During this holiday season, some old soldiers have been fading away. First, there was the death of David Lomon, aged 94, the last surviving British-based member of the International Brigades who fought in Spain. Lomon, a former London rag-and-bone man, joined up at 19, having experienced London’s fascists during the Battle of Cable Street in 1936.
Lomon was followed last week by Alfie Fripp, 98, thought to be Britain’s longest serving prisoner of war. Fripp’s Blenheim bomber was shot down in 1939 and he was shut away for the duration of the conflict, at one point in Stalag Luft III of Great Escape fame.
Both Fripp and Lomon open doors into episodes of British history that will soon be beyond reach. It has been 77 years since Spain’s civil war and 73 since the Battle of Britain. To have served near George Orwell in Catalonia, or to have flown against the Luftwaffe, you would have to be more than 90, if not 100. For Britain’s army of war heroes, it is now a case of Last Man Standing.
This year may turn out to be one of those pivotal moments when a way of life, a now antique set of values, instincts and appetites, loses its grip on contemporary imagination and becomes slowly braided into the web of the past. The men and women who kept calm and carried on, turning stoicism, frugality, and irony into an art form, are reaching their last parade.
Like all war veterans, Fripp and Lomon probably preferred not to talk about their experiences. “Just doing my job” is a common response to later generations’ questions about the “Finest Hour”, D-Day or Arctic convoys.
But there it is. The extraordinary decade 1936-45, which centred around the international struggle against fascism and Nazism, crammed a great historical reckoning into an astonishingly short space. British forces have been dying in Afghanistan, a bloody, stupid and pointless war, for longer than both World Wars put together.
Compared with subsequent conflicts — from Korea and Suez to the Falklands or Iraq, and never forgetting Operation Sheepskin, the gallant invasion of Anguilla in 1969 — the Second World War remains a defining national moment.
Agreed: There were war crimes and terrible cock-ups. The bombing of Hamburg and Dresden, the repatriation of the Cossacks and the Dieppe raid are reproaches to any celebration of glorious victories. Oh yes, this was the war that added the Holocaust to the lexicon of horror.
At the same time, what Angus Calder called “the people’s war” mobilised and liberated a generation of women, forged the new political consciousness that took wing with Labour’s historic victory in 1945 and seeded the idea, lately come to fruition, of London as the world’s supreme metropolis.
“I would not have missed being in London throughout the war for anything,” wrote the novelist Elizabeth Bowen. “It was the most interesting period, to see the quiet old English capital converted into a high-pressure cosmopolitan city.”
Behind the drama, the stakes could not have been higher. It was Winston Churchill’s genius to grasp this and to meet the challenge. No one was better equipped, rhetorically, to up the ante than Churchill, who, from some points of view, made the war his own. Perhaps that is why no British emergency has begun to rival the thing Britons still call “the last war”. There is, simply, much less jeopardy.
As well as honouring the sacrifices, I think Britons also have to acknowledge the legacy of the Second World War, for better and worse. On the bright side, there’s the impact on culture and society. The aftermath of a century’s conflict — the First, the Second, and finally the Cold War — has given Britain and its people a unique role in an extraordinary range of international theatres, sporting, cultural and intellectual.
However, there is also a cost. Ask any European. Psychologically, many of Britain’s older generations are still stumbling away from the Blitz. Memories are one thing; obsessions (with “little ships”, Dambusters and Desert Rats) are something else. Sometimes, Britain’s national consciousness seems cornered by its great history. These old wars cast awfully long shadows. We are not yet in the sun.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd