WELCOME TO WARTIME BRITAIN
Each of the first two issues of our special series, “Britain’s Historic Landscape”–Ancient Britain (March 1998) and The Age of Arthur (March 1999)–contained surveys inviting readers to let us know what other historic periods they’d like to see covered. Among the many good suggestions we received were several ideas linked to the theme of Britain at war, including the Napoleonic era, the First World War, and England’s colonial wars.
While these are indeed fascinating subjects worthy of historical study, each of these conflicts made a relatively minor mark on the British landscape. The key battles were fought far from England’s shores, and most of the relics and monuments commemorating the gallantry and sacrifice of British soldiers in those days are found in distant lands. The Second World War, too, was fought primarily on foreign soil, but the advent of air power meant that this conflict had a physical impact on the Home Isles unmatched by any since the English Civil War.
In addition to its tangible traces, the war left an emotional mark on many of our readers. To those of you over the age of 60, the war is not only a chapter in Britain’s history, it is a living memory. We therefore dedicate this issue of BRITISH HERITAGE to those readers, military and civilian alike, who were there during Britain’s “Finest Hour” and contributed to its ultimate victory.
NOTE TO READERS
The days between the Nazi invasion of Poland on 1st September, 1939, and the Blitz against Belgium, Holland, and France in May, 1940, were the time of the “Phoney War,” so-called because of the notable lack of activity on the Western Front. Yet within a few startling weeks that spring, England found itself alone, the last surviving major power left to oppose Nazi Germany.
During the long years that followed, British troops served in such far-flung corners of the globe as Egypt, Singapore, Malaysia, Norway, and the Baltic Sea. The dreaded possibility of invasion of the Home Isles never came to pass, but in June of 1940 it seemed inevitable, and the British civilian population and military alike began digging in, turning Britain into a fortified camp. The defences included literal castles, hastily returned to military uses following, in some cases, centuries of obsolescence. Home Guard units trained to operate behind enemy lines from hidden bases. Airfields sprang up throughout the south-east to service the planes and crews who hoped to deny Germany the control of the air that was a necessary precursor to invasion.
As the fortunes of war shifted and Britain turned to the offensive alongside new allies, the defences gave way in importance to new offensive works–larger airfields from which bombers carried the war to Germany; headquarters where new division, corps, and army commanders plotted the invasion of the Continent; and secret intelligence centres where the enemy’s own plans were uncovered and thwarted.
Almost all of these facilities have long since outlived their wartime uses. Most have been abandoned to neglect and are slowly crumbling away. A handful are carefully maintained in recognition of their historic role in Britain’s victory. But whatever their present state, most are still there if you know where to look. They preserve memories of a dark time, but also one of valour. A few are now famous and attract visitors by the thousands. Others are virtually unknown and unremembered. All are worth a visit before time eradicates all traces of the people who served or sheltered there during Britain’s Finest Hours.
It is tragically ironic that the country’s wartime relics should be in such a state. Chock full of well-preserved Norman keeps and medieval manor houses, Britain might well be expected to have a strong interest in preserving their 20th-century counterparts. In general, there are two reasons for the difference. On the one hand, many of Britain’s wartime defences were never intended to be more than temporary structures, built to serve a short-term need. A corrugated steel Nissen hut makes a fragile monument. On the other hand, the more substantial buildings employed in the war effort most often returned quickly to pre-war residential or business uses, and while they are maintained in good order, they now bear faint traces, if any, to indicate what transpired there during the war years.
This trend continues even today, and Bletchley Park may be the next infamous example. The headquarters of the Allied code-breaking efforts throughout the war is at the centre of Government plans to redevelop the site as a housing estate. The battle between those who favour development and those who support preservation and restoration has been epic. The Bletchley Park Trust has launched a fund-raising appeal aimed at turning the entire 55-acre site into a museum, but the Park’s future is very uncertain. (Readers wishing to support the Trust’s work can learn more about its plans by visiting its web site at www.bletchleypark.org.uk.)
This issue of BRITISH HERITAGE is itself something of a preservation effort. We are hopeful that as time goes on, the places associated with Britain’s heroic stand against Nazism will be preserved in a tangible form. But for those that are not, these pages will provide at least a partial record for future generations of what once was, and what happened there.
READER SERVICE DELAY
If you used a Reader Service card to request information from BRITISH HERITAGE advertisers between December 1999 and earlier this year and experienced an unexpected delay in receiving the information, we want you to know that it was not the fault of the advertisers. The inconvenience stemmed from the retirement of both a local postmaster and the departure of an executive here at the magazine, which resulted in necessary paperwork being delayed. Future Reader Service requests will be promptly forwarded to our advertisers so that you will receive a response in a timely manner. We apologize to our readers and to our advertisers for the inconvenience.
Editor and Publisher