Lightnings and Vulcans
Growing up under the only occasionally used flightpath to Buckingham Palace, every Queen’s Birthday, we would go up to The Green, just in time to see the flypast. I remember going with my dad, who had done his National Service in the RAF. He loved planes. I think my mum stayed at home, but she might have come a couple of times. My brother came too.
In the early days it would be Lightnings and Vulcans, perhaps even other v-bombers, I don’t remember. I remember the Vulcans and Lightnings because of the noise. A brutal sound of the air tearing apart. The rip of the Lightning and the roar of the Vulcan, a sound so loud it would make your lungs vibrate inside your ribcage. These were awesome machines. Sometimes it would be Concorde and the Red Arrows (flying Folland Gnats back then). Making a beautiful V in the sky. By the time I’d left home in the early 80s, the gnats had long gone as had the Vulcan and Lightnings. The Battle of Britain memorial flight first flew in 1973 apparently, which would fit pretty well with my memories of Spitfire Hurricane and Lancaster joining in with these flypasts, which in my memory seemed to grow with the years.
As well as the annual flypasts, we’d go to air shows, lots of air shows. the Shuttleworth collection was always a favourite, and once they got going, the International Air Tattoo, which moved around, but included Alconbury, one of the big US cold war airbases in East Anglia. I think it’s fair to say I was obsessed with military machines from a young age. My dad was really good at making and painting airfix models of aeroplanes, which he would hang from my bedroom ceiling with cotton thread. There were loads of them. I think there must have been between 10 and 20 including some large Bombers (including the infamous B29, which carried the atom bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki). It was unfortunate that they were a fantastic place for dust to gather which did my allergies no good, but I loved them.
Fully Immersive Second World War Experience
I also made kits of tanks and other armoured vehicles, many, many kits. I used to set them up on the floor and have mock battles. My childhood was steeped in images of war. War films were always on the TV, showing heroic actions of the British forces, dramatisations of true events, or pure fiction. Looking back, it seems like I grew up in fully immersive second world war experience, but I think it was just part of the culture, the making of a myth, how “we” won the war. Slowly, as I learnt more history, I realised that it wasn’t just “us”, well us and those latecomers the Yankees.. but the critical, actually dominant, role played by the Soviet Union. Being half Australian I also knew a bit about what had happened in the Pacific, including that I’d lost an uncle in the Pacific war.
I knew a fair bit about the Blitz as my dad had lived through the entire war in East London (aside from a very brief period of evacuation). I can just remember bomb sites from my early childhood (lots of corrugated iron fencing and Rosebay Willowherb), and driving around the docks (as my grandad had been a docker), or rather the large expanse of wasteland and crumbling ruins that was left. I kind of knew something momentous had happened, but I couldn’t really grasp what it was.
Much was left unspoken, or turned into a bit of a joke, like when my grandad went into the house to rescue their cat during a raid, and when a bomb landed nearby the shock wave knocked a wardrobe over onto him. He was trapped but was rescued unharmed, with the cat, the next morning. How we laughed. Later my dad would recount coming out of the shelter to find next door’s had received a direct hit, leaving body parts scattered across their garden and in trees. Looking at the bomb damage map for their part of east London, it’s a small miracle they survived. A parachute mine was lodged in a tree and didn’t go off. An oil bomb landed about 4 houses away. V1’s landed all over the place. And their street is now two streets with a little park between them, the site of a V2 impact crater.
I think it’s fair to say my dad was quite anti-German, and my grandparents certainly were. Playground games inevitably revolved around “we won the war” and the Germans getting their comeuppance. I did have a German friend at primary school whose mum had come over from East Germany (there must be a story there). I don’t remember him being bullied for being German, but perhaps he was. Then again it was a very multicultural primary school, so we all got along without a second thought.
