‘We’re Not Jittery’

Bernard Porter

  • Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain’s Finest Hour May-September 1940 edited by Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang
    Bodley Head, 492 pp, £18.99, May 2010, ISBN 978 1 84792 142 0

When Chamberlain took the British to war in September 1939, he had little idea of how they would respond. Very few of those in authority did. In their introduction to this important collection of documents, Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang point out the ‘gulf of mutual incomprehension’ that separated ministers and civil servants from ‘the broad mass of the British public’. Ordinary MPs and the press thought they had a better grasp of popular opinion, but they may not have done. This was a serious matter: if the government was to take the people along with it, it had to know how they felt and what kinds of appeal they would respond to. It was with this in mind that in December it set up a brand new Home Intelligence Department, within the fairly new Ministry of Information (or propaganda), to find out. It was headed by Mary Adams, one of British television’s earliest producers, before TV was shut down for the duration of the war: she moved to Whitehall and was given the task of monitoring domestic morale.

She may be thought to have been a surprising choice. For a start, she was a woman – ‘a tiny, vivacious, brainy blonde with bright blue eyes who always dressed very elegantly’ – in what was predominantly a man’s world; though it could also be argued that looking after the home front was very much in line with traditional perceptions of gender roles. (‘Keep an eye on the children while daddy goes off to fight.’) She was married to a Tory MP, which will have reassured the establishment; but he was an anti-appeasement Tory, and she herself is described as ‘a socialist, a romantic Communist … a fervent atheist and advocate of humanism’, which didn’t fit the conventional bill nearly so well.

We should probably thank our lucky stars for that. The Conservative men often got things very wrong; her own boss, Duff Cooper, then minister of information, among them. How things might have turned out if MI5 – an obvious alternative candidate – had been given the job scarcely bears thinking about: it’s hard to imagine those stupid old reactionaries being anything like as relaxed as she was about the Communists in Britain, romantic or not; or saying, as she did, that people should be pleased rather than angry that conchies were refusing to join up because pacifists did not generally make good soldiers. Nor could one absolutely rely on MI5’s anti-Fascism. Adams was sound on that, and receptive and open-minded about most other things. If the information she elicited succeeded in preventing or correcting some of the ministers’ faux pas, she may have been one of the most important, if unsung, heroes of the Second World War.

Her task was a delicate one. It involved – to put it bluntly – spying on ordinary people, which was considered anathema. Even door to door surveys were highly suspect; Duff Cooper tried them in the summer of 1940, only to have his canvassers vilified as ‘Cooper’s Snoopers’ in the press, and compared to the Gestapo. ‘The idea of sounding opinion by doorstep inquiries can hardly have been produced by a British mind,’ the Observer commented. Adams’s own investigators later claimed this was a typical instance of the press’s being out of touch with ‘real’ people; most of the latter, they reported, had ‘little idea of what the fuss has all been about’, and if they did have some idea, were broadly in favour of the ‘snoopers’. Had the press known how Adams got her information it might have been even more savage. It came via ‘regional information officers’, and mainly consisted in what they and trusted voluntary contacts overheard in factories, offices, buses, pubs, various clubs and societies, and in air-raid shelters, where ‘observers’ insinuated themselves as genuine refugees from the bombing. All this was supplemented by intercepted Irish mail (justified because of the very real fear that the Germans might use the Republic of Ireland, with Irish Fifth Column help, to launch an invasion of Britain), and information volunteered by special branches, chief constables and the ‘snoopers’, for as long as they operated. Between May and September 1940 information was phoned in from the various regions each day – thereafter weekly – in time to be collated and typed up for the minister around teatime. (It is the daily reports that are reproduced here, complete.) The process was far more covert than Cooper’s ill-fated little enterprise, and consequently even more ‘un-British’.

