This week marks the anniversary of that fateful day when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941.
As everybody knows, this prompted the U.S. to join World War II the next day after several years of keeping itself isolated from the global war.
Germany and Italy who had a pact with Japan, declared war on the United States three days later on Dec. 11. This meant the U.S. forces had to enter the war and fight on two fronts: one in the Pacific and one in Europe.
The Second World War had begun for the British a couple of years earlier, on Sept. 3,1939, when Germany refused to withdraw its troops from Poland.
France had fallen to the Nazis by the summer of 1940 and Britain - a small but brave and stubborn island - battled the threat and resisted occupation by Hitler.
Great Britain did lose control of its Channel Islands, which are close to the French coastline. And the islanders there endured a tough Nazi occupation for five long years.
Britain’s decisive air victory at the Battle of Britain saved the country from a ground invasion and possible occupation by German forces (labelled Operation Sea Lion by the Nazis) while proving that air power alone could be used to win a major battle.
Winston Churchill, the British prime minister at this time, led the country through the war and famously stated, “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fieIds and on the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender.”
And fight they did, until Hitler turned his attention away from occupying Britain and focused his armies on his war with Russia in the east. There is more information about the British side of WWII at historic-uk.com.
Nevertheless, by December 1941, the British were exhausted from battle, constant bombing by Germany and fleeing to bomb shelters every night.
Their cities and homes were being destroyed. There was a constant loss of life everywhere.
Everything from food to soap and “petrol” (gas) was being heavily rationed, and the war looked long, frightening, and at times almost hopeless.
Most young men were away fighting and the women were left to look after families and work in the factories and on the farms as “Land Girls.”
So while Pearl Harbor was a tragedy that the British mourned for the American lives lost in Hawaii, there was also some relief when a few days later the U.S. entered the war in earnest and sent troops to help defeat Hitler in Europe - which of course took another three and a half years.
The U.S. set up military camps throughout Britain. One of the socio-demographic results of this was that an estimated 70,000 British women married American soldiers during the Second World War, most traveling thousands of miles by ship after the war to start new lives across the Atlantic.
A few years ago, I shared in this column some information from a U.S. War Department pamphlet that was provided to American servicemen in 1942 that were going to Britain.
The U.S. Military Command was very aware of potential issues arising from cultural clashes between their soldiers and the British, who had already been at war for two years, so I thought I would share a few more highlights, many of which still resonate today:
• The introduction explains that “the first and major duty Hitler has given his propaganda chiefs is to separate Britain and America and spread distrust between them. If he can do that, his chance of winning MIGHT return.”
• “The British are reserved, not unfriendly. On a small crowded island, each man learns to guard his privacy carefully and is equally careful not to invade another man's privacy.”
• The British are tough even if they are soft-spoken and polite. “The English language didn’t spread across the oceans and over the mountains and jungles of the world because these people were panty-waists.”
• “Britain is a war zone and has been since September 1939, which has caused great changes in the British way of life. Every light is blacked out, every night and all night. Every highway signpost has come down and barrage balloons have gone up.
Grazing land is now ploughed for wheat and flower beds turned into vegetable gardens.
Britain’s peacetime army of a couple of hundred thousand has been expanded to over 2 million men (out of a total population of 45 million at the time).”
• Finally - and this is one worth repeating - “ It is always impolite to criticize your hosts; it is militarily stupid to criticize your allies.”
The 77th anniversary of the U.S. entry into WWII, plus the recent passing of a great American hero and the youngest WWII fighter pilot in the Pacific heater, President George H. W. Bush, should remind us of the value that both America and Britain place on freedom, democracy, liberty and the rule of law. Despite some ups and downs, I am extremely proud of both of my countries. God bless America - and thank you to the greatest generation!