We never went to Germany on holiday and it wasn’t until I went to Hamburg on a school exchange when I was 15 that I discovered that Germans were just like us. The family could not have been kinder or friendlier – and the 15 year olds in Hamburg seemed an awful lot more grown-up than in Britain. I remember my exchange friend (Arno)’s dad taking me to the factory where he worked (injection moulding since you ask) and while there was no explicit discussion of the war, or Germany’s partition, I came away knowing that the beautiful mediaeval town of Lubeck had been painstakingly rebuilt after its destruction. And we did take a peek at the border fence. No mention though of the Hamburg bombing in Operation Gomorrah, which killed perhaps 40,000 inhabitants.
I knew what VE day meant, but there was no celebration in any year I can recall. It was the day before my dad’s birthday. He was 12 the day after the war in Europe ended. That day he went with his mum up to the West End, with the crowds. I think they stood in The Mall with the hundreds of thousands of others, failing to hear what the King or Churchill were saying. But they were there. My grandad was working in the Bristol Docks after the London Docks had been bombed to dust. He wasn’t around. He wasn’t really around as a father to my father, for five years.
VE day just wasn’t a thing back then in the 70s and early 80s. There must have been quiet commemorations, church services and the like – and formal occasions when the allied country leaders came together to commemorate the dead. Veterans must have got together and talked about the old times, the close shaves, the comic incidents, and their lost comrades. What could be more natural? It wasn’t really until 1995 that a big do was put on. 50 years is a big anniversary for anything and I think it was felt that this would be the big one, after which veterans in particular would start to find it more difficult to take part. There was a public holiday for the 1995 VE day, shifting May day to the 8th. It’s interesting that there had previously been moves to get rid of the May day bank holiday by Tory Governments, because of its association with the Socialist International Workers Day. May Day only became a Bank Holiday in 1978.
I was always a bit uneasy about flag waving, and patriotic events. I think it’s probably come from my dad who was a republican. We used to go the proms but never the last night. We didn’t get involved in the Silver Jubilee street parties – then again our road was a major East London rat run – if anyone had tried to have a street party they would have been run over by a juggernaut within the first minute. Come university days I was generally anti-establishment, especially with Thatcher in power.
In 2010 my dad died after a long battle against cancer. It was a type of leukaemia which is associated with exposure to things like radiation or Benzene. I sometimes wonder whether his time in the Air Force, with all those big dirty jets, gave him a dose which later killed him. Nothing provable of course, but the rest of his life he worked in an office. The ten year anniversary approaches, and on Saturday we would have been celebrating his 87th birthday, which is a strange thought.
VE Day 75
Now VE day 75 is upon is. Back in the distant past of last June, on the very same day that Theresa May announced her resignation, the Govt announced that there would be a 3 day long weekend of commemoration and celebration for the 75th anniversary. It seems that the forces charity SSAFA was closely involved in organising the event – and SSAFA do get funding from the MoD and DHSC, though they are an independent charity, but I think it’s fair to say they are close to Government. As well as the formal commemoration events, the plan was to get everyone to take part, a national toast, picnics, street parties, bunting, singing along with Vera Lynn.
All of that has been scuppered by Covid-19, but people are now being encouraged to celebrate at home, or over the fence with their neighbours. All quite innocent really.
But there’s another story. All of the planned VE Day 75 celebrations focus on Britain the part Britain played, the Victory that Britain won in Europe. It’s all about the sacrifice that Britain made, as if no-one else was involved. This may be an entirely innocent oversight. Then again if it’s been organised by a British Services charity, perhaps it’s no surprise that the focus is solely on British veterans and their lost comrades.
I was pointed to a fascinating photo which shows flags being printed for the actual VE day. As well as Churchill’s face, the flags also included ones with American President FD Roosevelt, without whose support Britain would have foundered in 1940. Even more tellingly, were the flags showing Joseph Stalin’s face. In 1945 people celebrated VE day by waving flags with Stalin’s face on, in London.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising when you remember that just 2 months later, the British electorate overwhelming voted in the first, and only, socialist Government this country has ever had.
