Premier`s Westfield History Scholarship

Premier’s Westfield History Scholarship
The home front in England 1939–45
Stephen Dixon
Kirrawee High School
Sponsored by
The ‘myth of the Blitz’ – with its images of cheerful Cockney characters amidst bombed
ruins, of sing-songs in underground shelters and defiant graffiti (‘Hitler won’t beat us’)
chalked on broken brick walls – is often conjured up when examples of defiance or
courage under pressure are called for.
The myth becomes history: history reflects the myth. The purpose of my journey to
England on the Premier’s Westfield History Scholarship was to examine the Home Front
in England during WW2 and the extent to which the myth portrayed reality.
Firstly, a clarification. To a historian the word ‘myth’ does not suggest complete fiction
or untruth. For example, the myth of Gallipoli may give rise to debate about the
historical images and lessons that came out of that event, but does not seek to deny the
reality of the campaign. Similarly, the ‘myth of the Blitz’ is substantially correct. As
Angus Calder has written, ‘ no one has detected evidence of any large scale “cover up”
concerning events in 1940-41’i, and Britain did win the war through a coming together of
national effort and resolve, even when the rest of Europe had succumbed to Hitler’s
forces. However, a closer examination of the Home Front shows, not surprisingly, that
tensions and prejudices sometimes tarnished the ‘pulling together’ image so beloved of
the myth tellers.
Before examining some of these tensions that arose after war had commenced, it is
worthwhile to consider the degree to which the government of Neville Chamberlain, so
often reviled for its pre-war policy of appeasement, had been able to prepare an
essentially peace-loving and pessimistic nation for the horrors of war. And ‘horrors’ were
expected. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had expressed the views of his military
advisers when he addressed the House of Commons in November 1931: ‘I think it is
well….for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can
prevent him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always
get through.’ A casualty rate of 600,000 killed and twice that number injured was
predicted as a result of bombing. If this could not be stopped, the Chamberlain
government did at least set in motion measures to try to minimise the destruction of
human life and economic resources.
Air-raid shelters took a variety of forms. Large concrete and brick public shelters were
built, some in the street to hold a dozen people, others in parks and open spaces to hold
fifty or more. Many schools had above or below ground shelters built within their
grounds, and drills were held to ensure the rapid and calm movement of children from
schoolroom to shelter, along with their previously issued gas masks. For homes with
gardens, corrugated iron Anderson shelters, proof against most things apart from a direct
hit, were issued free to all families with an income of less than 250 pounds per year (the
average wage was four pounds per week), and a fee of seven pounds for the
wealthier.The householder was expected to dig a hole 1.2 metres deep in which to place
the 1.8m by 1.2m shelter, and to cover the roof with the excavated earth for further blast
protection. In working class areas of terraced housing, where gardens were unknown, the
eighteen months before war’s outbreak saw a flurry of building as brick shelters with
thick concrete roofs were incorporated into the small enclosed back yards.
Public Information Leaflet No.1 was issued by the Ministry of Information in July 1939
and told people about air raid warnings from sirens or hooters, whereas if poison gas was
detected, the warning would be by means of hand rattles, and the gas all clear would be
delivered by hand bells. People were told to keep buckets of water handy for incendiary
devices, but to remember to apply it in a fine spray for throwing a bucket of water on an
incendiary bomb would cause it to explode. Lighting restrictions and evacuation plans,
identity labels and the prospect of food rationing were all dealt with in this leaflet. An
evacuation leaflet soon followed, explaining the process, which had been drawn up in
July 1938, for removing children from designated towns and cities throughout Britain to
safer accommodation in country areas. ‘Your Food in War’ (July 1939) told how the
government had, over the previous 18 months, laid up large stocks of food and made
arrangements for the implementation of a rationing scheme. Identity cards for the whole
nation had already been distributed, and ration books printed, so that when the war
started, in the words of one food official, ‘everything clicked into place’.
In industry, a system of ‘shadow factories’ had been set up since 1938, by which
industrial sites were taken over or created to provide reserve production capacity for
aircraft and munitions production. The value of this scheme was seen when the
Luftwaffe destroyed the Supermarine works in Southampton, the home of Spitfire
production. However, the existence of related shadow factories in other parts of the
country enabled the production of this vital aircraft to continue.
In September 1939, Chamberlain’s administration had taken vital initial steps to ensure
that, on the Home Front, people’s awareness of, and preparation for, the coming conflict
had been raised.
