So in less than four months Britain will be out of the EU and our Brexit future will have begun. And if it goes ahead this may well trigger the dreaded domino effect, encouraging other countries to crash out of the European Union our parents’ generation worked so hard to create. In fact it may well signal the beginning of the end for this extraordinary guarantor of continental peace. Once again, Europe will become a collection of nation states whose interests can no longer be guaranteed to coincide. So it’s worth remembering that 80 years ago those nations states were sliding inexorably towards the most devastating war in the history of mankind, a war which saw 20 million dead and untold horrors perpetrated in the name of national identity. A war between those same European nation states in many of which right-wing authoritarianism seems to be once again on the rise.
So what was the state of relations between these countries when that war began just eight decades ago?
When he died my father left me a full set of a weekly magazine called WAR ILLUSTRATED. A fairly ghastly idea you might think, but the pictures are generally pretty harmless — smiling soldiers boarding troopships, or airmen posing alongside their new Hurricanes, that sort of thing.
No, it’s the words that capture the terrible pain and waste of it all, even though they’re couched in terms of stiff-upper-lip, gung-ho optimism. I picked a year (1940) more or less at random, and dug out the edition for this corresponding week that year.
I’d like you to take a look at the content of just one page, the rather matter-of-fact Our Diary Of The War. I’m going to summarise that week for you now. But before you read on, just remember three things. One, this was just an average week — nothing of any major importance happened, nothing that went down in the history of this war (the Nazi obliteration of Coventry, for example, had taken place just two weeks earlier). Two, remember that as you read through this seemingly never-ending list of bombs dropped, artillery battles and submarines lost, that each bomb-blast shatters buildings and lives, leaving ordinary people dead or maimed and children to grow up without fathers. Submarines reported lost means fifty or sixty men dying an awful death suffocating in a tin-can on the sea-bed. Try also, as you read, to imagine what it’s like to be in a column of troops machine-gunned from the air as you move slowly across an open African plain. And thirdly, please note the place names in this list. Remember that each one is home to hundreds and thousands of people, who may have been helping their children with their homework, or getting ready to go to work or just sleeping when bombs began to rain from the sky.
And remember that almost every one of the cities named below is currently within the European Union, a brave attempt by the people who lived through it to make sure that such a war should never happen again.
Notice too, how widespread the destruction is, and how many of the countries now in the EU bore the brunt of war that week.
Now read on, and absorb the events of this week seventy-eight years ago - just one of the more ordinary weeks of the war that tore Europe apart.
Tuesday November 26th — The RAF made large-scale attacks on Armament factories and other targets at Cologne. Other forces bombed railways in Berlin, Turin, shipping and docks at Rotterdam, Flushing, Antwerp, Calais and Boulogne. Coastal command aircraft attacked naval bases at Lorient in France, oil targets at Ghent in Belgium and shipping off the Dutch coast. RAF bombers attacked Italian ships in Valona harbour in Albania. At home in the UK bombs fell on an unnamed Sussex coastal town and Bristol was raided by daylight and at night. Bombs fell on London as the Blitz continued.
Wednesday November 27th — The RAF again attacked Cologne, Antwerp, Le Havre and Boulogne. There were heavy night raids on Plymouth and bombs fell on London. Meanwhile the Greeks and the Italians were fighting on Albanian territory. In Romania 64 political prisoners were executed.
Thursday November 28th — The Admiralty announced the loss of two trawlers the Dungeness and the Fontenoy as a result of air attack. The RAF attacked Dusseldorf and Mannheim. Naval shipbuilding yards at Stettin were bombed along with the docks at Cuxhaven. Attacks were also made on ports in Antwerp, Boulogne and Le Havre. In Italy, Brindisi was heavily bombed and British bombers attacked Italian forces at Sid Barrani in North Africa. Forty German bombers crossed the Kent coast during the morning and Night Raiders came in the evening. Merseyside suffered its heaviest raid of the war so far.
Friday November 29th — There was a clash between British and German naval forces in the English Channel. HMS Javelin was hit by a torpedo but reached port. Coastal Command aircraft attacked ports at Hamburg, Cologne, Boulogne and Le Havre and sunk a German supply ship off the coast of Holland. The RAF made concentrated raids on naval yards at Bremen and riverside wharves and docks at Cologne. Some German aircraft crossed the channel and their bombs fell mostly in South London. At night there was another attack on London, the Home Counties and Northwest England. Five enemy aircraft were shot down. Britain lost two fighters — though their pilots managed to bale out.
Saturday November 30th — The Italians said that the French battleship Lorraine had been partly destroyed by their bombers during a raid on Alexandria in Egypt. On the home front there was a big Nazi daylight raid but most of the planes were dispersed by British fighters. German bombs fell in London, East Anglia and along the West Coast of England. There was a heavy night raid on Southampton, the centre of the city being apparently deliberately attacked. Every type of building in the main streets suffered severely and many churches were destroyed.
Sunday December 1st — The Admiralty announced that the submarine Triad was overdue and presumed lost. Coastal Command aircraft made a yet another attack on the naval base at Lorient, while other aircraft bombed military camps at Kristiansand and the gas works at Esbjerg in Denmark. The RAF made night bombing attacks on the naval ship building yards at Wilhelmshaven. Southampton was again raided during the night and bombs fell in London and the Home Counties and elsewhere. In Albania there was a fierce artillery battle in progress between Greek and Italian forces near Gjirokaster.
Monday December 2nd — Five British ships in the North Atlantic reported by radio that they had been torpedoed. Coastal Command aircraft attacked shipping off the Norwegian coast and bombers raided the submarine base at Lorient yet again. In Italy, the RAF bombed military targets at Naples, and the aerodromes at Catania and Augusta in Sicily were attacked with incendiaries. In Africa Italian troops and motor transport on the Metemma to Gondar road in Italian East Africa were bombed and machine-gunned and there was a “successful” raid carried out on the large camp at Gubba.
Just an ordinary week. As the next five years unfolded the toll of death and devastation across Europe grew to staggering proportions. Four months left now to stop the wanton destruction of possibly the best thing to come out of it all.