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We Can Take It!: Britain and the Memory of the Second World War
Mark Connelly
Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2004.
£19.99, vii-328 pages, ISBN 0582506077 (hardback).

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen


Few readers would disagree with Connelly's superb description of what he calls the "central British myth of the Second World War":

In 1939 Britain falls into war unprepared and lacking a genuine leader. In 1940 Britain gained the leader it deserved in Winston Churchill, faced humiliating defeat in France but thanks to an extraordinary rallying of the nation an Armada of small boats crossed the Channel to rescue the soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk. Britain then stood alone, without allies, surrounded by the enemy. The Battle of Britain was won by the Few in the skies over the rolling countryside of southern England. Defeat in this battle forced the Germans into an indiscriminate bombing campaign. Far from causing the collapse of Britain, the people drew together in an even tighter bond and they embarked fully on their People's War. Surviving the blitz did not bring about victory, however. Britain went on to suffer defeats in virtually every theatre of war until Montgomery came along and won a decisive victory in the desert. After that, with new allies, it was a glorious adventure. On D-Day 'Monty' led the way back to France, and the war culminated in the suicide of Hitler and the defeat of the Third Reich. [1].

His adoption of the style of 1066 And All That is of course deliberate, in order to expose the oversimplification which is at the basis of the myth—and causes such a headache to history teachers who have to "put the record straight." But then Connelly somehow sets out to turn the tables on the profession (of which he is of course a young member), largely founding his approach on Graham Dawson's seminal article of 1984 (1):

[Dawson] attacked historians for drawing a simple division between their 'authoritative' work and the vagaries of the popular legend. He argued that historians are involved in a mythologizing process themselves; they often unconsciously rework the myth even when they are seeking to attack it. This ensures that the myth is impervious to scholarly destruction and even deconstruction. [2]

Thus Connelly is involved in a complex task, both providing his own narrative of the war from what we could call the conventional British point of view and introducing the necessary critical distance, not only regarding "the popular legend" but also the historiography which has tried to dispel it. His exploration of the different lieux de mémoire associated with the Second World War (2) not unexpectedly starts with BBC Radio—the Wireless as it was then called: "The declaration of war in 1939 provided a tribute to the power of wireless" [27], and Connelly first concentrates on Chamberlain, "the presiding genius of the piece" [i.e. of the "Bore War"] [35] and his image, then and now. Needless to say, Chamberlain appears as the archetypal anti-hero, though Connelly is careful to remind us that "at first Chamberlain received a great deal of applause when he appeared on newsreels" [36]. Here, maybe, one might find fault with Connelly's periodisation: he should perhaps have started with Munich, or even earlier, with the anti-rearmament policy of the Left, apparently widely approved by the electorate, and paralysing Baldwin and his friends (who did not seem keen to confront Hitler anyway). In other words, it is arguable that the myth did not begin with 1939, but with the strange amnesia of the British public concerning its post-1933 pro-appeasement, anti-rearmament stance. Churchill of course was percipient enough to start his The Second World War with The Gathering Storm—an exposé of the inter-war years which did much (3) to anchor the idea which opens Connelly's description of the myth above: "In 1939 Britain falls into war unprepared and lacking a genuine leader."

Equally unsurprisingly, Chapter 2 is devoted to "Dunkirk and the fall of France," its theme being given by the second sentence: "Few people can argue with the fact that Dunkirk has become a magical word to the British" [54]. The two pictures which illustrate the chapter are a summary of the argument in themselves. One is the famous Low cartoon of 18 June 1940: "Very well, alone!" The other is a still from the Dad's Army series, portraying the actor Arthur Lowe as Captain Mainwaring, "the Blimpish stick-in-the-mud," as Connelly's text describes him [82]. Implicitly reverting to Dawson's contention that "the myth is impervious to scholarly destruction and even deconstruction," Connelly opens his concluding paragraph with the remark that "Few people have been bothered by the attempts to debunk the Dunkirk story; it is too entrenched in the national psyche" [90]. Here, he no doubt alludes to Clive Ponting, whose work (4) gets short shrift in Connelly's Introduction:

Ponting's sensationalist shock-horror denunciation set out to prove that the British lurched from pillar to post in 1940. Dunkirk therefore becomes a tail [sic] (5) of ineptitude and folly, the Battle of Britain was very nearly a disaster of equal proportions, the blitz saw morale cracking and the only way to maintain the spirit of the British people was by a diet of misinformation [10].

