Rationing, school closures and ‘Blitz spirit’: how did people cope in WW2?

In a recent HistoryExtra podcast, Jonathan Boff explains how ordinary people coped with the challenges of the world wars and considers what parallels can be drawn with the current Coronavirus crisis. Read the full interview below

London during the Blitz - the systematic night-time bombing of the British by the Luftwaffe in 1940 - 1941. (Photo by Getty Images)

Note: this is an unedited transcript of our podcast Blitz spirit

Advertisement

David Musgrove: Today I’m joined by Dr Jonathan Boff, who is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Birmingham. We’re going to be discussing how the government got the population on a war footing in the first half of the 20th century. First off – and it’s quite a big question – but is there such a thing as the ‘Blitz spirit’? If so, what was it? And what do you think of it today?

JB: The answer is yes, there was, in the sense that there was a level of popular consent for the war effort in the Second World War amongst the civilian population – even under the privations of the German air attack. The sort of myth, I suppose, is that there were all these jolly cockneys going around suddenly rolling out the barrel in the middle of air raids and never worrying – that everyone stuck together, pulled together, and together defeated Hitler. Now that sort of level of the myth is not true; that was a propaganda artefact designed for the consumption in the United States. There was a very famous film, many people would have seen it, London Can Take It! This was made by Humphrey Jennings and Quentin Reynolds and was designed to be exported to the United States in this very much ‘London can take it’ kind of mode. He said, for instance, “there’s no panic or despair in London town, London can take it” – that was the climax of the film. Of course, it was important to convince the Americans that the British were not going to collapse as the French had just done, if there was to be any chance of getting American support in the war effort. 

The second aspect to the manufactured bit of the myth, if you like, is that it was also important for people outside of London – particularly in the autumn of 1940, when it was London that was really taking the brunt of the bombing from the Luftwaffe – that people outside London felt that they were involved as well. And also they didn’t need to worry about morale in London. And so the Ministry of Information took the film London Can Take It!, designed for America, and rebadged it as Britain Can Take It! and sent it to cinemas around the country, to show what air raids were like and how it was possible to stand up to them. 

That kind of myth is the method that has been invoked a little bit recently, in the face of the virus pandemic that we’re currently facing. There are obviously some good parallels between 1940 and what we’re up against at the moment. The enemy is unseen; there is no (or little) defence against that enemy; the risk is unquantifiable (you didn’t know, if you were sitting in the east end of London, what the chances of you getting hit by a bomb was); and the duration of the Blitz was unknown, just as we don’t yet know how long this virus is going to be affecting our lives for. 

On the other hand, I think there are risks in getting too married to this ‘Blitz spirit’ idea. There are risks, I think, first of all, because the reality was much more nuanced and complex than that myth suggests. The whole idea that one has to be singing into your milk bottles in the aftermath of an air raid… of course this is not what is considered necessarily – and it’s not what was perceived to be necessary at the time. It was accepted by the government that people would feel violated; they would feel angry – not just with the Germans but with the government for failing to protect them. But that’s not the same as defeatism, and the British government was very careful to draw a distinction between the two. 

The other risk with the Blitz spirit is that the government can be complacent about the level of support it can expect. There was, of course, nothing essentially British about the British population’s reaction to the bombing in the First World War. The German population was subjected to much heavier bombing and was equally resilient, later in the war. And the response from the British population to the bombing was much more complex, much more nuanced, and much more conditional in their support for the war than would otherwise appear. 

The final danger, I think, with the Blitz spirit is that it sets an unachievable standard. This was something that was, I think, an issue within the Ministry of Information in 1940. They didn’t want people in Coventry, for instance, to think that they had to be heroes necessarily; it was okay to be scared – that was an important message that they wanted to spread. I hope that certainly applies today; there are clearly things we can all do that can make life better for everybody, but that’s not quite the same as us all being heroes.

DM: That’s very interesting. The Blitz was a particular moment of the Second World War. Your research covers both world wars wider than that. Was there anything in the First World War that was in any way comparative to that spirit? The conditions clearly weren’t the same in the First World War, but was there anything that was similar? 

