Blitz Spirit

Tariq Ali

The general impression of the Blitz, fostered by war movies and many books, is of a period when intense national solidarity reigned supreme and class was transcended as everybody sang songs and went about their work. But Alexander Cockburn in Counterpunch draws attention to a piece by Gavin Mortimer (author of The Blitz) in the First Post on looting during 'our finest hour':

It didn't take long for a hardcore of opportunists to realise there were rich pickings available in the immediate aftermath of a raid – and the looting wasn't limited to civilians.

In October 1940 Winston Churchill ordered the arrest and conviction of six London firemen caught looting from a burned-out shop to be hushed up...

In April 1941 Lambeth juvenile court dealt with 42 children in one day, from teenage girls caught stripping clothes from dead bodies to a seven-year-old boy who had stolen five shillings from the gas meter of a damaged house. In total, juvenile crime accounted for 48 per cent of all arrests in the nine months between September 1940 and May 1941 and there were 4,584 cases of looting...

Perhaps the most shameful episode of the whole Blitz occurred on the evening of March 8 1941 when the Cafe de Paris in Piccadilly was hit by a German bomb...

"Some of the looters in the Cafe de Paris cut off the people's fingers to get the rings," recalled Ballard Berkeley, a policeman during the Blitz who later found fame as the 'Major' in Fawlty Towers. Even the wounded in the Cafe de Paris were robbed of their jewellery amid the confusion and carnage.

 Read the full piece here.


  • 13 August 2011 at 4:39pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    I'm not sure what conclusion you expect us to draw from this. Only the rich stood firm against Hitler? Looting has happened in the past, when it was much worse? London today is just like in the Blitz? The poor have no respect for the dead and will always steal, perhaps?

  • 13 August 2011 at 4:48pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    in the nine months between September 1940 and May 1941 and there were 4,584 cases of looting

    By the way, that averages around 16 cases a day.

    • 13 August 2011 at 7:43pm
      Bob Beck says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Though the piece doesn't make clear if this is the number of cases reported to police; or of arrests; or of court cases; or of convictions.

    • 13 August 2011 at 9:15pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Bob Beck
      No it doesn't, but I reject Tariq Ali's snide & cynical implication that those who were obliged to withstand the Blitz were no better that they ought to be. 16 cases a day out of however-many millions is, statistically, nothing. Is that another conclusion he wants us to extrapolate from this unrelated event: that the kids in the streets of London are just a drop in the ocean? I thought not.

    • 14 August 2011 at 1:39am
      Bob Beck says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      That wasn't the implication I took away; but maybe Tariq Ali himself will care to weigh in.

      Meanwhile, I'd have thought one point at least of Gavin Mortimer's essay was simpler: those moralists who contrast the supposed pull-together "spirit of the Blitz" with the supposed degeneracy of These Nefarious Times We Live In tend -- in the way of moralists -- not to know what they're talking about. Tend to have little grasp of history, that is, as distinct from sentimentalism and hand-me-down memories.

    • 15 August 2011 at 1:14pm
      Edmund Gordon says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      16 cases of looting a day over a period of nine months strikes me as, "statistically", quite a lot. And I think that the point is that the current talk of "moral decay" is somewhat hyperbolic.

      Nice post, I thought.

    • 15 August 2011 at 3:41pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Edmund Gordon
      If it was sixteen convictions, or even just court cases per day, then the actual incidence of looting must have been very much higher. Even nowadays, prosecution and conviction rates tell you nothing whatever about true or "underlying" crime rates. And during the Blitz, and rationing, I expect the police and courts had plenty to occupy their time. There was something called the black market, for example, and something called the spiv.

    • 15 August 2011 at 5:32pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Bob Beck
      During WW2 they didn't shoot looters in London, as far as I know, but the authorities probably did all they could to stop it from spreading. A more interesting and less vague article than the First Post's is one from the Guardian, last year. Here's a short excerpt:

      Juliet Gardiner, the social historian and author of Wartime: Britain 1939-1945, says that, while most people found looting despicable, examples differentiated between stealing someone's property and spotting a wireless or jewellery lying on the pavement after an air raid and reckoning that, if you didn't take it, someone else would. "Looting can be a rather elastic term," says Gardiner. "There are stories about rescue parties going to a pub and having to dig for bodies, which is a very grisly task; one of the leaders of such a rescue party found a bottle of brandy and passed it round his men to have a swig to stiffen their sinews and he was actually sentenced to six months in prison. It was mitigated on appeal, but it gives you an idea of what a broad spectrum the notion of looting could cover."

    • 16 August 2011 at 5:23am
      Bob Beck says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Cliches, alas, are true: some things never change. In tumultuous circumstances particularly, sentencing includes an element of *pour encourager les autres*. I keep seeing references to a young man involved in the recent riots who got four months' youth detention for "ranting and swearing at a police officer." I've been unable though to track down all the details.

    • 19 August 2011 at 5:59pm
      Bob Beck says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      This 1983 LRB review by DG Wright (h/t: Thomas Jones):

      seems to confirm that these 4,584 cases (Wright's paraphrase is "over four thousand") were cases that came before the courts -- not cases of looting *tout court*.

      The true figure is of course unknowable, but must have been higher.

  • 13 August 2011 at 9:26pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    Perhaps the most shameful episode of the whole Blitz occurred...when...“Some of the looters in the Cafe de Paris cut off the people’s fingers to get the rings”

    Really? I'd say that the most shameful episode was the 57 consecutive days and nights that the Germans bombed the civilians in the east-end of London.

    • 14 August 2011 at 6:57am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Good one. But other principles apply in wartime, or so we're told.

    • 14 August 2011 at 1:36pm
      Bob Beck says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Surely it wasn't a shameful matter for Londoners that they were so attacked?

  • 14 August 2011 at 7:13am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Tariq Aly writes that the Blitz is portrayed as "a period when intense national solidarity reigned supreme and class was transcended as everybody sang songs and went about their work", implying that this version is the politically correct version, generally accepted by most people today. The question is, do people actually believe that the Blitz was like that? If what I've been reading is reliable, there are some good examples of the spirit of the Blitz (also known as the Dunkirk spirit) actually out there today. The hairdresser Arnold Biber in Tottenham is one example, whose shop was wrecked last week. He has been offered enough money to repair the damage. Sounds like the kind of selfless generosity that is said to have be shown in 1940.
    Th eother point surely is that we should never take these myths at tface value.

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