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Britain Stands Alone: 70 Years Later

Roslynite Recalls Dramatic Turning Points of World War I

When Americans think about World War II, they usually associate it with events that concern them, namely the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the invasion of the Normandy beaches, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri.

Sept. 1 of this year marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II, with events far from American soil. On that date in 1939, Germany invaded Poland, setting the hostilities in motion. By 1940, the action had shifted to Great Britain, with the Battle of Britain, the German blitzkrieg over London and the famed British resistance.

One Roslyn resident was there when it happened. Pauline Mattana, along with her husband, Geoffrey, has lived in America since 1956, when the latter, a commodities trader, was transferred by an international corporation. The couple moved to Roslyn in 1969, where they raised their three children and where they have been involved with Temple Beth Sholom and the Roslyn Public Schools.

Pauline is also a native of northwest London. As a young child, she lived through the Battle of Britain and even had a connection to history. During the war, Pauline came in contact with Mary Churchill, the youngest daughter of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Sitting at the dining room table in her Roslyn home, Pauline’s memories of World War II are vivid and dramatic. She started our interview by quoting Shakespeare: “This England never hath nor never shall sit at the proud foot of a conqueror.”

From there, she recalled the Britain of the 1930s, the halcyon days of the British Empire, when that tiny northern European island nation still ruled the waves and with it, much of the globe. Pauline recalled the lyrics of a patriotic song that British schoolchildren sang, one set to Pomp and Circumstances: “Wider yet and wider shall thy bounds be set.” It seemed the mighty British Empire would last forever.

That idyllic world, however, was shattered by the hostilities of the 1940s. Still, Pauline’s memories are all positive ones. The British people, during those most trying years of 1939-1941 never lost their optimism or their hospitality, as strangers banded together to keep the nation afloat while under siege from German bombs. “I was too young to understand the dangers,” she said, “but old enough to be infused with the remarkable patriotic atmosphere that surrounded us.”

On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. By then, Great Britain had given security guarantees to Poland and so on Sept. 3, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had Britain declare war on Germany. Right away, Pauline and her younger sister, Helen, were billeted to a home in North Hampton, a town about 50 miles north of London, while her parents remained in the capital city. She recalled how “at the chime of Big Ben at 11:00 a.m.” on Sept. 3, Chamberlain declared war. Her grade school teacher then told the class: “Remember this moment. You will remember this for the rest of your lives.”

Pauline and her sister found North Hampton agreeable. “I remember how sweet the host people were,” Pauline said. “They gave us shopping bags of chocolate and iron rations. They ran wonderful, beautiful operations.”

Still, the events of Sept. 3 were not as dramatic as they seemed. What followed was “the phony war” as no hostilities between Britain and Germany took place.

A Lift From Mary Churchill

The two girls were soon back in London. However, on Aug. 15, 1940, the Battle of Britain began and by September of that year, Pauline and her sister were once again transported to the countryside. This time, they moved to Buckinghamshire, a county north of London. Their parents also joined them, so the family was together. They now lived only a mile and a half from Chequers, the official country residence of all British prime ministers.

It was here that Pauline crossed paths with Mary Churchill. Not only was food being rationed, automobiles were scarce and gasoline was almost unattainable. Mary Churchill came to the rescue, often giving the two girls a lift to their school. Pauline remembers Mary as the Churchill daughter who was most involved in the war effort. She wore the uniform of the Women’s Voluntary Service. Later, Mary accompanied her famous father to the ill-fated Yalta Conference in 1945. Pauline recalls Mary as a “very generous” young lady, someone who “inspired the feeling of certainty that Britain would prevail.”

In all, Pauline and Ellen spent a year-and-a half in Buckinghamshire. Other memories include the way that senior citizens talked constantly about World War I, which took place only 20 years earlier. Pauline also remembers that many of her female teachers were spinsters, having lost fiancés or husbands in the Great War. Pauline also has distinct memories of Aug. 15, 1940 when, as noted, the Battle of Britain commenced. “I looked east,” she said, “and I saw huge red flames. I thought it was a sunset. But it was the East London docks being bombed.”

On weekends during this period, the two girls and their parents would return to their London home. “Somehow I was not afraid,” Pauline asserted, again recalling the infectious optimism that ran through the nation’s consciousness.

The Battle of Britain was a short affair, lasting from August-September of 1940. The Royal Air Force managed to hold off the blitzkrieg and the war moved to different phases. By the end of 1941, Pauline’s family was back at their London home for good. Life didn’t exactly return to normal. In 1944, Londoners still had to endure bombs from German V-1 and V-2 bombers. A year later, on V-E Day 1945, Pauline was witness to Churchill’s famous victory speech, delivered from a balcony in Whitehall. “The bombs came down,” Churchill orated. “We prevailed. We stood alone for two-and-a-half years.”

And that is the message that Pauline herself wishes to convey on this 70th anniversary of the war: Britain did stand alone and it did prevail. When America entered the war in December 1941, the outcome seemed certain, but even more decisive events had already taken place.