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1940s

‘Sir Philip Hesketh-Smithers went to the folk-dancing department; Mr Pauling went to woodcuts and weaving; Mr Digby-Smith was given the Arctic circle; Mr Bentley himself, after a dizzy period in which, for a day, he directed a film about postmen, for another day filed press-cuttings from Istanbul, and for the rest of the week supervised the staff catering, found himself at length back beside his busts in charge of the men of letters.’

Evelyn Waugh, Put Out More Flags (London, 1942)

Thus, does Evelyn Waugh describe muddled reform within the Ministry of Information. First mooted in 1935, organised in secret and briefly activated during the Munich Crisis of 1938, the Ministry of Information (MOI) formally came into being on the day of Britain’s declaration of war. Over the next two years much would be made of supposed confusion within the MOI which was the subject of vehement criticism, not least from journalist Norman Riley in his scathing book 999 and All That (a reference to the number of staff reportedly employed by the Ministry). Pilloried in the press and lampooned by comedians, the MOI experienced four changes of Minister between 1939 and 1941. Yet perhaps the most notable early blunder concerning Britain’s wartime information policy was not in fact of its making.

(D 1199) A Mobile Film Unit car leaving MoI headquarters at Senate House London; 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205195723

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© IWM, LBY 83 / 726: The façade of the Real Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, in 1943. Photos and quotations extracted from F. Fesel’s personal account, titled: ‘San Carlo souvenir: Personal Impressions of a Season of Opera at the San Carlo Opera House, Naples – 1943/44’.

“The place seemed to be a theatre. The doors were locked and he wanted to enter. […] The place had been hit, and a bomb had made a big opening there and, before he realized what he was doing, he was climbing up over piles of masonry, and was soon among the ruins of the former lounge.”

On 4 November 1943, just over a month after the first Allied troops entered war-torn Naples, Lt. Peter Francis of the Royal Artillery made his first acquaintance with the ruins of the Real Teatro di San Carlo, one of the oldest and most prestigious opera houses in the world. The theatre had been closed in 1942 and it was now in a terrible state: bomb damage had blasted the foyer, debris and layers of dust covered the internal surfaces, there was no electricity or water and a German machine gun nest was still installed on its roof. The British requisitioned the building and, under Peter Francis’s authority, on 15 November 1943, with the frontline just 30 miles away, the theatre officially re-opened its doors to soldiers and civilians.

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A woman in a grubby coat sorting items salvaged from her home stops to drink a cup of tea given to her by a member of the Salvation Army. Lytcott Grove / Playfield Crescent, Dulwich, London, 18 January 1943. © IWM HU 136931.

George Orwell calculated that the tea ration – 2oz per week during the Second World War – could be eked out to twenty cups a week. So important was tea considered to be for the welfare of the nation that pensioners were allocated a slightly larger ration. Orwell’s ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, published in 1946, illustrates its importance in British culture. He described the eleven stages required for making the perfect cup of tea, the etiquette surrounding tea-drinking and the varied uses for tea leaves from fortune-telling to cleaning carpets.

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Aldwych, London, 30 June 1944. © IWM, HU 129151.

Much has been published about the ‘Myth of the Blitz’ in London, and how the official representation of how Londoners ‘carried on’ was often at odds with the truth of nightly looting from bombed houses, crimes committed during the blackout, homelessness and the mass burials of bomb victims. Yet myths are still prevalent in the images which are routinely circulated: the dome of St Paul’s rising intact from the smoke from the burning City, the staged photograph of city gents selecting books in the ruined Holland House Library, the milkman continuing with his delivery round across the rubble after a night of heavy bombing. Images once made familiar will tend to be chosen again and again – picture researchers, publishers, museum curators – all have played a role in the perpetuating of certain stock images.

Holland House Library, London, 22 October 1940, © IWM, HU 131632.

