Empire, State and Society: Britain since 1830

By Jamie L. Bronstein; Andrew T. Harris | Go to book overview

11
London Burning
Britain in the Second World War

It was September 1940, and the presence of German troops on the French border convinced 11-year-old Colin Ryder-Richardson’s parents to send him from Wales to Canada, under the auspices of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board. Ninety children boarded the ship City of Benares, but the Atlantic Ocean was full of German U-boats, and after four days at sea the ship was torpedoed. In his pajamas, struggling with the decision about whether his life jacket went on over or under his bathrobe, Colin was loaded into a lifeboat by the ship’s nurse, in the midst of a Force 10 gale. In the freezing cold and wet, the occupants of the lifeboat began to die; but although the nurse herself appeared to be dead or dying, Colin was clinging to her hand, unable to let go. Eventually, he noted, the storm swept her away (Arthur 2004: 103). Of the 90 children on board the City of Benares, all but 13 died; Colin, one of the few survivors, was awarded a war medal for bravery by King George VI.

In contrast with the Great War, the Second World War came home to the British Isles in every sense of the word. The war required massive mobilization of soldiers, both in Britain and throughout its imperial possessions and dominions. But there was no “front line,” since with the advent of more advanced air power and rocketry, the Luftwaffe, the German air force, could target homes and schools and churches in the South of England; and the German navy could make shipping channels into shooting galleries. Families were separated by the war once it became clear that city children would be safer in the countryside of northern England and Scotland. Successful prosecution of the war demanded a complete revamping of the workforce, bringing in both single and married women to work in war plants. Those who lived through the war often interpreted their wartime years as having changed the tone of British society. The shared sacrifice of wartime bred the expectation of a more egalitarian society after the war.

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