“Don’t You Know There’s a War On?”
- Joshua Levine
This is the well-researched, well-argued story of the British civil population during the Blitz of 1940-41, although for completeness some of the individual narratives go beyond that to reach out to the war on the Home Front as a whole. Some were heroes; many volunteers (like the WVS) pulled far more than their weight; a stoic majority ‘just got on with it’; some barely coped and that was hardly their fault; and a criminal, and considering the times traitorous, parasitic minority of fiddlers, racketeers, cheats, spivs, looters and deserters made life more difficult for everyone else. Everyone’s blitz was different; some suffered grievously, others sailed through without a scratch either physical or otherwise.
Levine, a barrister as well as an historian and an author, pulls this all together with consummate skill and uses a plethora of individual examples to demonstrate illustrate each category. In the process he provides source material to distil the truth from 75 years of myth. It is the sort of work where the author must have had to fork his way through an awful lot of duff to get at the currants he presents to us. With so much material it must be difficult to ensure the selection is balanced but by and large the author has achieved this difficult feat - but see below.
This is a story of a people and its Government dealing with conditions neither had fully anticipated, with the Government unavoidably behind the curve and learning through its mistakes, for instance over the use of the Tube as a shelter and its treatment of ‘enemy aliens’. Its shortcomings of organisation and perception are forensically but sympathetically exposed.
For me, and I suspect for others, there is much new information in this book even though the furrow has been extensively ploughed ever since the war, for instance I had no idea there was once an American-run oilfield in Sherwood Forest.
For anyone who lived through those times, however young, this book also affords a wallow in nostalgia, and they will probably recall parallels to what is related. Even though I was only a child I can recall the Mills bomb on top of the corner cabinet, a .410 ‘walking stick’ in the hall stand, small rationing fiddles, my mother’s friend’s American officer ‘friend’... In the general but, oddly, highly-regulated chaos there was certainly opportunity and temptation even for those who pre-war would have been highly censorious of such goings-on. My grandmother kept a cup of poison on her mantelpiece in case the invader should drop by for tea. My mother, who had a rather different idea of what he might be after, slept with her dressmaking shears under the pillow. I stared rudely at another of my mother’s friends who was picking bits of glass out of her face. This book also made me regret getting rid of all sorts of things, including the fins of the incendiary which flushed my aunt out of Woolwich, and my copy of W Heath Robinson’s ‘How to Make the Best of Things’ (which might usefully have found a place in the extensive bibliography).
I missed coverage of how the war was specially served up for children, for instance Alison Utley’s ‘Hare Joins the Home Guard’ (I believe the only Little Grey Rabbit book to be out of print), Richmal Crompton’s ‘William and ARP’ etc. and ‘Musso Da Wop, He’s a Big Adda-flop’ in the Beano.
More seriously I found no mention of the industrial unrest where the Trade Unions brought their men out in direct betrayal of their own kin and neighbours who were fighting for their lives. The number of strikes peaked at over 2000 in 1943 with over 3,700,000 days of work lost, and this on top of pilfering from, for instance, fully equipped tanks arriving in Glasgow from America. What fun it must have been to get back exhausted to Liverpool after weeks at sea in war and in heavy weather to find the dockers of that port and Birkenhead ‘out’, or your repairs delayed by a shipyard strike. But perhaps this theme did not suit the leftiness of the author which reaches a crescendo in the last chapter and which, for me, costs this otherwise excellent book its ultimate star rating.
It is also worth noting that while there was no Nazi Fifth Column there were certainly Communists, fellow travellers and Lenin’s ‘useful idiots’ from Cairncross and Blunt down to Trade Union organisers and so forth who would not see Cuddly Uncle Joe for the mass murderer that he was, and who, until Barbarossa, worked against the war effort as MI5’s card indexes could testify.
There are comprehensive notes on sources. The text is illustrated throughout with photographs and there are eight pages of plates which include reproductions of relevant War art.
To borrow Wordsworth’s rather strange take on the French Revolution, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven! .. ’ .. as long as one was not oneself bombed, maimed, bereaved or homeless.