I’m writing from my hotel room in London on the eve of our first group travel day. My roommate Ale and I agreed to pull an all-nighter sleep on the 7-hour ferry ride instead of taking a 3 hour nap before our 4am departure time.
I arrived in London this Monday a couple of hours before our first official group outing. We spent time familiarizing ourselves with the underground system and eventually made our way to Trafalgar Square (most of us were on time… I’m looking at you Ben.) After outlining the activities for the next day, we were set loose into the city and were free to explore. After a quick glaze past Big Ben, Westminster Abby, the London Eye, and the other stereotypical tourist sites, we wearily travelled back to our hotel to rally before dinner at the local pub.
Tuesday began somewhat less groggily, and we met next to the Winston Churchill statue in Parliament Square in cliché London rain and fog. After marching towards St. James Park, we shook off our umbrellas and climbed down into the Churchill War Rooms. I found the museum set up somewhat disorganized, but I prefer the notion of original construction to the re-imagined spaces we later saw in Bletchley Park. I was intrigued by the extensive museum dedicated to Churchill himself, but amongst the sound bytes, photographs, letters to his sweetheart and velvet jumpsuits, what I really took away from the exhibit is how extensively the British revere their former prime-minister. The entire museum spoke of utter adoration, and expressed how grateful the British people (or at least, the Imperial War Museum,) felt for Churchill’s guidance and execution during the war.
Another seed of Churchill flowered later Tuesday night, when our group had the privilege of having dinner with Mr. Michael Handscomb, who lived in London during the Battle of Britain, and had wonderful stories of his youth and the hardship Londoners faced at the time. When I asked Mr. Handscomb if he felt any fear, or if he worried that Britain might lose the war, he adamantly insisted, “no, never.” He continued to explain that this was because of one man—Churchill. Throughout the air raids, “doodlebombs,” and rationing, Londoners were inspired to continue to push towards victory and never give up hope. From excerpts of his speeches at the CWR, it is easy to see how Churchill’s words and enthusiasm inspired victorious morale and perseverance amongst the civilians.
Another issue that attracted my attention deals with Britain’s view of herself and the war. More so, how she views others. After visiting the War Rooms, our group travelled to the R.A.F. Bomber Command Memorial, which was revealed during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. One of the members of our group explained some of the controversy surrounding the memorial. (for but what really struck me was the line near the top that read: “ALSO dedicated to those of all nations who lost their lives in the bombings.” The “also” was a little unnerving, but I respected the fact that an effort was made to acknowledge the victims of the war, and not just the “heroes.”
I had a similar feeling about the HMS Belfast. The cabins inside stayed dry yet aged as rained poured onto the deck, and amidst models of sailors and antique equipment, a few videos and exhibits were safely tucked away. Aside from her participation in D-Day, the Belfast famously helped sink and defeat the German Scharnhorst. 36 of the 1200-or so men aboard the battleship were taken prisoner by the British in an impressive example of Allied victory. A short film in the former gun turret portion of the ship told a different account: “We fought the ship, not the sailors. Although mislead they put up a great fight until the end—just like we have done.” Again, I saw British homage to others—their enemies! Granted, this statement was made from a single young man who was independent from the IWMs and the video was hidden in a tiny turret room, but the acknowledgement of others and their hardships (along with intact humanity) was still there. I don’t often find such odes to others in American museums/remembrance, so I found such instances refreshing and thoughtful. Even the privately owned Bletchley Park housed a memorial to the Polish code breakers who paved the way for Ultra success in a gratuitous and self-aware manner. Less attention was given to the Americans, but it’s possible that I’m simply being hypersensitive because of my nationality.
I’m interested to see if this recognition of other nations’ war experiences will continue in France, Poland, and Germany, and will definitely take a closer look at American retellings of the war when I get back home.
That’s all for now,