Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
11 Aug. 2021
Review by Rachel Pistol, King's College London
The Second World War and the "Other British Isles": Memory and Heritage in the Isle of Man, Orkney and the Channel Islands
By Daniel Travers
New York: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pp. x, 235. ISBN 978–1–350–00694–2.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, World War II, United Kingdom. Print Version

Recent years have seen considerable growth in academic studies of the memory and heritage of World War II, and historian Daniel Travers (Georgian College) has made an excellent contribution to this field. Though he has published widely on Second World War remembrance in Orkney, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands, the present monograph is his first major comparative study of the memory of the war in those locales.

Travers aims to "show how each island or group of islands … have embraced their own war experience alongside some of the more traditional British narratives" (1). His three case studies center on locations that experienced aspects of war uncommon elsewhere in the British Isles: the occupation of the Channel Islands; the internment of "enemy aliens" on the Isle of Man; and the Battle of Scapa Flow and housing of Italian POWs on Orkney.

The book comprises five chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. Chapter 1 examines the British war narrative with a discussion of how the war myth has been propagated through sites of collective remembrance. Travers details the development of various myths centered on Winston Churchill, VE Day, and the Allies' comprehensive triumph over the Axis powers. He further discusses the growth of a commemorative culture that avoided more contentious aspects of the wartime experience. This has recently started to change, and the author's case studies provide salient examples of the weaving of controversial issues into the popular iconography of a "People's War":

these new narratives do not give the "People's War" the central place in the war story, but they could not displace the Churchillian paradigm from its dominance in memories of the war, because at its most simple the war and Churchill have become synonymous. (41)

This, then, is the challenge for museums and heritage organizations as they seek more nuanced interpretations of events of the Second World War.

Chapter 2 briefly sketches the history of the war in the context of the three case studies, with a compelling comparative analysis of how it has been commemorated. Readers wishing for more details of the events that took place in the selected islands will find this monograph to be a good starting point; for more than that, they will need to consult more in-depth histories of the individual islands.

Travers's extremely concise overviews of the historical events of the 1940s can be misleading. For instance, when relating events on the Isle of Man, he writes that in "a broad sweep, German, Italian, Japanese and even Finnish civilians living in the British Isles were quickly apprehended, categorized and interned" (43). This actually took place in several stages, starting with Germans and Austrians from September 1939 and followed by the Italians when Italy declared war (10 June 1940). The Japanese, Finns, Hungarians, and Romanians were not "enemy aliens" until December 1941 and were housed separately from those who had been interned earlier.

Travers asserts that no distinction was made in the early days of internment between pro-Nazis and refugees. This was in fact usually remedied before internees arrived on the Isle of Man, except for the women's camp, Rushen, where it was resolved within the first few weeks of residence. Moreover, there were various types of internees. Finns, Hungarians, and Romanians, who tried to escape and sometimes physically attacked one another (46), should not be confused with the German and Austrian refugees, most of whom had been released by this point.

Travers's meticulous research, which includes visiting the wartime sites and commemorative institutions, as well as interviewing heritage experts, is on clear display in chapters 3–5, which cover popular memory, material representations of war, and tangible sites of memory. We learn, for example, that Italian POWs created essential local infrastructure in Orkney, whose residents "still possess … objets d'art given to them by the Italians during their captivity" (51). Or how inhabitants of the Channel Islands, the only part of the British Isles invaded by Germany, initially constructed a history that "heavily favoured events such as the deprivations that the islanders faced, small acts of passive resistance and … the islands' liberation from occupation, while … minimizing some of the more unsettling and distasteful stories" (117).

The Second World War and the "Other British Isles" is the first scholarly comparative study of British archipelagos and Crown Dependencies. As such, it should be a foundational text for anyone seeking to learn more about how heritage sites can engage with potentially divisive popular narratives.

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