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V for victory soldier

© IWM (K 1254), December 1941

 

This photograph of an Indian soldier on board a troop ship to Singapore in 1941 confronts us with a familiar gesture from the Imperial War Museums archives. The soldier thrusts his head and arm through the ship’s porthole, and appropriates Churchill’s well-recognised ‘V for Victory’ symbol with the fore and middle fingers of his right hand. Incidentally, he isn’t attempting to be rude! Churchill himself didn’t realise that the ‘V for Victory’ symbol made with the palm inwards could be an insult until his aides briefed him.

This physical gesture, frozen in motion by the wartime photographic lens, punctures our Eurocentric memory of the Second World War with a non-white colonial presence. The soldier’s smiling youthful face attests to the two-and-a-half million men from undivided India swept up by military recruitment for the British Empire – widely regarded as the largest volunteer army in the world.

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From left to right: Paul Cornish, Jamie Carlin, Kasia Tomasiewicz, Vikki Hawkins and Anna Ravenscroft of the IWM Second World War Galleries team

From left to right: Paul Cornish, Jamie Carlin, Kasia Tomasiewicz, Vikki Hawkins and Anna Ravenscroft of the IWM Second World War Galleries team

‘The test has now begun.’

These five words, which have struck fear into the hearts of many, seem oddly out of place in the Wellcome Collection’s impressive Reading Room. It’s not just the location, rather that all participants including five from the IWM’s Second World War Galleries team, are wearing false moustaches. How better to get into the mind-set of a would-be British Army officer in 1942?

To celebrate the opening of the Tavistock Institute Archive papers on the War Office Selection Boards or WOSBs (pronounced wos-bees) at the Wellcome Library, a series of innovative workshops have been created to allow visitors to undergo the same military psychology tests that were used over 70 years ago. Although never kept a secret during the war, it has only been through the doctoral research of Alice White, and the meticulous cataloguing of the Tavistock Institute Archives by Elena Carter, that a wealth of information about the creation and development of the WOSBs testing programme has been uncovered. Co-created with Matt Gieve of the Tavistock Institute, these workshops will no doubt run for more than the initial four sessions planned.

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War generates unique and unexpected experiences in civilians’ ordinary lives. But war can also exist as a surprisingly uneventful setting for everyday working lives. At the European Social Sciences and History Conference three talks encouraged me to consider ways in which war work impacted civilians’ ordinary lives through memories that reclaim, forget and negotiate popular experiences of the Second World War.

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Former POWs, Internees and the widows of POWs.

Special guests at June’s conference: former POWs (from bottom right: George Reynolds, Tom Boardman and Bob Hucklesby); FEPOW widow (Merle Hesp); and former internees (from top left: internees Els and Connie Suverkropp, Romee Hindle, and Olga Henderson). Courtesy of LSTM/Brian Roberts.

2015 has been a poignant year. Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, veterans and their families came together throughout the summer to reflect, remember and renew their commitment to sharing the stories of wartime.

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‘It took an army to make this exhibition’, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett told her audience and ‘having scholars in charge of each section had been the key to the Museum’s success’.  In May I attended a conference seven months after the opening of the core exhibition of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. At the conclusion of the eight- year project, those involved in the Museum’s creation were keen to open debate on what had worked well and what less so, and to identify the gaps in Polish Jewish history requiring further historical effort.  The core exhibition offered a starting point for that discussion.

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C Eliot Hodgkin, ‘The Haberdashers’ Hall, 8th May 1945’, tempera on panel, © IWM, Art.IWM ART LD 5311.

June is the month when rosebay willow herb comes into flower, growing from derelict buildings, on wasteland and railway embankments across the UK. During the Second World War and in the following years, its spires of magenta flowers were common to see amidst the ruins and cleared bomb sites, hence the name it was given at the time – fireweed.

Yet to flower in this painting of May 1945, the fireweed is depicted at the very forefront of the remains of Haberdashers’ Hall, Staining Lane, which was destroyed during one of the worst night raids of the Blitz on the 28/29 December 1940.

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