Day Two: London—Where Allies Meet
Updated: Feb 25, 2020
Oscar Wilde once said that London is composed of “beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics. Just what Society should be.” He also believed that the person “who can dominate a London dinner table can dominate the world.” The truth of such assertions is, of course, debatable, but the imagery nevertheless illustrates for me what I’ve long considered an indisputable truth about what was the most powerful city in the world for generations—it has a power and presence that charges the intellect and inflames the muses of history like few other places on earth.
This was my fourth visit to London, and I still haven’t seen 80% of the massive city yet. Like our short stop in Iceland, we were only going to be in the capital of the UK for twenty-four hours before hopping on a train northward to Duxford for the beginning of the D-Day remembrance events. On any other trip, having only a day in London would lead to great debate over exactly what to see and do; but on this one, it was clear to all of us what needed to be the centerpiece of our short visit: Winston Churchill’s “War Rooms” in the heart of the city’s government quarter in Westminster, mere blocks from Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament.
Opened just before the outbreak of war in 1939, the “War Rooms” consisted of a network of underground rooms and bunkers that housed all the great decision-making figures and offices involved in the British government’s war effort against Nazi Germany. Housed below what is now the HM Treasury building, the war rooms became the nerve center of Britain’s desperate defense during the Battle of Britain in 1940, and it miraculously survived Hitler’s “Blitz”—the systematic bombing of London during the summer and fall of that pivotal year. As the museum that now houses the War Rooms (one of five branches of Britain’s Imperial War Museum) makes clear, the war rooms were “an easy target that was never hit.” The legendary Winston Churchill, who became Prime Minister in May 1940 as Hitler’s armies rolled through Western Europe, personified the war rooms—working tirelessly 24/7 and focused entirely on winning the war—and made them the nerve center of Britain’s long transition from beleaguered nation fighting alone against Nazism to key partner in the D-Day invasion and subsequent Allied liberation of Western Europe.
The tour of the war rooms is self-paced with the use of handheld audio guides, and as usual I deviated from the suggested order as I moved back and forth between items and rooms that caught my attention. I was mostly interested in the “map room”, in truth a series of large rooms full of tactical wall maps and charts and phones where officials kept track of the latest developments on every front of Britain’s global war effort. Much as I had when I saw the DC-3 takeoff from Reykjavik the day before, the sense of history’s presence and importance hung thickly palpable around me. On several occasions I took time away from the crowds and the audio guides to just simply sit or stand in spots and imagine what the walls around me had seen and heard over seven decades ago.
The artifacts included in the exhibits also drove home the daily experience of Londoners during the war—enduring bombing raids, attacks by V-1 and V-2 rockets, strict rationing of practically everything, and the constant fear of learning terrible news about the fates of loved ones. The now-infamous poster that emerged from that era (and has been adapted into approximately 1.868 million different memes now), “Keep Calm and Carry On”, and the public notices on what to do during an air raid illustrated just how “everyday” the war experience became for Londoners—for over five years. It can be easy to forget now, knowing how the war ultimately turned out, that victory—not inevitable by any means—required everyday people to endure an open-ended daily existence permeated by fear, uncertainty, and deprivation with no real idea how the war would turn out. Soldiers undergo training to deal with such things—civilians must learn to cope without any, minus the training that comes with hard knocks and even harder losses.
The war rooms also reminded me that London served as the “home base” of the Allied effort to successfully cross the English Channel on D-Day. Only 186 nautical miles (as the crow—or European swallow—flies) from the Normandy invasion beaches, London was the site of most of the high-level discussions held and decisions made among Allied military leaders, led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander. Throughout the countryside and along the coasts outside the city, hundreds of thousands of troops from over a dozen allied nations gathered with all their necessary equipment—guns, bullets, boots, matches, knives, helmets—and all the jeeps, trucks, tanks, airplanes, and other equipment necessary to prepare for, then launch, the greatest seaborne invasion in history. The unprecedented logistical web this required centered in London, guided by leaders meeting in Churchill’s war rooms or calling into it often via phone or via courier messages. The ultimate success of D-Day, therefore, was directly tied to that of London’s throughout the previous years.
This fact made writing a counterfactual version of London after a D-Day failure an interesting enterprise. In Krelle’s Inferno, the failure of the Normandy invasion strained relations between Britain and the United States, devastated the morale of the British and American people, and left the Allied effort exhausted beyond measure and struggling for an effective response to the invasion’s failure. By the time the book begins (summer of 1946), London is the home of the fledgling United Nations (not San Francisco then New York as it happened in reality), and is also home to a British government and society deeply divided over how to respond to Soviet control of Europe all the way up to the English Channel. The London of my novel is fatigued from years of hardship in war and by what looks like will be more years of the same, a city with tensions among social classes roiling beneath the surface, where governments-in-exile seek help from British and American allies who can’t recover their wartime solidarity and confidence—and trust in each other—no matter how hard they try. It was a grim portrayal that felt odd to write, but in light of the scenario I’d created, certainly plausible as a near-worse case scenario. D-Day’s failure could indeed have been that costly, I’m convinced.
I am certainly happy that history worked out differently, and I felt that relief strongly in the depths of the war rooms during my visit that day. As I emerged back out into the teeming throngs of Londoners and tourists enjoying an abnormally warm first of June, the city preparing for the arrival of dignitaries from around the world for the D-Day remembrances, I reflected on the current strains that exist between my own country and their longtime allies, particularly with Britain. It’s too easy to romanticize the “special relationship” touted for decades between the two countries, and also easy to catastrophize the current state of relations between the two nations separated by a common language. I understand both impulses. I also choose to believe that commonalities between peoples can and should win out in the end, but only if they choose to do all the work involved in doing so. Those who worked together and focused on their commonalities to survive, then defeat, Hitler’s onslaughts certainly did so under much worse circumstances than we face today. There’s a lesson in that, and to me, it’s an obvious one.
I’d end up coming back to these kinds of musings a number of times during the days that followed, starting with our very first day at Duxford for the “Daks Over Normandy” portion of the D-Day remembrances. That all important first day of livestreaming is the subject of my next post. As you wait for that, Keep Calm and Carry On.
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