Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (3)

Anthony Richardson wrote three books of verse during his lifetime, all of them during World War Two. The first was called “Because of these: Verses of the Royal Air Force” (1942). Then there was “These – Our Children” (1943) and finally “Full Cycle: Verses of the Royal Air Force” (1946). Last time, we were looking at the first one:

Richardson joined the RAF at the beginning of the war and his career was related in the official records in the following fashion. It may give you an idea of the difficulties which may be encountered when you are trying to follow somebody’s military career:

Firstly he was a “T/2nd Lt. 05.09.1918 (reld 01.09.1921)”.

Then he was “P/O (prob) 18.06.1940 [80934]”.

Next he was “(WS) F/O (prob) 20.01.1941”

and then “(WS) F/O 18.06.1941”

He finished as a “(T) F/Lt. 01.09.1942”.

And like my father he was “demobilized 1946”

The numbers are either his RAF service number or the date he assumed his rank. Other abbreviations are “T” (Temporary), “P/O” (Pilot Officer) and then “F/O” is Flying Officer, “F/Lt.” is Flight Lieutenant and “WS” is War Service. “Prob” is “on probation”.

As far as I know, Richardson was an Intelligence Officer on a Bomber Base, which means that he would listen to the tales the bomber crews told when they returned and then write them all down, so that they could be passed on for others to correlate and thereby produce some kind of general overview:

I’ve found one or two more of the best poems from Richardson’s book “Because of these”, and I’ll be showing them to you in the rest of this blog post.

The first poem I selected is called “There is a Land”. It has an almost jokey tone to it. The poet envisages a land, he doesn’t know where, but everything is perfect. Weather forecasts are always accurate, everybody is a member of RAF aircrew, there are no sudden calls to take off, no hours spent on stand by and everything is beautiful. The third verse mentions the three types of light on a wartime RAF airbase, namely the boundary lights, the glim-lamps (glim is short for “glimmer”), and the Chance-lights, made by Chance’s, a factory in Birmingham just half a mile from where my wife lived as a child. In real life, these lights were all deliberately kept very dim so as not to help German night fighters, so in a perfect land, they all shine brightly:

When you go out in your Blenheim light bomber, everything is perfect:

Verse four speaks of “golden clouds” and a “free and boundless sky”. But, alas, in the fifth verse, they’ll all be flying near Horley Ness, where the weather is so bad that there are bound to be crashes. That will in turn create vacancies in the canteen (the “Mess”) so that the people who get back will be able to eat the extra sausages:

These next two poems are both epitaphs. Both of them rhyme, and do so without becoming ridiculous doggerel. Epitaph 1 makes the point of how a man’s body can be destroyed in an instant and leave just a burnt patch on the ground. But once winter is past, Mother Nature makes the flowers and the grass grow and they soon cover up all traces of charred earth. The poet, though, wonders how the plants can grow heedless of the remains of a hero among their roots. Every RAF man knew that he might finish up that way. Like Guy Gibson, just a single foot in a single sock. Or one of the Old Nottinghamians I have written about. He and his six companions became just five bones, some of them fingers, and not even enough for one per coffin:

The second epitaph paints an even more gaunt picture of the life of RAF aircrew. A sergeant pilot lies in his grave, having at last taken to wife the dark maiden Death. He had encountered her several times before, but on this occasion, he looks too deeply into her eyes and “she enfolded him in her embrace. Again a rhyming poem, although this time with a different pattern of rhyme:

I hope you enjoyed them. More next time.


Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, Literature, Politics, Writing

21 responses to “Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (3)

    • Thank you, Derrick. I’m actually worried that a rather fine poet may slip into oblivion, a fate he doesn’t deserve because he is a lot more accessible than many of, say, John Pudney’s works.
      Pudney seems to have become the “go-to” poet for WW2 and much of his work, for me, is not nearly as good as Richardson.

  1. The poems must have meant an escape from life in those moments. Thank you for sharing. A war is going on now too. Sometimes I wonder what will happen, then I tell myself to take life as it comes.

