Chapter 21

Radio Times

In This Chapter

● Troubles that plagued Britain at home and abroad

● Britain in the 1920s, from salad days to the slump

● Events leading up to the Munich Conference and War

● Britain fights a Second World War

After the horrors of the trenches, Britain was in a sort of collective state of shock. But even as the British began to create the culture of Remembrance they found that the world wasn’t going to stand still. With great empires destroyed and the United States retreating back into isolation, it was down to Britain and France to lead the world, this time through the League of Nations - whether they liked it or not. And there were problems at home: Ireland became a bloodbath, and in 1926, the whole country ground to a halt in Britain’s first ever General Strike. Not all the news was bad. For many people the 1920s were a prosperous time, but this reprieve was relatively short-lived and left the British ill-prepared when the Crash came. The Depression hit Britain badly, especially the old industrial areas in Scotland, Wales, Belfast, and the north of England. The whole political system seemed to go into meltdown, with a National Government and an aggressive Fascist party: Even the monarchy seemed about to fall. Overshadowing all of this was the growing threat of Hitler’s Germany.

Big Troubles

The British had won the First World War, but they had no time to rest on their laurels - or even to catch their breath. Britain was already sending troops into Russia to fight against Lenin’s Bolsheviks (Communists) and into Turkey to keep the Turks and Greeks apart. And soon they had to deal with serious troubles closer to home.


Every town and village has its war memorial put up after the First World War. The British talked of a "lost generation" of young men killed in the trenches, and even if it wasn't strictly accurate, the idea was right. The King unveiled the simple and dignified Cenotaph in Whitehall, and for years men would remove their hats in respect when they passed it. In beautiful war cemeteries designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, the dead lay in neat rows, private soldiers lying next to officers, each with his own simple memorial stone. Most striking of all, an unidentified soldier was brought back from France and buried with full honours at Westminster Abbey - the Unknown Soldier. You can still see these remembrance ceremonies each year, with their wreaths of red poppies and the trumpeters poignantly blowing the Last Post. Remember this when you wonder why the British were so keen to avoid a second war only 20 years later.

Ireland - the Troubles

Ireland had been arguing for more self-government for years (see Chapter 19 for some of the background here). “England’s difficulty”, goes an old Irish saying, “is Ireland’s opportunity”, and at Easter 1916, with Britain concentrating on the war with Germany, the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) staged a rising in Dublin to demand Irish independence. The Brits put it down without too much difficulty: The Dubliners were so angry with the rebels - their boys were fighting in France and here were these IRB fellers stabbing them in the back - that the British soldiers had to protect the IRB prisoners from being torn to pieces by the crowds. Then the Brits blew it. They put the prisoners in front of a court martial and shot them. One of the ringleaders, James Connolly, was so badly wounded they had to carry him to his execution strapped to a chair. The men became instant martyrs. In the 1918 election, Sinn Fein, which had been a small nationalist party, became the biggest political party in Ireland. But instead of going to London, the Sinn Fein MPs went to Dublin and set up the Dail Eireann - the first parliament of an independent Ireland. And it had Michael Collins and his IRA (Irish Republican Army) to defend it.

The fighting that ensued became known as the “the Troubles”. This was a very dirty terrorist war. The British brought in undercover agents and “auxiliary” troops, nicknamed Black and Tans from the khaki and black of their uniforms. These troops would shoot first and ask questions later. What they didn’t know was that Michael Collins had spies inside British HQ in Dublin Castle. He knew where they lived. The IRA shot policemen and ambushed British soldiers and Black and Tans. On 21 November 1920, “Bloody Sunday”, fourteen top British undercover agents were murdered by Michael Collins’s men. In retaliation,

British troops opened fire with a machine gun at a football match and killed twelve people.

