Myths of the Blitz

Firefighters putting out a blaze in London aft...

Image via Wikipedia

Theres an interesting piece from historian Correlli Barnett in the Independent on Sunday Today, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz. I can’t say I’ve always agreed with Barnett – particularly over his opinion on Montgomery – and sadly from such a prominent Historian, I find his writing pretty disappointing.

Over the past 70 years something of a myth has grown up around the Blitz. True, we did go on to win the war, but did this fact, in retrospect, shape perceptions of the blitz? I think so. If we had lost the war, it might have been a different argument altogether. There is evidence that civilian behaviour and morale did not hold up quite as well as popular belief thinks. There were very serious concerns in national and local Government that mass panic would ensue. Initially people were banned from going into Tube stations during air raids, for fear that they would never come up again and would evolve into a race of ‘underground people’. There were also cases of looting, but these were largely hushed up at the time – Portsmouth magistrate records during the war record a large number of people who appeared in court, but with no crime entered – we strongly suspect that they were charged with looting, but that this was kept quiet so as not to harm morale. The blackout was also a great cover for crime, as Juliet Gardner has recently written in the Guardian.

The other issue is the perception of the Blitz as a distinctly London phenomenon. The Independent on Sunday‘s pullout is very much a case of ‘…and other cities’, which I feel not only does injustice to other cities which suffered heavy punishment, it is also inaccurate. True, London was the most bombed city in terms of the number of raids, and the amount of ordnance dropped. Yet, even in 1940 London was a sprawling Metropolis of millions of people. It was also the captial, so of course it was always going to be a target. Yet smaller cities such as Coventry, Birmingham, Sheffield, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Liverpool were heavily bombed too. And when we consider the size of these cities, and that in some cases most of the damage came in a handful of raids, they underwent what was in many ways a heavier ordeal. Yet the Blitz has become an overhwelmingly London phenomenon, filed somewhere between Barbara Windsor and Jellied Eels.

Barnett writes that morale did not collapse in Britain during the Blitz, and neither did it during the Allied Air Forces strategic bombing assault on Germany later in the war. This, Barnett argues, is a lesson for modern warmakers who think that shock and awe undermines the enemy’s resolve to resist. Yet this is a poor argument – societies have changed immeasurably, sense of community and togetherness is not quite what it was. And the waging of war, and the munitions that can be used, have changed too. Strategic Bombing was imprecise and indiscriminate. Yet Cruise Missile strikes send the message ‘we can target you, anywhere, anytime’ – something that can hardly make one feel like putting up a fight. Morale in the Ruhr and Berlin may have ‘held’ in 1943 and 1944, butt holding on is not the same as thriving. Albert Speer, the Nazi Armaments Minister, was quite clear in his opinion that allied bombing severely hampered the German industries. What more evidence do we need than that?

I would not think of myself as a revisionist when it comes to the Blitz, far from it. It’s amazing to think the kind of ordeal that our ancestors – including my Grandparents – went through in those dark days. But at the same time I am also very cautious about buying into myths that have more to do with drama and popular culture than with reality.



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9 responses to “Myths of the Blitz

  1. x

    Didn’t German war production rise year on year up to 1944?

    Further I think you underestimated cohesiveness of British society.

    Lastly I thought this was a respectable blog? I don’t come here to read words like “revisionist.” 🙂

  2. James Daly

    It did rise, but if my memory serves me rightly not hugely. One more tank than the year before is technically an increase, but compared to the massive combined output of the US, USSR and GB, it was peanuts. I think the point is that the rises were nowhere near what they could or would have been without the hindrance of bombing.

    British society is no doubt cohesive, while at the same being quite rigid with its class system that kept everyone in their place (maybe not so much today). There are examples of west end hotels and apartment blocks having their own shelters and refusing to let in passers by. Churchill might have said ‘we can take this’, but on one visit to the east end a group of women left him under no illusions as to who was taking it. And admirable though the Queen Mums remark about ‘we can look the east end in the face’ was, it was hardly the same and slightly patronising.

