How the myth of “Britain alone” overshadows VE Day

The UK has long downplayed the awkward truth that its victory in the Second World War largely depended on the USSR, the US and the dominions.

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In VE Day the streets of British towns and cities were bedecked with flags. If one looks carefully at the films and photographs from the time, it is clear that not only Union Jacks were flying. There were also flags of the many other countries fighting the Axis. Most prominent among these were those of the United States, the Soviet Union and China.

In its last years the Second World War was an internationalist war; a conflict that, from January 1942 – when 26 nations signed the Joint Declaration – was presented as being fought by the United Nations. Its leaders were the Big Four: Chiang Kai-shek, Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin.

The idea of a United Nations was central to Allied propaganda. In the UK ceremonies were held on 14 June to mark United Nations Day, with all the flags prominently displayed. One of the most compelling cultural representations of this internationalism was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s extraordinary film A Matter of Life and Death (1946), where a heavenly world assembly of all the nations decides on who lives and who dies.

But the idea of the United Nations was more than propaganda. Units from different United Nations fought together. Bomber Command crews included men from the British Commonwealth as well as other Allied powers, too. The overall war outside the USSR was run by the Combined Chiefs of Staff from Washington, with Supreme Allied Commanders in different theatres of operations across the world. Committees made up of different nationalities also controlled Allied resources, munitions production and shipping. They were seen as the core of a new world government in the same way that the RAF and the US air force were believed to be the global police of a new age.

These internationalist sentiments were displayed on VE Day. Churchill’s broadcast and speech to the House of Commons praised Russia and noted that “almost the whole world was combined against the evil-doers, who are now prostrate before us. Our gratitude to our splendid Allies goes forth from all our hearts in this island and throughout the British empire.” The New Statesman at the time perfectly expressed the internationalism that defined the moment:

The common people of this country and of the Continental nations whose way of life Nazi Germany challenged are aware that they saved themselves, not by the wisdom of men “set over them in authority” – grateful though they may be to this or that leader whom the war threw up – but by their own exertions. They have seen that Fascism created through the vehicle of Germany a military weapon which could be broken only by the unity of the factory workers of Moscow, Coventry and Detroit, of the men who marched together into battle from the little fields of England and the wide steppes and prairies of Russia and North America. And they perceive, without illusions, that the defeat of Germany is only the beginning of a struggle to rid the world forever of the economic and political forces in which Hitlerism… was cradled.

That we forget this internationalist story is no accident. After 1945, the history of the Second World War was nationalised to serve particular political purposes.

British and US governments have long downplayed VE Day in favour of D-Day. The reason is not hard to find. The former highlighted victory in a war against fascism in which the USSR played a monumental role. The latter anniversary, though, had a different ideological message: it was a joint UK-US liberation of Europe from tyranny. It excluded Canada, Poland and other nations. D-Day also left out the complementary Operation Bagration on the Eastern Front. In the summer of 1944 the Red Army advanced much faster, and with heavier casualties, than the United Nations forces did in the west.

Central to our collective amnesia is the British emphasis on defeat and resistance in 1940 rather than on victory in 1945. The deliverance at Dunkirk, the heroics of the Battle of Britain and the cheerful coming together in the Blitz are at the heart of the story of Britain as a nation standing alone and fighting a people’s war. This myth downplayed not only international alliances but also the vital role of the British empire.

Curiously enough, the story of the nation standing alone was essentially created in 1945. In his official VE Day declaration in the House of Commons, Churchill recounted: “After gallant France had been struck down we, from this island and from our united empire, maintained the struggle single-handed for a whole year until we were joined by the military might of Soviet Russia.”

Churchill used the standard Conservative imperial “we”, as he did when addressing what was sometimes known as the Imperial Parliament. As the USSR was one of the Big Three, Churchill could not but mention its role. After leaving the Commons, however, he spoke to the crowds in Whitehall from the balcony of the Ministry of Health in very different terms. He now maintained that the “British nation” and the “ancient island” had been alone, not the empire as a whole.

This was also the story told in “Mr Churchill’s declaration of policy to the electors”, the 1945 Conservative Party election manifesto, which although much concerned with empire and imperial trade, used a national rather than imperial “we”. Churchill went on to use this image of the solitary nation in his influential six-volume history of the war, published between 1948 and 1953, which chided the US for its late entry into the conflict. Thus arose the myth that the nation was alone at the beginning of the war that Churchill eloquently expressed in his famous speeches.

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There were important reasons for insisting on the image of the lonely nation. The first was that the British role in combat in 1940-41 was relatively much greater than in 1945, when the UK was eclipsed as a world power by the US and the USSR. Nor was the empire what it had been in 1940; it was much more of a commonwealth of nations (outside of the colonies) that were part of the United Nations in their own right. Malaya, British Borneo and Hong Kong were still under Japanese control on VJ Day in 1945, when Japan formally surrendered.

There was also a pressing financial reason to insist that the nation, and not the empire, was alone in 1940-41. As peacetime approached, the British government knew it could not immediately pay for its vital imports, not least food, by exporting. During the war, most imports had not been paid for: the US and Canada supplied them for free, while the rest of the world, including parts of the empire, in effect lent them. The British government wanted the US to maintain its support into peacetime.

The argument Britain used was that the UK was owed a debt. It went like this: from 1939 with France, but from June 1940 to the end of 1941 alone, the UK was fighting for a common cause. The US should have been in the fight from the beginning. The UK had also bought large quantities of arms and supplies, and had even paid for the building of arms factories in the US (something often forgotten today). Furthermore, went the argument, it had reduced its exports and in effect borrowed from the empire and British-linked territories (giving rise to the misleading idea that it had bankrupted itself). The notion of Britain “standing alone” was thus a claim on the US, a rebuke to a Johnny-come-lately ally.

The US was having none of it. The Lend-Lease programme stopped soon after VJ Day. The new Labour government was forced to negotiate loans – which were finally paid off in 2006 – with the US and Canada to pay for essential food and raw materials. It was to go on to exhort people to work hard to achieve “economic independence”.

Thus it was that what was understood as a war of allies, an imperial war and an internationalist war, came to be seen differently after 1945. The empire was airbrushed out, as were the United Nations, not to mention the great Anglo-French alliance that declared war on Germany in 1939. The war that had been an internationalist war of diverse peoples fighting together became in the national imaginary a British “people’s war”.

A lasting picture was constructed in which a new nation, Britain, fought alone and bankrupted itself in the process. Lest we forget, the war was not as it came to be remembered. 

David Edgerton is professor of modern British history at King’s College London and the author of books including The Rise and Fall of the British Nation and Britain’s War Machine 

 

This article appears in the 15 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion

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