Is the end-product reliable? The reports are highly impressionistic: far less ‘scientific’ than proper social sampling would have been. That was inevitable, however, given the instant assessments that were required, and there are of course things that ordinary conversations – what the reports call ‘verbatims’ – can convey that quantitative analysis cannot. (Adams learned this from the example of Tom Harrisson’s Mass-Observation surveys before the war.) Another problem may have been the inhibitions felt by the people who were being eavesdropped on, with posters all around them warning against ‘gossip’ and ‘careless talk’; there was even the possibility, for a short while in 1940, that they could be thrown into prison for expressing ‘defeatist’ opinions. That was another clumsy official wheeze whose widespread unpopularity the Home Intelligence Department made very clear – ‘It is suggested there is no outlet for healthy grumbling … working-class people feel suspicious and afraid. “Oh I don’t know. Best to pass no opinion these days. You might get hung”’ – and the order was eventually countermanded by Churchill. In the meantime, it must have put people on their guard. Lastly, Adams’s own views may have coloured both the work of her department and the tone of her reports, just as MI5’s would have done, in different ways.

For whatever reason – and the likeliest is that they were broadly accurate – the general impression given by these daily reports is overwhelmingly positive. Most begin with the words ‘morale is high,’ or ‘remains high,’ or some such; usually they make great play of people’s ‘cheerfulness’, even under the most extreme circumstances (‘conditions of living now almost impossible,’ one observer reported after a night in a West Ham air-raid shelter during the Blitz); and they are full of those vignettes of tough little cockneys (especially) that are so familiar to us from wartime propaganda and post-war Ealing comedies as to arouse the suspicion that they are mythical. But not at all: ‘Cowley Estate, Stockwell, reports tenants busy making shelters comfortable with carpets to sleep on, furniture, beds for children, pictures of King and Queen, artificial flowers, Union Jacks etc. Women scrubbing floors and laughing: “Wish Hitler could see us now!”’

Air-raids were accepted ‘philosophically’, and even enjoyed (by those who weren’t hit). ‘Reaction to bombs and anti-aircraft guns in East Sussex is pleasurable excitement rather than alarm.’ ‘Many civilians refused to take cover, wishing to see the sights.’ (That was a common observation.) People were bussed in to gawp at the damage: 29 coachloads after Brighton had been bombed. In nearly every case aerial bombing was claimed to strengthen morale rather than undermine it: ‘intensified raids have not affected morale; rather the reverse: confidence is increased, opinion is stiffer and there is a feeling of growing exhilaration’; ‘generally speaking, morale appears to be best in those places which have been heavily bombed’; ‘the general reaction’ – this after mid-Wales’s first taste of bombing – ‘is one of pride that these areas are now “in the show”.’ Oddly, a similar reaction followed the other major setback of these months, the fall of France. Many people, no doubt perversely, thought they were ‘better off without the French’. ‘Now we are alone there is no one to let us down.’ It may have been just bravado, but it does sound quite brave.

All this must have been reassuring to ministers; but there was a worrying side. First of all, the resilience was not quite complete; and second, it owed little to the government. Gaps in the picture of total support included a few ‘pockets’ of pacifism, defeatism and even native Fascism, though these were not thought to be significant: even the ‘religio-pacifist Welsh press’, one observer reported, was ‘now calling Germans “barbarians”’. Women apparently tended to be ‘more anxious and nervy than men’, but only because they were left on their own at home too much, and there were plenty of stories to balance these out: Nottingham women demanding ‘to be armed with rifles and hand grenades’; ‘working-class Edinburgh women’ vowing to ‘fight Germans in streets if men can’t stop them’. (This is quite apart from the ‘Evangelical old ladies in Tunbridge Wells’ who, when Mussolini entered the war, were reported to be ‘satisfied at bombing of Italian Catholics’.)

