The persistence of fear

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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  1. Harold Nicolson, Diaries and Letters 1939-1945 (London: Collins, 1967), 132. []
  2. Ibid., 140. []
  3. Ibid., 141. []
  4. Ibid. []

6 thoughts on “The persistence of fear

  1. This is very surprising. Did they give any clue about what reason they thought the Germans had for not unleashing their knockout blow earlier?

  2. Post author

    No, I've quoted pretty much all there is that's relevant. I can only speculate! (1) A hangover of the prewar belief that the attempted knock-out blow is inevitable -- it hasn't happened yet -- therefore it must be coming in the future. (2) Mid-winter blues, city after city is getting blitzed, there's no effective defence against the night bomber, no prospect of an end to the war any time soon. (3) Over the winter, Germany with all that Nazi efficiency, has been rebuilding its air force faster than Britain has. (4) Spring is coming, and presumably invasion, and with it a renewed air offensive. (5) A belief that Germany had been holding back in 1940, that it still had huge reserves left.

  3. Nicolson was a fun diarist but not really a serious person, ever. An amateur gent who was usually wrong.

    I wonder at his account of Alexander's mood. Alex(!) won his spurs in the Retreat from Mons as a 2Lt, was decorated again in the retreat of March, 1918 as a major commanding a scratch brigade, was the last British commander at Dunkirk, flew into Rangoon to organise the breakout in 1942, took a leading part in sorting out the mess after Kasserine Pass, and went straight to Salerno when it turned shitty. Being so depressed by bombing sounds well out of character. Although, of course, in this case he wasn't an actor - just a target.

  4. Post author

    Obviously Nicolson was wrong about the knock-out blow being still on its way (unless those crafty Germans are still biding their time ...) but that's beside the point, which is that the idea was in the air at the time. It wasn't just Nicolson who reported rumours like this, either -- H. G. Wells did too, for example, at about the same time. (He attributed them to unnamed appeasers, which may or may not be true for Alexander and Spens, but seems doubtful in Nicolson's case.)

    Your last line about Alex seems to me to be right on target, so to speak, Alex. Nothing for him to do while the Germans came by air ... maybe he wished for an invasion so he fight them properly? Looks like there hasn't been a biography of Alex since 1973 ... which was written by Nicolson's son!

  5. I think it's dangerous to extrapolate from individual diary entries - too subject to individual experiences, perceptions and fluctuations in mood. But Nicholson's entries are useful if they help us to restore the sense of uncertainty that there was in Britain over the winter of 1940-41. If you take away the certainty that Hitler was going to attack Russia - which even senior British strategists didn't have until much closer to the event - it was hard to maintain a positive sense of what would happen in the short term. We might have beaten the Italians in the Mediterranean, but the British didn't seem capable of stopping night time air raids. Roosevelt might have announced Lend Lease, but it wasn't past Congress, and Britain had just run out of dollars. It doesn't seem unreasonable to me to have presumed in this context that 1941 would see another attempt to knock Britain out of the war from the air, this time improved by all the experience the Luftwaffe had gained in 1940, plus the productive resources of the expanded Reich (we know that German air production had stalled, but who would have thought that at the time?). None of that necessarily meant that Britain was going to lose in the long run (and Alexander's comment doesn't seem pessimistic to me, more like a bit of typically debonair realism) - but it did mean that things were probably going to get worse before they got better. To a degree, this is what happened: the bombing raids of May 1941 were more severe than those of autumn 1940.

  6. Post author

    But Nicholson’s entries are useful if they help us to restore the sense of uncertainty that there was in Britain over the winter of 1940-41.

    Yes, exactly, that's one of the things I like about reading predictions about the future (which is so much of what I do). Sometimes I wish I could (temporarily!) forget everything that happened after my period, so I could escape the dead hand of chronology ...

    True enough that one shouldn't extrapolate from diary entries. But as I say there are other sources saying similar things. On Alex -- it seems a fine line between pessimism and realism when he's talking about British cities being blotted out one by one! But I don't know enough about his personality to judge.

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