Belfast Telegraph

Rewind to 1940: a time that really changed the planet

You think 2010 was eventful? Peter Bills looks back 70 years when many feared for mankind

Beyond dispute, it must have seemed like the world was ending. Countries around the globe were at war with others. Has there ever been a year like 1940?

In the past year, an earthquake ravaged parts of the south island of New Zealand and another devastated Haiti. The war in Afghanistan has dragged on. Iran and North Korea continue to defy the West with their plans for a nuclear weapon.

An economic recession has dominated the world's thinking. Countries have been forced to take painful corrective financial medicine. Serious enough, but, as a 1940 veteran might say, are you serious?

Seventy years ago, the world seemed to be approaching its nadir. The whole globe appeared to be going up in flames.

Winston Churchill, the new Prime Minister, who had replaced the blundering Chamberlain, proclaimed the Battle of Dunkirk in May/June 1940 "a great victory". In truth, it was a humiliating retreat.

Unprepared, Britain seemed unlikely to hold up the mighty German war machine for very long. But a German invasion required air supremacy; thus, the Luftwaffe launched the Battle of Britain in September with a ferocious assault.

The air-battle raged for three months and, when it was finally over, Churchill said eloquently: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

It did not mean Britain was saved from aerial bombardment. Later in the year, further horror rained down from the skies as German planes blitzed many cities including Belfast. Thousands of lives were lost. Yet somehow Britain kept going.

Evil deeds were being carried out right across Europe. Early plans were laid in this year both for the invasion of the Soviet Union and also the Holocaust.

The first prisoners arrived in Auschwitz in 1940 and very soon after their arrival, 900 Russian prisoners of war were shepherded into a chamber and gassed.

As Britain was standing alone, the new French government under Petain asked the Germans for peace terms.

France had become one great oxymoron. The northern part was occupied and Jews were rounded up to be sent to their deaths in concentration camps. Yet in the south, life carried on almost as normal.

Oxymoronically, even as some of civilisation's greatest buildings were being destroyed, other things of great beauty were also being created, such as the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo, which premiered in Barcelona. Elsewhere, a medical team at the University of Oxford published laboratory reports which showed the 'in vivo' bactericidal action of penicillin.

In the United States, Franklin D Roosevelt beat the Republican Wendell Willkie to become President for an unprecedented third term.

And the war raged on. The U-boats fought an increasingly desperate war in the North Atlantic, torpedoing and destroying convoys bringing aid and supplies to Britain.

The war spread to North Africa, where the British had sunk ships of the French fleet moored in Algerian ports. British troops attacked Italian forces at Sidi Barrani in Egypt, heralding the arrival of more German troops eventually to be commanded by the man who would come to be known as the 'Desert Fox' - General Erwin Rommel.

It was also the year when plutonium was first isolated chemically and Lend-Lease, the American aid programme to Britain, began to flow across the Atlantic.

Yet over on the west coast of America, some had other things to think about in 1940. As rationing began to bite deeply in Britain, McDonald's opened their first restaurant in California, while, also in the sunshine state, the first modern freeway, the future Route 110, opened to traffic in Pasadena.

A momentous year indeed.

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