Battle of Britain’s history: How the myth of WWII shaped Brexit

Why We Wrote This

For proponents of Brexit, World War II has come to frame the narrative about why Britain must leave the European Union – and why anything less is unacceptable. Why does the war loom so large in the debate?

Hannah Mckay/Reuters
Military re-enactors pose next to a model of the cockpit of a Lancaster bomber as they promote charity events to mark the 75th anniversary of the Dambusters raids, outside the Royal Albert Hall in London in February 2018.

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From books to films to theater and TV series, World War II looms large in modern Britain. For some Brits, the war is still living memory, or has been passed down to aging baby boomers. And its mythology – particularly around the Battle of Britain – is framing Brexit for its proponents as the country moves closer to leaving the European Union.

In this narrative, Britain is forever battling alone, bereft of allies, against a dominant continental European power. In the hands of pro-Brexit politicians, myths of wartime derring-do fueled the 2016 referendum, which turned on ideas of sovereignty and EU overreach, as well as immigration and jobs. Since the referendum, the use of WWII rhetoric and imagery has grown more shrill. Faced with the prospect of Britain crashing out without a deal, politicians have invoked the “Blitz spirit” as a reason not to fear shortages of food and medicine.

But that point of view misunderstands the true history of WWII, historians say. “Britain never beat [Nazi] Germany on its own and never beat Napoleon on its own,” says David Edgerton. “It had European allies involved in both cases.”

To even the most casual fan of World War II movies, the propeller-driven Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft are instantly familiar.

Today these two planes rest on a verdant lawn in front of a red-brick chapel that commemorates the pilots and crew that flew in the Battle of Britain and other air campaigns, including those that never came back – 454 Allied airmen in the Battle of Britain alone. The modest chapel is bracketed by a new building, the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum, that speaks to an abiding national interest, even obsession, in that time.

In August 1940, as Nazi Luftwaffe bombardments intensified over England, Winston Churchill singled out these airmen for praise. “Undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, [they] are turning the tide of the World War,” he told Parliament. “Never before in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Inside the museum, a retired police officer peers into a cabinet of medals, maps, and crockery. “This is why a lot of people voted to come away,” explains Robin, who didn’t want his surname used. “We would like to stand alone again. We’ve always been an island nation.”

That vote, of course, was the 2016 referendum that set the United Kingdom on its troubled Brexit path. Last week European leaders granted the U.K. a two-month extension on leaving the EU, but Parliament remains deadlocked over the terms of departure, or even if Brexit should happen at all. Members of Parliament are due to vote again on Brexit on Friday, the same day that the U.K. was supposed to leave.

From books to films to TV series, WWII looms large in modern Britain. For some Brits, the war is still living memory, or has been passed down to aging baby boomers like Robin, who were more likely to vote “leave.”

But the mythmaking that connects the Battle of Britain to Brexit has a particular strain. In this narrative, Britain is forever battling alone, bereft of allies, against a dominant continental European power. And anyone who settles for less than victory is an appeaser on par with those of the 1930s, before Churchill led the nation to its “finest hour.”

“It’s a sense of Britain as a plucky little island that stands up against the overwhelming might of Nazi Germany,” says Lucy Noakes, a social and cultural historian at the University of Essex. “That codifies for us something about what it means to be British, about British character.”

In reality, says David Edgerton, a historian at King’s College London, Britain was never really alone, even in the Battle of Britain, given its vast empire and support from the United States. “People want to remember the war, and especially the early years of the war, as a time when the nation stood alone without an empire or without allies. Nobody at the time would have believed this,” he says.

‘A really attractive myth’

In the hands of pro-Brexit politicians, myths of wartime derring-do fueled the 2016 referendum, which turned on ideas of sovereignty and EU overreach, as well as immigration and jobs. One of their campaign buses blared the soundtrack of “Dambusters,” a 1955 war movie.

One month before the vote, Boris Johnson, a Churchill devotee and amateur historian who fronted the “leave” campaign, made the parallels explicit.

Unifying Europe under one authority has always been anathema to freedom lovers, declared Mr. Johnson, a Conservative lawmaker. “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods,” he told the Telegraph. He added: “This is a chance for the British people to be the heroes of Europe and to act as a voice of moderation and common sense, and to stop something getting in my view out of control.”

That the EU grew out of postwar cooperation by European powers to prevent a repeat of World War II did not stop this narrative taking root. (Brexiters point out that the U.K. had joined an economic community, not a union.)

