Vox pops — I

Let's tackle the question of public opinion head on. Did the British people want reprisal bombing to be carried out against the German people? How can we tell? Can we even tell?

If we wanted to gauge public opinion on a particular question today, we'd carry out an opinion poll. As luck would have it, Britain's first opinion polling organisation, the British Institute of Public Opinion (BIPO, later the Gallup Organization), was set up in 1937, and during the Blitz it did carry out polling on the reprisals issue.

In October 1940, BIPO polled on the question (among others):

In view of the indiscriminate German bombing of this country, would you approve or disapprove if the R.A.F. adopted a similar policy of bombing the civilian population of Germany?

The result was a dead heat: 46% of respondents approved and 46% disapproved. (The balance didn't know.) But I think there's a problem with BIPO's sample here. From a sample size of 2100 people, apparently selected through door-knocking and street interviews, only 46% were women. I'm not a demographer, but I would have expected slightly more women than men: that's the normal gender balance, and wartime conditions would skew that even further.

Another BIPO poll, this one carried out in April 1941, had what I would consider a more realistic proportion of 55% female to 45% male interviewees, with a sample size of around 2200. This time the question was less loaded:

Would you approve or disapprove if the R.A.F. adopted a policy of bombing the civilian population of Germany?

The results were now 54% approving, 37% disapproving, and the balance offering no opinion. If the October poll is taken as relative accurate, that indicates a fairly decisive (though not overwhelming) shift in opinion by April: the difference between enduring one month of the Blitz and six, perhaps.

This time around, BIPO's pollsters also recorded the reasons given by interviews for their answers:

Reason
Percentage
Don't Know21
It would end the war quickly. Would stop raids on us.
Would break German Morals [sic].
10
Let the Germans have a taste of it. They deserve it.
An eye for an eye.
37
We can't win the war that way. It'll only come back on us.
Its so futile.
8
That's as bad as Hitler. Don't kill women and children.
Let's keep our hands clean. The less of that the better.
15
It wouldn't be wise. Keep to military objectives.
Don't waste bombs.
10

(I'm sure the reference to 'Morals' is a typo for morale or a misreading of moral, then an old-fashioned spelling of morale.) This would suggest that revenge was the most important motivation for those who supported reprisals. Practical reasons were low on the list.

The results of the April poll seem fairly clear: a small majority of people wanted reprisals, and more than half of those who did wanted revenge. But a regional breakdown of the results was published in the News Chronicle in May 1941 (at least I think it's the same poll; it had practically the same question and BIPO carried out no polling in May) and I think this has confused matters.

District
Approve
Disapprove
Don't know
Inner London45478
Outer London & SE513712
West Riding65287
North Riding, Cumberland
and Westmorland
76159
Glasgow and Clydeside54434
Midlands494011

The conclusions of the News Chronicle were that 'the people of Britain are in favour of reprisal bombing of Germany', but also that 'It would seem that sentiment in favour of reprisals is almost in inverse ratio to the amount of bombing experienced'.1 This corresponds with the post-war analysis of Mass-Observation reports by Angus Calder and Tom Harrisson, that those who had experienced heavy bombing were less likely to demand reprisals than those who had not. Even Mark Connelly, whose position I praised earlier, seems to concur with this view when he says that the May poll found that 'people living in areas away from the main German attacks [...] were far more likely to support the idea of reprisals than Londoners', and that it revealed 'that most people did not like the idea of reprisals -- most people who had actually been bombed that is'.2

But, I'm sorry, this is just not supported by the figures. Sure, it's clear that it's in the most heavily-bombed areas (e.g. inner London and the Midlands, which include Birmingham and Coventry) that support for reprisals was weakest. And it's in the rural and fairly safe regions (Yorkshire and the north-west of England) that public opinion was overwhelmingly for reprisals. But in only one of the polled regions, inner London, were reprisals disapproved of more than approved, and even there by a paltry margin of only 2%. That's practically equal. Everywhere else there was a clear margin in favour of reprisals, including the heavily blitzed areas of the Midlands and Clydeside (9% and 11% respectively). These figures just can't be used to argue that support for reprisals was weak. Rather, they suggest that the nation was split on the question, with at best a small majority leaning one way and a substantial minority leaning the other. The Blitz seems to have increased desire for reprisals somewhat. At worst (or best, perhaps), a very substantial minority of Britons supported reprisal bombing of German civilians; at best (worst), a small majority did so. Support was weaker in blitzed areas, but it was nowhere actually weak -- and besides, when assessing public opinion why should the views of those who had been bombed be privileged over those who had not?

This opinion poll data is partly why I think the historiographical consensus on reprisals needs revisiting. There's also the evidence from newspaper letters columns: next post.


  1. Quoted in Mark Connelly, Reaching for the Stars: A New History of Bomber Command in World War II (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001), 50. 

  2. Ibid. 

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3 thoughts on “Vox pops — I

  1. Chris Williams

    Mmm, you beauty Brett. Let me know when the paper comes out so that I can cite it.

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  3. Post author

    Well, I'd like to publish something from all this -- but it depends on whether I can make it hang together when I give the talk!

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