Why the cruel myth of the 'blitz spirit' is no model for how to fight coronavirus

Discussion in 'United Kingdom' started by davidbfpo, Mar 19, 2020.

  1. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron

    An interesting article by Professor Richard Overy, a number of myths "busted". Have a peek. A "taster":
    Link: Why the cruel myth of the 'blitz spirit' is no model for how to fight coronavirus | Richard Overy

    My recollection that the only city that came close to the collapse of order was Southampton, with the Army moved up in case they were needed.
    PackRat, Chris C and CL1 like this.
  2. Robert-w

    Robert-w Banned

    I've seen accounts of significant protests in Bristol over the provision of shelters in which,it was claimed the wealthier areas were being favoured at the expense of the poorer. I've no idea how true or otherwise such claims were (it would make an interesting line of research) but they certainly seem to have been believed by many at the time and the police had to restore order.

    In doing the research for my dissertation on the effect of the war on rural areas I found a number of sources that showed a significant flight from the cities with far more fleeing to the countryside than were involved in the official evacuations and putting a severe strain on accommodation etc in rural areas. Operation Pied Piper officially evacuated 1,500,000 mainly mothers and children over four days in Sept 1939 but in the year before Sept 1940 over 2,000,000, mainly adults, fled the cities of their own accord. Audrey Anne Elcock analysing the situation around Sheffield suggests that people in the rural reception areas felt aggrieved at being forced to take child evacuees, especially if they could otherwise have rented the accommodation to adults ‘escaping’ from the city and this was a reason for resenting child evacuees. However, Susan Hess when examining attitudes in Devon found very little opposition to taking evacuees ‘apart from the usual grousers’ and rather to the contrary most people were very welcoming. The real problem was a physical lack of accommodation. My own research mainly based on Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire suggests that Hess is right and that children and adults were not competing for the same accommodation the former often being tucked away in nooks and crannies unsuitable for the latter. Householders were paid 7/6 a week for each child and for many poorer families who could squeeze an extra bed into an attic or loft or even down the end of a corridor this was welcomed.
    It should be noted that the figure of 2,000,000 represents those fleeing before the blitz got properly underway and many appear to have done so as a result of the fear of the probable mass destruction of the cities by HE but also gas bombing engendered by a number of politicians (including Churchill), lurid newspaper stories and books and films (Things to Come) in the mid 1930s. Whilst I have found examples of people bombed out of the cities moving to the countryside these appear much lower probably because there was little or no spare accommodation, what there was being taken by workers from firms and government offices relocated away from the cities.

    Richard M Titmuss, History of the Second World War Problems of Social Policy, HMSO, London.1950.
    Audrey Anne Elcock, Government Evacuation Schemes and Their Effect on School Children in Sheffield During the Second World War, PhD Thesis, Department of History University of Sheffield, 1999.
    Susan Jane Hess, Civilian Evacuation to Devon In the Second World War, PhD Thesis, University of Exeter,2006.
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2020
    James S and PackRat like this.
  3. Robert-w

    Robert-w Banned

    An interesting item from Exeter University. I enclose a link but here is an extract

    The experience of bombing was never uniform. Reactions depended on a range of factors. Some places were never bombed, some only suffered a few bombs, large port cities suffered repeated heavy raids, while London was bombed continuously month after month. Reports on the attitude of the population showed that in areas subject to repeated alerts and bombing, people became more conditioned and less fearful, the very opposite of the pre-war idea that the heavier the bombing, the more likely the social breakdown. Cities unexpectedly bombed heavily (like Exeter or Norwich in 1942) showed widespread shock and panic. Small cities also seem to have found it harder to cope with the aftermath of homelessness and the collapse of services, while large conurbations (London, Birmingham, Merseyside) could absorb the temporary dislocation better because there were alternative services, shops and housing within easy reach.

    James S likes this.
  4. Robert-w

    Robert-w Banned

    And a word or two on keeping calm and carrying on from an article by Eugene Bryne in The Bristol Civic Society Magazine Spring 2016

    The Ministry of Information, abetted by the press, newsreels and the BBC, left us a myth of cheerful defiance which future generations have been happy to perpetuate. It was like that a lot of the time. And on other occasions it wasn’t. There was grumbling and resentment, people turned rail tunnels into unofficial shelters, there was looting of bombed buildings, and a “yellow convoy” headed off to the countryside for safety each night, leaving angry neighbours on fire-watching duty wondering why they should risk their lives tackling fire bombs falling on the homes of people who had run away. None of this should detract from the astonishing courage of many people, and the stoic endurance of most, but one should not take the wartime propaganda of keeping calm and carrying on at face value.

