When the Bells Rang: A Tale of What Might Have Been by Anthony Armstrong and Bruce Graeme (1943)

As the subheading suggests, this quasi-dystopian story of an imagined German invasion of England during the early part of the Second World War clearly would have had more than a fanciful ring to it at the time of writing. Set in the invented village of Russocks (located, we learn, somewhere to the south-east of the capital) the story charts the swift usurpation of the secluded lives of the villagers by the invading German force (largely personified in the monstrous figure of Colonel Oberst Wasserman), and painful awakening of the residents to the realities of life under occupation. Attitudes of appeasement and capitulation are portrayed in the contemptible shape of local squire, Sir James Trotter, while it is the young Home Guard commander (by day a machine factory manager), Ralph Wallace, who comes to the fore in leading the local resistance.

Running adjacent to the story of the nascent guerilla and counter-propaganda movement is the plight of Dora Robbins, who (along with her ailing mother) is taken hostage in her own home by Wasserman, and, in being coerced into accompanying him around the occupied village, suffers the dual anguish of being both prisoner and suspected enemy collaborator. Following a direct hit on the family home (which both she and Wasserman survive) she is reluctantly persuaded to forgo the chance to escape in order to use her proximity to Wasserman to glean information on enemy plans. This culminates in a bold mission to destroy a strategically important bridge, even as Wasserman takes hostages – including Ralph himself – whom he threatens to shoot in response to further acts of sabotage. It is decided that the mission must go ahead regardless; in the event the hostages are rescued at the last minute (though Ralph’s father, Tom – whose job of detonating the explosives which destroy the bridge entails a final act of self-sacrifice – is not so fortunate).

While the story does not fail to grip the reader’s interest, perhaps expectedly the level of narrative detachment is not quite what would have been needed to make this – in more narrowly critical terms – a ‘successful’ novel. In addition to the slightly jarring effect of the co-mingling of real and invented detail, the narrative voice is very much down in the scrum of events, rather than seeking (still less attaining) any real measure of objectivity. Certainly the gross inhumanity of the German occupiers is in little doubt, though the portrayal of enemy characters (and Wasserman in particular) might have been a little less two-dimensional. To this extent, however, the attitudes in the novel are unquestionably of their time. Indeed, to bemoan the lack of narrative or authorial perspective is perhaps to miss the real point of the novel, which in the end is to give an imagined account of the domestic response were such an invasion to happen, giving voice to those qualities of tenacity and courage (presented, of course, as inherently ‘British’) required in order to prevail. This is not to say that that the novel is entirely above a little self-ironizing: as is remarked at one point: ‘if this were a film it’d be the only bridge for miles, and ten German divisions would be instantly trapped if it went’. Such interjections serve, perhaps, to betray some slight authorial unease over the subject matter, as well as giving a distancing nod to contemporary depictions of the war, but they do little to detract from the main thrust of the novel, which seems largely in earnest in its cautionary, yet exhortative account.

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2 thoughts on “When the Bells Rang: A Tale of What Might Have Been by Anthony Armstrong and Bruce Graeme (1943)

  1. Thanks for this. I’m interested in Bruce Graeme as author of the ‘Blackshirt’ novels, about a man whose craving for adventure is stimulated by fighting in the First World War, and who after the war becomes a gentleman burglar, purely for the thrill of it. I’ve written about him here: https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/gentleman-crooks/

    I didn’t know of this book. It sounds a bit like the film ‘Went the Day Well’ (script by Graham Greene).

  2. I’ve now read the book, and was very disappointed with it. I suppose one can’t complain because a wartime book presents an entirely non-nuanced view of the Germans (They are all bullying rapists.) The real problem is that the British are so predictable. The early chapters show the village as full of salt-of the earth characters, with just two exceptions, One is the local squire who bought his manor house and position with the proceeds of profiteering in the previous war. the other is a long-haired composer who doesn’t fit in. With plodding predictability, these two stereotypes turn out to be the only Quislings in the village. Otherwise anyone British and normal turns out heroic.
    At first I cast this aside because the first chapters were such turgid reading. When i went back to it, though, the pace hotted, and the end was an exciting read.
    And though it’s a poor book, at least it’s better than the current TV serial of SS-GB, in which the Germans are still equally stereotyped, and which doesn’t have as much narrative drive.

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