But it didn’t all go the IRA’s way. In May 1921 120 IRA men were surrounded and forced to surrender at the Dublin Customs House. “Now,” said British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, “we have murder by the throat!” He wasn’t entirely wrong. Each side was exhausted, and in 1921 Lloyd George offered talks. Eamon de Valera, President of the Dail, accepted but he sent Michael Collins to London instead of going himself. He had an inkling of what the British would say.

Sinn Fein wanted the whole island of Ireland to be independent, but the British would never let them have the Protestant north, and de Valera knew it. It was either partition or go back to war. Collins brought the treaty back to Dublin and told the Dail to accept it; it was the best they were going to get:

Six Protestant counties of Ulster to be given the option to remain part of the United Kingdom (which meant they would).

Rest of Ireland to be a Free State under the British Crown. Members of the Dail to swear an oath of loyalty to King George V. No Irish Republic.

The Dail was split down the middle. They voted for the Treaty by 64-57, but de Valera resigned in protest, and the anti-Treaty members walked out. It was civil war all over again, the pro-Treaty IRA against anti-Treaty IRA, and this time it was even more savage. The pro-Treaty men won, but Collins didn’t live to see it. He was shot in the head in an anti-Treaty ambush in County Cork, on his way to try to make peace.

Too bloody for you? Grit your teeth; there’s more.

India - Massacre at Amritsar

By the First World War, a nationalist movement was growing in India, led by the Indian National Congress (or just “Congress”). To start with, the Congress wanted Indians to have more of a role in government, but by the 1910s, they were getting nowhere - and getting impatient. British zomen had been given the vote for working in the factories, but thousands of Indians had died fighting for Britain in the trenches and London still couldn’t bring itself to give them a bit of Home Rule. “Right”, said Congress, at its increasingly big public meetings, “No more Mr Nice Guy. We want self-rule and we want it now.” The British hit back, locking up anyone who criticised British rule and in April 1919 Congress announced it was going to hold a big meeting in Amritsar in the Punjab. “Oh no you don’t,” said the State Governor, who had the two main speakers arrested and banned political meetings.

All hell broke loose: rioting, arson, and five Europeans dead. “Right”, says the local military commander, General Reginald Dyer, “it’s time someone restored a bit of order round here.” So when he heard of a large gathering in an enclosed courtyard called the Jallianwala Bagh he marched there with 90 soldiers, lined the soldiers up in front of the main entrance, and opened fire. Not a warning shot (Dyer didn’t give any sort of warning) but 1,650 rounds of ammunition, repeated firing, into the thickest part of the completely unarmed crowd. The official figure was 379 dead (some battles have fewer casualties than that): The real figure was probably over 500.

Dyer’s actions didn’t exactly restore order: The rioting got worse, the British resorted to public floggings, and Dyer had to face an enquiry. The enquiry was appalled, but the Brits in India (and quite a few of them in Britain) thought Dyer was a hero, giving Congress a lesson it wasn’t going to forget in a hurry.

Problems back home

Back at home, no sooner was the war over than the unions came out on strike. In 1919 it was the railwaymen; the following year it was the miners, and the government had to declare a state of emergency. In 1921, there was nearly a national strike in support of the miners, and it was only called off at the last minute.

The cause of all the trouble was that people felt that the rich had virtually declared war on the poor: cutting wages and laying people off work. Then in London in 1921, the rates, taxes levied by local councils for public services, were standardised, which was fine if you lived in Kensington but desperately unfair on the poor people who lived in the East End. In Poplar, one of the poorest East End boroughs, the local Labour council led by George Lansbury (later leader of the Labour Party and grandfather of actress Angela Lansbury) actually went to prison rather than set a rate that they thought was unfair. The country seemed to be sliding into a very polite, civilised and thoroughly British form of Class War.

