VJ Day 75 years on: Remembering the Pacific War as an example of what a unified, multinational and collaborative effort can achieve… for all.

What we choose to remember and why are questions that fascinate me, particularly in relation to the World Wars. For how we think of and present the past shapes the future. It’s therefore important to keep up with national narratives and August 2020 has offered a smorgasbord of anniversaries to study. On 6th August, Japan commemorated the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 14th August was South Korea’s third Japanese Military Comfort Women Victims Memorial Day remembering the women forced to work in Japan’s military brothels. And here in the UK and elsewhere, 15th August was Victory over Japan or VJ Day marking Japan’s surrender and the end of the Second World War. For America the commemoration is actually 2nd September when the official surrender document was signed.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

In spite of my on-going interest in WW2 I have known little about the war in the Far East other than Kamikaze pilots, brutal ‘Japs’ and the TV drama series Tenko shown in the early eighties about British, Australian and Dutch women held in a Japanese internment camp. I can still recall the sand-coloured heat, cruel captors and tattered dresses of sun burnt women. I of course have known more about the atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima, but always as primarily an American/Japanese conflict. It wasn’t until I went there last year that I learned just how involved the British had been in the whole decision-making process. 

Tenko, BBC Series

As it turns out, I am not alone in my ignorance. Aside from widespread awareness of the notorious Japanese cruelty towards those they held captive – POWs, women and children alike – and the physical and mental scars from which many never recovered, it’s a fact, the war in the Far East always played second fiddle to the western imperative of beating the Germans. Even in 1943, troops in the Fourteenth Army fighting the Japanese in Burma referred to themselves as the ‘Forgotten Army.’ Post took months to arrive, resources were limited and their battles went unmentioned in newspapers. Yet by 1945, with around 1.3 million men and women having served in it, it was the largest army not only in the Commonwealth, but the world. 

I’d never heard of it. Nor did I know until yesterday that when surviving troops finally returned to the UK in 1946, they were told specifically not to talk about their war but to ‘move on’ like everybody else had been trying to do since VE Day. So, having already been overlooked while fighting some of the most ferocious battles of WW2, they were now being requested both to forget and be forgotten once again. It’s a good example of the selective nature of memory, whether personal or collective. And it highlights the importance of ‘re-membering’ the full body of a past, especially those forgotten parts that were dismembered and sacrificed on the altar of a carefully considered national narrative. 

This year’s VJ Day commemorations will have educated many of us on the Pacific War not least its multi-national nature. Gurkhas, Sikhs, Indians, Australians, Canadians, Africans, Americans, Welsh, Scottish and more fought side by side, united in their shared goal of defeating Japan. The 606,000 men that made up the aforementioned Fourteenth Army commanded by General William Slim were from 20 countries speaking 40 different languages. 87% were Indian, 3% African and 10% British. 

National Memorial Arboretum

The BBC’s morning coverage of VJ Day, The Nation Remembers, reflected this beautifully through a multi-cultural programme of readings and music by British Asian actors, Indian musicians, Scottish and African soldiers. Set amongst the conveniently socially distanced trees of the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire and with an incessant breeze ruffling hair and dresses alike, uniformed regiments casually mingled with royal dignitaries and politicians, while elderly veterans clad in best suits and medals shuffled on the arms of descendants or sat on benches staring into the far distance. “To all who served, we thank you,” said leaders from around the world in an online video. The presenter Sophie Raworth and historian Dan Snow once again sensitively drew out memories and stories to paint pictures of almost unimaginable scenes. But it was the veterans’ determined efforts to lay a wreath or stand up for the 2-minute silence that best captured the grit and humility of their generation. 

The more formal ‘Nation’s Tribute’ in the evening provided another moving, albeit more polished testament to their resilience. Hosted by Joanna Lumley – in her serious Gurkha supporter and presenter role rather than the Champagne-swigging Patsy of Absolutely Fabulous – and against a stunning backdrop of visuals projected onto Horse Guards Parade, we heard further multinational perspectives by veterans, including ‘Captain Tom’, our lockdown hero.

