It wasn’t part of the plan, but as it has turned out my life will be bookended by two versions of hell.
I was 7 years old when my country, Great Britain, went to war in 1939; I am now 87 years old as my eventual home, the United States, is engulfed in a pandemic.
Both are threats of a scale that changes everyone’s lives. The first was catastrophic but tangible; the second is catastrophic but invisible. They are utterly different experiences. Yet they share two fundamentals: people have to change habits fast and work together to survive, and the outcome depends on the quality of political leadership.
The reality of my early war was played out in my mind like a series of panels on a medieval battle tapestry. First, Dunkirk. Somehow defeat was transmuted into salvation. Then, the Battle of Britain. This was played out for me visibly overhead every day, ending in glory. Next, the Blitz.
The closest any bomb fell to me was about a quarter of a mile away, on railway yards. Nobody I knew was killed. I collected shrapnel, though most of it was from our own anti-aircraft guns, not downed bombers.
It was different for my wife, Mimi. She lived close to the most blitzed part of London, the East London docklands. Her family spent every night in a shelter, a pit dug in the garden covered first by arches of corrugated metal and then topped with layers of compacted earth.
Just as they were tiring of this nightly dungeon, and thinking of following their neighbors in hubris by staying in their beds, their house suffered a direct hit. The blast was so forceful that the shelter was buried under a cascade of bricks and debris.
They heard rescue workers above and shouted but the earth and debris muffled their voices. A neighbor heard rescue workers say, “Nobody alive in there, love. Not a bloody chance.” The neighbor insisted they dig, and started to do so with her own bare hands. And, after a while, one by one they were lifted out, each coated in a sticky grey amalgam of dust and water.
Other neighbors, who had not gone to their shelter, were all dead.
In an account of this that Mimi Irving wrote many years later, she said: “You grow up fast in wartime. Your life gets compressed, concertina style. An eight or nine-year old is going on 25, more or less overnight. You live on the edge, without realizing that’s what it is, picking your way gingerly, catlike, ready for flight at all times, antennae up even during sleep.”
There was a strong community spirit, street by street. But many families were broken up. Thousands of London children were evacuated to far away places deemed safe, where they felt like aliens. Many fathers were serving in the military, some of them half a world away. Mothers were bedrock.
In the first four months of the Blitz, 13,339 Londoners died. (During the firebombing of Hamburg in 1943, 20,000 people died in a single night.)
This was, of course, the Finest Hour of legend, and legend is a much embroidered thing. But I am able to measure the legend through the lens of having been there, and it is always embodied in one person, Winston Churchill, the prime minister. In my memory there was nobody else. He was the leader. He told us who we were and what was required of us and we believed him.
We actually saw very little of Churchill. For most people he only appeared in the flickering newsreel clips. There was the jauntily composed persona: cockeyed top hat, bow-tie, jutting cigar and the “V” fingers. Of this performance he later said: “I displayed the smiling countenance and confident air which are thought suitable when things are very bad.”
But it was what he said that created his presence.
He was unflinchingly direct. The tone was set by the seven-minute speech he gave to parliament on May 13, 1940— “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind.”
Later, many (including me) imagined they had heard that famous oration verbatim, but it was never broadcast, just paraphrased on the BBC. Only when it got into print the next day was its force visible. (Churchill had to be pushed into making radio broadcasts. Sitting alone in front of a microphone was not his thing.)
His words are central to his legend. But it’s important to understand that his actions were always more directly consequential than his words.
Churchill’s singular executive effect was informed by one of his epigrams—one that should never be forgotten—“never mistake activity for action.” He was hands-on. Directions poured out like a volcanic flow at any hour, day and night. Nobody escaped his vigilance. At the age of 65, his energy made younger men wilt.
Before Churchill came to office on May 10, 1940, my parents, like many others, had been swayed by those who thought he was a wild adventurer. At first he was on probation with them.
But their view swiftly changed. “Good old Winnie” was a fighter and they liked that. Neville Chamberlain, the discredited predecessor, was a remote old toff. (By birth Churchill was also a toff—but he always looked like one you could have a drink with in the pub.)
The government could measure the Churchill effect because it was running a level of public surveillance that would cause outrage today. A Home Intelligence Department was eavesdropping everywhere to report on morale. The key message was that the prime minister “makes you feel you’re taken into his confidence. He’s not hiding things.”
But Churchill should not get the credit for decisions made before he came to power. Chamberlain’s administration woke up far too late to the threat, but when it did it took some decisive steps to protect the population.
For example, because poison gas had been the terror weapon used in World War I, they feared that it would be used against us as soon as the new war began. (It never was.) By the time war was declared, every man, woman, child and baby had been supplied with a gas mask (babies had an all-enveloping sack).
Feats like that were the work of a well-rehearsed and proficient civil service. The principle they followed (salutary today) was: “Ready before need.”
The state acquired absolute powers “for the duration.” Food was equitably rationed, according to a prescribed national diet scientifically crafted to meet basic nutritional needs. There were never food shortages. As a result, government was trusted and depended upon.
Sometimes nations get lucky by finding themselves with a leader who is manifestly fit to face moments of apocalypse. America had FDR. But Britain very nearly did not get Churchill in 1940. A cabal of defeatists and appeasers in the Conservative party, ready to succumb to Hitler as France had just done, might have prevailed. Churchill squeaked into office with the backing of the Labour party.
The times can make the man or undo him.
Trump is undone. His failings are on view every day. He was the first virus. For more than three years he poisoned the body politic. He stripped the government of the very defenses it needed for this catastrophe. Showing a shameless contempt for—and ignorance of—science he replaced career experts with political hacks and nodding heads. It’s far from clear what he actually does.
But there is no solace in recriminations. No nation in the world came adequately prepared for this. They are all failing in different ways and to different degrees.
In this country we are learning something important about what we need and who has to provide it. Our frontline medical teams are stepping up but they lack even the basic resources to protect themselves. The pandemic response unit created by Barack Obama and removed by Trump would have helped, but it wouldn’t have been enough. All the crap about the “deep state” has to be discarded now. The world’s wealthiest country has to make a serious and prolonged effort to become the world’s exemplary protector of its people, not the laggard that it sadly is.
Britain was up to it in 1940. Are we?