I’m 73, coming up 74, which means I was born in the dying days of the Second World War. Remember this, when people talk of what “we” did in the 1939-45 conflict: no-one under the age of 90 actually did anything. There are five people left who flew for the RAF in the Battle of Britain, and they’re all over 100 years old. I mention this, because references to WW2 have become increasingly common and tendentious in the debate around Brexit.
I was brought up in a world that was marked by ‘the war’. Up until 10, I lived in Berkshire – Wokingham, then a sleepy market town, now a commuter belt for London, with its own motorway spur and the largest Conservative majority for miles. In 1945 Dad came home from the RAF. He wasn’t a combatant: he was a station adjutant – senior administrator officer – for two Coastal Command squadrons, which meant he was based all around the country. Wales, Cornwall, Northern Ireland, Stornoway, anywhere that could ensure quick access to the Atlantic and its convoys. Remembering the war wasn’t a big part of his life. I think he was proud of what his colleagues had done – stopping the only democracy in Europe from being starved to death by U-boats full of volunteers – but not excessively so. He never to my knowledge went to the British Legion club, or took part in November 11th march pasts: the battle dress only came out when he wanted to paint the hall or dig the garden.
When we moved to London in 1955, there were still bomb-sites, and families (like my Auntie Bet) still lived in prefabs. Primary school playgrounds were full of kids zooming round, Spitfire arms outstretched, shouting ‘yadda yadda yadda’ in imitation of machine guns we’d never heard. But on the whole, my impression was that society was moving on. There was a skiffle group on the street corner, a Ford Anglia in the drive.
Nevertheless, I maintained an interest in the war, and especially the air war. I can still tell a Handley Page Hampden from a Vickers Wellington, and have a few model aircraft in my study. Just to my right as I type, on the bookshelf, there is a Halifax model, with the same markings as Dad’s squadron. I’ve read most of the good histories of the conflict, and a few of the bad ones. What I found out was the mess that is war, the mistakes alongside the gallantry, the reliance on allies and the role of luck. In the very area that concerned Dad, thousands of lives and dozens of ships could have been saved by letting the RAF use their long range bombers to escort convoys rather than plaster German civilians at enormous cost in lives and resource. Another dodgy decision by Churchill, whose errors may not be mentioned. In fact, as soon as the right decision was taken, the Battle of the Atlantic was effectively won. And as soon as that was won, we could get the troops and equipment from America that were needed to land armies on the European mainland, which was the only way to actually beat the Germans.
But I feel slightly ashamed of my interest in, and knowledge of, the war, because of the uses to which that conflict is put by British politicians and right-wing commentators. Astonishingly, Theresa May’s tribute to the New Zealand mosque killings had a sentence about how New Zealand had ‘stood by us’ in the past. As if shooting Muslim worshippers would be less problematic if NZ hadn’t provided Bomber Command crews. The idea of gallant little Britain beating the Nazis – and particularly the ‘standing alone’ meme – seems almost daily fare. Even if this were true (it isn’t*), what possible relevance does it have to trade policy in the 21st century ? And, of course, the insult to allies are never far away. The French, who suffered more casualties per day in 1940 than they did in the First World War, are routinely depicted as incompetent cowards: the fact that the British army was decisively defeated in 1940 is rarely covered, except as a brief prelude to coverage of Dunkirk (which was not a triumph, but a retreat, a national humiliation: contrast the John Mills film of it with the recent Hollywood version. The Battle of Britain was important because the German army needed air supremacy to cross the Channel; the Straits of Dover were as vital as Spitfires and Hurricanes. A Tory MP tells us we didn’t get any post-war help from the Marshall Plan, when we got the biggest slice. My daughter was solemnly told by North-Eastern friends that we had to leave the EU because the French and Germans wouldn’t stand by us in the next war. 70 years of NATO, gone in the whiff of a Daily Express editorial.
The TV is full of it. In the last month, we’ve had documentaries about the Imperial War Museum, about the struggle against the V-bombs. Dad’s Army and The World At War are replayed endlessly. We’ve had a documentary about the war films that ‘raised our morale’ in the post-war years, followed by “The Wooden Horse” (gallant British POWs outwit the Krauts again). The old ladies who delivered military planes are dragged out time and again, wheel-chair bound RAF pilots are inserted in a two-seater Spitfire for one last flight. Al Murray, a decent enough comedian, drives a jeep to Berlin. Archaeology enthusiasts waft their metal detectors over old USAAF bases, and enthuse to the waiting cameras about a cap badge or spent bullet. What these programmes have in common is that they tell us nothing we don’t already know. It’s as if they are secular religious services, repeating the holy writ we’ve already heard a thousand times. It’s not all of WW2, or even all of the British experience of WW2. There is little on the debacle of Singapore or Tobruk, the loss of the Royal Oak or the Prince of Wales, which would counter the triumphant narrative. The recent publication of Fighting The People’s War shows the incompetence and lack of enthusiasm of many units of the British & Commonwealth armies. By ignoring the losses and missed opportunities, and looking only at heroism and victory, the WW2 coverage is similar to the Hundred Years’ War documentaries – oodles of Agincourt bowmen, nothing on the battles that cost us all our French possessions. TV viewers seem unaware we lost the Hundred Years’ War, as we lost the Crusades.
There is much history to learn, but we need more than the triumphalist WW2 narrative that has been covered again and again, to the exclusion of much else. The economist and commentator Simon Wren-Lewis points out that the real WW2 generation voted against Brexit – it was the slightly less oldies brought up on war films and documentaries that voted to leave so heavily. That generation actually doesn’t know real war: the Tory MP who refers to his army experience when he means Boy Scout exploits with the TA is typical. There is virtually nothing on TV concerning – for example – the post-war Labour government and the creation of the welfare state. For that matter, there is nothing about the Liberal government of 1906, and its use of taxes to get old age pensions past the Tories. Suez ? Korea ? Economic policy under Thatcher ? De-industrialization, globalization and robots ? The growth of the threat to our environment ? Nope, none of it. What we get is Dan Snow, or Tony Robinson, or Jeremy Vine walking backwards across D-Day beaches, or past Arnhem canals.
And whilst this carries on, the importance of confronting fascism and totalitarianism, the danger of anti-semitism, the role of international collaborations like the EU or NATO are ignored. The distinguished historian Margaret Macmillan recently lectured and published a book on the uses and abuses of history. We are seeing the abuses, right enough, all around us.
* we weren’t – the Commonwealth, Greece, Yugoslavia, the Czech and Polish airmen – the Canadian navy took over much of the Atlantic convoy work … plus the help & money of the USA. The Indian army provided many of the troops fighting the Italians in East Africa at the time. They were an important part of the logistics in the Battle of France, because of the expertise with draught animals – a number of what would now be Pakistanis were lifted from Dunkirk’s beaches to be reformed as an elite unit in Scotland. And, of course, the vast majority of the allied combat deaths in WW2 were suffered by Russia.