Interestingly, Connelly concluded this attack by a reiteration of his own aims, "This book will not try to deny the validity of such points, but will highlight the equal validity of the myth" [10], and the chapter which follows "Dunkirk and the fall of France" gives him one more superb occasion to "highlight the equal validity of the myth," since it is devoted to The Few ("The fewest of the few: the Battle of Britain, June-September 1940"). Connelly uses the familiar notion of "the new Jerusalem" in a curious sense: "[The Battle of Britain] helped perpetuate the perception that England is indeed the new Jerusalem, a green and pleasant land blessed by summer suns" [95]. In the context of Second World War studies, "the new Jerusalem" is usually an allusion to "Beveridge and all that," i.e. a reference to the debate on social reform. Successful authors like Correlli Barnett (6) have also denounced what they saw as another myth of the war, namely the illusion entertained by the "new Jerusalemers," as Barnett calls them (7), that the experience of wartime solidarity (such as it was) justified the building of a post-war Welfare State. Connelly does discuss this aspect of the People's War in his chapter on the Home Front, but he does not seem to wish to counter the debunking process of anti-Beveridge critics like Barnett (in fact he totally ignores him and his work on the subject in the text proper, relegating his "provocative interpretation of British reliance on the USA and the economic consequences of the war" to an end-of-chapter note [Note 68, 196]) (8) in the way that he debunks the debunkers like Ponting and the "sensationalist revisionists," as he calls them [128-129]. Thus Connelly relates his own "new Jerusalem," the "green and pleasant land blessed by summer suns" to another myth, much older than what Angus Calder has called the myth of the Blitz (9):

The Britain the battle was fought over was regarded as the essence of the nation. The land of the Few was defined and encapsulated by the rolling countryside of south-east England. A well-matured, well-known vision of the heart of Britain was deployed throughout the war, but most potently in the summer of 1940. This vision conceived Britain as a rural idyll, of happy country folk who toiled in the fields of golden wheat… It was precisely because most people in Britain lived in the great industrial cities, and had been the first people in the world to adapt to mass urbanisation, that the attraction of this rural myth was so appealing. [115]

Then follows a discussion of the role of Churchill (who had only been alluded to in the chapter on "Dunkirk and the fall of France") in 1940, largely based on the impact of his oratory and concluding that "Churchill's speeches became the way in which the British like to remember 1940, and indeed the whole war." [124] For Connelly, what he calls "the magical Spitfire summer" undoubtedly sowed the seeds for a postwar reinforcement of isolationism and aloofness, lasting to this day:

The Battle of Britain, like Dunkirk before it, served to emphasise the separation of Britain from continental Europe. It underlined Britain's perception of itself as a very special place, populated by a very special people, who were never happier than when facing a seemingly hopeless situation. [124]

This provides the link with the next chapter, on the Blitz: "Along with its 1940 stable-mates, the myth of the blitz is vital to British national identity. According to this memory, it provided, and continues to provide, proof of the distinct qualities of the island race." [129] One can wonder whether his allusion to "the island race"—a recurrent phrase in Churchill's The Second World War, of course—would be understood by the younger generation, and here perhaps lies the central problem of all lieux de mémoire: probably every British schoolchild knows a wide range of words and phrases associated with the War (The Few, The Blitz, etc.) but other expressions which immediately ring a familiar bell among older Britons (in this case a Churchillian bell), like "the island race" will probably be lost sooner or later outside the academic community and people with a "special interest" (one may think of Royal Air Force buffs for the "scramble," etc.). The problem of these shifting lieux de mémoire will probably be one of the trickiest ones facing future historians, and Connelly is evidently at a turning point between generations. He tells us in his Introduction that he is 32 that in his boyhood he was fed on publications like Beano, Dandy, Victor Comic for Boys, Battle, spuriously claiming to be carrying "True Stories of World War Two," which he devoured with great enthusiasm [17]. But today? Space invaders and "gothic" monsters would no doubt provide severe competition, with their own exotic vocabulary—but in no way related to the history (however distorted and mythologised) of their own "islands." Connelly is of course aware of the problem, as shown by his somewhat nostalgic remark in the Epilogue: "Words like 'Dunkirk' are still in the language but fewer and fewer young people, including history students, seem clear as to precisely what happened around that French port, why and when. Most of them won't have heard of Kenneth More let alone Douglas Bader (10)." [301]

