It has frustrated me for a long time that the far right use their misinterpretation of the motives of the soldiers who fought in WWII to justify the behaviour of thugs and haters today. I am unsure what the contents of their history lessons at school covered but they certainly differed from mine.
I frequently see the suggestion that fathers and grandfathers fought so the far right have the right to defame and abuse immigrants and Muslims under the thinly disguised veneer of free speech. I do not believe this is why my grandfathers fought. They are both dead today so I am unable to ask them but I believe they fought for freedom from fascism and the promise of a free world. I believe they fought to oppose an oppressive regime threatening the lives and liberty of the British people and I believe they fought to keep our people free from the tyranny of the Nazi jackboot.
As a project to understand what did motivate the men and women who served in WWII I reached out on social media to ask for stories from those who have family members who did serve. The responses I received were touching and humbling. There were some very eloquent, intelligent and well thought out answers. Many were a beautiful tribute to beloved relatives who have long since passed.
I have reproduced a selection of the comments below, edited to preserve the anonymity of the respondents.
My father fought in WWII, he fought against Hitler and Fascism. He was always very clear about that. He was politically active all his life, in the British Communist party in the 1930s and in the Labour party later on. I know he worked and campaigned hard for social justice, equality and human rights. I was always taught that all humans are born equal. He would be very sad at the rise of the far right today.
My father was a flail tank driver clearing mine fields. He fought against Hitler, the Nazis and the far right. Not the Germans! He was a true socialist, believed in equality and the EU.
My father was first wave in WWII at 19 as he was in the T.A. He was badly injured at Dunkirk and patched up and sent by boat to Africa then up to Egypt where he served until 1947. He was pro common market, as it was then. He was a hater of violence but a lover of fairness and human rights. He always said that if Franco had been dealt with in Spain by the rest of the world instead of countries turning a blind eye or supporting the fascist, there would have been no WWII.
It’s worth remembering that many of those who fought would have had a less racist attitude to black and Asian people then those who came after because they fought alongside them. My dad had a great admiration for Sikh and Gurkha troops for that reason. I think that much of the way that the post war generation thought about the the war and the role of those who fought in it was shaped by the endless stream of war films that appeared during the 1950s where the heroes of the war were invariably upper or upper class white English men and people of colour hardly or never appeared.
My step father was a Major in the Ghurkas. He had nothing but deep respect for his men. His father, grandfather and great uncles were all Indian Army. Not once did I hear any of them say anything racist,or disparaging against the workers. The entire family fought for the good of others and, according to my mother ,all voted Labour for Attlee after the war. They voted for the good of the people. They will be turning in their graves now, as Mayhem destroys the country with her greed and incompetance.
I’ve a little story I want to share about my Grandfather, he was born just too late to fight in the Great War, and he was old to be fighting in the second, so he became a mechanic in the RAF. He was an ordinary man with simple values and beliefs. In 1944 he was at a forward airfield not far from Caen when some units of the 21st Panzer and some SS units wiped out so many poor young Canadians. They were advancing on the village close to the airfield and the only people who could stop them were the RAF personel, cooks, mechanics, signalmen many who had not fired a rifle since basic training, but they grabbed their weapons and went to do what they could, like so many ordinary soldiers in extraordinary times. They fought and died, KILLED and some survived but they saved the village until some of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers relieved them, My Grandad survived, but he lost many friends.
Both my grandfather’s served in WWII , one in the Army, one in the Navy. Both were socialists.
My Gramps was in the Royal Engineers during WWII. He was amongst the first landings on D-Day, where he helped to clear the beach of landmines, then with his battalion went ahead of the troops building bridges and clearing mines as they went. He was injured by a sniper at one point in his shoulder and he suffered with the pain for the rest of his life. He was amongst the liberators of Belsen. On his return he would never talk about his experiences and rejected religion of all kinds due to his experiences. He was a quiet man but his parents and siblings, who had lived in poverty before the war, saw the fruits of the land that was built on the backs of those returning soldiers, He and his family had decent housing for the first time, he had free healthcare, benefits when he had no work, and I was able to benefit from the education system in order to be the first person from his family to gain a Degree and now his great grandchild is studying for an MA. He was not a raging Socialist but believed that all these things were what made for a good society and I’m sure that he never imagined a day when these things were being taken away from the British people by an evil Tory government.