Shady goings-on at Number 10

The prime minister was still David Lloyd George, but he was in a very odd position. He was a Liberal at the head of a Liberal-Conservative coalition, but by 1922, he was the only Liberal left in it. Lloyd George was a brilliant politician - dynamic, passionate (just ask his secretaries), and a man who got things done - but you wouldn’t want to buy a used car off him. He had a political fund called the Lloyd George Fund, and in 1922, they found out how he had raised the money. Lloyd George was selling titles. Fancy being Baron Bloggs? Cost you £80,000, cash in hand. Knighthood? Just for you, £12,000, no questions asked.

For the Conservatives, this was the last straw. Lloyd George had become an embarrassment. At a secret meeting at the Carlton Club, the Conservatives decided to ditch their too-liberal prime minister. They forced an election and won it. But then the Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, did a very silly thing. In 1923, he called another election. He had his reasons, but that didn’t help: the Conservatives were outnumbered by Labour and the Liberals. Baldwin had to go, and Labour took office.

A message from your friendly Bolsheviks

King George V was worried about having a Labour government, but there was no need to be. Anyone less like Lenin’s Bolsheviks than the smartly dressed Labour ministers who went to kiss hands and take teas with the King in 1924 would be difficult to imagine. The Prime Minister was James Ramsay MacDonald, who wanted better housing and schools, but wasn’t going to start staging revolutions. Labour was in a minority, so in October 1924, MacDonald called yet another election to see whether he could get a few more MPs. And a very strange thing happened. The right-wing Daily Mail reported a scoop. It published a letter from Soviet Foreign Minister Gregori Zinoviev to the British Communist Party saying that now was the time to stage the Revolution in Britain. “Comrades!” the letter said (or something like it), “Let capitalist blood flow in the streets of St James’, string up the rich on the lamp posts of Park Lane, and tell everyone to vote Labour.” There was a reading of 8.7 on the Richter Scale as the collective jaws of the middle classes hit the floor, and the blood of retired colonels boiling over caused a sharp rise in atmospheric pressure. In the election, the Conservatives stormed home, Labour was out of office, and the Liberals virtually disappeared. And the letter? It was a forgery. Of course.

A general strike

The climax to all this class tension came in May 1926, and it came in the mines. The mine owners wanted to cut wages and lengthen the working day, so the government set up a commission to look into the issue. But when it, too, recommended lower wages and longer hours, the miners came out on strike, and this time they weren’t alone: The Trades Union Congress (TUC) called a General Strike to support them.

The General Strike lasted nine days. The trains, the presses, gas, electricity, the post - everything stopped. The strike was particularly solid in South Wales and Scotland so the government declared a state of emergency and sent in troops. Home Secretary Winston Churchill put armoured cars onto the streets, and his newspaper, the British Gazette, accused the strikers of planning a revolution. There is no evidence of this. Apart from a few violent incidents, the whole thing was remarkably relaxed. Middle class volunteers lent a hand trying to keep services going, driving trains and loading mail bags, and when the police got bored watching the strikers, they challenged them to games of football.

Gradually the men drifted back to work. On 20 May, the TUC called off the strike. The miners were furious. They stayed out on strike until the end of the year, when they, too, could not afford to stay out any longer. They had to go back, and they had to accept the longer hours for less pay. They had had their General Strike - and they’d lost.

The Years That Roared

They called the decade following the Great War the Roaring Twenties. If you had the money - and as Britain slowly recovered from the War, more and more people did - you could have a ball.

Party time!

The leg-kicking Charleston hit Britain in 1925, just the thing for all those young women known as flappers in their slimline dresses and cloche hats. In 1928, young women over 21 even got the vote. In-between dance dates, you could tune into the BBC (motto: Nation Shall Speak Unto Nation) and catch your favourite dance bands on the wireless. Soon people were going regularly to the cinema, also known as the kinema or the Picture Palace, where they could watch some of the biggest Hollywood stars, like Stan Laurel or Charlie Chaplin, who happened to be British. People wanted to pretend they lived in the country, so they built neat semi-detached houses with mock-Tudor beams and gables in leafy suburbs, with front gardens, garages for all those affordable new motor cars, trees planted along the road, and a handy tennis club or golf course. In 1925, Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill announced that Britain was going back onto the Gold Standard. Yes, for those who were doing well - which tended to mean people in the southern half of England - life in the 1920s felt very good.

