Suitable Heroes

Susan Pedersen

  • Demobbed: Coming Home after the Second World War by Alan Allport
    Yale, 265 pp, £20.00, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 14043 9
  • The Flyer: British Culture and the Royal Air Force, 1939-45 by Martin Francis
    Oxford, 266 pp, £32.00, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 927748 3

Whatever sort of welcome the former Eighth Army driver Maurice Merritt was hoping for when he walked out of the Second World War and in through his front door, it probably wasn’t the note on the kitchen table that greeted him: ‘Make a cup of cocoa if you like and there’s a tin of pilchards in the larder if you feel peckish. Joan.’ Of course, Merritt was luckier than thousands of his comrades: he didn’t find his home blown to bits or his wife sitting cosily by the fire with another man. But even those with loving arms awaiting them felt – as Merritt did – a chilly resentment from civilians when they wandered down to the pub or to the corner shop. No one lined up to buy them drinks or hear their stories; instead, pasty, tired faces appraised them and turned away. ‘Lucky bastard,’ Merritt overheard one bystander mutter, ‘look how brown he is, he’s had a bloody good time.’

Alan Allport’s engaging look at the demobilisation of British soldiers after the war begins, in a sense, from Merritt’s feeling of deflation. There were five million Britons in uniform on VE Day, 90 per cent of them male. (Allport doesn’t concern himself with the half a million who weren’t male.) Most of these men had been in the services since 1941; half were married, half were now over 30. Scattering this people’s army across the globe had been the work of five years, but the new Labour government understood that they had to get them home fast and without red tape. The system devised by the minister of labour, Ernest Bevin, was scrupulously fair, with release dates determined by age and length of service. Inevitably, there were difficulties in practice, since ‘fairness’ meant that younger or more recent recruits based in England had to cool their heels until older veterans, stranded abroad by the unexpectedly early end to the Pacific War, could be found transport and brought home. Demobilisation, like war itself, turned out to involve a lot of waiting about. Yet while 80 per cent of the men serving on VE Day were still in uniform at the start of 1946, by the end of the year that same number had been discharged.

Absorbing these men, and reweaving the social fabric around them, must have taken a tremendous effort. Paradoxically, we know very little about it. It isn’t just that historians have ignored a process that seemed pedestrian and inconsequential, especially compared with the dramas of the war or even of Labour’s 1945 landslide; it is also that postwar culture seems to have closed over the demobilisation experience and forgotten it. The war lived on but the travails of its ending did not: 1946 was not (for the British Isles) a year of crisis and reckoning of the order of 1919, nor did VE and VJ Day ever supplant Armistice Day in the cult of remembrance and mourning. The shell-shocked veteran, that stock character of interwar literature, had no real postwar parallel.

Is this the silence of successful reconciliation or was something more complicated going on? How could four and a half million men ‘come home’ and leave so little trace? When Allport began looking at the diaries, official surveys, morale reports and advice columns left behind by that experience, a wave of roiling emotions hit him. If 1946 wasn’t marked by general social upheaval, for millions of people it was a time of quiet desperation. Britain was a culture having a tremendous case of the jitters.

Many of those anxieties concerned the return to married life. Millions of husbands and wives were waiting for each other in 1945, often after years of separation. Given the rush to the altar of the early war years, some of those couples didn’t know each other all that well, and neither the honeymoon-like atmosphere of wartime leave nor the unrevealing conventions of wartime letters did much to make them better acquainted. Men worried about their wives’ fidelity, their thoughts dwelling darkly on the Americans: one and a half million were stationed in the UK by June 1944, more than three million passed through Britain in the course of the war. The Americans were better paid, better dressed and appeared to have ready access to silk stockings, sweets and cigarettes. Not a few soldiers feared their wives or girlfriends had found these interlopers irresistible.

The waiting women had their fears too. Some dreaded breaking the news of new ties or even children (although most of the men who had slid into absent soldiers’ beds were British civilians, not the much resented Americans); others exploded angrily when the newspapers printed pictures of British soldiers and smiling blonde frauleins fraternising happily in the occupation zone. Plenty of women, however, turned their anxieties on themselves. Most British wives had had a trying war: worn out by shift work, queues and fractious children, they admitted in panicked letters to women’s magazines that they had let their looks and figures go. (The agony aunts told them bluntly to cut their hair, lay their hands on some cosmetics, and generally fix themselves up.) But for some the problem ran deeper: they had changed, and in ways they didn’t always want to undo. ‘I have loved a room to myself and hate the idea of sharing the dressing-table, not being able to read in bed, and having reproachful looks when I sit up leisurely giving my hair and face their nightly beauty care. Trivialities, of course, but I have so much enjoyed my small freedoms.’

