I'm giving a talk at the XXII Biennial Conference of the Australasian Association for European History, being held in Perth this July. It's a big conference with some big names (e.g. Omer Bartov, Richard Bosworth, John MacKenzie), and there's an appropriately big theme: 'War and Peace, Barbarism and Civilisation in Modern Europe and its Empires'. My talk will be about the reprisals debate in Britain during the Blitz. Here's the original title and abstract:
'Bomb back and bomb hard': A myth of the Blitz
In Britain, popular memory of the Blitz celebrates civilian resistance to the German bombing of London and other cities, emphasising positive values such as stoicism, humour and mutual aid. This 'Blitz spirit' is still called to mind during times of national crisis, for example in response to the July 2005 terrorist bombings in London.
But the memory of such passive and defensive traits obscures the degree to which British civilian morale in 1940 and 1941 depended on the belief that if Britain had to 'take it', then Germany was taking it as hard or even harder. As the Blitz mounted in intensity, Home Intelligence reports and newspaper letter columns featured calls for heavier reprisals against German cities. Propaganda, official and unofficial, responded by skirting a fine distinction between reporting the supposedly heavy bombardment of strictly military targets in urban areas and gloating over the imagined suffering of German civilians. That the RAF's bombing efforts over Germany at this time were in fact wildly inaccurate and largely ineffective is beside the point: nobody in Britain was aware of this yet.
In this paper I will try to restore a sense of these forgotten aspects of the 'Blitz spirit', and attempt to locate their origins in pre-war attitudes to police bombing in British colonies and mandates, and in reactions the predicted knock-out blow from the air which dominated popular perceptions of the next war in the 1920s and 1930s.
A more recent and abbreviated version:
'Bomb back and bomb hard': the reprisals debate during the Blitz
It is often argued that there was little enthusiasm in Britain for reprisals against German cities in retaliation for the Blitz, unlike the First World War. There was in fact a serious contemporary debate about whether enemy civilians could or should be targets of bombing, which I will show derived from the prewar and wartime public understanding of the potential and proper use of airpower.
As these perhaps show, my thinking on the reprisals question is changing a bit, which is not surprising since I'm still researching it. What I plan to do over the next few weeks is to do some of my thinking out loud by way of blogging — appropriately, since I became interested in this topic while post-blogging the Blitz. So watch this space!