Destroying the Blitz Myth

“The war spoilt my childhood”

                                                                                                     Elaine Pitman

‘We are all in this together’ was a popular saying during the war years, with visions of cheery Londoners singing in the underground, while bombs dropped above ground emphasising the ‘Blitz Spirit’; but was this actually the case, or was this a manufactured myth? 

This essay seeks to examine how the wartime British Home Front has been portrayed over the years, seeking to understand how this sanitised version of history came about. The author will examine how the British Home Front has been portrayed, and visit the work of many authors, including Jose Harris, who paints a somewhat bleaker, and the author suggests, a more realistic view of the Home Front; quoting Malcolm Smith when he suggests that the Blitz Myth was created not as a lie, but rather as a way to bolster morale during Britain’s darkest days.

Using both primary and secondary sources, predominantly from local histories, using the three key themes of aerial bombing, rationing, and evacuation, this essay will discuss how British civilians took the strain during World War Two, (WW2). The author will adopt a regional perspective to these issues, centring on the author’s home county of Devon, in south west England; a region located far from the industrial heartland of Britain, but touched by war all the same. In this way, the author seeks to prove that the wartime experience differed in accordance to location; comparing the almost continuous bombing of the 1940-41 ‘Blitz’ on London, with the ‘Baedeker Blitz’ of 1942-3, and the ‘tip and run’ raids of 1943; thus demonstrating how this intermittent bombing affected the inhabitants of small rural and coastal communities.

Rationing will be contrasted between ‘the cities’ and the mainly self-sufficient rural communities; whilst gaining an insight into the effects that wartime rationing had by using the observations of a colleague of the author, who in 2010 lived a month on the ration of 1942.

The emotive and disturbing wartime experience of evacuation will be discussed, not that of a singular person, but that of an entire community; detailing how the South Hams was evacuated in November 1943,  to enable the region to be used for the training of U.S. troops prior to the (Normandy) D-Day operation, and the horror faced by the inhabitants of the region upon return, not by the damage inflicted by the training; but those heinous crimes of looting and vandalism; thus finally shattering the myth of the Blitz Spirit.  Whilst observing the constraints of word count, in this way the author seeks to explain wow civilians ‘took the strain’ in Britain during WW2.  Finally, the author will draw these arguments together in the conclusion.

World War Two was the first British war in which everyone in the country became involved, and as such,  everyone over a certain age shares that experience; be this as a serviceman, or on the Home Front.  Jose Harris argues that the Home Front during WW2 occupies a unique place in British folk-lore; this being the only time during British history in which the people came together as a metaphysical entity.  The British Broadcasting Corporation, (BBC) played its part in shaping this memory with its excellent twenty-six episode series, ‘The World at War’, (1973-74), and their ‘WW2 People’s War’ online archive of memories of the period. ITV’s Thames Television reinforced this  shared experience of the Blitz with its ‘Danger UXB’ series, (1979).

The ‘Blitz Experience’ at the Imperial War Museum, (IWM), historian Lucy Noakes suggests, was an important medium through which people learnt about the experience of the Home Front; arguing that exhibitions such as this cease to be part of history, and instead have the potential to become part of our shared national heritage. With such an important experience as this, the author questions why it was removed during refurbishments; speculating that the Blitz is becoming less of a shared history as Britain becomes more diverse. 

Jose Harris, however questions this nostalgic myth that is the British Home Front during WW2, and paints a far darker; and the author suggests, a more realistic vision of history.  This more judgemental approach, Harris suggests is brought about by distance and perspective as the war recedes into distant memory, and as private archives open. Malcolm Smith however argues that, ‘the mythwas not intended to mislead the British; it was intended to help them to survive the greatest threat in their national history’.

Whichever view of the wartime experience you choose to adopt, the Home Front is a popular theme for nostalgic events such as ‘Wartime Railway’ weekends. Here  the general public, many of whom did not experience the war, meet re-enactors portraying all the aspects of the Home Front, learning what it was like in a sanitised version of the period; where no-one dies or is mutilated during the  ‘air raids’. The author portrays an RAF Officer on leave at such events, asking people, “Is your journey really necessary”, a popular phrase during the war, when public transport was so strained. The author’s friends portray bombed out housewives, spivs, and even Winston Churchill himself. In order to better understand the wartime experience, in 2010, one friend, an expert on the wartime housewife and ‘make do and mend’, lived a month on the wartime ration of 1942, boosted by home grown vegetables. When interviewed by the author for this essay, she said that following the experience she found it difficult going back to modern sized portions; and that three months later she had a sudden hair loss, diagnosed as her body thinking that she was starving. 

