Friday, 20 September 1940

This post is part of a series post-blogging the Blitz of 1940-41 and the Baedeker Blitz of 1942. See here and here for introductions to the series, and here, here and here for conclusions.

Lots of good stuff in the Spectator this week, so let's get into it. The 'News of the week' section starts out on page 281 with a paragraph on the speech Churchill gave last Tuesday. Noting that 'some 1,600 civilians have been killed [in London] and some 6,500 injured in the first half of September', the Spectator goes on to argue that

a civilian's life is not more intrinsically valuable than a soldier's, and in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 British casualties were over 400,000. And distressing though the devastation of some London streets is, it is in no way comparable with the destruction of scores of towns and cities in France -- for example Reims -- in the last war. When London is in the battle-line that it should suffer battle-line experience is inevitable.

There's also a paragraph on 'The War in the Air': 'The week that has passed has been one of air warfare such as the world has never before experienced'. On the one side, there is 'ruthless indiscriminate bombing' and on the other 'persistent attacks on military objectives' -- see if you can guess which refers to the RAF and which the Luftwaffe! The daylight air battles, especially the 'amazing result' of last Sunday, 'have given the measure of the real fighting quality of the two forces in legitimate warfare' -- in the week ending 15 September, Germany lost 471 aircraft and Britain only 96.

On the following page is a paragraph on the ARP Co-ordinating Committee, which has 'once again been pressing on Sir John Anderson the policy of building deep steel and concrete bomb-proof shelters which long ago were advocated by Professor J. B. S. Haldane' (who is head of the Committee, an unofficial and independent group). Admitting that this is an enormously more difficult task during wartime than when Haldane made the proposal, the Spectator sighs that 'if deep shelters had been put in hand two years ago, we should have them by now. And the war may last two years yet'.

The main leading article is dramatically entitled 'The Battle of London' (285):

THE battle for the destruction of the soul as well as the substance of the capital continues.

While there have been 'no decisive change[s]' in the past week, there are two worth noting. Firstly, 'London is more deeply scarred'. But

London goes about its daily business, weary, strained, hindered by dislocated communications, but it goes about its business, and does its business, none the less. The disorganisation is strictly limited and it is not cumulative. While new roads are blocked by bombs, roads that had been blocked by them before are cleared.

Of course, the problems should not be minimised:

the assault continues, and as it goes on the strain on London's endurance increases. Blows dealt indiscriminately cannot be completely parried. Shelter accommodation is limited, and few shelters can be guaranteed proof against direct hits. Sleeplessness long endured grows wearing, though the Londoner is acquiring the capacity to sleep through noise. Yet with all that has to be endured, the one conclusion that is never drawn, or so negligibly that it needs no mention, is that terms must be made with the nation that inflicts this [crucifixion?] London has never flinched in its resistance.

And the hardening of that resistance is the second change. (There is also, on page 285, one of the first suggestions we've seen that 'the weather and the R.A.F. between them look like forcing a postponement of that fixture', meaning the invasion.)

Moving right along, the regular 'A Spectator's Notebook' column, by Janus, has a number of interesting items (285). It urges that a 'single authority [...] with a man of proved and exceptional competence at the head of it' be empowered to 'take in hand the problem of London under fire', thus solving the problem of 'Emergency co-ordination between local authorities, the L.C.C. and the Borough Councils'. MP Victor Cazalet's proposal of launching reprisals against a list of twelve German cities as long as London is bombed indiscriminately is rejected on the grounds that it would serve little military purpose. There's a fascinating glimpse of what sounds like pacifism under the bombs:

I am told that in more than one district of London, particularly where there have been bad bombings, persons have been taking round from door to door a petition urging that peace negotiations should be opened, to stop the increasing devastation of cities on both sides. I hope the authorities have got wind of this, though I gather such things are only local and sporadic.

Janus wants their 'sincerity' to be 'very searchingly probed' in case they Fifth Columnists -- though to his credit he does say that 'We are a democratic country, and people who sincerely believe peace ought to be made are entitled [...] to say so'. But did this really happen, or was it just a -- itself defeatist -- rumour?

Janus also complains of too-strict government adherence to 'forms and formalties' in regards to repair of bomb-damage, rationing, and so on. Why, for example, should not two neighbours be able to pool their petrol coupons so that they could 'drive to business together' in the smaller, more economical car? He has a point, but it's a very middle-class problem, unlike that of that of evacuation and rehousing of people in the heavily-bombed East End. For this Janus again recommends a 'central organisation [...] which would give its whole attention to providing for the needs of those rendered homeless' (283).

Strategicus, in 'The war surveyed: the German objective' (286) has the usual stuff about German indiscriminate bombing, British precision bombing, Goering's objectives, London's endurance. But he also introduces a highly critical note:

At the present moment the Post Office appears to have largely abdicated its functions. Telegrams, even within the metropolitan area, take days instead of hours to reach their destination. Letters and parcels are subject to proportionate delay [...] few people recognise its role as the central nervous system of the nation. Without a properly functioning Post Office business is impossible, and unless business can be carried on, the whole economic foundation of the war collapses.

The problem is that as soon as an air raid alert is sounded, all post office work ceases. This makes it easy for the enemy to disrupt communications -- they could send over just one bomber every hour and 'bring the greater part of British communications to a standstill'. This is 'incredible' -- 'Someone appears to have bungled' (287). And it's not just the posties -- similar signs of 'disorganisation' are starting to appear in 'the London street transport'.

We have to realise that here in London everyone is in the firing-line. Whether in uniform or not, we are soldiers, and it is upon our sense of discipline that the battle will turn. Everyone, night and day, lives in an atmosphere of risk, and we must grow accustomed to it, at least to the extent of making it a point of pride to carry on, each of us his several duties, up to the moment of direct peril. Otherwise Germany will have no need to defeat us; we shall defeat ourselves.

On which point, see also page 283:

The Editor expresses regret for the late arrival of The Spectator in many cases last week. The paper appeared punctually at the usual hour; over subsequent delays in transportation and distribution the publisher has no control.

See, I told you there was a lot in this issue of the Spectator -- it's lucky I've already written up 'An Anzac on England'!

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2 thoughts on “Friday, 20 September 1940

  1. Erik Lund

    Sixteen hundred dead. But not to worry, because it's still less than the Somme! If it weren't for the Holocaust, I would say that those petition circulators would have had a point.

    And I can't help but think of the cumulative effect of all that stress and sleep deprivation. Is it cumulative? Did people get better in the grey, postwar Austerity London, or did they just circle down to death? Did they know enough (or were rminded enough) to miss the construction material burnt on 7 September?

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