Posted on June 24, 2024

British WWII Veterans: Unhappy With What’s Become of the Country They Fought For

F. Roger Devlin, Institute for Historical Review, April 2024

More than once I have come across the view that if British lads of the 1940s could have foreseen the state of their country today, they would never have bothered to fight the Second World War. Few of those who have heard that view may realize that there is empirical evidence to support it. One fascinating source is The Unknown Warriors, a 2012 book by Nicholas Pringle.

Over the years, a range of historians and authors, along with the Imperial War Museum in London, have interviewed many of those who served in the British armed forces about their wartime experiences. But Mr. Pringle, an Englishman from Newcastle Upon Tyne, felt something was missing from such accounts. He wanted to know what the men and women who had fought, worked and sacrificed for their country now thought of what had become of Britain in the decades since. So, between 2006 and 2008 he placed notices in local newspapers across the United Kingdom inviting veterans of World War II to send him, along with brief descriptions of their wartime service, their thoughts on the postwar world. He asked: “Is it a disappointment or are you happy with how your country turned out? What do you think your fallen comrades would have made of life in 21st Century Britain?” All opinions, he said, would be welcome.

The response from dozens of men and women, by then in their eighties and nineties, exceeded his expectations, with their letters filling a volume of more than 500 pages. Mr. Pringle has done his country, and the world, a service by collecting such testimonies while it was still possible. He wrote: “Many took it as a chance to get things off their chests, remember experiences that might at some point be lost in the mists of time, and to give their views on the country they fought so bravely for. Arthritic fingers, failing eyesight, and shaky hands were not going to stop them.”  While much of this book is taken up with reminiscences of wartime experiences from every theater of the conflict, sometimes in fascinating or moving detail, the focus here is on the veterans’ thoughts about postwar British life and society.

Some veterans express gratitude for modern conveniences, improved standards of living, and the softening of class snobbery. But the prevailing tone of their letters is one of bitterness over what had become of the county they once cherished. Of the four or five most often voiced complaints, the most common is over mass migration from other countries and continents, and how that has drastically changed British life, culture and society. They are particularly bitter because, as quite a few point out, they were never consulted or asked about this profoundly transformational policy. During the war these same men and women were told that they defending “our way of life,” but it is precisely the British way of life that has been sacrificed to accommodate a flood of new arrivals and their offspring. The once common remark that the British might be “speaking German” if Hitler had not been defeated now seems ridiculous in a land filled with people speaking Punjabi, Arabic, and a cacophony of other alien languages.

Here are some typical comments:

It is very sad to see this country taken over by foreigners who have no business to be here at all … so-called refugees and immigrants who take advantage of benefits which we have earned and paid for in our taxes. All we fought for is being whittled down to accommodate people who have their own country and customs, and who come here to tell us what to do.

Far too many immigrants cause trouble and have no wish to integrate, but only grumble.

People come here, get everything they ask for, free, laughing at our expense.

All those foreigners were allowed in, given money, houses, and cars at times – us being told not to comment on it.

Refugees and immigrants dictate their own rules and conduct, and the government pays. My patriotism has gone out the window.

What do I think of a country that can keep 7,000,000 people unemployed, and let millions of illegal immigrants claim benefits? I am ashamed of it.

During the 1950s and 1960s, when the British empire was being dismantled, one writer recalls, the British were told that “Africa was for Africans, and the white man should not be there.” He expresses sympathy for that point of view, but points out that it cuts both ways: if Africa is not fit for white people, why should Britain be regarded as fit for non-white people? Mere residence in the UK does not make black and brown people British, either. As many writers point out, though, such thinking is now taboo.

Another veteran who was stationed in India at war’s end recalls the barbarities there when the country was partitioned. He remembers local men at the docks shouting “Go Home” to him and other servicemen as they boarded ships to return to the UK. But now, he bitterly notes, “these people have been allowed to settle here uncontrolled, with no health checks or suitability to integrate, etc.”

Several writers mock those who promote and defend mass immigration as “do gooders,” and one remarks trenchantly on the widespread tendency to “confuse sentimentality with genuine concern for others.”

Crime is another often mentioned concern. Writers recall with happiness the freedom they enjoyed as children to roam far from home and stay out late at night without fear. Before the war, several note, many Englishmen did not bother to lock their front doors. Now, veterans report being afraid to go out at night. “As a youngster, I lived in some of the tough parts of South London,” recalls one, “and never once saw or was involved in” the kind of violence that occurs routinely in modern Britain. Others complain of lax and negligent policing, and lenient punishment of lawbreakers. More than one suggests that prison conditions are now so congenial that many “yobs” (rude, abusive and uncivil youths) prefer life behind bars to living on the outside, which of course cancels the deterrent effect of incarceration.

