“Keep Calm and Carry On.” How reassuring must these posters have been to British citizens huddled in Tube stations as German bombers ravaged London during the World War II campaign known as the Blitz? Not very, actually. The sentiments of the poster are certainly British and date to World War II, but the posters themselves were virtually unseen as the Luftwaffe bombed cities all across Great Britain. During the war, the British population had shown a genuine aversion to cheery posters, finding them patronising, so most of the “Keep calm” production run was pulped, and the few that survived were not displayed. But the Blitz, beginning with fifty-seven days and nights of continuous bombing of London and continuing with regular aerial attacks through May of 1941, did demonstrate the tenacity of the British people to the world, even if there were some cracks in the veneer before bit was all over.
The Battle of Britain, which included the Blitz, was a remarkable piece of aerial warfare. Hitler knew Britain was the key to his success in Western Europe, and so even after much of the Continent was subdued, he was determined to either invade Britain or force Britain into a peace treaty that would give him unfettered power. Wisely, though, Hitler was terrified of the British navy. Any invasion of the isle of Britain would be impractical until Britain’s naval prowess could at least be impaired. Thus the German Luftwaffe began the Battle of Britain by attacking ports and dockyards. However, thanks to British developments in Radio Direction Finding (RDF), later more commonly known as radar, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was able to target incoming Luftwaffe planes with deadly effect. The Nazis then turned to attacking the RAF facilities directly, hoping to damage Britain’s aerial resources enough to allow them to achieve the original goal of crippling British naval capacity. This approach was nearly successful, and the RAF was stretched to the breaking point, but the Nazi High Command grew impatient, and was alarmed at the losses of German aircraft. Instead, they refocused their efforts towards cowing the British population by blitzing the cities, especially London. One might think they could have tried to understand the British better before embarking on such a reckless strategy.
A remarkable set of diaries was published recently, writings by Ruby Thompson discussing her experiences during the war. Much of the diaries deal with the day-to-day experiences and worries she had, providing a fascinating social history of the times. But she also very directly addresses the war effort and problems on more than one occasion. “The Britton and Londoner are not terrorised. He is simply coldly angry, and more determined than ever to lick Hitler and his Nazi’s [sic]. The devil himself can’t frighten an Englishman,” she wrote on 12 September, 1940. The determination to endure, to fight back despite the hardship, is clear in the comment, an embodiment of the spirit of carrying on despite the bombs. This is not to say Mrs. Thompson was always so cheery or trusting, though.
On 17 September, she noted in her diary that Buckingham Palace was bombed before writing, “Our losses are supposed to be only twenty-five machines and twelve pilots. Maybe. Who really knows what the truth is? All we really know is what we actually see and suffer for ourselves.” It is important to realise how significant that comment is. Looking back, it is easy to see the whole picture of the Blitz, the amazing aerial capabilities of the Spitfire aircraft defending London from the German bombers, and the battle statistics that have been compiled, checked and rechecked by veterans, military personnel and historians for more than seventy years. But in the crush of the event, there was a great deal of confusion and worry. Thompson reinforces this most poignantly on 20 September, when she writes, “The damned lying papers, and news reporters, and B.B.C. announcers, will insist that the people are standing up to the raids with fortitude. ‘Grim and gay.’ says Churchill. I don’t believe it. No woman can be gay about war.” Endure they might, but privately at least some Britons were willing to let on they not terribly happy about it.
The effects of the nightly raids took their toll, both on Ruby Thompson and others. Thompson notes on 19 September that, “I am most awfully tired, and getting very cranky. Nerves, of course. Last night Ted gave me a whiskey, but it didn’t help me to sleep anyway.” But, in true British fashion, she does soldier on, enduring more than a month of continuous aerial attack. On 11 October she notes again, “It is impossible to get anything done, and the wear and tear on our nerves is exhausting. If only I had some money I would board The Clipper and fly to New York.” In part her desire to leave is prompted by personal problems not directly bearing on the Blitz, but one must wonder how many Londoners in October and November of 1940 were also feeling the same way. Again, it is vital to remember that on the ground, those huddling in shelters had no way of knowing how much longer the bombing would continue. Even after the initial series of continuous raids, no one could look on a calendar and hope to just hang on until May, because there was no way to know in 1940 and 1941 just how long the bombings would last.
