1944: when ignorance was patriotic and lack of curiosity a civic duty

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THE DAY has come round at last. The Queen is at sea off the coast of France; the presidents and cabinet ministers, the supreme commanders of this and that, the bandsmen and guards of honour and policemen and media crews are gathering on the Normandy beaches. With them are some of the survivors, from the Allied troops who landed and from the French Resistance - those who want to confront their own memories in public. Others, whose memories still hurt too much, prefer to stay at home. This is also their day.

Fifty years form a broad and stormy channel of their own. Something of the past can be brought safely across and landed intact. The sense of an enormous collective achievement, the result not just of human courage but of what an entire society can do when it is mobilised, can be reassembled today on the other shore. But so much has foundered on the passage across half a century. Above all, the dead are irretrievably lost, the soldiers on both sides but also the French families killed by Allied bombing in the moment of their liberation. At the same time, it is not just the loss of lives which demands humility. Great anniversary ceremonies like this are a confrontation with time itself. And that means recognising that many of the moods, assumptions and instincts of 1944 - the whole 'way we fought them' - also lie at the bottom of the sea.

One of these sunken things is the commandment to secrecy. It is hard now to imagine a world in which so little was known about what other people were doing or intending. On D-Day, the Allied landing fleets came out of the dawn mists on the channel and fell upon defenders who knew no more than that an invasion of France was imminent but had no certainty about when or where. The Germans had lost control of the air, they were unable to penetrate Allied codes and their spies in Britain had long been rounded up or 'turned'. They were foxed by the elaborate deception plans suggesting that the blow would fall in the Pas-de-Calais rather than on the Normandy coast; their meteorologists made the wrong forecast about June weather in the Channel. But it still remains incredible that the preparations by millions of human beings, gigantic rail and road movements over many weeks and detailed knowledge of the Normandy plan in the heads of several thousand people, should have achieved surprise. This was a war powered by petrol engines but above all by guess-work. The invasion surged out of terra incognita beyond the Channel, hit the beaches, and plunged into another land of guess-work and ignorance on the other side. But it is not just the revolution in military surveillance, by satellite and every form of electronic intercept, which makes that ignorance seem remote. It is the fact that D-Day's success depended upon secrecy - not just upon the silence of those few thousands 'inducted' into the plan itself, but upon a cult of mass discretion observed by the British people. In those days, people knew how to keep their traps shut.

My own generation, children in 1944, grew up with this cult. My brother-in-law remembers being taken out of doors that night to listen to the bomber streams passing overhead towards France; his father knew what was about to take place, but did not tell his family until the wireless news announced it in the morning. My own father, sleepless that windy night, also knew and said nothing until breakfast.

Living at Greenock on the lower Clyde, I watched every day from our window the convoys and warships coming and going from the battle of the Atlantic. With my Jane's Fighting Ships, I identified the battleships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines of a dozen nations. Walking my sister's pram across the Lyle Hill, I looked down on the Queen Mary and the Queen

Elizabeth, liners in camouflage crammed with American troops. But nothing was to be told to others, not even at school. Security men joined the uniformed mob at the bar of the Tontine hotel, listening for indiscretions (if they were not in French or Polish). In our family, we only referred to the big liners in Spanish, as the 'Reinas'.

Once I leaned over the rail of the mailboat in the Kyles of Bute and saw an extraordinary thing, like a steel kayak, surface beside us. My father's face grew stern. He told me to forget what I had seen (it was a midget submarine, on trials), and although I did not forget I never spoke of it. My elder sister offered a more startling example of this discretion cult. A wartime Wren, it was not until 30 years after the war that she felt able to tell me that she had been one of the young women who worked at Bletchley Park, feeding the array of prehistoric computers which crunched up the German codes and spat out the 'ultra' source of intelligence.

In those times, there was no conception of a 'right to know'. Curiosity killed the cat, and careless talk cost lives. In my comic, Keyhole Kate listened at doors and peeped through windows to find out what she was not supposed to know, and always got her just reward in the form of a bumped nose or a squashed finger. Incuriosity was the first civic duty.

Nobody should wish those times back. The importance of being ignorant became a state cult in wartime, for good reasons, but it rested on a much older condition: a phenomenal lack of self-importance among ordinary British people. Those who said: 'Shut up]' or 'Don't ask questions]' were assumed to have authority.

For myself, although this is not exactly the day to say so, the cult of discretion I absorbed as a wartime child was very illuminating when I went to live and work in Germany. The question 'How much did they know?' was constantly asked, mostly by foreigners. The answer had a lot to do with the Nazi version of the civic duty of ignorance.

When work-parties of skeletal prisoners marched down the street, the 'You didn't see that]' principle became negative hallucination. Things not meant to be seen had not been seen, and the plea of some Germans that they had known nothing was in a way valid. They had seen and heard enough to put a true picture together. But they had forbidden themselves to put pictures together.

That is why there is no place for nostalgia. The Britain which could keep such enormous secrets so well was lost somewhere on the way across the 50 years from 1944. In comparison, we are all Keyhole Kates and blabbermouths now. We have new problems instead; a surfeit of information so absurd that we are as dependent upon the selectors and presenters of news as we once were upon War Cabinets and censors. But our demand to know, our mania to break secrets, is a change for the better.

In 1944, secrecy was a weapon for liberation. In 1994, we know more about how that weapon can be misused. Curiosity killed the cat - but incuriosity helped to kill millions of human beings.