Thursday, 7 May 2020

VE Day in perspective

One of the very few fortunate consequences of the coronavirus lockdown is that we shall be spared most of the excesses of flag-waving, military "shallahumps and shallahoops," and  evocations of past glories which were planned for the 75th anniversary of VE Day.

I was eight years old, going on nine, on the actual VE day in 1945.  I don't remember remember much of it.  With my parents and baby sister, we were on holiday in Scarborough, so it must have been Whitsuntide Week.  My mother had an aunt who kept a beading house in Scarborough and that was our regular port of call  in the Whit holiday. I think we must have been to Scarborough at least once before, because I can remember rolled up barbed wire on the beaches in order to deter invaders.  Or maybe it was our first visit and they were still there even though European war was nearly  over.

I have vivid memories of the evening.  We spent it roaming the streets with another Birstall family and singing "Let him go, let him tarry, let him sink or let him swim,"  which the Internet tells me is an Irish folk ballad.  Presumably it was a popular song of the era.  I was not then and am not now "into" popular songs. As a choirboy hymns and psalms, and now anthems and oratorios, are more my thing.

There was a palpable sense of joy and release at what was seen as the culmination of "our finest hour," although it wasn't really a culmination at all as the war continued for several more months in the Far East.

The achievement was considerable, and understandably at the time, exaggerated.  The tragedy is that we have continued to exaggerate it ever since.

We never did "stand alone."  

 Australia,Canada,New Zealand, South Africa, India and many other parts of the then Empire, the Free French, Poland and other Europeans, fought with us from the beginning. We should probably not have survived  the Battle of Britain were  it not for the very significant contributions of the Polish and Czechoslovakian Air-forces.

Then , of course by far the major part in the defeat of Nazi Germany was borne  by  the Soviet Union, something that we far too readily forget. The Soviet Union suffered between 8 and 10 million military deaths, compared with 446 000 Yugoslavians, 416 000 USA, and 
383 600 UK (not including Commonwealth and Empire deaths).  A complete list of all combatants  is available here.

So it was a marvellous achievement, and a great relief, and a huge sacrifice for those families which had lost relatives and friends not just in the armed forces and merchant navies, but in the civilian bombings and other what we now call collateral damage.

But it was and is not a solid foundation for British claims of exceptionalism.

Yet, as Jo Grimond, a junior officer in the war  who became our inspiring Liberal Leader of the 1960s, writes in his Memoirs, (page 99)

"...we came out of the war being told we had saved the world  by a unique act of courage against fearful odds.  We naturally became convinced  that the world must see that we were natural leaders of the West entitled by our deeds of valour and skill  to rest on oars as far as work was concerned  and owed a debt, indeed a living, by our neighbours."

We need now, after 75 years,  to see what was undoubtedly a very fine hour in perspective, and, perhaps, assess some of the humiliations we have as a nation experienced since. 

Which was the deepest:

  • the aborted invasion of Suez in 1956;
  • the belated recognition that we needed, after all, to join the the EEC, only to be rebuffed, not once but twice, by the French;
  • the ejection of Sterling from the ERM  in 1992;
  • the craven support of the US in their illegal invasion of Iraq;
  • the flawed referendum decision to leave the EU;
  • the abuse of our democratic  constitution by our government in attempting to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process;
  • our incompetence in  dealing with  the coronavirus, leading to our becoming one of the worst affected developed countries?
Take your pick, or make other suggestions.

Whether or not it is our deepest humiliation, there can be no doubt that in tackling the pandemic we have have been far from  world leaders,  but laggardly clumsy  followers.

It is high time we put behind us the pretence that in this that or the other we are "the best in the world and the envy of the world" (except that is for the BBC") and just settled for moderate competence, which involves working as co-operative partners with others.


  1. Then , of course by far the major part in the defeat of Nazi Germany was borne by the Soviet Union, something that we far too readily forget

    Actually what's more often forgotten these days is that the Soviet Union was, at the start of the war, allied with Germany and between the two of them they planned to carve up Europe, crushing half of it under a Nazi and half of it under a Communist boot.

    It should be remembered also that the Soviet Union called on the Communist Party of Great Britain to object to the war at every opportunity, and to sabotage the war effort wherever they could.

    And don't fall for any nonsense about the Soviet Union planning all the time to double-cross Germany and switch sides; it was Hitler who betrayed Stalin, and the Red Tsar who stayed loyal to his fellow dictator until the f├╝hrer's treachery was undeniable. The lie that the Soviet Union was just 'playing for time' and pretending to go along with Hitler was post-hoc Soviet propaganda.

