The War My Parents Witnessed


David Mitchell

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One of the great joys of being a reviewer of books is that I receive many volumes that I might never otherwise have discovered. New authors, new perspectives and new stories are always arriving at my doorstep. Often I find myself immersed in a book that only the day before was completely unknown to me, but by providence had arrived, without warning. This past week I discovered two such books. In very different ways they connected me with my parents, one to my mother and the other to my father, by telling me stories of their childhood and youth that they never could have told me on their own.

My mother was born in November, 1938 in the Bailiwick of Guernsey, one of the British Channel Islands located just off the coast of France. Her father was an officer in the Royal Air Force and by the time France had fallen to the Nazis in the summer of 1940, he was already on active duty somewhere in England. That left my mother, her two sisters, who were both under the age of five, and my grandmother to fend for themselves in the event of a German invasion of the island. Such unpleasant prospects were not acceptable to the Crown, and as a result my mother, my two aunts and my grandmother were evacuated from Guernsey.

In the twenty-first century, the concept of being an evacuee, or a refugee, is all too familiar to people in Africa, parts of Asia and the Middle East, and elsewhere in the world. To a second generation American like me, however, it is a foreign concept. I cannot begin to imagine what my mother might have experienced. Although I have asked her what she endured from 1940 until the end of the war, it is not a topic that she will freely discuss. Nor is it a topic that has been greatly explored in current literature. In Evacuees of the Second World War, however, historian Mike Brown has finally given me a small hint of what life might have been like for my mother on the eve of invasion.

On 16 June, 1940, with France falling, the [British] government decided that it was impossible to defend the Channel Islands. On the 19th it was announced that all children were to be sent to the mainland the following day, with mothers accompanying those under school age. In all, 29,000 islanders were evacuated before the islands eventually fell on 1 July. Little in the way of luggage could be taken, usually just a single bag or suitcase.

There, in one brief passage, Brown has filled in a huge gap in my family knowledge. More importantly, after reading that passage to my mother, she became more willing to share with me the memories that she did have of being an evacuee. 

The fate of the Channel Islands is only a very small part of Brown’s research. Relying very much on leaflets and newspapers from the war years, Brown does a remarkable job of piecing together the planning and implementation of the various evacuation plans that were designed to remove children, mothers, the elderly and even businesses from the major cities of England prior to the commencement of the Blitz, Germany’s program of intense aerial bombardment of Great Britain’s population centers. He ignores the housing and feeding of the refugees, and the attitudes of the families that were required to take in everyone who was evacuated to the countryside, but after exploring the experiences of the evacuees during the war, Brown then shows us the images of the reunions that came when the war was over as the evacuated were allowed to return home.

Heavily illustrated and full of wonderful, albeit heart-rending, photographs, Evacuees of the Second World War is a gratifying contribution to a little-considered aspect of the war.  It would have been even better if Brown had devoted some portion of his book to discussions with the now-grown former evacuees, as the stories of how the evacuations affected their lives would have been quite welcome to those of us who are their sons and daughters. Brown is an authority on the British Home Front during the Second World War, so I can only hope that he will continue his research in that vein.

The second book kept me up long past my usual bedtime because I could not put it down. But it was only after I finished reading that I realized its connection to my dad. Dad is a veteran of World War II. He enlisted at age seventeen in 1944 but his parents would not allow him to actually enter basic training until he had graduated from high school. As a result, he was in basic training in the United States Navy when the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by two atomic bombs. Had those bombs not been dropped, thus forcing Japan to surrender, my dad undoubtedly would have been part of the enormous invasion force that would have been needed to conquer Imperial Japan. That invasion, it is estimated, might have taken as many as a million American lives. As a result, my dad very well could owe his life to those two bombs.

In Nuclear Dawn: The Atomic Bomb from the Manhattan Project to the Cold War, James P. Delgado has paid thoughtful tribute to the scientists and military leaders who, over a span of several decades, gave the world the power of the atom. Now, I am not much of a scientist. I am especially ignorant when it comes to the hard sciences, such as physics. It thus came as a bit of a surprise to me that the history of what is largely an area of research in physics could be so remarkable. Delgado, however, knows the craft of writing as well as any historian and he makes his subject both meaningful and exciting for even a casual reader.

Delgado begins his study of the atomic age by first exploring the pre-atomic age, all the way back to Democritus, who first proposed atomism about 2,500 years ago, through the work of a multitude of Nobel Prize winners, including the Curies, Rutherford, Bohr and Einstein. After establishing the principles of science known at the advent of World War II, Delgado then takes his readers through the race among the English, the Americans and the Germans to control the atom. He explores the decision to develop both uranium-based and plutonium-based bombs as part of the American “Manhattan Project” which would eventually lead to the production of Little Boy and Fat Man, the uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima and the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki. He then recounts in more depth the testing of the first prototype atomic bomb on July 15, 1945 at Los Alamos, New Mexico, an event best described by William L. Lawrence, the only reporter present:

. . . there rose from the bowels of the earth a light not of this world, the light of many suns in one.  It was a sunrise such as the world had never seen, a great green super-sun climbing in a fraction of a second to a height of more than eight thousand feet, rising even higher until it reached the clouds, lighting up earth and sky all around with a dazzling luminosity.

In that moment, the atomic age had begun.

Delgado goes on to describe the bombing missions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki themselves, and the horrific destruction that rained down on hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. Even now, close to sixty-five years later, it is difficult not to weep at the sight of images of two cities that were all but eradicated in two separate atomic flashes. To read of the horrors endured by the people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is to read of a true hell unleashed on the earth.

After the bombs were dropped, of course, there was much additional research into the development of atomic weapons, and Delgado devotes ample consideration to that subject. He also explores the effect that the development of the atom bomb had on popular culture. Prudently, Delgado does not interject his own opinion on the necessity of maintaining an atomic arsenal, but he does give voice to the views of military planners and American civilians who considered the bomb in the aftermath of the war.

Reading Nuclear Dawn makes the atomic bomb far more accessible as a concept to the average reader than any other book on the subject I have read. It explains the science, the history and the logistics that came together to cause, in time, close to 200,000 deaths from burns, concussion, impact and radiation sickness. More importantly, it tells the story of the victims of the bomb. To read Nuclear Dawn is to realize that the greatest achievement of mankind in exploring the atom is not that our species has mastered the atom, but that having mastered it, the atom has not now mastered us.

Books mentioned in this column:
Evacuees of the Second World War by Mike Brown (Shire Books, 2009)
Nuclear Dawn: The Atomic Bomb from the Manhattan Project to the Cold War by James P. Delgado (Osprey Publishing, 2009)

David Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. He is currently a contributing writer at
where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life. David is also a moderator, book reviewer, and active participant at World War II Forums, a discussion site dedicated to the study of the Second World War. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle puppy. Contact David.



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