Stephen Basdeo – The Myth of the Blitz

Stephen
Title Card to H. Jenning’s Britain Can Take It! (1940)

In September 1939 Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. On 7th September 1940, the German Luftwaffe began a series of aerial bombardments over the major cities of Britain. This bombing, named the ‘Blitz’ continued until May 1941. During this time a myth of the Blitz emerged. The period 1940-41 is now remembered as the moment when all people in Churchill’s Britain went shoulder to shoulder, regardless of class or creed, and withstood, to quote Churchill, the “full terror, might and fury of the enemy”. This image of the British nation, standing shoulder to shoulder, was promoted through contemporary propaganda. Films, posters, and speeches carried this message. Two of the major propaganda films produced during the Second World War (1939-1945) were: London Can Take It (1940) and Fires Were Started (1943). These films presented a vision of men and women ‘in service and in cooperation…the country at its best’ (Von Kassel, 2006). But there is evidence to suggest that social cohesion during this period was not as strong as the propaganda would have had people believe, and that the image of a unified, classless Britain was fed to the masses by a ruling class that was contemptuous and distrustful of them.

The films were directed by Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950). Jennings was a film-maker, painter, and writer. In 1934 he joined the General Post Office Film Unit (later called the Crown Film Unit), gaining experience as a director. In addition, Jennings assisted in the creation of the Mass Observation project, ‘founded in 1937 to document popular life and belief in ways that would contribute to the democratization of social knowledge’ (Hinton, 2004). During the war, Mass Observation was also used by the government to assess public morale. Jennings’ sympathies lay clearly with the working classes and politically, he was a member of the non-communist left. It is this interest in the working classes which explains why his wartime propaganda films focused upon them.

Jennings’ films are vital sources for the historian seeking to understand how and why one of the enduring myths of the Blitz – that of social unity – began to be constructed. London Can Take It was produced for an American audience. In 1940, USA had not yet joined the Allied cause, and the film was intended to convince an isolationist US Congress to join forces with Britain against Germany, and it was shown to Congress in 1940. It did not feature generals, statesmen, or other prominent figures; rather, it highlighted the role that ‘the people’s army of volunteers’ played in defending London during its ‘nightly siege’. It showed how this ‘people’s army’, of ‘brokers, peddlers, merchants by day’ became ‘heroes by night’ by serving in various home front defence units. All social classes were featured in the film; even the King and Queen are shown touring the bomb damaged landscape after a heavy Blitz. Films such as London Can Take It:

Proved that the British Had All Been In It Together (which was ‘democratic’) and Had Taken It (which showed their strong moral backbone) and had Carried On’ (Calder, 1991, p.230).

The film was later released in the UK, retitled as Britain Can Take It for the domestic audience. The evidence suggests that the public and the press received it favourably (Calder, 1991, p.232). The film thus promoted an essentially classless vision of society in which all classes ‘pulled together’ in the face of adversity.

Jennings’ subsequent film Fires Were Started (1943) focused on the working classes. Produced two years after the Blitz had ended, it was ‘a riveting reconstruction of behaviour in a heavy raid during one night of the 1940-41 London Blitzes’ (Jones, 2006, p.92). The actors in the film were played by the staff and firemen who served during the Blitz and celebrated ‘the heroism of ordinary people’ (Ibid). Whilst the film had a working-class focus, Jennings still tried to convey the idea that class boundaries were transcended for the sake of the war effort. The evidence for this comes from one particular scene during the film. Chapman writes:

Apart from a new middle-class recruit, Barrett, the men are all working class, and the first half of the film locates them in their social context, drinking beer and playing darts. The key scene is the celebrated ‘One Man Went to Mow’ sequence as the men, having changed into their uniforms, gather around the piano (Chapman, 1999, p.53).

The fact that all recruits, regardless of social standing, are all wearing the same uniform, performing the same role, may seem to imply the vision of a classless society. More importantly, placing the middle-class recruit into the group, having him join in their pastimes, illustrates that he is assimilated and welcomed into the working-class group (Ibid). Through Jennings’ films, then, the image of a unified Britain facing the war together began to take root.

