Unfashionable Brits

A Shared Interest

Did we Brits take part, 1939-45?

A couple of days ago my eighteen year-old son was pleased to see the latest edition of ‘History of War’ land on the doormat as, like me, he has an interest in the subject. Such is the level of his own interest, he’s a member of a World War Two living history group. This joint fascination may stem from the fact that our family has a strong Royal Navy tradition. My grandfather served aboard HMS Dreadnought during WW1, and my father also served in the Royal Navy during the war that was to follow.

The Wrong Insignia – and Cause for a Rant

Arctic Convoy

From 1940 onward my father saw action in the North Atlantic and also on many of the convoy missions to Russia – these arctic convoys have since been recognised as the harshest of all naval theatres of operation. There, nature itself seemed to ally with our foe to attempt to bring about our destruction. With this naval heritage you may well imagine my delight upon seeing Josh’s magazine headline declare that ‘Sub Hunters – Battle of the Atlantic’  was a feature article inside. Sadly, my enthusiasm quickly faded when I saw that the aircraft illustrated on the cover showed American insignia, rather than the RAF roundels I expected to see. For here was yet another example where, given the opportunity to salute the heroics of our own forces, we choose to recognise those of our more fashionable American allies.

HMS Shropshire – My Dad’s home 1939-41


A Special Relationship

Be assured that this post is in no way anti-American. There’s enough of that clat-trap in the world right now without me adding my voice. No, I believe British links to the United States go far beyond political expediency. Instead we share a bond of blood and, as a family, should support one another when the need arises.

Help – At a Price

The need did arise when Hitler sought to conquer Europe. Having stood alone against him and Nazi Germany since 1939, Britain finally received America’s support when they came to our aid in 1941. It has been said that the US ‘Lend Lease Act can be likened to someone selling the buckets and water so their neighbour may extinguish his blazing home, for indeed, it did cost us dearly. Britain was unable to settle the massive loan until 2006. However, in addition to armaments, fuel and more, the act provided much needed food to our starving island and thus saved our bacon. So no, my frustration on seeing the US star where I considered our own roundel ought to be was caused by what I perceive to be another example of the British’s failure to take pride in our own people and achievements.

Our Glorious Failures

Scott’s South Pole Bid

The disappointing cover illustration is simply one in a long line of other such instances that have raised my blood’s temperature a degree or so. I’ll therefore have to reign myself in to avoid this becoming a rant. But this does lead to another question (perhaps the subject of a future post): why do we Brits appear to immortalise our disasters and failures yet fail to acknowledge the greatness of Great Britain? The Charge of the Light Brigade, Captain Scott and Isandlwana are a few examples that come immediately to mind. In the case of the last one, yes, we went on to acknowledge the heroism of Rorke’s Drift in the superb movie ‘Zulu’ but there’s no hiding from the fact that the event came on the back of one of the worst military disasters in our nation’s history. So, what do I mean by “long line of other such instances”? I’ll give you a couple.

Charge of the light brigade
Half a league, half a league, half a league onward …

Puttnam’s Lament

More palatable than the RAF?

Director David Puttnam – well known for his film ‘Chariots of Fire’ – wanted to make a movie that showed the bravery of RAF bomber crews in facing danger night after night in their raids over enemy territory. However, this wasn’t considered to be good box-office material. Instead, it was believed (by the American financial backers) that cinema-goers wouldn’t be interested in a film about British aircrews. Changes were made.

Puttnam did go on to make his movie – in fact it was filmed only a few miles from here, at RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire. The movie was ‘Memphis Belle’. Historical accuracy was tenuous at best but it featured the more dashing US aircrews and was, therefore, a success.

An Enigma

U-571 Poster or rather  im-poster

In what has become a tirade- and for that I apologise (assuming I still have readers at this point) – I’ll wrap up by taking the subject full circle, back to U-Boats.

In 2000 another movie was released and was declared to be a ‘No.1 US Box-Office Smash’. Our own Sunday Express newspaper declared it to be ‘A blockbuster that really satisfies. Well, it didn’t satisfy me, I can assure you. The movie was ‘U-571‘, and its tag-line: ‘Nine ordinary men are about to change history’.

Briefly, an American submarine crew conduct a daring plan to recover a top-secret encrypting device – the legendary Enigma machine – from a German U-Boat. Stirring stuff, but widely misleading.

The Enigma recovery that changed the course of the war occurred in May, 1941. The machine was recovered from a German U-Boat by brave and daring sailors, and their actions were indeed the stuff of movies. But I’m afraid the sailors were those unbecoming British, serving aboard HMS Bulldog. Although it may not be ‘high-octane adventure’ here’s part of the report by Sub-Lieutenant David Balme:

At 1245 9th May, I left [HMS] Bulldog in charge of a boarding party to board an enemy submarine which had surfaced. The crew consisted of 6 seamen, 1 telegraphist and 1 stoker. “Bulldog” was lying to windward of U boat and there was a heavy swell running so to save valuable time I made for the weather side (Port).

There were numerous holes in the Conning Tower casing caused by “Bulldog’s” 3″ and Pom-pom. As no small arm fire was opened up at the whaler from the U boat, I was fairly confident that there was no one in the Conning Tower.

His report went on to say:

Sub-Lt David Balme – The real Enigma Hero

Also the coding machine was found here, plugged in and as though it was in actual use when abandoned. The general appearance of this machine being that of a type writer, the telegraphist pressed the keys and finding results peculiar sent it up the hatch. This W/T office seemed far less complicated than our own-sets were more compact and did not seem to have the usual excess of switches, plug holes, knobs, ‘tally’s’ etc on the outside.

Untrendy Brit-Grit

So no, this is not an anti-US statement. Instead I share David Puttnam’s lament that he made about ‘Memphis Belle’ but which I also attach to the examples above. And that is, it would appear stories declaring the bravery of Britons can’t be rightfully told as they’re perceived to be of little interest to the paying public – a public who would rather learn of the individual exploits of those of a larger, more marketable nation. Not only that, they prefer to be entertained by fantasies which claim credit for that nation rather than hear factual accounts that reflect the bravery of our own, true-Brit heroes.

Rant over … sorry ’bout that.

One thought on “Unfashionable Brits

  1. It’s an understandable rant and a necessary one, Steve, because most Americans and quite a few movie-watching Brits would be quite misled by this false portrayal of history. But the history of films shows that filmmakers are rarely interested in the truthful representation of the past — witness Westerns, Biblical epics, most war films, the medieval period and so on. As for right and wrong, winners and losers, real history is messy whereas film is frequently simplistic.

    But the average US psyche is very different from the British, and we ignore that difference at our peril. The re-imagining of stereotypical British fiction (The Lord of the Flies and The War of the Worlds are rexent examples) in US contexts often means a re-imagining of the underlying messages to reflect US values.


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