07 October, 2010

Day 90 - Battle of Britain

So unusual is the bombing break that it makes the front page lead in the Daily Express, acquiring the label "Blitzpause". The story lies alongside one which is clearly government-inspired, talking up the woefully inadequate defences against night raids, and promising "secret night fighters" soon.

Meanwhile, the war goes on and, if there is absolute determination on the part of the British people to defeat Hitler - and there can be little doubt that there is - there is by no means any sense of unity as to how the war should be fought. More specifically, there is an acute political divide on how Britain should emerge from the war and a strong determination on the Left that there should be real social change.

To that extent, there are two wars going on - the war against Hitler and a class-centred domestic political war which had dominated politics since the end of the First World War, taking in issues which were unresolved in the General Strike of 1926.

And on this day, the eve of the annual congress of the Trades Union Council (TUC) the second war flared briefly into prominence in the Daily Mirror leader. It noted that, since the Westminster Parliament seemed to have disappeared for the moment (which it had, meeting infrequently and irregularly), "we must rely for information about, 'the voice of democracy' upon a much larger Parliament that meets at Southport tomorrow. It is composed of the representatives of five million members of the TUC."

The chief topic for discussion, the paper says, is the conduct of the war. But, "from what point of view?" it asks, creating the opportunity to make the archly critical point: "Obviously, from the Labour point of view – if there still is one,", reflecting unease in the labour movement at the silence of two members of the gradually growing War Cabinet, who are also members of the "Workers' Parliament".

These are Clem Atlee and Ernest Bevin (pictured above), former General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU),a pair whom the paper calls, "Mr Academic Atlee and Blunt Bevin. It hopes that the Southport meeting will prefer bluntness and:
... that it will bluntly ask Mr Bevin whether official Labour, now represented in Government, is doing enough – or doing anything – to secure that this should be a People's War; whether this is a war fought "for the people by the people"; and whether there is not far too much of the old privileged-gangster spirit at its old game of cajoling the workers while it fights for the few. We have seen this so often that we may be excused doubts.
The paper then continues:
Particularly, when we note that stern Labour men seem to be getting so pally with the others. Of course they must work with the others. But with a difference. War work, not bouquets with compliments. We have noticed that the energetic Lord Beaverbrook appears to have appointed himself Minister of Bouquets. He handed one to Sir Kingsley Wood. Last week he handed another to Mr Herbert Morrison as "a great fellow at the Ministry of Supply". Which shows that they are all getting on well together. But does it show that Labour is getting on with its job of influencing Government in the right – we mean the Left – direction?

We put this to the Parliament of Southport.
There is a great deal to be said of this one editorial - written under a strict censorship regime which does not easily permit open criticism of the conduct of the war. It recognises that, in the absence of an active parliament, the unions are becoming the unofficial opposition and that the parliamentary Labour Party was not meeting the expectations of the labour movement.

Crucially though, it also highlights the concept of the People's War, and asks whether this war is being fought "for the people by the people" or for the benefit of the privileged "few".  This is a different vision of "the few" - which long pre-dates Churchill, but it is a recurrent vision. There are accusations, for instance, as early as 1921, that "war does not pay, except to a few", with insinuations that the United States engaged in the First World War "for the financial profit of the few".

The concept of government for the many, and not for "the profits of the few" is one raised frequently by Roosevelt in the early-mid thirties, particularly with reference to the "new deal" and is found in diverse socialist writings, amongst them Marx and Trotsky, forming the central tenet of socialism and the basis of union ambitions, who seek "a system of production for service to the many, not for the profit of the few."

One cannot help but wonder at this contrast between "the people" and "the few". The latter is the term Churchill uses to describe the airman fighting the war, when he stresses that never has so much been owed by so many to so few.

