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World War II and COVID-19

We are sort of bombarded daily with suggestions about how to spend the days of isolation which sometimes seems to be never-ending or with questions about how we are spending our time along with the current suggestions. Radio Canada has had dozens of “call-in” programs on those topics with recent emphasis on what books listeners might be reading. Hearing callers from near and far suggest books they are reading became a good reminder that Reading Bingo at the Cavalier County Library ended before local readers had turned in their winter reading lists. Overnight the library closed, and my reading list since that time included two mystery novels, possibly first read years ago, and two outdated copies of daily newspaper issues from mid-March.

The librarians will locate books we would like to read so it seemed like time to give them another call. The response was that books by authors I tend to look for were ones I had already read. However, thanks to CBC programs like “The Next Chapter” and “Writers and Company” which feature newer books, I did recall the author of one book that had come out in 2020. That book was Erik Larson’s epic story of Winston Churchill and the London Blitz in 1940 and 1941 titled “The Splendid and the Vile”. After three days of reading (am not done yet!) I have no clue as to why he chose the title. This book is history in page-turner format and well worth your time.

Erik Larson is also the author of a memorable book located for the late Bob Ullyott years ago. The earlier book, titled “Isaac’s Storm,” is a classic about the hurricane destruction of Galveston in 1900 when three members of the Elford family had been killed. Elfords were related by both blood and marriage to several Harvey Township families also on Bob’s family tree. Being impressed with the author’s previous work, asking for his new book seemed like a good choice. It also turned out to be a timely choice in that the book begins on May 10, 1940, and I received it in time to read it exactly 80 years later. Both time periods were and are set in times of local and international emergencies.

My childhood memories of 1940 and 1941 are now faded. I do remember Hitler marching into Poland (the radio version arrived at our house during my birthday party!) and the Sunday we heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. With the radio tuned to H.V. Kaltenborn and Edward R. Murrow on a nightly basis all through the duration, many names of places and people registered in my memory concerning Churchill’s term as Prime Minister but few remained with details. There was a distant memory that Winston Churchill had come to America to visit at the White House in search of lend-lease help and was shocked when he was served both eggs and meat for breakfast in America. In Great Britain that would be a week’s rations of those foods. It was not long after Langdon residents were reporting to the OPA office to be weighed and enrolled for our own ration books. Our meat and eggs came from local farmers but butter, anything in tin cans, coffee, sugar, shoes, gasoline and other items would be rationed all across the United States. Larson’s book does not have the details of rationing that appeared in American newspaper, but his story indicates that the British assumed Americans were untouched by the shortages. The Black Market functioned on both sides of the ocean.

The correlation between the early days of World War II and today is a realization of the speed at which normal life can turn to chaos and how similarly people then and now react. The rise of Hitler in Germany was ignored by many international leaders in his early days. Then in 1938 world leaders met in Munich and signed a document known as the Munich Accord. It was thought to offer a peaceful solution to the problems Hitler raised. President Roosevelt came home to Depression Era problems, leaders in France and England went home feeling they were safe - at least for now, and Hitler focused on his weaker neighbors. Krystalnacht and similar events in Austria and surrounding nations were not well-known until after the war when survivors came to the US. Some of the atrocities were disguised as propaganda in the international press. Silesia was a long way away. Mussolini making Italian inroads into Ethiopia was not on our maps. Tobruck, problems in the Middle East and stories of famine in from the Ukraine made few headlines. There was still talk of the sun never setting on the British Empire, but Asian and Pacific territories were working (slowly) toward independence.

And then Hitler’s troops marched across borders in most directions, his tanks followed and Luftwaffe bombs on a major city like Rotterdam caused an entire nation to fall. German air raids had begun toward the end of World War I (the Red Baron days) and had continued to build in strength with the start of World War II. Goring and Hitler bragged openly about their superiority in the air, and nations believing they were outnumbered lived with fear. Great Britain asked the US for 50 ships and as many airplanes as could be spared, but until the US declared war on Germany getting any supplies was difficult.

