Putting it together

Since my AAEH talk is in four days, I'd better start actually putting the pieces I've scattered over this blog together into something (ideally) coherent which can be presented in 20 minutes (with 10 for questions). So here's a stab at a plan:

  1. First thing is to explain what I'm talking about: the public debate about reprisal bombing of German cities during (and for) the Blitz, especially September and October 1940. A definition of reprisals would be useful here; here's a contemporary one from A. L. Goodhart, What Acts of War are Justifiable? (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), 25:

    The essence of reprisals is that if one belligerent deliberately violates the accepted rules of warfare then the other belligerent, for the sake of protecting himself, may resort by way of retaliation to measures which, in ordinary circumstances, would be illegal.

    That's a legal definition; it excludes the desire for mere revenge as illegitimate, but of course this was an important motivation for many.

  2. Next comes the problem: I will discuss the existing historiography on the reprisals debate, showing that the consensus is that the British people did not demand reprisals, and those who did weren't the ones who were bombed. (Only Mark Connelly differs on this point to any substantial degree.) I think this is wrong; in fact the desire for reprisals predominated at least among those who cared enough to voice their opinion, and possibly among the population as a whole, if only slightly.
  3. Now on to the first of the important bits: the shape of the reprisals debate. I'll discuss the two major axes of opinion: morality and effectiveness, and give some examples. I'll also point to an important subset of the reprisals demand, reprisals after notice. And I will show that the near-universal assumption was that Bomber Command was capable of carrying out precise and devastating air raids.
  4. The second of the important bits: assessing how popular the demand for reprisals actually was. Here I will discuss the BIPO opinion poll data, letters to the editor, and hearsay, setting these in the context of the editorial positions of the newspapers concerned. These lines of evidence all point towards public opinion being in favour of reprisals.
  5. Now to explain it all, largely in terms of pre-war ideas (which wartime reporting had done little to change by this point), with reference to the previous war, the knock-out blow theory, the bomber will always get through and air control. Essentially, the pre-war belief in the power of the bomber was the reason why there was a debate about reprisals at all; if it had been realised just how weak Bomber Command really was the question would not have arisen.
  6. Finally, to sum up: overall the British people, I believe, did want reprisal bombing during the Blitz. Any questions?

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8 thoughts on “Putting it together

  1. Just a thought ... one of the things that has struck me about your Blitz research is that what is now seen as *the* watershed date of September 7, 1940, didn't loom nearly so prominently in the minds of contemporaries. To them, the indiscriminate German bombing of civilians had already begun weeks before; and calls for reprisals were IIRC already being made in the press. So rather than the public being reluctant to consider reprisal bombing, they (or a subsection of them) were demanding it even before we now consider the Blitz proper to have begun.

  2. Post author

    Thanks, good idea! I already have a slide up with fuzzy dates for the Blitz ('autumn 1940-spring 1941') but that's a point I can and should make more explicitly.

  3. Neil Datson

    If you can (retrospectively) find a watershed date - or at least a watershed season - can it be explained in the following way?

    In the post-Dunkirk period the British were preoccupied (wholly unreasonably in my view, see comments ad nauseam, okay I'll shut up now) with the invasion threat. September was the watershed month, and it became clear to everybody that any such threat had passed until late spring 1941. Maybe the reprisal debate couldn't really get going before the invasion threat had passed. And, the question was beginning to be asked: if we weren't going to defeat them on the beaches, how were we going to defeat them?

    There was an important shift after the invasion threat had passed, because people had to start thinking of the war in a different way.

  4. Chris Williams

    I'd like to see evidence that the MOTCO (as opposed to, say, the Admiralty) thought that the invasion threat was over in Nov 40.

    Overall - this looks good. The trick will be to squeeze into the time.

  5. Neil Datson

    Fair enough. 'Clear to everybody' wasn't the best way to put it. But clear to those with a broad grasp of the military realities, which included the newspapers' military correspondents etc. Understanding was filtering through, and the invasion threat was ceasing to be war topic A.

  6. Ian Astley

    This is perhaps tangential to current concern but having read quite a bit of this site and gone through a couple of your publications, it may be of interest in related endeavours for you to know that there was some discussion in The Strand Magazine leading up to The Great War. I recall one article on the bombing threat to London which was published in, I think, 1910. I will post the reference when I dig it out of my pile of archived notes. Even more tangentially, there was an article on ballooning in warfare in the same publication quite a while before that, even: Knight, Charles, "War Ballooning", Strand Magazine, 10 (July 1895), pp. 309--12.

    Thanks for putting your work and your thoughts up for all to see!


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  8. Post author

    Neil, Chris:

    Yes, that's partly what I think happened, which expands a bit on something I concluded in my thesis, that the blitzkrieg (ie. combined knock-out blow/invasion) threat was over, as far as the press was concerned, by late September/early October. But the reprisals debate also turns up right after the start of the Blitz, and before even; and flared up again (to a lesser degree) in spring 1941 when Greece, Crete, etc happened. So thinking about reprisals also took place when the war was going badly. Perhaps the debates were qualitatively different at such times, but I'm not sure the evidence would allow me to detect that.


    Thanks for the reference, I'm always interested in other periods no matter my current focus! In fact I'm looking forward to doing a bit of WWI research for a change...

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