Fighting for Britain?

Negotiating Identities in Britain During the Second World War

by Wendy Ugolini (Volume editor) Juliette Pattinson (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection XVI, 324 Pages
Series: British Identities since 1707, Volume 7


This edited collection focuses on the negotiation of national, geographic and cultural identities during the Second World War among the constituent countries of the United Kingdom. Adopting a four nations approach, it contributes to our understanding of how pluralistic identities within the multinational state of Britain informed the functioning of Britishness during the conflict. In particular, it explores the ways in which Wales, Scotland and England related to the overarching concept of Britishness and analyses the relationships between Britain and the island of Ireland. This volume addresses wartime Britain as both a site of cultural contestation and of shared experience, exploring what «fighting for Britain» meant for those who served in the British armed forces as well as for those who did not fight in active combatant roles.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Tables
  • Foreword
  • Negotiating identities in multinational Britain during the Second World War
  • ‘Deep England’: Britain, the countryside and the English in the Second World War
  • Englishness in the British army of the Second World War
  • Welshness, Welsh soldiers and the Second World War
  • ‘Excellent Irishmen’: Irish volunteers and identities during the Second World War
  • Northern Ireland’s War
  • Scottish cinema-goers at war: The popular reception of British and Scottish films during the Second World War
  • ‘Fortify the Cheviots!’: The Nazis and the Scottish Nationalists
  • ‘Total War on Spiritual Issues’: English feminists, Christian national identity and gender equality in wartime Britain
  • Transnational communities of allies
  • Imperial settler-regions in the Second World War: The case of British air training in southern Africa
  • ‘Some idea of our country’: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in early wartime documentary film
  • ‘His Own Weapons to His Own Battlefront’: The civilian working man in British culture 1939–1945
  • Notes on contributors
  • Index
  • Series index


Table One    Distribution of the Films of Scotland Committee Films, 1939–1943

Table Two    Favourite Films of Ms Eileen Crowford, 1944–1945

Table Three  Output of Training Schemes in the Union of South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, the UK and the BCATP Dominions



It is now exactly forty years since the appearance of J.G.A. Pocock’s famous plea for a self-consciously ‘British history’ that would recognise not merely the interaction between the four constituent nations of the British Isles, but also how this ‘four nations’ narrative was framed by the broader contexts of empire and the Atlantic world.1 In the decades since this pivotal intervention, an extensive historical literature on the topic of Britishness has emerged, although most of it has been dedicated to the internal and multinational, rather than the external and trans-national, dimensions to Pocock’s call for a more pluralist understanding of the nation’s past. However, there has been relatively little sustained attention to the operation, expression and reception of Britishness during the Second World War. This is despite the significance of both national and regional difference as a category of analysis in Sonya Rose’s landmark study of the identity politics of wartime Britain, Which People’s War?, and the central place held by the Second World War in British national myth and memory, mapped in Lucy Noakes’ pioneering War and the British.2 The chapters that constitute Fighting for Britain therefore are a welcome addition, not merely to the historical literature concerned with wartime Britain, but to the broader questions of how national identity functioned in Britain throughout the twentieth century. ← ix | x →

Why then has Britishness during the Second World War not received more attention? One answer may lie in the legacy of Linda Colley’s highly influential Britons, which seemed to suggest that the work of constructing a British national identity was effectively complete by the time of Victoria’s accession.3 Certainly the notion of England, if not Britain, possessing a long history as a nation state, served the British well in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as they were obliged to confront the challenges of more recent national unifications (notably that of Germany) and to resist the claims of nascent nationalisms (especially Irish and Indian) within the empire. However, such narratives were of course myths or, at the very least, exercises in wishful thinking. In fact, to borrow the conceptual categories deployed by Antoinette Burton, the British nation was essentially a ‘performative, rather than a prescriptive’ entity. Far from being ‘forged’ by 1837, Britishness was ‘always in the making’, and we need to be acutely aware of the fluid, unstable and incomplete status of national identity during the 1940s, and indeed beyond.4 Similarly, we can dispense with hackneyed clichés, peddled as much on the political Left, as evidenced by Robert Colls’ irresponsibly flawed Identity of England,5 as on the intransigent Right, that Britain or any of its constituent nations possessed a common culture and sense of togetherness during the Second World War, which stands in stark contrast to a post-war national history characterised by cultural and political fragmentation and multicultural chaos.

