As Britain commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain Neil Faulkner looks at the hidden history of the Second World War and finds a war shaped by class struggle and anti-fascism.

Second World War poster

Britain is awash with Second World War commemoration as we hit the 70th anniversary of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, and the start of the Blitz. As usual, we are being invited to believe that we were ‘all in it together’. Invoking ‘the spirit of the Blitz’ is a hackneyed device of politicians with a right-wing agenda. In fact, one of the most striking things about the Summer and Autumn of 1940 is the contested nature of the war.

Half the British establishment wanted to surrender. The Tory benches in the House of Commons were packed with ‘appeasers’. Churchill, though solidly right-wing and a rabid imperialist, was a maverick viewed with deep suspicion by large sections of his own party and the wider ruling class.

He had spent the 1930s ‘in the wilderness’, having argued consistently for rearmament in opposition to the dominant Tory view, which was a mix of admiration for fascism and a desire to avoid war by ‘appeasing’ Hitler. Indeed, for some time after Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940, this view continued to be represented in the War Cabinet.

Appeasement in Britain was reinforced by the astonishing incompetence of the French ruling class. In May-June 1940, the French generals, though superior in tanks and planes, engineered one of the greatest defeats in military history. In the First World War, the Germans had failed to capture Paris in four years. In the Second World War, they did it in four weeks.

The leaders of Britain and France were torn between fear of German imperialism and fear of working-class revolution. The interwar years had been a period of turmoil. Fascism had triumphed in Italy in 1922 and in Germany in 1933. On the other hand, it had provoked working-class revolt in France and Spain in 1936. In the early summer of 1940, Britain’s leaders were divided and fearful.

Fascism had reached the Channel. Britain was full of the human detritus of failed attempts to stem the tide on the Continent – Italians, Germans, Spaniards, Czechs, Poles, and now French.

Britain’s own working class was embittered and radicalised by the Depression. The British Left – much of it organised in either the Communist Party or the Independent Labour Party – had real influence. The National Unemployed Workers’ Movement had sustained a 20-year-long campaign for jobs or full maintenance, organising a series of hunger marches, mass demonstrations, and self-defence against police violence.

The ‘blackshirts’ of Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists had been fought to a standstill in the backstreets of Bethnal Green and Southwark. Tens of thousands had been involved in raising ‘Aid for Spain’, and hundreds of young volunteers had gone to join the ‘International Brigade’ fighting Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Bombing and Air-Raid Precautions

Class tension ran high in Britain in 1940. It crystallised around two issues: Air-Raid Precautions (ARP) and the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV).

The Communist Party had been running a campaign since 1937 for the provision of deep air-raid shelters in industrial areas. In the event of massed aerial bombing, the industrial areas would be major targets, and the nearby tenements and terraces of the working class would be hit hard

Very few deep shelters were ever built, and none for the use of the general public. That is why hundreds of thousands of Londoners slept in Underground stations during the Blitz. But even this had to be fought for. At first, the authorities tried to stop people going in, with senior politicians worried that people would develop a ‘shelter mentality’ – abandoning the war effort and disappearing underground until it was safe to come out!

It was different for the middle class and the rich. They made their own arrangements. The middle class had the resources (and the garden space) to build their own shelters. The Savoy Hotel had equipped its underground banqueting hall as a restaurant-dormitory. (On 15 September 1940, it was rushed and occupied by about a hundred East Enders, under Communist leadership, as the air-raid sirens sounded.)

Pressure from below made the difference. Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, told his War Cabinet colleagues that he could not counter left-wing agitation if he ‘adopted a wholly negative attitude towards the provision of deep shelters’. Not only were the tube stations kept open, but the authorities acted to improve conditions for the occupants.

Home Guard: Dad’s Army or anti-fascist militia?

Equally controversial was the setting up of the Local Defence Volunteers (later the Home Guard) in May 1940. In just six weeks, almost 1.5 million volunteered to serve. Immediately, two different conceptions of what the Home Guard should be collided.

One view was that it ought to be under regular military authority and restricted to routine local duties in order to release regular soldiers for active service. The other was that it should become an armed people’s defence-force comparable to the revolutionary militias of the Spanish Civil War.

Tom Wintringham, a founder member of the CP and a veteran of the International Brigade, set up a Home Guard training-school at Osterley Park in West London. He staffed the course with Spanish War veterans, including Basque ex-miners, who taught the use of explosives. The emphasis was on training Home Guard units to act as urban guerrillas. Wintringham was preparing for a democratic armed struggle against fascism. His vision was that London 1940 could become the front-line in the global struggle against fascism, as Barcelona and Madrid had been in 1937.

Managing the deeply contested character of the war was no easy matter for a weak, divided, and unpopular elite. The Second World War, at one level, was a war between rival national-capitalist blocs for a redivision of the world: an imperialist war. Churchill fought the war to defend the British Empire.

British workers had no interest in doing the same. But they did have an interest in stopping fascism. The military struggle of 1940 was not only about empire; it was also about the difference between democratic freedoms fought for during centuries of struggle and Hitler’s concentration camps.

The problem for Britain’s rulers was that they needed working-class support to wage the war, but this gave license to anti-fascist activists to try and democratise the struggle. The danger, as the Spanish Civil War had shown, was of workers armed to fight fascists using their weapons against class enemies at home.

‘It so happens that this war, whether those in authority like it or not, has to be fought as a citizen’s war,’ proclaimed J B Priestley, well-known novelist and no-nonsense Yorkshire radical, whose Postscript radio broadcasts were listened to by as many as one in three Britons in the Summer of 1940. ‘There is no way out of that,’ he continued, ‘because in order to defend and protect this island, not only against possible invasion, but also against all the disasters of aerial bombardment, it has been found necessary to bring into existence a new network of voluntary associations, such as the Home Guard, the Observer Corps, all the ARP and fire-fighting services, and the like …’

It seemed to Priestley that a new type of ‘organised militant citizen’ had been called into being, that ‘the new ordeals blast away the old shams’, and that Britain was ‘being bombed and burned into democracy’.

The class struggle was not suspended in the Summer of 1940, as dewy-eyed ‘all in it together’ Tories would have us believe. On the contrary, it took on a new intensity and urgency, and radicals like Wintringham, Priestley, and, of course, George Orwell took wing.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.