The more serious obstacles to wartime morale were perceived to come from the middle and upper classes. ‘The whiter the collar, the less the assurance,’ the department’s Reading contact reported in June (and Adams repeated later): this judgment was confirmed by ‘three reliable contacts in Devon’, who claimed that ‘people with the least satisfactory attitude towards the war are mostly found in the income group from £250-£750.’ That more or less covered the lower middle and middle middle classes. They were the ones who spread alarmist rumours, of which ‘hairy-handed nuns’ – German paratroopers disguised as nuns – is the best known and most ridiculed. But it was a genuine rumour. Others brought to Home Intelligence’s notice were the tunnel that Germany had apparently dug under Switzerland to get to Toulouse; the ‘gas which paralyses the willpower’ that Hitler had developed (perhaps he tried it on the lower middle classes first); and the idea that either Germany or Britain – it is not clear which – was about to recruit ‘mentally defective patients … for a suicide corps’. It was also, rather more seriously, the middle classes (or some of them) who were reputed to be the hoarders; the black-marketeers; the profiteers (it was reported from Islington at the height of the Blitz that undertakers were ‘making excessive charges for funerals’); to have the best air-raid shelters; to be the least ‘neighbourly’ when neighbourliness was most needed; to ‘joy-ride’ in their cars (a middle-class luxury), wasting petrol that could be going into tanks and driving imperiously past queues of workers trying to hitch lifts home after long days (or nights) spent working in the national interest, with public transport disrupted by the air-raids; to object to working-class passengers intruding into first-class railway carriages when third class overflowed; to kick up fusses in posh restaurants when told they had to keep to the ‘ration’ like everyone else; to be obnoxious to poor children from target areas billeted with them; and to send their own children away to safety in America while the working classes had no such option. ‘Film of children arriving in USA hissed in Winchester,’ Reading reported in July. Duff Cooper was one of these middle-class parents: he will have read of the widespread criticism directed at him personally over this in these reports.

There were dangers in this. As the Blitz intensified, Adams warned increasingly of the ‘class feeling’ and ‘bitterness’ that such stories were stirring up at the sharp end of the German onslaught. There was, for example, ‘talk’ on the Isle of Dogs of ‘marching to West End to commandeer hotels and clubs’. That would have set the working-class cat among the pigeons. In the meantime, it certainly undermined confidence among those same working classes, and not only them, in the resolution of their political leaders to see the war through. To read some accounts of the British effort in the Second World War – Carlo D’Este’s recent Warlord: A Life of Churchill at War is one[*] – you might get the impression that it required Churchill’s stirring oratory in 1940 to rally a wavering people to the cause; but that is a travesty. The people were solid, in the main. It was the authorities who were perceived to be the waverers.

This comes out again and again in the reports. One sign is the repeated criticism of Chamberlain’s continued presence in the cabinet after Churchill had taken over as prime minister, with talk of ‘lynching’ him and the rest of the ‘old gang if things get very bad’. That was said at the time of France’s capitulation, which was widely attributed to the ‘treachery’ of her own political class, and taken to be a warning of what might well occur in Britain too. ‘Black-coated workers in Glasgow regard French government’s betrayal of French people as a possible indication of what may happen here, and are naming the would-be traitor.’ That must be Chamberlain, but others in authority were mistrusted also. Rumours abounded of certain ministers (unnamed) already suing for peace. A report from the West Country spoke of ‘prominent men having been arrested’ for disloyalty, and from Newcastle of a chief constable and a professor of French under suspicion there. At the apex of the social hierarchy (almost), the Duke of Windsor’s Fascist proclivities were widely suspected, and people wondered what he was doing in Spain: waiting to take over, perhaps? These were the unreliable elements. ‘Fifth Columnists are at the top, and not at the bottom,’ was the widespread opinion reported from Leeds.

Hence the degree of criticism expressed towards the authorities; far greater early on, as Adams remarked several times – it surprised her too – than against the Germans. This emphatically was not because the government was asking people to fight – public opinion was if anything ahead of the government in wanting aggressive action against Germany and Italy – but because it wasn’t giving them the means to fight as hard as they wanted. There were no complaints about military conscription, but only at the slowness of it (‘men lose their enthusiasm waiting’); no objection to women working, but a great deal of anger when women went along to labour exchanges to get war work, only to be turned away. It was this that was supposed to account in large part for their relative demoralisation, by comparison with working men. Even among the men, continuing unemployment, at a time when surely every available human resource should be being mobilised for the war effort, was seen as a sign of ‘half-heartedness’ on the part of the political and administrative class. (What must defeated French soldiers think, one commentator speculated, when they escape to England and see idle men strolling around?) ‘Everyone wants full-time war work’; ‘we are all anxious to be up and doing’; all they needed was ‘to be told precisely what to do’; ‘they would, in fact, like to be disciplined.’ ‘Morale is healthy and the confidence and determination of the people is ready for mobilisation and for translation into vigorous action.’ But the authorities had better be quick about it: ‘The willing horse is getting fed up.’

