BRITAIN SURVIVES THE BLITZ, SEPTEMBER 1940–MAY 1941 Part I

The war on the civilian population of Britain began on 7 September 1940 when London was subjected to mass bombardment from the air. The British people had endured many shocks in the course of 1940 – the Norway fiasco, the retreat to Dunkirk, the desperate days of the evacuation, the collapse of France, the invasion threat, and the uncertainty about the outcome of the great air battles that raged above them. Could they endure a direct assault? How robust was the mood of the country on the eve of the Blitz? Public mood is notoriously difficult to assess but there are some guides through this minefield. In 1940 the measurement of public opinion was in its infancy but the authorities considered the matter important enough in wartime to make an attempt. From May 1940 the Home Intelligence Department of the Ministry of Information (MOI) and a private organisation later hired by the Ministry (Mass Observation or MO) compiled daily or weekly ‘morale’ reports. The information in these reports came from a variety of sources – the Regional Information Officers of the MOI, postal censorship, bookshop owners, cinema proprietors, and a group of investigators who listened in on the private conversations of people whom they considered to be a representative sample of the population. At their peak, however, only about 2,000 investigators were employed in these organisations. Moreover, most of the staff were middle class, male and well educated, factors that at least had the potential to skew the reported views of women, the working class and groups outside the social milieu of the investigators.

By focusing on ‘morale’ the government hoped to obtain some measure of the civilian population’s willingness to continue working. But the definition of morale for survey purposes was open to wide interpretation. Both the MOI and MO thought they knew what was meant by this most slippery of terms. To them, more often than not, high morale was equated with ‘cheerfulness’, a commodity in pretty short supply in Britain after recent events in Europe. Nevertheless, cheerfulness was considered crucial by the investigators, who assumed that only the cheerful could contribute effectively to the war effort. But even when circumstances were grim (and in MOI or MO terms morale had slipped) it was possible that those with so-called low morale could still do a decent day’s work, as suggested by this comment made at the end of a raid: ‘there was little time for grief, for after all the next raid was imminent and every air-raid warning in the night was followed by a new day when people had to work’.

Without a correlation between cheerfulness and the performance of the war economy the daily fluctuations in morale detected by the MOI and MO are virtually worthless as an indication of how the population might respond to the Blitz. Nevertheless, the MOI/MO reports can be instructive – not to track fluctuations in morale – but to identify frequently occurring themes that indicated ongoing concerns and attitudes.

The most constant of these themes is approval for any action taken by the Churchill government to prosecute the war more vigorously and a corresponding disapproval of any policy that seemed inadequate to the situation or harked back to the bad old days of appeasement. So the Emergency Powers Bill of May 1940 had ‘an excellent reception’, even though this bill stated that all persons might be called upon to ‘place themselves, their services and their property’ at the disposal of the government. It was an indication of the stern temper of the times that this measure was greeted with satisfaction among all regions in Britain. It was ‘well received’ in Northern Ireland, ‘welcomed’ in Birmingham and Leeds, ‘excellently received’ in Manchester, and met with a more sober ‘general approval’ in Cambridge.

In contrast was the public response to a broadcast by the Minister of Information, Duff Cooper, urging the public to show the courage now that they had displayed in past crises. The reply the MOI conveyed to the minister was that the people had no doubt about their own courage but considerable doubt about the resolve of the government of which Duff Cooper was a part.

This concern was most often expressed over the extent of unemployment in Britain. This figure had stood at over 1 million at the beginning of the war and due to the lethargy of the Chamberlain government was taking some time to reduce. In June the MOI noted that whereas the French were said to be ‘staking all’ in their battles, Britain still had 500,000 unemployed. In particular, the high levels of unemployment in Belfast drew the ire of the Northern Irish – why did the government not place more war orders in the area to soak up the jobless?

Perhaps the most forthright comment on the government’s perceived tardiness to mobilise the economy came in response to one of Churchill’s most famous speeches. The MOI noted that in some quarters it had been said that ‘Phrases like “We will never surrender”, “We will fight in the streets, on the hills” are being criticised in the light of the inadequate mobilisation of men and materials.’ Even the finest of phrases was deemed no substitute for action.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Kingsley Wood, was never thought to be adequate for his position. His interim budget in July 1940 raised taxation from 7s 6d to 8s 6d in the pound, increased taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and entertainment, and foreshadowed a purchase tax. All the comments the budget brought forth were critical of its feebleness. The opinion that it ‘did not go far enough to carry the tremendous burdens of expenditure needed to win the war’ was typical. Leeds, Cardiff and Reading all thought the budget ‘too timid’. General criticism of the budget continued into August: ‘Not nearly drastic enough’ was the usual comment.