The following chapters, on the Home Front and on the British armed forces (including prisoners of war) after the Finest Hour of 1940-41 very convincingly examine the mandatory themes, as the titles of the sub-chapters clearly indicate: Rationing; Auntie Beeb; Beveridge Report and political antgonism; British workers and our gallant Socialist ally; Women (with the familiar picture, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring); Living with the war; Sex, Poles and Yanks; Desert rats; Operation Overlord; A bridge too far; Commandos and prisoners of war; Boys' own war; Colonel Bogey: the Far East and Italy (with the equally iconic figure of Alec Guiness discovering the wire at the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai); Reaping the whirlwind: Bomber Command; "When Britain First at Heaven's Command" (11): the Royal Navy.

The final chapter, "Gotcha!: Recasting the Second World War, 1945-2002" is in many ways the most insightful of all chapters. It is dominated by three major strands. The first is Margaret Thatcher re-enacting the Churchillian epic in the Falklands (with an excellent table showing the supposed analogies between "The People's War myth" and "The Thatcherite parallel to the Second World War" [278]), followed by the disquieting popular germanophobia which seems to be particularly escalating in the field of football. Connelly does not fail to quote the Mirror at its best (at its worst) on 24 June 1996, before a European match against Germany, starting with a parody of Chamberlain's celebrated speech of 3 September 1940 ("I am writing to you from the Editor's office at Canary wharf. […] I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently we are at soccer war with Germany"), continuing with a pun on the name of an England player, Stuart Pearce ("Pearce in our time"), and ending with another parody ("For You Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over") (12). Connelly also has a fascinating discussion of the "Bottle of Britain" germanophobic advertising campaign by Shepherd Neame, the makers of the Spitfire beer, with slogans like "Downed all over Kent, just like the Luftwaffe" (13). The third strand is somewhat unexpected, but none the less relevant for that: it discusses that old faithful, the Special Relationship, in the light of Anglo-American rival claims to have been the major partner in the War and concludes that the British have lost that final battle: "By dominating popular culture, American media companies have the ability to revise the popular understanding of the Second World War" [296]. Curiously, Connelly only alludes to the "outcries" over U-571 [295], without dwelling on their origin, though the film constitutes a remarkable example of such revision (14).

No one who is familiar with Second World War studies will learn any "new facts" about war-time Britain or the military aspect of the war in Connelly's book. This was not his objective, of course. On the other hand, his stated aims in the Introduction—to re-examine the popular and academic (now mainly "revisionist") interpretation of the well-known "facts" since 1940 ("The British myth of the Second World War was being made as the war itself unfolded," he writes in the opening sentence of the Epilogue [300])—are perfectly fulfilled. One very strong point of Connelly's discussion lies in his superb knowledge and analysis of the British war films of the 1940s and 1950s, with their popular impact considerably multiplied by constant showing on British television (an impact bound to diminish, he feels, since "British children will rarely now sit down to watch black-and-white war films on Sunday afternoons" [301]), and the Appendices include a very useful, four-page list of World War II films, from Above Us the Waves (GB 1955) to Yanks (GB/US 1979). There are also ten excellent pages of Bibliography, a comprehensive list of "Comics, comic books and annuals," a good list of "Paintings, photographs and posters," a full list of "Documentaries and television dramas"—but the "Theatre" section only has one entry (Beyond the Fringe): obviously, these choices must reflect the personal interests of the author. Likewise, there are only four entries in the "Websites consulted": anyone who has even inadvertently followed links to sites devoted to Britain in the war knows that their number must be incalculable—and evidently there must be many more than four even in the "serious" category (15).

