Who said that?

In my reprisals paper abstract, I said that

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.

This is a historiographical claim. If I don't want to be accused of using weasel words or attacking strawmen, it's one that I need to be able to substantiate. So what have previous historians said about the reprisals question?

The position which I'm revising seems to me to be the consensus view: unremarkable enough now that it can be stated without providing detailed evidence or citations. (That's not always a bad thing: if historians had prove every single statement they made they'd be unreadable.) So for example, in her detailed history of the British people during the Blitz, Juliet Gardiner says that 'There were surprisingly few calls for retaliation on Germany'. 1 Given its topic, it might be expected that John Ramsden's study of British attitudes towards Germany since the late 19th century would have more to say on the matter. And it does:

It was often those who had not personally experienced the war's worst who took the hardest line, actual victims of the bombing showing that 'Britain could take it' more philosophically, as did bombed-out victims in Birmingham. 2

Ramsden proceeds to give several examples from primary sources. (However, his ensuing discussion does emphasise pro-reprisal opinion, it seems to me.) But in his endnotes, he also cites another secondary account, Tom Harrisson's Living Through the Blitz, which would seem to be the basis for this general assertion. Harrisson, an anthropologist by training, was the co-founder of Mass-Observation and was actively involved in analysing morale during the war; Living Through the Blitz provides a unique analysis of British responses to the Blitz. So it's a bit disheartening to see that the index has an entry for 'reprisals, lack of demand for'!

Harrisson certainly does make the claim that the blitzed were less likely to demand reprisals than the non-blitzed:

This was to become a familiar phenomenon as the provincial blitz unrolled: 'go easy' from those sticking to the stricken centre, 'blast the bastards' from the physically unhurt periphery. 3

Later on he expands on this:

Champions of reprisal were conspicuously more numerous in the unblitzed places and in the countryside, as well as among elderly males who had fought in the First World War. But one was repeatedly impressed by the paucity, sometimes the total absence, of such reactions among most blitz victims. 4

and offers three basic explanations for this 'paucity':

(i) the misery, mixed with excitement and sense of achievement in being bombed -- so what earthly use inflicting the same on non-belligerents on the other side? (ii) the evident futility of so much lethal effort -- why waste our own planes and lads to the same purpose? (iii) the strongly felt probability that the more 'we' bombed them the more they would bomb us (even unto gas) -- so why make it worse for everybody, ourselves included? 5

Writing a decade earlier, and also drawing largely on Mass-Observation files, Angus Calder in The People's War makes some similar observations:

But if the raids on Germany were seen as reprisals, it was those who had suffered most in Britain who, by and large, approved of them least. The inhabitants of London, Southampton and Plymouth heard, after all, that the Germans described their own raids as 'reprisals'. Apart from a natural reluctance to imagine other people suffering as they had suffered, they might calculate prudently that the result of terror raids on Berlin would be further terror raids on London, Southampton and Plymouth. 6

So these sources agree that blitzed people were less likely to favour reprisal bombing of German civilian than were non-blitzed people, and in fact were not likely to favour them at all.

Importantly, Harrisson also makes a claim about why reading newspapers from the Blitz (as I am doing) might give a different impression:

There is little doubt that Churchill, his closest advisor Cherwell and 'Bomber' Harris relished the opportunity to destroy German cities and civilians. Their actions were sanctioned by Churchill's closest publicity man, Lord Beaverbrook, who vigorously and elaborated on public demand, nay clamour, for 'reprisals' through his news chain. The 'People of Coventry' and all the rest were thus said to cry out 'bomb back... kill... destroy' in vengeance. Under such alleged insistence the leaders could only, in decency, bow to the popular will. 7

To some extent, Harrisson's argument here about the press leading (exaggerating or even making up) the demand for reprisals is backed up by Robert Mackay's book on British morale during the war. Unfortunately Mackay doesn't talk about reprisals directly, but he does say that 'the raids on Germany were given maximum publicity to this end [of keeping spirits up]. But this was something rather remote from people's lives and in any case had to be taken on trust'. 8

