Community Generated Digital Content and the Postmemory of the Second World War

In this blog, Dr Stefan Ramsden from the OHOS History Lab at the University of Manchester, discusses how CGDC can be used to shed light on the intergenerational transmission of Second World War memories.

Since the later twentieth century, western societies have become increasingly concerned with how the past can be approached and understood through memory. This memory boom coincided with the twilight years of the generation who fought in the Second World War, leading to various initiatives aimed at capturing personal recollections of that conflict.1 Reminiscence narratives of the Second World War became a staple of exhibitions, television programmes, and, increasingly, digital archives.2 Today, as the number of surviving veterans shrinks, online archives which aim to record the memories of our disappearing wartime generation are becoming sites of ‘postmemory’, where descendants register their own connection, via their ancestors, to an episode of enduring importance in British culture.3 These archives package family stories for a wider audience, offering insights into the workings and implications of family memory of the war. Here, I survey a small sample of this community-generated digital content (CGDC) relating to the Second World War for what it can tell us about links between individual, family and popular memory.

Online archives serve as memorials for relatives who have passed away. The Russian Arctic Convoy Museum ( invites the public to contribute photos and memories of men who sailed on convoys which took aid to Russia during the war. The ‘Convoys Remembered’ section aims to pay tribute to ‘the brave sailors who battled perilous Arctic waters’, and thus the material is organised by individual veteran.4 Often, entries do not extend beyond scant factual details of service. For example, Steve Francis contributes photos and details of his father, Michael Francis’ time on the Russian Convoys, but confesses ‘I don’t have much in the way of stories that he told me. Spent a lot of time in the North Sea. Chipping ice off hand rails etc was an important job.’5 The daughter of one veteran writes ‘as seems to be common with so many veterans, our father spoke very little about his time in the Navy’.6 This supports the suggestion that in the post-war decades, families were not always receptive audiences for veterans’ tales, who therefore distilled their wartime experiences into a few pithy anecdotes.7 However, some descendants have uploaded longer service details, suggesting documentary research and a desire to learn more about their relative’s experiences.8


Crew clearing ice from the deck of an Arctic convoy vessel, from Donald Robert Hancock collection: (by permission of the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum)


The indication of more active interest in parents’ or grandparents’ wartime experiences can be amplified and extended through the use of interview transcripts available in the International Bomber Command Centre digital archive ( Some of these narratives show how,  as ex-servicemen and servicewomen aged, younger family members sought to learn more about their wartime pasts, forging a deeper, more personal connection to these stories. For example, John Ayres did not talk about his wartime experience as part of Bomber Command until later in life, when his grandson, Anthony, began to ask him about his memories and to research his squadron. Anthony’s research revitalised family interest in his grandfather’s experiences, as John’s wife Edith recalled: ‘I’ve sat here with my eyes glued to young Anthony here, with his knowledge, how he’s been interested in finding all these facts and knowledge about the past and what his Grandad, you know, had a part of’.9 Public concern about the morality of Allied bombing raids became prominent from the 1980s and threatened to destabilise veterans’ narration of their experiences.10 Family members also have to deal with this clash between public and individual narratives, and John’s grandson Anthony pushes back against retrospective scruples: ‘It was necessary and this is what modern society doesn’t seem to appreciate’.11

The Women’s Land Army and Timber Corps website ( establishes a different tone to the Arctic Convoy and Bomber Command archives. Whereas the latter contain often harrowing memories of hardship and frontline combat, the stories that descendants post about women’s experience of wartime agricultural work are frequently glowingly positive, focussing on fun, camaraderie and the liberating impact of this work.12 Large numbers of photographs are included with the memories, often depicting land army girls pausing during their work for a smiling group shot; while we usually do not know who took these photographs, they appear to be amateur rather than professional, and suggest that the novel sight of women working in the fields was something that locals as well as the women themselves wanted to capture and celebrate. Whereas veterans of Bomber Command and their family members sometimes struggled to reconcile personal narratives with broader, negative assessments of the Allied bombing campaigns, the Land Army stories harmonise with popular memory of war work as positive and emancipatory for women.13 Barbara Chapman’s son expresses a sentiment general to these stories, recalling that his mother considered her time in the Land Army an ‘unforgettable lifetime experience’.14


Stories contributed to the Women’s Land Army website often include a large number of photographs. Photo from Alice Adelaide Singer collection:


In their stories about the Women’s Land Army, veterans and their families could draw on widely available narratives which depict war work as positive and emancipatory for women.15 Such well known and commonly accepted scripts from popular memory were less readily available for the descendants of Carribean RAF servicemen.16 The African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire website (  includes stories and photos shared by the descendants of men from the West Indies stationed in the county as RAF ground crew during the war.17 In their narrations, wartime service was not a discrete story, neatly set apart from peacetime life, but was integrated within a longer account of migration and struggle. Wartime experiences mark the start of narratives focussing on building a new life in Britain after the war, encompassing racism faced by migrants, but also suggesting that challenges were eventually overcome. 