But this imbalance between the long list of films and the extremely short list of websites reinforces in itself the point that Connelly wants to make in the book, namely that we are at a turning-point for the perpetuation of the myth, so well served by the cinema for people of his age or older—but in danger of being lost with the attraction of new media like the Internet, with its wide range of temptations, for the coming generation. Will the equivalent of Connelly's book in, say, twenty years' time, have a long list of websites and only four films in its Appendices? Connelly would probably like to think so, because this would mean that the myth was not yet extinct—something on which he does not seem ready to bet, if we are to follow his concluding remarks:

It is therefore hard to know whether the British myth of the Second World War will now take a new direction or whether the nation is witnessing the final manifestations of a national obsession that is about to pass into history. Britain has lived with its finest hour for a long time, but few would doubt that that hour has long since passed. [301]

There is absolutely no doubt that We Can Take It!: Britain and the Memory of the Second World War is an important book, which should be mandatory reading for all undergraduates following courses on Britain in the Second World War and for postgraduates doing research in this field—if only because it provides a superb framework within which to put the various incidents and episodes of the war in perspective; in perspective then, and in perspective now. The book will also be found extremely useful by students of Britain since 1945, as it makes many British attitudes (e.g. on European Integration) easier to understand. As an analysis of what has been written (both in serious literature and in comics) and shown on film (and later on television) on the subject, it stands unsurpassed—and this judgement includes Calder's magnificent People's War (16), whose ambit was different (and whose copious annotated Bibliography has not been updated to include more recent work). Unreservedly recommended for all University and Departmental Libraries.


1. Dawson, Graham. "History-writing on World War II." In Hurd, Geoff [Editor]. National Fictions: World War Two in British Films and Television. London: British Film Institute, 1984: 1-7.
2. An exploration undertaken in a wider context in Kenneth O. Morgan's lecture, "Lieux de mémoire: Great Britain, the United States, France and the two World Wars." See
3. For a superb discussion, see Reynolds, David. In Command of History: Churchill fighting and writing the Second World War. London: Allen Lane, 2004, chapter 7, pp. 91-110.
4. Ponting's only entry in the Bibliography is 1940: Myth and Reality. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1990.
5. Unfortunately, the proof-reading has been gravely neglected. Another example is "the imagery of Bunyon and The Pilgrim's Progress" [165].
6. Notably in his tetralogy, The Pride and the Fall. (The Collapse of British Power. vol. 1. London: Methuen, 1972 (Stroud : Sutton, 1996); The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation. vol. 2. London: Macmillan, 1986 (The Pride and the Fall: The Dream and Illusion of Britain as a Great Nation. New York : Free Press, 1987); The Lost Victory: British Dreams, British Realities, 1945-1950. vol. 3. London: Macmillan, 1995; The Verdict of Peace: Britain between her Yesterday and the Future. vol. 4. London: Macmillan, 2001).
7. "New Jerusalemers like Beveridge." The Audit of War. p. 260.
8. Inexplicably, in a book evidently intended for the academic community, we do not have convenient footnotes, but cumbersome end-of-chapter notes.
9. Calder, Angus. The Myth of the Blitz. London: Jonathan Cape, 1991 [Pimlico Paperbacks, 1995].
10. Douglas Bader, D.S.O., D.F.C., one of the foremost 'air aces' of the Battle of Britain, with countless narratives of his exploits in print and now on the Internet. See for instance
"The loss of both legs in a flying accident brought Douglas Bader's promising flying career to an abrupt end in 1931. However the outbreak of war saw Bader reinstated to the RAF and, complete with artificial legs, piloting a Spitfire in the thick of the action at the time of Dunkirk.
With the Battle of Britain imminent, Bader was given command of a depleted squadron of young demoralised Canadian pilots following the fall of France. When assigned a new squadron commander with no legs, the pilots of 242 Squadron became even more despondent. Typically, Bader quickly dispelled their doubts with a brilliant and daring aerobatic demonstration in his Hurricane, and within a few weeks the dynamic Squadron Leader transformed the dispirited Canadians into one of the RAF's elite fighter units."
11. Once more, one may wonder how many British undergraduates today are able to recognise the quotation from Rule, Britannia.
12. "For you the war is over" is a hackneyed phrase in war stories and films, when somebody is taken prisoner.
13. The brewery's website has a "humour" page where all these slogans can be found:
14. The American appropriation of the glory, entirely due to the British, is excellently explained on the BBC page,
15. A good starting point for "serious" sites on Britain at war will be found on Cercles' Sources page:
16. Calder, Angus. The People's War. London : Jonathan Cape, 1969 [Pimlico Paperbacks 1995].



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