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In Africa, fighting Rommel - "Sit down, Yank, and have a cup of tea; we'll figure a way out of this"

Reader Brad Lena has sent us an account of the fortitude and cool nerve his father found among British soldiers fighting Rommel's Afrika Corps during the Second World War. Brad also connects us to British soldiers today. Thank you, Brad. Thank you very much.

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs. . . –Kipling

Amidst the uncertainty of war, especially if you were a British or American fighting Rommel's Afrika Corps during WWII, there was one certainty. If you took territory from Rommel, he would try to take it back. The joke, except that it was not a joke, was that you could set your watch to the German counterattack; it was that inevitable. With that as preamble, my father told me a story that says much about the fortitude of British soldiers and by extension their culture.

During basic training it was discovered that Dad had a gift for reading and tactically comprehending topographical maps. The Army asked him to stay in the U.S. and teach. He informed them, with the bravura of a 20-year old, that he had enlisted to fight and that is what he intended to do. His wish was granted and soon he found himself in heavy action against the Afrika Corps. Given the intensity of the fighting he concluded that there was no way he would live to see his 21st birthday, and during his non-fighting moments, he often reflected on the wisdom of declining to fight the war from the U.S.

A successful joint British/American operation had recently been completed, but, as everyone knew, the counterattack would soon commence. It did with a vengeance. The lines held then began to buckle. Tactical withdrawal became general retreat then rout. The extent of the debacle remained vivid for my father; "everything, (rifles, armor, equipment, etc.) was discarded or abandoned."

During the confusion, he became separated from his unit and American forces in general. Lost and disorientated, he thought he would be killed or taken prisoner. Then he saw a sight so ludicrous he stood and stared.

In the midst of panic, chaos and confusion, not to mention explosions from a variety of ordinance, sat two British soldiers calmly brewing tea. They looked up and saw my father standing transfixed and said, "Sit down, Yank, and have a cup of tea; we’ll figure a way out of this, don’t worry.” Considering the entire circumstance surreal, Dad sat down, had a cup of tea and chatted a bit. Soon the respite was over and they somehow, some way safely found their way back to their respective units, earning the undying admiration of my father for the British soldier.

Who were these soldiers? We’ll never know. They are one anecdote from my father's war experiences. But we can deduce some attributes by the circumstance and their actions. As enlisted men, they most likely were not upperclass, with wealth or privilege. They were not participating in the panic. To be sure, their situation was not good; plenty of adversaries and danger lay all around. In defiance or perhaps in spite of it all, they were not stripped of their identity, confidence and custom.

Fast forward to 2007: I participated in a program that sent letters to deployed British soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq. To my surprise I received a reply. The man said he was stunned to get a letter of support from an anonymous American as he had received no letters of support from anyone in England. Our son, a Marine who recently returned from a combat deployment in Afghanistan, had nothing but words of praise for the British soldiers he encountered. I'm confident that the motivations and sentiments of these men would have been recognized by the two soldiers described by my father. What of contemporary civilians?

For decades now the character, accomplishments, and contributions of Great Britain and the English in particular have been assaulted as exploitive, racist or criminal: some sort of blight on the rose petals of humanity. Such attitudes permeate law, culture, education, and government policies and have engendered self-loathing and an optimistic expectation that a new world order will be coercion-free, just, equal and, of course, sustainable. It is doubtful that the British soldiers from my father's story would recognize these sentiments or, frankly, England.

Regardless, I have reasons to remain optimistic, but that is another story.

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