Will people this VE day remember that Britain was supplied with troops and materiel from the largest Empire the world has ever known. The supply of materiel and the military ban on fishing in the Bay of Bengal led to a famine which killed between 2 and 3 million people. Troops came and fought, and died, for the Empire, from the Dominions and the colonies, just as they had in the First World War.
Will people celebrating this weekend recall the 26 million in the Soviet Union who perished in the war, or the 6 million Poles. Will they recall how resistance armies fought against Nazi and Fascist tyranny in Yugoslavia, Hungary, Greece, France, Norway and elsewhere. Even within Nazi Germany, people continued to resist in many small ways right through the war, like the White Rose students. Exiled Poles, Czechs, French and other Europeans fought alongside British troops throughout the war.
Maybe they will, perhaps they won’t.
The other thing that over the years has become increasingly stark to me is the very different experience people in Britain had during the war. Aside from the Channel Islands there was no occupation and all of the horrors that created – the food shortages, the deportations, the forced labour. Bombing by the allies was far worse than anything experienced in the Blitz, horrendous though that was for those who lived through it. And at the end of the war the upheavals, the displaced people, the retribution against collaborators, the starvation. And of course the new oppression in countries caught behind the Iron Curtain. It’s estimated that 60 million refugees were created by World War Two – and a million were still refugees in 1951. This is the background behind the creation of what would become the EU.
Things have changed
Things have changed over the last 10 years. Back in the 70s and 80s the far-right were a fringe. They extended into the Conservative Party via the Monday Club and the Federation of Conservative Students, but they were only ever a small minority, albeit influential. Now, with the rise of populism across the world (Trump and Modi, alongside Salvini, Le Pen, Farage) the far right is in ascendant again, in a way we have not seen since the 1930s. The far right loves the flag, loves the military victory, the hero, the strong man vanquishing foes. It’s a very black and white world. The Victors get to celebrate (forever), the losers die or are subjugated. There’s a danger with pageants, anniversaries, celebrations of military victories, that the far right slips in under cover. This is particularly true since Brexit, which was also so much about flag waving British (or English) exceptionalism, as the writer Otto English described here.
As we have dissociated ourselves from the project which was created to ensure war didn’t break out again in Europe (yes the EU and its antecedents) I worry that as a society we are drifting to the right, and that gives the far right more room for manoeuvre. Coronavirus and its aftermath – potentially an economic crash at least as bad as the 1929 crash (which ushered in the far-right in the 1930s) may be just the catalyst those in the far right need to gain influence. This needs watching closely.
Couple that with our Prime Minister who idolises Churchill. Johnson would love to have his own VE day moment. Perhaps he’ll announce VC day – Victory over Coronavirus, and after a celebratory weekend we can also put the horror behind us and get back to normal life. Although of course that didn’t happen in 1945, with rationing continuing until 1953; and post-war austerity for longer. Still, the National Health Service, mass housing for the homeless, and the welfare state were created.
The Military celebrate their Victories
I can understand why some, especially those in the forces or ex-forces, see that it is the right thing to do to celebrate military victories. Victory in Europe is the biggest one of them all. The military celebrates its victories and honours its dead, this is right and proper; it’s what helps create the identity of military units.
That does not apply to the rest of the population though, in my view; and it sets an uncomfortable, jarring, tone when so many are dying – as a result of Government failings – of Coronavirus. Jingoistic expressions of national military might (even if they are past glories that have been mythologised) seem especially inappropriate, almost offensively so, when so many have died so needlessly.
As of today (5/5) Chris Giles of the FT estimates (a cautious estimate) that nearly 54,000 have died in the UK. This exceeds all UK wartime civilian casualties (almost all from air raids) in 1940, 1941, 1942 and 1943. The current monthly death toll exceeds the average monthly British death toll in the Second World war, from both civilian and military deaths. This is a vast loss of life by any measure.
So I won’t be celebrating VE day on Friday. I will remember my dad (who I still miss hugely) on his birthday; and see my mum (socially distanced) and be with the rest of my family. I will pay my own respects to the war dead and reflect on what is to come.
Vulcan photo wikimedia attribution Konflikty.pl