Party's over: The slump

Wall Street crashed in October 1929, and the world’s economy slumped. Before you knew it, no-one was trading with anyone, and firms were going bust all over Europe. By 1930, Britain had two million unemployed people. Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald set up a commission to figure out how to put Britain back on a solid economic footing, and he didn’t like its findings one bit. The commission reported that the only way out was big tax rises plus massive cuts in government spending, including 20 per cent off the Dole. You couldn’t ask a Labour government - a Labour government - to cut back on help for the unemployed.

Britain's Twin Towers: Wembley

In 1924, the British threw a party to celebrate the Empire and they built a great new stadium at Wembley to host it. The bash opened with Sir Edward Elgar conducting massed choirs singing "Land of Hope and Glory" and then it was off for a quick look at raffia work from around the world before heading to the bar in the West Indies pavilion. Thousands of people went to the party and to see the stadium. Afterwards the stadium stayed up, and its famous twin towers became a symbol of British football. The first time they held the FA Cup Final there, the crowd surged onto the pitch; only a policeman riding into the crowd on a white horse prevented a tragedy. Pitch invasions have been a traditional feature of British football ever since.

The Cabinet refused to accept the commission’s recommendations, and MacDonald resigned, but the King said he had to stay. So MacDonald formed a National Government with the Conservatives. Or, as his Labour colleagues would have said, sold out to the Tories. In effect, MacDonald was heading a Conservative government. The Labour party hasn’t forgiven him to this day.

Hard times

It’s difficult to imagine the despair of the Depression years. Looking back, people said it was worse than the war because at least you knew the war would end one day, but it seemed as if the Depression could go on for ever. The heavy industrial areas - coal mines in Wales and Yorkshire, shipyards in Belfast, Glasgow and Tyneside - were hardest hit. To get unemployment benefit, you had to submit to the humiliating Means Test in which officials came into your home and probed into every detail of your private life to work out how much help you were entitled to. In 1936, out-of-work shipbuilders in Jarrow decided to march all the way down to London to shame the government into doing something for them. The government didn’t take a blind bit of notice.

Stack shirts and black eyes

Oswald Mosley was an up-and-coming Labour MP who got frustrated with MacDonald, and in 1931, he set up the New Party to offer a dynamic new way forward: Massive government spending, work for the unemployed, and a general national revival. And no Irish or Jews. In case anyone hadn’t guessed yet, he renamed his party the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and started growing a little moustache. He couldn’t wear a proper uniform because the government banned them, so he had to make do with a black jumper. In 1936, Mosley led a march into the most Jewish part of the East End - the BUF didn’t do subtlety - which started a massive street battle with the Communist Party. The next year, he got hit on the head by a brick. Makes you proud to be British.

How Goes the Empire?

“How goes the Empire?” is officially, what King George V is supposed to have said on his death bed in 1936 (although the other version, “Bugger Bognor!” sounds more likely, especially if you’ve ever been there). And the answer was: Not very well.

Palestine - the double promised land

In the First World War, the British promised the Arabs, including the Palestinians, independence in return for their help against the Turks.

“OK, you’re on” the Arabs said, and they started ambushing trains and starring in Lawrence of Arabia. Meanwhile, a very influential Jewish group, the Zionists, who wanted to go back home to the Promised Land, asked the British if they would help and the British, mindful of the Zionists’ influence in Washington, said yes. So now the British had promised the same land to two different groups, the Palestinians and the Jews.

The King who never was

When the British finally learned that their new King, Edward VIII, had been going out with Wallis Simpson, who was a) divorced, b) married (and about to be divorced again), and c) American, it was hard for them to know which detail was the worst. Although the Church of England had been founded by a royal divorce, it wasn't keen to be headed by another one. It was the Bishop of Bradford who spilled the beans by saying in a sermon that the King (who was also Head of the Church, don't forget) had a lot of serious thinking to do and that he might take a peek at the seventh commandment while he was at it, which is not the one about making a graven image.