    • Yes, I think that you are right there. It was a chance to get away from the horror of the war but at the same time, to record it all, so that that life would not be forgotten.
      The best thing to do for coronavirus is to stay at home with your family and to have no visitors until it is all over. You could go out for a walk, but don’t get within two metres of anybody else. If possible, have food delivered, and put in a bag at the gate so you don’t have to approach the person delivering it.
      Scientists in England seem to think that only half as many women as men will catch the virus, and that it is connected with smoking as it seems to get into the body through the throat. Ex-smokers may also be at greater risk.

  2. John, many thanks for this excellent post; I am truly grateful.

  3. There is something incongruous about writing a poem that is as beautiful as the subject is terrible. But he did it well.

    • I wish I could pass your compliment on to him ! Seriously though, there must be other poems which fulfil that category. Perhaps “The Destruction of Sennacherib” by :Lord Byron. That actually reminds me of another category… “Achievements that are wonderful but the achiever is a first class sh*te. ” Byron certainly would fit into that category with a very long catalogue of sexual misdemeanours.

  4. Many writers have used poetry and the written word to escape the fear and constant threat of death they faced on a daily basis. It’s a form of escapism I guess, taking yourself off to a world filled with beauty. Alternatively, by facing your fears, by writing them down, we can come to terms with death, fearing it less and accepting it as fate. Richardson definitely has a way with words, perhaps seeing that good may prevail in the end. Thank you for sharing these John.

    • My pleasure and a good few more to come !
      I would agree with you that writing may well be therapeutic, both in the short term, if you are going off to bomb Leipzig that night, or long term, if you find it difficult, as Richardson must have done, to find out every single morning that so many young faces have disappeared from the squadron.
      I found it very difficult when my Dad died, even though he was over eighty. I described it as feeling like I imagine a dog would feel when he loses his master.
      So I set off and wrote down everything I could remember about my Dad, especially his stories. I found it very helpful, and furthermore, it was a means of not forgetting him.

  5. I really enjoyed this post, John. Thank you for the endless hours you put in with research in order for us to read what you found. Thank you!

    • My pleasure, Amy, although I cannot imagine that I spend any more time researching on the internet than you spend out there in the forest, finding birds who sit still long enough to be photographed and all those wonderful flowers.

  6. Jean Townsend

    I have just cleaned out a bookshelf and found a copy of Full Cycle that belonged to my late aunt. She never married and had a reasonable ammount of RAF WW2 memorabilia including clippings about Anthony Richardson. Her mothers maiden name was Richardson so perhaps he was a relative OR was he the secret RAF lover who we believe she mourned all of her life..
    Either way he was a very moving poet and I treasure the book of poems.

    • Thanks very much for your reply. I would take good care of the memorabilia and clippings, since they clearly go with the book that you found. I suspect that Anthony Richardson must have been a relative of your aunt’s. As far as I know he was happily married.
      He worked in the RAF as an Intelligence Officer so he was more or less never in a dangerous position, although he would have known a very large number of young men who were.
      My best guess is that your aunt fell in love with a young man in the RAF who was one of the 70,000 or so RAF personnel who were killed. Perhaps the book was a present to her from that young man?

  7. For my money, Anthony Richardson is the outstanding poet of WWII, though he confines his subject matter to the RAF’s part in it. In power and range he is up there with the best of WW1 – Owen, Sassoon, Kipling et al. As the son of a bomber pilot, I maybe appreciate his verses more than most – they capture much of the beauty, terror, loneliness and courage of the flyer. ‘The night when you went in low’ has a special resonance for me.
    Richardson deserves to have all his works published on the internet and for them to be re-remembered for their literary as well as historical values.

    • I am with you 100% on this one. When I read his poetry in the first book I bought, I couldn’t believe how good it was, and I was straight off to abebooks to buy some more.

      I really would like to know who makes the decision about which poetry is great and which poetry is just average. And Richardson, as you say, is a great poet.

      • We make the decisions. It won’t be the first time a great artist is ‘discovered’ after his/her death.
        So how do we go about publishing Richardson’s entire oevre on the web, that others may wonder and appreciate?

      • To be honest, I think that my blog posts have reproduced most of his best poems. What I would see happening in due course is that when Richardson’s copyright runs out, a big company will publish everything they can find and make a thumping great profit (if anybody ever does that with books of poetry!)

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