    And I imagine we'll see a not dissimilar mix with the current emergency and Boris's press briefing last night appeared to be laying the foundations for a similar myth
    JimHerriot likes this.
  5. Richelieu

    Richelieu Well-Known Member

    timuk likes this.
  6. James S

    James S Very Senior Member

    I recall seeing on "TWAW" one civilian interviewed described how the Luftwaffe was "hitting everything of consequence" and in the same episode another man told of a visit of Churchill to the East end, he repeated his famous "London can take it" and was replied to in a not very respectful manner.
    The propaganda of the times was crude by today's standards very staged and staied and can't really be confused with objective news reporting, Dr. Goebbels did this and so did we. ( the Allies ).
    I recall also from TWAW one pipe smoking RAF officer being interviewed for the newsreels told how it really was " A Wizzard show" but the thing which troubled him was that "Jerry cities put up this inconsiderate flak", which he viewed as not being cricket. ( My comment).

    CV-19 is not a repeat of the Blitz Spirit and people should not be reminded of the "Dunkirk Spirit" and the stirring tones of Pathe Gazette etc, this is a totally different era and a generation which was radically different then from we today.

    One hears on the news the best of people helping elderly neighbours, providing food to hospitals and the homeless,and the lesser side, the panic buying, the "I'm alright Jack" attitude that goes with it. ( I have seen examples of both within my own community).
    If our worst fears come to fruition only then will it become truly meaningful and personal, a more reasonable comparison might be "the Troubles " in N.Ireland - one got used to hearing of shootings and bombing, but when it got close to you and someone you knew died or was injured the headlines and the news became very meaningful it was not just something that " you heard about".
    Limiting the hurt and loss of this virus will very much boil down to what we (you and I do), we have been told what the risks are and how we can reduce them, sadly this damned thing will become real soon enough, it will just not come and go as quickly as we would wish.
    ( Sorry for the wee rant folks).
  7. Robert-w

    Robert-w Banned

    London can take it was more generally expressed as Britain can take it as the former was regarded as an example of an unduly London centric attitude ( shades of today). However reviews of public opinion soon revealed that what helped morale better were reports of German cities being bombed ie Britain can hit back. I have found this in an unpublished diary of a local women who having read reports of Coventry comments that at least we are hitting them back
    James S likes this.
  8. slick

    slick Junior Member

    I recall from some years ago that the Mass Observation project discovered the worst morale was in Liverpool, which created a real defeatist attitude amongst the local population, the general consensus from the city was to welcome in the nazis with open arms as long as they stopped the bombing.
  9. Robert-w

    Robert-w Banned

    I mentioned that there was some unrest to do with shelters in Bristol. This was apparently connected with the railway tunnels mentioned in one of the pieces I attached to another post. Initial pre war ARP planning had favoured the provision of 'family' shelters like the Anderson. The reasoning was various
    • Putting large numbers of people together in one shelter meant heavy casualties if it got hit (and the later brick built surface shelters bore this out)
    • Getting large numbers of people into one shelter in a hurry posed risks of crushing (also borne out later)
    • There was a fear that large communal shelters could form a focus for agitation and general unrest (never borne out).
    It was also thought that most raids would be in daylight with little warning and be short and sharp so that having shelters close to dwellings that people could duck into for say an hour took priority.

    Large numbers of Anderson shelters were issued and put in people's back gardens. Having a back garden was very much a middle class aspiration and many working class had nowhere to put an Anderson. The result in Bristol and other cities was that the middle class suburbs had far more air raid protection than the working class districts. This was very much an "unintended consequence" but nevertheless was resented. As a result of the air raids many people from the areas near the Bristol docks took to setting up camp in nearby railway tunnels at night which of course meant that the trains could not run. The police were ordered to clear the tunnels and this was further resented (sometimes physically).
    Last edited: Mar 22, 2020
    slick likes this.
  10. Robert-w

    Robert-w Banned

    Just to add to my above post - insult was added to injury by the fact that there were unused tunnels under Temple Meads Station but access was limited to local 'VIPs'

    ARPCDHG Member

    Prof Overy has written some very good books but I'm afraid every now and again he comes up with some very partial half-stories, possibly to draw attention to himself compared to other academics.

    Of course not everyone displayed 'Blitz Spirit' - spivs/hoarders/the selfish (see today's empty store shelves), criminals etc didn't, but even with heavy bombing, society did not breakdown: on the whole, people waited in queues for food, they helped each other out, looked after each other's children, went to long hours of war work, followed the rules etc.

