Archive for the ‘phoney war’ Tag

September 1939 (II): All at Sea – Naval Developments & Diplomacy; Appendices – Documents and Debates.   Leave a comment

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

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Even at the very late hour of August 1939, there were some ministers who publicly argued for the continuation of the appeasement policy. War is not only not inevitable, said Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Defence Co-ordination, seeking to reassure the British public, but it is unlikely. R A (Richard Austen) Butler, later responsible for the 1944 Education Act, then Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, praised Harold Nicolson’s Penguin Special book as a work of art and perfectly correct. As the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax sat in the Lords, Butler was the Government’s spokesman in the Commons, valiantly defending its policy. An enthusiastic Chamberlainite, he regarded Munich not as a means of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Hitler. An unrepentant appeaser down to the outbreak of war, Butler even opposed the Polish alliance signed on 25 August, claiming it would have a bad psychological effect on Hitler. Critics of Chamberlain’s post-Prague policy for ignoring the necessity of encirclement thus found common cause with the ardent appeasers, though Butler himself remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after his final fall from grace. He blamed the Prime Minister’s demise and ultimate disgrace on the growing influence of Sir Horace Wilson at this time, as, for different reasons, did Nicolson.

However, even the tiny window of ‘encirclement’ was soon shut and shuttered by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. For those on the Left of British politics, both inside Parliament and out,  this represented an unthinkable nightmare and spelt the immediate decapitation of the idea of a Popular Front with communism against the Fascist threat. In particular, Nicolson’s argument for an alliance with the Soviet Union was suddenly invalidated. When he heard of it, Harold Nicolson was, like Drake at the time of the Spanish Armada, on Plymouth Sound. He rushed back to London, to hear Chamberlain’s statement to the House. The PM was like a coroner summing up a murder case, Harold suggested. Although sympathetic to Chamberlain’s hopeless plight, he agreed with the verdict of Lloyd George and Churchill that the PM was a hopeless old crow… personally to blame for this disaster. 

002As Hitler wasted no time in crossing the border into Poland at daybreak on 1 September, the moral and diplomatic disaster became a military reality. Later the same day, Churchill was asked to join a small War Cabinet, a sign to all that Chamberlain had finally accepted that reality and now meant business. When the PM addressed the House that evening, visibly under tremendous emotional stress, he read out the allied dispatch sent to Berlin. This contained the familiar words that unless Germany gave a firm pledge to suspend all military activities and to withdraw its troops from Poland, Britain would instantly honour its obligations. However, there was no time limit attached to the word ‘instantly’ at this stage, so the dispatch could not be read as anything more than a warning. It was not an ultimatum. Apparently, this was largely due to the procrastination of the French Government, which, even at this late hour, was hoping for another Munich Conference to be held within 48 hours.

When the House met again the next evening, Chamberlain’s statement was still loosely-phrased.  Was there to be another Munich? was the unspoken question in everyone’s mind, if not on their lips. When the opposition spokesman, Arthur Greenwood, rose to speak, there were shouts from the Tory benches urging him to Speak for Britain. Chamberlain turned around to his own backbenches as if stung. The House adjourned in indescribable confusion and the Cabinet reconvened in Downing Street on what, by all accounts, was literally a very stormy night. The Cabinet decided to present the ultimatum at nine in the morning in Berlin, to expire two hours later. Chamberlain ended the meeting with the words Right, gentlemen..this means war, quietly spoken, after which there was a deafening thunderclap.

As Chamberlain himself remarked soon afterwards, no German answer to the allied ultimatum was forthcoming before 11 a.m. on the third. Harold Nicolson attended a gathering of the Eden group. At 11.15 they heard Chamberlain’s announcement. For them, as for the masses of British people listening, it seemed like the present did not exist, only the future and the past. What could any of them, with all their grandness and wealth, do now? In a strained and disgusted voice, Chamberlain told a benumbed British people that, after all, they were now at war with Germany. As if a harbinger of the nine-month ‘phoney war’ which was to follow, the air-raid siren sounded the last of the Thirties’ false alarms. In the chamber of the House of Commons, an ill-looking Prime Minister made a ‘restrained speech’. As Nicolson drove out of London towards his home at Sissinghurst in Kent, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist, and shouted, it is all the fault of the rich.  There was a real sense in which both the war itself and its aftermath, became a class war in which the aristocratic control of politics which had helped to cause it, was jettisoned by the British people.

