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Foreword by Angus Calder (1981)
When I first saw Pete Grafton’s manuscript, I was interested, later enthralled – but slightly suspicious. This boat the Dunera, for instance – the name didn’t seem to be spelt right, and I found it hard to believe the horrible story of conditions on board, and the plundering of alien detainees by regular troops.
Since then, two accounts of the internment of aliens have appeared in print. They make it clear beyond any doubt at all that the voyage of the Dunera was as scandalous as Pete Grafton’s interlocutor suggested. One of them shows that the military commander of the ship committed to paper his view that the Nazis who formed a minority on the voyage were fine, upstanding, well disciplined types, whereas the Austrian and German Jews who formed a majority were ‘subversive’ and arrogant.
I will always think that the war waged by Britain, a capitalist and imperialist country, against Nazism was worth supporting. If Nazism had been left to collapse of its own internal contradictions, the lives of millions in Europe would have been shortened, stultified, mutilated corrupted, even as compared with those they could expect under capitalism. But victory over Nazism helped the British ruling class confuse the ruled, and even themselves. The myths of the war which Pete Grafton first encountered in those effable fifties movies suggested that national unity had mysteriously abolished, not class distinctions, but their nastiness. The uniformly heroic British people had ‘muddled through’ bravely and their triumph against odds showed that prevailing middle class values were good ones.
The myth of 1940 has been especially potent. It evolved spontaneously, I think. Churchill’s speeches and Priestley’s broadcasts, uttered at the time, became part of it, gave it headlines and shape, though it could not stabilise until after Hilter’s invasion of Russia and the entry of the USA into the war had made a ‘happy ending’ virtually certain.
The revolt of a few Tory backbenchers against Neville Chamberlain brought to the premiership the man chiefly responsible for Britain’s disastrous defeat in Norway – but according to the myth, Churchill was somehow hoisted to his throne by the Will of the People. ‘Dunkirk’ was one of the worst military disasters in British history, yet, thanks partly to Priestley’s rhetoric, the word came to symbolise triumph. The Luftwaffe did not have planes designed to knock the RAF out of the war, nor to bomb British cities flat. But technical matters were ignored as the ‘Battle of Britain’ became an epic of chivalry and the negative fact that British morale had not collapsed under bombing was transformed into the positive myth that everyone had acted heroically.
When my book, The People’s War, appeared in 1969, I was both delighted and dismayed by the press coverage it got. Delighted, because any author likes such wide publicity. Dismayed, because so many reviewers, especially in the provincial press, either asserted the myth of 1940 as the truth and chided me for not being alive at the time and/or for being too left-wing to accept the truth – or, worse still, praising me for confirming the myth. I think only one reviewer (not a left-wing one) really spotted that the core of my work, on which I’d expended most conscious effort, was to do with industry in wartime. Bored women in war jobs, striking miners and absentees, didn’t fit into the Myth. So they were ignored, just as the internees of the Dunera were so thoroughly forgotten that I’d missed them completely while working towards my book.
So I’d recommend Pete Grafton’s book warmly. It shows us so many things that have been forgotten because they ‘don’t fit in’. Neither the heroics of Angels One-Five, nor the delightful comedy of Dad’s Army, represent the dominant strains in British life during the war years. Boredom, frustration, fear, anger, class, class and class again were at least often to the fore.
We can’t do without myths. Writing my own book, I was un-consciously forging a left-wing myth, some critics would say a ‘populist’ one. I think now that it is the task of historians to create myths. But we need to remake the myth of 1939 – 1945 so that the aliens herded into rat-infested camps, the socialists who, in some confusion, supported the CP-led People’s Convention, the families who trekked from blitzed cities to save their lives, the soldiers who felt trapped in an inhuman military system, cannot be forgotten. To defeat Nazism, as one poet put it, meant defending the bad against the worse.
Note (2013) The People’s War has been continuously in print since it was first published in 1969. It is available in paperback, published by Pimlico, London.
