Something which continues to surprise me (but probably shouldn't, by now) is the way that people were evidently still worried, well into the Blitz, that Germany had not yet unleashed its full aerial might against Britain. That is, that despite victory in the Battle of Britain, and at least enduring the first few months of the Blitz, they worried that they still might have to face a German attempt at a knock-out blow. Here are some examples drawn from the diaries and letters of Harold Nicolson, Bloomsburyite, author, National Labour MP and former diplomat, during his time as a junior minister at the Ministry of Information. Monitoring national morale was part of his job, so he had a privileged view of the war, much more so than the vast majority of the populace anyway. But if anything this seems to have made him more pessimistic about the near future, not less.
This is from a letter Nicolson wrote on 31 December 1940 to his wife Vita Sackville-West, after a visit to the blitzed city of Bristol, and a conversation with Lieutenant-General Alexander (then GOC Southern Command, later Allied supreme commander in the Mediterranean):
He thinks the Battle of England has already begun -- Coventry, Southampton, Bristol, the City. They will burn and destroy them one by one. Archie Wavell, he says, 'mops up 40,000 Libyans and we claim a victory. In two hours the Germans destroy 500 years of our history.' I do think we are going through a hellish time. 1
A few weeks later, on 23 January 1941, he wrote in his diary about his visit to Cambridge. There he spoke to Sir William Spens, Master of Corpus Christi and (more importantly) the regional commissioner for ARP for the eastern region, and so a potential dictator, really, of the area in case of invasion, or indeed a decapitating strike on London:
He feels that it would be dangerous to be complacent about the public morale. He feels that the people lack imagination and are not aware of the terrific ordeals which lie ahead. He admits that they have shown some sense of proportion about the Libyan victories, but he is not sure that they realise how gigantic the German knock-out blow will be when it comes. 2
Finally, another diary entry, written on 26 January 1941, just a few days later. This time Nicolson is recording his own thoughts. First he discusses the recent successes in North and East Africa -- it's noticeable how in each of these entries, pessimism about the war against Germany undercuts the good news from the war against Italy -- and then writes:
But all this is mere chicken-feed. We know that the Great Attack is impending. We know that in a week or two, a day or two, we may be exposed to the most terrible ordeal that we have ever endured. The Germans have refrained from attacking us much during the last ten days since they do not wish to waste aeroplanes and petrol on bad weather. But when the climate improves they may descend upon us with such force as they have never employed before. Most of our towns will be destroyed. 3
Perhaps surprisingly, Nicolson ends this entry on a defiant note: no doubt inspired by Churchill, whom he admired, though perhaps also with an eye on posterity, given that he'd already written nearly two dozen books. (Assuming that there was going to be a posterity, of course!)
I sit here in my familiar brown room with my books and pictures round me, and once again the thought comes to me that I may never see them again. They may well land their parachute and airborne troops behind Sissinghurst and the battle may take place over our bodies. Well, if they try, let them try. We shall win in the end. 4
Alexander, Spens and Nicolson were all part of the ruling elite. They plainly feared that the worst was yet to come. Were their views shared more widely? Mass-Observation is probably the best place to look.
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- Harold Nicolson, Diaries and Letters 1939-1945 (London: Collins, 1967), 132.
- Ibid., 140.
- Ibid., 141.