Reprisals

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In my reprisals article I argue that historians have, for the most part, underestimated popular support during the Blitz for counterbombing of German cities. I think Tom Harrisson, both during the war as head of Mass-Observation and after as author of Living Through the Blitz, had a lot to do with this. But there were no doubt other vectors. One is the contemporary psychological literature. In a discussion of the psychological effects of what he terms 'punishment' or Douhet-style bombing, Robert Pape argues that, as opposed to heavy punishment,

light punishment produces popular anger toward the attacker and, often, demands for reprisals [...] in both World Wars, British civilians who had not experienced heavy air attacks were more likely to favor an aggressive 'Bomb Berlin' policy than those who had.1

This is actually perfectly correct -- as far as it goes: people in blitzed areas were less likely to want reprisals than those in non-blitzed areas. As long as it is understood that a majority of people in blitzed areas still wanted reprisals (or at most were equally split on the question), which is what's usually forgotten.

Now Pape, who is not a historian but a political scientist, doesn't draw on Harrisson or other secondary sources for this point, but instead cites two scientific articles published shortly after the Blitz. So what do they say? The first is by Robert H. Thouless, a psychology lecturer at Cambridge, and appeared in Nature in August 1941. Most of the article is actually about the psychological problems among evacuated children and mothers, but towards the end he discusses the effects of air raids themselves. Here he says:

It was interesting to notice that while people in the most heavily raided areas were more critical and more depressed, they were nevertheless more active in A.R.P. work and saved more money than in less raided areas. They were also more inclined to reject the idea that we should undertake reprisal raids on German towns.2

Again this is probably fine as a general statement. But Thouless doesn't give a source other than 'Investigations in heavily raided areas other than London'.3 Moreover, he was reporting not on his own research but on a general discussion at a British Psychological Society meeting. As scientific evidence we should perhaps not place too much weight on it.

Pape's second source is P. E. Vernon, an education psychologist working at the University of Glasgow. In an much more substantial article than Thouless's (though with the same title!) published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in October 1941, Vernon drew on reports from more than fifty doctors and psychologists for their observations of the effect of bombing on the population at large, a methodology which he admitted to be not particularly scientific. But for his remarks on reprisals he appears not to have used this data:

Several surveys, including a Gallup poll, show that heavily bombed people are not generally in favor of reprisals. Rather it would seem that the comparatively safe urge the 'Bomb Berlin' policy.4

The 'Gallup poll' is presumably the BIPO opinion poll published in May. The other 'surveys' may include Mass-Observation data, since he says 'The most extensive investigations [of the psychological effects of bombing], most of whose results cannot be published until after the war, are those of T. Harrisson's organization -- Mass Observation'.5 If they did privately share data and ideas, Harrisson's influence may explain why Vernon misinterpreted the BIPO data, since it actually shows that heavily bombed people were, if anything, generally in favour of reprisals.


  1. Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996), 26; emphasis in original. 

  2. Robert H. Thouless, 'Psychological effects of air raids", Nature (16 August 1941), 184-5. 

  3. Ibid., 184. 

  4. P. E. Vernon, 'Psychological effects of air-raids', Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 36 (1941), 469. 

  5. Ibid., 457. 

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One painful lesson I learned while seeing my Blitz reprisals article through to press was to stick. To. The. Bloody. Word. Limit! The article as accepted was well over and as a result I caused myself and the editors much grief while we worked to cut it down to an acceptable size. Never again.

Because they stood somewhat apart from the main argument of the article, the first cut I made was to delete two paragraphs addressing Tom Harrisson's theory, in his (generally invaluable) 1978 book Living Through the Blitz, about the demands by the British press for reprisals, which is effectively a conspiracy theory insinuating press manipulation as cover for Bomber Command's area bombing policy. Harrisson was co-founder and wartime head of Mass-Observation, and I think one of the main vectors of the idea that the British people didn't want reprisal bombing of German civilians, especially if they'd been bombed themselves (which as I argue in the article itself is, at best, misleading). In the first deleted paragraph I showed why his conspiracy theory doesn't make sense, and in the second I more tentatively (and much less convincingly, I think) gestured towards an explanation of why he came up with it. In relation to the published article, these paragraphs came just before the conclusion on page 406, and after the discussion of examples from the Mass-Observation archives of exactly the sorts of spontaneous demands of reprisals in blitzed areas that Harrisson explicitly denied ever happened. So these two paragraphs were also intended to help explain why he misrepresented the evidence in this way.