Happy couples didn’t broadcast their happiness to the papers. It is the disoriented and incompatible who left their mark – in official statistics, court cases and the columns of the popular press. A small number of vengeful husbands killed their unfaithful wives, their trials reported in salacious detail by the tabloids. Divorces went up, from 4100 decrees absolute in England and Wales in 1935, to 15,600 in 1945, to 60,300 in 1947 – and for the first and only time, more of them were instigated by husbands than wives, with two-thirds citing adultery. Much unhappiness, however, was more prosaic and intractable, for after unfathomably different experiences many couples had simply grown apart. Men who had gained skills and wider views in the war now found their wives narrow-minded or common; some women found their formerly mild-mannered husbands uncouth and frightening. ‘He loves me but I can’t bear him,’ one wrote to an advice column. ‘What’s the matter with me?’

Then there were the children. Some had never known or scarcely remembered their fathers; others had trouble connecting an irritable stranger with the debonair photograph on their mother’s nightstand. Many had spent the fuel-short war years sleeping with their mothers; now they were booted out to shiver alone in narrow cots. Some became unmanageable or openly hostile, driving a few fathers to wade in with field punishments and army discipline. Others screamed whenever their fathers came near them – a dreadful consequence of many mothers’ propensity to rely on the threat of the returning soldier’s strap when trying to maintain discipline alone.

Allport paints a vivid picture of these thousands of individual crises: we will never again be inclined to see this postwar moment through the rose-tinted lens of cinematic reunions. But if these immediate postwar years were indeed ‘filled with tension, anxiety and anger’, why did the tension ebb rather than explode? Why did demobilisation remain (mostly) a private and not a social crisis? Allport does not address that question directly, but part of the answer might be found in that row of unsympathetic faces confronting Maurice Merritt when he walked into the pub. Following this world war, civilians were loath to acknowledge soldiers’ special suffering and special claims. In hundreds of subtle and unsubtle ways, they told soldiers – and equally, their wives – that it was best simply to forget the war and calm down.

Demobilised soldiers in 1919 had met a very different response. In The War Come Home (2001), her study of the British and German treatment of the Great War’s disabled veterans, Deborah Cohen noted that while British state pensions and policies were ungenerous, civilian volunteers stepped into the breach, flocking to donate money and time to the hospitals, rest homes, philanthropies and cultural associations that sought to ease disabled veterans’ isolation and pain. Underlying that response was a palpable sense of guilt: with threequarters of a million dead, and a million disabled veterans living among them, civilians were confronted daily with reminders of extremities of suffering they had been spared. This was a debt they tried to repay, over and over and over.

Such is the moral contract of wartime: soldiers run risks and suffer; civilians respond with guilt and gratitude. But the Second World War had been a ‘people’s war’, a war blurring the divide between soldier and civilian – and so, as Allport perceptively notes, ‘the traditional moral economy of sacrifice had been unexpectedly complicated.’ True, the travails of Britain’s civilian population pale against the horrors visited on many European populations, especially in the east, but they were nevertheless substantial: although 264,000 servicemen died in the war (about a third of the First World War total), some 62,464 civilians died as well, mostly as a result of bombing. The majority of those civilian deaths, moreover, occurred early in the war, when German planes pounded London and other cities. Many soldiers, by contrast, spent those early years tucked up in bases out of harm’s way; only with the Italian invasion of September 1943 did the balance of risk shift decisively in the soldiers’ direction. For some four years, civilians bore at least their share of danger and privation, and when the most immediate dangers receded they were still left with routine deprivations and indignities – overtime, queues, shortages, spam fritters. By 1945, Britain’s cities were pock-marked by bomb craters, their threadbare inhabitants in a far from generous mood.

Hence the silence or irritation that greeted soldiers when they tried to tell their stories – a response that veterans quickly took to heart. True, the postwar public mood was even more punitive towards errant wives, with newspaper columnists quick to remind women of their responsibilities and juries showing an almost total unwillingness to convict men who murdered adulterous wives. But unconventional aspirations among soldiers or claims for special treatment won little support either, eliciting precisely those Blitz stories or comments about cushy army jobs that so disconcerted Merritt. If the moment of demobilisation remained a private crisis, enacted in thousands of homes, it was at least in part because a wider public shrugged off wider responsibility.

