In the current climate, particularly today, on the 75th anniversary of VE Day, and the current Prime Minister’s penchant for Churchillian rhetoric, it is perhaps inevitable that people are drawing parallels with the Second World War, the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’, the ‘Britain can take it’ response to the German ‘Blitz’, and so on. Clearly, there are many inspiring stories to be found about the experiences of the British people during the Second World War, they do not, though, give a complete picture of the British experience in those years.
It is important to remember that information, of all sorts, was tightly controlled by the Ministry of Information. The depiction of the bodies of those killed in bombing raids was, for example, banned, and I despite working in this area for many years I have never seen any such pictures. The Ministry also banned any mention of trekking, this was the practice whereby people in areas that were under heavy aerial bombardment moved into the adjacent countryside, often spending the night sleeping under hedges and in ditches. This happened in Liverpool where some people ‘trekked’ out to places like Maghull. Referring to this practice was regarded as bad for morale.
Clive Ponting suggests in his 1993 work 1940: Myth and Reality that one of the great iconic episodes of the war, the Dunkirk evacuations, was something of a shambles, rather than the orderly process that has given us the term: ‘The Dunkirk Spirit’. The presentation of this event was an early example of ‘spin’. Even at the time some people, like the authors of the 1940 pamphlet, Guilty Men, saw Dunkirk as the product of Government neglect and ineptitude, a disaster not a triumph.
Angus Calder, in his 1992 work, The Myth of the Blitz questions the degree to which the experience of bombing created a sense of national unity, noting, among other things that Churchill and members of the Royal family were booed when they visited some bombed areas. The issue of air-raid shelters was certainly one of contention. In working class districts the population were sometimes provided with brick-built surface shelters, which offered limited protect against explosions, in London this sparked demonstrations with East Enders occupying the basement shelters of steel-framed West End hotels.
Rationing and evacuation were also areas of dispute. The well-to-do could, for example dine in restaurants and still purchase their rations. Those with the money could send their children across the Atlantic to friends in the US. Though ultimately not her choice – Baroness Shirley Williams and former MP for Crosby, spent the war in the United States. Those evacuated in the UK were not always well-treated by their hosts, some farmers, for example, took boys as a source of free labour.
The Second World War was a multi-faceted experience; political divisions and social divisions did not disappear. Some politicians linked the war to the struggle for social reform, others linked it to the defence of the status quo, Winston Churchill, for example declared shortly after gaining the premiership that he had not become Prime Minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire. Some people did change their views, many historians believe more middle-class people voted Labour in 1945 than ever before. The absolute majority for Labour was, though, relatively small. Evelyn Waugh described life under Labour as like living in a country under enemy occupation. His 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited is partly a lament for the life of class privilege he and his kind had enjoyed in the inter-war years.
This is not written to rain on anyone’s parade, but to suggest that it is easy to get a false impression of ourselves if we rely on manufactured ideas about ourselves. History is complex and is only useful when that complexity is recognised. The Second World War did not make social divisions disappear, and neither will Covid-19
Dr Roger Spalding is Programme Leader for History at Edge Hill University.