A piece written by Michael Morpurgo on 946 and its place in today's world.
946, the tragedy at Slapton Sands.
On both sides of the Atlantic we have recently decided democratically to follow similar paths: America First and Britain First. We may question the quality and validity of our democratic processes that have brought us to where we are. But we are where we are.
At the heart of these decisions to change course so dramatically lies either a profound misunderstanding of history or simply a great ignorance of it. Hardly mentioned in debates in Britain during our referendum were our deep cultural connections to the continent of Europe. We came from there. We are a strange mix of Italian, Scandinavian, German, French, yes and there is some indigenous Celtic connection too, and of course people have come in more recent centuries, often as refugees and migrant labour from further afield. We are essentially a country made up of migrants.
We decided to formalise this European connection decades ago, that our future was as a trading nation in Europe, the Europe we came from, that we belonged to. We joined a Common Market, which then changed its name and character. Much of our ills we blamed on this deeply imperfect institution, an institution set up, it was forgotten, to ensure that the nations of Europe would never again go to war. It was our hideous rivalries that had plunged the world into two great and destructive wars.
It was during the First World War that the US intervened to save Europe from total self destruction. In my travels I have discovered that ignorance of history is widespread on this side of the Atlantic too. In talking to folk during the preparation for the National Theatre's iconic production of War Horse at the Lincoln Centre, and in cities right around the country, it became clear that young people in America had grown up with little or no notion of the US contribution to the saving of Europe in WWI.
Over 50,000 US soldiers died in that war in just a few months, more than in Vietnam. It was arguably the most beneficial intervention the US has ever made overseas. With fresh soldiers and munitions, and a new energy and optimism, they broke the stale-mate, helped win the war, helped make the peace, and went home. In doing so they became top nation. Very few Americans I spoke to seemed aware of how significant this was in their history, and in the history of Europe and the world.
Twenty years later, with Fascism threatening to overwhelm Europe, Britain and the nations of Europe were at it again, dragging the world into another even more terrible conflict. On both sides of the pond, many people may be aware of D-Day, of the landings on the Normandy beaches in June 1944, and action seen often through the prism of the movie of Saving Private Ryan. Fewer seemed to realise the immensity of the task, that a waterborne invasion on this scale had never before been attempted.
On neither side of the Atlantic is it much remembered that 3 million young Americans came across the sea, 750,000 of them black soldiers, that they lived and trained for months in the English countryside alongside British and Allied forces. To local people and communities they were a welcome sight. Tensions there were, but a great friendship and mutual respect sprang up between these freshfaced, smiling GIs and their rather jaded British hosts. The Yanks liked their music loud and swinging, their uniforms were smarter, they went about looking as if they were going to win. And to win was everything to the exhausted British, living as they were on rations and hope for so long, and for so long feeling alone in the struggle.
Forgotten too, and deliberately so, was the tragedy known as Operation Tiger. On a training exercise off the coast of Devon, thousands of US soldiers were waiting in their boats to practise yet another landing on the beaches of Slapton Sands. The Royal Navy warships covering this excercise were not where they should have been, messages were confused, the US convoy was spotted by German e boats who came out of nowhere and surprised them. In the ensuing attack 946 American soldiers died, on excercise. Both British and US authorities hushed it up for years afterwards.
I came across this story in a pub in Slapton, photos of US soldiers helping local people to clear their houses, so their village and six others and the beach below could be used for seaborne landing excercises. Locals were sent to live elsewhere for a year or more. They came home in the summer of 1944, by which time the Yanks they had come to know and admire, and be grateful for, had gone off to liberate France and Europe, along with all the Allied soldiers, ours included. Many never saw their homes again in Alabama or California, or New York or Montana. And liberate Europe they did, we all did together.
I am a story maker. I write both to entertain and to educate young people. Most of my stories grow out of history, usually forgotten history, because most history is forgotten by most people, on both sides of the Atlantic. We forget our history at our peril. We have to be aware of our past to understand our present. Fail to do that and we wallow in the uncertainties and complexities of today. Stories whether as books or plays help us to empathise with the lives and beliefs and histories of ourselves and of others. That way comes understanding.
The play of 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, a wonderful Kneehigh production, is playing at St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, tells the story of those 946 US soldiers, of two of them in particular, and of the country folk who welcomed them in. In the Uk thousand upon thousand of theatre goers, young and old, know now more how it was to be alive then, know more what it took to preserve the freedoms we enjoy, freedoms that are always threatened, mostly by ignorance.
So not America First, or Britain First. Empathy and Understanding First.
- Michael Morpurgo, 2017.