We owe the WWII generation a debt we can never repay

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II.

To mark this anniversary, the historian, A.N Wilson, pays tribute to the British people who, just like those elsewhere in Europe, suffered greatly during the war.

The war may have been a global conflict, but it was European military and civilian personnel who suffered the most.

Of the 73 million civilian and military personnel who died worldwide, 42 million were Europeans.

Due to bombing of towns and cities, 68,000 British civilians were killed during the war (to put that into perspective, imagine 22,667 9/11s). Many British buildings still show the scars and pockmarks of the Blitz - a great example is the old Coventry Cathedral which, to this day, remains a ruined shell.

The US and Canada, for example, did not experience the terror of widescale enemy bombing compared to that in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

Around 1,700 American civilians died in WWII, and probably a smaller number of Canadians.

In this article, A.N. Wilson looks back at the hardships endured by the British civilian population during the war, and how the war has subsequently affected the British psyche. Whereas other countries in Europe seem happy to forge ahead with the supposed "utopia" of the EU, the British reluctance to give up sovereignty for further "integration" with the EU may stem from its hatred of the "United Europe" of which Hitler dreamt.

A debt we can never repay

By A N Wilson
05th September 2009
Daily Mail


The summer of 1940 was the last time Britain held the future of this planet in its hands.

When France sued for peace with Hitler in 1940, when the whole of Europe lay at the Nazi dictator's feet, and when the U.S. stood by cynically wondering which side would win, Britain alone decided to fight on.

We do not normally make much of 70th anniversaries - centenaries, perhaps, or 50th anniversaries. Then why make so much fuss about the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of what, for all older people in this country, is still simply 'The War'?

The answer surely lies in that generation of older people, the over-70s, themselves.

Historians will go on arguing forever about the political and military story of 1939-1945.

Having a gas: Normal life carried on for British civilians despite the pressures and precautions of war

Did the appeasers such as Neville Chamberlain buy time in which to re-arm against Hitler or did they encourage his expansionist dreams? Was Churchill wrong to make an alliance with the most bloodthirsty mass-murderer in European history, Stalin, in order to defeat Fascism?

Clearly the answers to these questions are crucial, but in a strange way, I do not think that these are the things that make The War so important to the thousands of older British people who so vividly remember it.

It truly was a watershed, and the first year of it - above all the summer of 1940 - was the last time when Britain held the future of this planet in its hands.

When France sued for peace with Hitler in 1940, when the whole of Europe lay at the Nazi dictator's feet, and when the U.S. stood by cynically wondering which side would win, Britain alone decided to fight on.

No surrender: In 1940, when Continental Europe, including France, was under Nazi rule, and before the US and USSR had even entered the war, Britain fought Hitler alone, despite being heavily bombed

Such extraordinary defiance could not have been achieved by one politician alone, even so great a statesman and orator as Winston Churchill.

After Dunkirk, when the British sent out 'little boats' to assist the Royal Navy in transporting home the withdrawing British Expeditionary Force, a collective will to win the war seized hold of the British people.

This sort of thing occurs very rarely in history, yet there is no doubt that it happened to the generation who fought and lived through the war. The dedication to victory gripped not merely the men and women who served in the Armed Forces by land, sea and air.

It clearly also took hold of the civilian population.

Looking back at it all, they understand, perhaps more clearly than they did at the time, that it was (like the Battle of Waterloo in the Duke of Wellington's estimation) 'a damned close-run thing'. If the Battle of Britain had been lost in the air, if our airforce had been defeated, what then?

These people know first-hand that Britain was saved through a mixture of luck, pluck and a strange collective strengthening of the national will to which countless memories and written accounts, bear testimony. That's what we commemorate whenever we think of the war.

But, this still has not answered the question: why now? Why remember especially 70 years on?

Some of the answer surely came to us when we saw the evacuee 'children' arriving at the service of commemoration at St Paul's Cathedral this week. TV presenter Michael Aspel, himself an evacuee, said: 'We all look at each other, these old geezers, and see ourselves as children.'

But the truth is that they really are quite old, all of them past their three-score years and ten. And we realise that as the years roll by, these remarkable old geezers will become thinner and thinner on the ground.

The first child born in London after the outbreak of war in September 1939 is used to demonstrate the grotesque gas mask designed for babies, on his way home from hospital with his mother

This year we buried the last three veterans of World War I. One more generation, and World War II will cease, likewise, to be an actual memory for anyone living in this country.

In so many crucial and fundamental ways, it was the defining event of British history, the great seismic shift after which things were never the same in our national mentality.

We sense some of what that generation went through when we hear, or join in, their songs. The hallmark of the songs was jaunty irony.

The incredible dangers faced by the British forces, confronted as they were by the mightiest and best-trained Germany army in history, was turned into semi-jokes - We're Going To Hang Out The Washing On The Siegfried Line (a chain of fortifications along Germany's Western border), or Run Rabbit Run.