There were other indications of the resolute mood in the country after the shock of Dunkirk. On 3 July Churchill ordered that the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria be sunk to prevent it falling into German hands. The French command was given the options of joining Britain or of sailing to a neutral port, but rejected both. Churchill gave the order with great reluctance and the British admirals carried it out with even greater reluctance. But the move proved highly popular with the public. Home Intelligence reported that the news of the action was ‘received in all Regions with satisfaction and relief’, the only criticism being that some French ships escaped.

This incident highlights the high approval given by the public to Churchill and his policy of victory at all costs. His great speeches were ‘much appreciated’ or held to have had a ‘steadying effect’. His determination to defend London ‘street by street’ was taken as an indicator that ‘we shall not be sold out as the French were by their government’. Generally his messages were well regarded even (or perhaps especially) when they painted the strategic picture exactly as he saw it without glossing over the peril in which the country found itself. It was said that ‘if he [Churchill] says things are all right … people know they are all right; if he says things are bad, we know they are bad’. His warnings against complacency in the invasion period were ‘widely welcomed’. His speech on the ‘few’ was thought to be ‘the most forceful and heartening he has yet made’ and ‘created a strong feeling of confidence’. Even critics who thought that he might have to be voted out after the war considered ‘he’s the man for us now’.

The most frequently mentioned members of the government apart from Churchill were Neville Chamberlain and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax. The attitude of the public towards these men was almost universally hostile. The adverse remarks began just after Churchill had seen off efforts by Halifax (sometimes supported by Chamberlain) to seek some kind of compromise peace with Hitler. On 12 June the MOI reported that the most that could be said about Chamberlain was that the view that he should resign from the War Cabinet was not increasing strongly. A week later there were reports from Newcastle, Scarborough, Brighton and London that both appeasers should go. The Ministry reports reveal that the public was ‘angry’ that they remained in power and even prepared to accuse them of treachery. These feelings did not diminish as the year went on. There was ‘puzzlement’ that Chamberlain in particular was still in office. ‘Demands’ were expressed that members of the previous government (with the exception of Churchill) ‘should be removed’. Criticisms such as these were almost a weekly occurrence throughout the year. Even after the Blitz had started, people found time to observe that Chamberlain should be dismissed. In October when Chamberlain finally resigned due to ill-health, he got scant sympathy. One remark was that ‘I think it is a damned good thing … We’re going to win the war now.’ Only when he died of cancer in November was ‘some’ sympathy expressed, but that emotion was far from universal.

Halifax did not escape censure either. His reply to Hitler’s ‘peace’ overture in June was a public relations disaster that brought down some criticism on Churchill’s head for giving him the job. But that criticism was mild compared to what was said about the Foreign Secretary. Home Intelligence felt moved to give the replies verbatim: ‘Too much like a bishop’, ‘Depressing’, ‘Disappointing’, ‘Unsatisfactory’, ‘What about the Burma Road?’, ‘A statesman has to be a fighter these days’, ‘He didn’t explain anything’, ‘Old-fashioned diplomacy’, ‘Too much like the Chamberlain days’, ‘It was a dull speech: I switched off … It’s no use treating a mad dog like that.’ Someone commented that he liked the ‘high moral tone’ in which the speech was delivered, but that was drowned out by the chorus of disapproval. The MOI tried to put the best gloss on this that they could. Perhaps, they reasoned, what Halifax said went over the heads of a large section of the public. Reading the comments, however, it seems that the public understood Halifax only too well.

Nor did Halifax’s image improve. In October hope was expressed that he would soon join Chamberlain in retirement, ‘as he has been living in a fool’s paradise for years’. Later in the month the view that he was only fit to be a bishop resurfaced in what Home Intelligence reported as a ‘growing feeling’ against him. This negative view remained. Churchill eventually shipped Halifax off to be ambassador in Washington in December. As far as the British people were concerned the Prime Minister could have acted earlier and not necessarily rewarded him with a plum job.

Another indication of the mood of the people was shown by attitudes towards feeding those in Europe under German occupation. Ex-President Herbert Hoover warned Britain that its blockade was threatening millions in Europe with starvation. The government’s policy was to maintain the blockade, as any food sent would be seized by the Germans. The MOI found that 82 per cent of the population supported the policy whereas only 3 per cent disapproved.

Finally there was the attitude to bombing the enemy. Bombs had fallen on London (by accident as it happened) in late August. Even before Churchill could respond, the public were calling for reprisal raids on Berlin. When the enemy capital was eventually bombed on 25 August, the raid caused ‘great satisfaction’ and evoked a ‘wide expression of approval’. Among the public there were ‘no scruples’ about the fact that some of the bombs might fall on civilians. On the contrary the only criticism of the raids was that they were not heavier. Later there was a another criticism – that ‘further accounts of the damage done by our raids on Germany’ should be published.