Captain Tom Moore

I could listen to them for hours but our national culture of Remembrance clearly has a remit both to entertain and make us cry. So, in keeping with tradition, military bands, glittering celebrity singers and an actually wonderful danced fight performed by knife-bearing Gurkhas punctuated the programme.

Gurkhas dance-fight

All in all, this event was less nationalistic or victorious and more inclusive than any previous ones I have seen. Maybe Covid-19, maybe the Black Lives Matter protests or maybe increased maturity has finally nudged our commemorations towards the humility of those that knew the horrific cost of war behind any victory. There was even a small injection of public self-questioning into the rightness of such contentious acts as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. That’s new. And very welcome.

As always, veterans asked us to remember those that fought; to ‘appreciate the value of the freedoms we enjoy’ for which so many gave their lives; and ‘to resolve never to be involved in another war.’ Akiko Macdonald, a Japanese woman married to an English man and working with veterans on both sides, called for reconciliation: ‘Yesterday’s foe is today’s friend.’ And Prince William asked us once again ‘to learn the lessons of the past’. I have often done that too in my talks and blogs. But this year I found myself asking what ‘learning from the past’ could mean for us today?  

What I have learnt from the largely overlooked war in the Far East is the importance and power of working together, of overcoming difference to unite in a common goal. If we are to successfully tackle the enormous environmental, economic and social challenges the whole world faces, we need to learn to operate as a united body. Just as the Fourteenth Army overcame the challenges of national and cultural difference, we need to see beyond and rise above all that divides us. We need to pool resources, ideas and energy for the greater good of everyone. For as General Slim recognised in his journal, it was the ‘comradeship’ within the Fourteenth Army that ultimately turned defeat into victory. 

To watch the BBC coverage of the Commemorations I mention

The Nation Remembers

Nation’s Tribute

How worried should we be about the rise of the far right?

I raise this question specifically in the wake of last week’s 75th anniversary of the Dresden bombing raid by the Allies, an occasion of remembrance that is known for bringing far-right protestors out in droves. Each year, in what they call their ‘Trauermarsch’ (funeral march), several hundred neo-Nazis, xenophobic Pegida and anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) protestors set off from the city’s central station to commemorate the dead. The blatantly neo-Nazi flags, tattoos and slogans, however, betray their true agenda. 

While part of me is swift to unreservedly dismiss all forms of far-right nationalism and extremism, another part is keen to understand: What are their grievances? What are their goals? And how should we, as individuals, meet this growing trend around the world? 

I am at the very beginning of my research into these questions, but in relation to the Dresden bombings of 13th and 14th February 1945, it seems that the far-right scene have several axes to grind. For them, Dresden has become a symbol of how the Allies rewrote the history of the Second World War. Drawing on the language and inflated figures first propagated by Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda ministry, Dresden was a “terror attack,” an indisputable war crime in which up to 300,000 people – primarily women, children and refugees fleeing from the east – were horrendously murdered over three nights. (This claim is in spite of the 2010 historical investigation commissioned by the city and largely accepted by historians that conclude figures would be closer to 25,000.) By shifting the focus onto atrocities committed by the victors, they can call for a stop to Germany’s culture of atonement and guilt.

Dresden, the “Florence on the Elbe”
Dresden after the bombing in 1945

This year, the emphasis of their message was not so much on the numbers as on what they call “the truth” about the bombings. They want to make a stand against the way the bombing of Dresden, once known as the “Florence on the Elbe” for its Baroque beauty, is relativised and compared with what happens in wars all around the world. They want to preserve Dresden’s uniqueness, the myth of martyrdom and its status as a ‘city of innocence.’ In some of this they do have a point. The debate about whether Dresden was a war crime or not still divides international historians and the public alike. Just a few weeks ago, I travelled to Coventry Cathedral to hear historian Dan Snow explore the legitimacy of Dresden as a target with Sinclair McKay, whose book Dresden, The Fire and The Darkness has recently been published. 

In the official ceremonies two days before the far right took to the streets, the man who has become a bit of a hero in my eyes, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, addressed the dangers of this way of thinking. Unlike the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz at which he had spoken a few weeks before (see my January blog), the victimhood of Germans had to be placed centre-stage here. For whether perceived as deserved retribution or a tactical military operation, the bombing raids were calculatedly horrendous creating infernos of such intense heat that people literally melted. It’s an event that does indeed deserve much self-reflection and on-going soul-searching by the Allies as well as a continuation of the already considerable efforts of reconciliation by the British. 

