Suitable Heroes

Susan Pedersen

  • BuyDemobbed: Coming Home after the Second World War by Alan Allport
    Yale, 265 pp, £20.00, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 14043 9
  • BuyThe 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.

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