This is not an argument-driven book. Allport is a social historian with the soul of a novelist (or a tabloid journalist): he is interested in aggregate data and social trends, but what grips him is the picaresque quality of the individual stories. The book is, as a result, episodic, discursive and highly readable, and if the stacks of copies I saw in Heffers and Foyles soon after it was published are any indication, his publisher and the booksellers have realised as much. For historians, however, it is Allport’s perceptive if passing remarks about the way the war subverted the normal ‘economy of suffering’ (a subversion that, in consequence, forced veterans to treat their disorientation and distress as a private matter) that will resonate, offering a framework that can make sense of not only the very different experiences of soldiers in the two world wars, but also the exceptional experiences of those particular fighters – notably undercover agents and flyers – whose feats did arouse overwhelming public sympathy and veneration.

The findings of Martin Francis’s The Flyer, an illuminating if at times rather earthbound account of wartime and postwar Britain’s romance with the RAF, make more sense when seen in light of this wartime moral economy of sacrifice and suffering. Fighter pilots were despised by local residents at the outbreak of the war for their drinking, carousing and generally reckless behaviour. They were transformed into cult figures by the Battle of Britain, in which they played a genuinely heroic part and in which one in six died. The blue-clad ‘fly-boys’ never lost that patina of glamour and romance, which was swiftly transplanted to the screen in a spate of wartime films and bolstered by press articles, photo shoots and Churchill’s famous tribute.

Francis is interested in exploring that image and allure, but he also situates it within a more complex reality. Flyers – and especially fighter pilots – dominated the popular mind, but they were always a tiny minority of the Royal Air Force, more than four-fifths of whom were support staff and never left the ground. Moreover, of the 17 per cent who flew, the vast majority were air crew in Bomber Command, not the solitary ace in a Spitfire. Flying personnel were also extremely polyglot, with contingents of Czech and Polish pilots incorporated early in the war, and almost half of the air crew was recruited from the Dominions. These quintessential English heroes – the Rupert Brookes of the Second World War – often came from Sydney, Salisbury or Prague.

Masculine glamour notwithstanding, RAF personnel were also more likely to live in close proximity to women, for the simple reason that most were based in Britain for the whole of the war. If they were married, they could see their wives regularly (sometimes setting them up near the base); all, moreover, were in daily contact with the women auxiliaries of the WAAF. Especially by comparison with Allport’s neglect of servicewomen, Francis is commendably attentive to the WAAFs’ role, not only in various intelligence and support jobs, but also in sustaining flyers’ morale. These young women knew they were supposed to be pretty and fun as well as professional; they knew they were to listen and not tell when men broke down from fatigue and fear. The RAF command, well aware that the glamour of their service buoyed men’s morale, tolerated a level of casualness and even breaches in discipline that no other service would allow. True, the pilot who flew to a dance with his girlfriend sitting on his lap was court-martialled, but pilots routinely flew over their girlfriends’ houses, siphoned off petrol for their cars, and wore their uniforms any old how.

They also drank too much and took drugs. Who can blame them? Flyers (especially fighter pilots) not only died at rates reminiscent of the infantry officers of the Somme but died in horrible ways: burned alive, sucked out of their planes, smashed to the ground when their parachutes burned away, even decapitated by propellers when they reeled out of their planes. Fear, like death, stalked them: it is small wonder that they clung to their lucky charms like children, took amphetamines to keep their eyes open and their nerves steady, and got drunk when they found themselves, almost against expectation, still alive. Astonishingly, only 5 per cent of these pilots broke down.

Although Francis does much to establish the specificity of flyers’ experiences, he insists that their exceptionalism has been overstated. Other men in uniform struggled with extreme danger; civilians also died horribly from bombs and burns. The flyers’ iconic status, he concludes, tells us more about Britain’s ‘fraught encounter with modernity’, its attraction to ‘the romance of flight’, than it does about the particularities of the flyers’ lives. There is certainly something in this, but as an explanation for the cult of the flyer it is less persuasive than the argument about wartime moral economy that Allport (too briefly) explores. What made flyers such eminently suitable heroes was not just their handsome uniforms and undeniable bravery, or even the shiny modernity of their Spits and skills, but rather that they upheld, from the outset of the war to its end, precisely that understanding of the distinctive roles and obligations of soldiers and civilians that the population had learned from the First World War and whose transgression they found so disconcerting in the Second. Flyers – visibly, repeatedly – fought, suffered and died to protect civilians from harm; civilians responded with gratitude and devotion. What other soldiers were up to during those long years was much less visible to a beset civilian population and, many seem to have felt, best forgotten.