"Let us . . . brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: 'This was their finest hour.' "--Prime Minister Winston Churchill, July 14, 1940
That empire has slipped, its commonwealth declined . . . but their finest hour continues to chime.
More than 40 years after the bruising facts, self-esteem remains ineradicable among those British civilians who survived bombs falling on churches, schools and suburban backyards--and mourned 300,000 neighbors who did not come home from the office or Arnhem.
No population could fail to hold intense pride after six years of desperation resisted, the worst averted and world victory won in large part by domestic doggedness and a little country's sense of humor.
Understandably, a soft and quite harmless nostalgia has developed around the era--even for memories of Vera Lynn, ration books, blackouts, Spam, gas masks, the rasp of buzz bombs, the BBC home service, whale steaks, "Life with the Lyons," sleeping in the Underground, the Bisto kids and a Daily Mirror comic strip featuring a sometimes topless (but only for king, country and national morale) heroine named Jane.
And as this year approaches May 8 and the 40th anniversary of Victory in Europe, VE Day, the spirit, pieces and preserved sites of World War II have clearly evolved into a major British tourist attraction.
At Old Warden Aerodrome (Bedfordshire), Duxford Airfield (Cambridgeshire), Tangmere (West Sussex) and a dozen air bases in as many counties, September will again be Battle of Britain month. That's when the air show season peaks. That's when old fighters and bombers will fly again--and those few RAF pilots who were owed so much by so many (another Churchillian tribute) will be honored by church services and a stirring, lonely flyover of London by a Spitfire and a Hurricane.
HMS Belfast, the Royal Navy's heavy cruiser that helped sink the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst and bombard the Normandy beaches for D-Day, is a museum moored on the Thames between Tower and London bridges.
Across the river (Monument is the Underground stop) is the Elizabeth Rose, the paddle-wheel steamer that could. In 1940 she chuffed across the English Channel as part of Operation Dynamo and helped evacuate 340,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk. Today she's a floating restaurant.
The London Lyceum, once a revered marketplace for GIs, jitterbugs and birds, is preparing for another charity night (May 5) with "Stage Door Canteen," the sentimental setting and Big Band music, the memory-stirring sound. . . .
A reunion of British, French, American, Dutch and Belgian intelligence agents and resistance fighters is set for Luxembourg in August. . . .
Last year a Warwickshire street was belatedly renamed Anderson Drive, 39 years after Lt. Gene Anderson died in the nearby crash of an 8th Air Force B-24. . . .
"Are we glorifying war?" repeated retired Royal Air Force Wing Commander Bill Wood, OBE. He is the former World War II bomber pilot who directs educational services for the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon in northwest London. "This (question) is always something that is thrown up at us . . . but you have to judge it for yourself.
"For myself, all we are doing is preserving history and recording our heritage and the aircraft that were part of it."
Opened in 1972, the museum (with royalty and RAF heroes among its patrons and executives) is an infant on London's antiquities scene. But for air warriors, current and veteran, our side or theirs, it has become a military aviation mecca with 500,000 visitors a year, an estimated 10% of them from the United States.
One entire building is devoted to the Battle of Britain, complete with Hurricanes and Spitfires behind sandbagged revetments and facing the Messerschmitts, Junkers and Focke-Wulfs they once faced in the skies.
More than 100 airplanes in appropriate settings . . . a board from a World War II pub containing the chalked autographs of the famed fighter pilots who hoisted drinks there, sometimes their last pints . . . art, documents, archeology and library departments . . . also high tribute, and a wonderful glimpse of yesterday for those now-aging youngsters of the 8th and 9th Air Forces in England during World War II.
It's a new display, a B-17G Flying Fortress (relegated to forest firefighting in Northern California until donated to Hendon in 1983), fully restored in the colors of the 94th Bomb Group and frozen in time on a stand tended by a 1942 Jeep, bomb tractor . . . and the sighs of Americans who once flew such machines.
Because It Happened Here
"War," said Joanna Parker, a museum spokesman for the Imperial War Museum at Lambeth, London, "is well remembered in Britain because it all happened here. Our cities were bombed. The battles were launched from here, and there are people still alive who were involved. And when you notice the derelict buildings left in London from the (World War II) bombing, you realize that it's still around you."
Although it has appeal for the gawkers and grisly (a tape-recorded confession from a soldier who helped hang a female saboteur in France might be carrying things a little too far), the museum exists as a repository of all forms of knowledge of all aspects of war, military and civil, Allied and enemy, social and strategic.
Tableaux of when things weren't all that quiet on the Western Front . . . the rifle carried by Lawrence of Arabia . . . the three caravans that were Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery's tactical headquarters in the field . . . and a wrenching Vietnam display, complete with constant dialogue, the tapes of field-telephone conversations.
It's all here. It's all worth six hours of any visitor's time. "So that the past," Parker emphasized, "shall serve."
