Like a sort of Second World War smorgasbord, you can take a look and pull tasty morsels out of Hidden Places of World War II. After digesting these, you look for some more titbits. The wartime stories are all linked to places that can be visited.
However, most MHM readers will not need to be told they can visit Churchill’s wartime bunker in London. Under Whitehall, it is now known as the Churchill War Rooms and run by the Imperial War Museum.
They might be more interested to read briefly about the SIGSALY voice scrambling system installed by the US Signal Corps in 1943 as a hotline for Churchill to call up President Roosevelt in the White House, although O’Connor is wrong to say this was the first hotline between London and Washington. An earlier, less-secure system installed by the GPO using an A3 Scrambler had in fact been cracked by the Germans, and Hitler boasted that he read translations of the Prime Minister’s conversations with the President within hours of them speaking!
Readers will also not need to be told that Bletchley Park was where the code-breaking miracle took place. Nor that Southwick House near Portsmouth was Eisenhower’s command centre for the planning of D-Day.
But, in East Anglia, O’Connor has tracked down the visible remains of US airbases from where the ‘Mighty Eighth’ flew bombing missions across Occupied Europe: Old Buckenham was where both Jimmy Stewart and Walter Matthau served; Horsham St Faith is now part of Norwich airport. O’Connor has also found remains at Rackheath, Tibenham, and several other airbases.
He includes references to the pubs where American airmen drank warm beer after operations, some of which became as legendary as the airfields themselves. For some reason, he does not mention Duxford, where the American Air Museum presents an enormous collection of US aircraft and memorabilia.
The Eighth Air Force and RAF Bomber Command suffered some of the highest loss rates of the war, with more than 47,000 American and 55,000 British aviators lost. He movingly tells the story of some of these fliers, who carried on against what now seem as impossible odds.
Other chapters are devoted to the huge U-boat pens in Brittany; Trent Park in north London, where the conversations of senior German generals captured by the Allies were secretly recorded; the vast parade grounds at Nuremberg where Nazi Party rallies were held on a spectacular scale; and a host of Berlin museums dedicated to the story of the Third Reich.
But none of these exactly qualify as sites ‘overlooked by history’, as the book’s dust-jacket claims.
Hidden Places will probably be most useful to American readers planning a visit to the UK and Europe to see some of the locations that helped shape the outcome of the war. Enlivened by O’Connor’s easy prose, they will be able to put together a great itinerary to reveal the nature and scale of the epic struggle that was the Second World War in Europe.
Review by Taylor Downing
This article was published in the February 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.