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Maltese Winston Churchill bust. Photo: Wikimedia/Pygar 1954

Maltese Winston Churchill bust. Photo: Wikimedia/Pygar 1954

On VE Day, we repost Lindsey German's article busting the oven-ready myths that are being used to corral the herd during this crisis

We’re hearing all the time that Britain is now on a wartime footing. We know that Boris Johnson would like to model himself on Winston Churchill. The Second World War remains a key cultural reference point for people in Britain, perhaps the more so as fewer and fewer of those who actually remember it as adults remain alive. It is remembered by the right as the height of patriotism and national unity, a view that even many on the left tend to accept. However, the war immediately highlighted class divisions within British society – one reason that as it wore on attitudes moved substantially to the left and there was growing discontent with the status quo.

When war broke out in September 1939 the levels of complacency and inaction by government and much of the ruling class were quite astonishing. Everyone knew that war was coming, and they had seen the impact of civilian bombing in Spain, which had endured three years of civil war. Yet preparations to deal with air war were pitiful, and the shameful deal that Tory prime minister Neville Chamberlain in Munich the previous autumn was used as an excuse to pretend that there would be ‘peace in our time’.

The plans for that September were evacuation of children from the cities, and the issue of gas masks (as so often a response shaped by the dangers of the previous war) but there was little preparation for dealing with the bombing of those cities. Plans to build deep shelters – for example by the left-wing Finsbury council in London - had not materialised, because the government feared that people would stay below ground in such circumstances.   There were plans for the redirecting of industry and workers from non-essential to essential work, and for the retraining of women in particular. But these were often slow and bureaucratic.

Phony

The inertia was increased by the first few months of the war being dubbed the ‘phony war’, where nothing much seemed to happen in Britain. Many of the evacuees returned home to the cities, often after being badly treated in the homes they were sent to, but also because people often felt more secure in their familiar environment, despite the dangers.

The first half of 1940 was disastrous for the British armed forces, firstly during the Norway campaign and then with the defeat of the British army at Dunkirk. Following the fall of France in June, it was clear that Hitler’s plan was to invade England, and that not much more than a narrow strip of sea stood in his way.  

One of the most valuable sources of information from that summer is from the government’s own project to effectively spy on its own citizens and to pluck up on conversations in shops and pubs about how people felt.  Understandably, there were huge amounts of fear and anxiety. A speech by government minister Malcolm Macdonald which said they could not absolutely guarantee the safety of evacuated children provoked worry among working class women, who demanded the children should be brought back. In London, ‘Women ran about housing estates crying and wanting to get children back.’

People measured the distance from occupied Paris to London and feared imminent invasion and occupation. The government combined its bureaucratic slowness with threatened repression, for example compulsory evacuation. The civilian population was regarded with some trepidation by the government. It was reported from Scotland in June that ‘Working class Edinburgh women say they will fight the Germans in the streets if men can’t stop them’. From Nottingham came the warning that ‘women want to be armed with rifles and hand grenades’ and in Leeds ‘people demand that the whole nation be armed’.

This was anathema to Churchill and the establishment, who definitely did not want the ordinary people to get hold of arms. The establishment of the Home Guard in the summer of 1940, was an attempt to mobilise the civilian population (it wasn’t open to women) but they were not issued with weapons and the government disapproved of its organisation, led by the left winger Tom Wintringham, a Spanish civil war veteran who took over Osterley Park as a training centre and brought in Spanish anarchist miners to instruct on explosive devices.

As the historian AJP Taylor commented,

"The government was incapable of enlisting popular support. What was more, they did not want it. A war, based on popular enthusiasm, seemed to raise the ghost of the Left-wing Popular Front. It would be the Spanish Civil War all over again."

Fighting the war and fighting fascism required total mobilisation of the civilian population, but the government feared what this would unleash. Some of them even preferred a truce with Hitler in the summer of 1940. 

But nor did the population trust the government. There was widespread cynicism about the ‘old gang’ of politicians who had brought them into war through appeasement. The pamphlet Guilty Men was a searing indictment of these people and hugely popular when published in early July 1940. One of its authors, Michael Foot, said later that it sold ‘like a pornographic classic’.

The eventual success of the Battle of Britain pilots ended the immediate threat of invasion by September, but it was then that the Blitz began. London was bombed almost every day from 7 September 1940 to 10 May 1941. There was huge destruction of life and buildings, total disruption of work and travel. The battle for London was only won through civilians taking control of much of society and working cooperatively to protect one another.  

Government negligence was appalling. In London thousands left the city every night, many going to the caves in Chislehurst, Kent, or to the hop fields, or east to Epping Forest. Outside London, citizens of Plymouth, Glasgow and other cities made the same treks into open countryside. Shelters were either ditches in parks, public brick shelters which were not numerous, shelters in some public buildings or reliance on cellars, basements and sometimes even cupboards or under tables. People with gardens were encouraged to use flimsy Anderson shelters.

Unsurprisingly these were totally inadequate and very quickly the demand to use the London tube went up - a demand resisted by government. From very early on in the Blitz Londoners began to occupy the tube stations but were prevented by police and army. One night they forced the gates in a number of stations, organised by the Communist Party, and the next day the Home Secretary conceded. They also staged an occupation of the Savoy Hotel shelter, which was highly successful in highlighting the class differences in accommodation. These shelters had beds and soft lighting, with waiter service and expensive bed linen.

These class differences were a repeated feature of the home front in the war. The bravery of the ARP, firefighters, workers in transport, bomb disposal units and those who cared for those bombed out of their homes was not in doubt. Nor was the bravery of many ordinary Londoners who worked throughout the bombing. But the rich tended to leave London. Churchill spent many nights in Chequers or near Blenheim; the royal family stayed in Windsor every night; many evacuated their children to Canada or the US.

Blueprint

The rich continued to eat in restaurants which were not subject to rationing and managed to obtain luxury foods. Working people faced shortages, and endless queuing on top of long working hours. In response the government set up British restaurants which served cheap meals, and which were very popular.

Women’s conscription into industry meant the state needed to provide nurseries, restaurants and other social infrastructure. It had no choice given the needs of war production and was prepared to invest on a huge scale for a war economy.  

Churchill was not interested in this, and much of it was implemented by Labour ministers who were in effective coalition with him. His obsession was the war especially in the Mediterranean because he wanted to protect the British empire.

The privations of war and class radicalisation, both of troops and the people who fought at home led to much more left-wing politics. When the Beveridge report was published in 1942, which laid out a blueprint for a new welfare state, it was an instant bestseller. This presaged the 1945 election where Labour won a landslide.

The British war economy necessitated a huge amount of state intervention. We are beginning to see this in the present crisis. And there is a great deal of talk about us all being in it together. But, as with the Second World War, this was a convenient myth which masked the real class divisions which meant that people experienced the war in very different ways.

Further reading

  • Listening to Britain, Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang, Bodley Head 2010
  • The People’s War, Angus Calder, Jonathan Cape 1969
  • The Myth of the Blitz, Angus Calder, 1992 Pimlico
  • A People’s History of London, Lindsey German and John Rees, Verso 2012
  • Myth and Reality, Clive Ponting, 1990 Hamish Hamilton

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Lindsey German

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

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