It was in one of those areas of early preparation – the evacuation of children and
pregnant mothers from the inner cities – that some of the cracks appear in the myth of
‘pulling together’ in the national war effort. The mass evacuation from London and other
major cities began on 1 September 1939, two days before the outbreak of war. Over one
million children were evacuated to reception centres in ‘safe’ areas where, in theory, they
were to be taken in by willing carers. The evacuation process brought into collision two
contrasting aspects of British society - the deprived inner-city working class and the
semi-rural middle and upper classes – frequently with unpleasant results. Many inner-city
children had never seen the countryside or a cow. As one child wrote to his city parents
in 1940 ‘they call this Spring, Mum, and they have one every year.’ii But it was the lack of
hygiene and ‘dirty habits’ of some of the evacuees that appalled the more well-to-do in
the countryside. Many owners of large properties simply refused to take in evacuees, or,
if they had initially done so, resorted to measures such as shutting up the house for
holidays as an excuse for forcing evacuees out. Overall, as T.L. Crosby points out ‘the
most significant aspect of the evacuation story [was] that wealthy and middle-class
householders avoided evacuation duty. Working-class inhabitants of the reception areas
welcomed the evacuees – or at least tolerated them … the billeting controversy remained
rooted in class prejudice.’iii
Class prejudice also surfaced in the experiences of those under bombing. One aspect of
this was the phenomenon of ‘trekking’. ‘Trekkers’ were those who left the major cities
and towns each night to sleep in the surrounding countryside to avoid Luftwaffe raids,
returning to work and home the next day. For the wealthy, this imposition was eased by
the use of private cars and the means to rent a room, or sometimes a whole cottage, in
which to pass a pleasant evening. It was the working class, short of means and
opportunity, who remained in the cities to endure the bombs. Those working class folk
who could get out mostly walked, often for many miles, and frequently spent the night as
best they could in fields and hedgerows. It was observed in Coventry that regularly,
between 3pm and 7pm, some 5,000 people passed the Food Office on their way out of
the city and, amongst those who remained, a local clergyman commented: ‘Many
considered the better-off people who went out at night to friends in Kenilworth and
roundabout…very cowardly…We heard rumours of trekkers who bought black-market
petrol so that they could drive out into the country and sleep safely in their large cars.’iv
In London, which suffered the Blitz from September 1940 until the spring of 1941,
including a period of fifty-seven consecutive nightly raids, social tensions were papered
over by the press coverage. A social divide already existed between the poor of the East
End, crowded around the complex of docks and warehouses that were the heartbeat of
London’s reputation as a world trading centre, and the upper classes of the West End,
with its clubs, hotels, and fashionable addresses. The East End was the target for the
Luftwaffe, but while the working classes suffered, the ‘Daily Express’ ignored the
growing problems of the homeless and concentrated its headlines on propaganda
platitudes – ‘The Cockneys are in it’, ‘Homes shattered – but not their hearts’ – or on
reporting the less frequent bombing of wealthier areas in an attempt to show the equality
of sacrifice – ‘Titled homes hit’, ‘Dive bomber tries to kill the King and Queen’. The
‘Daily Telegraph’ reported little of the problems of the devastated East End but, like the
‘Express’, emphasised anything which showed how brave the rich of Mayfair were and
trumpeted any acts of kindness shown by West-Enders towards refugees from the East
A report on ‘Evacuation and other East End Problems’ of September 1940 contrasted
the press image of a stoical and determined population under fire with the reality that
‘since early on Monday morning there has been a steady stream of people leaving the
area, and the beginnings of this started immediately after the Saturday afternoon
bombs...In some streets as many as 60% of the population had left by Monday evening,
though there were no bombs or incidents in the street.’v This report also noted a marked
increase in anti-Semitism in the East End population of Cockneys and Jews: ‘ There is
always strong underlying anti-Semitism, overt expressions of which are largely avoided
because to a remarkable extent Jews and Cockneys live in the same area and the same
streets without mixing socially…Under the trying conditions in these [times] underlying
antagonisms have been fanned into flame. Moreover, the effect of serious disaster is
invariably to find a scapegoat. For the Cockney in the East End the traditional scapegoat
of history is conveniently to hand.’vi
Disorganisation, a lack of government support for the homeless, and an air of hysteria
pervaded the area and, as the report noted, the absence of bread, electricity, milk, gas or
telephones was the reality, whilst the press ran stories about normal life continuing in the
East End.
In industry, the centralised economy produced by 1942, and the pulling together of
millions of men and women in the workplace, ensured that productive capacity met
Britain’s growing war needs.
However, the threat of Hitler was unable to assuage the memory of decades of distrust in
industrial relations. Strikes, though illegal, increased during the war. Following a dip in
1940, by the next year days lost to strikes were steadily increasing, and by 1942 the 1939
total of man hours lost to strikes had been exceeded. From the employers’ point of view
there seemed to be too many slackers, who could not be sacked as in pre-war days. From
the point of view of employees they complained that they were willing to do more, but
the management was so inefficient that poor organisation frustrated them.
The coal industry still bore the industrial relations scars of the inter-war years when wage
cuts and lay-offs had characterised the period. With the fall of France and the resulting
loss of European markets the coal owners again laid off miners, when it would have been
better for Britain to be building up coal stocks for the coming conflict. In 1944 coal
workers went on strike after they had been offered a pay rise which was less than the
national average wage for manual workers. In Yorkshire 120,000 men came out, and
100,000 in South Wales. The press accused the workers of treachery but the pay was
finally brought back into line with other workers. In that year the coal industry saw more
days lost through strike action than at any time since the General Strike of 1926.
Morale is a difficult concept to measure, but the ‘myth of the Blitz’, combined with the
equally mythological ‘Dunkirk spirit’, paint a picture of a nation resolute, sometimes even
cheerful, in adversity and never doubting the final victory. Such generalisations may be
more true than false, but they hide the reality of shifting and diverse opinions across time
and place.
