Socialist Worker

The myth of the ‘Blitz spirit’

At times of crisis, everyone in Britain comes together to make the best of things and face our problems with a stiff upper lip—just like they did during the Second World War. Rubbish. Simon Basketter tells the real story of what happened in the Blitz

Issue No. 2698

Working class people intially had to storm tube stations for shelter - and tens of thousands of people had to cram into them

Working class people intially had to storm tube stations for shelter - and tens of thousands of people had to cram into them


We’re told we need the Blitz spirit. That incomparable time soon after the start of the Second World War when Brits stood firm and united against the worst that Nazi Germany could hurl at our plucky people.

People helped each other, class ­distinctions blurred, and the royals visited London’s bombed-out East End. We kept calm, we carried on, and England prevailed.

But the “Blitz spirit” was then, as now, a propaganda ploy. It is the mythology of a peculiar British cult. Vera Lynn ­singing, Spitfires flying over Dover piloted by nice public school boys, and Dad’s Army as a documentary.

The myth was created at the time. Memorable images, such as a milkman delivering as usual and people borrowing books from bombed out libraries were the fake news of the day. And in fact when the King and Queen visited the East End they were booed.

There was massive hoarding by the rich and a flourishing black market. And there was looting by the poor

Writer JB Priestley made homely broadcasts to the nation that were meant to sow consensus. But even they were too much for the government.

He claimed the new “Dunkirk spirit” meant “the British were all in the same boat” and the boat should “act as an ark in which we can finally land in a better world.” So the Tories tried to get the BBC to sack him.

Within weeks of the declaration of war in September 1939 1.5 million working class women and children were evacuated to the suburbs and countryside.

Dunkirk and an empire in decline
Dunkirk and an empire in decline
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But instead of being welcomed with open arms they were deeply resented.

A Berkshire Congregational journal questioned the “necessity for the spoliation of decent homes and furniture or the corruption of speech or moral standards of our own children”.

Some 90 percent of evacuees had returned home by the first Christmas of the war—not just for economic reasons.

The crisis meant politics was meant to stop. Parties advised their members to do nothing. Bernard Newman toured the country for the Ministry of Information and reported that people were talking about personal issues, not politics.

But he meant they were talking about “post war housing, strikes, equal pay for equal work, income tax, the cut in the cheese ration, overcrowding in trains and buses, wasting petrol, shortages of matches, wages and the bad distribution of fish.”

There was massive hoarding by the rich and a flourishing black market. And there was looting by the poor.

In 1940 Winston Churchill ordered Labour home secretary Herbert Morrison to hush up the conviction of six London firemen caught looting from a burned-out shop.

In April 1941 Lambeth juvenile court dealt with 42 children in one day. They ranged from teenage girls caught stripping clothes from dead bodies to a seven year old boy who stole five shillings from a gas meter.

The East End working class had no access to any kind of deep shelter. The only shelters were above ground, and the ­government had refused to open the Underground

Juvenile crime accounted for 48 percent of all arrests in the nine months between September 1940 and May 1941 and there were 4,584 cases of looting. The accused included rescue workers, firefighters, police, bomb-disposal units and mortuary attendants.

On the evening of 8 March 1941 the Cafe de Paris in Piccadilly was hit by a bomb. The cafe was one of London’s plusher night spots.

Ballard Berkeley, a policeman who later found fame as the Major in 1970s comedy Fawlty Towers, recalled, “Some of the looters in the Cafe de Paris cut off the people’s fingers to get the rings. The wounded were robbed of their jewellery amid the confusion and carnage.”

All reported crime went up by 57 ­percent. But that's not the only story.

On 14 September 1940, 40 demonstrators turned up at the plush Savoy hotel demanding tea, bread and butter in the middle of an air raid. Management had the choice of either ejecting them during the bombing or accommodating them to the disapproval of its patrons.

Winston Churchill - a brutal bully and racist who was rightly hated by many
Winston Churchill - a brutal bully and racist who was rightly hated by many
  Read More

The protesters—Communist bootmakers and dockers seeking shelter—complained that those bedding down in the Savoy’s basement with its “snore warden” and nurses enjoyed superior protection.

The East End working class, meanwhile, had no access to any kind of deep shelter.

The only shelters were above ground, and the ­government had refused to open the Underground.

The protesters found in Savoy basement a huge space with a dance floor on one side. On the other side there were sleeping quarters divided into separate areas for single men, single women and married couples.

The mattresses and camp beds had matching sheets and pillows in pink, green and blue. In a curtained recess lay the Duke and Duchess of Kent. Sandbags were packed against scaffolding poles painted in the colours of the union jack.