    And that's not just me saying it - that's the word of people I've interviewed or spoke to over the last 30 years who were there and the very simple undeniable fact there was no breakdown of society on the Home Front. They were there - Prof Overy was not. His attention-seeking one-sided, skewed argument from an obsure report he found in Hull, does not represent the overall nation.
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2020
  12. Robert-w

    Robert-w Banned

    An overreaction, Overy is not saying that society broke down, what he is saying is that the "blitz spirit" story is over glossed and in any case is not a good model for what is facing us today. There is plenty of evidence for the former. Laura Dawes in 'Fighting Fit' which covers the battle to maintain health has some interesting contemporary analysis and case studies of the psychological stresses and impacts of the blitz on civilians which led to some very odd attitudes and behaviours which for obvious reasons were played down at the time. Dieter Suss in 'Death from the skies' analyses how British and German civilians coped with the bombing. Not everyone was a cheery cockney whistling amongst the rubble - but what would you expect? Humans are humans - most did the best that they could which wasn't always heroic.

    I am a pre boomer born during the war which means that whilst I cannot remember it I grew up surrounded by people who did so I have spoken with plenty of people who witnessed it. Two of my Aunts were living in central London 1940/41 for example. I have recently been examining wartime accounts and diaries (some unpublished) as part of the research for my MA dissertation and it is more than obvious that whilst many people did follow the rules a significant minority did not and as people age they tend to remember the good behaviours and forget the bad (especially if some of theirs was not always what it should have been).
  13. KevinBattle

    KevinBattle Senior Member

    My grandmother lived in Liverpool, together with her children who were too young to serve.
    My father had enlisted in 1936 simply to escape the grinding poverty and thus didn't return until 1948 when he didn't recognise many places.
    My grandmother told him that people had virtually fallen apart after the continual bombing and were starting to turn on one another.
    That was a generation that had also lived through WW1 and KNEW hardship. They were on the brink of breaking, so with the reality of Dunkirk, with hundreds of thousands of dispirited (if not defeated) soldiers with virtually nothing but what they came back with) the examples of Guernica, Warsaw etc, and with virtually no accurate defences, it was a close run thing.

    Now we have the "self" generation, who clear supermarkets faster than Liverpool car thieves can whip off your wheels, never mind what it is, just grab as many as you can and think about what to do with 300 rolls of T Rolls later. Pity they didn't grab all the condoms, that might save us from similar selfish offspring in the next generation (but I feel that many of these T Rolls also go in for self enjoyment too) and would only be suffocating their "brains" using a condom.
    slick and ARPCDHG like this.
  14. idler

    idler GeneralList

    He did seem to be trying to make the exception the rule but that's a lot more articulate response than I could manage.
    ARPCDHG likes this.
  15. Robert-w

    Robert-w Banned

    A useful book on the topic is by Robert Mackay, Half the Battle Civilian morale in Britain during the Second World War, Manchester University Press. He identifies perhaps the origin of the 'Blitz Spirit' story as beginning with the reports of General Lee a member of the US State Department reporting back to Washington. This was something that the British government was happy with as encouraging the US to believe that Britain was worth supporting. However Mackay shows that Mass Observation and other sources provided a more nuanced picture. A few relevant extracts :

    According to Mass-Observation reports, fear, panic and hysteria were present among civilians subjected to bombing. Its first reports on the London Blitz showed people in a state of shock: ‘We
    never thought we’d see it like in the cinema.’ In the shelters there was screaming and quarrelling. When raids were over and people came out of the shelters, ‘there are screams of horror at the sight of the damage … smashed windows and roofs everywhere … People push and scramble out of the shelter doorway, and there is a wild clamour of shouting, weeping and calling for absent relatives’. As a multiple funeral moves towards Stepney cemetery on 10 September a woman sobs; ‘It might be anyone, It might be anyone … It’s not fair we should have to suffer like this! We never thought it coming. It’s coming to all of us.’ Whole streets of people daily abandon their homes for shelter in what they believe to be safer parts of London'

    When Mass-Observation came to report people’s reactions to bombing in provincial cities, they again found signs of panic.

    In Liverpool
    Mass-Observation formed a very different impression from General Lee. Observers noted for the first time people arguing for immediate surrender, and the city rife with rumours, such as that there had been a peace demonstration in London and the Government had been petitioned to sue for peace.
    The defeatism that Mass-Observation detected in Liverpool was also evident in Bristol. Here in December, Home Intelligence agents overheard ‘much talk of having been let down by the Government, and of the possibility of a negotiated peace’

    However Mackay makes the point that whilst this demoralisation was seen in some parts of London and in Liverpool, Bristol and Coventry it was not uniform across the country and there was greater resilience elsewhere and as the bombing continued even in the black spots there was a recovery of some morale as people adjusted. However the 'Mrs Minever' image of Britain's blitz spirit owes as much to Hollywood as to reality.

Share This Page