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When Bermuda played a part of distinction

War is always a great evil, but as even pacifist Bertrand Russell conceded, under some extreme circumstances it may actually be the lesser of two evils. The Second World War [1939-1945] was a case study in just such circumstances.

The entire world was transformed into a global battlefield during that epochal conflict between fascism and the alliance of necessity between the rival ideologies of liberal democracy and Stalinist communism, including tiny Bermuda.

This Island became a mid-Atlantic fortress, giving up fully 10 per cent of its land area to the Allied war effort against the Axis powers of Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan.

Flying boats hunted German U-boats out of Bermuda. Fleets of long-range bombers being ferried to the European Theatre of Operations flew in and out of the newly constructed airfield at the East End after coming off American assembly lines. Destroyers underwent shakedown training for convoy duty in the waters of the Great Sound.

Even the Island's hotels were requisitioned for war use, British intelligence officers and codebreakers billeted in suites which had been filled by wealthy North American vacationers and honeymooning socialites before the outbreak of hostilities.

Addressing Bermuda's House of Assembly on January 15, 1942, on his way home from meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt in Washington DC, Britain's Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, told Members of Colonial Parliament that “you in Bermuda happen to be called upon to play a part of especial importance and distinction”.

“Everybody has to do his duty to the cause — first to the British Empire, but above that to the world cause,” he added.

Sir Winston went on to refer to the new wartime bases constructed in Bermuda as “important pillars of the bridge connecting the two great English-speaking democracies”.

“You have cause to be proud that it has fallen to your lot to make this important contribution to a better world,” he said.

He concluded his remarks by expressing his “profound gratitude” to the Island for the sacrifices it had made in terms of land.

But, of course, Bermuda's contributions went far beyond hosting Allied bases along with US, British, Canadian, West Indian and Free-French military personnel on its territory. Virtually the whole Bermudian population was mobilised, in one way or another, for the conflict, which became the pivot of modern history.

All military-age males resident in Bermuda were liable for military service in one of the two racially segregated local units. In addition to maintaining guards at the Royal Naval Dockyard and the Darrell's Island flying boat base, the local soldiers guarded the transatlantic cable facilities, beaches and inlets, patrolled the Island, and operated motor boat patrols.

Both local militia sent detachments overseas and Bermudian servicemen participated in such now-legendary engagements as the Battle of Britain in 1940, El Alamein in 1941 and the 1944 D-Day Landings in Normandy.

Thirty-five young Bermudian men and women gave their lives in the Second World War fighting for the freedoms we now take for granted.

For them and millions of other young men and women who bore arms in that conflict, loyalty, duty and honour were not archaic concepts but real and enduring truths. They battled their way across continents and fought one another in the air and on and under the seas to stop the pitiless and seemingly inexorable march of fascist tyranny.

As British warlord Churchill said, the alternative was to allow the world to “sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science”. His anxieties about the likely consequences of yoking modern technology to an expansionist political creed founded on militarism, nationalism, imperialism, authoritarianism and homicidal racism were well founded.

Leapfrogging scientific advances had already resulted in the development and deployment of a whole range of merciless new military technology by the time the war broke out -- and also provided the ghastly apparatus and infrastructure for the industrial-scale slaughter of innocents in the Nazi Holocaust.

Such innovations as jet aircraft and ballistic missiles were introduced during the course of the conflict as the exigencies of total warfare placed increasing pressure on both Axis and Allied scientists and industrialists to come up with new and ever more powerful weapons.

The conflict culminated, of course, with the use of the atomic bomb, a weapon that had gone from being a remote theoretical possibility at the outbreak of hostilities to a war-winning and world-changing reality by 1945.

Last weekend the world commemorated the 70th anniversary of the final Allied victory over Japan and the end of the war with muted observances and sober reflections on a date of decisive historical importance.

Bermuda, inexplicably, allowed the occasion to pass officially unmarked.

This was a curious and unhappy oversight given not only the scale of the Island's contributions to the 1939-45 conflict, but the continuing need to learn from the experiences of that war — and to keep putting what was learned into practice.

As a great postwar German statesman said, anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present, and whoever refuses to remember man's sometimes epic propensity for inhumanity is prone to new outbreaks of savagery.

“It is vital to keep alive the memories; [the fascists'] constant approach was to stir up prejudices, enmity and hatred,” the former West German President Richard Weizsacker said on the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second World War in 1985.

“What is asked of young people today is this: do not let yourselves be forced into enmity and hatred of other people.

“Let us honour freedom. Let us work for peace. Let us respect the rule of law. Let us be true to our own conception of justice.”

In other words, it is incumbent upon all of us, everywhere, including in Bermuda, to be permanently on our guard against the emergence of new perils with the potential to become even greater evils than war.

Fighting fascism: B-17 Flying Fortress bombers of the US 390th Bomb Group in transit in Bermuda while flying from the United States to England on June 22, 1943. The Island gave up 10 per cent of its land area to the Allied effort during the Second World War (Photograph courtesy of the US National Archives)

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Published August 19, 2015 at 9:00 am (Updated August 19, 2015 at 5:10 pm)

When Bermuda played a part of distinction

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