How we ran the war

4th June 2004 at 01:00
It is January, 1941. Britain has been at war with Germany for more than a year and the Blitz is threatening to bring the country to its knees.

You are in charge. What do you do?

This was the scenario facing a group of teenagers as they took on the roles of ministers in Churchill's war cabinet.

Sitting around a table in a bunker beneath the Treasury - in the Cabinet War Rooms - the secondary pupils debated war strategy and how to tackle national shortages while maintaining morale.

The exercise, timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings on June 6, served as a reminder of the decisions faced by politicians half a century before most of the youngsters were born.

The 15 pupils were mainly from London schools in areas that had been affected by the Blitz and had each been asked to research the role of a different cabinet minister who they would play.

They were assisted in their decision-making by Tony Benn, the former Labour cabinet minister, who had been a similar age during the Second World War.

When he reached his 16th birthday, he told them, he was taken into the Home Guard and shown how to fire a rifle.

"I think you have to know your history," Mr Benn said afterwards. "If you don't then you don't know where you came from, who you are and what to do next.

"If you look at events today there are parallels from the past - what do we do about civil liberties and asylum seekers?

"I remember the fascists shouting at asylum seekers and I remember Hitler coming to power. I can see parallels in everything that's happening now."

Christienne Adams, 14, from Our Lady's Convent high school in Hackney, played the role of Alfred Duff Cooper, the minister of information in 1941.

She said: "This is a good idea. Coming here you can see what it was like and think about what they had to think about."

Her schoolfriend Marta Purwin, 13, who played Lord Reith, the minister of works and buildings, said: "I've enjoyed it because we've talked about a lot of different issues.

"We are doing the Second World War at school and this way we get to look at it from different perspectives.

"It's not just reading, but actually exchanging different views."

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