Speaking with his hallmark combination of deep sensitivity and resolute strength, Steinmeier remembered the victims but, even here, he was quick to remind Germans of their role as perpetrators. He warned against the “political forces” that seek to “manipulate history and abuse it like a weapon.” He reached out to all present to “work together for a commemoration that focuses on the suffering of the victims and the bereaved, but also asks about the reasons for this suffering.” And, seemingly referring to the far right directly, he said, “Whoever pits the dead of Dresden against the dead of Auschwitz, whoever seeks to talk down German wrongs, whoever falsifies improved knowledge and historical facts, we as democrats must loudly and clearly contradict them. We must defy them.”

Steinmeier later joined thousands of residents in holding hands to form the annual human chain of “peace and tolerance.” Standing quietly beside him in icy rain and wind was the Duke of Kent, a long-standing contributor to British reconciliation efforts and Patron of The Dresden Trust (of which I am now honoured to be a Trustee). I don’t think Steinmeier dared initiate what happened next, but to his credit, the Duke did. Over a delightful few seconds, the nearly eighty-five-year-old royal looked down and, seeing the empty right hand of the German President, reached out and took it in his. And there they stood for a considerable time, hand in hand bearing witness to their respective nations’ capacities for the wholesale destruction of innocents.

The Duke of Kent (left) holding hands with German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier

So far, my answer to my own questions is that there are way too many of us prepared to make a stand against the dark desires of the far right for them to gain significant power. In Dresden, two days after Steinmeier’s call to protect democracy, thousands of anti-fascist counter-demonstrators took to the streets forcing the comparatively low numbers of neo-Nazis to change their route. As one said, “On a day like this, you can’t just stand idly by. We are here to say that this is not our Dresden. There is no room for Nazis in this city — not now, not ever.”

Learn more:

Dresden marks WWII bombing in far-right stronghold.

Dresden: The World War Two bombing 75 years on – BBC News

History Extra Podcast: The bombing of Dresden

D-Day was mind-boggling in every way. So how should we ‘remember’ it when we have no more firsthand witnesses?

With all the D-Day commemorations and talk of heroes of the past week, I have to think of my naval English grandfather. His contribution to D-Day was possibly a little less than heroic. He had been invited to give a naval lecture at his son’s prep school and somehow, failing to realise they were still under security wraps, told a room full of enthralled, wide-eyed boys about the Mulberry Harbours. It was only when he spotted two even wider-eyed parental marines in the audience that he realised the top-secrecy of the information he had just imparted. Convinced he would be court-martialled, he emerged from a sleepless night hugely relieved to find the allied landings splashed all over the morning papers’ front pages.

I have to admit I have been profoundly moved by the commemorative ceremonies of D-Day’s 75th anniversary. It’s of course a well-known story but the BBC’s live coverage of events, first by Huw Edwards in Portsmouth and then by Sophie Raworth in Bayeux cemetery, felt particularly fresh. With the help of original footage, the incredible story of Operation Overlord was brought to life by historians Dan Snow and James Holland and some of the 300 or so nonagenarian veterans who had travelled there for the occasion.

What struck me anew was the sheer scale of the invasion. It is unsurprising that it is still considered the most ambitious and biggest land, air and sea operation ever in history. Every aspect of the assault is almost impossible to imagine, not least the out-of-the-box thinking, off the scale planning and coordination that lay behind it. As one of my single father friends said, “organising a picnic for two is hard enough, so I cannot begin to imagine how they organised…” – and here I’ll give you a few facts – 7000 ships and landing craft, 10,000 vehicles and 156,000 troops to land on a fifty-mile stretch of French beaches within a tiny window of good-enough weather. For the ensuing Battle of Normandy, they had to design and construct two harbours the size of Dover and then somehow get them across the channel. 442,000 cubic meters of concrete had to be transported; breakwaters were created out of old scuttled transport ships and warships of allied countries; they had to build jetties for the millions of tons of supplies and the two million men that would be needed over the next months: an estimated 8000 tons of fuel per day, half a million tanks, gliders, undersea pipelines, self-heating soup cans, air-portable motorbikes…. it’s utterly mind-boggling.