JB: A little bit, yes. Although the risk of attack from the air (and the risk of civilians in Britain becoming victims of the war directly) was pretty small in the First World War compared to the second, the risks did come in particular ways. The first was for inhabitants of coastal towns being shelled by the German Navy. That caused a lot of outrage because the British Navy, of course, was considered at the time to be the strongest in the world. So how could it be possible that the Germans could come over and kill British civilians? The second way was from the air, and there were clear links here with the Second World War, and that did cause very strong public pressure on the government to do more to protect Britain (or London, particularly, which was the real target for most of the war). What should be done to protect the British population from air attack? And, indeed, airplanes were diverted back from the Western Front, for instance, to strengthen the defences and anti-aircraft guns were situated around London. I suppose there’s a direct link that followed through in the sense that the air defence organisation that was set up in the Second World War was based, in many ways, on that which had been in operation in the latter years of the first. 

The other feed through from that was that the increase of power, speed and capacity of aeroplanes between 1918 and 1939 led to considerable fear on the part of the civilian planners, in all countries actually. about the possible dangers of aerial bombing – and the need to be prepared for it. Now that response was patchy in Britain; for instance, provision of shelters varied a lot from borough to borough; it was left as a local authority decision. So it was very patchy, but some thought had been given to it. When war was declared on the 3rd of September 1939, the hospital were emptied because people were expecting mass casualties from aerial bombardments – both with high explosive bombs but also by gas, of course. Now in the event, the gas never came. The ability of bombers in the early years of the war, at least, to deliver that kind of destruction from the air – that never materialized. But nonetheless, it obviously proved a severe risk to human life; about a quarter of all British casualties during the Second World War were civilian, compared with 1/100 in the first.

DM: The situation today, with covid-19, is being described by politicians around the world as a war on the virus. We as a people are at war with the virus, which is clearly messaging that’s designed to enable those politicians to take some decisions that perhaps would be unpopular socially and economically – so not the things they would want to do in normal circumstances. Now in a blog post you wrote recently, you make the point that those decisions were also made in wartime in the 20th century and that there was a certain sense of enthusiasm, at that point, for drastic measures – real decisive action rather than business as usual. Could you tell me more about that?

JB: To give you a bit of context here: when the First World War broke out it came like the covid virus; it was a bolt from the blue, no one was expecting it. The initial response on behalf of the government was, to some extent (and one can overstate this), to try and maintain business as usual. Britain saw its traditional way of fighting wars on the continent as basically paying allies to do so, while keeping the seas clear for trade and to generate the money that Britain would need to then pay her allies, rather than traditionally sending a huge army to fight on the continent of Europe. Now, in the event, Britain ended (up even in 1914 and 15) pursuing a twin track strategy of both fighting this economic war at sea and also preparing a huge land army. But nonetheless, the idea as far as possible would be to try and maintain some semblance of an ordinary economic and therefore social life. 

But it quickly became clear that the threat that Germany posed was going to require more than that. so over the course of the war you see a creeping mobilization of the war effort. The population as a whole had to pool in more and more resources to something much more of a total effect – and of course the assumption at the end of the First World War was that this will never be allowed to happen again. So when it became increasingly clear in the late 1930s that something like this was about to happen again, everyone kind of understood that you had to jump in with both feet. There was a level of preparedness that was important. 

But also when the worst came to the worst and the war actually started, you would actually need to throw the kitchen sink at the problem. And this was particularly emphasized because Nazism seemed an even more insidious political threat than the Kaiser had posed. 

Consequently when Chamberlain came into the war, in September 1939, and seemed to be pursuing a rather half-hearted policy both militarily and economically  and in terms of the mobilization of British resources – that didn’t go down terribly well, not least because it wasn’t terribly successful. The results, as seen in the campaign in Norway in the spring of 1940, were pretty poor. As a result, he was kicked out and Churchill came in. 

