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I visited the Churchill War Rooms many years ago and since my memories of it were hazy, I thought I’d check it out and see how it had changed. I remembered looking in on the old rooms and had a general feeling that it was a pretty great day out.

I also remembered it as being quite small and cramped, so I only left myself an afternoon to visit. This has certainly changed. The first thing I would say to people thinking of visiting the Churchill War Rooms is: leave plenty of time! You could easily spend a whole day there now if you like to be thorough in museums – I had to rush through the last few things to get through it all before closing time.

I must have visited before 2003 as all I remembered was the basic suite of the cabinet war rooms. In 2003, the attraction received major redevelopment. A new suite of rooms, which had been occupied by Churchill, his wife and other associates, was restored and opened to the public. Also an enormous museum about the life and work of Winston Churchill was opened and in 2006 it won the Council of Europe Museum Prize.

The war rooms now have an excellent audio guide which takes your through the different rooms and explains how they were used during the war. The bunker began to be constructed in 1938 and started to be used just before the outbreak of war in 1939.

The first room you come to is the Cabinet Room, where Churchill and his cabinet and military officials met to discuss strategy. The room was left exactly as it was when the war ended in 1945 and it’s fascinating to see Churchill’s leather chair still in pride of place in front of the world map.

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Winston Churchill’s Cabinet Room

During the first year of the war, Neville Chamberlain only used the room once, but after Churchill became Prime Minister, he said  ‘this is the room from which I will direct the war’ and subsequently had 115 cabinet meetings there.

Another interesting room is the Transatlantic Telephone Room which contained a secure telephone line which Churchill used to talk to President Roosevelt in Washington. This security was achieved with the use of a  SIGSALY code-scrambler located in the basement of Selfridges, Oxford Street. I really wish this still existed and could be visited by the public!

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There is a good section halfway through the route around the rooms, which gives a little more information about the way the rooms were used. There are some great objects on display as well as a map which shows how huge the bunker complex is – visited are only seeing a tiny portion of it!

There’s some great information about the ordinary people who worked in the war rooms and how they had to sleep in the sub-basement dormitory known as “the dock”. This small section is accompanied with some fantastic video interviews with former employees.

One interesting exhibit is a joke letter written by staff complaining of ‘acute shortages’ of ‘silk stockings, chocolates and cosmetics’.

In the light of the above, it is considered that the most expedient method of implementing the proposal in (c) would be the early dispatch of a mission to the U.S.A; a Force Commander has already been appointed, in anticipation of instructions.

Operation "Desperate" mock letter

Operation “Desperate” mock letter

At this point you enter the Churchill Museum, which is massive and includes lots of audiovisual displays, interactive elements, sounds and objects.  It has been designed so that you do not start at the beginning of Churchill’s life, but rather follow the course ofhte war and then return to Churchill’s birth and early life halfway through the museum.

While the museum is full of interesting exhibits and detailed information, I feel that it has suffered from the 2003 curators’ over-excitement about new technologies.  The museum is very dark, clearly to accentuate the panels and visual exhibits that light up. However this is quite disorientating once you’ve been in the museum for a few minutes, and some of the smaller more traditional exhibits such as letters and documents are difficult to read and so suffer.

The museum also lacks a clear route. I am sure some people prefer to wander and find their own route, but personally I like to look at everything when I visit a museum, preferably in order, so if I find myself reading about something ten years ahead or behind where I just was, I find it very distracting. Of course I am sure this is a personal thing.

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The Churchill Museum

The designers were clearly trying to weave sound and image in a very innovative way in the museum, and it certainly is innovative. However I sometimes felt the words ‘style over substance’ come to mind, as some of the design elements seemed a bit unnecessary. For example they incorporated two projections facing eachother with seats beneath, and the accompanying sound could only be heard when sitting directly below the opposite screen. While an interesting idea, it still means you have several voices in your ears at once and I feel it may have simply been more effective to just have two screens installed away from one another.

Another example of this overuse of sound technologies is the use of focused speakers in the ceiling, which are activated when you step on a sensor in the right place directly below the speaker. I am all for these methods of directing sound so it is not heard by everybody else, however it does somewhat remove the social element of visiting a museum. I found myself at several points listening to an interesting commentary near somebody else, before they suddenly moved away from the sensor, so the sound was turned off and I missed the end of the recording.

I found myself frequently wandering around confused, trying to read something, while hearing several conflicting voices coming from unexpected places. Perhaps I am just old-fashioned about these things and in a few years we will all be so used to these kinds of exhibitions. However I do think that curators should be careful not to overuse these techniques for the sake of it, at the expense of people’s understanding and comfort.

