Ernest Hemingway — World War II: Prologue

Cuba, New York & England, 1942–1944

Hemingway and Son on board Pilar. Image: wearethemighty.com

In 1942, for Ernest Hemingway, unsuccessfully chasing U-Boats in the Gulf of Mexico, and annoying FBI boss, J. Edgar Hoover (who was making things very difficult for the novelist), it was never really going to be enough for a man who’d seen the sharp end of WWI, had reported on the Greco-Turkish War, and the Spanish Civil War, and with his relatively new wife, Martha Gellhorn, had managed to get into China in 1941 to check out the deadly and bloody, Japanese occupation of Manchuria.

During 1943, with his novels selling well, but no new work on the stocks, Hemingway was in the doldrums, drinking too much and losing interest in WWII, which was a war that he felt had nothing to do with him.

By the early months of 1944 he eventually realised, after Martha had, during a loud argument in a smart Havana restaurant, poured Champagne over his head, followed by a punch in the mouth and, to cap it all off, drove his brand new car into a tree, that he had to get his backside into action and head for London to report on the Allied invasion of Europe. Having made the decision he told his drinking cronies in the Havana bars that he would soon “…saddle his horse and ride off in pursuit of Martha.”

He did nothing of the sort of course, falling into a depression and moaning loudly about Martha, and that she should be at home being a wife to him, or leave for good and join the US Army. He complained to her that he’d always worked hard, but that his ability to write had left him, so what use would he be reporting on a war. No, he argued, he was finished as a writer.

Martha knew she had to do something to get him motivated and “…blast him loose from Cuba.” What to do?

What she did, while sorting out her travel arrangements in New York, she bumped into Roald Dahl who was then the Assistant Air Attaché at the British Embassy in Washington. She asked the tall aspirant children’s novelist what to do. Dahl informed her that he could only get Hemingway a seat on a plane to London if he agreed to report on the heroic activities of the Royal Air Force in an American magazine or newspaper.

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Roald Dahl. Image: wikipedia

Martha cabled this idea to Ernest, who agreed. A contract was quickly arranged with Collier’s Weekly, with Hemingway leaving Cuba by air for New York within hours. He was a changed man, and a man who probably thought the whole idea had been his.

As Hemingway biographer, Carlos Baker, has written:

“ Ernest enjoyed himself in his customary New York fashion. Dahl spent an evening at the Hotel Gladstone with the Hemingways and the boxing coach George Brown. They spooned caviar from a two-kilo tin and drank champagne…”

Hemingway had left Cuba so quickly he only had a toothbrush and comb, and no change of clothes, but several two-ounce bottles of Angostura Bitters, having heard from a friend in the UK that there were none to be had in London due submarine activity in the Atlantic.

Martha left New York on May 13th as the only passenger aboard a ship with a cargo of dynamite.

Ernest left four days later by a Pan Am seaplane and found himself sitting next to the British actress, Gertrude Lawrence, who was carrying a basketful of eggs for her rationed English friends. The rest of the passengers were members of the OSS who would be jumping into occupied France soon after their arrival.

Gertrude eggs were smashed during the flight.

On arrival in London Hemingway booked himself into the Dorchester Hotel, in what he insisted on calling “ Dear Old London Town”, where he parked himself in the bar, had a couple of whiskies and then headed for bed. He needed to be up early next morning to meet his Royal Air Force liaison officer, Flt Lt John Macadam, to discuss his RAF duties.

The next morning Macadam and one George Houghton, who was in charge of all the correspondents attached to the RAF, knocked on Ernest’s hotel bedroom door. Silence. They knocked again. Eventually a ‘gruff’ voice invited them in.

Hemingway was still in bed, but seeing all the gold braid on the uniforms in front of him he leaped out of bed naked and stood to attention before dialling reception and ordering drinks.

The three men then discussed in outline the coming invasion of Europe, no doubt reminding Hemingway of the need for secrecy (and that he’d the Official Secrets Act).

As the morning wore on old friends of Hemingway, and fellow correspondents, plus Hemingway’s younger brother, Leicester, who was part of a film unit, came visiting, as did a young woman by the name of Mary Welsh. Before long it had turned into a fully-fledged party, which then split up into other parties. What the RAF men thought of it no one can guess.

After another party a few days later late at night, and in the blackout, Hemingway begged a lift in someone’s car only to end up smashing his head into the windscreen when the car crashed into a large steel water tank. Hemingway and the driver ended-up in St. George’s Hospital, just a stone’s throw from the Dorchester. When Leicester visited him he was in a bad way with swollen knees, a bandaged head and concussion. But, as Leicester commented, his eyes were shining.

The following day Hemingway had fifty-seven stitches in his head, plus a headache that would “…torture him for months.”

The accident had put paid, at least for the time being, to his RAF duties, but he wasn’t going to miss D-Day and, on June 2nd, 1944, along with dozens of other correspondents, Ernest was briefed and, along with the others, taken to the invasion flotilla.

He began asking questions:

“ Was this a diversion or the real thing? What was the plan?”

The commander of his attack transporter, the Dorethea M. Dix, was a Commander Leahy, a tough Irishman, who had orders to pass on that Hemingway was not to be allowed to go ashore.

Two ships later, and a hour before dawn, Hemingway was on an LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel) waiting.

Read: Part 1

Note: Acknowledgments to Carlos Baker’s 1969 biography of Hemingway, and Charles Whiting’s Hemingway Goes to War.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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