Plans for rationing had been laid as early as 1936, being introduced in 1940 to ensure that everyone was able to buy enough food, regardless of their income. The ration changed throughout the war years; with the sugar ration, for example, being halved at one point. Merchant shipping losses or warehouses being bombed were just two reasons for the variation.  The experience of rationing varied greatly depending on where you lived, with people in rural and coastal areas faring better than those in cities; partly because the ration could be substituted by shooting rabbits or fishing.

Aerial bombing had become a major component of warfare during the Inter-War years; with the vision of aerial delivered carnage being theorised  by Douhet in his work, The Command of the Air, (1921), and portrayed by H.G. Wells, in his 1933 novel, The Shape of Things to Come.   Unlike the Great War, where aerial bombing was concentrated on London and the south east, aircraft performance improvements by WW2 enabled German bombers to range across Britain, spreading death and destruction to every town and city in the country.

However, the author argues that when most people consider ‘The Blitz’, they think of London. A simple search on Google Images reinforces this, with the first page of a search on the topic showing pictures of people huddling together in underground stations and fire-fighting barges draining the river Thames. Connelly observes that, these images define the Blitz, and impart the message of togetherness and solidarity in the face of a powerful enemy; continuing that, ‘what becomes obvious from the visual record is that London is the city of the Blitz; although the author argues that to the people of the regions, the bombing of London seemed far away and unrelated to their experience.

The ‘Blitz’ was generally accepted to have commenced with the bombing of London on 7th September 1940; Connelly stating that it continues to play a large role in our national memory, being something that British people can look at with pride. Major cities around Britain continued to be visited by the Luftwaffe until German strategy changed, with, as Wasley writes, ‘the distinction between industrial centres and dwelling settlements now being insignificant’. In October and November, the Luftwaffe began bombing other cities, continuing until May 1941, when Hitler’s attention was distracted by the assault on Russia. As such, there were no heavy assaults on  Britain during 1942-3; although, as we shall see, minor raids could be equally as devastating for the communities involved.

So named after the popular Baedeker guide books, the ‘Baedeker raids’ from April to June 1942 are typical of these smaller raids; the Luftwaffe seeking to bomb every British city that had been awarded three stars in the books. The cathedral cities of Bath, Norwich, York, Canterbury and Exeter were targeted, with Devon’s capital, Exeter being the first city to be attacked; when on 23 April 1942 twenty-five bombers raided the city. The Luftwaffe returned the following night with an even more devastating raid, and again on the 4th May. During the first raid, Exeter sustained 154 deaths, with a similar number injured, (150), and between 12,000 and 14,000 houses were damaged.

As a home owner, the author cannot comprehend what it must be like to have their home, and all their possessions destroyed by bombing; so a quote from Connelly will have to suffice.  ‘The day the bombs fell on Lenham, an old lady of 80 was found sitting in her house with her gas mask on, a sauce pan on her head, sobbing for all she was worth’. The author believes that they have would been much the same.

Then there were the so called ‘Tip and Run’ raids; where flights of fighter-bomber aircraft, typically Focke-Wulf FW190s or Messerschmitt Me109s, flew at wave top level across the English Channel to avoid radar, continuing inland at low level so as to give the minimum warning of an air raid to their target.  Once the raid was complete, the aircraft would ‘run’ back across the Channel again, leaving little time for the defenders to intercept them.  The entire south coast was affected by these raids, with this lack of warning playing on the nerves of the people in these coastal towns.  On one such occasion, the Bomb Census of a raid on the coastal town of Brixham, Devon recorded that, ‘the fall of bombs preceded siren [sic] by 3 minutes’.

These intermittent raids, as Connelly wrote, had a far deeper effect on morale than in London, where the Luftwaffe visited on a continual basis; because, just when the population thought that it had escaped, the bombers might return.  Connelly quotes a cockney saying that ‘you get used to it’, with Gardiner quoting Londoner, Gwendolen Watts concurring with this, saying, “So that became my life: home from work, have a meal, down the shelter and sleep through it”.

This luxury of routine was one that the coastal towns did not enjoy; and being within easy reach of Luftwaffe bases in northern France, the coastal communities of Devon were plagued by these raids.  The author’s hometown of Torquay experienced fourteen such raids, with one of the most poignant taking place on Sunday 30 May 1943, when twenty-one FW190s raided the town.  During the raid, a bomb exploded on the parish church of St Marychurch, killing or injuring nearly two hundred people including twenty-one children at Sunday school, along with three of their teachers. Three hundred houses were damaged or destroyed.