Edward refused to stop seeing Mrs S, but as the Prime Minister pointed out, there was no way that Mrs S could be crowned as his Queen: The Church wouldn't have it, the British people wouldn't have it (even though they didn't really mind him marrying her), and above all the Empire had made it very clear that it would not have it. So there really was no way out except for Edward to abdicate and hand over to his shy, stammering brother the Duke of York, who became King George VI. So if you come across an Edward VIII coronation mug, keep hold of it because they're very rare. At the time, people were very angry at losing Edward - he had been a popular Prince of Wales. But Edward was a weak character, and he and Wallis soon fell under Hitler's spell. When war broke out, the government packed him off to the Bahamas, safely out of the way. The royal family never forgave him.

Out for a - Duck!!

The British even managed to anger their white colonies, through cricket, of all things. In 1931, the Australians toured England and beat them, thanks to the Australian batsman, Donald Bradman. How to beat him? The English came up with a plan. They would bowl fast (cricket balls are very hard, and a good spin bowler can bowl them at 100 mph; the England bowler Harold Larwood was the fastest there was), but they wouldn't aim for the wicket: they would go for the body. "Bodyline" bowling worked. Bradman and his team mates had to leap out of the way of the ball, and England won the series. But two Australian players were badly injured. Australians were outraged: "One team is playing cricket", stormed the Australian captain, "and the other one isn't". Cricket was supposed to embody all that was best about the British Empire - fair play and sportsmanship and all that. Yeah, right.

Guess what the British did? They broke both promises. They didn’t set up a Jewish homeland, and they didn’t give the Palestinians independence either. Instead they took Palestine over themselves. They let some Jews in to settle, but when the Palestinians complained of being swamped, they stopped any more Jews from coming. Before long, Jews and Palestinians had started shooting each other - or any British soldiers who tried to get in the way.


After what happened at Amritsar (refer to the earlier section “India - Massacre at Amritsar”), the Indian Congress wanted the British out, and they wanted them out now. This was when Mohandas Gandhi (known as Mahatma Gandhi), leader of the Indian nationalist movement, came up with his idea for how to do it: non-violence. If the British used violence, as Gandhi knew they would, the Indians would just take it. The Indians started by refusing to pay their taxes and ignoring the Prince of Wales when he came to visit, but Gandhi also set out deliberately to provoke the British. In 1930, he led a 200-mile march to the sea to gather natural salt, which was a British monopoly. The police beat him and his followers savagely and threw Gandhi into jail. The following year, Gandhi was an honoured guest in London, meeting the Prime Minister and taking tea with the King. Basically Gandhi held out by refusing to compromise. The only fly in the ointment was whether or not to have a separate Muslim state. Gandhi said no, but some of the Muslims were keen. The Labour Party came round to Indian independence, but in 1931 the National Government came in (see the earlier section “Party’s over: The slump” for more info on this unusual government), and they weren’t going to give up India. So the protests and the civil disobedience went on. When the Second World War broke out, Gandhi told his followers to have nothing to do with it. The British would have to make do without them. So the British locked him up again.

The Road to Munich

Britain’s policy of appeasing Nazi Germany is probably the most controversial and most misunderstood episode in British twentieth century history - possibly in all British history. “Couldn’t they see?” people ask. “Why didn’t the British stand up to Hitler while they had the chance?” But there were reasons - beyond the claims of cowardice, incompetence, or complicity - that appeasement seemed like a viable option:

The British believed in the League of Nations: The League was the idea of US President Woodrow Wilson and the British had come to believe in its philosophy of collective security: Nations acting together to solve problems, instead of conspiring against each other and going to war.

