8th May was VE Day and the celebrations kicked off with our Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson suggesting that Britain needs to rediscover its ‘bulldog spirit’ as we leave the EU. Most of the article is (thankfully) behind a paywall but you can get the flavour of it from the first paragraph in which Gav tells us that 1945 was:
“The triumphant moment when Britain defeated Nazi darkness and brought the light of freedom to millions.”
Now setting aside his omission of the contribution made by our American cousins, Soviet friends, the Aussies, Kiwis, West Indians, South Africans oh and the 2.5 million strong Indian army that helped us in this endeavour, you get in Mr Williamson’s words a not untypical glimpse of the Little Brexiteer view of WW2. This is – ‘builder’s tea history’ – white, drenched in saccharine, transitorily uplifting perhaps – but wrong in so very many ways.
Earlier this year, the departing German Ambassador, Peter Ammon, caused outrage in certain quarters by stating the bloody obvious. Namely that Brexit was driven by Britons having an isolationist ‘us against the world’ mentality that has been instilled by a diet of WW2 films fed to the British public over a period of 70 years.
The UK, uniquely among the Western European nations, was neither invaded nor defeated in the 1940s and this has irrevocably shaped our nation’s view of events and our Saturday afternoon telly. Because we won, the narrative has never been challenged and many wartime films, produced by the Ministry of Information (Propaganda) are still presented as entertainment today. In Germany, where they have been obliged to come to terms with their past, the equivalents of films such as ‘Went the Day Well?’ or ‘One of Our Aircraft is Missing’ might still exist in archives or as curiosities – here – they are still shown on the TV.
British film propaganda didn’t end with the war of course. In the immediate aftermath and ever since, the British moviegoer has been subjected to a barrage of pictures and television series that reinforce the myths surrounding our role. The special effects may have changed, the carefully crafted narratives never do.
Take the legend of ‘The Few’ – as depicted in 1969 flick The Battle of Britain and neatly summarised in the opening titles of the BBC comedy series Dad’s Army. In this take Christopher Plummer flies alone against the impossible might of the Nazi Luftwaffe/Wehrmacht/SS while Captain Mainwaring and Corporal Jones hold them at bay on the ground with a converted Butcher’s van. It’s a lovely story and we all know it – but it isn’t true.
Britain in 1940 was not held together by bits of string. It was a super-power, with the largest Empire in history and the world’s first integrated and fully co-ordinated air defence system. The country was able to pull on huge resources and used them to devastating effect. Yes, the Luftwaffe might have been slightly larger in strength but Great Britain was out-producing German planes at a rate of two to one and anyway – the German air-force had to get here first. Every match was ‘away.’ German intelligence was poor and the British security services were happy to play along with the idea that we were weaker, while Churchill gave grand-eloquent speeches. Operation Sea Lion wasn’t cancelled because the Germans were fended off by Michael Caine in a Spitfire – but rather because Hitler’s Generals calculated (correctly) that he would lose.
All great propaganda is narrative driven. Myths make better films than boring old facts. And films make better propaganda than nearly anything else. That’s why many of us grew up believing that the racist and distinctly unlikable Douglas Bader was ‘lovely Kenneth More’ and everyone remembers that time a dashing American pilot tried to jump over a barbed wire fence on a big motorbike….. except ….there was no American pilot. There was no motorbike. Move on.
The Second World War wasn’t larks. It was war. It was dirty, nasty and complex. Yes we won but at a huge cost. The country was broken. Our cities were flattened. Thousands of our people had died, millions of our neighbours had been slaughtered. No life went untouched. To get through it all Britain deployed disinformation like everyone else and whistling milkmen walking through bombsites to deliver the milk – the epitome of the Blitz spirit – made very good propaganda. Indeed, it was so good that many people still believe it as “fact” to this day.
In May 1945 – celebrations of Victory were short lived. There was work to be done, a country to be rebuilt and still more war to be fought but critically the British people were now looking forwards. They had seen events up close. They had witnessed the horror and many gazed through the settling dust of conflict and towards a brighter future. That is why the ‘warmonger’ Churchill was given the boot.
Over the decades that followed something shifted and Britain became obsessed with its role in the war. The Brexiteers in particular seem curiously in thrall to the narrative of victory and with it, the prolongation of the animosities of that conflict. Until those Britons can come to terms with the fact that it is over we are, as a nation, condemned like some forgotten Japanese soldier, to keep fighting a long ago ended war – lost in time – as the outside world moves on without us.