British diplomats were even less enthusiastic about the prospect of conflict with the Soviet Union than the politicians. In a secret telegram to the Foreign Office, the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir William Seeds, wrote:

I do not myself see what advantage war with the Soviet Union would be to us, though it would please me personally to declare it on M. Molotov. …the Soviet invasion of Poland is not without advantages to us in the long run, for it will entail the keeping of a large army on a war footing outside Russia consuming food and petrol and wearing out material and transport, thus reducing German hopes of military or food supplies.

In a public statement on 20 September, however, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain spoke to the House of Commons about the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland:

For the unhappy victim of this cynical attack, the result has been a tragedy of the grimmest character. The world which has watched the vain struggle of the Polish nation against overwhelming odds with profound pity and sympathy admires their valour, which even now refuses to admit defeat. … There is no sacrifice from which we will not shrink, there is no operation we will not undertake provided our responsible advisers, our Allies, and we ourselves are convinced that it will make an appropriate contribution to victory. But what we will not do is to rush into adventures that offer little prospect of success and are calculated to impair our resources and to postpone ultimate victory.

Fine words, but not matched by action. After the signing of the German-Soviet border treaty in Moscow a week later, Sir William revised his opinion in a telegram of 30 September:

It must be borne in mind that if war continues any considerable time, the Soviet part of Poland will, at its close, have been purged of any non-Soviet population or classes whatever, and that it may well be consequently impossible, in practice, to separate it from the rest of Russia. …our war aims are not incompatible with reasonable settlement on ethnographic and cultural lines.

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On the face of it, this was an incredible suggestion. The Soviet Union had just invaded and was subjugating the eastern territories of a nation to which Britain had given its pledge of protection, yet a senior diplomat was privately suggesting that this aggression should be immediately rewarded. Back in London, another senior diplomat, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick endorsed Seeds views in a report produced on 1 October to which he appended a sketch map of Poland, pointing out that the new Soviet-imposed border mostly followed the ‘Curzon Line’ proposed by the British Foreign Secretary in 1919, which had been rejected by both the Poles and Bolsheviks at the time.

The picture on the right shows German officers discussing with a Soviet officer (far left) the demarcation line between their various pieces of conquered territory after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the invasion of Poland from west and east. 

Nevertheless, there were many among the general population in Britain who were bemused as to why their country had not declared war on the Soviet Union. If the British treaty to protect Poland from aggression had resulted in war with the Germans, why hadn’t it also triggered a war with the USSR? What they were not aware of was that it was not only the Nazi-Soviet pact which had a secret clause, but also the 1939 Anglo-Polish treaty. That clause specifically limited the obligation to protect Poland from ‘aggression’ to that initiated by Germany.

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

The sixth-month hiatus between the end of the Polish campaign in October 1939 and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 is known as ‘the Phoney War’. With little going on in the West on land and in the skies, the British and French publics were lulled into thinking that the war was not truly a matter of life and death for them in the way it obviously was for the Poles, and their daily existence was carried on substantially as usual, in all its bureaucracy, inefficiency and occasional absurdity. The National Labour MP Harold Nicolson recorded in his war diaries that the Ministry of Information censors had refused to publish the wording of a leaflet, of which two million copies had been dropped over Germany, on the grounds that… We are not allowed to disclose information that might be of value to the enemy.

The map below shows the full details of the war at sea, 1939-45:

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There was nothing phoney about the war at sea, however. It was perfectly true that the British Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood made the asinine remark that the RAF should not bomb munitions dumps in the Black Forest because so much of it was private property, but at sea, there were no such absurdities. As early as 19 August, U-boat captains were sent a coded signal about a submarine officers’ reunion which directed them to take up their positions around the British Isles in readiness for imminent action. Within nine hours of the declaration of war, the British liner SS Athenia was torpedoed on its way from Glasgow to Montreal, with 1,400 passengers on board, the captain of U-30 mistaking the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. Had they hit the radio mast, and the SOS signal not been transmitted, many more than the 112 passengers would have perished. A Czech survivor recalled:

There was a column of water near the ship and a black thing like a cigar shot over the sea towards us. There was a bang, and then I saw men on the submarine turn a gun and fire it.

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above: a poster recruiting for the German submarine service. Submarine attack was the main activity of the German Navy during the war, and it succeeded in reducing allied tonnage substantially. Submariners were often absent for up to eighteen months and returned weather-beaten and bearded. Casualties were very high. Some seventy per cent of all submariners were killed.

