During the Second World War, the morale of the British public was clandestinely monitored by Home Intelligence, a unit of the government’s Ministry of Information that kept a close watch on the nation’s reaction to events. Intelligence from a wide range of sources and every region of the United Kingdom was collected and analysed by a small team of officials, based at the Senate House of the University of London. The team compiled regular reports on the state of popular morale. The reports covering the Blitz, which began with the mass bombing of London on 7 September 1940 and continued until May 1941, provide a unique window into the mindset of the British at a momentous time in their history.
The story of the Home Intelligence unit during this period is reminiscent of an Evelyn Waugh novel. It’s the tale of a group of unorthodox wartime civil servants, headed firstly by Mary Adams (a pre-war television producer) and then by Stephen Taylor (a neuropsychiatrist), who analysed the data and compiled the reports. One of the unit’s chief sources was the social research organization, Mass Observation, run by Tom Harrisson, a self-taught anthropologist and buccaneering self-publicist who had taken part in expeditions to the South Seas and made friends with cannibals. In retrospect, the unit was a bold and imaginative exercise in bridging the gap between government and people. Yet in articulating popular complaints against the authorities, it made enemies in Whitehall who tried to curtail its activities. Thankfully, Home Intelligence survived the assaults of bureaucrats who did not understand the value of its work, or did not wish to understand it, and bequeathed us a collection of reports that read like the collective diary of a nation.
The Home Intelligence reports offer important insights on the attitudes and behaviour of the British people during the Blitz. The experiences of the bombing naturally feature heavily in the reports. The mass bombing of urban areas posed, or so it was thought, the greatest of all threats to morale and the unit reported in detail on the complex reaction of civilians and the many complaints levelled at the inefficiency of local authorities, the lack of provision for the homeless, the poor quality of air-raid shelters, and the absence of anti-aircraft fire.
As Home Intelligence discovered, however, reactions to the Blitz depended on a range of factors such as the resilience of individuals, the pattern and intensity of the raids, and the size and topography of the cities attacked. Special reports on the bombing of Coventry, Clydebank, Hull, Barrow-in-Furness, Plymouth, Merseyside, and Portsmouth showed how the impact of the Blitz could vary from place to place.
The bombing was not the only factor determining morale over this period and there was no subject of public concern that the unit failed to investigate. These ranged from food rationing, coal shortages, and children’s nurseries, to anti-war feeling, anti-Semitism, and attitudes towards foreign countries. The military fortunes of the British overseas in the wider war were also closely monitored as the pendulum swung between victory and defeat. There is, moreover, a touch of the quirky: it was reported in April 1941, for example, that the public was eager for guidance as to whether it was unpatriotic for housewives to pickle eggs.
In some respects, the British were more united than they ever had been before and had a new sense of purpose and personal participation in the work of the country. Yet in other respects the British were full of grumbles and grievances. There were many signs of resentment against the privileges, real or imagined, of the wealthy, and in factories, mines, and shipyards the class divide was deeply entrenched. Class was only one source of discontent. For all its solidarity, the home front was riddled with petty rivalries, disputes, and tensions between civilians and servicemen, shopkeepers and customers, evacuees and locals, adults and adolescents, non-Jews and Jews, natives and foreigners.
After the Blitz wound down, Stephen Taylor reflected on the nation’s character traits. The British, he opined, were pragmatic, full of common sense, and had a stability of temperament—albeit with “a slightly gloomy tinge.” But they also had a tendency towards self-righteous indignation when things went wrong, a propensity to regard all officialdom as inefficient, and a distrust of excessive enthusiasm, combined with a masochistic delight in “knowing the worst.”
Delving deeper into the national psyche, Taylor judged that the British were fundamentally unimaginative and despite their perilous position “the possibility of defeat is neither imagined, nor imaginable”. In fact, he surmised that it would be impossible to defeat them “by any means other than extermination” and in a strange way “the public, as a whole, is happier since the war than it was in the peace.”
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