John Wenzel is curator of the Cabinet War Rooms, one of the most fascinating, maybe even the eeriest relic of wartime London. In these underground rooms beneath government offices and slab concrete, Churchill, his cabinet and chiefs of staff planned and guided Britain's war effort.
Reopened to Public
Vital chambers in the Whitehall complex--map room and annex, the cabinet room, Churchill's office-bedroom and the telephone room used for discussions with President Roosevelt--were closed and sealed, intact, when Japan surrendered in 1945. Last year they were reopened to the public; to visit is to feel the chill of a freshly opened tomb.
The only restoration work, it seems, was to empty the ashtrays and straighten papers. The effect, it will be noted, is no illusion. One of Churchill's cigars is still there and so is his Colt .45 automatic.
Clocks are synchronized. A weather board says it is raining upstairs. Churchill's voice taped from a BBC news broadcast growls in a distant corridor. Get out quick, before a phone rings.
Wenzel, however, is more young realist than old romantic about Britain and its continuing affair with World War II.
"Somebody of my generation, the postwar generation, anybody who has looked at it (World War II) professionally, would have a totally different viewpoint," he said. "That it produced (domestic) unity and solidarity is the conventional view. But it wasn't quite the golden period of national solidarity or absolute unity as some people have claimed."
And rather than contributing to the growth of the British Empire, he said, the war likely helped to destroy it. "It was certainly the nail in the coffin of the empire spirit . . . for our men went away, came back and they were not too impressed with the way we did things abroad."
Old Ghosts to Settle
When GIs come back to Europe, the purpose is common. They must come back. There are old ghosts to settle, maybe some tears left for lost buddies. Always, there is the passion to re-create the past by seeing and touching. That's what produces a personal rejuvenation, just for a moment, just one more time.
So, clutching copies of "Airfields of the Eighth, Then and Now" and "One Last Look," recent volumes of U.S. bomber and fighter bases in England and bibles for returning airmen, they arrive in England to start sentimental journeys.
To the remains . . . of the main runway at Podington now being used as a drag strip . . . the broken, empty, blind windows of the control tower at Bovingdon . . . that beamed, whitewashed, low-ceiling pub in Lavenham, the Swan, where young B-17 crews learned about warm beer.
Leonard Nelson of North Hollywood has been back. He was a 35-mission navigator with a B-17 of the 447th Bomb Group based at Rattlesden in 1944. But Nelson didn't revisit Rattlesden.
"I telephoned the RAF, and a very pleasant man, very sympathetic, asked me for my group and where I was based and I told him," Nelson remembered. "He said: 'Rattlesden? Oh, that's all gone.' Right there, on the telephone, I just burst into tears."
Joe Juvenal, 61, a retired management analyst from Branson, Mo., returned to England and France last year. He followed his 1944 route across the English Channel to Normandy (but this time by Sealink ferry) and to the same beaches, the same villages, even the same people. He knows why. "I don't have another 40 years to wait," he said.
Tours of old theaters of war and silent combat areas have been Hal Ryder's business for 25 years. He is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, was a combat engineer on D-Day and a tank commander in Korea, and now operates Galaxy Tours of King of Prussia, Pa. Since 1960, he estimates, he has escorted more than 100,000 veterans back to airfields and dots on operational maps they likely would not be able to find on their own.
His groups may be 15 small or 500 strong. The purposes range from a walking tour of the Normandy invasion beaches to finding one GI's initials on a tavern beam. Ryder has watched embraces between former air crews and French citizens who risked death by sheltering them, seen a marriage between a 70-year-old doughboy and his World War I sweetheart, and laughed at one veteran who met his old flame and was horrified at the 250-pound change. The ex-GI, of course, is now as bald as a steel helmet.
"I've seen them stand before crosses in military cemeteries and come out with tears flowing like water," Ryder remembered. "But then, suddenly, they are at peace. They're saying inside: 'Hey, old buddy, I told you I'd be back one of these days.' "
Sainte-Mere-Eglise. This quaint Normandy town became a D-Day hot spot in 1944 when the 82nd Airborne dropped in before dawn. A mannequin of an American paratrooper still dangles from the church tower. It honors all the men--especially the lucky trooper (played by Red Buttons in "The Longest Day") who survived the original steeple hanging--who liberated the village.
Recently, a Galaxy Tour pulled into town and Bill Baldridge, in blue blazer, button-down Oxford cloth shirt and penny loafers, every inch the 62-year-old clothing executive from West Des Moines, Iowa, stepped from the bus. In 1944 he had been with the 90th Infantry Division and on Utah Beach at D-Day plus 5. He'd moved men through this area. Not all came back.
So on this morning he walked around the square at Sainte-Mere-Eglise. He declined a beer with the others. He considered questions. What had it all been about?
A man, an elderly local, stepped up and patted Baldridge's shoulder. The American reached out and held the Frenchman's arm.
They looked at each other.
They said nothing.
There was no need.