The British people did not want another war: In 1933 the Oxford Union voted not to fight for King and Country, and in 1935 11 million people signed the Peace Ballot against war. No democratic government could ignore that level of public opinion.

Germany was not necessarily the main threat: The most direct threat to Britain came from Mussolini, who wanted the British out of the Mediterranean, and the Japanese in the Far East. So the British worked out a long-distance rearmament programme based on ships and aircraft, rather than on a large army suitable for fighting the Germans.

Not everything the Germans wanted was unreasonable: The British thought the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War was far too harsh on Germany.

The British were in no position to fight a war: Britain only started rearming in 1936. (Neville Chamberlain financed it by a tax hike on tea: looks like he knew trouble was brewing!) But although the navy and air force were recovering, Britain’s army was still small and ill-equipped. Britain had to play for time.

1936 Hitler sends troops into the demilitarized Rhineland. The British take the line that it shouldn’t have been demilitarized in the first place. Hitler is “only moving into his own back yard” as people put it.

1938 Hitler takes over Austria. There is some unease in Britain, but it does not seem worth fighting over, especially as so many Austrians are clearly delighted by it.

The Munich Conference

In September 1938 Hitler demanded the German-speaking Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia. This was serious, because the Czechs had a military alliance with France. If Czechoslovakia was attacked the French were duty-bound to help them. But by 1938 the French were desperate to avoid a war. So Chamberlain took it upon himself to find a way to let Hitler have the Sudetenland without actually fighting for it. It took three face-to-face meetings with Hitler, but in September 1938 the Sudetenland went to Hitler at the famous Munich Conference.

Everyone had been expecting a war, so this peace settlement was wildly popular in London and Paris. “You would think,” said one British official, looking down at the crowds cheering Chamberlain, “that we had won a victory, instead of selling a small country to the Germans.”

For many years historians were very harsh on Chamberlain and accused him of giving far too much to Hitler. Later historians were more sympathetic towards him. They argued that he had very little room to manoeuvre, especially as Britain was so weak. The only trouble is that Chamberlain carried on trying to appease Hitler even after Hitler took over the rest of Czechoslovakia. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Chamberlain was completely out of his depth and simply refused to see it.

And then Hitler attacked Poland

When Hitler attacked Poland only a few months later, Britain declared war. It was a crazy thing to do. Britain couldn’t help Poland any more than she could help Czechoslovakia, especially after Hitler and Stalin agreed to divide Poland between them. But by September 1939, people in Britain had changed their ideas about Germany. Hitler had taken over the rest of Czechoslovakia and on Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) the Nazis had smashed up Jewish shops and businesses and sent thousands of German Jews off to concentration camps. The British decided: No more deals with this man. So when the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the British told him to get out, and two days later Britain declared war.

World War Two

The British had already been issuing gas masks and Anderson air raid shelters, which you could put up in your back garden. Now they put their city children on trains and evacuated them out to the country and they started calling up men and women to serve in the armed forces. But where were they going to go? They couldn’t get to Poland, and in any case the Germans and Russians soon crushed the Poles. So the British sent their small army to France and waited. And waited. And waited. And then the Germans launched their blitzkrieg.

Early battles and Churchill's finest hour

The German blitzkrieg came in Denmark and Norway. The British had in fact already mined Norwegian waters - which was illegal - and the Germans lost so many ships that Hitler was put off the idea of any more invasions by sea. But although the British and French did briefly throw the Germans out of Narvik, they soon had to clear out again.

Next the Germans stormed into Belgium and Holland, charged through the Ardennes forest and cut off the entire British army in France on the beaches at Dunkirk. There was nothing for it but to go home, and for reasons we still don’t really know, Hitler told his tanks to stop, which gave the British time to gather a fleet of small private pleasure craft (yes, things were that desperate) to ferry the troops to the waiting ships. The British liked to call it the “Miracle of Dunkirk”, but since they had had to leave behind just about everything except two pistols and a very sharp stick, there wasn’t much miraculous about it. As Churchill, pointed out, “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

Losing Norway brought down Chamberlain’s government and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. Not everyone thought he was a good choice, especially when he came out with his famous speech about never surrendering. There didn’t seem to be anything else Britain could do, especially after France had to surrender in June 1940. Yet here was Churchill talking about Victory. It seemed crazy - until the Battle of Britain.

