As war’s fourth winter comes to Britain, hope centres on a major victory in North Africa
"The Crucial Moment"
As war’s fourth winter comes to Britain, hope centres on a major victory in North Africa
LONDON, November. The English hedgerows, as the great battle in Egypt opens, glitter brightly with the bunched red berries of the holly, and the countryman who passes between them, whether he still guides a plow or is in uniform, wags a weatherwise head and says we shall have a bitter winter.
Last winter was the bitterest in human memory, and the seasons in between have been so full of rain and empty of sun that it has been as if the gap were roofed over and a tunnel made which took us straight from one winter to another. The fourth, war winter breaks upon a British island stretched to the uttermost by its efforts and sacrifices. If the promises that have been made to us are kept it is to be the winter of climax in which all these efforts and sacrifices will bear fruit and, if that is so, none will complain. The deep, though unspoken, dread in everybody’s mind is that this wñnter too will trail drearily by without any real effort being made to win the war.
In midsummer, as 1 wrote in Maclean’s, we were told that the next six months would be “crucial” for us. Now that they are gone, or nearly gone, we are told that “the crucial moment” is upon us. If all these words wrould now produce some deeds we should be content. The hope of action deferred has been making hearts sick, and the British people who cannot be daunted by their enemies fear this waiting. For if we cannot strike and win now, when shall we? The limits both of sacrifice by the people for this island and of procrastination in striking for victory approach. Our homes and hearths are now denuded of youth. All the boys and girls are gone. Wives have been separated from their men now for more than three years. Taxation at its present levels is not taxation but confiscation for the hard-working citizen who remains, though, in this war as in the last, great fortunes are being made by the privileged or the unscrupulous. We are full of fight, but the Minister of Health yielded to an ailment common in such high places—complacency —w'hen he said recently that we were “fighting fit.” After all, the diet is fairly thin. The three years of bombing, blackout, disappointing news and waiting have not been exhilarating and the restorative effect of holidays is sorely missed. Thus as the gay red berries in the hedges tell us of bitter days to come, lean and bitter days are already with us.
One incident of recent days vividly illustrates how balefully the clutch of the war has fastened on the native citizen of this island. Nothing, seemingly, is to be left him when the war is over. Hundreds of thousands of Britons live in small houses in small streets with a small garage built alongside and in this they keep jacked up and carefully greased a small car which for many years they toiled to buy and which for three years past has been to them the symbol of hope that one day they might be able to enjoy themselves again a little.
Now the implacable finger of officialdom is to reach into those garages like Jack Horner’s finger into the pie and hook out those tenderly stored little cars, paying in exchange a sum to be arbitrarily set by an official “expert.” The owners had expected a demand for the tires, and would cheerfully have
yielded them because the Japanese have captured so much of our rubber growing lands. The seizure of the cars is an inexplicable thing, for all the motor manufacturing firms in the country are already producing military transport of which there is no lack and these little two and four-seaters will be of no military use whatsoever. Are they to be used for the ever-growing army of officials to run around in? Nobody knows, for no single word of explanation has been given for this latest official edict.
Pin Hopes On Egypt
JHAVE tried to give Canadian readers a glimpse of Britain—not the Britain of bland or bellicose official speeches but the Britain of backbreaking burdens uncomplainingly borne—the Britain which, though it has almost ceased to talk of the war, now looks toward Egypt and the battle which has begun there with deep anxiety and great hope. By the time Canadians read these lines they will know better than we are able now to foresee how much this battle will mean for our future; whether it is to be another fiasco or whether it is, at long long last, “the second front.” We have an extraordinary year behind us in this country, an absorbing and yet
depressing year for the student of politics and of the manipulation of public opinion.
Ever since June, 1941, when Germany attacked Russia, the British people have been in the position of an international heavyweight whose seconds scream bellicose counsel into his ear and at the same time prevent him by main force from leaving his corner to engage his opponent. Stalin, the only man in this war who has as yet achieved successes against the Germans on land, has incessantly called for a second front in Europe and the British Government is officially committed to open one, yet the entire British press under manipulation from powerful quarters behind the scenes has for months rebuked the British people for “second front talks”; has derided the demand for it as “the clamor of ill-informed people” and “armchair criticism.” The result has been the most surprising thing I
Continued on page 40
Continued from patje 15
have seen in twenty years of political observation all over Europe. It has shown that in a country where full freedom of the press and of public discussion still theoretically obtains, public opinion may be warped and completely distorted by a subtle campaign of repression. When Germany attacked Russia I should think nine of every ten men in this country jubilantly awaited an immediate British blow and the public demand for it could be felt.