Theories from the discipline of film studies provide keys for unlocking the ways that these films can be read. Theorists have posited a number of conceptual models on how to analyse films; firstly, there is the ‘hyperdermic’ argument which ‘suggests that a passive mass audience is injected with the message of the film and absorbs it completely and that films as a whole reflect the psyche of the country producing them’ (Richards, 2009, p.81). Viewing wartime propaganda films such as Jennings’ within this model would suggest, then, that different classes of Britons really were fused together during the war as they sought to strive for victory. However, that is too simplistic a reading of both the context and the film. Historians such as Richards, for instance, have called the Blitz ‘a time of class war’ (Richards, 2011). The description of the Blitz as a time of ‘class war’ is somewhat dramatic, but there were definitely tensions between the classes, and disparities between the classes’ wartime experiences. For example, whilst London Can Take It depicts people of all classes calmly entering public air raid shelters, Richards says this:

It was a time of terror, confusion and anger. Government incompetence – almost criminal in its extent – displayed what was almost a contempt for ordinary people…[at first] no one in authority seemed concerned about the people of Britain’s towns who, unlike the upper classes, could not leave their homes and find shelter in the country.

Members of London’s high society who stayed in the capital during the Blitz could access more luxurious air raid shelters. Connelly generally upholds the traditional view of the Blitz, but he points out that many luxury hotels such as the Savoy and the Dorchester converted its underground facilities into exclusive air raid shelters and refused access to poorer people (Connelly, 2004, p.150). Moreover, the war required sacrifices of everybody. Food rationing began on 8th January 1940. Clothing was rationed from 1st June 1940. Conscription, both in the armed forces and the civilian forces, separated many families. For some young women, conscription into civilian duties and separation from their homes could be a traumatic experience. As Patricia Pitman, who joined the ATS, recalled in an oral testimony, she found herself in a dormitory amongst ‘sobbing girls crying for their mothers…they were all conscripts’ (Pitman, 1995, p.171). Yet despite the sacrifices of the working classes, writers such as J.B. Priestley (1894-1984) railed against the ‘inequality of sacrifice’ (Hayes, 1999, p.17). When he visited Bournemouth during the war, for example, he found that leisure time, ‘cocktail bars, salmon and lobster’, ‘orchestras and entertainment’ were only available to the ‘leisurely and well-to-do’ (Ibid). Thus how much a person was required to sacrifice certain things such as food and leisure for the greater good evidently varied according to their social class.

Consequently, Jennings’ two wartime propaganda films are perhaps best viewed within a different theoretical model. The ‘hegemonic model’ builds upon the work of Marx and Gramsci:

Marx wrote that the ruling class decide what is to be the dominant ideology… According to this theory, the ruling class exert their authority over the other classes by a combination of force and the winning of consent. The ruling class’s view of ‘reality’ comes to constitute the primary ‘reality’ of the subordinate classes, and the ruling class sets the limits, both mental structural, within which the subordinate classes live. ‘Hegemony’ is maintained by the agency of superstructure – the family, the church, the media, culture (Richards, 2009, pp.81-82).

In other words, the government actively wanted to promote the vision of a classless society because they wanted to win the war. Morale had to be kept high because, as one Mass Observation survey concluded, ‘the successful outcome of [the] war ultimately depend[ed] on the goodwill of the working people’ (MO FR716). Jennings’ sympathies may have lain with the left, but to some extent he was still a member of the élite, having attended a public school and gone to university at Cambridge (Jackson, 2004). The ruling classes, who started the war, depended upon the people for its continuance. This is perhaps why the vision of a socially unified Britain facing the war together has become so easily absorbed into British culture. Despite this, the government still distrusted the working people. As Richards notes, when it came to the use of the underground stations as shelters, the governments initially discouraged this. The reason for this is because there was a fear that underground shelters might create ‘“A deep shelter mentality”: the fear that hordes of people would descend into the bowels of the earth and never come out’ (Richards, 2011). These ‘hordes of people’ would be rendered useless to the government if they stayed underground (Ibid). Jennings’ films then are best viewed within the hegemonic model advanced by film theory. They can be interpreted as an instrument of the elites to both co-opt and coerce the working classes into the war effort. The best way to do this was to create a vision of a united society.