Battle over Britain

After Dunkirk the British had so few weapons left that they were reduced to doing their drill with broomstick handles until the factories could manufacture sufficient real weapons. But simply by refusing to make peace, Churchill could keep the war going whether Hitler wanted it to or not. So Hitler told his generals to come up with an invasion plan, Operation Sealion. Which meant they were going to have to destroy the RAF. Hermann Goering, Hitler’s commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, the German airforce, thought he knew how to do it.

In the summer and autumn of 1940, the German Luftwaffe took on the RAF in the first proper air battle in history, the Battle of Britain. The Germans tried to

destroy the British airfields and very nearly succeeded. Three things saved the British:

Radar: The British could track the German planes as soon as they took off and be ready to intercept them.

The Spitfire: The Spitfire was the nippiest plane in the battle. Not only could it shoot down German bombers - anyone could do that - but it could shoot down German fighters, too. It gave the British just the edge they needed.

● The Blitz: The Germans were only supposed to bomb airfields and military installations, but when a German bomber got lost and dropped its bombs over London, the RAF hit back and bombed Berlin. “Bomb my capital, will you?” spluttered Hitler, “I’ll trash yours!” Which was bad news for London and Coventry, but a welcome relief for the RAF. If the Germans were bombing the cities they couldn’t bomb the RAF’s airfields. On 15 September, Goering launched the big attack to destroy the RAF and found the RAF ready for him. The RAF were attacking in large numbers now, and the Luftwaffe was shot to pieces. As the German planes limped home, Hitler decided to scrap Operation Sealion. Britain could Die Another Day.

The Blitz

The Germans bombed the heart out of Britain’s cities in the Blitz (Figure 21-1 shows the cities that suffered the most). They bombed the ancient city of Coventry so badly that the Germans coined a new word “to Coventry”, that meant to destroy something totally. They didn’t just target industrial cities like Newcastle or Glasgow either. The Germans bombed the cathedral cities of Exeter, Canterbury, and Norwich too, after the British bombed the ancient port of Lubeck.

The British liked to give off the idea that the bombing only made them more united and determined not to give in. When a bomb landed on Buckingham Palace, the Queen commented “At last I can look the East End in the face”. On the whole, the bombing probably did make the British more united, but it wasn’t the whole story. Riots broke out after very heavy bombing in Plymouth, and both Churchill and the King sometimes got booed when they visited the bomb sites. But at least they went. Hitler never dared.

Mr Brown went off to town...: Life at home

If you were too old to join the regular army, you could always join the part-time Home Guard, so Hitler wouldn’t know what had hit him if he landed at the weekend or after 6:00 p.m. He wouldn’t have been able to see much either, thanks to the blackout. Everyone had to put up thick black curtains, and wardens patrolled to make sure no-one was guiding German bombers with their bedside lamp.

Then there was rationing: meat, butter, sugar, petrol, clothes - anything, in fact, which had to be brought in past the U-boats. While you were waiting, you could “Dig for Victory”, growing food in your back garden or on the local cricket pitch. The government issued special recipes, like Woolton Pie (all veg and no meat) telling people what they could do with their rations, though most people could have told them. “Is Your Journey Really Necessary?” asked the posters at railway stations. And “Careless Talk Costs Lives!” warned everyone of the danger of German spies and sympathisers lurking about. There were sirens to warn you that an air raid was coming, and others to give the All Clear. If you got your call-up papers it might not mean you were going to fight: Women were called up to work in the factories, and young men expecting to be in uniform were sometimes sent to work down the mines - just as vital for winning the war.