At the latest public opinion
canvass, however, made a few days ago, forty-six per cent of the people consulted pronounced themselves “against any discussion of the second front.” Not even Stalin, a very astute and well-informed observer, would have believed this. Early this year he promised his people “victory in 1942” on the assumption that no British Government would be able to resist the demand of its own people for a second front in Europe for another year. He little knew the British people. Now he has admitted that victory in 1942 is no longer probable because of the withheld though promised second front in Europe.
However, the spirits of the people, which otherwise might have sunk out of sight from bewilderment and frustration, were kept up all this time by a series of promises that something would happen one day. In July, a minister, Oliver Lyttelton, captured public interest by speaking of “the next eighty days.” They would be awful, he said, dreadful days. Wrongly assuming that he meant something, people all over the country began to tick off the eighty days (which proved indistinguishable in their dreariness from any others) on the calendar and when they were gone they turned to look enquiringly at Mr. Lyttelton, who realized that he was expected to reveal the delightful surprise which now awaited the stoic British people. In some embarrassment he announced that the “eighty days” being gone, the war would now enter “a new phase” in which we should need to work twice as hard as before. That was all. Probably what he really meant was that the war would enter “a new phrase.”
Since then one politician after another has given mysterious hints, the most explicit being Mr. Bevin’s statement that “the crucial moment” is approaching and that our rulers know where and when they are going to strike. So as Christmas approaches, and the red berries glow against their prickly dark green leaves, we in this island ask ourselves, as we listen to the meagre new's from Egypt, “Is this it?” One reflection springs to the mind. The public clamor for the second front in Europe (as Stalin asked and as our leaders promised) was damped down and killed mainly by the argument that “we lack the shipping.”
Europe is a few miles from this island. Now that the battle in Egypt has opened we know that the masses of men, guns, tanks, airplanes and stores which have been accumulated for it have had to be carried 14,000 miles round the Cape or 6,000 miles by air across the Central African jungle. But none of that will matter, if this is the second front at last and if it has been well thought out and prepared. That is, if it proves to be a powerful operation which will sweep the Germans and Italians out of North Africa, make us masters again of the Mediterranean so that we do not need to send our ships round the Cape.
Wiser Than Leaders
ANOTHER fiasco of the Singapore - or Tobruk variety (about these no word of explanation has been vouchsafed the people of this country) would be unbearable. But if the great scheme is that which I have just outlined, and if our leaders succeed in it, then the long patience of the people here will have been repaid. For the average citizen in this country has understood this war from the beginning better than its leaders. He would not have neglected to close the gap in the Maginot Line or to prepare the defenses of Singapore against landward as well as against seaward attack. He would have
preferred Wavell when he was sweepj ing the Italians before him in Libya ; to have been allowed to go on and j complete their destruction before j German reinforcements could arrive, instead of being ordered to turn ; about and go to Greece, and Greece J would probably have been better ¡ helped that way.
Thus the average citizen here, if : asked during the past sixteen months ¡ what he thought the United Nations j should do if for some occult reason | the second front in Europe was ruled ; out would have said, “Smash Rommel in Africa, clear the Mediterranean | and attack Italy. Italy will fall out | of the war then and that will be the ; beginning of the end for Germany.”
So we in this island hope that this is ; happening.
We get so little news now—less I ¡ should imagine than most of the other allied countries engaged in this struggle—that we cannot judge if it j is happening and what progress we make.
Perhaps by the time Canadians redd this article and Christmas approaches, and we here are picking from the hedges the red berries which now warn us of a bitter winter, perhaps we shall have made good progress and the picture of the war at last will begin to take shape. That is what the people here want. They j want to fight and have not been ! allowed to.
But one thing about the opening ! reports of the battle struck an ominous note in our ears. It was the description of masses of artillery i drawn up almost wheel to wheel j opening fire in a pandemonium of j noise at the same instant and poundj ing, pounding, pounding away. For every man in this country who fought ! in the last war that brings a gruesome j memory—the memory of the Somme and Passchendaele where hundreds of thousands of British and Canadian soldiers, supported by the same | massed artillery, were hurled against j the enemy at the place of his greatest ; fortified strength. It was as if a burglar desiring to enter a barn neither picked the lock nor pried off the hinges nor climbed through a window but put down his head and I rushed against the central plank of the stout oaken door.
Since those appallingly costly days which brought such small reward, the method of direct frontal attack has enjoyed little popularity in this country—at all events with those who held a rank lower than generals. Seemingly it, of all methods, is being used in Egypt. Perhaps it will justify itself ; who knows? But if it does not? We can only hope that since the people of this country now take no part in these great decisions, that, when the time comes to pluck the red berries, they will be a symbol of better times and better cheer and not of war and suffering needlessly prolonged.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.