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The Churchill Museum Lifeline

One interesting element of the museum is the Lifeline, an interactive timeline which contains loads of detailed information about every year of Churchill’s life. This is really fascinating once yuo get the hang of it, however it demonstrated how fast technology moves. As it’s 2013 my first inclination was to touch the screen to move through the timeline, however instead you have to touch one of the small pads positioned around the table. It is not very sensitive and a little difficult to navigate, but a useful reference all the same.

Leaving aside these design-related criticisms, I must say the Churchill Museum is incredibly comprehensive and has some fascinating exhibits.  One of my favourites was a small interactive screen which showed remarks Churchill made over the course of his life. He was n incredibly witty man and these quotes made fantastic reading.

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Churchill’s Siren suit

The museum also has one of Churchill’s Siren suits on display, an all-in-one zip up suit which he wore on many occasions. From Churchill’s early life there are also some school reports, which show his lack of achievement in early life but his interest in history, and a punishment book, which is fascinating to read just to see the kinds of punishments delivered for the types of school-related transgressions.

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An Enigma Machine in the Churchill Museum

At this point during my visit, we had to hurry through the final part of the museum to see the rest of the war rooms before closing times. Again it would have been good to know how many rooms were left if you don’t have much time as you get stuck into the museum halfway through the route around the historical rooms.

These final rooms included the bedrooms of Churchill, his wife and other senior staff and the Chief of Staff Conference Room, which includes large maps with wartime doodlings of Hitler on them

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The Chief of Staff Conference Room

There is also a room which the BBC used to broadcast Churchill’s speeches, four of which he made from his bedroom, including his 11 September 1940 speech warning of Hitler’s plans against the UK.

The map room is also fascinating, with maps covering every wall and each one marked by millions of tiny pinpricks as they were marked and remarked by hand. It is amazing how plans were executed from these rooms with such basic organisational equipment.

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A map of Europe in the Map Room

The Churchill War Rooms is definitely worth and now it has been expanded so much, I would say it is worth a whole day’s visit, as you can certainly make it worth the £17 ticket price if you absorb all the information there. The museum is open daily from 9.30am to 6pm and is a short walk from Westminster or St James’s Park tube stations.

On 11 December 1941, the USA declared war on Germany and Italy on the same day that Hitler declared war on the USA. The first American servicemen arrived in Britain on 26 January 1942 and to prepare them for the culture shock of wartime Britain, the United States War Department published and distributed a handbook called Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942.

Today this book gives some fascinating insights into the cultural position of both Britain and the US, and from a British perspective it is interesting to see how some of our quirks were viewed by the Americans and vice versa. What I find most interesting is how nice the book is about Britain and the British and how insightful the comments are regarding British life. Some of the comments are really heart-warming!

American show-offs

American servicemen earned nearly 5 times what British Tommies earned. In 1942 when the Americans arrived, a British Private would be paid 14s a week, while his American counterpart would earn the equivalent of £3. 8s and 9d. This of course caused some bitterness among some British soldiers, leading to the (hopefully light-hearted) accusation: ‘Oversexed, overpaid and over here’.

However when combined with the American tendancy to be a little more brash than the British, these inequalities were dangerous. The US War Office clearly recognised this and warned soldiers not to show off and be respectful. It’s fascinating how they explain why the British are reserved – due to our crowded island – and that this conceals a toughness that caused the English language to thrive around the world.

The British are often more reserved in conduct than we. On a small crowded island where forty-five million people live, each man learns to guard his privacy carefully-and is equally careful not to invade another man’s privacy.

So if Britons sit in trains or busses without striking up conversation with you, it doesn’t mean they are being haughty and unfriendly. Probably they are paying more attention to you than you think. But they don’t speak to you because they don’t want to appear intrusive or rude.

Don’t Be a Show Off. The British dislike bragging and showing off. American wages and American soldier’s pay are the highest in the world. When pay day comes it would be sound practice to learn to spend your money according to British standards. They consider you highly paid. They won’t think any better of you for throwing money around; they are more likely to feel that you haven’t learned the common-sense virtues of thrift. The British “Tommy” is apt to be specially touchy about the difference between his wages and yours. Keep this in mind. Use common sense and don’t rub him the wrong way.

The British Are Tough. Don’t be misled by the British tendency to be soft-spoken and polite. If they need to be, they can be plenty tough. The English language didn’t spread across the oceans and over the mountains and jungles and swamps of the worldbecause these people were panty-waists.

You are higher paid than the British “Tommy.” Don’t rub it in. Play fair with him. He can be a pal in need.

Britain as a war zone

What hits home right away when reading the book is the difference in war experience between Britain and the US. The book constantly reminds the American soldiers that the British have been at war already for three years and the island itself is a war zone. It shows how easy it must have been for the Americans to look down on British poverty and shabbiness compared to American wealth and how important a book like this must have been to explain the hardships the British had already suffered.