This brief exploratory survey of online postmemory narratives suggests that CGDC comprises essential source material for historians interested in what Penny Summerfield describes as the ‘constant process of the generation and regeneration of the memory of the Second World War’.18 CGDC is arguably now the main medium through which individuals share memories of the conflict, linking private, family stories with the popular memory of an episode in British history which retains enormous cultural significance. As the war passes from an object of direct memory to one of postmemory, sustained investigation of the relevant CGDC would bring new insights into the transmission of wartime stories across generations and shed light on the mutual constitution of private and popular memory. Avenues of investigation might include consideration of how different online contexts encourage the contribution of some stories and not others. Furthermore, the sheer diversity of the CGDC promises to reveal previously hidden wartime experiences, such as those of the West Indian servicemen stationed in East Yorkshire, highlighted above.

References and endnotes

[1] Heather Hughes, ‘Memorializing RAF Bomber Command in the United Kingdom’, Journal of War & Culture Studies 2021, DOI: 10.1080/17526272.2021.1938840, p.10.

[2] Lucy Noakes, ‘“War on the Web”. The BBC’s “People’s War” website and memories of fear in wartime in 21st-century Britain’, in Lucy Noakes & Juliette Pattinson (eds), British Cultural Memory and the Second World War, London: Bloomsbury, 2013, pp.61-2.

[3] Lucy Noakes and Juliette Pattinson, ‘Introduction “Keep Calm and Carry On”: The Cultural Memory of the Second World War in Britain’ in Lucy Noakes & Juliette Pattinson (eds), British Cultural Memory and the Second World War, London: Bloomsbury, 2013, 20-41, pp.21-2.

[4] Russian Arctic Convoy Museum, ‘Convoys Remembered’ (webpage),[accessed 18/01/2023].

[5] Russian Arctic Convoy Museum, ‘Michael Francis’ (webpage),

[6] [accessed 18/01/2023].

[7] Penny Summerfield ‘The generation of memory: Gender and the popular memory of the Second World War in Britain’ in Lucy Noakes & Juliette Pattinson (eds), British Cultural Memory and the Second World War, London: Bloomsbury, 2013, 41-59, p.46.

[8] See, for example: Russian Arctic Convoy Museum, ‘John Jack Shirley’ (webpage),[accessed 18/01/2023]; Russian Arctic Convoy Museum, ‘Robert Hendry’ (webpage),[accessed 18/01/2023].

[9] International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive, ‘Interview with the family of John Edward Ayres’ (webpage), [accessed 18/01/2023].

[10] James Greenhalgh, ‘The long shadow of the air war: composure, memory and the renegotiation of self in the oral testimonies of Bomber Command veterans since 2015’, Contemporary British History, 35:4, (2021), 477-514.

[11] International Bomber Command Centre, ‘Interview with the family of John Edward Ayres’.

[12] Women’s Land Army and Timber Corps, ‘WW2 Land Girl Register’ (webpage), [accessed 18/01/2023].

[13] See, for example: Summerfield ‘The generation of memory’; Virginia Nicholson, Millions Like Us. Women’s Lives During the Second World War, London: Penguin, 2012.

[14] Women’s Land Army and Timber Corps, ‘Barbara Chapman (nee Harris)’ (webpage), [accessed 18/01/2023]

[15] See, for example, Dorothy Sheridan, ‘Ambivalent Memories: Women and the 1939-45 War in Britain’, Oral History, vol. 18, no. 1, 1990, pp. 32–40, p.32; Penny Summerfield, Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives: Discourse and Subjectivity in Oral Histories of the Second World War, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998.

[16] Wendy Ugolini suggests that ‘home front’ focussed memories have foregrounded whiteness and Britishness: Wendy Ugolini, ‘“When are you going back?” Memory, ethnicity and the British Home Front’ in n Lucy Noakes & Juliette Pattinson (eds), British Cultural Memory and the Second World War, London: Bloomsbury, 2013

[17] African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire, ‘RAF Recruits in WW2’ (webpage), [accessed 18/01/2023].

[18] Summerfield, ‘The generation of memory’.