Is there any dissent from this consensus? Yes, to some degree. Mark Connelly's Reaching for the Stars, a history of Bomber Command which is more than just a history of Bomber Command, discusses the reprisals debate in a couple of places. Connelly draws on opinions published in the press for his evidence, and after discussing a reprisals debate which took place in the Daily Telegraph in the autumn of 1941 says:

Such views cannot be dismissed lightly, as has often been the case with those anxious to prove the British were not interested in reprisal raids on Germany. 9

Connelly doesn't say who is being dismissive in this way, but it's noticeable that in treating the press debates seriously he differs from most of the writers who preceded him, most noticeably Harrisson. Connelly uses some of the same opinion poll evidence as Harrisson, but couches it in the context of public understanding of Bomber Command's capabilities, thereby distinguishing between reprisals on non-military objectives for the sake of revenge and bombing on military objectives for the purpose of victory. He does agree with the consensus that those who had taken it from Germany were less like to want to pay it back.

Both in terms of sources and argument I find myself largely agreeing with Connelly. It's nice not to be out on a limb, but then that raises the question of what I am adding to the historiography? Simply rehashing Connelly's argument is not very interesting. I'll get into this more in a later post, but given my previous research an obvious route for me to take would be to look at the reprisals debate in terms of the public understanding of airpower. (Which, as I said, Connelly does do, but perhaps I can go further.) I could also make my discussion more explicitly historiographical, critiquing earlier arguments (mainly Harrisson and Calder). Going deeper in terms of sources would be another possibility if I didn't live such a long way away from most of them, but perhaps there are a few more I can add. Finally, I note that my abstract makes a comparison to the reprisals debate in the First World War. That's something which none of the above authors did (though my abstract makes it seem like they do!); only Ramsden could realistically have done so but while he mentions the anger caused by 'baby-killing' Zeppelin raids, he doesn't talk about the demand for revenge. 10 So that's another angle for me to take. We shall see.

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  1. Juliet Gardiner, The Blitz: The British Under Attack (London: Harper Press, 2010), 183.[]
  2. John Ramsden, Don't Mention the War: The British and the Germans since 1890 (London: Little, Brown, 2006), 205-6.[]
  3. Tom Harrisson, Living Through The Blitz (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), 150.[]
  4. Ibid., 314.[]
  5. Ibid., 314-5.[]
  6. Angus Calder, The People's War: Britain 1939-1945 (London: Pimlico, 1992 [1969]), 229. Calder discusses reprisals again later, though not just in the Blitz and more in the context of 'Vansittartism': ibid., 489ff. Much of Ramsden's account revolves around Vansittartism too.[]
  7. Harrisson, Living Through the Blitz, 314.[]
  8. Robert Mackay, Half the Battle: Civilian Morale in Britain during the Second World War (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002), 193-4; see also 158-9.[]
  9. Mark Connelly, Reaching for the Stars: A New History of Bomber Command in World War II (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001), 49. See also ibid., 32-4; Mark Connelly, 'The British people, the press, and the strategic air campaign against Germany', Contemporary British History 16 (2002), 39-58.[]
  10. Ramsden, Don't Mention the War, 116-7.[]

8 thoughts on “Who said that?

  1. Post author

    Thanks for asking -- I meant to pull that out and have a look! His clearest statement is on page 518:

    Under the impact of the Blitz, the British people demanded retaliation and did not stop to ask whether they or the Germans had started it.

    And by retaliation he means indiscriminate bombing. He suggests that bombing was Britain's only practical weapon against Germany after the fall of France, but that being used only at night it was too inaccurate to permit precision bombing (both true); and that maybe 'the British were also anxious to show that they would jettison even morality in their determination to bring Hitler down' (classic Taylor!) Overall he's clearly very critical of the strategic bombing campaign, perhaps not surprising for a CND founding member.