It’s quite poignant to read the summaries of how much the British suffered from an outside perspective. When we hear about the home-front in Britain, it is often easy to overstate the Blitz spirit and the positives of our ‘finest hour’ and forget how bad it really was. Coming from America to Britain, the pain must have been very clear.

Remember There’s a War On. Britain may look a little shop-worn and grimy to you. The British people are anxious to have you know that you are not seeing their country at its best. There’s been a war on since 1939- Tile houses haven’t been painted because factories are not making paint-they’re making planes.

Keep Out of Arguments. You can rub a Britisher the wrong way by telling him “we came over and won the last one.” Each nation did its share. But Britain remembers that nearly a million of.her best manhood died in the last war. America lost 60,000 in action.

Neither do the British need to be told that their armies lost the first couple of rounds in the present war. We’ve lost a couple, ourselves, so do not start off by being critical of them and saying what the Yanks are going to do. Use your head before you sound off, and remember how long the British alone held Hitler off without any help from anyone.

At Home in America you were in a country at war. Now, however, you are in a war zone. You will find that all Britain is a war zone and has been since September, 1939- All this has meant great changes in the British way of life.

But more important than this is the effect of the war itself. The British have been bombed, night after night and month after month. Thousands of them have lost their houses, their possessions, their families. Gasoline, clothes, and railroad travel are hard to come by and incomes are cut by taxes to an extent we Americans have not even approached.

You came to Britain from a country where your home is still safe, food is still plentiful, and lights are still burning. So it is doubly important for you to remember that the British soldiers and civilians are living under a tremendous strain. It is always impolite to criticize your hosts. It is militarily stupid to insult your allies.

Democracy

The book highlights an attitude which probably still endures. Great Britain was viewed by some as an outdated system of titles and monarchy and the book takes the time to try to explain that the British respect their king while still living in ‘one of the great democracies’. You can see how the American’s perception of their own system as the greatest could easily come into conflict with British respect for tradition and it is interesting that the book goes as far as to suggest that the British system might even be better!

Although you read in the papers about “lords” and “sirs,” England is still one of the great democracies and the cradle of many American liberties. Personal rule by the King has been dead in England for nearly a thousand years. Today the King reigns, but does not govern. The British people have great affection for their monarch but have stripped him of practically all political power.

The important thing to remember is that within this apparently old-fashioned framework the British enjoy a practical, working twentieth century democracy which is in some ways even more flexible and sensitive to the will of the people than our own.

Women

Historians often debate how far the position of women improved during the Second World War and the comments on this subject make very interesting reading. The fact that the book considers it worth pointing out indicates that the position of women in the USA had not reached a point where a female could give orders to a male. To be honest, I didn’t even realise that women officers would have that much power and respect.

A British woman officer or non-commissioned officer can and often does give orders to a man private. The men obey smartly and know it is no shame. For British women have proven themselves in this war. They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motorcycles have been blasted from under them. They have pulled aviators from burning planes. They have died at the gun posts and as they fell another girl has stepped directly into the position and “carried on.” There is not a single record in this war of any British woman in uniformed service quitting her post or failing in her duty under fire.

Now you understand why British soldiers respect the women in uniform. They have won the right to the utmost respect. When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic-remember she didn’t get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich.

These comments indicate that the war itself changed certain social relations in Britain far beyond those in America. As far as I know the book doesn’t mention it, but another interesting conflict that emerged when the Americans arrived in Britain was caused by American attitudes towards black people clashing with the comparative tolerance of the British.

Although of course racism was endemic in Britain in this period, the even more pronounced prejudices of the Americans encouraged some British people to stick up for their black neighbours. Colonel Pleas B. Rogers of the London Base Command, US Forces, admitted that in London the ‘negro British nationals are rightly incensed. They undoubtedly have been cursed, made to get off the sidewalk, leave eating places and are separated from their white wives in public by American soldiers.’ I recommend this article ‘When Jim Crow Met John Bull’ if you want to read more about this topic.

The book contains many more interesting observations – to read more go to this website.

Everything Stops for Tea is a song written by Maurice Sigler with lyrics by Al Goodheart and American Al Hoffman, for the 1935 musical Come Out Of The Pantry. It is about tea being England’s favourite drink, however both the composer and the musical were American. Jack Buchanan performed the song for the musical and recorded another version which you can watch here.

Despite tea rationing during the Second World War, the English were addicted to the drink throughout the following decades. The Ministry of Food used the song in its 1940 exhibition and workers expected 15 minute tea breaks twice a day in all British industries in the 1950s, much to the annoyance of managers aiming to boost productivity.

