Sarah Robinson was just a teenager when World War II broke out. She endured the Blitz, watching for fires during Luftwaffe air raids armed with a bucket of sand. Often she would walk ten miles home from work in the blackout, with bombs falling around her.
As soon as she turned 18, she joined the Royal Navy to do her bit for the war effort. Hers was a small part in a huge, history-making enterprise, and her contribution epitomises her generation’s sense of service and sacrifice.
Nearly 400,000 Britons died. Millions more were scarred by the experience, physically and mentally. But was it worth it? Her answer – and the answer of many of her contemporaries, now in their 80s and 90s – is a resounding No.
They despise what has become of the Britain they once fought to save. It’s not our country any more, they say, in sorrow and anger.
Sarah harks back to the days when “people kept the laws and were polite and courteous. We didn’t have much money, but we were contented and happy. People whistled and sang. There was still the United Kingdom, our country, which we had fought for, our freedom, democracy. But where is it now?!”
The feelings of Sarah and others from this most selfless generation about the modern world have been recorded by a Tyneside writer, 33-year-old Nicholas Pringle. Curious about his grandmother’s generation and what they did in the war, he decided three years ago to send letters to local newspapers across the country asking for those who lived through the war to write to him with their experiences.
He rounded off his request with this question: “Are you happy with how your country has turned out? What do you think your fallen comrades would have made of life in 21st-century Britain?”
What is extraordinary about the 150 replies he received, which he has now published as a book, is their vehement insistence that those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war would now be turning in their graves.
There is the occasional bright spot ... but the overall tone is one of profound disillusionment.
“I sing no song for the once-proud country that spawned me,” wrote a sailor who fought the Japanese in the Far East, “and I wonder why I ever tried.”
“My patriotism has gone out of the window,” said another ex-serviceman.
They feel, in a word that leaps out time and time again, “betrayed”.
... said one ex-commando who took part in the disastrous Dieppe raid in which 4,000 men were lost ... : “Those comrades of mine who never made it back would be appalled if they could see the world as it is today. They would wonder what happened to the Brave New World they fought so damned hard for.”
Immigration tops the list of complaints.
“People come here, get everything they ask, for free, laughing at our expense,” was a typical observation.
“We old people struggle on pensions, not knowing how to make ends meet. If I had my time again, would we fight as before? Need you ask?”
Many writers are bewildered and overwhelmed by a multicultural Britain that, they say bitterly, they were never consulted about nor feel comfortable with.
“Our country has been given away to foreigners while we, the generation who fought for freedom, are having to sell our homes for care and are being refused medical services because incomers come first.”
... Sarah Robinson defiantly states: “We are affronted by the appearance of Muslim and Sikh costumes on our streets.”
... political correctness is another thing they take strong issue with, along with politicians generally – “liars, incompetents and self-aggrandising charlatans” (with the revealing exception of Enoch Powell).
[Enoch Powel is famous for a speech made in 1968, when he was Shadow Defence Secretary, predicting that non-white immigration would destroy Britain. In consequence he was immediately sacked.]
The loss of British sovereignty to the European Union caused almost as much distress. “Nearly all veterans want Britain to leave the EU,” wrote one.
Frank, a merchant navy sailor, thought of those who gave their lives “for King and country”, only for Britain to become “an offshore island of a Europe where France and Germany hold sway. Ironic, isn’t it?”
As a group, they feel furious at not being able to speak their minds.
They see the lack of debate and the damning of dissenters as racists or Little Englanders as deeply upsetting affronts to freedom of speech.
“Our British culture is draining away at an ever increasing pace,” wrote an ex-Durham Light Infantryman, “and we are almost forbidden to make any comment.”
A widow from Solihull ... Her husband, a veteran of Dunkirk and Burma, died a disappointed man, believing that his seven years in the Army were wasted. “It is 18 years since I lost him and as I look around parts of Birmingham today you would never know you were in England,” she wrote. “... I don’t think people are really happy now, for all the modern, easy-living conveniences. I disagree with same-sex marriages, schoolgirl mothers, rubbish TV programmes, so-called celebrities and, most of all, unlimited immigration. I am very unhappy about the way this country is being transformed. I go nowhere after dark. I don’t even answer my doorbell then.”
A Desert Rat who battled his way through El Alamein, Sicily, Italy and Greece was in despair. “This is not the country I fought for. Political correctness, lack of discipline, compensation madness, uncontrolled immigration – the “do-gooders” have a lot to answer for. ...”
... one of the bitterest complaints of the veterans was that their trenchant views on many of the matters aired here were constantly ignored by those in authority. Their letters of complaint to councillors and MPs went unanswered.
It was as if they didn’t matter, except when wheeled out for the rituals of Remembrance Day.
“Why do so many of the British public confuse sentimentality with genuine concern for others?” asked one letter-writer.
But this was the generation honoured in Remembrance services last weekend, showered with gratitude and teary-eyed sentiments as their dwindling ranks marched unsteadily past the Cenotaph and other war memorials throughout the UK.
The overall impression any reader of the letters gets is that this generation feel unheard, unwanted and unimportant. This remarkable collection of their thoughts should give us pause for reflection.
They may be deemed beyond their sell-by date ... but, by their deeds of 60-plus years ago, they have won the right to be listened to ...
In one letter in this collection, an RAF mechanic quoted a poem about comrades who fell in battle: “I mourned them then, But now surviving in a world, Indifferent to their hopes and dreams, I grieve more for the living.”