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Would You Kill the Fat Man?
DAVID EDMONDS is the co-founder of the popular "Philosophy Bites" podcast series and senior research associate at the University of Oxford's Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. He is author, most recently, of Would You Kill the Fat Man, from which this article is excerpted. Text copyright © 2013 David Edmonds. Published by Princeton University Press.See more by this author
At 4:13 in the morning on June 13, 1944, there was an explosion in a lettuce patch 25 miles southeast of London.
Britain had been at war for five years, but this marked the beginning of a new torment for the inhabitants of the capital, one that would last several months and cost thousands of lives. The Germans called their flying bomb Vergeltungswaffe -- retaliation weapon. The first V1 merely destroyed edible plants, but there were nine other missiles of vengeance that night, and they had more deadly effect.
The V1s were a terrifying sight. The two tons of steel hurtled through the sky, with a flaming orange-red tail. But it was the sound that most deeply imprinted itself on witnesses. The rockets would buzz like a deranged bee and then go eerily quiet. Silence signaled that they had run out of fuel and were falling. On contact with the ground they would cause a deafening explosion that could flatten several buildings. Londoners tempered their fear by giving the bombs a name of childlike innocence: doodlebugs. (The Germans called them “hell hounds” or “fire dragons.”)
Because the missiles were not piloted, they could be dispatched across the Channel day or night, rain or shine. That they were unmanned made them more, not less, menacing. The doodlebugs were aimed at the heart of the capital, which was both densely populated and contained the institutions of government and power. Some doodlebugs reached the targeted zone. One smashed windows in Buckingham Palace and damaged George VI’s tennis court. More seriously, on June 18, 1944, a V1 landed on the Guards Chapel, near the Palace, in the midst of a morning service attended by both civilians and soldiers: 121 people were killed.
The skylight of nearby Number 5, Seaforth Place, would have been shaken by this explosion too. Number 5 was an attic flat overrun by mice and volumes of poetry. There was a crack in the roof, through which could be heard the intermittent growl of planes, and there were cracks in the floor as well, through which could be heard the near constant roar of the underground. The flat was home to two young women. Iris was working in the Treasury, and secretly feeding information back to the Communist Party; Philippa was researching how American money could revitalize European economies once the war was over. Both Iris Murdoch and Philippa Bonsanquet would go on to become outstanding philosophers, though Iris would always be better known as a novelist.