Such law enforcement as still remains, veterans note, is not applied impartially. While police appear unable to suppress the street crime that is disproportionally committed by immigrants and non-native communities, one writer suggests, several police officers might be detailed to go after some English grandmother whose taxes are in arrears. Another remarks that in disputes between white natives and their non-white, immigrant neighbors, the aliens are invariably given the benefit of doubt. Several note that the law could be applied on the native English with impartial strictness and rigor precisely because respect for law is so deeply rooted among them in a way that is alien to many immigrant groups. So, the authorities “pass laws to handcuff the law-abiding citizens knowing they will obey, [but] we now have people entering our country thinking these laws are not made for them, only the English.”

Many writers remark on the loss of freedom of speech, particularly relating to race and immigration. One respondent recalls a news report (from 2006): British nationalist leader Nick Griffin had just been acquitted after two years and two separate trials on charges of “words or behavior likely to stir up racial hatred.” Chancellor of the Exchequer (and soon-to-be Prime Minister) Gordon Brown thereupon remarked that “the law will have to be looked at.” Griffin’s acquittal was apparently considered proof of the inadequacy of the law under which he had been charged! At the same time, “Muslims can demonstrate with police protection about anything not in keeping with their Islamic faith.”

Disgust with modern Britain’s political leaders is a recurring lament. Politicians in general are regarded as “liars, incompetents and self-aggrandizing charlatans.” An exception is Enoch Powell, whom one vet calls “our best man.” Most political comments are not especially partisan. Labour Party supporters appear no more enamored of mass immigration than Tories. Several condemn Margaret Thatcher for her emphasis on the pursuit of economic self-interest rather than the good of the nation and the national community. It was during her tenure, says one widow, that “we started to lose all our industry, and profit became the only aim in life.” Several writers observe that material prosperity does not seem to have translated into greater happiness.

Veterans express concern about rising consumer debt. Raised to live within their means and avoid buying on credit, some have learned that their thriftiness and financial prudence now bars them from most forms of government assistance. One concludes wryly that the younger generation is smart to respond as it does to the incentives that have been put in place: “Thank goodness my grandson is spending his money on the things he wants, and does not save. The Government will look after him.”

The decline in manners and civility is a frequent subject of dissatisfaction. Before the war, “gentlemen raised their hats to greet one, stood up when a lady entered the room, offered one a seat, etc. Life was orderly. People spoke the King’s English. Everybody looked clean and wholesome.” Children today, another remarks, are “ill dressed, scruffy and unable to communicate.” But the writer is careful to observe that this is “not their fault” – it is today’s adults who have failed to instill good habits in the rising generation. The greatest need, several writers contend, is to inculcate discipline and a sense of personal responsibility in children and teenagers.

Some lament the decline of community and family. In the world veterans grew up in, “families remained together, divorce [was] a rarity [and] children felt secure.” Today’s women “have been conned into going out to work, and they are still required to do most of the chores as before. They no longer seem to have the skills of cooking, how to discipline children. Families are no longer as close as we were.”

Other complaints include the waning influence of Christianity, pointless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, hospital closures, high taxation, and “government control of our lives.” Some deplore the influence of television, with one writer remarking that children seem to have lost the ability to amuse themselves without it.

A veteran of the women’s wartime auxiliary service says she and her colleagues “all feel appalled that the Britain we fought for has been swamped by ungrateful immigrants. None of us would again volunteer to help what is left of Britain. We agree that we would not want to be young again.” A few more typical observations:

We old people struggle on pensions, not knowing how to make ends meet. If I had my time again, would we fight as before? Need you ask?

We can no longer feel proud of our country and the behaviour which is now accepted as normal.

We are told we must keep up with the times. Are the times worth keeping up with?

The men who offered their lives have been betrayed and gave their lives in vain. Most of the older people say thank goodness we are ending our lives. It is no longer the Britain that we fought for.

To Pringle’s question of what the veterans’ fallen comrades would think of contemporary Britain, one respondent said simply “I don’t think their words could be printed.”

Some lament ignorance of the Second World War itself, as well as its instrumentalization for narrow, self-serving ends: “Not a week goes by without the newspapers reminding readers of what brutes the Nazis were, and that we must not allow minority groups to be treated this way.” The Holocaust, this writer also observes, is used as a “big stick” to intimidate the native population.

Some veterans note the contrast between wartime propaganda and what they actually observed: “My stay in Germany as a member of the Army of Occupation had a strong influence on me. I went to Germany as an enemy and left as a friend.” This man ended by marrying a German girl with whom he had two sons. Another veteran of the postwar occupation found the Germans “no different than you and I. Where were the fanatics I was told about?” One offers as his main regret “that I didn’t fight for Hitler; at least he was for his own people.”