Vox pops — III

In my previous post I identified three newspapers which published extended correspondence from their readers about reprisals during the Blitz -- The Times, the Manchester Guardian and the Daily Mail -- one of which provided its own analyses of all the letters it received -- the Mail. To try and assess whether these newspapers might have let their own biases on the subject of reprisals influence their selection and/or analysis of the letters they chose to publish (e.g. if the newspaper was pro-reprisals, perhaps pro-reprisal letters were more likely to be published), I'm now going to look at their editorial positions.

Between August 1940 and May 1941, The Times published ten leading articles on the question of reprisals, eight of them before December. These generally opposed to reprisals as such. This is from 26 August (5):

Our bombers have long been attacking military objectives in Germany and German-occupied territory every day and every night; if it becomes necessary to our programme their attacks will be accentuated. But their operations must be based on carefully planned strategy in the future as they have been in the past.

After the start of the Luftwaffe's onslaught on London, The Times stated its position more explicitly (19 September 1940, 5):

Certain correspondents have urged the diversion of our offensive to reprisal bombing. They are responding to a very natural impulse, but (apart from any other consideration) they are advocating what, at least for the moment, would be a far less effective strategy. It is infinitely better to destroy the places and plant which are the industrial background of the German forces than the houses where the industrial workers live [...] unlike the Germans, we shall put first things first in our strategy.

So it was against bombing German civilians, and took this line fairly consistently throughout late 1940. But note that qualification 'for the moment'. The Times was not opposed to reprisals on moral grounds, only on practical grounds. It never advocated reprisals against German cities during the Blitz, but it did approve of a British threat of reprisals against Rome. From 19 April 1941 (5):

Information has been received that the Germans and Italians are preparing bombing attacks upon Athens and Cairo, cities which are full of the monuments of ancient civilization, priceless possessions of the whole world. In an effort to avert such a catastrophe the Government now warn the enemy that any such attack will be followed promptly by British bombardments of Rome, which will be repeated as long as the war continues.

Indeed, it was even allowed that 'the Nazis might have refrained from some of their worst outrages' if they had known 'that retribution swift and sure would fall upon their own cities'. But this was the only time that The Times supported reprisals during the Blitz, and even then it wasn't for the Blitz. If it was trying to sway public opinion against reprisals by selective publication of letters, it didn't do a very good job since it published pro- and anti- letters in equal numbers.

Now, the Guardian. During the Blitz it published far fewer leading articles on reprisals, just three (one in August and two in September). All were against the idea. The clearest expression of this was published on 10 September (4):

London stands to bravely and under severe ordeal, but we hit back fiercely where the bombs come from. "Reprisal" is a loose term and a vague and unnecessary act. There is no need for it while we continue with our effective assault on ports, railway sidings, oil refineries, and military objectives.

So the Guardian's own position on reprisals was the opposite of the majority of the letters it chose to publish. No sign of bias there. Indeed, its own relative quiet on reprisals might have been for fear of offending its readers.

The story with the Mail is a bit more complex. It initially was firmly against reprisals. On 10 September, its leader explained how the RAF was 'striking remorselessly at the roots of the enemy's power [...] As day follows day and night follows night, HITLER has fewer trained airmen, fewer munition dumps, less oil' (2).

Are these tactics more damaging than a direct attack on the German population? The answer is "Yes."

A few days later, in the Mail's analysis of correspondence received, it remarked that 'Many of the writers have evidently not read the reports of what the R.A.F. have already done and are doing in Germany' (13 September, 3). I take this to mean that if they'd done so, they'd realise that the RAF's strategy was effective and should not be discarded.

But on 24 September, the Mail published a leader under the title 'Reprisals: a call for clear thinking' (3), in which it shifted its position significantly. It began by acknowledging the flood of letters demanding reprisals. While conceding that the Luftwaffe was bombing London indiscriminately, it pointed out that this was inevitable, for in a big city 'the vital services exist side by side with the homes of the people' -- so in bombing military objectives civilians will be killed too.