Since they stand on their own fairly well (the reference to Marchant is to the article she published from Coventry), I thought it worth posting the deleted paragraphs here, as a sort of teaser for the real article. I haven't changed the text, except to expand the bibliographic references.
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My peer-reviewed article '"Bomb back, and bomb hard": debating reprisals during the Blitz' has just been published in the Australian Journal of Politics and History, an invited submission for a special issue on the topic 'War and Peace, Barbarism and Civilization in Modern Europe and Its Empires'. It can be downloaded from here. Here's the abstract:

In Britain, popular memory of the Blitz celebrates civilian resistance to the German bombing of London and other cities, emphasising positive values such as stoicism, humour and mutual aid. But the memory of such passive and defensive traits obscures the degree to which British civilian morale in 1940 depended on the belief that if Britain had to 'take it', then Germany was taking it as hard or harder. Contrary to the received historical account, opinion polls, Home Intelligence reports and newspaper letter columns show that a majority of the British supported the reprisal bombing of German civilians by Bomber Command. The wartime reprisals debate was the logical legacy of prewar assumptions about the overwhelming power of bombing; but it has been forgotten because it contradicts the myth of the Blitz.

I'll put up a self-archived version here in a year (if I remember!)

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Well, not really, because it didn't exist. But never let the facts get in the way of a good title, I say. But it does mean I have to explain what I mean.

The real V-weapons developed and used by Germany in the Second War War were the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 ballistic missile, which are well known, and the V-3 multi-chamber cannon which is not. About ten thousand V-1s were launched towards London between June and October 1944; by the time their launch sites had been overrun by the Allied forces in France the longer-ranged V-2 was in operation, and was used to bombard London and south-east England until 27 March 1945. (The last V-1 strike on Britain was actually two days later; this was a long-range variant.) The V-3 was never fired at London but two smaller-scale versions were used against Luxembourg.

V-weapon is from the German Vergeltungswaffe: reprisal weapon. Their use against London was intended as a reprisal for the British bombing of German cities. This was something that had been threatened by Nazi propaganda many times. For example, after the start of Bomber Command's campaign against Berlin in November 1943, a spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry said:

Germany will now use her secret weapon as revenge for the R.A.F. raids.1

On the one hand, Germany did not 'now use her secret weapon' on this occasion, nor on most of the others when similar threats were issued. On the other, it did have secret reprisal weapons in development and they were eventually used. The threats were not completely empty, but their constant repetition made them dubious.

One of the last of these threats emerged in late February 1945 and involved a so-called death ray (and an offensive use at that, not a defensive one as I have argued is more characteristic of the concept):

Latest German secret weapon is a V-bomb which, will release 'death-rays' sound waves of very high frequency which decompose living tissue -- reports Stockholm correspondent of the British United Press.

Hundreds of these bombs, it is reported, are being built in underground factories.

Germans in Berlin and Stockholm are now mysteriously hinting that they will use these bombs if the Germans still retain their V-bases east of the Rhine.2

Other reports suggested that 'the middle of March' had been set 'as the launching date for the new bomb'.3 It sounds like the idea was that the V-bomb would replace the high explosive warhead of the V-2, which was still in action.

Note that these death rays are actually sound waves, which is unusual as they tend to be described as some form of electromagnetic radiation. Apparently Germany did experiment with sonic weapons but it's hard to see how a sound bomb could work as described here. There were other possibilities for superscientific weapons: a rather good newspaper article about the sound bombs also discusses alpha rays, electron rays and dirty bombs in addition to electromagnetic death rays (including radio or 'Hertzian' waves), and notes rumours about German and Japanese research.4

Oddly, this article was published in Australia, as were all of the press reports I've cited here. It's actually quite hard to find references to German death rays in the British press. Perhaps censorship is the reason, whether official or self (though many of the vaguer reprisal threats were published). Or maybe it's just that Australian newspapers weren't hit so hard by newsprint shortages (most British newspapers were mere shadows of their prewar selves by this time) so needed more filler material. Maybe it was simply thought too ridiculous. But the sound bomb death ray threat did make its way to the British people somehow, as the diary entry of London woman Ruby Thompson for 9 March 1945 attests:

Hitler promises to annihilate us with a Death Ray after March 15 He is supposed to have visited Berlin today, which we have bombed now for seventeen nights in succession. Oh, this war! Who will survive it!

Whether she or anyone else believed the death ray threat is hard to say. But with the V-2s still raining down it would have been hard to dismiss completely out of hand.


  1. Advocate (Burnie), 26 November 1943, 1

  2. Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 27 February 1945, 1

  3. Mail (Adelaide), 10 March 1945, 6

  4. Ibid. 

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Yorkshire Post, 1 June 1942, 1

Picking up where I left off nearly a month ago, let's turn to the reaction of the provincial press to the thousand bomber raid on Cologne on the night of 30 May 1942. The Yorkshire Post's main front page story on 1 June 1942 (above) concentrated on the operation itself. It claimed that 'CONSIDERABLY more than 1,000 R.A.F. bombers -- probably 1,250 aircraft' -- were involved, which is one of highest estimates I've seen after the Daily Mirror's 'MORE THAN 1,500' (of course, the true number was little over a thousand). In tactical terms, 'The plan for saturating the defences of Cologne was an undoubted success':

'We had the guns absolutely foxed,' a pilot said. Hundreds of others had the same report to make. Nightfighters were seen, but never enough to interfere with the attack.