It also draws on the myth of Britain standing alone, notes Mr. Edgerton. “Britain never beat Germany on its own and never beat Napoleon on its own. It had European allies involved in both cases,” he says.

Other conflicts hold a prominent place in U.K. culture, particularly World War I, which functions as a metaphor of futility and suffering. By contrast, the mass slaughter of WWII, with the exception of the Holocaust, has long been swept aside by stories of unflappable Brits who face down the Nazis.

“It’s a really attractive myth. It’s romantic and very singular and everyone can understand it. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?” says Dr. Noakes, co-author of “British Cultural Memory and the Second World War.”

The mythmaking began before the war was over: The first Battle of Britain commemoration was held in 1943. That year the Royal Air Force opened St. George’s memorial chapel – three conjoined prefab huts – at Biggin Hill. In 1946 the huts burned down and were replaced by a brick structure. One of its stained-glass windows shows St. George, patron saint of England, standing atop a vanquished dragon as RAF fighters take on German bombers overhead.

Darren Staples/Reuters
Planes from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight are flown in an air display to mark the flight's 60th anniversary at RAF Coningsby in Britain, July 11, 2017.

Different views of the war

Postwar British filmmakers burnished this heroic imagery, says Petra Rau, a lecturer in literature, drama, and creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. For veterans, movies like “Dambusters” allowed them to show their sons what they had achieved. “The war is a very nostalgic and consoling narrative because of its simplicity,” she says.

For other European countries, a consoling story is more elusive, given their occupation by and collaboration with Nazi Germany, says Ms. Rau, a German-born scholar of cultural representations of war and fascism. “World War II is simply not that easy.... It’s not a glorious memory,” she says.

This cultural memory informs how continental Europe sees the EU – not as a German plot but as a fresh start – and why British nationalists and newspapers reflexively revert to jingoism, says Mr. Edgerton. “In many countries [the war is] recognized as a disaster and a cause of immense suffering. In Britain’s case it’s seen as a uniquely powerful moment of national success.”

Since the referendum, the use of WWII rhetoric and imagery has grown more shrill, as the sunny promise of Brexit has come undone. Faced with the prospect of Britain crashing out without a deal, politicians have invoked the “Blitz spirit” as a reason not to fear shortages of food and medicine and even spoken fondly of postwar rationing and other privations.

“It’s part of the mythology. We have a stiff upper lip and will get through it,” says Ms. Rau.

Brexiters have also assailed the beleaguered prime minister for failing to muster Churchillian resolve. In December, Mervyn Davies, the former governor of the Bank of England, compared Ms. May’s deal to the appeasement of the Nazis.

In January, as Ms. May prepared for further talks with the EU, the BBC made the broadcasting equivalent of a Freudian slip: It accidentally showed black-and-white footage of Spitfires when it announced her travel plans. “Theresa May will not be flying to Brussels in Spitfire, BBC clarifies,” it said on its website.

In fact, the footage was for a news item on the opening of the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum.

A generation moving on from the war?

Built with $7 million of mostly public money, Biggin Hill has drawn criticism for spoiling the views of the memorial chapel and garden. Museum officials say income from paying visitors will help to maintain the chapel after the Ministry of Defense cut off funding. (The RAF closed its airbase in the 1990s; a civilian airport is still in use.)

Mike Giles was among a dozen or so visitors, mostly retirees, that day. He describes himself as a war history enthusiast. But he’s not in favor of Brexit and takes a more positive view of the EU. “We’ve been free of war since 1945,” he says.

One of the displays undercuts the Brexiters’ go-it-alone narrative. It is a globe with points of light for all the airmen who served at Biggin Hill, from New Zealand to India and Jamaica to South Africa – a reminder of the vast empire that Britain once ruled.

There’s another cultural memory of WWII and its aftermath that Brexit has largely obscured, says Dr. Noakes, that of a “People’s War” that led to the postwar creation of a modern welfare state, including the National Health Service. This framing of the national story, with the NHS as its icon, featured in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

Events like that speak to a younger generation for whom WWII is not “the war” and Germany is another European country, not the enemy.

At the Imperial War Museum in London, two $40 million galleries about WWII and the Holocaust are due to open in 2021. Dr. Noakes is an adviser on the WWII gallery and hopes it can broaden the scope of the war and its legacy.

Museum visitors had large gaps in their understanding of the conflict and had stereotypical ideas based on film and TV, according to a 2015 survey. “The museum is really keen on educating rather than mythmaking,” says Dr. Noakes.

But it may be too late for Brexit, she sighs. “We shouldn’t let them have that history. We should’ve done a better job of educating people more broadly.”

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