Did the Blitz really unify Britain?

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine


The defiance of Britain as it endured eight months of German bombing 70 years ago is etched on the collective memory and immortalised in the phrase "Blitz spirit". But does this image of national unity tell the whole story?

Even for those lucky enough not to have been there, the sound of the sirens is enough to evoke those nights of 1940 when British cities were under constant attack.

For eight consecutive months, every dawn brought a new terrible toll - more bodies, more craters in the street, more buildings reduced to rubble and more fires.

People emerged from air raid shelters, from under railway arches or merely from under the stairs, to see if their homes were still standing, or if their neighbours were still alive. Then they dusted themselves down and went to work.

This period has become part of British folklore and the Blitz spirit a byword for stoicism, invoked at times of need, like after the 7/7 bombings in London. But is this image of a nation standing shoulder to shoulder an accurate one?

Although there was some panic and chaos in those first few nights, says Juliet Gardiner, author of The Blitz: The British Under Attack, the term "Blitz spirit" typifies two qualities that emerged - endurance and defiance.

"There was endurance in the face of an external danger. People were going through it together, putting up with eight months of constant bombardment in cities like London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Bristol. People were absolutely exhausted, but on the whole there was very little panic, they went to work, went about their daily lives.

"And the other thing is defiance. There were no - or very few - calls for surrender, the morale didn't implode. Our war production kept up. And even if people were bombed out, and had to go underground or leave London, they would come back to work."

Despite this fortitude, it's important not to be over-sentimental about the Blitz, she says, and a lot of social tensions remained unresolved.

image captionCoventry, and its cathedral, were destroyed

"The 30s had been a very difficult period, with high unemployment, class antagonism and industrial relations very bad. There were strikes during the war and anti-Semitism rather increased during the Blitz.

"People felt during the Blitz that they were expected to take it, especially the working class population, who got the roughest of the Blitz because they lived near where they worked, near factories or the docks, and often in houses not very well built. They felt they suffered a lot and the government owed them."

Some people exploited the crisis for their own gain, although this wasn't widespread. "Bomb-chasers" followed the latest raids so they could loot shops, while some people were charged money to get a place on the Tube to sleep at night.

There were other tensions as cities outside London felt their suffering was overlooked, she says. For security reasons, places weren't always named in news reports, but national newspapers and the BBC were also guilty of playing down the damage and casualties in some regional cities.

Although Hull suffered terribly, losing 85% of its buildings, it was only referred to in some reports as "a North East town", says Ms Gardiner. People there were incensed when they went to the cinema and it was all about the destruction of Coventry. It was often up to local papers to describe the losses and celebrate the strength of character. Morale suffered in places that were not as well prepared, like Coventry, Bristol and Plymouth.

"However, people across the country were aware that London got more pummelled than anyone else and people were shocked when they came to London and saw the scale of the devastation."

The Blitz wasn't the first time London had been under attack, however. In 1917 and 1918, twice as many people used the Tube to escape the air raids as did in 1940. So many people remembered the bomb shelters they had used 20 years earlier, and headed to the same spots.

"We just didn't talk about it as much. But the First World War was different because the raids were nothing like the scale of 1940 and also the real fighting was going on overseas."

When the Blitz finally ended on 16 May 1941, the fighting was still to be done, but Adolf Hitler was left frustrated that he had failed to break British spirits, failed to bring Winston Churchill to the negotiating table and failed to dent British war production.

The Nazi leadership was shocked by British resilience and the Fuhrer turned his attentions to Russia. By the end of the year, the US had entered the war.

The indomitable spirit demonstrated across the UK in 1940 and 1941 has been invoked since by politicians to galvanise national pride, and by the media to recall fondly an era when we were apparently made of sterner stuff. It even goes to the heart of what many regard as Britishness. But there could be other, more subtle ways the Blitz has shaped national character.

Mark Connelly, professor of modern British military history, says there is a modern tendency to focus on the glorious side to the Blitz and forget the bloodshed. But the tale of heroism against German might has forged our national identity.

"I think that the Blitz is absolutely crucial to modern British self-perceptions. 1940 is the triptych of the war for the British - Dunkirk, Battle of Britain and the Blitz, all in that one iconic year.

"For many reasons, what that does is confirm a trajectory of British national culture that started to emerge in the late 18th Century, of the British believing that they are best when they are alone, when their backs are against the wall, when they don't have foreign-speaking allies to pander to."

Since 1945, that British approach to the world, evident in the tabloids in relation to the European Union, is still deeply embedded, he believes.

"Many British governments from 1945 onwards wanted to celebrate the idea of consensus and a family spirit, and the Blitz was meant to be the solvent that brought that family together."

It has also influenced a defence policy, he says, that places at its core the ability of the country to defend itself.

For Ms Gardiner, the Blitz also forged a social contract for peacetime that remains to this day.

There was a feeling of entitlement felt by the working class, she says, because of the debt they were owed for their suffering.

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