To sum up, the attitude of the British public (mobilise more rapidly, sink the French Fleet, remove the appeasers from office, call for victory at all costs, maintain the blockade of Europe, bomb Berlin and don’t mind the civilians) pointed in one direction. On the eve of the Blitz there was a remarkable unanimity in Britain around the general proposition of waging vigorous war. The arrival of the Blitz found the British people in good heart.

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It is conventional to think of the Blitz on London as commencing on 7 September. Certainly, that date saw the first day of concentrated bombing of the capital. But bombs had been falling on Britain consistently since late May. After Dunkirk, Goering had ordered the Luftwaffe, as well as preparing the way for invasion and destroying the RAF, to carry out ‘dislocation and nuisance raids on Britain’. Such raids commenced in some strength in late June. Many of them were made at night by (usually) small numbers of aircraft. The idea was to dislocate British industry by forcing factories to cease work while the bombers were in range or by bombing factories that could be definitely identified. The method was for small flights to range far and wide across Britain so that no area could be considered safe. For example, on the night of 6–7 July bombs were dropped on the North and West Ridings of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk. On the following night Peterborough was overflown, while on the night of 10–11 June bombers were in the vicinity of Portsmouth, Brighton, Horsham, Ipswich, Colchester, Grimsby, Hull, Lincoln, Boston, Canterbury, Norwich and King’s Lynn, causing sirens to be sounded and work in factories to cease for some hours.

From late August the attacks against industrial cities such as Birmingham, Coventry, Liverpool and Swansea were stepped up – on some nights over 100 tons of bombs being dropped. Little lasting damage was done to industry by these raids. The only vital target damaged in this period was the Spitfire factory at Castle Bromwich, which was hit on 27 August. Some machine tools were destroyed but the overall effect on Spitfire production was slight.

However, there is no doubt that these raids did cause dislocation. The siren policy adopted by the government meant that on most occasions when the sirens sounded, work would stop. Later the siren policy was changed and tools were only downed when raiders, identified by spotters on the roofs, were immediately overhead. But even in this period the production indices of most war materials increased, indicating that the greater numbers entering war production offset the dislocation or that workers went on working unless in immediate danger.

There is also no doubt that despite the lack of damage, these raids assisted the Luftwaffe in honing their night-flying skills. In addition the raids killed or maimed about 4,000 people – 6 to 7 per cent of the total bombing casualties for the entire war. However, there is another side to this story. Most raids were small scale so the damage they could do was limited. And the wide-ranging nature of the raids meant that a high proportion of the British population acquired some experience of air raids and sleeping in shelters before being subjected to ferocious bombing. This experience would prove useful preparation for the much sterner ordeal that was to follow.

That ordeal began for London on 7 September. In the afternoon a mass of German bombers crossed the coast and instead of following their past practice of peeling off to attack airfields or ports, they continued on to London. This wrongfooted Fighter Command which had scrambled its squadrons to protect its airfields, leaving the way to the capital fairly clear. This raid, it needs to be emphasised, was not in retaliation for the bombing of Berlin by the RAF. The leader of Luftflotte 2 (Kesselring) had always wanted to bomb London. Now he was convinced that the RAF was down to its last few aircraft, which would have to come up to defend the capital.

There were two main raids that day. The first was between 5.00 a.m. and 6.15 p.m.; the second lasted much longer – from 8.10 p.m. to 4.30 a.m. the following day. The statistics of the raids paint a formidable picture. In all the Luftwaffe dropped 649 tons of high explosive and 27 tons of incendiary bombs on London. The bombing was concentrated on the East End, especially on the docks around Stepney, Rotherhithe, Woolwich and Bermondsey, although 45 other London boroughs were also hit. Over 1,000 fires were started, nine of which were categorised as ‘conflagrations’ requiring the attendance of at least 100 fire engines. An area to the north of the Thames for a distance of about one a half miles was obliterated. Many from Silvertown, which lay in this area, had to be evacuated by river. Fifteen large factories were hit and three of these were totally destroyed. Five docks were put out of action. The Royal Arsenal at Woolwich was damaged, severely restricting its output of ordnance. Three power stations were crippled and the Beckton Gas Works, the largest in Europe, was badly damaged. Transport along the river halted and almost 30,000 tons of shipping was sunk in the Thames while an additional 170,000 tons suffered damage. Over 400 people were killed and 1,600 severely injured.

The effect of this raid on London and Londoners was severe. A fireman attempting to fight the conflagration on the wharves thought of the destruction of Pompeii. Another fireman in West Ham was ‘frightened out of my life’. To him the bombs seemed to be saying ‘here comes death’. The docks to the south of the river were ‘a square mile of fire’. At night the scene at the Beckton Gas Works was chaotic: ‘Gasometers were punctured and were blazing away’, shrapnel rained down from destroyers firing (in vain) at the raiders. Many residents near the north Woolwich docks were trapped and were rowed to safety along the Thames.

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