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1940s

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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American airmen with British civilians after VE Day

US official photograph showing American airmen having a drink with Brits outside the Waggon and Horses pub in Great Yeldham, near their base at Ridgewell, Essex, on 17 May 1945. They are gathered around a now defunct local pastime: ‘Bet! V.E. before July’ (FRE 13699)

The American airmen did not simply pack up their bags and board troop ships as the final notes of the VE Day big band faded away. Instead, the Roger Freeman Collection of photographs shows how they spent the time between the end of war and their return home, up in the air and on the ground.

One of the quirks of researching the impact of American airmen on Britain during the Second World War is that very often airfields across East Anglia remained in American hands until the winter of 1945. By November of that year, the bright days of May had faded somewhat and although the August news relieved airmen of possible duty in the Pacific it must have been a homesick bunch of GIs that kicked about East Anglia, as the trees lost their leaves, waiting for orders to go home.

The Roger Freeman Collection gives a good picture of life at war but I’ve taken the chance of the approaching VE Day Anniversary Air Show coming up at IWM Duxford to find out what it reveals about what life was like for Americans in England after the Nazi surrender.

One of the stories told by Bomb Group veterans is that they used the days after VE Day to give lifts to ground crew, who had spent their days making the bombers airworthy and armed, to show them the effect of Allied bombing raids on Nazi industrial sites.

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One of IWM’s recently-acquired garments, displayed for the first time in Fashion on the Ration. This mustard wool Utility coat made by Alexon is an example of wartime design at its best, featuring simple lines and minimal trimmings. © IWM UNI 14387.

IWM London’s headline exhibition for the spring and summer, Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style, explores how the war impacted upon an intensely personal aspect of life on the home front during the Second World War.  What did people wear and how did this shape their sense of identity? How was fashion constrained by war? How did men, women and children cope with the demands and deprivations of shortages and austerity?

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