The unsung heroes who won the war

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of VE Day, a new TV series focuses on the lives of those who served in the Second World War. Executive producer Steve Humphries reveals why this generation was so special...

the streets of London on VE Day, 8 May 1945

This article was first published in the March 2008 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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There is no doubt that the generation that lived and fought in – and survived – the Second World War has a claim to being one of the greatest generations in British history. These survivors are now in their 90s or beyond; they are our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents. And what they went through at comparatively young ages is difficult to appreciate more than 70 years on.

Not only did millions of Britons suffer through the Depression years but, when war came, they fought from the very beginning right through to the end in the cause of freedom and democracy. They saw their homes and families come under direct and sustained attack from German bombers. Then, after their hard-won victory, they endured 10 years of postwar rationing and austerity.

This alone makes a convincing case for giving our greatest generation the honour they deserve while the last surviving veterans of the Second World War are still with us.

With most now in their final years, this is the time to capture their untold stories and celebrate their achievements, not just during the most devastating war of the 20th century, but across the following decades and into grand old age. This is what we set out to do with a major BBC Two oral history series and an accompanying book, Britain’s Greatest Generation.

The series begins by exploring distant childhood memories to discover what made them the uniquely resilient men and women they became. The impact of the 1914–18 war, with its tragic legacy of bereavement and disability, was their first formative influence, but victory over Germany also meant that patriotism and pride in Britain and her empire was seeded early, reinforced by school, church and youth organisations. Popular literature played its part too: 94-year-old Freddie Hunn, a veteran of Dunkirk and north Africa, remembered: “I could recite Kipling’s If  word for word and I would gallop around imagining I was in the Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Growing up in the inter-war years, many faced poverty and hardship. It was here that personal values were instilled by parents, and lifelong attitudes were forged by experience. Courage, initiative, honesty and fairness were highly valued; initiative and independence were developing too: “At the age of 15, I had the confidence to cycle from London to Dorset and back again,” says Bob Frost, now 92. These personal qualities would stand them in good stead when war came. This generation would be among the first in the front line.

Against all odds

The interviews reveal many remarkable, untold stories of courage and camaraderie at every stage: from the Battle of Britain to the Blitz, from Dunkirk to D-Day, on the front line and the home front, on the world’s oceans and in the air – and in far-flung PoW camps. They are often stories of survival against all odds, like that of 92-year-old merchant seaman Austin Byrne. After his ship was torpedoed, he was adrift in a lifeboat in the Arctic Sea for four days with only hope to sustain him. “I started praying as I started bailing. I could get a bucket out to a Hail Mary and four out to Our Father.”

There are as many affecting stories from women, whether making do on the home front, firing heavy ack-ack guns, or operating code-cracking machinery at Bletchley Park. D-Day nurse Betty Evans, 93, speaks for many of them: “We didn’t have time to be frightened. There was a job to be done.”

Though the war was the most memorable and most testing period of their lives, their work wasn’t finished. After victory came the job of rebuilding a more equal world around the new National Health Service and the welfare state. They then had to weather the storms of five decades of social change when many of the values and attitudes they’d cherished were rejected by their own children in the heady days of sixties permissiveness. But this generation proved adaptable: many welcomed the changes that brought the end of prewar inequality and prejudice based on class, colour or gender. And at last those, like George Montague, 91, could leave the pretence of his marriage and live his life openly as a gay man. “It was like going to heaven,” he says now. “I could be who I really am.”

Although quietly proud of what they had done in the war, only a few of the many hundreds we spoke to in making this series wanted to tell their stories on camera. They felt they hadn’t done anything special at all and so needed a lot of persuading. Often they said they couldn’t remember much – it was all such a long time ago. But, as I questioned them, they were amazed at the memories that came flooding back, together with emotions of love, guilt, pain, fear and anger that had long been buried. Secrets were revealed and tears were shed. Often the men were more tearful than the women. Now, very late in life, they were at last able to express feelings of sadness and loss that had been kept under control for a lifetime.

It is a mark of the character of the wartime generation that very few of their stories reflected on their own bravery or importance. These were always played down; they were just doing what anyone else would have done. In meeting these men and women, I have been deeply moved. The experience reminded me of the debt we owe them.

So, is this really Britain’s greatest generation? The last survivors are far too modest to make such a claim for themselves. Of course they had their faults as well as their virtues, but I believe this generation made unique personal sacrifices in the name of freedom and helped build the modern world, with all its benefits, that we enjoy today. That’s what makes them not only distinctive, but great. From my point of view, as a child of Britain’s greatest generation, it has been a special privilege to tell their story.


Case studies: Lives less ordinary

The astonishing, emotional stories of some of the Britain’s Greatest Generation interviewees… 

The veteran runner: Jim Purcell – aka Jarra Jim

‘Owld Jarra Jim’ is a legend in South Tyneside. Every year, the Second World War veteran puts on his running shoes to compete in the Great North Run. “I’m not as fast as I used to be,” he says, “and sometimes my shadow overtakes me. But I feel A1.” The 93-year-old’s story is emblematic of the extraordinary spirit of so many young working-class men who served in the war. Growing up in Jarrow during the 1930s, where 70 per cent of men were out of work, Jim had no shoes and had to run barefoot to school every day.

