An analogy of life that bombed

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The Independent Online
IT'S hard to turn on the radio these days without hearing a heated discussion on the rights and wrongs of either organised religion or Anglo-German aerial warfare. What I haven't heard is any attempt to combine the subjects of religion and wartime bombing.

Not, at least, since I was at school and heard a sermon from a visiting preacher good enough to distract me from the volume of J M Synge's plays that I kept in chapel to get me through services. I kept Synge's plays in chapel because the book looked uncannily like our psalm book, and I reckoned that anybody who spotted me reading would assume I was deep in the psalms, not the culture of the outer Irish islands.

But I was distracted one day when the visiting preacher announced that he wasn't going to tell us, as so many clergymen did, that life was like a bowl of cherries, or any of the other analogies beloved of the church. And, he said, he would show us why by reference to the bombing raids carried out by the British on Germany.

The main problem with bombing Germany (he said) was that our planes got shot down. So some boffin had come up with the brilliant idea of sending over decoy planes. Gliders, to be precise. We had accompanied a lot of bombing raids with lookalike gliders, which the Germans had shot down to their hearts' content.

After a while they became suspicious. Perhaps they started finding a lot of gliders shot down in German fields and had put two and two together. But they noticed that these decoys were all made of wood, so they used their radar, or the equivalent, to distinguish metal from wooden craft and proceeded to shoot down only metal flying objects.

The British figured out what was happening, and took steps to include metal in the gliders. But the Germans then worked out that the new metal decoy gliders had no engine on board, and used their heat-detecting equipment to tell whether the things in their skies were equipped with engines. If not, they ignored them.

The British boffins then went one step further and equipped the gliders with small heat-emitting devices. It worked. Worked, that is, until the Germans realised that they emitted no noise as a real engine would, and, being able to pick up engine noise, started to ignore them again.

It was but a short step from there to equipping the gliders with a heat-emitting device that made a real noise, and fooled the Germans. At least, it fooled them until, in this game of bluff and counter-bluff, the Germans worked out a way of telling fake noise from real noise.

'You probably see what I am driving at,' said the preacher finally. 'The only way you could really fool the Germans into thinking there was a plane overhead was by sending up what was to all intents and purpose a real plane. The only really convincing decoy is the real thing. That is why I never say that life is like such-and-such. Life is only like life, as you will find out soon enough. Or, to put it another way, there is no such thing as a perfect analogy.'

It is the only sermon I heard at school about which I can remember anything. Whether what he told us about the battle betwen the German and British boffins was authentic, and whether I have remembered it correctly, I do not know. But it has stayed with me all my life.

It would be nice to say, also, that it had been of some value to me. Alas, I have always enjoyed arguing from analogy, false or not, and the only test has been whether my fellow debaters have thought my analogy was worth trying to shoot down in flames. In any case, the partial refutation of his argument lay on my lap in the shape of J M Synge's plays, which was my decoy glider launched to fool the observant eyes of the school staff, who were unwittingly playing the part of German plane-spotters, and which was never detected no matter how often I reread The Playboy of The Western World. (Nor was my schoolfriend Patrick Taylor ever detected, even though for one year he read in chapel a book that looked just like the school hymnal but was in fact James Joyce's Ulysses.)

And that is all I have to say on the subject of us and the Germans, except that it strikes me as common sense to get out of our present imbroglio by letting the Germans have a few friendly pot shots with a V2 rocket or two, for old times' sake. At our statue of Bomber Harris.