Kevin Myers: Seventy years on and the soundtrack to the summer of 1940 is filling Britain's airwaves
Published 06/08/2010 | 05:00
MYTH: it is the great enabler, the unifier and the falsifier. Truth hammers in vain against the might of myth and all its panoply, like a mouse on a castle wall.
Britain this year celebrates the triumphs of 1940 and the Battle of Britain, even though 70 years ago last Sunday, Hitler all but decided against going ahead with an invasion of Britain. On that day, July 31, 1940, the German naval chief Raeder told the Fuehrer that such plans as existed to invade Britain were playing havoc with German commerce, as barges and fishing vessels were being conscripted from all over the Reich. But to no purpose, because tides allowed only two possible windows. One was August 20-26 and the other was September 19-26. The first was too soon and the second was traditionally one of bad weather. Anyway, the German navy was ready for neither.
Hitler agreed. He would continue the pretence of an imminent invasion, with an aerial assault designed to bring Britain to its senses and persuade it to negotiate.
"We have no business destroying Britain," he declared. "We are quite incapable of taking up its legacy."
"Its legacy", of course, was the empire. And who was the greatest imperialist of all? Who agreed with Hitler's respectful views of it? Churchill. And why was Churchill in a political wilderness through the 1930s? Because of his opposition to Hitler? NO! That was a post-facto myth concocted by Churchillian hagiographers.
But Churchill brooked no such moderation. "The truth is," he had brutally declared in 1930, "that Gandhi-ism and everything it stands for will have to be grappled with and crushed."
In July 1940, newly in office, he welcomed reports of the emerging conflict between the Muslim League and the Indian Congress, hoping "it would be bitter and bloody".
Lord Zetland had already resigned as secretary of state for India, for he was aware of Churchill's violent hostility to Indian nationalism. His successor, Leo Amery, said: "I am by no means sure whether on this subject of India (Churchill) is quite sane."
Quite so. For in September 1939, the Indian Congress movement had offered to support the British war effort in exchange for moves towards independence. And Chamberlain had been prepared to go halfway to meet them. But arriving in office in 1940, Churchill exploded when he heard of this suggestion. Congress was rebuffed and humiliated and so it retreated into the arms of Gandhi. Henceforth, it was united in opposition to Britain's war effort. Well done, Winnie!
But of course, the great alienating event between Britain and the Indian middle classes had occurred over 20 years before, with the massacre of hundreds of unarmed Indians at Amritsar in April 1919, under the orders of General Reginald Dyer (educated Midleton College, Cork) and supported by the governor general of Punjab, Michael O'Dwyer (born 1864, Solohead, Tipperary, educated St Stanislaus College, Tullamore). O'Dwyer's kinsman, Patrick O'Dwyer, had been a lookout at the ambush at Soloheadbeg three months earlier, in January, 1919, in which two RIC men were murdered during the first ambush of the 'Anglo-Irish' war.
But back to 1940 and Britain's 'Finest Hour'. So how low is British self-esteem, if our neighbours think the only reason that country didn't surrender in 1940 was Churchill and his rhetoric? For what large island nation with any sort of history -- never mind that of Britain -- would capitulate merely because of a few weeks of aerial combat over a half-dozen counties in the south-east?
Had Churchill perished of alcoholism in 1940, by what democratic process would the British people have surrendered their sovereign authority to Hitler without invasion and conquest? Yet Hitler sought neither. Nor was there any peace faction in the House of Commons, though poor Lord Halifax -- who merely sought to know what the German terms were before the British government rejected them -- is usually traduced as some sort of treacherous caricature in film and TV portrayals of this time.
BUT what about the inspirational words: "Never in the field of human conflict, et cetera"? So what about them? For who really believes that 19-year-old fighter pilots would ever attend to the vapourings of a drunken, sexagenarian politician?
Seventy years on and the soundtrack to the summer of 1940 is again filling the British airwaves -- 'Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover', 'A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square', 'A Foggy Day In London Town'. Ah yes, the musical essence of Old England.
Except that 'Bluebirds' was written by two Americans, Water Kent and Nat Burton, though only in 1941, long after the battle, and of course, there are no bluebirds in Europe. 'Nightingale' was written by the American Manning Sherwin and Eric Maschitz, who was of German-Silesian extraction. 'A Foggy Day' was written by George and Ira Gershwin, from New York.
So what did the authors of these great anthems, that were retrospectively added to the Battle of Britain, really have in common, apart from the fact that none was ethnically British? Well, they were all Jewish. Which delicious irony makes the great musical myths of 1940 all the more unbearable for Herr Hitler to contemplate amid eternity's inferno.