In search of the Dunkirk spirit

Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang consider the role of the Ministry of Information in assessing popular morale during the onslaught of 1940

"Close shave sir?" A windowless Wally's barber shop in St Martin's Street shows its defiance during the London Blitz, November 1940. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Among the files in the National Archives at Kew is a little known chronicle of life on the home front during Britain’s ‘finest hour’. From 18 May to 27 September 1940, the Home Intelligence department of the Ministry of Information compiled daily reports (Sundays excepted) on the morale and opinions of the British public. From Dunkirk, through the fall of France, the Battle of Britain and the opening stages of the London Blitz, they monitored the hopes and fears, and the everyday complaints, of a people under threat from invasion and falling bombs.

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The reports were a reflection of the increasing dependence of wartime officials on the trust and co-operation of the general public. At the outbreak of war the Chamberlain government had set up a Ministry of Information (MOI) with the task of handling the government’s public relations and, more generally, of sustaining morale.

The MOI, however, was handicapped by the fact that it was trying to communicate with the public without any means of assessing the public’s response. Hence the ineptitude of its very first poster, which bore the slogan: “Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory.” All too easily misread as an appeal to the many to exert themselves on behalf of the few, it exposed a gulf between the leaders and the led. Home Intelligence was set up with the aim of bridging that gulf.

It was largely the creation of its first director, Mary Adams, who recognised that good intelligence depended on a wide range of sources. She commissioned reports from Mass-Observation (M-O), the social survey organisation already famous for its research into the behaviour of people in pubs and the activities of holidaymakers on the beach at Blackpool. M-O was a controversial organisation whose methods were attacked by academics as being unscientific.

As a counterweight Adams enlisted the services of a statistical unit, the Wartime Social Survey, that employed more orthodox methods of market research. She could also draw on reports from the police, the postal censors, citizens’ advice bureaus and other voluntary organisations. At lunchtime each day information officers in MOI’s 12 regional headquarters would ring up with brief summaries of opinion from across the United Kingdom. These were then circulated around relevant government ministries to assist them in framing policy.

Covert observation

As the main potential target of air attack, London received special attention. A network of doctors, dentists, parsons, publicans, small shopkeepers, newsagents, trade union officials and factory welfare officers was asked to report on the views expressed by members of the public with whom they came into contact.

Though Home Intelligence did make some use of face-to-face interviews it relied heavily on eavesdropping and the covert observation of behaviour. To us it all seems fairly innocent – there was no intention of identifying unpatriotic individuals or reporting them to the authorities. The politicians, however, had decided to keep the existence of Home Intelligence a secret. Inevitably, rumours came to the ears of journalists and in July 1940 the press launched a campaign against the minister of information, Duff Cooper, over the activities of ‘Cooper’s Snoopers’. Cooper fended off the attack with a speech in the House of Commons that was notably economical with the truth, and the agitation died down without the press ever realising the full extent of the ‘snooping’.

Almost from the start the reports, which Adams edited and summarised, managed to strike a reassuring note without ever lapsing into complacency. The majority of the British people, they concluded, were confident of victory – though men were more confident than women, and the working classes more confident than the middle classes.

Morale, however, was an amorphous entity that Home Intelligence struggled to grasp. The earliest of the daily reports, compiled during the calamitous events of May, contain some very curious judgments about the geography of morale. Oxford, reported the Reading office on 27 May, was “optimistic” but there was “defeatist talk in Godalming”. “Horsham,” declared the Tunbridge Wells office on 31 May, “continues ‘smug’”.

Despite such quirky generalisations, the reports leave us in no doubt of the shock inflicted by Hitler’s rapid conquest of Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and France. Britain was awash with rumours invented or inspired by the Nazi propaganda machine. Home Intelligence, which had the job of detecting false rumours so that the MOI could rebut them, reported on 25 May: “A great many are still being circulated, some of which seem to be put about deliberately. Of this type the following is typical: cinema managers in the Exeter district have been told by some of their regular patrons that the showing of the film Hitler, Beast of Berlin should be abandoned next week as Haw-Haw has threatened that Exeter will be bombed if it is shown. This story is apparently widely believed.”

The German offensive in the west had involved the use of parachute troops assisted, according to press reports, by fifth columnists in the countries they were invading. Fictitious tales began to circulate of the landings of German parachutists, often said to be disguised as nuns. From this it was but a short step to chatter about the identity of the ‘enemy within’. Home Intelligence reported rumours that the chief constable of Hartlepool, a professor of French in Newcastle, and one of the MOI’s own regional officers, were all suspected of fifth column activities.

Opinion turned sharply against anyone suspected of unpatriotic behaviour. Chamberlain and the ‘men of Munich’ were accused of failing the nation by appeasing Hitler. Conscientious Objectors were unpopular and many local authorities gave them the sack. “CO milkman chased by angry crowd of housewives in Cannock,” it was reported on 6 June.

Infected by the same anxieties, the government initiated a wave of prosecutions of members of the public for spreading “alarm and despondency” but at this point Home Intelligence began to detect a backlash in favour of civil liberty. In the report for 18 July it was observed that a working man in a tram reading a newspaper had been heard to comment: “If we are not shot by the Germans we are evidently going to be shot by our own people.”

As the summer progressed the sporadic Luftwaffe air raids across the country developed into the massed air battles over the south of England that were soon to be known as the Battle of Britain. As the RAF appeared to gain the upper hand in the aerial contests, fought out in full view of civilians below, Home Intelligence picked up a growing sense of euphoria. “The fact that this region bore the brunt of yesterday’s air attacks,” commented the regional office in Tunbridge Wells on 17 August, “has heightened rather than lowered morale, and people are exhilarated by the feeling that they are now in the front line.”

Yet the feelings of euphoria were far from universal. Saturday 7 September will go down in history as the opening night of the London Blitz – an almost uninterrupted 76-day aerial assault that would kill thousands. As the Luftwaffe pounded the East End, Home Intelligence detailed the immense strain on local communities. “In dockside areas,” it was reported on 9 September, “the population is showing visible signs of nerve cracking from constant ordeals. Old women and mothers are undermining morale of young women and men by their extreme nervousness and lack of resilience.”

Another indication of anxiety was a revival of the anti-Jewish prejudices that Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists had exploited in the 1930s. “A certain amount of anti-semitism in the East End still persists,” noted the report for 11 September, “but this is not so much on account of a marked difference in conduct between Jews and Cockneys, but because the latter, seeking a scapegoat as an outlet for emotional disturbances, pick on the traditional and nearest one.”

Courage under fire

Although the daily reports only cover the initial phase of the Blitz, they do provide an early indication that the morale of Londoners was holding up under the stress of relentless air attacks. Home Intelligence reported on 13 September: “Majority carrying on with calmness and courage even in heavily bombed areas. Most prevalent emotion anger with Germans and irritation over constant raids. Real hatred and savagery flash out at times from those who have come in contact with actual tragedies: ‘we must wipe them off the face of the earth’ is working man’s comment heard today.”

The home front was indeed becoming a battle front. Under the impact of bombing and the invasion threat, the civilian population increasingly thought of themselves as ‘in the front line’. As Angus Calder wrote in a classic 1969 book, the war at home was turning into a People’s War. And as Churchill had prophesied in a speech to the House of Commons in May 1901: “The wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings.”

Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang teach in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh.

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This article was first published in the May 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine