The impact of the Second World War on Britain is still clouded with some of the most powerful mythology in modern history. Phrases such as ‘the Dunkirk spirit’, ‘backs to the wall’ and ‘the finest hour’ have a profoundly iconographic quality which has survived more than forty years of mobilisation at every level from academic history to television drama. The war became more than just another series of events to be lived through: it became an historical ideal, against which to measure the values both of the period that had gone before and the period that has elapsed since. What is deemed to have happened in the war, and in 1940 in particular, has become central to the concept of British national identity, a belief that there exists a national family with a shared memory, a collective consciousness which cuts across class, gender and regional divides. The year 1940 has become a constant point of reference for what Britain could achieve, and of appeals for further effort, for further sacrifice, for further heroics to recapture that sublime ‘finest hour’.
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