The throat-catching optimism of Vera Lynn's It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow was matched by the roars of radio laughter at It's Bein' So Cheerful As Keeps Me Goin' on the show It's That Man Again, or ITMA, a reference to the endless news stories about Hitler.

For that generation it became a matter of pride to express itself in irony and brave jokes, as mayhem and destruction poured on their heads, as their cities burned, as their children escaped to the countryside or abroad with labels round their necks and as their husbands were sent often to appalling fates on the battlefield.

Yet astonishing though it may seem, this is a time to which many British people look back with nostalgia! They really do.

Nor is it completely mad to do so. The danger was terrific, the emotional highs and lows were stomach-churning - as young families were broken up, as short-lived love-affairs and marriages ended in death, and as everyone smoked themselves silly in the air-raid shelters.

When the Luftwaffe's Blitz on London began in 1940, civilians found themselves in the front line - and desperate for sanctuaries safer than the little Anderson shelters in back gardens. When thousands of people took up night quarters in Tube stations, at first they were driven out by officialdom. But the pressures of fear and need were too great. The authorities bowed to the inevitable, and began to provide bunks and hammocks, such as these for children. Underground nights became the norm for many people for many weeks

But the British discovered all sorts of qualities which they never knowingly possessed before. They discovered how to pull together.

Before the war, the British were a nation divided. Of course some were wealthy, but the deprivation of the unemployed and poor during the economic hardships of the 1930s were on a scale scarcely imaginable to us.

For the poor, food rationing from 1940 meant that they had protein and vegetables in their diet for the first time in their lives. For the middle classes, it was a lesson in thrift, in 'making do', in resourcefully learning how to make meagre supplies 'last'.

When the sybaritic aristocrat Churchill was first shown a tray containing a week's food ration for the average British citizen (one dried egg, one small pat of margarine or fat, one rasher of bacon, etc) he thought it looked surprisingly nutritious and substantial - because he supposed it was a single meal, rather than enough to last for a week!

Rationing and privation united the country as never before. On the BBC News on Thursday night, we saw former Land Girls meeting to remember their war.

'We was always hungry, weren't we, May?' remembered one lady. She did not say it in the whingeing self-pitying tone that the words on the page suggest. She burst into gales of laughter as she spoke. 'Are we down-hearted - NO!' as the old song said it.

The habits of thrift, of unselfishness, of sharing, which began as hardships, became, for a great many people, a challenge that they almost came to enjoy.

And old habits die hard. Many of us whose mothers and grandmothers lived through those times have smiled ruefully in our prosperous modern times as we catch them using butter wrappers to grease cake tins, saving inedible bits and pieces in their fridge and preserving foodstuffs long beyond their sell-by date.

Many of the acts of collective self-denial during the war were on a practical level all but useless. The pennies, scrap metal, and pots and pans that were collected in the belief they would be made into roaring Spitfires were in fact thrown away.

But the point is, people believed that they were all pulling together, and in terms of social and national morale, this was vital.

No wonder, when the war ended, that the British continued to live out the heroic years in their memories, in their children's games, and in their fantasy lives.

All through the 1960s and even the 1970s, English boys still made Airfix plastic models of Spitfire fighters and Lancaster bombers - and could reel off the names and capabilities of a multitude of aircraft, both Allied and enemy, long after they became obsolete.

How 'the longest day' - June 6, 1944, in Normandy - ended for two desperately burned soldiers of the British Army. They were almost certainly tank crewmen, who faced a terrible fate if they were hit by enemy fire. Sherman tanks were known with black humour as Ronsons or Tommy Cookers, because they 'brewed up' so readily. The men who manned the tanks learned to jump for their lives the moment a shell struck - if they were lucky enough to be still able to do so.

Boys' bookshelves were still stocked with well-thumbed Commando comics late into the 1970s, as their tales of plucky Brits seeing off 'Banzai'-crying, yellow-bellied Japanese against all odds, or stupid Germans with their 'Donner und Blitzens' were read and re-read.

In so many ways, our national psyche has been framed by the war. As other countries in the European Union forged ahead to the supposed sunlit uplands of a United Europe, the British had an in-built tendency to react as if every step towards closer 'integration' was a step towards that 'United Europe' of which Hitler dreamed.

In 1945, having lived through the blood, toil, sweat and tears that Churchill had urged on them, the British people were bankrupted and had lost the Empire. From rock-bottom economically speaking, they had nowhere to go but up. But morally and politically perhaps, as a people who had been united as never before against a common foe, they had nowhere to go except down.

