Friday, December 31, 2021

Wartime Britain 1939-1945, by Juliet Gardiner

This enormous volume - 591 pages before the exhaustive acknowledgements, notes, bibliography and index - is a detailed history of the Second World War from the perspective of those at home. It's an extraordinary read, full of horrifying detail, and very useful for something I'm currently working on.

What really struck a chord was some people's response to the things they could do to protect themselves and others. 

“In November 1939, the Daily Mail had asked its readers, ‘What part of the war do you mind most?’ … ‘Women in Uniform’ came first and ‘Blackout’ second.” (p. 45)

Gardiner quotes from JBS Haldane's 1938 book ARP (ie air-raid precautions), concerned that his unemployed neighbour will not be able to afford the paints and blinds required for blackout. 

“As a result he will probably show a light, and my life, not to mention the King’s, will be endangered.” (p. 47)

Another neighbour, said Haldane, 

“can afford paint and blinds but she is an absolute pacifist, who says that she will have nothing to do with war … She says she is going to keep her lights on, and if a bomb hits her house she will be well out of a wicked world. As I have never yet seen a bomb hit the mark at which it is aimed, I think it is much more likely that a bomb aimed at her skylight will hit me … If lights should be covered, as I think they should, then this should be made a matter of law, like the lighting regulations for vehicles.” (p. 48)

“Which it was,” adds Gardiner. But there are still examples of people ignoring the rules, or feeling they should be exempt, or blacking out parts of their houses - like not having your nose inside your mask. There's even a doctor concerned about the effect on people's mental health.

The Blitz itself makes for harrowing reading. The scale of devastation would be hard to grasp if Gardiner did not thread the narrative with awful detail - names, what they were doing as the bomb landed, the bits of body never identified. Each school and hospital is like a knife being twisted. There's so much tragedy and suffering, it's easy to see why some people felt conflicted about celebrating the end of the war when it eventually came.

Gardiner is good at explaining how, after years of war and bombardment, the V-1 and V-2 managed to feel different:

“many people found them a particularly scary form of warfare, an unreckonable mechanical monster impervious to human interference, a science-fiction horror. George Orwell [in Tribune, 30 June 1944] noticed the widespread complaint that the V-1s ‘“seem so unnatural” (a bomb dropped by a live airman is quite natural p. 551 apparently.’)” (p. 550)

And there's more contemporary resonance in the people who fled Liverpool and Bristol once the bombing started in earnest there.

"it was largely in response to the unwillingness of many provincial towns and cities to learn the lessons of London and prepare for the homeless and the disorientated, as well as the dead and the injured. ‘It seems that each city and town had to experience a major attack before making adequate plans for the relief of the community.’ [this cited from Richard M Titmuss, History of the Second World War: Problems of Social Policy, p. 307.] In this context trekking can be seen neither as a tendency to scuttle nor as mindless flight, but as a largely rational response to a desperate situation.” (p. 366)

There's another modern parallel in the realisation, in late 1944, that the war wouldn't be over by Christmas and there was yet more to be endured - and yet more lives to be lost. The book concludes with the end of the war, and a sense that the British people had voted for a better, more equal future, the Labour Government able to build on the nationalised systems imposed during war. But there are hints of the difficulties to follow: the rise in divorce rates (hitting a peak in 1947), the problems of living standards when about half the housing stock in London and much in cities elsewhere had been damaged, the economic hit to the country as a whole, the scale of those physically and/or mentally injured...  

Getting through the crisis is one thing; dealing with its long-term impact is another story...

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