Introduction by Pete Grafton (2013)
“If a mythical version of the war still holds sway in school textbooks and television documentaries, every person who lived through those years knows that those parts of the myth which concern his or her own activities are false.” – Angus Calder, The People’s War
Angus was three when the Second World War ended in August, 1945. I was three weeks old, born between VE and VJ day. Neither of us lived through those war years, but both of us grew up as young boys in a Britain where the war – and the victory of the Allies – was continually around us. The victory was, as far as we knew, down to the British, and if you lived in England, specifically down to the English, and the English character, the English common sense, the innate English intelligence. Yes, the Americans had the numbers, they had the equipment, but they were a bunch of loud-mouthed incompetent amateurs. (The USSR didn’t even register in a young schoolboy’s consciousness.)
The war was tangible, from a young male British perspective, because your fellow class mates, and your friends, all had parents who ‘did something’ in the war. So and so’s Dad had been in the Navy and was on the first wave of D Day. Another had been a Spitfire Pilot, or so they claimed. Another was at El Alamein, and so on. (No-one however ever mentioned – in my hearing – the equally important work their Mums did during the war.) We flicked cigarette cards in the playground – pre-war cigarette cards (their inclusion in packets of cigarettes was banned during the war to save on paper and card), that had pictures of pre-war footballers, Kings and Queens of England and the images on the cigarette cards didn’t seem that anachronistic. Meanwhile, our parents, most of them still in their twenties ( who’d worked in munitions at 17, flown on bombing raids over Germany at 19, been on North Atlantic convoys to Russia at 20, had entered concentration camps as part of a liberating army unit at 21 ) robbed of their teenage years were starting to enjoy Harold Macmillan’s “Never Had It So Good” island of commercial telly, legal betting shops, twin tub washing machines and frozen peas.
And bathed in all this was the comforting, surrounding balm of a Britain that had emerged from the war intact, still one up on the rest of the world, either economically or morally. (Neither was true, of course) Kenneth More in Reach for the Sky, Richard Todd in The Dambusters easily filled cinema seats, despite competition from American films such as Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, or Elvis in Jailhouse Rock.
Unlike the Germans, we in Britain never had our face pushed in some dreadful truths. We never had to deal with (or quietly ignore) certain painful realities. The French had some painful realities, so painful that there was very little discussion about collaboration. Of all the occupied European countries, France had one of the worst records of active collaboration (both in the occupied and Vichy zones) with the Nazi regime and Nazi ideology. This really was a ‘Don’t Mention the War’ scenario, broken only by Marcel Ophul’s The Sorrow and the Pity, that when first screened in Paris cinemas in 1969 had queues going around the street corners. So sensitive was this recent history that French television didn’t screen the Sorrow and the Pity until 1981.
As I write, in 2013, the British myths about the Second World War within popular culture are more deeply embedded than they were in 1981 when You, You & You! was published. There is a far greater – and unhealthy – intolerance now in popular culture (with the attendant “Help for Heroes” and Red Poppy Day promotions) to questioning those myths. The fact that the bulk of witnesses from that time still living is negligible is part of the reason. The Boulting Brothers’ 1956 film Private’s Progress or Peter Cook’s 1961 Beyond the Fringe sketch Aftermyth of War didn’t seriously ruffle too many feathers because there would be an amused acknowledgement, for the viewers of the time, of the truths they contained. The Second World War in British popular culture is now mostly air-brushed and emasculated into the Heritage/Entertainment Business (UK). In addition, the sense of identity attached to ‘Victory’ results in a pernicious follow-on from these mythologies: that military aggression is legitimate. The United States, the USSR, the British and the French continued fighting wars, post 1945, to deny the wish for democracy in their colonies and areas of influence, whilst simultaneously claiming that they had fought the Second World War to preserve freedom and democracy, or workers’ rights (take your pick). The idea of military aggression as a political strategy still predominates with their governments, and with their main opposition parties. Thankfully, within post-war Germany and Japan this is not a view largely shared by successive governments, nor by most of their citizens.
