History in black, white and brown

28th April 1995 at 01:00
Accounts of the war still vary in their interpretation. Laurence Alster reports. LONDON AT WAR, VHS video, Pounds 12.99, Mail Order, Imperial War Museum, Duxford Airfield, Cambs CB2 4QR. RAF OFFENSIVE, VHS video, Pounds 12.99, DD Video, Units 1-3, Tarvin Sands Industries, Barrow Lane, Tarvin, Chester CH3 8JF. TOGETHER, VHS video and audio tape, posters, photographs and photocopiable facsimile documents, Pounds 30 plus Pounds 6 pp. Mail Order, Imperial War Museum, Duxford Airfield, Cambs CB2 4QR

Since the end of the Second World War, the London Blitz has generally been presented as an ordeal which bent, but never broke, the capital's strong community spirit. Some voices say otherwise; but London at War can find no room for them. Instead, this well-crafted but rather evasive video presents the orthodox view of Londoners as a phlegmatic bunch who grew stronger the more Jerry chucked at 'em.

Between familiar archive clips interviewees do recall the horror "the vicar's ribs went right through his lungs"; "we tried putting bodies together, but it was hopeless". But the emphasis is on the defiance and fortitude, with little on, say, the well-documented instances of mass panic or black marketing.

While London suffered 30,000 fatalities during the entire war, the Allied bombing of Dresden cost the city a greater number of dead in one night alone.

RAF Offensive, a compilation of wartime propaganda films showing raids over Nazi-occupied Europe, gives some idea both of the destruction wrought and the way it was presented to the British public. Time and again, fighter planes strafe trains, ships and designated buildings and, against a background of stirring music, RAF bombers convulse the earth.

The sight is appalling; so, in a different way, is the period commentary. When official policy favoured the deliberate bombing of residential areas, there is a doubly misleading emphasis. First on accuracy: "The RAF seeks (targets) out, and bombs them at night with deadly precision." Second, and with undisguised relish, on what is presented as the inadvertent devastation of towns such as Duisburg: "Tremendous destruction resulted, with the old town completely levelled by fire and blast."

The truth was that the RAF was duplicating the earlier terror bombing of the Luftwaffe. This has been presented as a tragic necessity while others believe that such imitation narrowed the moral chasm that had previously divided the adversaries.

Once they have watched RAF Offensive, older students will understand why the issue raises firestorms even to this day.

Black and brown people seldom appear at all in feature films or television programmes about the Second World War and it is no wonder that post-war generations (let alone many former service personnel) are almost entirely ignorant of the part played in the conflict by former British colonials.

Designed for pupils of history at key stages 3 and 4, Together contains a video and audio tape, several facsimile documents, just over 30 photographs and some evocative propaganda posters, so no complaints about the variety of materials. The posters and photographs are marvellous (lots of pictures, for example, of Commonwealth troops "doing their bit", but some of the facsimile documents will surely defeat the target groups, with language over-complicated for students beneath A-level standard.

Teachers will probably get more mileage from the video and audio tapes. While five propaganda films on the video bark rather than sing the praises of overseas troops, the audio tapes concentrate on personal reminiscence.

The most shaming story comes from a Jamaican who, when in his teens, paid his own passage to England (on a boat which had brought white, middle-class Britons to Caribbean safety) in order to join the RAF. At his first interview an Air Ministry corporal told him to "piss off".

In the end, things worked out well for all those black ex-servicemen interviewed, most of whom talk more of cross-race comradeship than systematic discrimination. Not so after the war. Forgetful or wilfully ignorant of debts incurred, many whites took pleasure in persecuting those who had helped save them. Over-complexities aside, Together at least does a good job of showing precisely how such treatment comes not only from rank ignorance, but from rank ingratitude also.

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