Look Left! First Days in London

David Corrigan, Nick Gelder and I arrived in London early on Wednesday morning and made our way to the heart of the city by bus from Luton airport. We checked in and began to explore the city and stake out some areas that we would like to spend more time in. We have had quite a bit of free time in the past three days, and we have been able to see much of what the city has to offer in both contemporary and historical terms. The food here has been amazing. It is very similar to the food home, but we have all noticed a difference in portion sizes. The first morning, Emily Cunningham and I found ourselves getting up three or four times to refill our water glasses at breakfast. The variety of food that is offered at breakfast is also different from what I am used to. I saw people eating baked beans and tomato slices alongside eggs and bacon. The city itself is much cleaner than the large American cities I have toured, including New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. The people are generally friendly, but they tend to keep to themselves unless directly spoken to.

We headed out around nine on Thursday morning for the Churchill War Rooms and Churchill Museum. We took the Tube south and walked a little ways before we got to the museum. The war rooms were sealed immediately after the war and weren’t reopened until the 1970’s. They’ve since been renovated to their original specs and are an incredible resource in exploring the war from the British perspective. We had an audio tour and overall I really enjoyed the experience.

The Churchill museum was especially interesting because of the complete picture it gave of the former Prime Minister. I had expected all Brits to worship Churchill and his leadership during the war, but this was not at all the case. Winston Churchill is certainly well respected and remembered fondly, but the museum made sure to provide the whole picture of his political career. Churchill came dangerously close to dooming his run for power several times and was called a radical by some. His leadership during WWII was also called into question several times, especially concerning the amount of power he wielded in the decision-making process. The English are critical of the former Prime Minister and do not hesitate to recognize his faults, but they are also extremely proud of their role in WWII and credit Churchill with having been crucial in their success.

Friday morning we met a little before nine and took the tube to Euston Station where we caught the train to Bletchley Park. It was about a forty-five minute ride out of the city. When we got to the Park we listened to Vince Hayden’s site report on the breaking of the Enigma code and Alan Turing. Professor Steigerwald then talked for a little bit about the air raids on London as retaliation for the accidental RAF bombing of residential Berlin. We had a guided tour through the park grounds that was a little hard to focus on since there was a lot of construction going to prepare for the restoration of the park that would conclude in June. The museum was interesting and the mansion on the grounds was a conglomeration of several different types of architectural styles, which made it a bit of an eyesore to the locals.

We learned that a 19-year-old woman named Mavis successfully broke a coded message that allowed the Royal Navy to turn an Italian ambush on its head and end all Italian naval operations until the end of the war. We also learned that Alan Turing was the father of the modern-day computer, because he first theorized that a computer could be created to do all things number based, the idea upon which modern computers were created. Bletchley had about 8,000 employees by the end of the war, 75% were women and most were young women.

I got the feeling that a prominent theme in the British interpretation of the war is the righting of past wrongs. The Churchill War Rooms and Bletchley Park both had large exhibits to take a more critical view of their past attitudes. Churchill’s ambition and goals were called into question in the Churchill Museum, and Bletchley Park had exhibits devoted to recognizing the 6,000 women who contributed so much to the war effort and who went unrecognized until the 1980’s. Bletchley also had a lot of exhibits about Turing, who was prosecuted for being a homosexual; and for that reason, his achievements for the war effort went unrecognized until the recent pardoning of his conviction and apology by the government.

The British also take great pride in the alliance they shared with the Americans during the war. The Churchill museum had many references to the close friendship and collaboration between the Prime Minister and Franklin Roosevelt. Bletchley Park has exhibits on American code breakers who came to work at the facility and their contributions to the war effort. This affinity for the Americans comes with distaste for the Russians and their role in the Allied strategy. I got the feeling that the British resent Stalin’s harsh demands for scarce men and materiel and the lack of communication between the two countries.

London has been an amazing experience even though it is also the most expensive city I’ve ever visited. The people are lively and pleasant and the food has been delicious and widely varied. The city is accessible, and it has been amazing to see the monuments I have only seen pictures of. I love London, and I look forward to exploring the city even further before invading Normandy.

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