This is not to say that Britishness did not display considerable resilience in both political and emotional registers during the Second World War. This was, of course, a reflection of the relatively light touch that Britain received from the monumentally destructive forces that were unleashed across the European continent between the mid-1930s and mid-1940s. ← x | xi → Britain was saved the massive dislocation and movement of populations, the ethnic cleansing and genocide that characterised the war’s impact in the bloodlands of central and eastern Europe. Moreover, it was subsequently immunised from these events, which clearly constituted the paramount trauma of the Second World War, by the onset of the cold war which left the death zone between Berlin and Moscow in a darkness shrouded by the Iron Curtain. In the absence of defeat or occupation (with the exception of the peripheral Channel Islands), Britain’s territorial integrity was saved the violent reshaping of borders, and even dismemberment, that befell nations that fell under the sway of either Hitler or Stalin. For large parts of the Second World War, several nation states (notably Czechoslovakia and Poland) were deemed by their new rulers to have literally ceased to exist. Even where sovereignty was re-established in the wake of the collapse of the Axis powers, what amounted to murderous civil wars tore apart Greece, Italy and, to a lesser extent, France. Placed in this broader comparative context, the continued efficacy of Britishness during the war might seem to require little need for sustained examination or explanation.

Moreover national institutions, whether political or cultural, in Britain also fared well during the war. For all the niggling demands for more Welsh language broadcasting on the BBC or for the restoration of the kilt in Scottish regiments, the Union remained secure. The monarchy also had a good war, steadying itself after the embarrassments of the Abdication and George VI’s poorly advised public affirmation of Neville Chamberlain during the Munich crisis. A (qualified) degree of accommodation to wartime populism allowed the BBC to establish its reputation as the ‘voice of Britain’ between 1939 and 1945. The symbolic power of the chimes of Big Ben echoing across a London scarred by the Blitz guaranteed the lionisation of Britain’s parliamentary traditions, even if wartime politics had inevitably seen a strengthening of executive power and limited opportunities for legislative initiative. Civil service high-handedness and pettiness, especially in regard to issues such as rationing, was eventually to make a serious contribution to the unravelling of 1940s collectivism, but this was less evident in 1945 than it was to become in 1950. Wartime health and education provision revealed many of the inadequacies of Britain’s local government system, but no one was willing to take on reform in this area ← xi | xii → in earnest until the 1960s. Significantly, the Attlee government, which took power in the closing months of the war, while it pursued a radical agenda in the domains of welfare and the economy, had virtually no interest in constitutional or institutional reform. Indeed some decidedly conservative national institutions continued to thrive in the Attlee years, often drawing on the dividend created by their ostensible contribution to the war effort. In this light, Ernest Bevin’s famous defence of the Labour government’s unwillingness to trespass on the prerogatives of the elite public schools is worth repeating in full: ‘I am not one of those who decry Eton and Harrow. I was very glad of them in the Battle of Britain.’6

So, given the absence of the more palpable traumas that afflicted nations and states in continental Europe, how can one go about writing about national identity in wartime Britain in ways that are rewarding and historiographically consequential? A simple resort to discussing the relationship of the Celtic fringe to England, or Englishness, is clearly inadequate to the task of reconstituting understandings of nation and national cultures in wartime Britain. Instead, the historian needs to be both geographically and conceptually more expansive. One fruitful line of enquiry is to relate national identity to other categories of analysis, based on gender, social class, sexuality or memory, especially since the Second World War has already provided a rich terrain for historians interested in issues of femininity and masculinity, and which, in the light of Geoffrey Field’s major study, may once again become a significant site for examining questions of class relations, albeit in a more eclectic vein than previously.7 Indeed several of the contributions to Fighting for Britain directly address the intersections between nation and gender, in areas as diverse as the relationship between feminists and religious identity and the masculinities of both fighting men and non-combatants. ← xii | xiii →

Two other approaches stand out as worthy of consideration, and they both require a willingness to adopt a more globalised perspective. First, there needs to be a more concerted effort to probe beneath the surface of familiar discourses and sites of wartime national identity, in order to register the extraordinary diversity that characterised the range of components involved in their cultural production. In particular, there needs to be recognition of the contribution of elements derived, not merely from all the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom, but from outside of Britain entirely. To take just one example, the 1944 feature film A Canterbury Tale has often been cited as an example of the narrow identification of the wartime nation with a conservative, rural vision of ‘Deep England.’8 However, this both ignores the film’s larger metaphysical agenda, especially its critique of materialism, and the fact that its director Michael Powell was able to articulate the same celebration of hierarchy, history and custom, not just in wartime Kent, but in the Scottish Highlands that form the dramatic backcloth to his I Know Where I’m Going (1945). More significantly, is it not possible that the emphasis in both films on tradition and community is rooted not merely in Powell’s personal history, but in the Austrian Jewish past of his émigré co-director Emeric Pressburger? We should also remember that the deployment of the English village as a metaphor for the nation in the 1943 invasion scare drama Went The Day Well? did not preclude the film, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, a Brazilian who had been an avant-garde film-maker in France, from exposing the local Justice of the Peace as a Nazi collaborator and insisting that it might be necessary to resort to a very un-English form of merciless brutality to repel the invader.