    The greatest thing the United Kingdom did during the Second World War was save the world from Communist tyranny; for if Britain had fallen, then there would have been nowhere for the Allies to launch their invasion of Europe from, Stalin would have won the race to Berlin, and would certainly not have stopped there but have continued on to bring the iron curtain down over all of Europe, a Communist Hell stretching from Brest to the Bering Strait. And in that situation it's entirely possible the Cold War would have gone the wrong way.

    So yes we should celebrate VE Day and we should be very proud of the part our little islands played: just one of the more recent outsize contributions we have made to world history.

    1. Somewhat selective view of history. In terms of war effort I tend to look first at the total casualties caused to each nation.

    2. In terms of war effort I tend to look first at the total casualties caused to each nation.

      I personally think it's much more important when judging a nation to consider which side it was on, rather than how much effort it expended.

      And the Soviet Union was not on the right side. Not at the beginning of the war and not afterwards, either, and for the few years in the middle it only joined the right side because it was betrayed by Hitler.

      The Soviet Union was never a friend; only our enemy's enemy.

      And also, we should remember, the Soviet Union would have fallen to Operation Barbarossa if it had not been for the supplies and materiel provided by the USA and transported to them by the merchant navy at the cost of British lives.

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  2. The past is gone. Pride goes before a fall (us wallowing in nostalgia).The UK has to search for its future
    Not wallow in its past.

    1. A country without history is as helpless as an individual without memory.

    2. True but it needs to be an accurate view of its history and not a distorted one.

    3. Indeed, which is the problem with the self-loathing '52 Times Britain was a Bellend' school of distorted history.

      George Owell got it spot-on in his famous and recently oft-quoted passage:

      England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God Save the King” than of stealing from a poor box.

      In actual fact I think the main undercurrent to the celebratory nature of VE Day is that Britain actually failed in its war aim. Yes, we defeated Hitler in 1945; but we actually went to war to liberate Poland, and Poland was not freed until 1989.

      For half of Europe, May 1945 was not a liberation but sealed their abandonment to a Communist tyranny every bit as bad as Nazi tyranny. Yes, we should have celebrated yesterday; but we should still feel more than a twinge of guilt for what we did to the Poles and others at Yalta.

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  3. To Anonymous (II?) Thanks for alerting me to '52 Times Britain was a Bellend.'

    I wasn't aware of this but have looked it up on Google, found it sounds interesting, so ordered a copy, from Waterstones, not Amazon.

    i think Orwell may have a point. Glibert and Sullivan said something similar (on the Lord High Executioner's list in the Mikado)

    the idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone
    Every century but this and every country but his own"

    However I regard myself as neither an idiot nor an intellectual: I just try to be honest. I'm also patriotic, but in the understated, true Brit, way: not keen on waving Union Jacks but have framed my message form the King Emperor for, as a child, sharing in the privation of war, and it's hung on my study wall.

  4. A cousine who lives in Canada takes much the same view as I do with regards to the Poles and sends me this information about books on the subject:

    Dear Cousin .. .

    For your blog readers and yourself. Concerning VE Day "celebrations".

    BOTH the books I read ages ago with great enjoyment, and referred to in
    my recent "Blog Blethering" of today.

    It turns out (memory failing, so looked at my notes) that both books
    were by the SAME female author. The American historical writer, former
    Washington journalist and all time well respected research person. Lynne

    You can get them via the dreaded Amazon, or just look them up on the
    less dreaded Google or similar. Enter "Lynne Olson" and there's an
    avalanche of information.


    1. (Re: Polish Airmen WWII) By Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud 2003

    "A Question of Honour" subtitle .."The Koskiusko Squadron".."The
    Forgotten Heros of WWII."

    2. (Re: the 3 Americans in London, who begged the US government to
    help Britain towards the end of WWII - thereby saving the day.}

    "Citizens of London" By Lynne Olson (again).

    The three men were: 1. The rich and powerful Averill Harriman, doing
    armament deals... US/Britain. 2. The famous CBS news anchor Edward R
    Murrow. and 3. The charming and wistful John Gilbert Winant..who never
    gave up, and indirectly gave his life for the British.

    BOTH books very interesting, painstakingly researched, and extensive
    reading material.

    To pass on to your friends and readers who might be interested. [Lots of time in this Covid 19 lock-down world.]Marilyn Hart

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