The Big Bang

The following letters to relatives and the accompanying headnotes are adapted from Freeman Dyson’s Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters, to be published by Liveright on March 27.
Verena Huber-Dyson
Freeman Dyson, Ithaca, New York, circa 1952

May 19, 1942
Cambridge, England

In my second year as an undergraduate at Cambridge, I registered for national service. I was in the Home Guard, which was supposed to help the army defeat the Germans in case of an invasion. In 1940 the threat of an invasion had been real, but in 1942 the Germans were heavily engaged in Russia, and nobody took the threat of an invasion seriously. It was lucky that we never had to do any real fighting. The Home Guard required me to take part in occasional night exercises. The invasion became more and more unlikely as the years went by, but the exercises continued until the end of the war. They helped to sustain the wartime spirit that made England a friendlier country during the war years.

I went on the exercise on Saturday after all. We sat in the parade ground till ten p.m., when my section set out for Grantchester on bicycles. The idea was to stop the Welsh Fusileers from capturing Cambridge, so we were stationed near a bridge at Grantchester; two men to demolish the bridge and the rest to give protection to them. We took up a very halfhearted defensive position on the roadside, lying along the hedge, and waited for orders to demolish the bridge, or the arrival of the enemy. We had a beautiful notice saying Bridge Demolished and a small piece of explosive to make a bang. Of course, as always when I am on an exercise, the enemy never came anywhere near Grantchester, though they overran about a third of Cambridge. We stayed under that hedge from eleven p.m. till eleven a.m. It was impossible to take enough clothes to be able to keep warm, though the weather was quite fine. Last night I spent at the hut fire-watching. I was out from twelve till two-thirty but slept pretty well the rest of the time. Fortunately the weather was again good. But this military activity does take up a great deal of energy when they have night operations.


January 24, 1943
Cambridge, England

The Germans bombed London heavily in 1940–1941 and less heavily with V-1 cruise missiles and V-2 rockets in 1944–1945. During the years 1942–1943 there was very little bombing. Occasionally a few bombers would come over and drop a few bombs, probably to reassure the German home population, who were suffering from the growing British and American bombing of Germany. One of the token raids on London happened in January 1943.

I wish I had been in London for the air raid; there is nothing that makes me so happy as a display of fireworks. It seems they have given up the idea of a Baedeker raid on Cambridge, which is a pity. I bought yesterday a set of War…

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