Post-blogging 1940: preliminary thoughts and conclusions

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.

7 October was not the end of the Blitz or even of the Battle of Britain, but it is the end of my post-blogging of 1940, at least for now. The main reason for this is because I'm running out of primary sources, especially the Daily Mail. But as I think I've shown, in the preceding week or two the press (at least the parts available to me) seems to have decided that a turning point in the air battle had been reached: that the Luftwaffe had been decisively repulsed by day and that the invasion was not coming. Also, the early shock of the bombing of London had worn off -- after three weeks or so it was clear that this was no knock-out blow -- and the problems in the shelters were starting to be resolved by a number of well-publicised measures. So late September/early October turns out to be as good a place to stop as any.

That unanimity is actually a little surprising, given the lack of an agreed narrative earlier on. The newspapers didn't always agree on what was 'most' important on particular day (as defined by the story chosen as the lead), nor did their opinion pieces focus on the same issues. A bit later on, while The Times and the Daily Mail featured extensive debates about whether Britain should initiate the bombing of German civilians in reprisal, the Manchester Guardian virtually ignored the issue. At times there seems to have been official pressure to promote certain stories, or at least to so lavishly provide reporters with access to government officials that they could hardly refuse to make it a big story. The Daily Mail's prominent coverage on 7 October of the past and future bombing of Germany would be an example of this -- the map came direct from the Ministry of Information, along with the statistics. But it's clear that the narratives produced at the time often don't match the well-established narrative we now know and love. The periods which we remember as the Battle of Britain and the Blitz were much more tangled together than you might think from all the books you see written on one or the other (but almost never both).

One thing which comes through very clearly is that emphasis on how hard Bomber Command was hitting Germany. During the weeks when Fighter Command was fighting the Luftwaffe, and then when Londoners were starting to 'take it', the press was assuring its readers that a powerful bomber force was pounding German factories, aerodromes, power stations, railway yards into rubble. But we know now that, for all the effort and sacrifices made by RAF aircrew, the bombing offensive was feeble and inaccurate. (Except when attacking much closer to home, as with the campaign against the invasion ports.) Even though the Air Ministry itself wasn't aware of this until the Butt Report came out in August 1941, there was certainly a fair amount of exaggeration going on, and this must have been intended to aid morale. But the interesting thing is that it didn't work, at least initially. The reprisals debate proves this. After everything they had been told about the bombing of Germany, it is clear from both the letters columns and the Home Intelligence reports that many people did not think this was enough. The key question was: what is a legitimate target? The Air Ministry was always very careful to stress that Bomber Command was attacking only purely military objectives, and that to target civilian morale would be a waste of resources. (In so doing, it rather glossed over the fact that many of its 'military' objectives were in the heart of German cities, that civilian casualties were thus unavoidable, and that whatever effect this had on enemy morale was not undesirable.) But the pro-reprisals segment of public opinion wanted enemy civilians to be struck directly, whether that meant warning them to evacuate their cities before their imminent destruction or targeting German women and children. The Daily Mail seems to have tried to placate those holding such views, by stressing the suffering of the German people and saying that, in effect if not in intention, Bomber Command's raids did amount to reprisals. How effective this was is hard to say, but by early October it was reporting that the subject of reprisals had become a minor component of its daily mail (as it were). This bloodthirstiness is not a part of the myth of 1940.

There are a few aspects I didn't cover so well. I had intended to quote from the Home Intelligence reports a bit more, especially to show the sort of evidence of psychological strain amongst the bombed populations which didn't get into the papers as it didn't fit the preferred image of the stoic, cheerful Cockneys. But I got distracted by other threads and dropped this one. I also didn't show very well a process I called in my thesis 'domesticating the Blitz'. There I argued that the unofficial declaration of victory for this stage of the air war had a lot to do with turning the bombing of London from a military problem into a domestic one, something which could be managed politically. The appointment of the 'air raid dictators' was an important part of this, but there were other events I didn't discuss: the ocupation of the Tubes, the million bunk-beds for shelters, the provision of ear-plugs (yes, really!) I think I post-blogged the Sudeten crisis better, quite possibly because I wasn't already familiar with the primary sources.