    The funny thing with revisionism is that I think it offers a lot to historiography, only through stimulating debate. If somebody advances a ground-breaking or revolutionary idea, if its backed up by evidence it will stand up to debate, and if not then at least theres been a debate rather than everyone sitting there agreeing and nodding… most of the time revisionism is just headline-grabbing rubbish tho 😉

  3. x

    Yes I know Nazi Germany’s industrial output was dwarfed by the combined output of the Allies. My point was despite the “strategic” bombing (and being attacked on all sides) they made more and more. Yes we should consider take into consideration the occupied territories and slave labour. But all considered it was an impressive achievement. Especially when you consider that standards of German engineering were/are quite high.

    I think Churchill was well aware he was safe in the Whitehall Cabinet War Rooms. And he knew the general populous was at risk. But perhaps you have to think beyond simple value judgements based on a socialist ideas of class. I don’t think it would have done the country much good if government had conducted its business above ground. I don’t think those women would have been too happy if there men had been dragged of to Nazi labour camps or themselves and their daughters raped by the rear echelons of an occupying German army. I don’t know if you have been in a leadership position. Sometimes you have to do the dirty jobs to show solidarity with the those you lead. And sometimes you have to make decisions that are hard (and these tend to be unpopular;) the reason for taking those decision are most often not known to the majority. Sometimes leadership is just about being there. Buckingham Palace is a very distinctive building that easily found. Hitler could well have decided to target the palace at any time.

    Revisonists? I remember once Prof Hughes ( saying she wouldn’t let her daughter marry one. And she is wise woman and think it killed the debate for me. 🙂

  4. James Daly

    The German industrial production throughout the war was remarkable, and this was probably down to sensible people being in charge of it – Todt and then Speer. So much of the Nazi state’s administration was chaos and on the whims of a few people, but armaments seem to have been an exception. I think the problem was that the Germans, while they had fanatastic equipment, they didnt have enough of them. A few hundred Tigers on the whole western front was simply not enough (while it was no doubt uncomfortable for anyone who came up against one). But for strategic bombing, they could have made even more than they did.

    My point about the Queen and Buck House is that it was just unrealistic for them to think that because one part of their (very large) house had been damaged, they shared a common experience with people who’s whole homes had been decimated. And most of those people didnt have retreats in Windsor, Norfolk or Scotland either. On the face of it it was a common experience, but in real terms it was more symbolic than anything. And whilst I’m sure it was a leveller for some people, I also think that good old British cynicism probably saw through. I don’t think we generally fall for propaganda in Britain.

  5. x

    Yes I should have taken it one stage further and said that German engineering standards hampered production!!

    That is a very sweeping statement to make about the British and propaganda. It could be argued that we “fall” for propaganda every time there is an election. And as we are fed information at greater speeds and in greater quantities our spans of attention and depth of interest have lessened. Look at the Israeli Aid Flotilla of a few months back. When that story broke if you had stopped the man on the street and asked him what had happened what do you think he would have said? The “truth” as it transpired over the next few weeks; the “truth” of what happened was easy to peace together from the video shown the day broke (and taking into account what happened in the lead up.) Or what the papers or even the BBC had said? Consider also the hysteria following the death of Princess Diana; the image that was sold of the princess. etc. etc. I think we Brits are just as susceptible to propaganda as any other people.

  6. The US network NBC has just shown some footage of London during the Blitz, shot in COLOUR! It was filmed by an air raid warden who was also an amateur cinematographer. The link on the MSNBC News page is
    A new view, just in time for this discussion!

  7. Um…sorry, the NBC link is just text ABOUT the film, not any of the footage itself. Check out the BBC site instead:
    Sorry about the misinformation.

  8. James Daly

    Hi John thank you for the link, I’ve been looking for this myself. Its very rare that new footage comes out, let alone in colour!

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