World War II was the greatest conflict in human history by any measure. People experienced it differently based on their nationality and personal background. In England, modern historical memory derives from the concept of a People’s War. This ideological framework holds that all individuals must make sacrifices for the common good during Britain’s darkest hour. The father of the People’s War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill understood the social anxiety and physical destruction that German bombs and rockets unleashed on London. Londoners weathered the Blitz by rationing food and supplies, evacuating children to the countryside, observing blackout conditions, spotting enemy aircraft, taking shelter, keeping calm, fighting fires, and rescuing those trapped in the rubble. It was not simply in the air but in homes and metro stations that the Battle of Britain was truly won. Only the resilient spirit of the British people could overcome Nazi terror and barbarism.
On Westminster Square, the Churchill War Rooms are situated in reinforced concrete bunker, which served as Great Britain’s command and control center for most of the war. Churchill lamented that the Nazis had driven his government underground, because he believed it was symbolic of Hitler’s power over him. Nonetheless, Churchill used the facility for cabinet meetings and wartime strategy. Today, the War Rooms are a public example of the war effort at the highest levels of command. Those commanders and statesmen needed typists, guards, codebreakers and even cooks. To that end, the War Rooms highlight the important contributions that everyday people made to defeat Nazi Germany, because they worked long hours under tight security as the very fate of the world hung in the balance. In the bunker, British citizens worked in stale, smoke-filled rooms, slept in a cramped concrete cellar, and absorbed a minuscule amount of daylight. Even so, I was impressed by the humility of typists and messengers who recalled their experience of the war and claimed to be simply doing their part.
Winston Churchill is enshrined throughout London as a moral leader who personified dogged resistance to German bombardment. To an extent, he certainly did; I for one particularly enjoyed the emphasis on his heroic speeches and witty quips, such as: “We are all worms, but I do believe that I am a glow worm.” Still, historians should take care not to deify him. Instead, we must unpack his perspective to imitate his statesmanship. From a secure phoneline disguised as a “water closet,” Churchill formed a close relationship with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who wrestled the U.S. Congress into aiding Great Britain. The famous Map Room, where British officers tracked every theatre of war, exemplifies the global nature of WWII, which could not have been won without help from the Soviet Union as well as current and former British colonies. Additionally, Churchill expected British colonies to carry on the struggle if the mainland were lost. He understood the necessity of waging war with all means at his disposal, because he saw Adolf Hitler as a tyrant and the essence of evil. To Churchill’s credit, the War Rooms note the blood spilled by Commonwealth nations (e.g. India, Australia, Canada…) in the struggle against Axis powers around the world.
Without strong diplomacy, charismatic leadership, and effective air strategy, Great Britain may have succumbed to the Nazis. English historical memory attributes much of this victory to Prime Minister Churchill, but it would be folly to think that it was his alone. He himself believed that the seeds of victory were sown with the bravery of British airmen, the endurance of working-class families, and the selflessness of first responders. “Keep calm and carry on” was the mantra of a time when it took courage to leave for work in the morning or fade into sleep at night. When recalling the Battle of Britain, it is important to acknowledge the contributions of those too often left out of the limelight. We must remember not only the gritty politician whose speeches energized the nation but also those listening on the radio as the bombs erupted around them. Otherwise, the so-called People’s War evaporates into a myth used by the powerful to explain away the suffering of many.