The Blitz (Di)spirit

Lee Ruddin investigates how the people of Merseyside responded to the devastating bombing blitz of 1940/1941.

The hardships Merseysiders endured during the Second World War, particularly the pre-Christmas bombings of 1940 and series of raids in early May ’41, are etched into the individual and collective memories of contemporaries. The “Blitz”, an abbreviation of the German word “blitzkrieg” meaning “lightning war”, helped transform the home front into a front line and acted as midwife to the birth of the phrase “Blitz spirit”. But is Liverpudlian Ricky Tomlinson – who explores the history of his home city in a BBC series called “Blitz Cities” – right to conclude that locals ‘must’ve all [my emphasis] had that bulldog spirit’?

In a word: no. I say this not least because of what Marie Price, born in 1923 and who was a teenager at the time, hesitantly told an interviewer in 1998. The following testimony, buried in the Sound Archive at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London, is partially quoted by Joshua Levine, editor of Forgotten Voices of the Blitz and the Battle for Britain: A New History in the Words of the Men and Women on Both Sides (2006 [2007], and illustrates how dispiriting the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign was:

Churchill was telling us how brave we all were and that we would never surrender. I tell you something – the people of Liverpool would have surrendered overnight if they could have. It’s alright for people in authority, down in their steel-lined dugouts but we were there and it was just too awful. People were walking out of the town to escape the bombing. (p.412)

Historians, both amateur and professional alike, would be right to point out that this interview (which takes place over half a century on from the events recalled) is arguably influenced, as invariably feats of memory are, with the passage of time. As such – and notwithstanding the fact that hindsight usually serves to further mythologise the Blitz – weight is placed on testimony recorded in more contemporary documents in an effort to better understand the reality of the years 1940-41.

The contemporary documents in question are part of what was known as Mass Observation (MO), the archive of which is deposited at the University of Sussex. MO was an independent social research organisation founded in 1937 and which, on commission from the Ministry of Information in 1940, was charged with the task of monitoring civilian morale. Their nationwide panel of volunteer observers listened to, and sometimes engaged in, conversations with “ordinary people” by way of an attempt to gauge how they felt during the war years. The raw material of overheard comments and indirect interviews was then written up for the eyes of Government officials only. Objective and faithful in their reporting of the facts, MO “Morale Reports” are described as ‘indispensable’ (p.10) by Robert Mackay, author of Half the Battle: Civilian Morale in Britain during the Second World War (2002), and ‘a resource that no one working on the period could feel able to ignore.’ (p.11)

As a major blitzed town, Liverpool was visited by MO researchers in the aftermath of the pre-Xmas blitzing (20-22 December 1940). The material that comprises file number 538, entitled ‘Report on LIVERPOOL and MANCHESTER’ (6/1/41), is based on the work of four investigators who conducted observations over the course of 11 days (24 December 1940-3 January 1941). They conclude that morale in Liverpool was ‘APPRECIABLY HIGHER THAN’ (capitals used in the original) in other hard-hit areas such as Manchester and Bristol, another west-coast port city. (p.3) Relative cheerfulness was displayed, according to the quartet, in many different ways: ‘scarcity of rumour’; ‘no obsessional talk about air-raid damage’; no visible alarm when sirens sounded’; a ‘large amount of singing and whistling in the streets’; ‘dance halls [being] well filled at night’; and a ‘low degree of gasmask carrying.’ (pp.3-4)

A month-long examination (from 21 December 1940 to 21 January 1941) of “Letters to the Editor” of the Liverpool Daily Post, Liverpool Echo and Evening Express would appear to support such findings. Take W. Stewart Elliott from Higher Bebington, for example, who fulminates to the editor of the Daily Post:

In to-night’s B.B.C. news, mention was made of how Manchester was recovering from the recent blitz. Merseyside, too, has been blitzed but there is nothing said of how difficulties are being met and overcome here.

On Christmas Morning I visited a borough where destruction and devastation met the eye at every turn. I met a lad I knew busy removing what he could from his uninhabitable home. After the usual questions regarding his safety and so on, he said “It’s a rotten Christmas, but we’ll beat him yet.” That is the spirit in which Merseyside is recovering, and why cannot the rest of the country know about it? (28 December 1940, p.2)

Admonishing letters by F.C.M. Musgrave-Brown (10 January 1941, Daily Post, p.2) and H.W. Christmas (11 January 1941, Daily Post, p.2) in response to calls for merciless reprisals on German civilians are additional examples that some (Liverpudlian) readers remained unnerved and unalarmed unlike those in, say, Coventry who – understandably nervous and alarmed by the devastating aerial bombardment of 14 November 1940 – cried out for retaliatory attacks. Yet it is those more critical letters, I would argue, which undergird the spirit of locals at this time. As the Ministry of Information’s Chief Press Censor acknowledges in his memoirs, ‘one of the most effective methods of ventilating a grievance in this country is to write a letter to one’s favourite newspaper.’ Letters of ‘complaint’ thus forced George P. Thomson, author of Blue Pencil Admiral: The Inside Story of the Press Censorship (1948), ‘to issue a confidential communication to editors warning them not to publish letters of that kind.’ (p.83)

As the below extracts illustrate, however, two appear to have slipped through the censor’s net. The first, penned by A.F.S., features in the Daily Post under the heading ‘Accommodation’ and reads as follows:

I was one of a relief A[uxiliary] F[ire] S[ervice] party available for duty at a certain section on Christmas Night should occasion have arisen. We had our meals at a restaurant in town and slept at the temporary fire station.

