The two scenarios of the airmen writing on the ceiling in this article are of course poetic licence only. There is no way that we will ever know the exact history of the day they were written and who specifically wrote themthis is only meant to set the scene for your imagination.

The complete Warbird U Calendar for 2012
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