Unlike Angus in his 1981 introduction to You, You & You!, I don’t believe it is the role of a historian to create a myth, or a counter myth. He or she may unwittingly do so, and any intelligent historian will be aware of the constraints on themselves observing things from within their own time, their own class, their own culture, or gender, and their own unconscious need for things as they would like them to have been. Moreover, the idea of historians creating a myth is a bit fanciful, a bit like George Orwell’s futile idea to have left-wing comics for children, or Freud’s notion in Future of an Illusion to replace religion with something else. Like religion, myths are irrational, serving an emotional need about identity, about belonging.
In the meantime, You, You & You! remains an accessible corrective to some of the British Second World War myths, told by a generation – my parents generation – who mostly are no longer with us. It is for this writer the strangest fact that when the interviews were done in 1975 there was only a period of thirty years from when the Second World War had ended. It is now thirty-eight years since those interviews were done, sixty-eight years since the end of the Second World War.
“The first myth it seems to me that should be dispelled is that of a fully informed crusading people determined to fight for freedom against oppression. Some of my generation boast about their sacrifice for their children, like to tell their kids what they done during the war, to save the country from Hitlerism. I cannae help but laugh, for there was certainly little praise for the volunteer.
The truth is that most people had to be forced by conscription to fight – despite the greatness of the cause, despite the propaganda against Hitler. The fact is that less than a quarter of a million had volunteered on top of the four and a half million men who were forced under compulsory conscription. The stories of sacrifice are just not true. If they did sacrifice, the war forced them to sacrifice.”
Walter Morrison, army volunteer
My sincere thanks to those whose recollections form the basis of You, You & You!
Arnold Feldman, Anita Finch, Joe Jacobs, Terry & Alice Barrett, John Thorpe, Mrs P. Bolton, Mrs Barton, Doug Hickman, Alice Kriwascek, Harold Lewis, Rene and Ern Cocklin, Edie Miller, George Harris, Bill Berling, Margaret Ransford, Enid Ransford, Frank Grafton, Sylvie Burrows, John and Margaret Miles, Mr and Mrs Boyce, Stan and Marge Guest, John (Jack) Cawkwell, Edie Cawkwell, Mrs O’ Toole, Mrs Cunningham, Joe Byrne, Cyril and Alice Jones, George Campbell, Dave Shaw, Douglas Kepper, Jim Roche, Keith Waites, Bill Wall, Irene and Danny McNicol, Douglas Sillars, Evelyn Sillars, Ellaline Sillars, Walter Morrison, Nobby and Alice Robson, Gerd Buchdahl, Iris Wiggins, Phil Sansom.
My thanks to Andy Wiggins for conducting an interview on my behalf, and to Ros Kane for allowing me to use an extract from an interview she did with Douglas Kepper.
The interviews began in December 1975 and ended in December 1976.
In addition, my thanks to Ken Weller, George Williamson, Rick Sumner, Pete Sutton, Andy Wiggins, John Fletcher and the many others who helped me get in touch with those that I interviewed.
Judy Greenway and Angus Calder read the original manuscript of You, You & You, and I thank them for this and for commenting upon it.
I would also like to thank those that I interviewed who kindly lent me photographs at the time for inclusion in the original 1981 book. Copyright resides with them, or their estate. I would like to make clear that those portrayed in the photographs are not necessarily the same as the speaker quoted underneath.
The excellent layout and cover of the 1981 Pluto edition was by Marsha Austin. I would also like to thank Nina and Mike Kidron of Pluto Press for their attempts at the time to get a larger readership for the original longer book through a deal with Macdonald Futura, a deal that fell through.
This restored and extended on-line version of You, You & You! was proof read by Liz Willis, whose eagle eye has saved me lots of silly text mistakes. If any remain, the fault is mine, and my thanks to her for her skills.
The original book was dedicated to the memory of Arnold Feldman. To his name I also now add Walter Morrison.
When You, You & You! was published in 1981 all readers would still know what a tanner, or 2/6d was. Money decimalisation had come in only a few years earlier. Anyone born since the 1970’s would not now have a clue at either some of the expressions they might encounter – e.g. a ‘thruppeny bit’ or the way pre-decimal money was represented, i.e ‘10/6’. For this reason these items have been mostly footnoted in the text.