Raid – pre-1939

Once upon a time, long, long ago, it used to be customary for Englishmen to celebrate the obsolete festivals known as “summer holidays” in strange ways: some of them used to visit a British colony north of London known as “Hampstead Heath,” and some used to go and sit in little wheeled boxes on a crowded strip of asphalt reputed to lead to Brighton. But the real big noises adopted an even more costly form of torture: after paying out large sums of money, they suffered their beloved automobiles to be wafted through the air and deposited in the nether regions of little ships, then following them aboard, so that, after undergoing agonies such as make the Blackpool Switchback pale into insignificance, they might arrive at Calais members of that super élite class, the Continental Motorists.

Well, despite the subtle indignities inflicted by s.s. “Forde” and her many rivals, and despite the incredibly rough pavée which greeted new arrivals at Calais, there was quite a lot of joy to be had from Continental touring, not the least being the frequency with which the unexpected happened; it probably happens even more frequently now to those who still tour Europe on Official Business, but that is beside the point.

The particular incident I have just been reminded of happened one very hot August, when I found myself progressing in leisurely fashion through the upper stages of the Rhone valley in a Singer “Bantam.” I suppose quite a lot of folk had the doubtful pleasure of touring Scotland at the time when, probably at the instigation of a local spring-repairer, the local councils removed the surface from a vast length of road along Glencoe and the Caledonian Canal before apparently finding the wherewithal to finish the job. If any other such unfortunates wonder where the idea of this wholesale road-breaking came from, I can assure them that it is of Continental origin. I raise no objection to normal rough going, and I might even say that an inability to read “Unsuitable for Motors” signs is a family weakness, but there are times when my patience is exhausted. I have never appreciated the logic of the Indian toughs who make a hobby of sitting on the business ends of nails, and no more do I appreciate driving all day over beds of large flints which are carefully arranged point upwards by (presumably) labourers employed by tyre manufacturers.

Well, I will merely say that the road from Martigny up the Rhone valley was under repair. So when we came to the point on the so-called road where the Simplon Pass diverged south in the direction of Italy we decided to go up for air; at least the surface was intact, and though our fanless and lidless baby would undoubtedly boil, as it had done on every previous pass from the 9,000-ft. Iseran downwards, it is always said that an engine runs at its best at 95˚ C.!

In the course of time, after periodic use of the one-gallon water-tin we carried, we reached the summit, finding ourselves in the midst of fortifications such as we had encountered periodically everywhere from Luxembourg to the Alpes Maritimes. We. also encountered a party of English tourists emerging from the Dennis coach which had brought them all the way from New Cross, S.E.! This vehicle, which seemed quite happy under these conditions, apparently did a 13-day Alpine tour from London every fortnight, receiving negligible attention for months at a time and giving no trouble whatever.

Having had a spot of sun, and a spot of food and drink, we decided to go on down the south side of the pass towards the Italian frontier; not that we intended to visit the Land of Wop that day, but it was nice weather and we liked the view. Being unskilled in astrology, I can’t say whether Venus was in osculation with Mars or something equally strange, but it certainly seemed to be our unlucky day as regards roads; yes, you’ve guessed right, the south side of the Simplon Road was being rebuilt – with dynamite.

On the way down, at a place where the road is cut through some pretty steep and rocky bits of Alp, we noticed various gangs at work, but nothing occurred to impede our progress until we rounded a bend and found a sort of Italian bandit advancing towards us with a red flag. Needless to say, neither I nor my passenger could understand a word the “bandit” said, but, his sign language left no doubt that we should retire promptly before his mates blew away a chunk of cliff.

In the circumstances, we turned round with a rapidity seldom equalled in rally tests, only to find, bearing down on us from our direction of retreat, what appeared to be the full cast of “The Pirates of Penzance”: yes. more blasting. Well, we were quite fond of “Nanki Poo,” for all its boiling habits, but it was obvious that two lots of fuses were already burning, so there was really no choice. We abandoned ship at the double and dived for a hollow in the rocks into which the last roadman was just disappearing.

Crouching in the primitive shelter, we listened with trepidation to a series of explosions which, though perhaps mild compared to what we heard at home three years later, were thoroughly alarming at the time, and as we listened to the ensuing patter of falling debris outside we made unhappy calculations as to how to get home without the car….

Emerging to the light of day, We blinked with incredulity at the sight that met our eyes: surrounded by stones there stood an apparently undamaged “Nanki Poo” ! For once there was no argument as to route, and by general consent we departed rapidly along the road by which we had come – at least they did not do their road building with H.E. in that direction! – J.L.