Veterans at Portsmouth

But facts and logistics aside, if that’s possible, the focus of these two days of commemoration was undoubtedly on the raw courage of the men involved. Approximately 4,400 allied soldiers were killed in the Normandy landings of June 6th 1944 and a total of 22,442 men and women died in the subsequent months of the Battle of Normandy. Many of those who fought were mere teenagers; many were conscripts who didn’t want to be there; none of them had any idea if they would return. Seventy-five years on, the last witnesses were returning to the sites of their nightmares to remember their mates who didn’t come back. In spite of the rows of medals proudly displayed across their chests, most don’t see themselves, nor do they want to be seen, as heroes. “A hero is someone who does something they don’t have to do,” said one. “I just had a job to do and I did it.” Instead, it was the friend “who gave his most precious gift, his unfinished life” who was the hero.

Veterans lay wreaths in Bayeux Cemetery

We have followed many veterans over the past decades, but watching and listening to these men had more poignancy than anything I have ever seen in terms of remembrance. Shrunken by age and accompanied by young serving personnel, they tottered across stages or among gleaming rows of beautifully kept war graves to lay wreaths or share their stories. The emotion was tangible even through the television screen as cameras moved in on old faces of men staring into a far distance where the roar of battle still resounds, their usually stiff upper lips wobbling as they wistfully recall their friends or quietly re-live the memories of carnage and gunfire that have privately haunted them for the past seven decades. I can’t think of a more powerful tribute than seeing a 95-year-old veteran with tears in his eyes, saluting.

Veterans in Bayeux Cemetery

Through them, we can touch history. But what happens when they are gone? I already feel a sense of nostalgia for the old-school dignity, modesty and courage that defined them. And what about the lessons they implore us to learn: Keep away from war, resolve for it never to happen again and remember. This Channel 4 footage of two British and German veterans meeting for a beer makes it clear just how painful, to the point of impossible, it has been for some of them to extend the hand of friendship to their former enemy. But when they are gone, I think that kind of future-orientated reconciliation is precisely what our remembrance culture should focus on rather than past victory, heroism and ‘triumph over evil’. “Too much remembering is a dangerous business,” Simon Jenkins says here and I agree.

As is always so clear on such occasions, our current world war commemorations are also designed for the families of those who served. Every soldier or casualty of war is someone’s son or grandfather, wife or mother, so could we from now on extend the healing attributes of honour, gratitude, pride and remembrance to others beyond ‘our own’ and re-dress the imbalance of our history books by broadening our victor’s narrative to include a far bigger picture of what actually went on for us to win the war?

It’s good that the 40,000 French civilians shot for resisting were included in these celebrations. There was also acknowledgment of the occupied French living in daily terror of the Nazi regime and the vital roles of the millions of men and women working behind the scenes in factories, hospitals, Bletchley Park as well as all those who risked their lives to report on the front lines. But President Putin, who wasn’t invited, reminded us that the Russians are also worthy of remembrance and gratitude for the three years and gargantuan losses they endured fighting German forces both prior to and after D-Day. And American friends, whose grandfathers had fought just as bravely in Italian campaigns, told me they wanted them be given the same level of acknowledgment as the D-Day heroes.

Angela Merkel in Portsmouth

I don’t expect anyone to share my thoughts for German soldiers, but on this day I found myself imagining those young German men who woke up in their bunkers on June 6th 1944 to the terrifying spectacle of 1,700 enemy ships rolling towards them like a tsunami from hell. Many of them were conscripts and “just doing their job”; many of them didn’t want to be there; many had instant psychiatric breakdowns and up to 9,000 became D-Day casualties. Many of them will be the fathers and grandfathers of our German friends today.

Other articles on the subject:

It’s time to move on from these overblown commemorations of war | Simon Jenkins | Opinion | The Guardian

The Latest: German ambassador talks of war ‘we provoked’            

75 years after D-Day we’re still astounded by the sheer scale of Operation Overlord