Whose “People’s War”?

When visiting London, England we analyzed the British idea of WWII being a “People’s War.” This idea of a “People’s War” meant a war that was fought by everyone from ordinary people/civilians to the soldiers fighting on the war front. Everyone played their part and did what they needed to do for their country and for victory. I think Bletchley Park serves as a slight contradiction to the idea of a People’s War; highlighting the stark differences in experiences of the various people involved in the war effort.

Bletchley Park Entrance Sign

Bletchley Park is an estate north of London that served as the headquarters of “Ultra” and Code-Breaking Intelligence during World War II. Hidden from the public, intelligence agents used enigma machines and other varieties of code-breaking technologies, pieces of enemy code were taken from building to building by code runners and deciphered further. Knowledge obtained at this site would reveal German plans and formations and also helped put the allied forces at an advantage against the Germans.


Enigma Code-Breaking Machine

Recruitment for positions at Bletchley came from various avenues in England. Approximately three-fourths of the codebreakers at Bletchley were women who were recruited from Women’s Services such as the Women Royal Navy Service, Women‘s Auxiliary Air Force, etc. Further recruitment came from both networking and trusted aristocratic relationships, as well as, from newspapers and contests in which ordinary civilian winners were called in for interviews. These civilians had no idea where they were going or what they would be doing until they got to Bletchley. These ordinary people left their lives behind for new opportunity and new scenery, without a clue of what they were in for.

Code Breaking “Huts”

Mansion at Bletchley Park

When visiting this site, it was interesting to compare my original thoughts of what the compound would look like versus the reality. I had envisioned a desolate area, clearly affected by wartime, with small sheds as huts that sat extremely close together. Instead, Bletchley was a beautiful estate, with a pond, a mansion and significantly larger buildings than I expected. When visiting Bletchley Park, you would not think that an enormous secret code-breaking program was happening. Other than the “huts” where the code-breakers worked, the grounds looked more like a country club than a military compound. While Bletchley made significant contributions to the war effort, it does challenge the notion of WWII as being a “People’s War” due to the fact that these code-breakers and everyone else involved in Bletchley were pretty much isolated from the war, unlike the city of London just to the south.

The recruitment of ordinary, everyday citizens using magazines and puzzle contests in newspapers definitely contributes to this ideal, but the fact is, Bletchley Park, a significant force in the success of WWII, was actually over an hour outside of the city of London. London at the time was being barraged with bombs during the Blitz and was in a state of despair. Bletchley, while conditions were still not the best, still managed to escape most of the fallout of the war, unlike if they were in the heart of London. With the differing experiences in wartime, I believe that the lines of what defines a “People’s War” seem to blur.

Weathering the Blitz: The Importance of Morale to the People’s War

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.

A War of Country Against Country

The wall quote at the entrance to the Churchill War Rooms.

One of the many meeting room tables in the Churchill War Rooms.

The main meeting desk in the Churchill War Rooms.

Our class learned about and discussed multiple aspects of World War Two in seminar all semester, and the term “People’s War” was thrown around a lot in discussing the English experience. The reality of the term “People’s War,” truly did not hit me until I visited London and the Churchill War Rooms. The theme of a “People’s War” in Britain is emphasized throughout the museum. Before visiting London and the War Rooms, I always thought of World War Two as a battle between militaries and leaders, for example, Hitler vs. Churchill, or RAF vs. Luftwaffe. After leaving London, I see how much effort individual people made during the war, especially in England! Getting the support and help of a country is difficult, and it is extremely impressive that Winston Churchill was able to do just this. Each Churchill speech or statement  was strategic in that it made the country rally together to fight the Axis powers. In the museum, there was a tablet with around fifty Winston Churchill quotes, broken up by date. The most  powerful came in  his first speech as prime minister in 1940, when Churchill said, “You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.”  Thus Churchill conveyed to his people that the war was not world leader against world leader, or even military against military,  but a total war of country against country. This quote left such an impression upon me, I even jotted it down in my cell phone. Seeing London and the War Rooms allowed me to fully comprehend the “People’s War” in England.

Going Underground

Having never left the country before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I got to London. After a rough landing at London Heathrow, my first task was to buy a ticket and navigate my way across the city to the hotel using the extensive subway system, known as the Underground, or more simply, the Tube. Little did I know, this public transit system that I would be using to get around for the duration of our stay would be one of the most significant experiences for me in London. I have gained a lot more confidence in myself and my abilities from successfully navigating the city via the Underground.

