Many regard the stand of the people of London during the Blitz and the so-called ‘Blitz Spirit’ as one of the country’s finer moments during World War Two. Homes were destroyed, people were killed and whole lifestyles overturned. But as the US propaganda film ‘Britain Can Take It’ concluded: “Bombs can only kill; they can never destroy the indomitable spirit of the people of London. Britain can take it.” This was an image the government was keen to play on. The people of the East End of London cheering Winston Churchill as he inspected bomb damage in the docklands were exactly what the propagandists wanted. Shown in cinemas throughout the land, it was meant to exude the ‘Blitz Spirit’.
However, not everyone in London willingly participated in the ‘Blitz Spirit’. Some used the chaos of the Blitz to engage in less than savoury activities. When the ‘Café de Paris’ was bombed in March 1941, thirty diners were killed and over eighty wounded. In the immediate aftermath, survivors witnessed people coming in off the street and looting property in the café – handbags were taken and rings were removed from the dead and dying. On the very same night, a bomb hit a dance hall in the East End and 200 were killed or wounded. But this was not reported in the press as the front-page news was dominated by what had happened at the upmarket ‘Café de Paris’.
The part played by the media in upholding this image of wartime spirit was very important. The Blitz witnessed the very important and dangerous work done by Bomb Disposal Officers who dealt with unexploded bombs – and there were many in London that had to be dealt with on a daily basis. One such officer was Bob Davies who gained an emergency commission in the Royal Engineers because of his pre-war engineering experience. He and his team gained fame when they dug 80 feet into the clay soil and made safe a 1000kg UXB that fell in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Davies himself destroyed the bomb in a controlled explosion on Hackney Marshes – the explosion left a crater 100 feet wide. Had it exploded in Central London, the bomb would have caused enormous damage to an area already badly hit by other bombs. The media eulogised over his bravery as it epitomised exactly what was expected in war torn Britain. Davies and a colleague were awarded the George Cross even if certain newspapers called for him to receive the Victoria Cross. The story behind Davies imploded in May 1942. Davies was court-martialled after being charged with large-scale and systematic theft throughout his time as a Bomb Disposal Officer. He also got cash from the owners of some of the properties he saved. Davies also wrote out cheques knowing that they would be defaulted. Later investigations also revealed that the 1000kg bomb he ‘made safe’ had no fuse in it and could not have exploded. However, Davies would not have known this while he and his team were digging down to the bomb and in their minds it could have exploded at any time. Davies was sent to jail for two years and released in 1944. However, it was the media that played up the story as part of the ‘Blitz Spirit’: “These gallant men of the RE are many a time running a race with death.” It was the type of reporting that the government would have approved of, as its impact on morale was very high. However, the truth was slightly different.
Accepted standards of behaviour also changed during the Blitz. Some young courting couples behaved very publicly in a manner that society would almost certainly not have accepted pre-war. Barbara Nixon, an ARP Warden in Finsbury, North London, remembers seeing a young couple coming out of a garden air raid shelter while no air raid was going on. On another occasion she saw a young couple emerge from an Anderson shelter rapidly re-clothing as air raid guns had just started up along with air raid sirens. The same type of behaviour was witnessed in Underground stations while a raid was going on. Along with quarrelling couples, it was not an image the government wanted to portray to the greater population.
The media was pressurised by the government to portray the ‘Blitz Spirit’ in a purposeful and positive manner. The novelist Bernard Kops recalled: “Some people recall a poetic dream about the Blitz. They talk about those days as if they were a time of communal spirit. Not to me. It was the beginning of an era of utter terror, of fear and horror. I stopped being a child and came face-to-face with the new reality of the world.”
There is little doubt that the elderly suffered during the Blitz. Many of the elderly in the East End had already lived hard lives as would have been expected of the area. Now each night many had to move to the nearest Underground station. The American journalist Ernie Pyle wrote: “Wrapping your ragged overcoat about your old shoulders and sitting on a wooden bench with your back against a curved street wall. Sitting there all night, in nodding and fitful sleep. Think of that as your destiny – every night from now on.”
Others found safety in areas they knew the Luftwaffe would not deliberately target – such as Hackney Marshes. In South Essex, Epping Forest was also used. Each night whole families would leave their homes and walk to the comparative safety of these two areas. Known as ‘Trekkers’ the government did what it could to cover up the story, as it wanted the population throughout the UK to believe that people in the East End and southern Essex were toughing out the Blitz in true British Bulldog spirit. This is what the Ministry of Information portrayed. It was not always the case though.