In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
He stood there, a short, stout figure, balding, with small, penetrating eyes set in a podgy face from which the lower jaw was aggressively thrust out. His hands rested on his hips, pushing back the sides of his jacket and forcing his upper body forward. The lights glinted softly on his watch chain, stretched across the waistcoat and ample stomach. Over the top of his spectacles he surveyed the mass of people seated before him, and began to speak in that familiar mix of a growl and a lisp.
“The Vichy French say that Hitler will wring England’s neck like a chicken.” He paused for effect, glowering at his audience. “Some chicken! Some neck!”
The combined Houses of the Canadian Parliament rose as one in thunderous applause. This was the man of the moment, the man of the century and certainly a man who would be recognised as the greatest Briton ever.
It was December 1941 and for nearly eighteen months the United Kingdom and her Empire had stood alone against Nazi Germany. That situation was about to change, but as Wellington had remarked over a century before, it had been ‘a damm close run thing.’
In June 1940 France surrendered shamefully to the Germans, a shame that still rankles in French hearts. The little democracies of Europe had been swallowed up, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Poland was even now feeling the oppression of German rule. The cowardly Italians declared war on a dying France and Greece and Yugoslavia would soon disappear into the maelstrom. Fascist Spain and Portugal watched silently and the neutral countries fearfully.
Several things saved Britain, some recognised at the time, some acknowledged only years later. Churchill, his courage, his faith and his inspiring oratory shares equally with the will and the spirit of the British people in bringing this situation about.
The quiet dignity of the King and Queen, refusing to leave London and seeing their own home bombed was an example of this spirit. As Queen Elizabeth said when asked if the two little princesses were to be sent to Canada. “Oh no. They wouldn’t go without me and I wouldn’t go without the King, and he will never go.”
The presence in Britain of the Poles and Czechs, the Danes and Norwegians, the Free French alongside the British and Empire troops reassured people. The supreme efforts of the Few in the Royal Air Force won the battle for control of the skies and so prevent Hitler’s planned invasion. Significantly, a lone aircraft of Bomber Command had much to do with winning the Battle of Britain. It bombed Germany, causing no injuries and little damage. The Fuhrer flew into a rage and called off his attritional offensive against the radar sites and airfield of the RAF and ordered that London be bombed.
By the time Churchill spoke in Ottawa, Britain was safe from invasion; Hitler had followed Napoleon in invading Russia. Like the Corsican, it would prove his undoing. The war was won half a world away from Europe in the Hawaiian Islands on 7th December 1941 on the ‘Day of Infamy.’ The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour dragged a reluctant USA into the war and ensured the defeat of the dictators. In Britain, the task was to continue to survive and to provide an unsinkable offshore battleship from which the invasion of Europe would be launched. There were many contributions to this objective, and the humble tunnel played its part.
London was the most heavily bombed city in Britain, with some 80,000 casualties and 1.2 million homes damaged or destroyed. People sought shelter where they could find it and one of the best places of sanctuary was the London Underground. Here tens of thousands of Londoners would gather each evening, deep in the earth, while the Luftwaffe pounded their city. They would emerge like rabbits, blinking in the morning to see if they could still recognise their surroundings. Sometimes these surroundings were simply piles of smoking debris. In the tunnels of the Tube, people slept and talked, ate and drank and children played and did their homework. Lovers met, kissed and perhaps found opportunity to do more. Eternal love was promised, marriage proposals made, and the WVS served tea. For some nine months between September 1940 and May 1941, this subterranean city provided a home for men and women and their children, who never knew if their real home would still be standing when they got back to ground level,
Not far away from Westminster Underground station a whole series of interconnected tunnels held the apparatus of the British Government. Here, in the Cabinet War Rooms, Churchill and his ministers and military advisers planned the survival of the nation and the conduct of the war. In addition there was a hospital and living quarters for hundreds of personnel. During the blitz Winston, a man of no little physical courage, would climb out of the tunnel and watch from St James’ Park the battle criss crossing the dark night skies, doubtless vowing vengeance.
The evacuation of 338,225 British and French soldiers from Dunkirk was directed from the myriad tunnels in the white cliffs under Dover Castle.
The brave people of Malta spent three years in tunnels during the siege by the German and Italian Air Forces. The King awarded Malta the George Cross.
On balance, tunnels played an important role in the war and should, perhaps, also have been awarded the George Cross.
Written by my Father B.M