Map of the Underground

Our home base for the week, the Lancaster Gate Tube stop

My only real experience with public transit before this trip would be the bus system in Columbus, OH and that pales in comparison to all of the different options London has to get around. While sometimes a little too crowded for my liking –in fact, nearly 5 million people utilize it every day– the Underground is a fast and efficient way to navigate the city. The novelty of it never seemed to wear off for me, no matter how many times I was getting on and off with the group. Each of the different lines and every station along the way had its own individual quirks, which made each trip an exciting experience. Londoners move fast, so it was always a brisk walk down to the platform, where you could feel the breeze of the next train hurtling down the tracks towards you. Sometimes there were seats, sometimes there weren’t as we crammed into the crowded cars, the announcer always reminding us to “mind the gap between the train and the platform.” Just looking around the tram full of businessmen, travelers and schoolchildren, it was easy to see how central the Tube is to every Londoner’s lifestyle.

A train pulling into the Tottenham Court Road Station

I was also struck by the deep history of the Underground, dating back over 150 years. Of this history, what stood out to me the most was its use as a nightly public refuge during the bombings of the Blitz. If you didn’t have an Anderson shelter buried in your back garden, the Underground was the safest place to be. Walking through the stations and riding through the tunnels, I often found myself reflecting on this. It was hard to imagine amidst all the daily commute hustle and bustle that this too was an area where the “People’s War” was fought, as the Luftwaffe bombed the city above.

While at times a little stressful, I believe that my experience navigating the Tube has helped to prepare me for some of the other stops later on in the program, where I may not be able to understand the language. It also gave me a different perspective on London and the people who live there, which really brought the city to life for me in a way that our readings could never accomplish.

Paying Homage in the Hall of Eagles

View of the alter from the balcony level

St. Clement Danes, the Church of the Royal Air Force (RAF), was established in 1958.  This church is a “hall of eagles,” honoring generations of men and women who have fought for the British Empire since the RAF’s creation 100 years ago.  The British historical memory of the sacrifices of these men and women is breathtaking.  This church embodies the national idea of the importance of their sacrifices. It has shown me, an “outsider” to the United Kingdom, the cultural significance of these men and women, and specifically, their impact in the “People’s War.”

In the Battle of Britain (1940), pilots and radar operators became the front line soldiers and the Supermarine Spitfire became a symbol of national pride against the bomber threat that affected so many.  Citizens worked in factories to make the aircraft, rationed materials to make them, and kept a close watch for downed airmen in their areas.  In the Summer of 1940, it would be hard to imagine that any man, woman, or child would not have their head turned skyward in observance of “the Few” as they flew in combat missions over their homeland.

Bomb damage on the rear side of the church

Bearing this in mind, it is easy to imagine that those who fought and died in this conflict, and others, have been memorialized at St. Clement Danes.  With the air war affecting the large majority of the population, this building is a fantastic way to pay homage to those who dedicated themselves day and night to the defense of Great Britain.  The building itself is a monument to the shared experience of thousands of Britons during the Second World War.  Walking up to it, one sees that the facade is peppered with bomb damage and that the stained-glass windows are no longer, both a result of London’s “Blitz.”  Outside the church is a statue of both Air Marshall Hugh Dowding, the commander of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, and Marshal of the Air Force Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the commander of RAF Bomber Command.

Walking into the church, I was immediately struck by the symbolism and imagery everywhere I looked.  The floor at the opening to the church contains the RAF “eagle,” but also has a several miniature logos for different Commonwealth Air Forces:  Pakistan, India, Iraq, New Zealand, and Australia are all honored.  The floor is also adorned with slate carvings of the patches of every RAF unit that has ever been in service over its 100-year existence, with one section dedicated entirely to Polish squadrons who fought in the Second World War.  Elsewhere in the church are gilded sculptures of eagles and winged angels, an organ donated by the United States Air Force, monuments to specific units, and retired squadron flags.


The most remarkable part of the Church, however, are the “Books of Remembrance” that line its walls.  In these volumes are the names of more than 150,000 airmen who died in service of the RAF.  Their names are organized by date and mention any awards that they may have earned in their service.  Tucked in a back corner, however, was a sight very familiar to me: the crest of the United States Air Force.  Below it, illuminated prominently, was a book containing the names of all of the United States airmen who perished in the Second World War, and next to it, a portion of the Gettysburg Address.  Interestingly, The Ohio State University adopted a similar practice in the aftermath of World War One.  Through research into the efforts of Ohio State into the First World War, I found Ohio State’s own “Book of Remembrance:” a 500-page book that contained not only the name of every Ohio State “doughboy” that died in combat, but also when and how they died.  Rather than being displayed on a monument, these names are in a list that can be taken into a private home.  Like at Ohio State, the RAF Books of Remembrance are an incredible example of memorialization maintained by a smaller community for all the public to see.