However, a classless society in which all people pulled together for the greater good is the image of the Blitz that has endured. For example, Atonement (2007), set prior to, during, and after the Second World War, weaves the themes of 1940s British propaganda films into its narrative. Its soundtrack uses popular period songs ‘to demonstrate public spirit in the manner of Millions Like Us’ (Geraghty, 2009, p.99). Moreover, the way that the stories of ordinary people during the film ‘are hinted at rather than told…refer[s] back to the way British cinema of the 1940s based its approach on interweaving stories from different communities’ (Ibid). As outlined above, it was the vision of people working together from different communities which Jennings’ films sought to convey. Yet such a view of traumatic experiences like the Blitz tints such events with a haze of nostalgia. As Richards observes, ‘our heritage industry has encouraged a “Myth of the Blitz”, that differs from the actual wartime experience’ (Richards, 2011). The modern British movie industry is guilty of the same thing. With movies as recent as Atonement peddling the same image of the Blitz which was advanced by the ruling class, it is clear that this nostalgic image of the Blitz, depicting all classes pulling together, shows no sign of abating.

In conclusion, wartime propaganda films are part of the superstructure which was imposed upon the masses for them to be co-opted into the war effort. Representations of a classless society, in which rich and poor came together on the home front for the sake of the war effort, achieved this. Of course, this is not to suggest that there was no social cohesion whatsoever during this period. For example, bombing certainly was indiscriminate, affecting all classes (Connelly, 2004, p.150). While the Blitz was not a period of all out class war, there was certainly tension and mistrust between the classes. Yet finally it is the vision of a unified society facing adversity that is the image of the Second World War that has endured.


About Stephen

Stephen Basdeo is a PhD student at Leeds Trinity University. He holds a BA (Hons) Degree in History, and an MA in Social History.


Notes

Calder, A. (1991). The Myth of the Blitz. London: Pimlico.

Chapman, J. (1999). ‘British Cinema and “the People’s War”’. In Hayes, N. & Hill, J. eds. (1999). Millions Like Us? British Culture in the Second World War. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Connelly, M. (2004). We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War. Harlow: Longman.

Geraghty, C. (2009). ‘Foregrounding the Media: Atonement (2007) as an Adaptation’. Adaptation: the journal of literature on screen studies 2(2) pp.91-109.

Hayes, N. (1999). ‘An “English War”: Wartime Culture and “Millions Like Us”’. In Hayes, N. & Hill, J. eds. (1999). Millions Like Us? British Culture in the Second World War. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Hinton, J. (2004). ‘Mass Observation (act.1937-1949). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. [Internet] http://www.oxforddnb.com [14/10/2013].

Jackson, K. (2004). ‘Humphrey Jennings’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. [Internet] http://www.oxforddnb.com [14/10/2013].

Jones, H. (2006). British Civilians on the Front Line. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Petley, J. (2013). ‘Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)’. BFI Screen Online [Internet] http://www.screenoline.org.uk/people/id/453623 [14/10/2013]

Richards, J. (2009). ‘Film and Television: the moving image’. In Barber, S. & Peniston-Bird, C.M. eds. (2009). History Beyond the Text. London: Routledge.

Richards, J. (2011). ‘The Blitz – Sorting the Myth from the Reality’. [internet] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/britain_wwtwo/blitz01 [14/10/2013].

Von Kassel, E. (2006). ‘An image of Britain during the Second World War: the films of Humphrey Jennings (1939-1945)’. Revue Lisa/Lisa e-journal IV(3) pp.149-160.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s