At one level, the subordination of most of continental Europe to Nazism obviously reinforced a sense of British distinctiveness, but at the very same time it required Britain to act as a proxy for an often fantasised cosmopolitan European culture that otherwise would be consigned to ← xiii | xiv → oblivion. It is not merely that London became a shelter for exiled European governments and crowned heads, that the Royal Air Force became a genuinely multinational force or that the BBC broadcast nightly in a variety of languages to occupied Europe. It is that Britishness was regularly aligned, and rendered compatible, with a broader European sensibility, most poignantly in Dame Myra Hess’s performance of a Mozart piano concerto in the lobby of the National Gallery, the scene that closes Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (1942). In the same vein, the ending of the 1946 movie The Captive Heart, in which a Czech POW is finally, and successfully, united with the widow of a British officer whom he has impersonated, suggests either that Englishness is a sufficiently elastic concept that it can encompass sympathetic foreigners, or, more radically still, that national identity, far from being an inherent attribute, is essentially a fictional construction.

Second, there needs to be a full and proper recognition of empire in the formations of wartime British national identity, and as a constitutive, rather than merely additive, presence. Britain not merely fought the war as an imperial power, but most of the army and navy’s major campaigns were in defence of Britain’s overseas possessions (especially India and Egypt), rather than to protect metropolitan Britain or liberate continental Europe. As Elizabeth Bowen put it, after 1941 the local intimacy of the Blitz disappeared, as ‘war moved from the horizon to the map.’9 How did service overseas impact on the sense of Britishness of men and women during the war? Even more critically, how did the humiliation heaped on notions of imperial hierarchy and white supremacy by the military disasters of the Far East impact on Britain’s sense of self? Similarly, the presence of American GIs in British pubs, and bedrooms, was not merely a personal affront to many (especially moralisers and men) in Britain, but was also an encroachment on national sovereignty and a potent symbol of national decline. Given that the ultimate legacy of the war was the eclipse of Britain as a hegemonic world power (an external consequence that was arguably of greater import than the war’s significance as a harbinger of internal ← xiv | xv → social change and the creation of a post-war welfare state), how does the nexus of war and empire oblige a repositioning of the formations of nation and nationalism? Addressing such questions does not mean abandoning attention to the local, the regional and the sub-national in British history. Recent debates about the question of ‘scale’ in history have suggested that large global patterns can be mapped and comprehended through a careful analysis of the smallest of places. However, it is only by acknowledging those broader global forces that we can write a historical account of Britishness that returns us to a robustly progressive agenda, rooted in the motifs of connectedness, pluralism and hybridity that Pocock first sought to promulgate four decades ago. ← xv | xvi →

← xvi | 1 →


1    J.G.A. Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’, Journal of Modern History 47/4 (1975), 601–28.

2    Sonya O. Rose, Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Britain, 1939–1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Lucy Noakes, War and the British: Gender and National Identity, 1939–91 (London: IB Tauris, 1998).

3    Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 (London: Yale University Press, 1992).

4    Antoinette Burton, ‘Who Needs the Nation? Interrogating “British” History’, in Catherine Hall, ed., Cultures of Empire: Colonizers in Britain and the Empire in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 137–53. Here 145.

5    Robert Colls, Identity of England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

6    Quoted in Roderick Barclay, Ernest Bevin and the Foreign Office (London: Latimer, 1975), 76.

7    Geoffrey G. Field, Blood, Sweat and Toil: Remaking the British Working Class, 1939–1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

8    For example, Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards, ‘Why We Fight: A Canterbury Tale’, in Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards, Best of British: Cinema and Society from 1930 to the Present (London: IB Tauris, 2002), 57–76.

9    Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day [1949] (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), 100.


XVI, 324
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
National Identity Englishness Britishness Multination second world war
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. XVI, 324 pp., 3 tables

Biographical notes

Wendy Ugolini (Volume editor) Juliette Pattinson (Volume editor)

Wendy Ugolini is a lecturer in British History at the University of Edinburgh. She specialises in the role of war in identity formation and has published on ethnicity in Second World War Britain and diasporic military Scottishness. Her current research focuses on the interconnections between English and Welsh identities in the two world wars. Juliette Pattinson is a Reader in Modern History at the University of Kent. She specialises in the Second World War and has published on the French resistance, British clandestine warfare, female combatants and male reserved workers and has co-edited collections on the cultural memory of the war, male POWs and partisan and anti-partisan warfare.


Title: Fighting for Britain?