The United States Air Force Book of Remembrance

A Room Full Of Evil Art: The Unplanned Collaboration From Artists Who Lived Through The “People’s War”

Once the Second World War had come to an end, the people who had lived through the war were left to process what had happened. Coined the “people’s war”, WWII truly called upon all who could further the war effort and demanded that personal sacrifices would be made. Artists were among those who needed to come to terms with the horrors that they had seen and had lived through during this period of war. Something that was crucial to further creativity would be to define how these people, who had been told to change their lives for the war effort, could return to a creative state post WWII. After individually defining what journey each artist had gone on, they began creating again. The result of this new movement of art was a cathartic and sinister collection of works.

I experienced a small sampling of this phenomenon while walking through the Tate Modern in London. After casually walking from exhibit to exhibit, I came across a large room that had walls lined with almost uniform art pieces. There was not one painting or sculpture in the room that wasn’t covered mostly with black or dark colors. Depicted in these art pieces was everything from the defilement of a soldier, bodies strewn across a road, and more abstract works that were angular and evil. From Jackson Pollock to Matisse, these artists had obviously experienced a shared trauma. I finally came across the description of the curated exhibit and it was art works from 1945-1955. This exhibit is designed to show artists having to redefine art and how they began to create again. Though not the most affected people (in terms of fighting), artists had the task of showing what happened to the people in the “people’s war”.

What struck me the most was the fact that these artists didn’t gather and discuss a large collaboration of similar works for an exhibit, they were creating their own stories. Every experience with war is different yet all of the pieces seemed to make a large cohesive story of pain and loss. Nothing is more organic than paint on a canvas, showing the horrors of the “people’s war”. We may have photographs, journal entries, first hand accounts, and documents that paint the picture of war but I felt the pure essence in that room of people who were frightened. I felt the inner turmoil of trying to show the trauma to be able to move on with creativity.

The Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets

Perhaps a vibrant society can be interpreted as a positive outcome from Britain’s imperialist past. Former colonies provide the city of London with an identity second to none. Conversations in a collection of different languages surround the bustling streets. Enticing aromas, stemming from the assortment of Indian, Asian, and Middle Eastern shops and restaurants, fill the air. Ancient Egyptian statues and sarcophagi, Greek pottery, Roman sculptures, and other nations’ artifacts acquired over time line the British Museum. The British often recognize the expansiveness of their former world dominance, appearing eager to cite that one out of every four persons on earth served the crown in the early 20th century. The Brits fondly advertise and think of the Empire as a period of British preeminence without taking into account the evils of imperialism.

Some museums and sites give credit to former colonies for their aid in maintaining and extending Britain’s success and prestige. The Imperial War Museum acknowledges India’s, Africa’s, and other colonies’ contributions of both manpower and resources in both World Wars. While the British recognize these additions to the Empire, they fail to grasp that their status was built on the forcible taking of land and the exploitation of other people. The appearance of one big happy empire rings hollow; it is foolish to think that colonial residents eagerly left their homes and families to fight and die in a far-off land “for king and country.” The British Empire’s presence and influence remains evident when observing the national character of Britain today. However, it remains to be seen if they will change the presentation of their history and explain how they achieved this rich culture.

“This Is the Room From Which I Will Direct the War”

The Churchill War Rooms, housed beneath the heart of London, England, kicked off the study tour in an exciting and informative way.  As an amateur historian, I am always thrilled to explore and evaluate historical museums, and the setup of the war rooms was both creative and effective.  The museum’s layout was designed to immerse us in the past; the war rooms themselves were essentially untouched from the time that Churchill and his team left at the end of the war.  The narrow hallways and dim lighting made it easy to imagine what it was like to work for hours below ground under tense conditions.  It was harder to picture what it would be like to work 18-hour days consistently, spending only a few hours a day above ground, and sleeping below the earth with the same people I worked with all day.  The lives of Churchill’s team must have been incredibly stressful, but their quotes throughout the exhibits implied that they felt privileged to have had the experience of working under  an amazing leader for a truly noble cause.

