Vox pops — IV

Another source of information about public opinion on reprisals during the Blitz is hearsay -- what people reported that other people thought. This can give us an insight into contemporary judgements of the public mood. But, as with letters to the editor, hearsay is highly problematic too. It's only possible to get a good grasp on what other people think if you mix with them and talk to them (the 'everyone is complaining about how difficult it is to find servants this year' problem). So the insights may apply only to fairly narrow sections of the community. More dangerously, it's a common rhetorical trick to claim that what you think is what 'everyone' thinks, that what you're saying is what 'everyone' is saying. So as with letters to the editor, I find such claims more persuasive when they go against the grain, when someone admits that they are going against the majority. But if the overall picture points one way, that has evidentiary value too.

And, as it turns out, the majority of hearsay statements I've found claimed that other people wanted reprisals. Some of these very clearly only apply to small numbers of people. For example, H. H. G. Lewis, a young man from Southwark in London, wrote to the Daily Mirror to say that 'I and four friends are of the opinion that we bomb Germany in "retaliation" for what has been done here' (6 September 1940, 5). Usually, however, they were broader than that. Thus George E. Leon to The Times (27 September 1940, 9):

Among my many friends and acquaintances I have not met one who does not advocate retaliation. In my experience everybody is longing for it.

Sir George's 'many friends and acquaintances' were likely to be from the upper crust: he was writing from Warfield House in Berkshire (and his previous address was the rather more famous Bletchley Park). One more example: F. J. H. of Manchester claimed to have the pulse of the people (Manchester Guardian, 2 November 1940, 4):

I go about a good deal and talk to many people, and I feel sure that if a plebiscite were taken there would be an overwhelming majority in favour of reprisals.

By contrast, it's difficult to find the opposite viewpoint. But not actually impossible. J. R. Lumb wrote to The Times to say (3 October 1940, 7):

In recent weeks I have had occasion to meet and talk with some hundreds of the poor and homeless in London's inner suburbs [...] No one has spoken of defeat; no one has uttered a word of complaint; and no one, among those who have lost home and relatives, has used the word "reprisal" or its equivalent.

Lumb gave his address as 'The Rectory, Chislehurst, Kent' and presumably it was in his capacity as a cleric that he got to chat with London's poor. Perhaps his dog-collar put people off from expressing their more bloodthirsty opinions? (Though several clergymen did in fact use their pulpits to call for reprisals against Germany -- very much in the minority, I would guess.) Or perhaps they had other things on their minds, like finding somewhere to sleep or getting a hot meal.

Was there anyone swimming against the tide? Yes, although not among letter-to-the-editor-writers as far as I can tell. It was generally columnists and editors opposing reprisal bombing who would admit that public opinion was running the other way. Man O' The People, who had a weekly column in People, did this on several occasions. For example, the following was published on 29 October 1940 (6):

Bereaved and homeless people go from shelter to shelter, from temporary refuge to communal kitchen.

Their past is buried in the wreckage of their homes; their present is one of discomfort and danger; their future is on the lap of the gods.

From the depths of their feelings comes a cry for vengeance on those who have unleashed from the air the forces of destruction and terrorism.

It is a human cry, a natural reaction to the suffering which has spread like a blight over the bombed areas.

He adds:

THE writer cannot find in his heart the right to deny the fundamental justice of the demand that German cities and towns should be bombed without discrimination as our centres of population have been bombed.

But the question is not so simple as that.

He then goes on to argue that, at least 'at present', it would be better to continue bombing military objectives as the RAF is doing, while admitting that 'Such words bring little comfort to those whose clamour for vengeance grows daily in intensity'. The fact that this writer felt the need to tiptoe very carefully around the reprisals question, explaining how he was fully in sympathy with those who wanted German civilians to suffer too, shows that he felt that this was in fact a widely-held feeling among People readers, at any rate. (Though we don't necessarily need to believe him when he says that it's the bombed-out people who were crying for vengeance; it might be that this was an assumption on his part.)

There are other bits and pieces from diarists, Home Intelligence reports and the like. Here's one, a quote from Harold Nicolson's diary entry for 17 October 1940:

Robert Cary makes a long dissertation about how the public demand the unrestricted bombardment of Germany as reprisals for raids on London. Winston takes a long sip at his port gazing over the glass at Cary. 'My dear sir,' he says, 'this a military and not a civilian war. You and others may desire to kill women and children. We desire (and have succeeded in our desire) to destroy German military objectives. I quite appreciate your point. But my motto is "Business before Pleasure".'1

'Winston' is of course the Prime Minister, Cary a parliamentary private secretary, and the sparring between them took place in the MP's smoking room at Westminster. Note that Cary's claim about what 'the public' wanted was not denied by Churchill (or by Nicolson).

So from all this I conclude that there was a widespread perception during the early part of the Blitz, at least, that the British public wanted reprisals. Perception is not necessarily reality, but here it's another piece of the puzzle.

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  1. The quote is from Nigel Nicolson, ed, The Harold Nicolson Diaries 1907-1963 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004). []

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