Today, Nevil Shute predicts the chilling anonymity
of war. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
In 1938, the English
engineer Nevil Norway was eased out of the company
he'd formed, Airspeed Ltd.. In his autobiography of
that part of his life, Norway says it was probably
time to move on. Two kinds of people shape
companies, he says: Starters and Runners. He'd done
a fine creative job starting the company, but he
wasn't suited to running it day by day.
So Norway quit making planes for Douglas, Fokker
and others. As war threatened, he turned to what'd
been his hobby since 1928. He'd been writing books
and stories. One story had even been made into a
movie. He hadn't wanted the engineers he worked
with to think he was frivolous, so he'd written
under his Christian names, Nevil Shute. Today we
know Nevil Shute for many books and several movies
made from them: On the Beach, A
Town Called Alice, The Pied
His second movie contract came in just as he quit
making airplanes, so he was able to go to eastern
France, near the Swiss Alps, to write
Ordeal, a book as prophetic as
On the Beach would later be.
Ordeal is about a family in
Southampton, England. One night a large, sudden air
raid drives them to cover. Shute was predicting how
WW-II would begin. He didn't say who the enemy was,
since Chamberlain had just signed a nonaggression
pact with Hitler. Still, Shute left little doubt as
to who was bombing England.
His attacking airplanes avoid defensive fire by
dropping into cloud cover as they near a city.
Hidden by clouds, unseen and unseeing, they
randomly drop bombs on homes and industry,
destroying morale and infrastructure. Civilians
flee as electricity, food, and water supply systems
break down, and as cholera runs rampant.
The family flees to their small sailboat and runs
for France where wife and kids will catch a ship to
Canada and husband will turn back to join the Navy.
Shute foresaw a long war of aerial assault and
human misery coming. When the family meets naval
officers along the way, they find the military as
ignorant of conditions on shore as civilians are
ignorant about the war itself.
The Battle of Britain, with its terrible bombings,
began before the ink was dry on Shute's book.
England proved better prepared to serve its
civilian population than Shute had expected, and
civilian morale was far stronger. But that may've
been because of Shute's warning. Later we all
cringed when we read On the Beach (or
saw the movie). The nuclear war we feared hasn't
yet come to pass, but that may also owe something
Throughout all Shute's war books runs the anonymity
of warring armies. They come and go but
noncombatants are constant. Civilians are what war
is really about. Shute didn't just predict aerial
war against civilians. He also predicted the
detachment we would need -- to wage such war.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds