Magazine article The Spectator

The Heroes Who Won the War - and Lost the Peace

Magazine article The Spectator

The Heroes Who Won the War - and Lost the Peace

Article excerpt

Over the next few days we shall see countless images, in photographs and on film, of the men who won the second world war. The D-Day generation can claim to have been the last that had a genuine measure of greatness. These were not, for the most part, professional warriors, for whom the services had been a vocation. They had been plucked from civilian life, in many cases straight from school, to defend their country and win the bloodiest war in history. Such an achievement required beliefs, values and attitudes that few young people today can begin to imagine.

We shall also, over the next few days, see modern images of the same men, or at least of those who survived. Now in their eighties, many will be making their last visit to Normandy and the scene of their claim to immortality. For those of us who benefited from their courage and sacrifice, they are a living monument to a spirit that now seems antique. Yet we are conscious that, one by one, they too are dying; and soon their only monuments will be of stone.

It is a suitable moment, therefore, to try to evaluate the Britons who won the war. It was not just the men who invaded France on 6 June 1944, of course, or the Few, or the Desert Rats, or the crews on the Arctic convoys, or those who fought the Japs in the Burmese jungle in horrific conditions. There were WAAFs and Wrens and WRACs, the Women's Land Army, the nurses and factory girls and typists who kept the machinery of war, in all its incarnations, functioning. What united them, in whatever they did, was a sense of patriotism and a belief in the principle of duty. We can still see it, scarcely idealised, in moving films like The Way Ahead, Millions Like Us or Went the Day Well? They were, famously, 'all in it together'. Now, those who are left are to be found increasingly in sheltered accommodation or retirement homes, at Darby and Joan clubs or surrounded by great-grandchildren. They saved our country and our way of life; and, when one talks to them, they believe that, despite everything, it was worth it.

For, of course, the young men and women who defeated Hitler were also those who, in middle age, shaped the country they saved. They experienced their own social revolution in the headiness of war, with its breaking-down of class barriers and its stealthy advancement of promiscuity. They were the ambitious types of the 1950s, the newly affluent of the 1960s, the leaders of the 1970s, the elder statesmen of the 1980s, the actively retired of the 1990s, the elderly of our own decade. More than any other generation, the men and women who came back from the second world war influenced the world we grew up in and, to an extent, live in. Before they are all gone, it would be as well that we properly understood them.

A friend of mine, who is a retired surgeon, is perhaps as good an example of the grit and self-effacement of that generation as anyone. Growing up in a port in the 1930s, it seemed natural for him to join the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. When war came, and he was still not 19, he went on active service and was commissioned. He lost a leg in the North Atlantic. Transferred to shore duties, he completed what by any standards was 'a good war'. Having had no inkling of such a career before the war, and in his mid-twenties at the end of it, he trained as a doctor. He qualified when the National Health Service was in its infancy. He served it for the best part of 40 years, achieving great eminence. He did this without thought of special reward or recognition. His career was in one respect a continuation of his war, being engaged in the service of others as part of a common project. Like many of his generation, he looked at whatever he was faced with at any given moment and, whatever the obstacles, simply got on with it. Despair, panic, self-obsession or complaint were no part of his mental wardrobe.

In an age of counselling, the compensation culture, Prozac and human rights, it is hardly surprising that survivors of the D-Day generation look at the world they fought for with a certain amount of impatience and disdain. …

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