There were plenty of other voices on the ground, too. Indeed, there are many first-hand accounts of the destruction visible in London on a daily or nightly basis. One of the most visible, or at least widely heard voices was that of American Edward R. Murrow. Murrow was a radio broadcaster for CBS, and was in London for the first part of the Blitz. His remarkable broadcasts, still available through internet archives today, give a sense of the realities of the Blitz, but also do much to promote the image of calm determination that has become the hallmark of the British people. In one particular broadcast, as Murrow stands at Trafalgar Square, the audio is strikingly vivid. As the broadcast begins, in the background the air-raid sirens are going off. The sound is familiar to people today from countless wartime films, but in the audio from Trafalgar there is somehow a greater sense of presence to it, a chilling awareness of just what the haunting sound foretold. Murrow notes he is standing near an air-raid shelter, and that people are moving quite calmly towards the entrance. The double-decker busses are even still running as the sirens wail, although they are mostly blacked out, Murrow noting the one he sees looks like, “a ship passing in the night” with only a few lights on the upper deck visible through the windows. Other broadcasts by Murrow describe the actual bombing, as searchlights scan the sky, and the sound of explosions can be heard. The immediacy of the radio broadcasts provides an incredible record that offers an engulfing sense of the realities of the Blitz. Another way is to examine those realities is through the images that have survived.
Photographically, the Blitz is one of the most remarkably well-documented battles, as the images available are very wide reaching, even if they show very little of the actual combat. Certainly the photographs of smoke and fire billowing out behind a silhouette of the Tower Bridge call to mind both the incendiary bombs and the heroism of the London fire brigades. Images of Buckingham Palace after it was bombed serve as marked reminders that no one was immune. But three images in particular come to mind in terms of the British determination to carry on, even if posters exhorting that notion weren’t plastered around London.
The first image shows a large crowd of people in the Underground, with lots of festive decorations. This image was taken on Christmas Day, 1940, as the Luftwaffe continued to attack London. If one takes a moment to really look at the faces, there are some remarkable contrasts in this photograph. Some of the faces are quite joyous, especially the younger ones that are delighted to get a Christmas dinner despite the war. But there are also faces showing hints of concern, even trepidation, in the crowd. Some are nearly blank, worn thin by the constant raids. Just as with Thompson’s diary, and despite Murrow’s description of a calm and orderly air raid, the strain was taking its toll.
The second image shows a policeman standing in an iconic red telephone box. The doors to the box have been blown off, and rubble covers the street. Behind him, the damaged framework of what appears to be a row of terrace houses stands, windows blows out, and in the background there is a sign for a shop selling “Spirits” although it, too, appears damaged. The constable is speaking on a telephone that seems to still be working, a testament to British resilience. In his face, though, there appears to be a grim determination to do whatever needs to be done to preserve law and order, even if the world around him is crumbling to dust.
The third image features a woman seated amid the rubble (at the top of the article). In this image, much of the rubble is hard to identify, so badly damaged is the location. A crumpled piece of luggage is visible, and the remains of a basket, but much of the mound she sits on is undefinable rubbish. In the background, badly damaged walls can just be seen in a dusty atmosphere. But in the midst of this, the woman sits with her hair wrapped in a kerchief, and sips a cup of tea. Because of the position of the cup, it is hard to read her expression, but her eyes suggest that she is doggedly going to drink her tea, no matter what. Of all the diverse images of the Blitz, even including the terribly poignant ones of children clutching favourite toys amid the ruins, this image of the woman sipping tea resonates as most iconically British, the embodiment of the attitudes that the Blitz crystallised both in Great Britain and abroad.
The Blitz stands as an incredible moment in history, a crucial junction not just for the Second World War, but for western civilisation in general. It is easy to look back from seventy-odd years after and see the outcome of the Blitz as a fait accompli, with never any doubt at all that Britain would endure. On the ground at the time, it was not so certain. To the world, and often to each other, the British survivors of the Blitz put on a determined face and did try very hard to make the best of it. But it was not easy. It was not always calm. But to their credit, and with the gratitude of people the world over, the British of the Blitz did indeed carry on, even if the poster that proclaims the thought was nearly pulped into oblivion during the war, and only rediscovered by chance in 2000.
For further reading:
The Planning, Design and Reception of British Home Front Propaganda Posters of the Second World War. Doctoral dissertation by Dr. Rebecca Lewis. A copy is in the British Library, and excerpts can be found online.
World War II London Blitz Diary, Volumes I and II by Ruby Side Thompson, edited by Victoria Washuk
London Was Ours: Diaries and Memoirs of the London Blitz by Amy Helen Bell.
A wide range of recordings and excerpts from the Edward R. Murrow broadcasts can be found with a simple search on YouTube, including the Trafalgar broadcast.
Here’s an example:
This article was written by David Johnson. David is a British-at-heart professor of history for a small college in Colorado.