In contrast there was the squalid Tilbury shelter, a goods yard requisitioned which could accommodate 3,000 people. It held 17,000.

On the first night of the Blitz, 7 September 1940, people had taken matters into their own hands, climbed over the barricades and ran down the escalators to take shelter. Soon, 70,000 families queued every night.

As the bombs fell, the majority stayed at home. But their resilience was not some unique aspect of Britishness

Portsmouth sometimes had daytime bombing in 1940. But the authorities locked the shelters in the daytime. When workers tried to break the locks open, the police baton-charged. A riot ensued. Many were injured and two were killed.

No more than 15 percent of London’s population took to the Tube or other public shelters during raids. But they weren’t safe.

In 1943, 173 people were crushed to death as a crowd tried to squeeze into Bethnal Green tube station at the start of an air raid.

As the bombs fell, the majority stayed at home. But their resilience was not some unique aspect of Britishness.

People of Berlin, Hamburg, Tokyo faced much greater devastation—and showed the same endurance.


Labours Clement Attlee and Tory Winston Churchill (both centre) formed a national government to keep a lid on workers struggle

Labour's Clement Attlee and Tory Winston Churchill (both centre) formed a national government to keep a lid on workers' struggle


Betrayed by Labour ‘in the national interest’

Winston Churchill said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Not his, of course. To be fair during the war, he was thoroughly drugged up on top of his permanent drunkenness.

Churchill argued among his peers that a revolutionary situation was developing in the country. He wanted to suspend parliament, the introduction of martial law and the formation of a committee of public safety with dictatorial powers.

Wiser minds saw that getting the trade unions and Labour on board to a national government would better hold back unrest.

Labour and union leaders were happy to oblige “in the national interest”. So in 1940 Labour, led by Clement Attlee, joined Winston Churchill’s Tories in a coalition government that lasted throughout the war.

Labour backed the Emergency Powers Defence Bill which gave it “dictatorial powers for the foreseeable future”.

Was patriotic reformer Clement Attlee on the Labour Party’s left or right?
Was patriotic reformer Clement Attlee on the Labour Party’s left or right?
  Read More

Both Labour and the union leaders tried to restore industrial peace. The Communist Party also played its part after Russia joined the war.

In September 1943 when 20 collieries in Lanarkshire were idled, Communist Scottish miners’ union leader Abe Moffat blamed anarchists, Trotskyists and the Duke of Bedford.

Class antagonisms did not disappear. In 1940 some 940,000 days were “lost” to strikes and in 1941 the figure rose to over a million. By 1944 it was 3,714,000.

The state possessed an armoury of 868 regulations, many deliberately couched in vague, ambiguous terms.

Workers were fined for staying at home to care for sick children or arriving at the factory late because of a transport hold-up. They could be fined for not working with sufficient enthusiasm.

In May 1945 Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, told parliament that 18,436 people had been convicted for absenting themselves from work or being late without reasonable cause.

Some 1,323 were imprisoned. But fines and imprisonment often resulted in the downing of tools. Production only resumed once the punishments had been waived.

On 10 July 1940 the government had introduced Defence Regulation 58AA allowing banning of strikes. Order 1305 then allowed the Minister to refer any dispute to binding arbitration.

But as the Chief Industrial Commissioner recognised, the “order has a substantial deterrent effect but it is an instrument which would probably be shown to be useless if any considerable body of workpeople chose to defy it.”


Class war

Apprentices

The first major wartime dispute took place in 1941. It involved engineering apprentices in Clydeside, Coventry, Lancashire and London. They called for higher pay, a right to education on day release and a right to union representation.

In Coventry they included women at the local munitions factory in the campaign. They won significant wage increases.

Rolls Royce

Thousands of women worked in wartime industry. In 1940, engineering bosses agreed that women would receive equal pay after 32 weeks. But Rolls Royce refused and was finally challenged by the AEU union in 1943.

They settled. But 16,000 women, and some men, refused to accept the deal and walked out.

Betteshanger

In 1942 miners at Betteshanger Colliery in Kent struck over pay.

The Ministry of Labour prosecuted 1,050 miners. Three local union officials were imprisoned. But the strike went on and other pits joined in.

The home secretary dropped the prison sentences.

Miners

In 1944 miners were earning £5 a week when the average industrial manual wage was £6, 10 shillings.

Miners struck unofficially in South Wales, Kent, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham, and Scotland.

The miners won. Their average earnings ranked 81st in 1938, but rose to 14th after the strikes.

Aircraft engineers

Workers at a factory making bomber parts were subject to Essential Works Orders banning all strikes.

In 1943 they challenged the policy of locking the gates at 8.30 in the morning by threatening to turn up all together at 8.31.

After winning they also got an increase in the minimum wage.


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