The London Blitz: Propaganda, Truth and Myth
Some background resources to inform the reading and performing of Robert Caisley’s play The Front.
The play takes place during the London Blitz which began on September 7th 1940.
Watch this Archive footage and listen to first-hand accounts of the first night of the Blitz. There were many more nights of terror to follow.
This short film “London Can Take It” was produced by the British Government in October 1940 primarily for the American audience. Narrated by American journalist Quentin Reynolds it pays tribute to London and its people during the Blitz on the capital.
The film’s huge propaganda impact at the time, especially in the USA, makes it historically one of the most important of the Ministry of Information’s wartime films.
The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square and pianist Myra Hess feature in the play. The links provide information about the Gallery during the war and about Myra Hess whose wartime lunchtime concerts became legendary.
Part of the opening sequence for the BBC TV comedy series Dads Army about the Home Guard in Britain in the Second World War.
Why We Fight: The Battle of Britain. A series of propaganda films made by a great American film director – Frank Capra. Made during the war and for an American audience that had been strongly against joining any European war throughout the 1930’s. See the very useful film notes below.
Take a look at these BBC online resources.
Don’t miss this The Blitz: Sorting the Myth from Reality
The Blitz – together with Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain understandably left an indelible mark on the British psyche. They have entered national legend. The truth is never quite as simple. Always look for sources that separate the myth from reality.
Mass Observation diaries written by ordinary citizens and other accounts tell a more complex story that the Frank Capra Why We Fight for example.
A collection of images on this Pinterest Board.
In the 20th century, warfare became ‘total war’ meaning that the civilian population was as key to the war effort as armed forces. With Britain alone against Nazi Germany in the Second World War this became a key component of the struggle. The people’s morale was vital. The Ministry of Information produced hundreds of posters to inspire civilians with the belief they had a vital contribution to make. This contribution included: keeping spirits high (staying cheerful), working flat out on war production to support ‘our boys’ in the armed forces, accepting the need for sacrifices, and accepting that ‘we are all in it together’. Backs against the wall, business as usual, we can take it, persevere, endure and keep smiling through. Oh! and have a nice cup of tea.
For an interesting account of the myth of the war and British identity take a look at Quad Royal:
That there is a ‘myth’ around this era, a vision of World War Two as the high point of the British nation when everyone pulled together selflessly and class-consciousness disappeared in the heat of the battle, is not a new idea. It was first expounded by Angus Calder in The Myth Of The Blitz in 1991 and is now an established part of historical thinking about the period.
Myths don’t arise just by accident, though, they always have their uses. Calder, in his preface, is completely open about why he wants to question the established story of Britain during the War,
My anger, firstly over the sentimentalisation of 1940 by Labour apologists, then over the abuse of ‘Churchillism’ by Mrs Thatcher during the Falklands War, led me to seek, every which way, to undermine the possibility of the mythical narrative.
Even though Calder exposed its mechanics, the myth has refused to disappear. The darkest days of World War Two still represent an apotheosis of Britishness, and one of the ways by which we maintain this idea is through the Home Front posters that we choose to like.
People certainly do like them. Not only do they fetch increasingly high sums at auction when they appear, but a single Home Front poster, Keep Calm and Carry On, has become the Athena poster for the start of the twenty-first century, reproduced, parodied, everywhere. So why do we want to keep repeating these stories, and what use are they to us now?
The core belief is the same as it was when Calder described it:
a myth of British or English moral pre-eminence, buttressed by British unity
Downton Abbey indeed.
For a long time World War Two has been seen as the crucible which dissolved class consciousness and lessened ingrained inequalities, an achievement which was an essential part of the myth. For Calder, this was one of its redeeming qualities.
…at least the Myth had fostered the notion of the mutual responsibility of all for the welfare of all.
After this was all over, after Britons had pulled together and shared the suffering and endured the losses, the rationing, the deprivation – then maybe there could be a better world for all Britons and not the privileged few. All had suffered and now all needed to the opportunity to benefit from a new world when peace came. And hence the defeat of Churchill in the 1945 election and the extraordinary reforms in education, healthcare and social welfare.