Neither of my grandfathers fought fascists just for the bastards to become acceptable or even fashionable, and both would have given convicted fraudster Stephen Yaxley-Lennon a good clattering.
My step-dad flew with Bomber Command and was a DFM. He was a gentle, tolerant man and he would be horrified to think that fascism is on the rise again and that the memory of the many airmen who died was being tainted by these creatures. Bomber crews had a four-in-ten chance of completing a single tour of ops in the first half of the war. When the armed forces of all the nations opposed to Hitler were in retreat, or at best defending, Bomber Command was the one force that was taking the war to the Nazis. They did it at terrible cost and it makes my blood boil to see their sacrifice and courage being hijacked by people of the same ideology that they gave so much to defeat.
My uncle was a tail-gunner in a Lancaster Bomber. He died, shot down over Holland and buried at Arnhem. Like many young men of his generation he fought against Fascism and the oppression of minorities. The Far-Right in this Country cloak themselves in the flag and a grotesquely distorted xenophobic patriotism. They shame the millions who fell fighting a similar bigotry and hatred.
My father was in the Battle of Normandy. Landed in a glider on the beach. He switched seats in mid-air when a guy asked him to switch. That guy died in the crash. My father survived. Turns out the guy that died was gay. No small wonder my father was unconditional in his love for me. That applied to all other minorities too.
My dad was in South Africa helping to repair the planes that were used for fighting. Mum was an auxillary nurse helping people injured in the raids on Birmingham as well as having a full time job. I believe both were fighting against a maniac called Hitler from taking over the world and yes, against fascism and oppression. Fortunately my dad came back unhurt, unlike the thousands of thousands that didn’t. Was it worth it? Yes my parents would certainly do it all over again for the same reasons.
My dad and my uncles, all now dead unfortunately, but they would say without a shadow of a doubt, they fought against fascism. They were clear Hitler had to be stopped. They were working class East Londoners, probably like some of the people demonstrating against Islam or immigration, but they manned the barricades in Cable Street in 1936 to see off Moseley and his black shirt thugs.
My grandad fought in the war. Not because he had to. He was a miner. Because of his values. Hated nazi ideology. I caught it from him.
My Father went to war. He was very clear about why. He would be spinning in his grave to see what a nation we have become.
We fought in WWII to stop segregation anti semitism and prevent Adolf Hitler wanting to make a master race of blond hair blue eyes. We fought so that we could be who we want to be, worship who we want to worship and love who we want to love. There is a reason the far right are often called Neo-Nazis and that is because they are just as bad as Nazis, only instead of hating Jews they hate Muslims.
My dad joined the club British army at 17 after his parents died. My earliest memories are of sitting on the bed on a Sunday afternoon listening to my father’s stories of the places he had been and the more repeatable of his war experiences. My dad’s politics were muddled but he certainly did not fight for an all white nationalist version of Britain. He was pro Europe and anti racist until the day he died and had no issue when we had people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds marry into the family. He strongly supported the European Union because of its part in preventing conflicts on the European continent. One thing I have noticed is people from the far right often have no direct connection with those who fought in WWII.
I am German. My dad was sent to war when he was barely 16, France, Italy, later Africa THANK GOD he survived and became a British POW. Which was a thousand times better than being a Red Army POW. His younger brother was somewhere in an SS special force, he went missing around Berlin when Hitler was already dead. He was 18 or 19 when he died. My mother was born in 1934 and nearly starved to death during the war, I FUCKING HATE NAZIS. I owe everything I have to the Allied Forces who liberated us. I learned and now teach English. Everything I do, I do to make people UNDERSTAND each other. Brexit breaks my heart.
My heart is breaking. What to do? I was born at the beginning of WW2…I never thought we would be torn apart again..devastated.
It’s worth a look at the something like 5 million people who signed up to fight for Britain from the wider empire/colonies. If there’s one group that mess up the narrative [for the far right] it is them. We talk about ‘winning the war’ but we forget just how many soldiers came from places we now think of as foreign.
