Politics

Remembrance Day must be about all those who fought against fascism | Luke Turner


For more than two years during the second world war, 158 Squadron of Bomber Command flew missions over Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe from RAF Lissett, an airfield near the east Yorkshire coast. Since the 1970s, members of the 158 Squadron Association and their families have met for an annual reunion, including a Sunday morning service at Lissett’s village church; I attended this September. As the Last Post cut through the muggy air, it sounded an especially poignant note – 2021 marked the first 158 Squadron event at which there were no surviving veterans present. It was a deeply moving experience, and emphasised how quickly the second world war is passing beyond living memory.

I used to buy my annual poppy from old servicemen wearing their second world war medals, collection boxes in hand, at my local railway station. It’s noticeable that as these people have left us, Remembrance has become the subject of bitter argument, with annual rows about who is or isn’t wearing a poppy. The Poppy Watch Twitter account, which collates some of the more tasteless examples of commemoration (pull the pin on a hand grenade of rum, anyone?), gets busier every year.

Myths of plucky Britain struggling “alone” in 1940 shape our current moment, from Brexit to the government’s response to the pandemic, during which the implication often seemed to be that imbibing the “Blitz spirit” might be a magical medical treatment. A recent survey found that the majority of British adults regret not speaking to elderly relatives about the war before they died: what they may have found through those conversations is a picture of the war far less parochial or simple than that we are presented with today.

And now that generation is disappearing, those born well after the conflict have a newfound duty to remember the war in all its worldly and diverse detail.

The memory of the anti-Nazi war is frequently invoked by populist chancers like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson and England’s rightwing press. But to allow the second world war to be used for dubious political ends is to obscure the lives of those who, often far from the frontline, endured boredom, fear and loneliness as they quietly got on with their duty in the biggest anti-fascist struggle in history. From their testimony, still being uncovered in archive material, unpublished memoirs, Mass Observation diaries and oral history transcripts, the moral and societal upheaval of the 1939 to 1945 conflict, and its continuing impact today, can be better understood. In my own research into a book on masculinity during the war years, I’ve discovered how extraordinary circumstances often forced people to overcome their prejudices, whether based on gender, class, sexuality or race.

It shouldn’t even be seen as a radical step to reject nationalistic readings of wartime history and recognise that this was a global war in which many nations served a common cause. Following the Dunkirk evacuation and fall of France in the spring of 1940, the establishment periodical Punch published a cartoon of two soldiers looking out over the sea. “So our poor old Empire is alone in the world,” says one. “Aye, we are,” the other replies, “the whole five hundred million of us.” British Future’s Remember Together initiative, teaching children about the contribution made by countries in the Commonwealth and former empire, ought to be rolled out across the country.

At the Lissett memorial service, the flags of Canada and Australia flew in the churchyard. Men from the Caribbean volunteered for service in the RAF, including the Trinidadian Ulric Cross, who flew as a navigator on more than 80 bombing missions. Māori soldiers from New Zealand were among the bravest troops resisting the invasion of Crete in 1941, even leading their British and Greek comrades in a traditional haka war dance before a bayonet charge. About 110,000 Gurkhas fought in various theatres, including bitter jungle fighting against the Japanese; nearly a third became casualties. Closer to home, the Polish 303 Squadron shot down more German aircraft than any other unit during the Battle of Britain. From 158 Squadron, Sri Lankan navigator Rohan Amerasekera’s life was changed by the war – he ended up commanding the then Ceylon air force, but also wrote a series of spiritual and religious tracts inspired by his wartime service. Part of our current examination of the legacy of the British empire – resisted by those on the right who regularly invoke the war – ought to be to commemorate the lives of those of its subjects who fought for the country that had ruled over them from afar.

Even less frequently discussed are the LGBT+ men who bravely fought against fascism, such as Dudley Cave, an ordinary soldier who suffered in Japanese PoW camps but after the war sought reconciliation with his former enemies. This led to him becoming an activist and co-founding of the Lesbian and Gay Switchboard – a crucial lifeline during the HIV/Aids crisis; he was subjected to abuse for laying a pink triangle at the Cenotaph in recognition of the contribution of LGBT+ to the war effort.

The site of RAF Lissett has since been returned to agriculture, with wind turbines named after 158 Squadron’s bombers turning in the Yorkshire air. Near to what was the main runway is a memorial, a silhouetted outline of the figures of an aircrew made from weathered steel. The names of the 850 men and one woman who died in active service with the squadron are etched into this simple and affecting tribute. A few dilapidated wartime buildings still stand nearby. Wandering through them, in the damp remains of the former guardhouse, I came across a swastika that had been graffitied on the wall. It was a troubling reminder that the values the wartime generation fought for are fragile and, like their memory, worth preserving.




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