All in this together? The ‘Blitz spirit’ myth
In the first of a series of articles on ‘war, global crises and working-class struggle’, Chris Holmes exposes the myth of class unity during the World War Two.
The ‘spirit of the Blitz’ has often been evoked during the current Covid-19 crisis. It presents a reassuring image of a British national characteristic – a plucky nation united in the face of adversity, keeping calm and carrying on because we are all in it together.
However, this is a myth that does not reflect the true experiences of working-class people during WW2. Moreover, those experiences reflect the inequalities we face in the present coronavirus crisis.
Even before the war had started, military strategists had developed theories of bombing cities to break civilian morale and the will to fight, thereby avoiding the horrors of the war of attrition seen in the trenches of World War One. At the same time, governments in the late 1930s started to develop civil-defence systems.
However, these ‘air raid precautions’ were far from being the same for everyone. In the West End of London, hotels and private member clubs installed deep bomb-proof shelters.
Following the Munich crisis in 1938, the Conservative-led government developed Anderson shelters that provided some protection if installed in a suburban garden. However, provisions for those Londoners living in overcrowded tenement buildings in the East End were virtually non-existent.
When the regular nightly bombing of London began in the autumn of 1940 – known as the Blitz – working-class Eastenders took matters into their own hands.
Most memorably, in a campaign led by the Communist Party, a group of Eastenders occupied the Savoy Hotel one evening, along with its deep shelter, to highlight the inequalities of ‘civil defence’.
Trotskyists of the Workers’ International League (forerunners of the Militant Tendency and today’s Socialist Party) initiated a campaign to open up the deep tube lines for air raid shelters. They encouraged the public to break open the chained tube station gates (which were locked at 11pm) and occupy the stations. This proved to be popular.
And the government was forced to turn many of the stations over to use as shelters for the rest of the war.
Nonetheless, 43,000 civilians were killed in the Blitz, most of them in the crowded working-class districts. Resentment at the inequality of protection was such that when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited the bomb-damaged East End they were actually booed.
Prime Minister Churchill had also been booed when visiting the area. Perhaps that’s why when 173 people were killed in an air raid when sheltering in Bethnal Green Tube station he hushed up the tragedy.
Much propaganda was made of the fact that the royal family had chosen to stay in London rather than seek the safety of Canada, as was suggested at one point. However, in truth, they may have been in Buckingham Palace by day, but they spent each night in Windsor Castle away from the main bombing targets.
Queen Elizabeth famously claimed after Buckingham Palace had been bombed that “now she could look the East End in the face”. But, in reality, only some outhouses in the palace were damaged, and the royal family were far away!
Inequality extended to the routines of daily life. While ordinary families struggled to feed themselves with the food available under rationing, for the rich, life often continued as normal. Foreign visitors to London were amazed at the quality of food still available in West End hotels, and a new popular term ‘Ritz-krieg’ was coined.
Similarly, campaigns to grow vegetables in gardens and to keep chickens helped supplement the diet of the suburban middle classes, but provided little help in the overcrowded East End.
In such circumstances, it is not surprising that many took matters into their own hands. The black market thrived, and between 1940 and 1942 there was a crime wave as full advantage was taken of the blackout and abandoned bombed-out houses.
Despite this, there were remarkable acts of altruism and heroism as communities pulled together. Childcare was shared, and bombed out families were taken in by their neighbours. Tens of thousand volunteered for organisations such as the Auxiliary Fire Service, Red Cross, Air Raid Precautions (ARP) and Civil Defence rescue.
Despite the horrors of nightly bombing, and later in the war the V2 rocket attacks, a significant defeatist attitude never developed among the communities which were suffering most from these attacks.
In fact, the only incidence of defeatism, ironically, came from the aristocratic circle around Tory politician Lord Halifax. After the fall of France in 1940, he argued for a negotiated peace with Nazi Germany on the basis that the British Empire was left alone.
The solidarity and determination that working-class communities displayed during the blitz did not come largely from abstract ideas of patriotism. Instead, just as is happening at the moment with the Covid crisis, communities pulled together in instinctive acts of class solidarity.
This was not a uniquely British phenomenon arising from the supposedly national characteristic of ‘bulldog stoicism’.
To the surprise of British strategists, who believed that a campaign of bombing German cities would break enemy morale, in Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin the same ‘spirit of the Blitz’ was displayed by German working-class communities. These suffered approximately ten times the level of civilian casualties suffered by the bombing of British cities.
The ‘spirit of the Blitz’ was a contrived piece of wartime government propaganda. Even the iconic photograph that summed this up – showing ‘business as usual’ – was notoriously staged; the ‘milkman’ was actually the photographer’s own assistant who had borrowed a uniform.
The propaganda campaign had a two-fold purpose. Firstly, to maintain civilian support for the war effort – although this was largely unnecessary. The nowadays much quoted ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ campaign was, in fact, never used in wartime. Market research showed that people found it patronising and offensive, and so it was never actually implemented.
Secondly, the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ was evoked as means of securing support for the USA’s entry into the war.
The classic propaganda film ‘London can take it’ presented a narrative of an undaunted Britain willing to fight on alone. It was produced for an American audience by the Ministry of Information in 1940, at the time of Britain’s lowest point in the war, and played a significant part in swaying public opinion before the attack on Pearl Harbour.
Then, as now, working people did not need patronising lectures about their communal spirit. Altruism and solidarity were instinctive reactions in the context of common struggle. What they needed was practical support and a genuinely equal experience of the crisis – which of course the government was unable to provide.