It’s clear that even by late 1940 what had started off as a typical national war had become a struggle for something bigger and better. Remember that most of the Conservative Party was in favour of a negotiated peace after Dunkirk. Churchill was not popular with a lot of his party and his biggest cheers in the house came from the Labour benches (who had most to lose from a peace with Hitler). The war was a war, as Churchill said, to free Europe. It was about being part of Europe, not standing aside. Which is why most of the survivors of the actual war generation were against Brexit. It was their feckless children and grandchildren, who benefited most from the ‘land fit for heroes’ who have dreamed up a national myth about the war somehow being about independence from Europe, national pride and the rest.
I find it amusing that so many who were too young at the time to understand what was going on in their world (yet were actually there) went on to rail against what their parents fought for. They voted Brexit. Their children in turn (my generation and on) seem to support those of a generation who fought and died and were old enough to understand why there was a Labour landslide in the 45 election.
My dad’s brother was killed when HMS glorious was sunk he was just 18. His other brother was sunk twice and finished up on the Arctic convoys. I asked him what it was like. After a long pause he said “Cold boy, bloody cold.” He wouldn’t go into details and never mentioned it again as far as we know.
Fighting to stop Nazis taking over and being under the thumb of the Jackboot.
My Grandad, was a POW in Stalag 13 in Poland. The very camp where Hogans Heroes is based. Conditions were appalling for the Prisoners. All prisoners were questioned, upon arrival or capture – especially my Grandad. The Nazis wanted to know, where he was from. But, my Grandad knew – if he gave the location, he’d be interrogated further as it was actually a very key location in the fight against the Nazis. After the war ended – the British Army, wanted my Grandad to stay, offering him to train Recruits/ Privates. They awarded him medals, but my Grandad refused and didn’t want the medals. This just shows, how much trauma he had seen, the awful atrocities he had been through and all the suffering he had endured. Some memories, are so painful for some people to remember or speak about. And every Remembrance Sunday, I remember his courage and bravery – as well as the many others, who fought and died so we today could have our freedom and liberty. It’s a story, I hope to one day share with my grandchildren. How their Great Great Grandfather was a war hero, who fought so the next generation could have freedom. I never want his story to be forgotten, but his courage and bravery will always be remembered by history.
One day I went to see my Grandad, and he was sitting in his chair crying, I had never seen him do that before, I ran to him thinking he had fallen or was in pain, he looked at me tears on his cheek and said these words to me;
“I taste the taste of death every night”
I sat and listened, his clear grey eyes darkened and he told me the story:
“In April 1945 we were mainly driving delivering supplies we were sent with trucks of supplies to a camp called Belsen, from a few miles there was a strange atmosphere, no wildlife, everything was quiet, when we got to the gates we saw half humans , walking corpses, and the smell, I smell the smell of death every night”
The tears were streaming down both our cheeks, we hugged for a while until we both stopped. He grabbed my hand and said “Never again.” For 50 years he had tasted that taste as he slept – if you can call nightmares sleep – there was no treatment for PTSD back then.
He never stopped loving life, he bought a computer at 94, he said he had to live for his friends that died and the two young Germans he killed young enough to be his sons.
The fog was thick as I walked along the river, the strange orange glow of sodium lights above and his words came to me, I scrabbled for a pen and a scrap of paper and I wrote his words.
Can it be they are men
Gaunt faces, sunken cheeks
Dark dead eyes
Those that move shuffling forward
Feet dragging through a sea of mud
Matchstick fingers clinging to wire not moving
Every bone is shown angular and deformed
Creaking with every tiny movement
Cuts putrid rotting
Then the smell sweet and sickly
Causing nausea deep within
Rising unstoppable spewing forward
I saw those the few survivors
The ragged remnants of a battalion of 6 million others
Now some say it never happened
A mere detail in history
Or perhaps a communist lie
Let those that forget
Let those that deny
Taste the taste of death I taste every night
Thank you to everyone who took their time to share these treasured stories with Resisting Hate. I wish I could have published them all. It has been a privilege to share in the journeys of your brave relatives.
Roanna Carleton Taylor
Roanna is one of the founder members of Resisting Hate. She is the author of many of our articles, and also publishes a blog on Huffington Post UK