Many British buildings still show the scars of World War II. This is bomb damage on the facade of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Notice the plaque on the left describing how the damage has been left as a memorial to the enduring values of the museum in a time of conflict

To this day, the old Coventry Cathedral still lies in ruins after being bombed by the Germans

The Labour Government of Attlee tried to reconstruct the wartime values of austere collective socialism in a peacetime setting. Some good things came out of it, such as the National Health Service. But the experiment of state socialism in peacetime was socially divisive.

The old poem by Laurence Binyon , recited at every Armistice Commemoration, says, 'They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.'

As an expression of what we feel about the young who have given their lives in active service, it is a poem that can not be bettered, and it is just as applicable to young men and women killed today in Afghanistan as it is to those who died in the World Wars.

But I suspect that on this occasion we are commemorating not so much the young who were killed, as those who have grown old - our mums, grandads and great aunts, with whom we have grown up, and whose entire lives, and complete outlook on life, has been shaped by that war.

For the British, it was a unique - and, in historical terms, astonishingly recent - collective experience and on the whole it was one for which we can all feel real gratitude. It is a gratitude that we can express before they, the 'old geezers' are finally taken away from us.

Many of them might wonder whether we younger ones - with our pampered lives, and our experience of a whole lifetime of peace in Europe - would ever rise to the challenge as they did if another Hitler arose.

There are two answers to that. One is that we can't possibly know, though we hope and believe that there is more grit and determination in this country than pessimists might think.

Secondly, and much more importantly, it is largely thanks to the veterans, civilian and military, of World War II, that there never will in fact be a comparable war.

Not for us.

As far as Europe is concerned the outcome of World War II made another global conflict of that kind or scale unthinkable. And that is the greatest gift that these veterans gave to us, their children and grandchildren.

When we contemplate the grit, courage and good humour of the war generation, we could do worse than imitate some of the virtues they displayed in those years: a refusal to whinge, a preparedness to make do, the belief, shared with Churchill, that when life got tough you did not ask for counselling or sue for damages: the only thing to do was to Keep Buggering On.

That is why we want to commemorate World War II veterans before they have all left the scene - before the going down of the sun.

And, even though they have grown old, we shall remember them.


I am by no means a devout Christian - or religious for that matter - but I recognise the sacrifice that everyone who died in the War made, fighting for freedom, justice and equality: every one of them is a Christ.

The UK has sacrificed more than any other country on the altar of freedom: its wealth, its Empire, its people. The British are a warrior people, adapted to fighting for right. The problem with the UK is not so much not finding a place in the world as not finding a cause to fight for.

We are not without blame: the massacre at Amritsar, our treatment of the Irish, slavery. Indeed, we should have granted the Thirteen Colonies autonomy and seats in the Commons and Lords as equal British Peoples. However, the good clearly outweighs this: fighting for great periods alone in the Napoleonic Wars and both World Wars; fighting to end slavery. Against this backdrop we are losing our way.

Churchill wanted to carry on and take the fight ot the USSR: perhaps he was right.
- L, Jakarta, Indonesia

WW2 was a waste of time. It broke our nation and the yanks made sure we paid them every penny back, with interest, whilst Germany, France and Japan were rebuilt for free.

It's about time we started thinking about OUR nation and OUR people and not others around the world. No one cares about Afghanistan or Iraq so why should we?
- Martin, Ashford

At last somebody recognises the trauma experienced by the wives left behind when their men went to war. Left to take the place of her children's father. My mother had 2 boys aged 6 & 8 and a daughter a few months old. We lived in the Southampton area which was regularly bombed especially at night. She had to get all of us kids to the shelter at the start of Air Raids making sure we had our gas masks with us, not easy at 2-00 am. Get us to school between air raids. Being kids my brother & I thought this great fun. As we got older my mother had to help us to mend punctures in our bike tyres, grow vegetables in the garden to supplement our meagre rations, keep chickens for eggs & generally struggle with managing on a pitiful service allowance to feed & clothe us. All the time worrying about the well-being of our father not knowing his whereabouts. Woman whingeing about their lot these days, saying they have to juggle a job with a family etc haven,t got a clue.
- Dave R, Southampton UK

If you listen to some comments about the character of the people who won the war and, if you did not know the conclusion you would think we had lost !
What people forget was the nazis extended the hand of friendship to the British after the fall of europe but, The British people slapped that hand away.

Millions of europeans were enslaved by a wicked ideology and no people in the history of the world have sacrificed so much, to save so many, to the cost to themselves as the British.

The light of civilisation burns so precariously, behind the blacked out curtains of British homes it burned on our island, kept aflame by ordinary men and women.

We are by no means good as a people, but there have never been people who have done more good.

The strength to do that was born from our parliament our people and the liberties as a briton they held so dear.

If our parliament and our peoples liberties disappear the world will be a more dangerous place
- paulgilboy, newcastle england

Last edited by Blackleaf; Sep 6th, 2009 at 01:07 PM..
Free Thinker
Important lesson can be learned from the Brits which is don’t ever ppiss them off

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