On a minor note, in this period 'blitz' was really not a very common word at all, and people certainly weren't thinking of themselves as living through 'the Blitz' (or, for that matter, 'the Battle of Britain', though admittedly that was a much more common phrase). There were only about two uses of the word in the material I looked at. But maybe 'the Blitz' became more common later on in the Blitz? Which leads me to...

The next phase of post-blogging 1940. I'll be taking a break from it for a while, and when I start again it will be in shorter chunks, only a week or so, covering some of the most interesting parts of the Blitz. At the moment I'm thinking of the Coventry Blitz (14 November 1940), the Second Great Fire of London (not that anyone really calls it that - 29 December 1940) and the last and heaviest raid on London (10 May 1941), which was not quite the end of the Blitz but the bombing did stop for a while, to be followed by one last one on Birmingham (16 May 1941). I also want to do something for February or March 1941, probably something in the provincial line, but haven't decided what yet. Maybe mid-March when Glasgow and Hull received their first heavy raids. These are all periods I'm not so familiar with, so I'm looking forward to digging in to the primary sources. On the other hand, there are a few sources I won't have for them -- I'll particularly miss the Daily Mail (yes, I know how that sounds...)

Anyway, over to you -- what surprised/interested/struck you about 1940, if anything?

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11 thoughts on “Post-blogging 1940: preliminary thoughts and conclusions

  1. Can't say I've learned anything specifically surprising, but I've really enjoyed this post-blogging series. Lots of "slice of life" details and colour, always my favourite part of history!

    Thanks for doing this, looking forward to more.

  2. Urban Garlic

    I've enjoyed this greatly.

    I suppose I knew it academically, but I'm struck by the amount of damage a city like London can absorb while continuing to function, and also by the (to me) surprisingly low casualty count, given the scale of the property damage.

  3. Great work. And unlike me, you can actually get things finished (though not having two young children probably makes a difference ...)

    The point about bloodthirstiness is particularly interesting and suggests one of the ways in which the less edifying themes of 1940 have been elided from public memory. My recent book tried to look at a similar phenomenon, only at the other end of the war.

    Can I put in an appeal for some postblogging attention for the May '41 Blitz on Liverpool? I don't know how accessible Merseyside newspapers are in Melbourne, but the Home Intelligence reports do cover events in Liverpool in some detail.

  4. Me too on the thanks. Having had the chance to pick up Connie Willis' Blackout (thanks, cold virus, you're a chum!), I find myself wishing that this series would go on into December to the St. Paul's attack.

    But that's wishing a whole lot more work on you for little return. BTW, another great work by one of contemporary SF's finest. I think --still have to see if she can keep her cast under control and show George R. R. Martin how it's done.

  5. Post author

    Thanks for the kind words.


    Thanks for the link. The other aspect of stopping here is that I now get some free time to do something other than blog in my free time! So it's not all bad (at least for me). And anyway, your own postblog will keep us up to date!


    Indeed, and that was a surprise at the time. The authorities greatly overestimated the casualties, so they ended up with too much hospital and morgue capacity, but not enough temporary housing for people who were bombed out but still alive. Certainly a better problem to have, but it meant they had to scramble to move, house and feed these people, and think about using scarce building materials for temporary repairs to damaged houses to make them liveable again.


    I definitely couldn't have done it with kids to look after!

    Merseyside newspapers are not particularly accessible here. I'm sure there must be copies closer than Collindale but they'd still be an international flight away. The easiest sources I have are The Times, Manchester Guardian and the Observer (online, uni subscription), Spectator, New Statesman, and the Listener (hardcopies at the library). Then for 1939-45 there's Daily Express, Daily Mirror, News of the World, People, Sunday Express on microfilm, if I get time to go through them. A few other things like The Times Literary Supplement and London Illustrated News (if the uni decides to subscribe to the latter). And the Scotsman is online (paywalled). I wont have any Home Intelligence stuff, as I use the collection edited by Addison and Crang, which stops in September.

    So I still have a decent array of sources, particularly if I do some real work. Why are you interested in the Liverpool blitz, particularly?


    Ah, but I will be doing 29 December 1940! Also, don't think I didn't notice your blog.

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