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Britain Remembers

March 03, 1985|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — "Let us . . . brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: 'This was their finest hour.' "--Prime Minister Winston Churchill, July 14, 1940

That empire has slipped, its commonwealth declined . . . but their finest hour continues to chime.

More than 40 years after the bruising facts, self-esteem remains ineradicable among those British civilians who survived bombs falling on churches, schools and suburban backyards--and mourned 300,000 neighbors who did not come home from the office or Arnhem.

No population could fail to hold intense pride after six years of desperation resisted, the worst averted and world victory won in large part by domestic doggedness and a little country's sense of humor.

Understandably, a soft and quite harmless nostalgia has developed around the era--even for memories of Vera Lynn, ration books, blackouts, Spam, gas masks, the rasp of buzz bombs, the BBC home service, whale steaks, "Life with the Lyons," sleeping in the Underground, the Bisto kids and a Daily Mirror comic strip featuring a sometimes topless (but only for king, country and national morale) heroine named Jane.

And as this year approaches May 8 and the 40th anniversary of Victory in Europe, VE Day, the spirit, pieces and preserved sites of World War II have clearly evolved into a major British tourist attraction.

At Old Warden Aerodrome (Bedfordshire), Duxford Airfield (Cambridgeshire), Tangmere (West Sussex) and a dozen air bases in as many counties, September will again be Battle of Britain month. That's when the air show season peaks. That's when old fighters and bombers will fly again--and those few RAF pilots who were owed so much by so many (another Churchillian tribute) will be honored by church services and a stirring, lonely flyover of London by a Spitfire and a Hurricane.

HMS Belfast, the Royal Navy's heavy cruiser that helped sink the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst and bombard the Normandy beaches for D-Day, is a museum moored on the Thames between Tower and London bridges.

Across the river (Monument is the Underground stop) is the Elizabeth Rose, the paddle-wheel steamer that could. In 1940 she chuffed across the English Channel as part of Operation Dynamo and helped evacuate 340,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk. Today she's a floating restaurant.

The London Lyceum, once a revered marketplace for GIs, jitterbugs and birds, is preparing for another charity night (May 5) with "Stage Door Canteen," the sentimental setting and Big Band music, the memory-stirring sound. . . .

A reunion of British, French, American, Dutch and Belgian intelligence agents and resistance fighters is set for Luxembourg in August. . . .

Last year a Warwickshire street was belatedly renamed Anderson Drive, 39 years after Lt. Gene Anderson died in the nearby crash of an 8th Air Force B-24. . . .

"Are we glorifying war?" repeated retired Royal Air Force Wing Commander Bill Wood, OBE. He is the former World War II bomber pilot who directs educational services for the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon in northwest London. "This (question) is always something that is thrown up at us . . . but you have to judge it for yourself.

"For myself, all we are doing is preserving history and recording our heritage and the aircraft that were part of it."

Opened in 1972, the museum (with royalty and RAF heroes among its patrons and executives) is an infant on London's antiquities scene. But for air warriors, current and veteran, our side or theirs, it has become a military aviation mecca with 500,000 visitors a year, an estimated 10% of them from the United States.

One entire building is devoted to the Battle of Britain, complete with Hurricanes and Spitfires behind sandbagged revetments and facing the Messerschmitts, Junkers and Focke-Wulfs they once faced in the skies.

More than 100 airplanes in appropriate settings . . . a board from a World War II pub containing the chalked autographs of the famed fighter pilots who hoisted drinks there, sometimes their last pints . . . art, documents, archeology and library departments . . . also high tribute, and a wonderful glimpse of yesterday for those now-aging youngsters of the 8th and 9th Air Forces in England during World War II.

It's a new display, a B-17G Flying Fortress (relegated to forest firefighting in Northern California until donated to Hendon in 1983), fully restored in the colors of the 94th Bomb Group and frozen in time on a stand tended by a 1942 Jeep, bomb tractor . . . and the sighs of Americans who once flew such machines.

Because It Happened Here

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