In 1938, he volunteered to serve in the Royal Engineers and was part of the British Expeditionary Force miraculously rescued from Dunkirk. “I was petrified on the beaches. I was saying little prayers to try to get my courage back.” He was later captured in Africa and became a prisoner of war. He was used as forced labour in the coal mines of Czechoslovakia, but secretly committed acts of sabotage to slow down production.

After the war, he met and married local girl Betty, the love of his life with whom he had five children. Jim was heartbroken when Betty died in 1982 following heart surgery and took up running to overcome his grief. He has now competed in 28 Great North Runs. “Every time I run, I have Betty’s wedding ring around my neck.” This great-grandfather has since raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity and was thrilled to be chosen to carry the Olympic torch through his home town in 2012.

The shark attack survivor: Sid Graham

Sid is an extraordinary survivor. Born in London’s East End in 1920, the son of a seaman from Barbados, he has just celebrated his 95th birthday. Aged 15, he ran away to sea and later became a stoker on the Atlantic and Arctic convoys during the war. In early 1942, he was crossing the Atlantic in supply ship the Scottish Star when it was hit and sunk by a German torpedo. “We were in the lifeboat for 10 days and we were surrounded by sharks. We banged the oars on the side of the boat – bang, bang, bang – and they floated away!”

Sid eventually made it back home six months later, but found his pay had been stopped from the day his ship went down, a common practice at the time. It’s something that still angers him, not least because the merchant seamen were doing some of the most dangerous wartime work of all – 30,000 died as a result of enemy action. Nevertheless, Sid continued to serve and was involved in the D-Day landings.

He married Esther with whom he had 13 children and he now presides over an extended family of 118. Despite having suffered a major stroke, he battles on regardless and is adored by his large family who still see him as their ‘captain’. Very little attention has been given to the black, Asian and ethnic minority men like Sid who did such thankless but vitally important jobs in the war. Indeed, Sid has still yet to receive any medal or official recognition for his war service.

The rocket woman: Eileen Younghusband

Eileen, now 93, was just 18 when she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) at the beginning of the war. After signing up, she quickly demonstrated her keen intellect and mathematical skills, playing a crucial role in Fighter Command’s underground Filter Room. Doing gruelling shifts and under enormous pressure, she worked around the clock, tracking the enemy aircraft attacking Britain. Using information supplied by Britain’s pioneering radar network, she and her fellow ‘filterers’ were making life-or-death decisions. Eileen was also involved in detecting and helping to destroy Hitler’s devastating V2 rockets targeted on London.

After the war – and happily married – she continued to live life to the full as a pig breeder, hotelier and scrap-metal merchant. After losing her beloved husband and son, she embarked on a new adventure to help give her renewed purpose – studying for an Open University arts degree which she achieved with special honours in her 87th year.

The Dambuster: George ‘Johnny’ Johnson

‘Johnny’, now 93, is the last survivor of the Dambuster Raids, one of the most ingenious and daring operations of the war. How he ever got to play such an important role in such an iconic raid is remarkable and testament to his extraordinary tenacity. Born in Lincolnshire in 1921, the son of a farm foreman, he endured a loveless, impoverished childhood where as a young boy he was effectively treated as a slave. His plight – and his talents – were discovered by his village schoolteacher who helped him get a place at Lord Wandsworth College. This was the making of him.

When war broke out, he volunteered for the RAF, serving as a gunner and bomb aimer in Bomber Command’s sorties over Germany in the early years of the war. But his most dangerous mission came in 1943 after he joined the elite 617 Squadron when it was tasked with the seemingly impossible mission of destroying three dams deep within Germany’s Ruhr Valley.

On 16 May 1943, Johnny set off alongside 132 specially selected comrades and scored a direct hit with his bomb. Sadly, 53 of his colleagues never came back. Understandably, Johnny still becomes emotional when he recalls the raid and the high price paid by his colleagues. He also movingly recalls how Barnes Wallis, the technical wizard who invented the ‘bouncing bomb’, never got over the heavy death toll on the Dambuster raid that he helped mastermind.

The Chelsea Pensioner: Dorothy Hughes

In 2009, Dorothy became one of the first two women to enter the ranks of the world-famous Chelsea Pensioners, joining more than 300 male pensioners at London’s Royal Hospital. It was a fitting tribute to a Welsh girl from a humble rural background who joined the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) aged just 16 and worked alongside the rescue services during the Swansea Blitz of 1941, helping the homeless and the injured.

Determined to do more, she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service and served with a heavy anti-aircraft battery in London, then on the Kent-Sussex coast, fending off V1 flying bombs and dangerous ‘scalded cat’ raids (quickfire attacks by fast-flying enemy aircraft). On the way, Dorothy had to overcome much class, sexist and anti-Welsh prejudice from those who thought she wasn’t up to the job. “It was a constant battle,” she says, “and not just against the Germans.”

Dorothy was expecting yet more prejudice when she prepared to break the mould at the Chelsea Hospital. Her husband had died 18 years before and she applied for a place, looking to make new friends and a new life. However, she was pleasantly surprised at the warm reception she received. “I felt very humble. I never expected to be accepted. But it’s been wonderful. I feel like Cinderella at the ball.”

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Steve Humphries is an award-winning film-maker specialising in social history documentaries. He is co-author, with Sue Elliot, of Britain’s Greatest Generation, which was published by Random House in April 2015.