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Artillery Row Books

Killing and kissing

An engaging account of sex in wartime

Spitfire pilot Ian Gleed shot down five enemy aircraft in just a week in May 1940 — the fastest time in which this had ever been done, making him an official “ace” who would be quickly promoted to Wing Commander. 

Gleed had become a poster boy for “the few”, the hero pilots of the Battle of Britain to whom so many would owe so much. He lived up to the popular image with his talk of “a bloody good show” and shooting down “damned Huns”, after which he’d sink a few warm beers and spend some “wizard” free time recuperating with his girlfriend Pam, whom he “loved now more than ever”.

Gleed’s luck finally ran out over Tunisia in April 1943 when his plane was hit by a German fighter and crashed into dunes. Gleed was killed. He was just 26.

It would only emerge decades later that much of the popular image he had cultivated simply wasn’t true. Gleed was gay. Pam was an imaginary character he had invented as a cover to keep his double life as a sexually active homosexual firmly secret. 

Gleed’s story is one of many similar vignettes in this alternative history of the Second World War. Its author Luke Turner’s previous book was a memoir about his own grappling with issues around his identity as a bisexual. Here he takes up the question of how this would have played out for him and other sexual non-conformists in 1939–45. 

If women weren’t available, some would experiment

Turner grew up obsessed with the war — everything from Airfix kits and Dad’s Army to Stalingrad and the Berlin bunker — and here he examines what it was to live through that period as a sexually active person of whatever hue. It proves a particularly rich subject matter as sex seems to have been everywhere in war time: everyone was sleeping with everyone else, apparently. It’s a perennial truth that you or I might be hit by a bus tomorrow — but make that bus a bomb, and suddenly this seems to create a sense of urgency which frequently manifests itself sexually, lending daily life what Turner calls “an aphrodisiac quality”. As Quentin Crisp put it when describing the shenanigans in blacked-out, Blitz London: “As soon as the bombs started to fall, the city became like a paved double bed.”

Whilst war may see an explosion of sex of all kinds, the establishment was not always comfortable with this. A Home Office report on public behaviour in London during the Blitz noted, “In several districts cases of blatant immorality in shelters are reported; this upsets other occupants of the shelters.”

One contemporary account suggests, “In wartime a uniform, whether of the Army, Navy or Air Force, to the average girl ranks as a fetish.” This had consequences in the field: Dear John letters from home could be a real problem in this regard. As an Army report in 1942 put it, morale is often damaged by “the suspicion, very frequently justified, of fickleness on behalf of wives and girls”. 

Amongst all this sex was, of course, sex with Americans. Turner cites George Formby who captured this mood in the song “Our Fanny’s Gone All Yankee”: “She don’t wait for the dark when she wants to have a lark/In a bus or train she does her hanky panky.”

Then in a dark reversal of this two-nations-colliding-sexually motif, we get the horror of the Red Army’s organised rape of as many as 1.4 milllion German women during the Russian advance on Berlin, whose residents would late refer to the city’s grandiose monument to Soviet war dead as “the tomb of the unknown rapist”. 

There is much on the subject of prostitution. During the North African campaign against Rommel, it’s not just the famous beer from Ice Cold in Alex that is amongst the attractions of Egypt, but its brothels too. It becomes known as “the land of sun, sea, sand and syphilis”

In a brothel in Jerusalem, Madame Rose’s, some British squaddies encounter for the first time a woman who had shaved her pubic hair. “Cor,” observes one. “They’re not like that in Leeds.”

One squaddie posted overseas describes himself as “fed up, fucked up and far from fucking home” — and when he finally is allowed ro return home heads straight to The Windmill in Soho to see “Madamoiselle Fifi, straight from Paris”

If women weren’t available, some would experiment. In camp Stalag Luft 1, allied prisoners would joke that they would be “home before Christmas or homo before Easter”. If this “homo” bent was proliferating, not all were aware of this. When two men were arrested for kissing each other in public in London and appeared in court, the judge, on having the facts of the case explained, asked: “Were they French?” 

Whilst some gay men like Gleed could tone down their sexuality to attain hero status, other gay men went the other way and dialled it up. A pre-Carry On Kenneth Williams, in 1944 a sapper in the Royal Engineers, recalled his training stabbing dummies with bayonets: “This sergeant said to me, “You couldn’t kill a German, you’d probably kiss him. Willlams replied: “Yes, why not? Love is a splendid thing.” The sergeant told him to go and make tea. 

Then there’s Henry Danton, a gay man at odds with the entire military establishment before finally being discharged as unfit and finding redemption and his own version of bravery in ballet. He was appearing in Swan Lake alongside Margot Fonteyn in London in 1944 when a doodlebug was heard to go silent — the cue for it to descend and explode — apparently directly overhead. The audience and orchestra dived under their seats, he recalls, but “Fonteyn was absolutely fabulous: she finished her dance in silence”.

A team of plastic surgeons abetted Powell’s transition from Robert to Roberta

Heroic deeds also elude countless straight men. In this vein we get the story of Turner’s own grandfather, Percy, whose service sees him working the railways in colonial Sierra Leone rather than a theatre of war — and colleagues mock him for bringing an umbrella to Africa. 

Another memorable vignette concerns Robert Powell, who, like Gleed, became a Spitfire pilot. He was by all accounts one of the boys, “all booze and banter”. Shot down behind enemy lines on the final mission of his second tour, he saw out the war in POW camps. When finally repatriated in 1945, his marriage soon broke up. Analysis led him to believe he was “psychologically a woman”. A team of pioneering plastic surgeons who had set up a hospital in East Grinstead to treat burns victims from the First World War now became involved in healing the injuries of those of the second — and assisted in surgically abetting Powell’s transition from Robert to Roberta, one of the first such in the world. The Cary Grant vehicle I Was a Male War Bride made comedy of gender role reversal at the end of the war. Roberta Powell’s experience was the real deal.

As its title suggests, this is mostly a book about men, but we do get some women whose experience breaks convention. There’s Enid Barraud for instance, an insurance clerk, who joins the Women’s Land Army and sets up home with her lesbian lover — and then assumes the part of a man so effectively that she’s routinely referred to as “mate” or “buddy” rather than Miss. 

Turner’s roving eye is good at accumulating anecdote and detail in any area of the broadly sexual. I liked, for example, the story of the Allied propaganda unit which produced a doctored photograph of Hitler with a giant circumcised penis which was to be turned into paper bills and dropped on German cities — before top brass said no.

Men At War’s subtitle is Loving, Lusting, Fighting, Remembering”, and Turner explores all four categories fully in this dynamic and engaging account.

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