Everything stops for tea – Jack Buchanan

Every nation in creation has its favourite drink
France is famous for its wine, it’s beer in Germany
Turkey has its coffee and they serve it blacker than ink
Russians go for vodka and England loves its tea

Oh, the factories may be roaring
With a boom-a-lacka, zoom-a-lacka, wee
But there isn’t any roar when the clock strikes four
Everything stops for tea

Oh, a lawyer in the courtroom
In the middle of an alimony plea
Has to stop and help ’em pour when the clock strikes four
Everything stops for tea

It’s a very good English custom
Though the weather be cold or hot
When you need a little pick-up, you’ll find a little tea cup
Will always hit the spot

You remember Cleopatra
Had a date to meet Mark Anthony at three
When he came an hour late she said “You’ll have to wait”
For everything stops for tea

Oh, they may be playing football
And the crowd is yelling “Kill the referee!”
But no matter what the score, when the clock strikes four
Everything stops for tea

Oh, the golfer may be golfing
And is just about to make a hole-in-three
But it always gets them sore when the clock yells “four!”
Everything stops for tea

It’s a very good English custom
And a stimulant for the brain
When you feel a little weary, a cup’ll make you cheery
And it’s cheaper than champagne

Now I know just why Franz Schubert
Didn’t finish his unfinished symphony
He might have written more but the clock struck four
And everything stops for tea


This is a well-known wartime song Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive, written by  Harold Arlen with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. It was originally recorded by Mercer with The Pied Pipers and Paul Weston’s orchestra, on 4th October 1944. The record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on January 4, 1945 and lasted 13 weeks on the chart, peaking at number 2.

It was then recorded by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Kay Kyser and then  Artie Shaw, all within weeks of the original recorded. Another version was recorded by Johnny Green in the United Kingdom on April 6, 1945, and released by Parlophone Records. Despite the British version released during the war, the Bing Crosby version is the one most are familiar with now and it is known as a quintessentially American upbeat wartime song.

When I started reading about the song, I came across this video. It shows Bing Crosby and Sonny Tufts performing the song in 1944 as part of the show Here Comes the Waves, performed at U. S. S. Traverse Bay Aircraft Carrier in a Pacific port. Crosby and Tufts are performing in blackface, which is shocking, but it’s a fascinating little window into Wartime American culture – the kind of footage that you rarely see these days.

Mary Seacole was a nurse who worked on the front line during the Crimean War. She is often overlooked while the more famous Florence Nightingale is celebrated by history. However she arguably did more good, was loved more by the soldiers and had a more remarkable story than Florence.

Women’s involvement in medicine was slowly developing during the nineteenth century, but it took a long time for the British government to agree to female nurses being sent into warzones. Not only did Mary Seacole have to contend with prejudice due to her sex but also her race, yet she still succeeded astonishingly.

Mary Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. Her father was a Scottish soldier in the British Army and her mother was Jamaican. Her mother taught her a great deal about traditional herbal and folk remedies and her medical education came from her mother’s boarding house for disabled European servicemen.

Hearing of the terrors of the Crimean War she wanted to volunteer as a nurse and travelled to London to do so. At first the British War Office first refused her along with many other women, but even after women began to be accepted, she was left out of the party of nurses led by Florence Nightingale, who travelled to the Crimea on 21 October 1854.

This is when Mary Seacole demonstrated her remarkable resilience and dedication. Instead of giving up on her dream, she travelled to the Crimea on her own, using borrowed money. She visited Florence Nightingale’s hospital in Scutari but was turned away.

Again she did not give up. She travelled to Balaclava, gathered building materials and set up her new British Hotel, which opened in March 1855. It was applauded by the men for providing good food and simple cures. The Hotel sold useful items, food, and alcohol to soldiers, tourists and passers by and provided simple folk medicines and treatment for injuries. Seacole also often went out onto the front line to treat soldiers and give out food and drink.

While some praised her efforts, Florence Nightingale tried to avoid associating herself with Mary Seacole, as she objected to some aspects of Seacole’s Hotel such as selling alcohol and allowing access to tourists. Nightingale even likened Seacole’s Hotel to a brothel.

The Treaty of Paris was signed on 30 March 1856 and as soldiers began leaving the battlefield, Mary Seacole was struggling financially. After she returned to London she went bankrupt and when her problems were discussed in the British press, a fund was set up to help her.

A fundraising event, the “Seacole Fund Grand Military Festival” was organized and held at the Royal Surrey Gardens, from Monday 27 July to Thursday 30 July 1857. With many prominent military guests, the event was a success but unfortunately did not make that much money for Seacole.

In July 1857, she published an autobiography called Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. It was the first autobiography written by a black woman to be published in Britain.

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