Peter Anning was a young boy who witnessed the raid, having written several accounts of his experiences as he was growing up in Torquay; showing that every region of the country was affected by the war.  Peter did not think that anyone imagined what the war would mean in this secluded, non-industrialised corner of Britain. He says, that he saw many of the Tip and Run raids on Torquay, but remembers the St Marychurch raid the most vividly. Peter said that he heard the sound of gunfire and bombs exploding; and then heard the warning siren. As with the raid on Brixham, previously mentioned, this suggests to the author the surprise of these raids, achieved by the low level and fast speed of the raiders. Peter’s daughter, who learned of her father’s experiences from his diaries, commented that, ‘Even though the incidents of attack and damage were less frequent than some other regions of the country, the horror and upset to daily lives is still very palpable’.

Titmuss, concurs with this in his work, ‘The Arithmetic of Stress’, saying thatthese small raids left behind many problems of broken villages, shattered schools and isolated distress.

Firmly destroying the myth that during the war, ‘we were all in it together’,  Harris wrote, ‘unanimity against Hitler was one thing, however: social solidarity and brotherly love towards fellow citizens is quite another;’ citing that indictable offences rose from 305,114 in 1940, to 478,394 in 1945. Female criminal convictions almost doubled, and juvenile delinquency increased by 60-70%. These figures suggest to the author a less rosy picture of the Home Front than the ‘Blitz myth’; with this additional crime wave adding to the strain on civilians. 

With the world once more in crisis, the author questions how history will record the present? Will there be a rosy ‘Virus myth’ created too; just like the ‘Blitz myth’; or will it be more akin to Harris’s more gloomy version?  Only time will tell.

Mindful of the constrained word count, this essay sought to investigate a topic that in itself could fill an entire library; that of examining how British civilians took the strain during WW2. The author has examined how the experience of war is remembered and its historiography; and through some of these works has concluded that the much praised Blitz Spirit was itself a myth, perpetrated not as a lie, but as propaganda aimed at helping the British people to get through its darkest hour.

Using both primary and secondary material, mainly from local history texts, the author discussed three key themes of wartime Britain; these being aerial bombing, rationing and evacuation.  The author examined and compared the, all but constant bombing of London, with the intermittent bombing of the ‘Baedeker’ and ‘tip and run’ raids. Using the raids on Brixham, Torquay and Aveton Gifford in the author’s home county, they demonstrated that these raids often happened before the air raid sirens sounded; arguing that these raids were far more nerve wrenching than those in London, which became almost routine to the inhabitants; whilst this luxury of routine was denied to those living in coastal areas.

Rationing was discussed, using personal observation from one of the author’s friends, who lived a month on the ration of 1942; arguing that rationing had less impact in rural and coastal areas due to opportunities to supplement the ration.

Citing Connelly and Harris amongst other works, the author questions whether the Blitz is itself still part of Britain’s shared memory as the country becomes ever more diverse; quoting the removal of the IWM’s ‘Blitz Experience’ exhibit, described by historian Lucy Noakes as having the potential to become part of our shared national heritage.  That authors such as Connelly argue that the Blitz is something that the British people can be proud of is questioned in this essay, not only due to the diverse nature of twenty-first century Britain, with a considerable portion of its inhabitants having experience of war, but not of Britain’s war; but also due to the increase in crime during the period.  The author questions the myth of the Blitz Spirit by citing crime statistics through the period in which indictable offences saw a massive increase, with crimes by women almost doubling and juvenile delinquency rocketing. The devastating looting and vandalism that awaited the returning, evacuated  inhabitants of the South Hams added further weight to this argument.

Originating from Devon, the author used a regional perspective throughout the essay, in an attempt to quantify their argument, that, the experience of wartime Britain varied depending upon one’s location. They argued that when people think of the Blitz, they think of the London bombing; demonstrating this with a simple search on Google Images, corroborated by Connelly’s statement that ‘these images define the Blitz’; whilst the author argues that to the people of the regions, the bombing experience of London seemed remote and very different to their own. 

The final section of this essay demonstrated the strain endured by residents of the South Hams region during and after their evacuation for the creation of the UK Battle Training Area. Residents had only six weeks to evacuate this fertile area; and upon returning discovered that many homes that had not been destroyed by the military training had been looted and vandalised. This firmly destroying the myth of the Blitz Spirit.