So it comes to this: under the German conception of total warfare the city itself is the "military objective," and if the bombs fall on the people -- well, that is just too bad for the people.

As it's no use trying to fight 'an all-in wrestler with tactics based on the Queensbury Rules', Britain should employ total war methods as well.

To meet the wishes of the humanitarians, Germany might be clearly warned [...] that if the bombing of so-called "military objectives" in London does not cease, similar targets in Berlin will be destroyed by the R.A.F.

Even though British bombers are more accurate than German ones, 'heavy loss of life' might result. 'This would be unfortunate, but inevitable.'

To announce to the Germans that there will be no reprisals against civilians is telling GORING [sic], "Go ahead, bomb the people of London, we won't bomb the people of Berlin."

Must we give an open cheque to Murder?

So in the space of two weeks it switched from arguing that reprisal bombing would mean slackening the pressure on the German war machine and thus playing Hitler's game to arguing that beating Hitler at his own game is necessary to stop him from playing it (if you see what I mean). This shift came after the rise in demands for reprisals from readers, not before; I think the Mail was influenced by them and not the other way around, and that its published analysis of letters received is trustworthy.

In short, I think the evidence from The Times, Guardian and Mail letters does indicate a strong public demand for reprisals (among those who cared enough about it to write, that is).

A final note: what were the editorial positions on reprisals of other newspapers during the Blitz? The Daily Mirror was strongly in favour of reprisals throughout the Blitz; it claimed to be receiving hundreds of letters in support even in August. But then it asked for its readers to write in demanding reprisals, in a campaign designed to force a change in RAF policy. So I don't know that I trust this, especially since it published very few of them. The Sunday Express was also keen for reprisals, especially its editor John Gordon -- very, very keen, in fact. News of the World was consistently against reprisals; the Observer was too but addressed the topic very infrequently. The Daily Express and People were somewhere in the middle, rejecting reprisals as such, but calling for heavier bombing of German military objectives in cities which they noted would kill more civilians and damage morale anyway. None of these papers published many letters to the editor, if any, but in early October the Daily Express invited for its readers' thoughts after running a pair of contrasting opinion pieces (J. F. C. Fuller against reprisals, J. C. Wedgwood for): it reported that they ran seven to one in favour of reprisals, out of hundreds received.

For my final post in this series I'll look at hearsay.

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6 thoughts on “Vox pops — III

  1. Post author

    Fuller as the voice of reason? It does make sense; in his article he emphasises the need for discipline under fire, not to react emotionally but objectively. Its supposed ability to subjugate the masses like this is one of the things he liked about fascism. Wedgwood's main point was that hitting back would buck up British morale.

  2. Neil Datson

    An interesting paradox indeed. Perhaps the explanation should be sought in their respective backgrounds, rather than their politics. That as a military man Fuller was pragmatic about war, whereas as a civilian Wedgwood was emotive?

    Which thought leads me in to a long mental ramble, concerning the way in which politicians have increasingly dominated in military policy. Between them, French and Fisher broke Asquith's cabinet in 1915. I can't help but suspect that recent British defence/war policy has been predicated on a need for it to look good on the telly.

  3. Post author

    It might not be so simple as civilian/military. Although not a career soldier, Colonel Wedgwood DSO served in both the Boer War and WWI (everywhere from France to Gallipoli to Siberia). It's easy to forget that so many men of his generation had experience of war at the pointy end.

  4. Neil Datson

    Fair response Brett. Perhaps I should have suggested that Fuller was a 'military thinker', and Wedgewood a 'civilian thinker'?

  5. Post author

    Depends on what you mean by those terms! :) I don't know much about Wedgwood. Fuller can surely be classed as a military thinker but then again... the need for discipline was an abiding theme in his writings, and that could come from his decidedly non-military interests in yoga and mysticism too. Or they reinforced each other, more like. Would have to go back to Azar Gat's book for another look.

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