Behind the Battle That Won the WarRick Atkinson
RICK ATKINSON is an author and military historian. His most recent book is The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944–1945 (Henry Holt, 2013), from which this essay is adapted. Copyright © 2013 by Rick Atkinson. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.
A killing frost struck the United Kingdom in the middle of May 1944, stunting the plum trees and the berry crops. Stranger still was a persistent drought. Hotels posted admonitions above their bathtubs: “The Eighth Army crossed the desert on a pint a day. Three inches only, please.” British newspapers reported that even King George VI kept “quite clean with one bath a week in a tub filled only to a line which he had painted on it.” Gale winds from the north grounded most Allied bombers flying from East Anglia and the Midlands, although occasional fleets of Boeing Flying Fortresses could still be seen sweeping toward the continent, their contrails spreading like ostrich plumes.
Nearly five years of war had left British cities as “bedraggled, unkempt and neglected as rotten teeth,” according to one visitor from the United States, who found that “people referred to ‘before the war’ as if it were a place, not a time.” The country was steeped in heavy smells, of old smoke and cheap coal and fatigue. Wildflowers took root in bombed-out lots from Birmingham to Plymouth. Less bucolic were the millions of rats swarming through 3,000 miles of London sewers; exterminators scattered 60 tons of sausage poisoned with zinc phosphate and stale bread dipped in barium carbonate.
Privation lay on the land like another odor. The British government allowed men to buy a new shirt every 20 months. Housewives twisted pipe cleaners into hair clips. Iron railings and grillwork had long been scrapped for the war effort; even cemeteries stood unfenced. Few shoppers could find a fountain pen or a wedding ring, or bed sheets, vegetable peelers, or shoelaces. Posters discouraged profligacy with depictions of the Squander Bug, a cartoon rodent with swastika-shaped pockmarks. Classified advertisements included pleas in The Times of London for “unwanted artificial teeth” and for cash donations to help wounded Russian warhorses. An ad for Chez-Vous household services promised “bombed upholstery and carpets cleaned.”