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The Blitz

LAURENCE REES: How important is the Blitz in the history of the war?

RICHARD OVERY: I think the Blitz is very important but not for the reasons that are often suggested. I think it’s very important that the Blitz was the moment at which British society fought the war it thought it was going to fight in September 1939. It went to war to fight this moral crusade against a barbarous enemy, to defend British values, etcetera, and then they ended up with 9 months of doing nothing and people wandering around training in ARP exercises and putting their gas masks back in the cupboard. And I think the Blitz was very important in that suddenly people came face to face with what they’d been told was going to happen. Ordinary civilians were soldiers in the front line, there was a lot of front line rhetoric, and all the people in civil defence wanted uniforms like the army and so on. This was going to test British society in a way which British society had been told it was going to be tested.

The crisis of the 1930s suggested apocalyptic battles of some kind, and here at last was that kind of battle. Now, the losses were terribly high because air raid proportions had not been developed terribly well, but I think that it absolutely fixed the nature of the British war effort in a great many people’s minds and it had exactly the opposite effect from the one that Hitler wanted. He thought it would demoralise them and very soon the workers would put their tools down, etcetera. A classic view of what would happen, and instead the opposite happens, and the British don’t just say we can take it but they say we can take this kind of terrible war that we’ve been told nobody can bear, and we’re going to fight back. So I think for much of the British public it was the point at which total war began to make sense. So much language, talk and so on but what did it all mean? Well, now it actually makes sense to them.

LAURENCE REES: But there were strikes - all part of a level of disquiet in society because of the war. Are you saying that these kinds of social issues were just a small element - almost inconsequential - in the overall equation?

RICHARD OVERY: No, of course, there are all kinds of problems generated by the Blitz, and the idea of class solidarity I think is a nonsense. The middle classes all decamped to the countryside leaving the working classes to be bombed. And many workers were aware of that. But I think that aside from rising crime or problems of class conflict and so on, the different constituencies which had entered the war found some common ground, and I think for a great many ordinary people the common ground was that Hitler and Co were a barbarous bunch and that the world would not be safe until we got rid of them. This would mean that everybody was on the front line, ordinary civilians as well as soldiers.

In fact for much of 1940 it was the ordinary civilian population on the front line, not the army. So somehow or other this made that moral crusade which started in September 1939, but had gone sour by the Spring because nothing had happened, make sense to people. And I think that this was an important turning point. There was lots of grumbling about the bombing and there were difficulties as the government didn’t do everything it said it was going to do. But you read diaries and letters in which people are enormously exhilarated by the bombing and it seems quite extraordinary, you know, why would anybody want to be bombed? But there is a sense of excitement, a sense of exhilaration, a sense of adrenaline and I think we shouldn’t ignore that either. People did think this was a war that the whole of society was fighting and for better or worse Hitler was not going to get his way.

LAURENCE REES: And, of course, one effect of it was to almost legitimise in people’s minds our subsequent bombing of Germany.

RICHARD OVERY: Yes, absolutely. Again, I think we come back to this point that for 40,000 people to be killed [in the Blitz] is extraordinary. I mean this had never happened before in modern warfare and it made any kind of other ethical argument redundant. In fact, if you put it to most people in 1941: should we be bombing Germany or not? They’d think it was nonsense and they wouldn’t understand why you were asking them the question. Now that doesn’t mean that people thought it was a good thing to kill women and children from the air, and I’ve read letters, diaries and so on from the Blitz period where people are saying they hope the same thing doesn’t happen to the Germans.

But as long as it was dressed up as it was throughout the war as an assault on Germany’s capacity to make war - in other words it was an effort to degrade the German war effort - then, yes, people had no scruples about it at all. If that meant killing Germans because they were in the way, well, 40,000 British people had been killed, and I think that it was difficult cognitively to get people to view the bombing differently because this was the kind of war that they expected and you couldn’t win that kind of war unless you were prepared to do the second strike. Just like the crisis in the 1960s, for example. If a Soviet rocket had landed, even if you were going to kill 18 million Russians, as the plan in the early 1960s suggested, you couldn’t not do it; the second strike had to go out.