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Death in the forenoon

“In the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks on Birdcage Walk, across from the former pig meadow and leper colony currently known as St. James’s Park, a full-throated congregation belted out the ‘Te Deum’ and prepared to take communion from the bishop of Maidstone. ‘To Thee all angels cry aloud,’ they sang, ‘the heavens and all the powers therein.’ At 11:10 a.m. [June 18, 1944] an annoying growl from those same heavens grew louder. Ernest Hemingway heard it in his Dorchester Hotel suite, where he was making pancakes with buckwheat flour and bourbon; from the window he looked for the telltale ‘white-hot bunghole’ of a jet engine. Pedestrians in Parliament Square heard it and fell flat, covering their heads. Clementine Churchill, the prime minister’s wife, heard it in Hyde Park, where she was visiting the gun battery in which her daughter Mary volunteered. The Guards Chapel congregation heard it and kept singing. Then they heard nothing—that most terrifying of all sounds—as the engine quit, the bunghole winked out, and the black cruciform [V-1 missile] fell. Through the chapel’s reinforced concrete roof it plummeted before detonating in a white blast that blew out walls, blew down support pillars, and stripped the leaves from St. James’s plane trees. A funnel of smoke curled fifteen hundred feet above the wrecked nave; rubble ten feet deep buried the pews even as six candles still guttered on the altar and the bishop stood unharmed. One hundred and twenty-one others were dead and as many more injured. Two thousand memorial plaques accumulated by Guards regiments during eons of war lay pulverized, although a mosaic donated by Queen Victoria remained intact: ‘Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life.’ ” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

Published inErnest HemingwayRick AtkinsonThe Second World WarWinston Churchill

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