There is a lot of myth making about Churchill, most of it started by him. When he wrote his memoirs, Chamberlain, of course, was dead. By the end of the war he was keen to emphasise – just as Lloyd George, the prime minister in the second half of the First World War had – the contrast between the vigour and dynamism with which with which they pursued the war with the earlier lackadaisical approach of Chamberlain and, in LLoyd George’s case, Asquith. Historians will pick apart the details of exactly how much ‘business as usual’ was being pursued – and exactly how much control and how much of a total war efforts Churchill and Lloyd George presided over in the second half of the war, but nonetheless – when you step back, one has to accept in both cases this intensification of the war effort from what their predecessors had been following.

DM: Okay. So one of the challenges what we are facing now – and that we faced back in the wartime period – was the maintenance of morale for the general public when things got really difficult. So what sort of message did wartime governments employ to keep spirits up? Are there any parallels we should be looking at to our current situation.

JB: There are two sides. The first is the spin: what can governments do to present the right narrative in the right way? In the Second World War, they unashamedly would have called it propaganda. We don’t like using that word today but nonetheless that’s what we’re talking about, making people think things are going well and then there’s the reality of the situation as well. Now in the Second World War, for instance, we have the Ministry of Information, which was formed early on, the job of which was to track domestic morale and also to help whenever with support overseas and domestically. So their headquarters were in the University of London – it’s the one you see in all of the television drama that normally stands as a Nazi Party headquarters, something like that; Senate House in Bloomsbury, it’s a very imposing building and it is that kind of architecture. People like George Orwell worked for it in the Second World War. They did a very good job, I would argue, on allowing the press to carry on censoring itself (rather than imposing a heavy-handed line-by-line censorship of the press) and building a partnership with the media to do that. So that’s the first point. 

The second point I would make is that they were pretty good at hiding bad news; they undoubtedly did that – they were vague about the location of air raids, for instance. In the national media they were vague about how many people and casualties there were; casualties were frequently described as “light medium” or “heavy” rather than in specific numbers. 

They were also quite good – and we’ve already discussed the Humphrey Jennings’s film, for example – as coming up with propaganda that would help motivate people. Now, in fact, the Britain Can Take It! Slogan, which came out in the autumn of 1940, was dropped by the Ministry of Information at the end of the year precisely because it was seen as patronising. This was a constant theme in a lot of the propaganda: don’t patronise us, we can take bad news, what we can’t take is lack of information. Brendan Bracken, who was minister of information in the Second World War and close confidante of Winston Churchill, said this is a people’s war – the people must be told the news about the world because without them and their spirit we cannot achieve victory. So they were very alive to the need for good news flow, to put it in modern terms. They also understood that lack of information was worse than bad news. One of the guys who worked in the Ministry of Information, previously a newspaper editor, had an apt quote: he said “details kill the public distrust of vague announcements”. In other words, it’s all very well letting out broad principles but what people want to know is – and as quickly as possible – is what specifically is going to be done and I think you can see that in the market’s reaction to the economic statements made about the Covid-19 crisis.

DM: I should probably mention that we are recording this on Thursday 19 March, on a date when there has been some announcements about school closures in the UK.

JB:  I think that there are important things too on the reality of all this. When you look through the records of British morale during the British First World War… people aren’t stupid. People weren’t being hoodwinked; it wasn’t enough to tell them a good story – people understood that things would go wrong sometimes. But they wanted overall to feel that the government was doing the best it could; that it had made what preparations it could; that it was coming up with an appropriate response; and that people were being involved in helping to find the solutions. So I think a really good example is when the Blitz began, in September 1940, huge numbers of voluntary organisations – St John’s Ambulance, the Red Cross, people like that – all got involved in the relief effort. They were later taken over by government efforts, they started to step out again – but nonetheless people could be doing things that seemed helpful. The final point on this is that those who were hurt by the war, in terms of property damage or other losses, were told that they would be compensated. This is a particularly interesting point because in the autumn of 1940, the government is basically saying saying “if you lose your house as a result of any enemy action, we will compensate you – but we can’t tell you how much that will be because we don’t know how much money will have at the end of the war”. That didn’t really assuage people’s concerns very much, and of course it left people considerably out of pocket in the meantime. So in December 1940, the government passed a new ear damage bill which specified exactly what compensation would be paid and importantly it gave money upfront to people who had been affected by the Blitz (not the whole amount, but some). It also said if your income was less than £400 a year (so lower-middle class), then you would get everything back. There was a floor for the most vulnerable parts of society.