September 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland and began preparing for the bombing and invasion they expected to follow. Church belfries were silenced. The bells would be the signal when “the invaders” would arrive, presumably as paratroopers. Instructions were to disable and hide your bicycles, removed the distributor head from your car and empty the gas tank. Strict blackout rules were in force with no street lights allowed or even lights in railroad station depots – a problem for evening travelers in a nation dependent on its trains. Towns and villages removed all street signs and limited the sale of maps hoping to confuse invaders who would not know where they were or how to find their bearings. 35 million gas masks were issued to civilians. Germany had used poison gas in World War I, so gas masks would be needed. When bombs began falling on European cities the English paid special attention to the phases of the moon as a full moon made locating targets easier. The atmosphere was one of fear everywhere.

In early May of 1940 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain lost his job. Two names were recommended to King George VI – foreign secretary Lord Halifax, the King’s personal choice, and first lord of the Admiralty Winston S. Churchill. Halifax refused the position. When the King talked with Chamberlain, he was surprised to hear that Chamberlain recommended Churchill, so the position was offered to Churchill on the afternoon of May 10, 1940. Churchill accepted and being popular with the public began his tenure in the office.

Churchill was issued five secretaries whose notes, correspondence and diaries were available along with papers of his family members for researching the personal side of this book and add much to the story. A group known as Mass-Observers had begun in England two years earlier recruiting anyone and everyone to keep a diary of life in England as a sociological experiment. Staff members of the government were active in this group as were members of the Churchill family, their friends and many private citizens. What these diarists wrote down 80 years ago could easily be found today on cell phone messages or Facebook pages as they reported things people share today. However, the electronic world may not be able to keep all of the important facts separate from the fake news or generally biased trivia. Recorded in the World War II diaries were the dates of the bombing raids, the citizens killed and injured and many sideline details. Raids over London in that first year killed more than a thousand Londoners night after night and injuries outnumbered the deaths. Damage to property, factories, churches, historic monuments and so on was catastrophic.

Within weeks of Churchill taking office, the tide of war in France had turned against the French, and the fall of France seemed eminent. England had 450,000 men in France which, after all, was just a short distance across the English Channel. Evacuating the men was not a way to win a war, but they were being pursued by German panzers and harassed by fighter planes. As they gathered on Dunkirk Beach they were faced with annihilation. Some had suggested the Tommies swim home! At that point I had to find a map! Dunkirk was on the French side of the Channel, and England had few boats left in the royal Navy docks thanks in part to German bombing and submarines. Churchill hoped to save at least 45,000 men, and the call went out for help! Operation Dynamo was set in motion on May 26. Aided by bad weather over the Channel which hindered the Luftwaffe, 887 vessels (only 1/4 of them belonging to the Royal Navy) brought the troops home along with 125,000 French troops. The boats included passenger ships, yachts, fishing boats and other small craft.

France did not fall for two more weeks, and the day it did Churchill asked for control of the French fleet fearing it would fall into German hands. We are not sure if he got his wishes but are told the French rescued did serve with the British troops at later battles. Later in the day France falling made the headlines and a British transport ship was bombed by German fighter planes. On board were 6,700 passengers, consisting of troops, airmen and civilian passengers. The huge Cunard liner sank within twenty minutes and 4,000 on board lost their lives. Churchill asked the newspapers not to print the story feeling the world had suffered enough on that day. But 2,500 survivors reached shore and provided their own headlines.

Early in the book I found references to a Lorenz landing system, and knowing people with that last name made me curious. The quote said the accuracy of German bombs finding their targets was due to this system which by World War II was installed on all German bombers. The system used radio waves to locate targets and curious scientists with connections to airfields studied some downed German planes to discover the secret device. By the time allied planes were taking off from English air bases and delivering bombing loads on German facilities, their airplanes were also equipped with this device. Several from Cavalier County had families whose men in service included duty at the English air bases.

Churchill got the news about Pearl Harbor on Sunday evening, December 7, 1941, and his first phone call was to President Roosevelt. The US declared war on Germany and Japan in the hours that followed, and American men, women, boats, planes and other necessities joined the fight in Europe as well. Churchill remained Prime Minister until after V-E day (the anniversary celebrated last week) when English politics voted him out of office. He remains an important figure in history both for the British Union and for Americans.

While the book is long and the print small, it is a page turner, and if you are interested in World War II history or some of the major people who filled the headlines for those years, call the library. They can reserve the copy for you.

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