Peter Giles re-tells a little-known story from the second world war…
I got this story from my father many years ago and have never entirely forgotten it. Since I myself am now considerably older than my father was when he told it to me, it occurs to me that the episode may well be lost to posterity unless I find a way to preserve it. Hence I have prevailed upon a slight connection with the editors of London Grip and they have generously enabled me to give the story whatever permanence the internet can afford.
The story takes place in 1940 when – in my father’s own words – Britain had Hitler on the doorstep and we were all waiting for the invasion or a miracle. My father was serving with a field battery on the south coast equipped (as he put it) with two eighteen-pounders and four rounds per gun, ready to cast the enemy back into the sea.
The story begins with one of his fellow gunners, a man called Purdy, who saw a letter in the evening paper suggesting that the best way out of the nation’s troubles would be to beat Drake’s Drum. In those days, most people would have (at least vaguely) known Sir Henry Newbolt’s rousing poem in which Sir Francis declaims: Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore, Strike et when your powder’s runnin’ low and then promises to quit the port o’ Heaven, An’ drum them up the Channel as we drummed them long ago. This 19th century poem was supposed to be based on a much older legend (whose details can now be found on Wikipedia). The idea of beating Drake’s drum to summon him to England’s rescue in extremis would certainly have been an appealing one. Hence it was not wholly unreasonable for Purdy to express the view that the suggestion seemed worth a try. My father was more sceptical, however, and the subject was soon dropped – at least for the time being.
About a week later, Purdy brought the matter up again and my father’s account of the conversation that ensued is fairly vividly imprinted on my memory. (He was a very good storyteller). It was Purdy who set the ball rolling:
“You remember us talking about Drake’s Drum the other night – I think we might be able to do something about it!”
“About what?” said my father.
“About beating it; beating it to see if Drake will keep his promise.”
“To come out of his grave and sweep the seas free of our enemies? Did he actually promise that or did someone just make it up?”
Purdy waggled his fingers in the air in exasperation.
“Of course he promised it. It’s absolutely in character!”
“Have you managed to get hold of Drake’s drum then?” asked my father, with some surprise.
“Well, no”, admitted Purdy regretfully. Then he began fumbling in his pocket and added “But I’ve got this!”
He produced a piece of wood about eight inches long and four inches broad which smelt vaguely tarry. My father said afterwards that it reminded him of a piece of somebody’s dog kennel.
“That,” said Purdy with a slight quiver of emotion in his voice, “that is a piece from Drake’s own ship, the Golden Hind!”
My father, startled, said he would have to take Purdy’s word for it. But, to be blunt, so what?
“A chap lent it to me. It’s an heirloom. One of his ancestors sailed with Drake. What I thought was, as we can’t get at the drum, we might beat on this. After all, Drake was a sportsman: he’d understand.”
Purdy’s eyes were shining like those of a small boy who has just been given his heart’s desire; and my father said he hadn’t the heart to sneer. But he did try to dampen Purdy’s enthusiasm a little.
“But Drake didn’t sail against the Spanish Armada in the Golden Hind …”
Purdy brushed this aside.
“That doesn’t matter! It was his ship – that’s all he’ll care!”
Which, provided Drake knew what was going on, was very likely true.
Purdy’s plan, it turned out, was for my father to go down to the beach with him at midnight (“must give these things a fair chance”) to try and cause Sir Francis to make good on his promise. My father was not a fanciful man; but after all it was 1940 and the situation was pretty desperate. Maybe faith can move mountains. And if anything did happen it would be a pity to miss it. So he agreed to take part in the experiment – although as a sop to common sense he stipulated that Purdy should also bring a flask of whisky.
They met at about five-to-twelve on a low cliff-top about ten feet above a sand and shingle beach. The tide was up and my father remembered there being a remarkably chilly wind which was sending black clouds racing raggedly across the face of a brilliant moon while also whipping up the waves to make their own crashing music. The whisky apparently helped a little.
Feeling both foolish and irritable he watched Purdy prop his piece of wood up on four sticks (“to give it a better chance of sounding off clearly”). He’d borrowed a couple of drumsticks from somewhere; and in fact, to be fair to him, he seemed to have given the whole enterprise a certain amount of thought. He’d set his watch by the wireless in order to be able to start beating on the dot of midnight; and he’d taken a bearing to ensure that his bit of wood was pointing directly towards Plymouth Hoe. He asked my father if he thought there was anything else that they could do. But, apart from packing up and getting out of the cold, my father had no suggestions to make.
Purdy crouched over the relic while he counted down the last thirty seconds to midnight by the luminous hand on his watch. On the word “Now!” his drumsticks started making a feeble tapping noise against the alleged remains of the Golden Hind.
My father was a fair-minded man and he always endeavoured to be very calm and objective in describing what happened next. He told me that at first he felt a giggle rising in his throat, in response to the ridiculous tick, tick, tickerdy, tick, tick, tick sound Purdy was making: but then, an instant later, there came a terrifying tongue of lightning followed almost simultaneously by a tremendous clap of thunder.
My father could never bring himself flatly to deny that, just for a second, he had seen a shimmering light on the horizon which illuminated tossing masts, bellying sails and the high poop deck of an ancient ship. But he was always at pains to point out that this might have been a false memory (“a kind of hindsight”) planted by what he found out later…. He was quite certain, however, about what did happen next. A gust of wind struck him full in the back, hurled him off the low cliff edge and brought him down to earth with a vengeance.
After that brief burst of activity everything seemed to be exactly as it had been before. Purdy and my father were both startled and shaken, but there was nothing else to show for their experiment in raising the spirits. And since there did not seem to be anything more to do or to say, the two of them plodded home, somewhat sheepishly and in silence. Presumably Purdy picked up the Golden Hind fragment to return it to its owner; but my father said he never saw it again.
The following morning the story came as close to a conclusion as it ever would. Purdy greeted my father with a shamefaced admission that something must have gone wrong with his planning. And surely the brief squall and lightning flash must have been a coincidence which imagination had somewhat exaggerated? But on this occasion it was my father who was more disposed to countenance the extraordinary. Unlike Purdy, he had already seen the morning paper and he pointed out an inside-page headline which read ‘Freak Storm Hits Channel’. The accompanying article was quite brief and reported that three Spanish cargo ships had been driven aground by an abrupt squall that had swept along the Channel from Beach Head to Land’s End.
My father said that it was the phrase ‘no other shipping is reported to have been affected’ which caused the penny to drop for both of them.
“Good Lord,” said Purdy, wide-eyed as a child. “I never thought of that. I suppose he didn’t know…. But all the same, you’d have thought he’d have kept up to date, wouldn’t you?”
Peter Giles is merely the mouthpiece for his father, the late Peter Giles Snr, who served with the Royal Artillery during the Second World War, eventually being part of the D-Day invasion force. In peace time he returned to a career in the motor trade which left him with all-too-little time to pursue his writing ambitions.