DM: So it seems that details are really crucial for public announcements. Should we see these announcements that we’re getting from leaders today as a good thing to maintain morale? Are they making sure that the public is being taken with them on the journey they need us to go to?

JB: I think the Blitz is a good example. Although it didn’t come as a complete surprise, nonetheless the government was not specifically prepared for it and the form it took. As a result there were severe problems with the response in the early months of the Blitz, but they got themselves worked out over time. On the other hand, there are things – financial markets are a good example – that need to be told sometimes we will do whatever it takes. Sometimes people need to know that there is a blank cheque in operation. 

DM: As schools close both in the UK and the US, there is a social dislocation that this imposes on the population, obviously a very live issue now. What parallels are there in either the First or Second World War and the public response to it?

JB: Obviously there’s a slight difference, in the sense that schools were not closed in either world war because of a fear of spreading disease, as they have been today. But actually, there are some really interesting parallels with the Second World War.

As many people will know, for cities that were in danger of air attacks the first plan for children in the event of war was that they should be evacuated to the countryside. Large numbers of children were evacuated, and the schools were also evacuated. For example, large numbers of schools were evacuated from West Ham, I think, to Oxford.

But a lot of the children did not go: their parents didn’t want them to go, or they didn’t want to go. So, you had a situation where the schools were in Oxford and the children were in many cases still in the East End, and that caused severe dislocation. Many fathers were out at work and many of their mothers were also out at work, but the schools weren’t running. So the children were missing free milk and free meals, which were very important, particularly in poor areas. There were estimates that as many as a million children might have been effectively ‘running wild’ in London by the middle of September 1939.

Increasingly as the war went on, and when the Blitz started [in September 1940], schools were being requisitioned for civil defence, and therefore were closing down. As many as two thirds of all the schools in London, about 60 per cent of those in Manchester, were closed down for that reason. Of course, many were bombed as well; something like 20 per cent of schools in London were damaged in the course of the war. In West Ham, for instance, where there was supposed to be 60 council schools, at the worst point there were only 16 of them open.

Juvenile delinquency rates went through the roof – convictions for juvenile delinquency went up by a third between 1939 and 1941 – and generally, educational provision was badly disrupted. So, by January 1940, about a quarter of children in London were receiving full-time education; another quarter were having part-time education; and a quarter were being home-schooled, either in their own homes or perhaps in the homes of family members with sort-of wandering schoolmasters going around for an hour or so a day, marking homework and so on. And then probably about a quarter – something like 430,000 children – were getting no education at all. It was a serious problem. If you’ve ever seen the movie Hope and Glory [1987], there are some lovely scenes about what it was like to be a schoolboy in London during the Second World War. (I won’t spoil the ending by telling you what happens in the last shot.)

By the end of the war (in some places), there were seven-year-olds at school who were unable to read and write as a result of the poor standard education they received. One of the consequences of that was the 1944 Education Act, the famous act which extended secondary education for free to every pupil in the country, up to the age of 15. It was planned to become 16, but that took longer. The historian Angus Calder has described it as the most signal measure of social reform that became law during the war itself; essentially, the most important gesture towards democracy in the 20th century.

As a result of the crisis in education that occurred as a result of the war, everyone agreed that something needed to be done, and that bill, I think, was passed without division in the House of Commons. And so it was that major reforms were brought in after the war.

DM: The big thing that is happening now is governments around the world are having to encourage people to make sacrifices, and they are doing it in the context of liberal democracies. What lessons can we learn from the wartime experiences that you studied to help those governments to do that? Or is it simply that you need to resort to illiberal methods to get people to do what they need to do?