An accompanying article by the paper's military correspondent added that 'The Germans were out-manœuvred at interception work [...] the Luftwaffe, short of fighters, failed'. The first leading article (2) pointed out that RAF losses, at 44 aircraft, were proportionately lower than those suffered by the Luftwaffe in its most recent raids ('on east and south-east coastal areas on Friday [29 May] night'), 7 out of 50.
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Daily Mirror, 1 June 1942, 1

Operation Millennium was the RAF's first 'thousand bomber raid', on Cologne on the night of 30 May 1942. By making a maximum effort and by using aircraft and aircrews from training units (since the Admiralty did not consent to the diversion of Coastal Command aircraft), Air Vice-Marshal Harris was able to scrounge a total of 1047 bombers, more than twice the usual number Bomber Command alone was able to field on any given night. While the intention was certainly to hurt Germany and to try out new tactics, Millennium was mostly a propaganda operation -- hence the otherwise arbitrary choice of the magic thousand. Since the heavy April raids on Lübeck and Rostock had gained very favourable press coverage, Harris wanted to follow up with a very big show indeed. So while I wasn't able to do the full post-blog of Millennium (or rather the second round of Baedeker raids which it provoked), here I will at least scan the British press reaction to see how successful Harris was in achieving his domestic objectives.
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So in case it isn't obvious by now, my most recent bout of post-blogging covered the period of the Baedeker Blitz, a series of Luftwaffe raids against English cities (unlike in the Blitz proper, there were no targets in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) between 23 April and 3 May 1942. The individual blitzes were:

23 April: Exeter
24 April: Exeter
25 April: Bath
26 April: Bath
27 April: Norwich
29 April: Norwich and York
3 May: Exeter

These were reprisals in return for RAF raids on Lübeck and later also Rostock. (There was a second phase from 31 May to 6 June 1942, three raids on Canterbury in response to the thousand bomber raid on Cologne, which I might or might not get around to doing in a few weeks' time.) In addition, there were smaller snap raids by fighter-bombers nipping across the Channel, though these don't seem to have been considered part of the Baedeker raids by the press.
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Yorkshire Post, 5 May 1942, 1

Some good news from Burma, or at least less bad than usual. The Yorkshire Post reports that, although still retreating, Allied forces 'have successfully evaded the enemy attempt to cut them off in the Mandalay area' (1). The British have been divided from the Chinese, however, with the former retreating up the Chindwin and the latter up the Irrawaddy. The paper's military correspondent gives credit to General Alexander's 'skilful manœuvring' in avoiding encirclement, but also praises the 'valour' of Chinese soldiers after the fall of Lashio, who 'got across the path of the [Japanese] armoured brigade and even drove its tanks back with losses' and thereby gave the British time to make good their retreat. But the task is before Alexander now, 'one of the hardest ever set before a commander', to retire northwest without being engaged by the Japanese, to link up again with Chinese forces in the north, and 'to avoid being driven on India'. The Manchester Guardian's first leading article today admits that 'Japan's campaign in Burma is now almost won', at least 'the fine delaying actions fought by our troops have given India a previous four months for making ready' (4).
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Daily Express, 2 May 1942, 1

All the newspapers today carry news of the meeting between Hitler and Mussolini in Salzburg; only the Daily Express leads with it. Its angle is that there is 'STRONG evidence' that the two dictators agreed that Italy would sent 'a large part' of its army to Russia, while Germany would send 'thousands' of its soldiers to Italy (1). Two possible explanations are given for this apparently contrary strategy: 'A coming extension of the Mediterranean Front', or 'to prevent any chance of armed insurrection by the Italian Army'. The Italian people are said to be 'thoroughly discontented with their acutely depressed conditions' and so Mussolini has given his prefects 'supreme powers to deal with "possible future difficulties of an urgent nature"' (his own words), and the Gestapo is now in control of the Italian police. Where Morley Richards, the author of this piece, gets his information from is not clear; none of the other papers make the same claims. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding the meeting are rather 'mysterious'; the Yorkshire Press asks why Japan apparently was not represented and was not mentioned in the final communique -- even though the only public reference to the meeting beforehand was a garbled one in a Tokyo newspaper (1).
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The Times, 30 April 1942, 4

Most newspapers in my sample today lead with the further grim news from Burma (the Japanese army has now reached the suburbs of Lashio) but The Times chooses to go with the latest Bomber Command raids on Kiel and, for the second night running, Trondheim, both the locations of key German warships (4):

The heavier force was directed against the strongly defended naval base of Kiel, where the Scharnhorst is believed to still be in dock after her dash from Brest. The Tirpitz, Scheer, and Prinz Eugen are thought to be based on Trondheim, while a cruiser of the Hipper class has been in the locality, though she may not be there now.

These latter ships are 'a definite threat to our communications with north Russia and in the Atlantic'. While 'the Air Ministry makes no definite claim to have damaged the ships', in the case of Trondheim stronger than usual explosions were heard on the Swedish frontier, which suggests 'a bomb must have hit some explosive target; the explosion of even the biggest bomb could not in itself have caused such an effect'.
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