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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- Juliet Gardiner, The Blitz: The British Under Attack (London: Harper Press, 2010), 183.
- John Ramsden, Don't Mention the War: The British and the Germans since 1890 (London: Little, Brown, 2006), 205-6.
- Tom Harrisson, Living Through The Blitz (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), 150.
- Ibid., 314.
- Ibid., 314-5.
- Angus Calder, The People's War: Britain 1939-1945 (London: Pimlico, 1992 ), 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.
- Harrisson, Living Through the Blitz, 314.
- 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.
- 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.
- Ramsden, Don't Mention the War, 116-7.