Reach for the sky, Mr Gove


By - Friday 24th January, 2014

Local historian Matthew Doyle highlights the importance of Croydon’s role defending London during the Battle of Britain


Image taken by Matt Ritchie and used under Creative Commons license.

I like Michael Gove. People of my age do. He is proof that Joe 90 grew up and became Secretary of State for Education. For sure, he has lit the debate surrounding the centenary of the Great War (that’s the first one for today’s #yoof). Like it or loathe it, there is a perception, again from my generation, that history has been tainted by the likes of Horrible Histories and Blackadder happily conveyed by teachers through polarised lenses.

This is nothing new. Many of the “baby boomers”  of today often sought refuge in such books as 1066 and All That (pub. 1930) to explain the complex issues surrounding our history with a comical slant. As a historian, I relish the chance to sift through the evidence and opine a semi-pompous soundbite as a result (there’s one for you!).

Mr Gove is right to alert the vox pop – if that’s what he is doing – on the importance of not trivialising history. If you mention Battle of Britain to #yoof do they a) know what you are talking about? b) or if they do, think of Alexander Armstrong and Ben Miller indulging in glorious monochrome buffoonery? We Croydonians have a proud history that cannot be trivialised. Seventy-four years ago, this very area witnessed a cataclysm in another global war that threatened our national preserve.

It was these skies above us in Croydon that saved our souls

The Battle of Britain is both an accuracy and a misnomer. It was fought over the skies of south east England and its territorial waters (although the eastern seaboard also played a part) but at its soul was the national psyche. Our psyche. We – as Britains – view it as  the moment when WW2 turned our way. Or, if you fancy a revisionist view with a Germanic slant, the second cock-up after Dunkirk. I am a sucker for war films and their importance in illuminating history.

For me, as a Croydon luvvie, first among equals is The Battle of Britain (dir. Guy Hamilton 1969). It is often overlooked as a film despite its starry cast – Sir Michael Caine, Ian McShane, Trevor Howard and Christopher Plummer. What is not apparent in the film visually, but confirmed orally, is the familiarity of the names mentioned – Biggin Hill, Croydon and Kenley – all RAF stations empowered (whilst cocurrently underpowered) with the defence of London. At the risk of frivolity, it was the German war machine pitted against Surrey’s finest. Men against boys. Also crucial to the film and real life events is the cosmopolitan nature of the “Brylcreem Boys”. OK, there is Sir Michael Caine with his faux public school accent – first aired in Zulu, and further crucified in A Bridge Too Far. But there are New Zealanders, Canadians  Polish and Czech pilots flying on our behalf to defeat the spectre of Nazism – as was historically accurate. According to the RAF Role of Honour for those few months of 1940, non-British personnel accounted for 574 alongside our own 2,353 British pilots involved in this aerial gunfight. Please watch it and enjoy it as much as I do.

Or go to Kenley, down the road, and see the memorial stone,with its inscription: Never in the field of human conflict, has so much been owed by so many to so few — Winston Churchill 1942. It is as relevant to the next generation as it was to the last. Next time you look up in the sky (probably sat in Selhurst Park pondering the optimism in extremis of “Glad All Over ”) – it was these skies above us in Croydon that saved our souls.
Matthew Doyle

Matthew Doyle

Matt is a long term Croydon resident believing it to be 'blessing rather than a curse' to live here. He has lived in most areas including all three parliamentary constituencies. It follows that he is a Crystal Palace FC and Surrey CCC fan and is an expert on both clubs implicit idealism. Shortly after the Spanish Civil War, he emerged with unbridled zest and vigour, from the London School of Economics with a degree in History.

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  • Anne Giles

    Great article.

    • Matthew Doyle

      Thank you Anne – much appreciated !

  • George Harfleet

    August, 1940, Hathaway Road, Croydon. A nice summery day. A lazy sort of drone sound in the air.

    “Ooh look” says Dad “They’re dropping leaflets!”

    He’s pointing to the sky and I see a few blackish spots fluttering downwards. Quite small looking things; nothing special.

    Seconds later I hear the thump, crump, crump thump as the “leaflets” hit the ground. Dad yanks my arm almost out of its socket as he whisks me indoors. They’re bombing the Airport.

    Oh well, no leaflets to read then. Never mind, there’s always tomorrow.

    This is my very first memory of the Nazi attempts to obliterate my town, my family and the rest of us. I was five-and-a-half at the time. Would I ever have a 6th birthday? Well, yes … and quite a few more to boot.

    Oddly enough, those early years were quite an exciting time for me and my two younger brothers. Eventually I would have two more brothers, but right now there’s just me,, Geoffrey, and baby John.

    • Matthew Doyle

      Fascinating to hear about your experiences of the Battle of Britain, Indeed, it is a good example of primary historical evidence in that you lived through these events and is superior anything I can write about ! I am sure that the few months of 1940 will never be forgotten – it just appears like that sometimes !

  • Richard Hoblyn

    Love the article Matt……bandits at 11 o’clock

    • Matthew Doyle

      Thank you Richard !

  • nmakwana

    Superb article and whets the appetite for visit down to Kenley airfield.

  • Tom Black

    A really wonderful piece, Matthew. Witty and informative, but also steeped in affection for our town. As an amateur historian myself, I’ve always wanted to dig deeper into our area’s role in the Battle of Britain. Your article has added fuel to that desire! Welcome to the Citizen – I hope to read more from you very soon.

    • Matthew Doyle

      Thank you Tom – the epithet “Local Historian” was attached by your editor and not by myself in a pique of self importance !! As you know, History as a subject provides more questions than answers. All we do is provide a framework for debate !

  • Sameena Bogler

    Hello Matthew. Until now, I thought I was the only person (except my husband), to find the writing style of the “Horrible Histories” appalling – appalling that young children should learn about a subject written in this coarse, unsober, tabloid estuary language – I am really upset and offended by the English in them. What influence will it have on how people talk and express themselves? The facts are fine – facts I love – but the way they are delivered in these books is just horrible. I know how popular they are – and this worries me incredibly. If we choose to live here, how can we escape this language? My son (just 7) has been homeschooled so far by us in New York – we have taught him history through so many wonderful books including the old ladybirds – and have also taken parts from wonderful texts like Charles Dicken’s “Child’s History of England” I might teach a lesson on Elizabeth I like this; we read about her and her times and discuss aspects of what we find interesting. My son writes a passage or answers some questions, we then listen, for a treat, to Henrietta Marshall’s wonderful account. All on the same topic each time – we keep it simple. And it sticks. Our son remembers and is proud of what he knows. And what he knows are the sober facts – not made tabloid or into jokes. He doesn’t need jokes to appreciate history – history is fascinating in its own right if it is explained properly and with passion. It does not need to be turned into an educational version of “The Sun”. I cannot believe that nobody sees this. I wonder if it might be possible to talk to you over the phone. We are considering applying to some schools – our son has done so well, that he is working well above his age. But the more I look at the curriculum over many topics, the less I want to give up homeschooling – which has been such a joy anyway. I am on 0203 290 9939 if there was any chance of talking with you. I am so overwhelmed by the public’s passion for Horrible Histories and yet I find them impossible to swallow and cannot imagine giving them to my son…do you have any thoughts? Thank you