An entire portion of the museum is dedicated entirely to Winston Churchill himself.  It explains his impact on the nation during the war and then backtracks to his early life and earlier political career, before pushing ahead to his postwar influence.  The museum toys with the British memory of WWII as the “People’s War”:  the idea that everyone on the home front and those fighting across the world all made sacrifices in order to win the war. While immortalizing Churchill as an incredibly strong leader in a time when the empire and world were in danger of Nazi domination, the museum does not deify the Prime Minister or imply he singlehandedly defeated Hitler’s regime.  It even includes criticism from his peers and everyday British citizens to remind guests that he was a human with flaws, although a remarkable human, nonetheless.  Great Britain lends credit to Churchill as the driving force of the British effort during the war, but the museum does well to also include the stories and opinions of everyday people who experienced the Blitz, rationing, and the otherwise intense working and living conditions of the Second World War.

London: Tradition, Legacy, and the Future

Through my experiences in London, I have gained a greater understanding of the British historical memory. The sites we visited display a British attempt to allow the good, bad, and ugly to coexist. They blend pride in what they have accomplished and a reasonable degree of acknowledgment for past transgressions. The Churchill War rooms, for instance, exemplified the British admiration for their wartime leader and reinforced his place in British history. He is remembered as an inspirational leader, a maverick politician, and the most iconic Englishman of his generation. Some of his flaws were addressed to a small extent such as his dealings with India and negative comments from leaders who didn’t get along with him. Nonetheless, the exhibit is an expected tribute to his wartime leadership and contributions to the empire.

The major theme I took away from London was the celebration of British royalty and tradition and the legacy of the empire in a modern age. Despite being a well-established democracy, the monarchy is honored in many of the same ways it has been for centuries. The English have kept the tradition and morphed it into a coexistence with modern culture. Although the monarchy has little political power, the celebratory role it plays is a major aspect of British society. The crown jewels, royal palace, the castles, and the luxurious lifestyle are all components still prevalent. They represent a proud heritage for the British people and exemplify the importance of tradition. I was able to visit the Palace of Westminster where even more tradition was on display. A statue of Oliver Cromwell stands outside the doors symbolizing the shift from authoritarian to democratic rule. The halls are filled with gold and extravagant paintings that celebrate the empire and aristocracy. Although much has changed culturally and politically since the implementation of the royalty and the first parliament, the old still has a role within modern British culture. The British do not believe that any outdated remnant need be destroyed, but rather recognized in a way that remembers them, but does not necessarily celebrate them. Today, London embodies the culture of an ethnically diverse city. The history and tradition of the empire is still obvious to anyone who ventures around the city, but it is intertwined with a sense of the contemporary rather than stuck in the past. The beautiful gardens and busy streets are full of people with their nation’s history in mind but well prepared to look into the future.

Two Worlds, One War

When we first arrived at Bletchley Park my initial impression was of a small, charming and quiet town. Reflecting on our class readings and discussions about the importance of the work done at Bletchley, it was hard to imagine such a small place played such a major role. The German High Command, Naval, Army and Air codes were broken here. Vital intelligence disseminated from Bletchley to the Allies provided an essential instrument in defeating the Nazis. I looked around in their first building, which had examples of German Enigmas and other methods of encryption. Several examples of sheer genius were on display, like the mathematician Daniel Jones. Mr. Jones created twelve symphonies to learn Japanese, tying individual letters and symbols to musical notes. I simply cannot fathom the type of genius that man had, yet at Bletchley this was ordinary.

Bletchley was the combination of many great minds of different fields and backgrounds. As our guide described, however, class at first determined entry to such a program. Aristocrats and officers coordinated recruitment. Without a recommendation you could not work: England was assuming the worst as the treachery of appeasement continued during the 1930’s. The facility at Bletchley was bought only a few months before the war began. The necessity of Bletchley and the need for intelligence pushed recruitment even further. One’s skill and talents were what mattered, not one’s sex, orientation or style.

Bletchley is an incredibly beautiful facility, a place which I would want to call home if I ever could afford it. The mansion, land, and water create a villa of peace and elegance. I feel a strange dichotomy when walking around this place. The people here were sealed away from the war, completely out of harm’s way, and lived in conditions that were not preferable but better than most.

London was being blitzed, armies in North Africa were being shattered all while this place remained pristine. The diversity present at Bletchley achieved some of the most remarkable feats of human history. Breaking the Nazi code ensured Allied supremacy in all theaters of the war. The people at Bletchley laid the foundations for the computer and the modern age.

They sacrificed parts of their lives and comfort while working without praise. Not until recently did the British government recognize them for their contributions. “Ordinary people doing extraordinary things” describes Bletchley Park. The communal war experience I felt was outside of Bletchley, sealed away in London. The mass evacuations, strife and insecurity of danger were far away. The People’s War is tied with the collective experience of war, with common struggle, sacrifice and loss being cornerstones of this commonality. Bletchley was sealed away, which secured its future but, in my opinion, separated it from “The People’s War.”