July 6. In his Memex 1.1 blog yesterday, my friend and colleague, John Naughton, reproduced the letter sent by General Montgomery to the troops about to launch the D-Day landing in 1944, which has turned up in the papers of his wife’s father. ‘The time has come to strike the enemy a terrific blow in Western Europe’ it begins.
I too have seen a copy of the message, sent not to my (as yet unmarried) father, who was on a ship off the coast of West Africa, but my mother, who spent the war in an anti-aircraft unit, plotting incoming planes and V-bombs* – you may have seen the films in which uniformed young women push models across a map on a table before the order is given to the anti-aircraft gunners. She was moved down to the south coast as part of the preparations for D-day and was sent the letter.
Her technical role in the war always puzzled me. During her life as my mother she never once showed the slightest interest in, or affinity for, machines or science. Her OU degree taken in her retirement was in literature and the social sciences. I once asked her how she had been recruited for such a role. She told me that when she was called up, she was given an aptitude test, which was to construct something out of Meccano. She had spent her childhood playing with her younger brother’s set, made a model in no time, and was sent off to track aircraft.
In the same way my father, a civil servant in later life with no responsibility for radio technology at work and no competence in it at home, was a chief petty officer in the navy specialising in the arcane skill of listening to Japanese Morse code. Global conflict took people to places they never visited again, and caused them to learn capacities which died upon the instant peace was declared.
There are two possible conclusions to be drawn from this wartime experience.
Either we humanities people have deep inside us a technical capacity which it requires a well-organised world war to bring out. I have my doubts, but who knows.
Or major technical ventures, think of Bletchley Park, think of NASA, succeed by bringing together all sorts of skills, some scientific at a high level, but many others which have nothing to do directly with the science but nonetheless are crucial to the outcome of the project. My new book, The History of Solitude, is dedicated to an aunt by marriage, who died not long ago, and who was at Bletchley Park in the war. Later in life she was, again, a literary woman, who eventually published books of fiction, poetry and memoir. She was sent to Bletchley because she was (a) very bright, (b) had security clearance, and (c) had fluent German. Not a codebreaker, but, along with many others in the huts, critical to the outcome.
So, perhaps, with the skills discovered or mobilised to counter Covid-19. Except, as world wars go, this has not been well organised. That is to say not by the British. The Germans have beaten us hands down.
*A propos my last post on cherries, I discover that V-Bombs were colloquially known in German as ‘kirschkern’ – cherry stones. I don’t know why.