Ernie Pyle Flies by Flying Boat to Poole in December 1940

11 December, 2021 | Of Local Interest, Poole Flying Boats Celebration (PFBC)

A Christmas Tale 2021

Earnest Taylor Pyle: 3rd August, 1900 – 18th April, 1945

Ernie Pyle was one of the USA’s most popular news-columnists: He was a Pulitzer-Prize winner for outstanding journalism, that was famed for describing newsworthy scenes where he regarded the lives of ordinary people! Late in 1940, Ernie travelled to the UK to observe and to write for his newspaper columns about the impact of WW2 and the Blitz. His main arena was London, but he also visited & described various places including Poole.

Earnest Taylor Pyle had been born 3rd Aug. 1900, in the community of the Sam Elder Farm, near Dana, Indiana. In 1923 he married Geraldine ‘Jerry’ Siebolds. Together they shared journalist assignments (until their divorce). In the same year he joined the Washington Daily News, and in 1935 worked for Scripps-Howard News Co.Syn. During the course of his professional life he flew over 100,000 miles as a passenger and wrote a book about this.

In the early years of WW2, despite US neutrality, Ernie decided to go and see the affect of the Blitz on the UK… So he sailed on the USS Exeter at the start of December in 1940, that respecting US neutrality sailed to Lisbon. In his popularly read column he revealed that he was scared.  This was his earliest encounter with a war zone: On board there was anxiety:  The crew received a war bonus of $1-a-day. Of the passengers there was one Brit. Ernie noted that Lisbon was the temporary pasture for all those of Europe fortunate enough to have escaped!

“It is the needle’s eye through, which must pass all non-fighting travel between Europe and anywhere else.

A month ago, it was estimated there were 20,000 refugees in Portugal.  There are probably fewer now, for they are being worked out gradually, and Portugal has tightened her borders against newcomers.”

After the initial influxes of many refugees seeking a safer place in fleeing from the Nazis, controls were now brought in so that visas were required – that could only be obtained if you had a forward ticket from Lisbon! They were mostly Jewish, French & Belgian refugees, and those from the Balkan countries headed for the UK.

“It was cold & eerie in the dimly lighted airport building at Lisbon. We walked up & down to keep warm until the Captain finally said: “Let’s go”…  We followed the crew along a pier and got into a motor-boat. We could make out dimly the shapes of 2 big flying boats at anchor. As our boat eased up to one we jumped through.”

…She was camouflaged… The seats were deep & comfortable… the floor was carpeted… The steward gave us blankets… engines started. The cabin was partitioned into 3 compartments…smoking in one…4 motors roared. “We ran for what seemed a long time, surging through the water, until finally we felt her break free.”

Everyone went to sleep...

Ernie wrote: “Land came into view on the left. It was dark brown and bare, a high rugged coast. I thought it was Ireland. We flew along this coast for an hour. The air got rough and five passengers were very sick! Somehow, I escaped that. We passed only two ships, both small… One of them flashed a signal to us with a blinker. We did not see a single plane on the trip.”

Subsequently, Ernie was startled by the pilot throttling-back the engines so that the flying boat lost altitude… At this point it was apparent that the aircraft was not going to put-in at Foynes BOAC base in Southern Ireland. Instead, the coast of England came in to view and it headed along the Dorset coastline towards Poole Harbour. “As we struck the surface there was a familiar long ripping sound.” So there was a touch-down off Brownsea Island, and it came to a halt quite far out from the harbour shoreline, among a lot of boats at anchor & camouflaged planes resting upon the water.”

“… I felt like a character in a dream. The journey from America was over. We had arrived. But it didn’t seem really true. At any moment I expected to wake up and to find myself still between those perpetual walls of the Hotel Europa in Lisbon.”

“A score of British Officials in raincoats and boots, came out in a motorboat and looked everything over, and a Doctor took up the forms that we had filled out.  Then we all got into the boat…”

“The men chatted with us all the way to the shore. They said they would try to get us through the inspection in time to catch the mid-afternoon train to London, but they couldn’t promise.” “It was raining. We walked a hundred yards along the docks then into the main street of the little town.” (Now confirmed as being Poole.)

Ernie saw there were soldiers on the streets + at strategic points: They were carrying tin hats and gas masks. Also, there were women dressed in khaki uniforms and some were amongst the many people riding bicycles. Store windows were crisscrossed with strips of paper… This tends to prevent shattering from the concussion when bombs explode in the neighbourhood. Strips of many colours were pasted in many designs, made the town look as if had been decorated for Christmas instead of patched up for the war.

He wrote that: “I wish you could see that village street. It was like a picture from a Dickens novel. The gabled buildings, the language of the signs, the many smoking chimney pots were all the England of fiction… so very peaceful, neat and secure.” “I had not been ashore 3 minutes when I fell in love with England!”

Still within their group, they were escorted to a big ground-floor room, as the temporary office of BOAC Poole. Ernie enjoyed sitting comfortably in one of the easy chairs. Others sat on the couches set around the coal fire. The group enjoyed welcome cups of hot tea served (and topped up) by a BOAC youngster from a large teapot. The various inspections occupied the officials and the group members for a couple of hours. “We were taken one at a time into a room where two men questioned us… They asked us about our purpose in coming.”

All the passengers had to account for money, any valuables & the possessions that they brought into the UK. They were asked how they got into Portugal, about their contacts there… and if they knew anyone in the UK. “It was by no means a grilling. They did it in way that made you feel that you were just sitting there chatting…” The procedure was more than courteous; it seemed genuinely friendly. After that they went through baggage minutely. They even read our letters. But so great is English courtesy that the customs man asked me to take each letter from the envelope for him. He evidently thought it to be prying to do so! And then as the train time drew near he said that we’d have to hurry to catch it, so he closed the bags without finishing the inspection…” He gave advice about trains + blackout in London, and hustled them into a waiting car – driving about 15 mins.

“We drove for about fifteen minutes through a thickly settled  suburb. They told us that bombs had fallen in the street a few afternoons ago, but we saw no evidence of it. The suburb was like a continuation of the main street – neat as a pin, snug and beautiful. The train came right on schedule. The porter, an old man, stowed our bags away carefully… and told us when we would get to London. It would be after dark, he said, and the Germans would probably be overhead, but – – – not to worry!”  “Anyway, I know that in all my traveling I have never visited a new country that in a few short hours filled me with the warmth that I feel for England.””       

In March 1941, Ernie signed off his UK visit with a fond goodbye in his reports. He returned to the UK for D-Day… Tragically Ernie was killed in 1945 whilst he was reporting, during the terrible battle for the island of Okinawa!

Acknowledge: Ernie Pyle ‘Peace to War’ … (England, December 1940)

© Poole Flying Boats Celebration 2021

Ernie Pyle
Ernie Pyle
Ernie Pyle