Seen from this point of view, much of the propaganda put out by government departments in 1940 in order to ‘rally’ people appeared simply galling. The BBC was of course the main propaganda vehicle, and came in for huge criticism. News broadcasts were condemned for being too repetitive, too flippant and – most seriously – for not telling the truth. A particular grudge was that they were slow in reporting details of air-raids, forcing people to tune into ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ (the traitor William Joyce, broadcasting from Germany), who was found to be more reliable. Newsreaders were criticised for being too polite to Hitler and Mussolini – always referring to them as ‘Herr’ and ‘Signor’. (‘Is this cissy attitude due to the existence of an appeasement policy?’ Tunbridge Wells asked.) They were also widely condemned for their concentration on ‘aerial exploits’ at a time when the RAF – blamed for not giving enough cover at Dunkirk – stood in very low esteem, as it did until the Battle of Britain. Even then, one particular live broadcast of an air battle over the Straits of Dover on 14 July attracted much criticism, mainly from women, for seeming to treat it like a sporting event. (‘O boy – I’ve never seen anything so good as this.’) ‘His callous Oxford accent,’ one listener commented, ‘made it worse.’

Accents were a general cause of irritation: far more, almost certainly, than the authorities could have realised if Adams had not pointed it out. There were many criticisms of ‘Eton and Sandhurst’, ‘plum-pudding’, ‘Foreign-Office’, ‘pompous and heavy’ (‘almost as if the Nazis had taken over already’) and ‘lugubrious’ radio accents (the last attributed to a Scottish clergyman); and also of literary, poetical, classical, religious and historical allusions in ministers’ pep-talks that went over ordinary people’s heads. ‘Plain North Country voices go down better on wireless than university voices,’ was one bit of advice (from London). J.B. Priestley’s Yorkshire and Lord Beaverbrook’s Canadian went down well. This may seem petty, but given the widespread suspicion of the loyalties of the upper classes, it is easy to understand.

What really got people’s backs up about much government propaganda, however, was its exhortatory tone, especially when delivered in those plummy accents. ‘People don’t want exhortation to be cheerful: they are cheerful,’ one of Adams’s observers reported after an extensive tour of England. ‘They don’t want to be told to be good: they are as co-operative as they can be.’ They just needed to be mobilised. ‘Strong opinions heard on all sides that propaganda exhorting us to be courageous is not only unnecessary but impertinent.’ That was London, in the middle of the Blitz. ‘Much feeling against advertisement headed “Let us brace ourselves to our duty.” Public say “we are braced already, why doesn’t the government tell us what to do. Fault lies in high places, not with us working people.”’ And then this telling comment: ‘We’re not jittery; I suppose they are.’

Initially even Churchill’s oratory, which D’Este believes was crucial, seems to have made very little difference. Reactions to his earlier speeches are not prominent in these reports, and when they do appear assessments are divided. ‘Blood, sweat and tears’ doesn’t seem to have gone down particularly well: people were ‘seeking and needing a positive purpose, something aggressive, dynamic, beyond themselves, worth dying for’. There are also indications that Churchill’s war aims appeared somewhat narrow, even when he brought his beloved empire on board. ‘Opinions expressed that Britain should demonstrate she is fighting not only to preserve the Empire, but for a community of interest for the peoples of Europe, to counteract creation of Hitler’s “New Europe”.’ (‘Even unimaginative Slough,’ Reading reported, ‘has voiced this.’) So the people were ahead of the government here too.

It took a little time for Churchill to find his feet with them, but one can see the rapport developing, slowly, in these reports. When it happened, however, it was not because he geed the people up but because he was seen to represent the kind of leadership they were looking for: in particular, the resolution they already had, to fight to the very end. ‘Reports from all regions agree that the premier’s speech last night won universal approval, and the assurance that there will be no peace discussion was welcome and heartening. A typical comment from Bristol is “that’s the sort of thing we want and he’s the fellow we can follow.”’ But isn’t that exactly how he described his own contribution? ‘I have never accepted,’ he said in 1954, ‘what many people have kindly said, namely, that I inspired the nation. It was the nation’ – and also, he added, imperially, ‘the race dwelling all around the globe’ – ‘that had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.’ This splendid and absorbing book would seem to back that up.

[*] Reviewed by Bernard Porter in the LRB of 27 August 2009.