…At the fire station there was an insufficient number of bunks, and the room was draughty. Further, there were no washing facilities. There was, to be sure, a room fitted up with washbasins, but there was no soap and there were no towels, and the water was cold.

For the sake of those who are still on duty in Liverpool, I should like to make the following suggestions: – … that baths should be available and compulsory (are there no public baths in Liverpool?); and that the sleeping facilities should be thoroughly overhauled. (30 December 1940, p.2)

The second letter is from the hand of Organiser, who takes particular issue with the disorganisation of the local authority, and which runs in the same daily under the title ‘Damage To Buildings’:

Regarding your leading article “Thinking Ahead,” although one fully appreciates the strain and stress of those in authority, and I do not wish to be a “carping critic,” it does make one squirm to think that proper organisation and foresight would have helped save our most treasured and beautiful historic buildings from these barbarians, whose one object is to destroy life and everything we prize. I fail to see the good of shutting the door when the horse has gone. Still, better late than never. It should have been the first thought of those in authority, when the first bombing of the capital and principal towns took place, to see that adequate precautions were taken. (7 January 1941, p.2)

Although the above-referenced letters are extremely small in number, not to mention hardly mutinous in their content, there is nothing comparable throughout May or in early June, our second month-long period of study. There are, to be sure, letters entitled ‘Post-Raid Difficulties’ by A.C. (16 May 1941, Daily Post, p.2) and ‘Fire Services Policy’ by Employer (29 May 1941, Daily Post, p.2), but these concern waiting for an insurance policy to arrive (in the absence of a receipt for rations) and turning part-time A.F.S. members into full-timers respectively. This is all the more surprising since May was essentially a devastating month. The seven-night blitz between 1st and 8th May, let us not forget, was the most concentrated series of air attacks on any provincial area: it involved 681 bombers, which dropped approximately 870 tonnes of high explosive bombs together with over 112,000 incendiaries, and claimed the lives of 1,741 Merseysiders. Yet not one local ostensibly felt the need to dip their ink pen in vitriol and submit a letter to a Liverpool editor. (Geo H. Boothman from Allerton merely concludes – under ‘Liverpool’s Test’ on 14 May 1941 in the Daily Post, p.2 – that ‘the collision with a ruthless enemy has strengthened our resolve…’)

The fact that only one (unrelated) letter features in the days examined (from 2 May 1941 to 2 June 1941) in the Echo and Evening Express combined illustrates – indeed illuminates – that the voice of readers went largely unheard at this testing time. And although 36 letters appear in the Daily Post during this period, a question arises: did the censor’s cutting of correspondence columns further demoralise the local population? According to MO file number 706, headed ‘Report on Liverpool’ (22/5/41), locals were generally critical of and dissatisfied with post-blitz administrators. It was of little surprise to the report author, therefore, that ‘for the first time in any town or place a conversation was heard in which one side argued in favour of our surrender.’ (p.1) Although reference is later made to ‘unprintably violent comments on local leadership’, (p.3) the lack of letters published created a vacuum that was filled by morale-sapping rumours surrounding peace demonstrations, mass cremations and the imposition of martial law. (While the latter two appear to be without foundation the same, says eyewitness Herbert Anderson in his IWM interview, cannot be said about the former.)

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially when viewing wartime policy from the vantage point of peacetime, yet it could be concluded that the publishing of negative letters had a positive effect on local morale during the First World War given it illustrated to fellow readers that they too had a platform (see my ‘The “Firsts” World War: A History of the Morale of Liverpudlians as Told through Letters to Liverpool Editors, 1915-1918’, International Journal of Regional and Local History, vol.9, no.2 (2014), pp.79-93). Had newspaper editors in the Second World War followed the example set by those in the First, there is every possibility that the aforementioned Price would have displayed more of the ‘bulldog spirit’ to which Tomlinson refers and less of a Blitz dispirit since – to paraphrase a famous saying – she (as well as W. Stewart Elliott) could have taken heart from the pen giving due acknowledgement to those affected by the mighty sword.

LEE RUDDIN

You can read more of Lee Ruddin’s local history articles by clicking the links below. You can also read David Subacchi’s poem ‘May Blitz’ by clicking HERE.

Americans In Liverpool During World War II: Part One, Part Two, Part Three

Eleanor Roosevelt In Liverpool

Merseyside At War (Book Review)

Wirral In The Great War (Book Review)

Queens Of The Mersey (Book Review)

On The Waterfront Exhibition (Merseyside Maritime Museum)