  2. Black Dog.

    Hmm....Interesting. Some of this is a little arcane and academic for me, but peoples attitudes on this matter have always interested me. Both sides of my family were heavily involved in both wars and also suffered aerial bombing as civilians and members of armed forces in both wars. It's certainly true to say that public attitudes in the last war were much affected by the Great War. Not much weight should be given to what the press were saying when it comes to the attitudes of joe public. What the press or government wanted or assumed, and what was felt on the ground were two entirely different things, much as today. My father, who in his nineties is still here to affirm his views, has a word he picked-up in the western desert, 'alekephic' (sp..?) which is Arabic for something like ‘I'm not bothered'. In the last war, there was less of the jingoism of the first. There was a job to be done, people just wanted to get it done and over and get back to their lives. People of that generation one must remember, grew-up in the aftermath of the Great War and the Great Depression. It's results were all around them. Many families had been devastated and crippled, maimed men were still everywhere to be seen. People took the view that if the enemy were happy to come and bomb us, then it was fair enough to return the favour. Their wasn’t really any sense of malice as such, just a determination to win, which isn’t the same as a lust for revenge. They accepted that bombing the Germans would be as discriminating, or ot, as the German bombing of Britain. Actually, with the exceptions of certain specific act of brutality and barbarism, there was no ill-will at all towards the Germans. Most Brit’s actually quite liked the Germans. There has always been a sort of racial memory of kinship and a feeling that, as ‘europeans’ go, they were the ‘most like us’. A good example is that people were appalled at the loss of the Hood, but sad at the loss of life on the Bismark. The officers had orders to ‘Sink the Bismark’, the ordinary sailors just wanted to stop and take-off the survivors.
    I say all this based on the views of several generations of my family who had bombs dropped on them by the Germans in and members of which served is all branches in both wars. Nor were their attitudes unusual. In fact, at the wars end, one of my mothers brothers had an - at the time - illegal liaison with a German girl, - which was far from unusual. There was also an underlying sense that we were unfortunately fighting the wrong enemy. There was quite a popular view before the war, that Hitler had achieved quite a lot, no one wanted the damn war, and that the real enemy was the threat of Communism sweeping through Europe. That wasn’t at all a pro-Nazi or even pro-German sentiment, but does go some way to explaining the British publics ambivalence.

  3. Post author

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, the anti-German feeling in the Second World War was not intense as in the First, and it died down quite quickly afterwards (Ramsden's book is very good on this). But that's a general statement: it doesn't preclude periods, people and/or places having a different complexion. That's something I think is worth looking a bit more closely at.

    Post-war memories can obscure things: many people before and after the war feared the Soviets, but in 1941-5 'our Russian allies' were hugely popular. Obviously there was an element of 'the enemy of my enemy' etc, but there was also much genuine admiration for Russian resistance and also a genuine hope that after the war the victorious Allies would continue to work together.

    Finally, while the press is not the same as public opinion, it shouldn't be ignored either. They weren't just pushing opinion down the throats of their readers: they tried to reflect and/or shape opinion, which tells us interesting things in itself. And where they published or discussed letters sent in by readers, we can get a very valuable insight into public opinion (of course not an unbiased sample), presenting a range of views quite often at odds with the newspaper's own.

    But there's more to say and I will be in future!

  4. Black Dog.

    I just spoke to my parents again about this. My father (91) recalls only broad indifference. Nor did any of his friends and associates show any real animosity towards the Germans. My mother, whose own father was very heavilly involved in the Great War, and lost many, many pals, reflects more his dislike of the Germans, but probably more accurately, his dislike of the slaughter. I think this dichotomy in views is pretty representative. That said, of all the old lags I've known, most of whom are no longer with us, I can't recall a single vengeful comment with regard to the Jerries. There certainly was jingoism, but as far as I've seen (Assuredly NOT being a historian.) the only evidence seems to be the press and, newsreels and the official releases and films of the time.
    One point that I always find interesting is that people who were actually there, make a clear distinction between the Germans and the 'Nazis', and very rarely use the latter term. Contrast this with the media today, who almost always, in their simple-minded way, only use the term 'Nazi'. I suppose they think it easier for the masses to digest. I think there was an element of this even during the war.

  5. Post author

    There certainly was jingoism, but as far as I've seen (Assuredly NOT being a historian.) the only evidence seems to be the press and, newsreels and the official releases and films of the time.

    Quite possibly, but those are still valid primary sources (along with intelligence reports, letters, diaries, Mass-Observation, opinion polls, etc). Oral sources (and memoirs and other accounts from after the event) can give a very valuable and often different perspective to primary sources, but they present their own set of problems, as I've suggested. That's why I personally concentrate on primary source material, sources which originated in the period itself.

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