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No. 1159:
Nevil Shute's Ordeal

Today, Nevil Shute predicts the chilling anonymity of war. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1938, the English engineer Nevil Norway was eased out of the company he'd formed, Airspeed Ltd.. In his autobiography of that part of his life, Norway says it was probably time to move on. Two kinds of people shape companies, he says: Starters and Runners. He'd done a fine creative job starting the company, but he wasn't suited to running it day by day.

So Norway quit making planes for Douglas, Fokker and others. As war threatened, he turned to what'd been his hobby since 1928. He'd been writing books and stories. One story had even been made into a movie. He hadn't wanted the engineers he worked with to think he was frivolous, so he'd written under his Christian names, Nevil Shute. Today we know Nevil Shute for many books and several movies made from them: On the Beach, A Town Called Alice, The Pied Piper.

His second movie contract came in just as he quit making airplanes, so he was able to go to eastern France, near the Swiss Alps, to write Ordeal, a book as prophetic as On the Beach would later be. Ordeal is about a family in Southampton, England. One night a large, sudden air raid drives them to cover. Shute was predicting how WW-II would begin. He didn't say who the enemy was, since Chamberlain had just signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler. Still, Shute left little doubt as to who was bombing England.

His attacking airplanes avoid defensive fire by dropping into cloud cover as they near a city. Hidden by clouds, unseen and unseeing, they randomly drop bombs on homes and industry, destroying morale and infrastructure. Civilians flee as electricity, food, and water supply systems break down, and as cholera runs rampant.

The family flees to their small sailboat and runs for France where wife and kids will catch a ship to Canada and husband will turn back to join the Navy. Shute foresaw a long war of aerial assault and human misery coming. When the family meets naval officers along the way, they find the military as ignorant of conditions on shore as civilians are ignorant about the war itself.

The Battle of Britain, with its terrible bombings, began before the ink was dry on Shute's book. England proved better prepared to serve its civilian population than Shute had expected, and civilian morale was far stronger. But that may've been because of Shute's warning. Later we all cringed when we read On the Beach (or saw the movie). The nuclear war we feared hasn't yet come to pass, but that may also owe something to Shute.

Throughout all Shute's war books runs the anonymity of warring armies. They come and go but noncombatants are constant. Civilians are what war is really about. Shute didn't just predict aerial war against civilians. He also predicted the detachment we would need -- to wage such war.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Shute, N., Ordeal. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1939.

Shute, N., Slide Rule: The Autobiography of an Engineer. New York: Ballantine Books, 1954.

For more information about Nevil Shute, see Episodes 110 and 112 and the following website: