What Happened to the Corbetts

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First edition

What Happened to the Corbetts (US title: Ordeal) is a novel by Nevil Shute. Written in 1938, and published in April 1939 by William Heinemann Ltd, the novel concerns the effect of aerial bombing on the British city of Southampton - a major maritime centre - in the early part of World War II.

The novel addresses the issues of the aftermath of bombing, such as the spread of disease from lack of clean water, and what may be done to relieve the distress of those affected by it. On the initial day of publication, a thousand copies of the novel were distributed free of charge to ARP members to inform them of what they might expect.[1]

Peter Corbett, a local lawyer, his wife, Joan, and their three children make the decision to move away from the war zone after their house, and Corbett's offices, are destroyed. They move aboard their small yacht, kept on the river Hamble, but quickly realise that escaping to ports further from Southampton is the only answer. However, because of the fears of cholera and other diseases, many ports are under quarantine.

Whilst on the open water of the English Channel, the Corbetts go to the assistance of some downed British naval pilots. Their commanding officer suggests that the family should head for the French port of Brest - where Corbett may volunteer for war service and his family may board a liner for the safety of Canada. They take this advice and the novel closes.

The novel does not say which nation is bombing Southampton (and many other towns in England). France is clearly neutral, as are the US and Canada. But early in chapter 1 there is a mention of a newspaper cartoon which "represented the Prime Minister, very jocular, dangling a carrot before two donkeys separated from him by a wire fence. One of the donkeys had the head of Hitler, and the other, Mussolini."


  1. ^ Grayzel, Susan, At Home and Under Fire: Air Raids and Culture in Britain from the Great War to the Blitz, Cambridge University Press, 2011, page 116, footnote 32

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