Figure 21-1: Cities bombed during The Blitz.

If it ain't flamin' desert, it's flippin' jungle

In 1940 the British attacked the Italians in North Africa and the Germans had to come to their rescue. For a long time it looked as if the German commander Rommel would win, but in October 1942, British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, commander of the 8th Army in North Africa, defeated him at El Alamein in Egypt. By then the United States was in the war, thanks to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The Japanese also attacked British possessions in Asia. They took Hong Kong and Burma, and in 1942, they took the great British island fortress of Singapore. That was bad enough, but what made it worse was that there wasn’t even a battle for it. The Japanese attacked from behind, and with water supplies running low, General Percival just surrendered. The image of the mighty British Empire had been shattered.

Boats and bombers

Churchill said the only thing in the war that really worried him was the U boats which were sinking thousands of tons of shipping and threatening to cut off Britain’s food supplies. The British used convoys and underwater radar known as ASDIC, but the best weapon was information. To get it, they set up a secret listening centre at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire where the British were able to tap into the Germans’ secret codes. But not always, and for several crucial months, the British had to fight “blind”. Not until the Americans brought in long-range bombers that could cover the whole Atlantic were the Allies able to turn the tables on the U-boats.

The only way the British could take the war to the Germans was by bombing. At first the Germans just shot British bombers down, but once the United States was in the war, the Allies were able to bomb round the clock, the Americans by day and the British by night. The Germans had bombed Britain hard, but the British retaliation was far worse. Whole cities were flattened in terrible firestorms, and Britons began to question whether it was right. The worst case was Dresden, which was destroyed in a terrible raid in February 1945, even though it wasn’t a major military target.

You could argue that bombing was necessary. It kept up the pressure on Germany, disrupted its industry, and kept men and guns pinned down, which might otherwise have been used against the Russians (and let’s be quite clear about this: It was the Russian front that won the war for the Allies). On the other hand, people have argued that this sort of bombing was nothing more than murder and a war crime itself.

D-Day - Fighting on the beaches

By 1944, Britain was a vast armed camp, and on 6 June 1944, D-Day, the British, Canadians, and Americans launched the biggest invasion in history on the beaches of Normandy. The invasion nearly came to grief on Omaha Beach, but in the end, the Allies were able to fight their way ashore. Meanwhile the Russians were closing in on Germany from the east. The British came up with a plan to cross the Rhine and dash ahead to Berlin before the Russians got there, but the plan went wrong when the British landed on top of a German panzer division at Arnhem in Holland. Instead, US Supreme Commander General Eisenhower insisted on advancing more slowly, and the western Allies finally met up with the Russians in the spring of 1945.

In February 1945, Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt met up at Yalta in the Crimea to discuss the final defeat of Hitler and to decide who would get what during the postwar occupation, what would happen to the liberated states in Eastern Europe, and more.

The war with Germany ends

The war with Germany ended on May 8, 1945 - V-E Day (for “Victory in Europe”). During the Yalta Conference (see the preceding section) the Allies had decided to hold a war-crimes trials of the leading Nazis. Following the defeat of Germany these trials were held in the old courtroom at Nuremberg, about the only public building still standing. But while the Allies were working together to convict the Nazis, elsewhere the alliance was falling apart at the seams. When the Big Three next met, at Potsdam, in the summer of 1945 just outside Berlin, there were serious arguments: the Cold War was about to begin.

The war with Japan continues

There was still the war with Japan to win, don’t forget. The British fought a long war in the jungles of Burma and India, but their soldiers called themselves the “forgotten army” because no-one seemed to take any notice. Specially trained British, Chinese and American Chindit units landed behind Japanese lines, blew up bridges, ambushed patrols, and generally created havoc. In 1944, when the Japanese invaded India, the British and Indians defeated them at the battle of Imphal. So this part of the war ended with one last great Imperial battle: The future was going to be very different.

(Don’t forget you can find out a lot more about the war in World War II For Dummies).

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