The Mass-Observation organisation was founded in 1937 as a means of obtaining an
insight into the views of British society. Using a nationwide system of researchers,
pollsters, and diarists, it set out to tap public opinion, independent of government
influence. Mass-Observation carried on its work throughout the war (and beyond), and
in 1946 produced a report which charted the fluctuations in national morale from May
1940 until May 1945.
As may be expected, the chart shows peaks and troughs. After the withdrawal from
Dunkirk and the fall of France in May/June 1940 the national mood was depressed. By
July there had been a recovery, which might be explained by a certain relief that Britain,
now alone against Hitler, had at least lost any entangling alliances and ‘knew where it
stood’. A dip in confidence followed with the onset of the Blitz on London and other
major cities in September and October 1940. The year 1941 saw a fluctuating mood, but
with an overall slide into depression which reached its nadir in February 1942 when
German successes in Russia and the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese caused the
morale chart to hit its wartime low. Confidence improved by the end of 1942 with the
news of victory at El Alamein and the Russian resistance at Stalingrad, and remained high
for the rest of the war except for a dip towards the end of 1944 when a combination of
the effects of V2 rockets and the renewal of the German offensive (the ‘Battle of the
Bulge’) caused an upsurge in the feeling of ‘will it never end?’ vii
If the Germans hoped to terrorise the British public into submission through its policy
of urban bombing, it did not succeed. To an extent, people became used to the
inconvenience and adapted their lives accordingly. Whilst some dutifully trooped to the
shelters at the sound of the air-raid siren, and indeed some families ‘lived’ in the London
tube system for days on end, there developed a trend to stay in one’s home and ‘take
your chance’. Even in the heavy raid on London of 15 September 1940, 41% of people
were found to have spent the night on the ground floor of their own home. There is
ample evidence that people took a pride in ‘carrying on as normal’ and going to work the
next day.
One factor which affected short-term morale was the extent to which government was
seen to be providing help to those who had been bombed. It may be fairly said that while
the government overestimated the number of dead that would be caused by bombing
(600,000 in estimate: 62,000 in reality) they grossly underestimated the degree of housing
loss and the consequent need to look after the homeless. A Mass-Observation report of
December 1940 looked at Bristol and Southampton after they had sustained heavy air
raids, finding ‘some quite open defeatism’ in Bristol.viii In Southampton, M-O found that
morale had distinctly deteriorated, largely because so little had been done to provide
interest and rally local feeling within the town.ix The degree of morale was directly
related to the effectiveness of government support; examining welfare services, M-O
found communal feeding ‘considerably effective in Plymouth, good in Coventry, pathetic
in Liverpool.’x
Authorities were criticised for restricting the sources of entertainment after a Blitz, when
M-O pointed out that working theatres, pool-rooms, dance halls and cinemas were
especially needed at that time. “Some towns remain places of dead leisure literally for
weeks after their raids; there is nothing to do but drift around and look at the damage.”xi
German bombing continued into 1943, though lessening in intensity after June 1941 as
the bombers were diverted to the Eastern Front. With D-Day (6 June 1944) morale was
high with the hope of an approaching victory. However, the arrival of the first V1 flying
bomb on 13 June, to be followed three months later by the V2 rocket, brought a slump
in the mood of Londoners and those in South-East England who were within range of
these new weapons. Myrtle Solomon recalled ‘“I remember feeling more and more
weary. I remember, in London, that we all became more frightened. Fear is catching and
the doodlebugs were pretty frightening, and the V2s. A lot of people will admit that they
were a lot more scared then than when the bombs were raining down on us in the
In May 1945, victory brought elation, and with it the realisation that the nation had
‘pulled through’. For many, in histories captured in text or oral transcripts, the memories
are filled with tales of camaraderie and a communal spirit, the disappearance of which is
lamented in post-war years. There is a tendency in human nature to push the bad to the
back of the memory and remember the good. It is the historian’s job to peel back the
layers of surface memory to reveal those aspects which do not sit comfortably with the
perceived truth. But having done so, the historian must employ a sense of proportion
and perspective to gauge the dominant sentiment of the time. The ‘myth of the Blitz’ is
not an untarnished story, but it stands essentially correct as a story of survival in the face
of Nazi tyranny.
Calder, Angus, ‘The Myth of the Blitz’, Pimlico, London, 1991
Anonymous, from the ‘Children at War’ exhibition, Imperial War Museum, June 2006
From Crosby, T.L., ‘The impact of civilian evacuation in the Second World War’,
Croom Helm, 1986, p.31-33 quoted in Calder, op.cit, p.61-62
Longmate, N. ‘Air Raid: the bombing of Coventry’, Hutchinson, 1976
Mass Observation file report No. 392 ‘Evacuation and other East End Problems
September 1940’
Mass-observation file report No.2332 ‘War morale chart’ January 1946
Mass-Observation file report No.529 ‘The aftermath of town Blitzes’ December 1940
From the ‘Children at War’ exhibition, Imperial War Museum, June 2006