Vox pops — II

After opinion polls, the rest of the evidence for public opinion on reprisals is more impressionistic. I've already noted the conclusions of those who have plumbed the Mass-Observation archives (and Tom Harrisson didn't just plumb the archives, he ran Mass-Observation during the war), and as I haven't done that myself I'll let them stand. But there are other primary sources. One is the traditional one of the newspaper letters column. These are great because they apparently give you access to the thoughts of people who are otherwise lost to history, the men and women on the Clapham omnibus (substitute regionally-specific public transport systems as appropriate). Before opinion polls, letters to the editor were one of the most important ways of gauging public opinion available, and in 1940-1 they still would have been read as such.

But these letters come with huge problems too. They are filtered at every stage. Someone has to have an opinion on something (so the incurious and apathetic are selected against). They have to be able to read and write (so the illiterate are selected against). They have to actually decide to write and post a letter (so the busy are selected against). And then their letter has to be read and selected for publication by someone at the newspaper, and they could do this on any number of factors: whether it is well-written (or poorly-written, if the newspaper wants to mock its author), whether it is original or representative, whether it is controversial, who the author is (not always humble). High-minded newspapers published mostly serious letters; more populist newspapers might not have letters columns at all. Some newspapers tried to publish a representative sample of the opinions received (The Times was one); others were happy to present a more partisan selection. And maybe some letters were made up entirely; no doubt most were edited for style or length. So there were many, many potential biases, and we can't simply assume that the letters published represent the voice of the people. But taken collectively I think they represent voices of the people.

The actual letters are fascinating in themselves, but here I want to try and get a bigger picture. Helpfully, the Daily Mail often gave a brief analysis of its mailbag. Here's what it had to say on the subject of reprisals during the first month of the Blitz (unfortunately, all I have):

  • 7 September [1940]: 'Reprisals, Sirens, private motor restrictions, and the B.B.C. are, in that order, the principal serious subjects of letters to the editor.' 1
  • 9 September: 'Recent raids produced a sharp recrudescence of telegrams and letters demanding retaliatory attacks not confined to "purely military objectives" on Berlin and other German cities.'
  • 11 September: 'There are also many more demands for "indiscriminate" bombing of Berlin and other German cities, in reply to the German raids.'
  • 12 September: 'There is, however, an increase in correspondence demanding more direct "reprisals" on Germany. This is now the biggest subject of the daily post-bag.'
  • 13 September: 'More than half the letters received yesterday were from readers demanding "reprisals" on Berlin and other German cities for the bombing of London.'
  • 16 September: Support for a proposed ARP medal 'and more demands for intensified bombing of Berlin again form the majority of letters received. Several correspondents again urge as an alternative heavy bombing of Rome -- and let Mussolini make what protests he likes to Hitler.'
  • 17 September: '"More reprisals on Germany" is still the subject of the majority of letters received.'
  • 18 September: '"Raze Berlin to the ground" is still the principal theme of letters.'
  • 19 September: 'Complaints about the postal services are ousting even the demand for more reprisals on Germany as the principal topic of letters.'
  • 20 September: the following subjects have an almost equal share of letters received: 'Reprisals on Germany; Deeper air-raid shelters wanted; and Post Office failure during air raids'.
  • 21 September: 'More than half of hundreds of letters received by The Daily Mail yesterday demanded intense and "indiscriminate" reprisals on Germany for the air raids on Britain.
  • 22 September: 'Correspondence on this subject is becoming increasingly bitter. Many writers blame members of the Government for what they feel to be undue tenderness in this respect.'
  • 23 September: 'Many hundreds of letters are being received insisting on indiscriminate bombing of Berlin and other German cities as a reprisal for the raids on London. These demands increase in number and intensity daily. They come from all parts of the country and all classes of the population.'
  • 24 September: 'The average number of letters received daily was more than doubled yesterday by the addition of hundreds demanding ruthless reprisals on German cities for the air attack on London. Many correspondents blame the Air Minister, Sir Archibald Sinclair, for not adopting this policy.'
  • 25 September: 'Seventy-five per cent. of the large number of letters received yesterday demanded ruthless reprisals on Germany. This subject has produced a bigger outpouring of public opinion than any similar topic since the war began. Approximately one in every 80 express a contrary view.'
  • 26 September: 'Demands for unlimited reprisals on German cities rose to 80 per cent. of all the hundreds of letters received yesterday. But there was also an increase in the number who oppose the policy, mainly on the ground that we should not descend to the German level of barbarity. About one in eight oppose.'
  • 27 September: 'Letters concerning indiscriminate air reprisals on Germany again filled more than three-quarters of yesterday's post-bag. About nine in every hundred were in opposition.'
  • 28 September: 'Letters demanding sterner reprisals on Germany still filled the greater part of the postbag yesterday. But an increasing number of writers -- now 25 per cent. -- oppose them, mainly on the ground that Britain must not descend to German levels in fighting this war. None of these "anti" letters have come from the London district.'
  • 30 September: 'Here are some more typical letters from the many hundreds received daily on the subject of reprisals. The latest analysis shows that three out of every four writers demand indiscriminate bombing of Berlin and other German cities.'
  • 1 October: 'Letters demanding ruthless reprisals on Germany still fill three-quarters of the postbag. But the opponents of indiscriminate bombing are increasing in proportion. They number 30 per cent. of the total correspondence on this subject.'
  • 2 October: 'Letters demanding reprisals on Germany, though still in a great majority in the postbag, are becoming less vehement since the reports of R.A.F. raids on Berlin. The steady increase in "anti" opinions continues. Yesterday they rose to one out of every three letters received on the subject.'
  • 3 October: 'Letters demanding reprisals are decreasing in number.'
  • 4 October: 'Apart from reprisals, the principal contents of the postbag are' complaints about shelter policy and the Post Office.
  • 7 October: 'Since the R.A.F. have shown us the right way to upset the enemy's war effort there have been fewer demands for reprisals.'

Only on a couple of days was the topic of reprisals not mentioned at all in the analysis (which doesn't necessarily mean it wasn't there, just that the letters editor decided to talk about something else). While the indiscriminate bombing of Berlin was clearly on readers' minds in the first week or so of the Blitz, there was evidently a huge surge of demand from around 21 September. This volume increased and was maintained for more than a week, although there was also increased opposition from the 'antis', as the Mail described them, though never accounting more than a third of letters on reprisals. And then in early October interest began to wane, which the Mail attributed to recent RAF raids on Germany.

What of other newspapers? The Times generally didn't comment on letters received. But during the Blitz (almost all of them between mid-September and early October) it published fifty-six letters offering an opinion one way or the other: twenty-eight in favour of reprisals and twenty-eight against. As The Times generally tried to publish opinions in proportion to the number received, this suggests that its readers were more evenly divided on the question than were the Mail's. The Manchester Guardian also published many letters on reprisals, although not until mid-October did its flood kick off (with a briefer burst in January 1941). A much higher proportion of those who wrote in to the Guardian wanted reprisal bombing of Germany: thirty-three out of fifty-four, as against twenty-one who did not. The other papers I've looked at either did not regularly publish letters from readers, or else published much more light-hearted ones (the Daily Mirror's letters page functioned mostly as a sort of question and answer service).

This all looks like evidence for strong (if fluctuating) support for reprisals, at least among those people who cared enough to voice their opinion. (A very important qualification.) But what about the possibility of editorial bias? you ask. I'll discuss that in another post.

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  1. All of these quotes are from page 3 of the relevant issue.[]

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