In 1939, at the beginning of WWII, Mollie Panter-Downes, a young and successful novelist at the time, began a weekly column in the New Yorker magazine, called "Letter from London." Her column was so popular that the New Yorker kept her on until 1984 (45 years!). This book is the complete columns from September 1939 to the end of the war in May 1945. Densely packed with details about daily life in London, it gives a different view of the war than most Americans grew up with. For us, the war started in December 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Then we what, swooped in and single-handedly saved Europe? That's not how it the British saw it. They'd been fighting the war for over two years before we had any active troops there. They'd watched one ally after another fall to Germany. They'd been bombed, suffered much more extreme rationing than we ever did, and then still stuck to it until the end. They appreciated our help, along with Canada's, but they didn't feel that we were their saviors. In fact, the book doesn't even focus much on the entrance of the US into the war.
What interested me most about the book were the details of every day life. I think it was brilliant of the New Yorker to choose a woman for the column, as she was very tuned in to what the war meant not just for soldiers, but for women and children.
"All over the country, the declaration of war has brought a new lease of life to retired officers, who suddenly find themselves the commanders of battalions of willing ladies who have emerged from the herbaceous borders to answer the call of duty. Morris 10s, their windshields plastered with notices that they are engaged on business of the ARP or WVS (both volunteer services), rock down quiet country lanes propelled by firm-lipped spinsters who yesterday could hardly have said 'boo!' to an aster." (Sept 1939)
"How to accustom children to a war which at any moment may come right into the nursery is something that exercises everybody. The juvenile genius for accepting new conditions has already, however, reconciled many a family to a father unaccountably vanished and a mother who in a tone of determined gaiety proposes a game of Mickey Mouse in one of these amusing new mask things. The most comforting reaction so far reported was the remark of the little girl who countered parental whimsy with a stern, "It's all right, Mummie. I know what it is. It's a gas mask, and we put in on when they bomb us." (Sept 1939)
"The fall of Paris [June 14th] was the culmination of a tragic week for the British people...On Monday, June 17th--the tragic day on which Britain lost the ally with whom she had expected to fight to the bitter end--London was as quiet as a village...People stood about reading the papers; when a man finished one, he would hand it over to anybody who hadn't been lucky enough to get a copy, and walk soberly away...There was little discussion of events, because they were too bad for that...Few people remembered that Tuesday was the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, another occasion when disaster trod very close on the heels of this country, and when it seemed impossible that [we] could stand up to the assault of the greatest military machine in the world, let by the greatest commander. 'Hard pounding, this, gentlemen,' said Wellington to his staff at one stage of that battle. 'Let's see who will pound the longest.' ...The determination to keep pounding the longest is the only thing that people have been able to see clearly in the past dark and bewildering week." (June 1940)
"Incidentally, the announcements of air raid deaths are beginning to appear in the obituary columns of the morning papers. No mention is made of the cause of death, but the conventional phrase 'very suddenly' is always used. Thousands of men, women, and children are scheduled to die very suddenly, without any particular notice being taken of them in the obituary columns...All that is best in the good life of civilized effort appears to be slowly and painfully keeling over in the chaos of man's inhumanity to man." (Sept 1940)
"It is realized that at best, the coming winter is likely to feature among its cold attractions more intensive bombing, new food shortages, and cold. The last will probably not be at all funny, owing to the critical coal shortage...the threatened winter milk cut has stirred up a lot of criticism too...Eggs are rationed at one a week to a person...Vegetables are plentiful; Londoners dug so manfully for victory this spring that scarlet runners in every back yard seem to be trying to strangle the house, and for the time being there is a greater danger of being hit by a marrow falling off the roof of an air-raid shelter than of being struck by a bomb." (August 1941)
And this was all before we entered the war.
I admit I skimmed some of the military details, but I did learn a lot about what was happening in Asia. I guess I'd never really taken in what it meant for Britain to have all those extensions of the British empire fall. Not that I support Britain's imperialism or the Victorian view of it's empire, but many people in England had family and friends there and worried about what was happening to them. And in the days before the internet, there was little information to be had.