But back in August when he used the phrase, the one which has become the defining phrase of his version of the Battle of Britain, was he instinctively trying to capture and redefine a term which the labour movement had for over a decade used to describe its class enemy? Was he thinking not so much of the airmen, but of the ruling class to which he belonged, trying to re-assert a relationship, the legitimacy of which was being challenged by his political rivals?

If Churchill is aware of this nuance, at this time, he does not publicly acknowledge it. With the recent promotion of Sir Charles Portal to Chief of the Air Staff, The Daily Mail (via Airminded) reveals the prime minister's dream, with a headline: "RAF Preparing a Great New Bomber Offensive". It tells its readers that "powerful new RAF bombers now being produced in great numbers and an amazing new long-range fighter are likely to be used, in the immediate future, for a greatly intensified bombing offensive over Germany.

The report is in many ways delusional – with only very small numbers of the new four-engined Stirling being produced, but not least in its claim about a new "long-range fighter". This may be a reference to the Mosquito being built by de Havilland in Hatfield, but the reality is that the RAF – now obsessed with its Spitfires – consistently fails to produce an effective long-range escort fighter.

Nevertheless, the paper declares: "Hitler's people can look forward to more than a taste of the medicine their Luftwaffe is administering over here."

Dramatic though this might sound, Portal - and Churchill for that matter - to say nothing of the Daily Mail, might have been advised to read a piece written by Ruth Cowan for the AP, and widely syndicated throughout the US. Headed, "Londoners will get used to bombs in time, noted psychiatrist says," it records the views of Dr Lawrence Kolb, assistant surgeon general in charge of mental hygiene in the United States public health service.

He has been studying how human beings react under aerial bombardment and identifying the "mental after effects" – if any. He had thus been putting "Mr Average citizen of London" under a long-range microscope to see how the islander was standing up mentally under "death from the air". Dr Kolb had "found him doing very well".

Air raids had two effects on civilian populations, Kolb explained. First, terror, stress and anxiety tended to break down certain people – whose resistance was not high. But second, the ordeal tended to strengthen those people whose personalities were well or better-integrated. This group could get used to being bombed and stand more of it without bad mental after-effects.

However, the first reaction of even well-integrated individuals to sudden, unexpected bombing, especially if it is a novel experience, "may be panic ...". But instead of going to pieces, this type of individual will react realistically to adjust to conditions.

Yet, with Portal's great bombing offensive in the planning, the very psychology which was set to make Hitler's Blitz a failure was now to be revisited on the Germans, with exactly the same results.

Less sanguine about the effects of the bombing was US Ambassador Joseph Kennedy. A report had emerged that he was asking Washington to send another "rescue ship" to remove Americans from "embattled Britain." A consistent pessimist about the ability of Britain to resist the German onslaught, he had now fixed on the idea of evacuating his fellow countrymen.

Negotiations were "understood" to be in progress between Kennedy and Washington, the main question hinging on whether Germany and Britain will give safe passage to such a ship. Whether Kennedy himself would be a passenger on the ship was not known, although rumour had it that he intended to return to the US in November.

Kennedy, though, was not the only one contemplating getting out of London. Announced by Malcolm McDonald, the health minister was an inspired scheme for large-scale evacuation of the London area.

All mothers with school-age children, or under, were offered guaranteed transport out of capital. Billets would be found for them and lodging paid. Those who wished to make their own arrangements were being offered travel warrants and a lodging allowance. There were to be no bureaucratic obstacles, the tasks being to remove those around which dissent might be fomented, and to relieve the burdens on public services and shelter accommodation.

In the event, only around 10,000 women and children took advantage of the scheme. But the offer had been made. Those who stayed put were "volunteers" for whatever was to come.

As for the wider war, in a situation which had been building for some time, Italian and German troops had entered Rumania, with much of the press making this their lead item for the day. The take-over, and that is what it amounts to, gives the Germans access to the oil fields at Ploesti. Until bombed to destruction by the USAAF, this supply will provide a vital adjunct to Germany's war-making capabilities.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread