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Lest we forget

‘You stupid boy …’

One of my favourite lines in one of my favourite shows, Dad’s Army.

I love the theme song:

Who do you think that you’re kidding, Mr Hitler,
If you think old England’s done?

Arthur Lowe as Captain Mainwaring—think of that resonant, baritone voice, delivered so often in tones of exasperation with some dithering dolt, usually Pike. Yet the sternness was reassuring somehow. After all, in the world they were fighting for, ‘stupid boys’ such as Pike were cared for instead of being sterilised or euthanised. Pompous as he was, Mainwaring embodied the best of ordinary Brits: that sense of the ridiculous, asperity that wasn’t mean—and matter-of-fact courage when required. His decrepit bumblers were the Home Guard of Walmington-on-Sea. This remnant was the last line of defence against the super-efficient Wehrmacht. If it went bad with the best of the fighting men, they would make the last stand. (They would have been Britain’s Fretilin, I suppose.)

My dad was unable to fight in the war, unlike his brother George. Dad had glasses as thick as prisms and a twisted foot. He kept trying to enlist whenever things took a turn for the worse. ‘Do you need me yet?’ he’d ask. ‘No, not yet, Mr Hughes,’ they’d reply.

Dad was working as an engineering inspector at Fairey’s Aviation in Manchester by day, and worked the night roster as an air-raid warden. The industrial north of England was a prime target for the Nazis, so he saw plenty of enemy action without gaining any uniformed glory. He was one of that unsung army who was prepared to fight them, as Churchill said in those dark days of mid-1940, ‘on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets, in the hills’.

Dad’s and Uncle George’s stories come back to me when I consider the upcoming series on SBS As It Happened: Germany’s War. It’s going to organise Saturday evenings at 7.30 here at Emoh Ruo for some time to come because it lasts for nine weeks through May and June. It covers the final two years of the war, when the tide finally began to turn against the Nazis. It’s one of the most compelling war documentaries ever; the product of inspired collaboration between ZDF (the German TV channel), the American History Channel, Channel 4 and Russian TV.

‘Bit of an antidote to Private Ryan, isn’t it?’ says my beloved.

I remember that movie: it was much less historically accurate than Dad’s Army. Churchill’s ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech came four years earlier, at a time when the Americans hadn’t felt moved to do anything yet; when their jury, so to speak, was still out on whether they would actually enter the war on the side of the guy who seemed to be so sound on matters of race.

‘Hah, once they had been arse-kicked into the fight, they talked like they were the only ones fighting the Nazi hordes,’ I say, thumping the arm of the chair.

‘Oh God, she’s channelling Churchill again,’ says my beloved. ‘Juliette, are you there? I want to talk to Juliette …’

‘Give her tea,’ says our son, at this juncture.

‘I’m adding a Tim Tam,’ I hear my husband saying, through the red, white and blue mist.

Episode 1 of As It Happened covers D-Day, the ‘longest day’, 6 June 1944, when the Allies landed in Normandy at five beaches code-named Utah, Gold, Juno, Sword and Omaha. The documentary interviews soldiers from all sides including German. But I have an account from Uncle George (he who was rescued from Dunkirk carrying a piano accordion he’d bought in a French bar, and had to chuck it into the sea as the little boat was overloaded). He is still mystified about the cock-up that led to the carnage of the American troops on Omaha beach as they ran into a steady stream of Nazi bullets, turning the sea into viscous red soup. In the meantime, only a short distance away, British forces were landing without much trouble. He said (it seemed to be a generally held impression among British soldiers) that the further away you were from the Yanks, the safer—because, even if their generals weren’t flinging them straight into the Nazi guns, they themselves were trigger-itchy; friendly fire was an ever-present danger.

Nothing changes—ask the lads in Iraq. Uncle George’s son is in the Regulars and saw action in Basra. We all hope he can stay far away from the Americans. Another SBS documentary, at 8.30pm on Tuesday, 3 May—Cutting Edge: A Soldier’s Heart—looks at the problems that beset the ordinary US soldier caught up in hideous situations. A nervous over-reaction can lead to tragedy, because soldiers who are constantly insecure become over-vigilant. This doesn’t, unfortunately, mean that they notice everything that they should, because anxiety cloaks reality. It looks as though Iraq is a place where everyone can lose.

Subsequent episodes of Germany’s War show that Americans weren’t the only ones with bad judgment. Watching the 14 May episode, you’ll be fascinated and angry. The terrible blunder at Monte Cassino monastery was the fault of New Zealand’s General Sir Bernard Freyberg. He caused the deaths of the Benedictine monks and hundreds of Italian refugees, and also gave the Nazis a huge military advantage as they dug into the ruins and killed many Allies, including Aussies, from their fine new vantage point.

Clever men can be a lot more threatening than stupid boys. Lest we forget.                        

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.



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