Lost voices of a generation at War
It was my agent Charlie Viney who came up with the idea of producing a book that could capture the essence of the Second World War generation before they finally passed away. He was much influenced by the American publication of Generation, covering a like issue.
When I looked at my father’s experience, marrying our German mother in the teeth of resistance from both families, and now still together after their sixtieth anniversary, I appreciated they had something different. As I spoke with them about how this came about I was reminded of very similar attitudes and responses coming from veterans I interviewed for Tank Men. Never Surrender was a project worth taking forward and Hodder and Stoughton were fortunately equally convinced.
The only surviving faded photograph of my parents shortly after meeting in 1945.
I suspected the best way of handling the narrative would be to concentrate on the experience of the war through what I assessed to be the primary formative events during 1939-45. Examining a conglomeration of individual experiences through the medium of a sequence of events, such as a day in the desert war or how a Commando or RAF bombing raid formed up and was conducted, seemed to be the best way of marshalling very personal and emotional individual material in a coherent and digestible way.
‘What was it like?’ to do the things they did was my initial approach to my mother and father. It made sense to apply the same to unforgettable wartime episodes, like the day war was declared, invasion fears while watching the Battle of Britain, or what people were doing on D-Day the 6th June 1944.
Again I received amazing support through interviews and shared personal accounts and hope that these have accurately reflected the thoughts and emotions that were relayed to me.
By the end of my research I felt I had begun to identify certain unique features I believe applied to this generation like no other. This is difficult to subjectively achieve but I was motivated throughout by a sense these characteristics needed to be captured and agreed by the very people I was researching, before they passed on with age or mental deterioration.
One example was Mary Lloyd, a 97-year old lady who lived in the village of Bemerton Salisbury, alongside us. She had treated Richard Hilary and other Battle of Britain fighter pilot victims as a staff sister in Dr Archie McIndoe’s burns clinic in the early 1940s and had indeed travelled through Germany on the eve of the declaration of war. There she was, living in obscurity, virtually next door. She conducted a lucid interview but sadly passed away before this book could be published.
Time is running out for this generation.
What differentiates the British World War II generation from any other?
I was always curious about my father, who at the end of a long and bitter conflict met and married my mother in the ruins of Hamburg – a German, the enemy – despite family reticence on both sides. They could not even speak the same language, yet decades later they have passed their sixtieth wedding anniversary.
There is enormous interest in the Second World War generation, primarily from their families, who look for insights about a conflict that is unsurpassed in scale, length and bitterness since. There are those that suggest this particular community may have had a more fulfilling spiritual life than many today, who by comparison, have materially everything.
Never Surrender seeks to identify the primary characteristics of this group now reducing with age, by examining the formative episodes that shaped their attitudes. This is not a story of battles and campaigns, rather selected vignettes from defining moments described through interviews, letters, diaries and personal accounts.
‘Snapshots’ are taken of these selected scenarios. What was it like to witness the fall of France and wait anxiously to be taken off the beaches at Dunkirk? What did people feel at the prospect of an invasion watching German bombers fly overhead during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz? What motivated Commandos to volunteer for virtual suicide missions or other men to take on the physical and psychological burdens of fighting and patrolling the deserts and jungles of the Middle and Far East? Merchant seamen on North Atlantic convoys, bomber crews over the Ruhr in Germany, paratroopers jumping from aircraft by night over Normandy or assault troops struggling ashore through obstacle strewn surf on D-Day are all freeze-framed to identify and encapsulate the unique characteristics the British wartime generation has.
A wide cross section of soldiers and civilians, men and women have, like my mother and father, spoken to us through personal accounts, letters, diaries and oral histories. The vast majority of them are now in their eighties. Never Surrender offers a final opportunity to hear their stories before they are gone for ever.