The Breadwinner is a small rickety fishing boat that has been pressed into service by the exigencies of war to patrol the coast of England, complete with an unreliable engine and an ancient Lewis gun mounted on the stern. On the day of the story, everything is as usual: Gregson, the skipper, is impatient for Snowy, the cook, to bring his cup of tea; Jimmy, the engineer, is fretting over the balky engine; Snowy is in the tiny galley reluctantly making tea and wishing that something exciting would happen. Snowy becomes more interested when a squadron of Hurricane fighter planes leaves the coast looking for German aircraft. As always on these occasions, he thinks bitterly of the binoculars the skipper has been promising him for weeks. The routine of the day is suddenly interrupted by the noise of gunfire well out in the channel, and Snowy’s keen ears detect the sound of German Messerschmitt fighter planes.
For some time, the boat cruises uneventfully in the direction of the gunfire, until Snowy detects the sound of a whistle. Excitedly, the crew rushes toward a speck in the distance, which proves to be a downed Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot in a dinghy. The pilot is unhurt and in good spirits, full of praise for the German pilot whose plane he believes he has shot down. From him they also learn that his was not the battle they had heard earlier, so they head farther out to sea in case there are more pilots to be rescued. Sent to the galley to peel potatoes, Snowy is sullenly and bitterly angry at being away from the excitement and the glamour of the pilot. Moments later, Jimmy announces that another pilot has been sighted, a wounded German. As the English pilot brings him toward the boat, Snowy sees around the German’s neck a leather binoculars case. War seems to him now wonderful and romantic.
A few minutes later, while Snowy is in the galley making tea for the pilots, he hears the deafening roar of a plane and a burst of cannon fire. Rushing on deck, he sees to his horror that Jimmy has been killed and the two pilots wounded. Gregson is too angry at the enemy to attend to the German, but the RAF man insists that he be treated decently. As Gregson nurses the Englishman, Snowy hopes the German will try to escape so Gregson can kill him and he can claim the binoculars. When rain begins falling, Gregson and Snowy move the wounded men to the cabin below. Snowy attempts to take Jimmy’s place as engineer but discovers that gunfire has damaged the motor beyond repair. Gregson rigs a sail, but they must hurry as bad weather is brewing. Below, Snowy tries to administer first aid to the wounded German, whose name is Karl Messner, but the man is badly wounded. Snowy also tries to talk to the RAF pilot, a hero in his eyes, but the pilot downplays his actions and seems more concerned for Messner’s welfare than his own. As they sail for home, first Messner dies, then the Englishman.
As The Breadwinner nears shore just ahead of the advancing storm, Gregson’s face bears a look Snowy has not seen before. Suddenly the skipper bursts into an angry, cursing denunciation, “Why don’t they let our lives alone? God damn and blast them—all of them, all of them, all the bastards, all over the world!” Snowy, clutching the binoculars, sees the older man’s face wet with tears and feels grateful to be alive amid the horrors of war.
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