JB: There is a limit to volunteerism, undoubtedly. And in both wars, one did end up with  greater levels of compulsion being applied. But nonetheless these are liberal democracies and popular support is important.There are three principles that need to be applied to that. The first is that the effort or sacrifice needs to seem in proportion to the threat – and it has to be seen to have a chance of success. So the government has to be seen to be doing all that can, and they have to explain to us why what we’re doing is going to help and why it’s going to work. That is not just about spin; public opinion is able to work out the scale of the threat. Indeed, over the past week or so, the public has been ahead of the government in terms of its reading of the threat that we face from this virus. 

The second principle is fairness. People will do an awful lot – they will give up an awful lot, that’s the experience of the two world wars  as long as they feel that everyone is in the same boat. What they cannot abide is unfairness, in that regard. So I think that’s really important; if you had unfairness with rich people, for instance, being able to buy more toilet roll than others – that causes aggravation and indeed it causes people to not comply. 

The third principle, I think, is this issue of providing hope for the future. Everybody knows that we are in a crisis and that the crisis has to be overcome in the short run, but, again, the lesson of the two world wars is that just saying we’re going to go back to how things were before is not the right answer. So we have to come up with ways to think of a better word that we can have in the future. than the one we left behind as in the past. The First World War was largely fought by people who thought they were going to dial the clock back to how it been in 1913 – and what they found was, in the aftermath of the armistice, that was impossible. Therefore when the Second World War came along, it was those people who managed to highlight the need to fight not only to defeat natzism, but also to create a better world, who managed to capture the public imagination – and indeed to eventually win the general election of 1945.

DM: One thing that didn’t exist in the wartime period was social media. This is a big part of the conversation today – it’s enabling mass discourse about things that are being asked of us. Do you think that changes how governments have to go about maintaining morale and imposing structures? And do you think the wartime government would have dealt with things any differently with social media than ours today?

JB: I suppose there are two sides to that. Do I think the government ought to be censoring social media? Definitely no. I don’t think they could, even if they wanted to. But I suppose the more complex question is to what extent is social media different from gossiping in the queue at the greengrocers in the past? I’m not sure that it is that different; people are always going to chat amongst themselves and rumours will always be flying around. Okay, social media can spread this a bit further than was previously the case – but it doesn’t strike me as being qualitatively different, even if it is different, bar the speed with which things can move. In any sense, sensible people have always been cautious of rumours they heard in the greengrocers, just as people are sceptical about everything, I hope, they read on social media today.

DM: I guess “loose talk, costs lives” shows that they were aware of the dangers of gossip in the greengrocers. On to a different question. Is there anything different between the national psyche of the people who lived through the wartime crises and people today?

JB:  It’s an interesting question. In a sense, it’s what historians are struggling with; they are trying to work out why people did the things they did in the past in the context of today’s mindset. I don’t see any reason why that should be the case, let’s put it like that. The basic principles by which we live our lives are not markedly different; I’m thinking we’re broadly a Liberal democracy and we’re broadly humanist/Christian. Our societies and how we live are pretty similar, although the cultural makeup of the country has changed a lot since 1914 – and for the better. So I don’t see why any of those necessarily have changed.

I think it’s very tempting and very easy for certain right wing tabloids to say we’re not as tough as we used to be, where’s British stiff upper lip? And that kind of stuff… but I think that’s over emphasising the extent of stiff upper lip in the past and also underestimating the resilience of ordinary humans, with ordinary human values, today. We are very similar today to what they were in 1940 or 1914. There is some continuity.

DM: Last one from me. if you were invited into Boris Johnson’s meetings, or into President Trump’s war cabinet, and they said: what lessons can we learn from your research into the wartime experience? What would you offer them?

JB: I think we should come back to the three principles I mentioned earlier. Proportionality of threat and the chance of success; the need for fairness; and the need to create a sense of travelling to a better future.  There will also be minor details – one I thought about this morning was whether we should nationalise the banks or close the stock exchange? In 1914 they did close the stock exchange, but they didn’t nationalise the banks. These are the questions of detail, but the main point is policy needs to have principles that people can buy into if we are to maintain public support. The principles are more important than the details.

Advertisement

Listen to the full interview on the History Extra podcast here

How to download the History Extra podcast