Britain in an Age of Total War

1. What can you learn from source A about the response of the British people to the effects of the blitz?
This is an extract from a book celebrating the positive outcome of the blitz; it portrays the British

people as being brave and determined. Using words like “heroes” and “unshakeable determination” it evokes the famous image of British resolve and strength of mind in the face of “terror and tragedy”. However since this was written in a book to commemorate the blitz fifty years later it is not the purpose of this extract to criticize the reaction of the British people but only to celebrate their grit and success in uniting as a country, therefore it is not a completely reliable piece of evidence to use as it only shows one side of the British peoples’ response. Furthermore this extract gives no factual evidence to support its claims.

2. How useful are sources B and C in helping you to understand the effects of the blitz on people in Britain?
Sources B and C illustrate the role of propaganda and censorship in Britain at the time of the war. Source B shows the extent of the damage and tragedy that the British, particularly Londoners, suffered on a daily basis during the blitz. It is an extremely sad and upsetting photo as it shows dead children, the fact that it was censored shows that the government thought that the effect this photo would have on the British public would be demoralizing and therefore detrimental to the war effort. Some people argue that censorship of this kind was hypocritical in a war for democracy against fascism but others maintain that in order to win the war to save democracy it was, paradoxically, necessary for the British people to lose some of their own rights.

Source C definitely is evidence to show the morale and ‘grit’ of the British nation; it shows people whose houses have apparently been bombed standing together smiling and holding their thumbs up. However it is impossible to know whether this photo was staged or purposefully given the wrong caption in order to be used as propaganda to help lift the public’s morale. Therefore sources B and C are not 100% useful in showing the effects of the blitz on the people but can be used to show how the British people were portrayed to themselves by the government.

3. Does source d support the evidence of sources B and C about the damage done during air raids?
All these sources show the devastation and destruction caused during the air raids; source B shows the huge amount of casualties and deaths caused when the bombs hit a school, source C shows just how many people could lose their homes in a single night and source D very well illustrates the destruction caused in cities and to the buildings, in this way all these pieces of evidence are in agreement. However, where they differ is in how they portray the peoples’ reaction to these events. This is shown especially by the strong contrast of sources C and D, both of which show the devastating aftermath of an air raid. In source C the people are friendly and happy, they are united by tragedy rather than divided; this source is good evidence of the ‘social fusion’ that some historians claim was a positive effect of the blitz and proved the British people had an ability to ‘come together’ in times of hardship. However source D shows an opposite effect of the blitz, instead of helping each other the people in this photograph appear to be in conflict with one another, there seems to be an argument going on which could have been caused by someone taking advantage of this situation to steal from someone else. This image definitely does not show ‘morale’, it shows how important it was for the government to maintain the spirits of the people in order for society to remain stable and normal, and was for these reasons that photos like source B had to be banned.

4. Use sources E, F and G, and your own knowledge, to explain why the government was concerned about the morale of the British people in the autumn of 1940
September 1940 was when the blitz began in Britain. Germany had already invaded Norway, France and Switzerland and now Hitler wanted Britain. The Government knew that if they were going to resist Germany’s attacks they would need the public behind them. So they used propaganda and the press to push an image of a united Britain that had no reason to fear the Germans, they used every possible resource to ensure that the British people did not give way to hysteria or panic. However these attempts were not completely successful; source E (a secret report to the government from 10th September 1940) portrays the way in which London’s east end, the ‘capital’ of the blitz, was affected. It describes the people as running “madly for shelters” creating an image of chaos and disorder, it makes constant reference to the mass evacuation of the east end by its people; taxis taking “group after group” to the train stations and people asking the Citizen’s Advice Bureau if they could be removed from the district. Source F seems to agree with this; it remarks on the “bitterness” in the east end and the fact that even the king and Queen where booed when they visited there. This shows that the people of the east end were incredibly disaffected and disillusioned with their government; by booing the monarchy, who were at that time still very well respected and loved by the people of Britain, they were rejecting the very idea of being British which is what the royal family symbolise. It was this disillusionment and cynicism that made the government concerned about the morale of the British people. However source G seems to infer that even though the British people were frightened and anxious they did not allow this to affect their contribution to the war effort; “attendance at work remained surprisingly good” and even the people fleeing the cities or “trekking” were also “the same people who continued to turn up for work.

5.’the impression that the British faced the blitz with courage and unity is a myth’ explain whether you agree with this statement…

Many people, including those who lived through it, believe the blitz to be Britain’s ‘finest hour’; that the crisis of the war enabled the British people to forget their differences and live together peacefully, but did the war really bring out the best in people? Some people do believe that the war divided the people of Britain rather than uniting them. This is shown by the conflict created in source D, society is reacting in a negative way to the effects of the blitz. This photograph does not show ‘unity’ in any way; it shows the degeneration and breakdown of British society, a people pushed by war to a point where any morals or sense of social harmony is lost. However there is also a theory that the blitz created an unprecedented amount of social fusion between the previously very segregated classes. The rich had the same rations as the poor, a sense of unity was created through the shared realisation that the bombs would not discriminate and class divisions noticeably lessened and blurred more than anyone had a right to expect; this is partly shown in source C where you can see lots of people from different backgrounds all coming together despite the fact that the only thing they have in common is that their houses were bombed. But was this new found sense of equality real or just on the surface? Research done at the time shows that the poverty gap between rich and poor was still huge, adequate protection against the bombing was not supplied to the poor. London’s east end was densely populated with some of the poorest people in the country; it was called the ‘capital of the blitz’ as it received ten times more bombs than anywhere else in London but shockingly got the least protection from the government. Statistically you were more likely to die if you were working class, this is shown in source E: “Exodus from the east end is growing rapidly”- this strongly contradicts the myth of class equality.
The idea of unity amongst the British people is also opposed by the obvious amount of disillusionment that spread through the workforce during the years of the blitz; although the war did help cause a large industrial boom after the slump of the thirties there was also a lot of striking. In 1941 60,000 men went on strike in Glasgow, there were stoppages across the country and millions of working day were lost. Although the government had expected some industrial Unna rest they were not prepared for this. The Government knew that the war was spreading discontent, so in order to combat this they pushed an image of a united Britain; they made people believe that the war was transforming their country. The government used propaganda to distort what was really happening in order to make the country unite. Some people think that this method of control was unnecessarily patronizing, suppressing and totalitarian, and that trust and morale would have been increased more by the truth rather than lies. However you could argue that it is necessary in a time of war for certain civil rights to be surrendered for the greater good, and that by merely accentuating the positive and emitting the negative the government managed to turn the war around by using morale as a weapon to keep the people behind them in a time when the ends mattered more than the means.

I do not think there is one definitive answer to this question; you could argue that the blitz brought out the grit and resolve in the British people that it helped to destroy social boundaries and bring people together in a united front for the greater good. Or you could also argue that, if anything, the fear and social Unna rest created by the blitz managed only to divide a country already separated by class, sex and race; that it amplified existing social tensions and created new problems; that the government had to resort to a hypocritically fascistic method of censorship and propaganda in order to subdue their frightened and apathetic people.

But, in conclusion, even though the idea that Britain was united by the war may have been exaggerated, or may even be completely fictional, it did at least contribute largely to the creation of the National Health Service and to Britain becoming the ‘welfare state’. So even if the courage and unity of Britain was a myth, at least this myth had helped to create a New Britain where the people were united by a shared responsibility for the welfare of everyone.