Was there such a thing as the Blitz or the Dunkirk spirit? How were people feeling during the war? Did people pull together, willingly make sacrifices and submit to detailed rules and regulations? During Lockdown we were invited to believe they did as we ate our scones, drank our tea, and waved our union flags to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, all while socially distanced. And in some ways the Lockdowns felt like war, against an unknown, new, and powerful enemy.
This collection from the wartime diaries, collected at the time by Mass Observation, reveal a variety of views and beliefs. The diarists wrote about every topic: rumours, Churchill, invasion, uncivilised world, funny stories, outrage, fatigue, food and rationing, rules and regulations, V1s and V2s, class divisions and ‘after the war’.
Born in the aftermath of that war, I am fascinated by how people responded to the conditions of the time. What was changed, what was preserved, how were the post-war years and children shaped by those long six years? Many of us have experienced the silence of our parents on the topic, and most of that generation have since died. But the war seems to me to have had a profound influence on my childhood, so I seek to understand it, in literature, in films, in photographs and in diaries and to see some parallels with our responses to Covid-19.
Many people will be familiar with Nella Last’s War, and the film Housewife 49 which Victoria Wood made memorable. There were many such personal records in the form of diaries sent regularly to Mass Observation. From these archives Blitz Spirit has been made.
In 1940 the phoney war came to an end, during which extensive arrangements had been made, including for refugees and evacuees. Some responded to the plight of others with generosity, others did not.
Diarist 5378. F. Writer and Artist. Tadworth, Surrey. 17/05/40
V. has been going around billeting refugees. I asked her if she had had much luck. ‘Oh rather,’ she replied enthusiastically. ‘I think people have been marvellous. One man said they had no spare room but they would put up a bed in their lounge. I only came across one woman who was difficult. She was very sniffy and said she thought we had enough troubles of our own without worrying about other people’s – silly creature couldn’t see that other people’s troubles in this case are our own.’ (50)
The Blitz itself began in the Autumn and tested the population to the limit. Enduring the Blitz on London and other areas was a most difficult experience. One diarist resented the official upbeat response.
Diarist 5205. M. Shop Assistant. Great Baddow, Essex. 10/09/40
The ‘Daily Sketch’ today: ‘Six hundred enemy aircraft came and made heroes of our Londoners … on Saturday. How the fact of being bombed makers anyone a hero I fail to understand. The nonsensical emotionalism which some papers are now printing is annoying and disturbing. (75)
Rationing of food was a frequent topic in the entries.
Diarist 5364. F. Secretary. Kingussie, Inverness. 28/07/41
Oh for pounds & pounds of fresh, cream butter again. (I’ve no direct war comment today. All I can think of is delicious or varies meals!) (115)
Bombing raids and fire watching were also frequent topics although as the war progressed the dangers receded until the final year.
The war dragged on for six years, with little to celebrate for the first three. One response was to use humour.
Diarist 5412. F. Teacher. Beckenham, Kent. 06/02/43
Placard reported from Manchester Fish Shop
WE HAVE PLENTY
And some diarist reported some very frightening events:
Diarist 5004. M. ARP Worker and Food Packing Manager. Belmont, Surrey. 02/11/44
With my wife we were exercising the dog on the Downs in the late afternoon, and whilst I was telling her of my impressions about an ‘unknown missile’ which fell near me in London today, there was suddenly a terrific flash and an explosion which is indescribable. […] Rather shaken we got up, and the sky overhead was covered in black smoke reaching up to about 2,000 feet. Yes, of course, it was a V2. The bomb had fallen about 200/300 yards away. (274)
And eventually people began to dream about not just ‘the end of the war’ but even ‘after the war’. The Beveridge Report had led to some policy proposals, which eventually led to the setting up of the NHS, and the Welfare State. Not everyone was happy about peacetime prospects.
Diarist 5358. F. ATS Clerk. Grays, Essex. 06/02/45
The gratuities to be awarded to the forces on demobilisation have been announced. […] Once again however, the old distinction creeps in – A.T.S are to receive two-thirds as much as the men. I am not a feminist, but I do like to see equal pay for equal work. At the Headquarters where I work in London, A.T.S work side by side with soldiers unfit for overseas service, doing exactly the same work and duties. Why should these men receive half as much again as the girls? (287)
(ATS stands for Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the Army.)
I have quoted some examples from this very dense book. After I had got over the awkwardness of checking the diarist’s number, gender, occupation, location and date I found much to absorb me here. The entries range from very short (two or three lines) to a page. They come from all over the country, from all walks of life, and as far as can be ascertained all ages. Some of this felt familiar, from Nella Last and Jean Lacey Pratt (see below). Some challenged the notion of Blitz Spirit as we have been encouraged to think of it: grumpy, mean, outraged at neighbours or those who deliberately flouted the spirit and even the letter of regulations.
When the experiences of Covid-19 pandemic become more distant and have been subjected to more reflection, and when the varieties of opinions and experiences have been gathered, perhaps we will see ourselves much as the people are revealed in this book.
A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt (Bookword Blog January 2017)
Mass Observation and the writer (Bookword Blog August 2017)
Blitz Spirit: voices of Britain living through crisis 1939-1945 edited by Becky Brown, with the Mass Observation Archive. Published by Hodder in 2020. 312pp