8.4.41

Have just read The Battle of Britain, the M.O.I.’s best-seller (there was so great a run on it that copies were unprocurable for some days). It is said to have been compiled by Francis Beeding, the writer of thrillers. I suppose it is not as bad as it might be, but seeing that it is being translated into many languages and will undoubtedly be read all over the world – it is the first historical account, at any rate in English, of the first great air battle in history – it is a pity that they did not have the sense to avoid the propagandist note altogether. The pamphlet is full of “heroic”, “glorious exploits”, etc., and the Germans are spoken of more or less slightingly. Why couldn’t they simply give a cold accurate account of the facts, which after all are favourable enough? For the sake of the bit of cheer-up that this pamphlet will accomplish in England, they throw away the chance of producing something that would be accepted all over the world as a standard authority and used to counteract German lies.

But what chiefly impresses me when reading The Battle of Britain and looking up the corresponding dates in this diary, is the way in which “epic” events never seem very important at the time. Actually I have a number of vivid memories of the day the Germans broke through and fired the docks (I think it must have been the 7th September), but mostly of trivial things. First of all riding down in the bus to have tea with Connolly, and two women in front of me insisting that shell-bursts in the sky were parachutes, till I had a hard job of it not to chip in and correct them. Then sheltering in a doorway in Piccadilly from falling shrapnel, just as one might shelter from a cloudburst. Then a long line of German planes filing across the sky, and some very young  R.A.F. and naval officers running out of one of the hotels and passing a pair of field glasses from hand to hand. Then sitting in Connolly’s top-floor flat [1] and watching the enormous fires beyond St. Paul’s, and the great plume of smoke from an oil drum somewhere down the river, and Hugh Slater sitting in the window and saying, “It’s just like Madrid – quite nostalgic.” The only person suitably impressed was Connolly, who took us up to the roof and after gazing for some time at the fires, said “It’s the end of capitalism. It’s a judgment on us”. I didn’t feel this to be so, but I was chiefly struck by the size and beauty of the flames. That night I was woken up by the explosions and actually went out into the street to see if the fires were still alight – as a matter of fact it was almost as bright as day, even in the N.W. quarter – but still didn’t feel as though any important historical event were happening. Afterwards, when the attempt to conquer England by air bombardment had evidently been abandoned, I said to Fyvel, “That was Trafalgar. Now there’s Austerlitz”, [2] but I hadn’t seen this analogy at the time.

The News Chronicle very defeatist again, making a great outcry about the abandonment of Benghazi, with the implication that we ought to have gone for Tripoli while the going was good instead of withdrawing troops to use in Greece.[3] And these are exactly the people who would have raised the loudest squeal if we had gone on with the conquest of the Italian empire and left the Greeks in the soup.

[1] Cyril Connolly then had a furnished flat on the top floor of Athenaeum Court, Piccadilly, partly paid for by Peter Watson, sponsor of Horizon. For watching the raid from the roof-top on 7 September 1940, see Michael Shelden, Friends of Promise, p. 62. For Hugh Slater, see War-time Diary, 23.8.40, n. 4

[2] Admiral Nelson defeated the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, but Napoleon nevertheless went on to victory at Austerlitz later that year, defeating the combined forces of Russia and Austria and forcing Austria out of the war. Hitler may have lost the Battle of London, Orwell was saying, but it must be expected that he would have subsequent victories elsewhere.

[3] See War-time Diary, 14.3.41, nn. 1 and 2. Peter Davison

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5 Responses to 8.4.41

  1. Proofreader General says:

    I was struck by at least three misprints in this entry:
    complied = compiled
    they thrown away = they have thrown away
    St. Paul’s = St Paul’s
    Are these Orwell’s errors, or yours, or what exactly?

  2. Barry Larking says:

    The News Chronicle was correct. The decision to intervene in Greece made by Churchill had no chance of success. Tripoli would become the entry point of the Africa Corps, Rommel and string of costly British Commonwealth defeats. Orwell’s views about propaganda – of treating people as ‘grown ups’ – is both wonderful and impossible.

  3. @Proofreader General – the ‘St. Paul’s’ is as written by Orwell, the other two were our mistakes (apologies!) which have now been corrected.

  4. Lars says:

    I am surprised that so far no one has commented on the interesting Libya analogies – at least it inspired me to take a look at how the war in Libya unfolded at that time, so I have at least something to compare against current events and their eventual further development…

  5. George~~
    Eloquent flashback. The entire 2nd paragraph is a work of genius. A pulse of time direct from your mind’s eye.
    …“It’s the end of capitalism. It’s a judgment on us”. I didn’t feel this to be so, but I was chiefly struck by the size and beauty of the flames.

    …but still didn’t feel as though any important historical event were happening.

    It all “felt” so mundane.

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