Neither side was prepared for sea warfare in 1939, but neither could ignore the lessons of the 1914-18 sea war: the German High Seas Fleet had remained largely inactive, while the U-boats had brought Britain perilously close to catastrophe. In the U-boat, Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon, and there was no reason not to attempt to use it more decisively in a second war. For Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest and most critical of World War Two; defeat would have forced Britain out of the war and made US intervention in Europe impossible. Airpower was also crucial in the battle of the Atlantic. German spotter aircraft could locate convoys and guide U-boats to their targets, while land-based air patrols and fighters launched by catapult from convoy ships provided essential protection. While Germany had entered the war with a number of particularly capital ships, including three purpose-built ‘pocket battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, Germany was once again to use its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. The capital ships were used as raiders against British commercial vessels. Nevertheless, tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British naval resources. The pocket battleship Graf Spee enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war.

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Just as in the previous war, however, it was the U-boat that was to provide the greatest danger to Britain’s supply lines, causing Churchill intense anxiety as First Lord of the Admiralty. Had Hitler given first priority in terms of funding to his U-boat fleet on coming to power in 1933, rather than to the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, he might have built a force that would have strangled and starved Britain into surrender. As it was, the navy was the weakest of Germany’s armed services when war broke out. Against the twenty-two battleships and eighty-three cruisers of the French and British navies, Germany had only three small ‘pocket’ battleships and eight cruisers. Early in the war, the German Navy under Admiral Erich Raeder recognised that the submarine offered the only effective German action at sea. In 1939 there were only 57 U-boats available, and not all of these were suitable for the Atlantic.  They had limited underwater range and spent most of their time on the surface, where they were vulnerable to Coastal command bombers. However, under Admiral Karl Dönitz the submarine arm expanded rapidly and soon took a steady toll of Allied shipping. To Dönitz, as commander of the U-boat fleet, it was a simple question of arithmetic: Britain depended on supplies that were carried by a fleet of about three thousand ocean-going merchant ships, and these could carry about seventeen million tonnes. If he could keep sufficient U-boats at sea and sink enough of this tonnage, Britain would be forced to capitulate. He had devised tactics to overcome the convoys, based on the simple concept of overwhelming the escorts. Dönitz introduced a new tactic to undersea warfare, with the ‘wolf packs’ hunting at night linked by radio, often attacking on the surface and at close range. But Dönitz simply did not have enough boats to launch sufficient attacks in groups.

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above: Convoy with escorts, seen at sunset in the Atlantic in July 1942. The adoption of the convoy system was a key element in defeating the U-boat threat.

At the same time, the British had made very few preparations. The first of hundreds of Atlantic convoys left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 15 September. Learning the doleful lessons of the Great War, the convoy system was adhered to rigidly by the British between 1939 and 1945, even for ships moving along the coastline between Glasgow and the Thames. Destroyers, frigates and corvettes used an echo-sounding device called ASDIC (named after the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) to try to track U-boats, while the convoys’ merchantmen sailed together within a protective cordon. But although it was initially seen as a complete solution to the U-boat threat, it proved less than perfect and was only really effective at ranges of two hundred to a thousand metres, when most U-boats were operating on the surface in any case. Britain’s escort fleet had been allowed to run down to such an extent that Churchill was prepared to trade valuable bases in the West Indies and Newfoundland in return for fifty obsolete American destroyers. Perhaps even more damaging was the misuse of resources: the Royal Navy insisted on largely futile attempts to hunt down U-boats instead of concentrating on escorting convoys.

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above: a depth charge explodes astern of a Royal Navy ship hunting for a submerged U-boat. Dropped from surface ships, depth charges could cause fatal damage to a submarine, but they had a limited effective range.

The convoys also adopted a zig-zagging route, the better to outfox their submerged foes. Overall the system was another success, but when a waiting U-boat ‘wolf-pack’ broke through, the losses among the huddled merchantmen could be correspondingly high, and on one occasion as many as half of the vessels were sent to the bottom. The Royal Navy started the war with only five aircraft carriers and so merchant shipping lacked essential air protection out at sea. RAF Coastal Command was left critically short of aircraft because of the priority given to Bomber Command, and the flying boats it received did not have enough range – there remained a gap in the central Atlantic where no air patrols were possible; the ‘Greenland gap’, where U-boats could congregate in relative safety. This was the period that the Germans referred to as the ‘happy time’ when their losses were slight and successes high. In a desperate attempt to extend the range of Britain’s air patrols, Churchill offered the Irish government unification with Northern Ireland in exchange for the use of bases in Lough Swilly, Cobb and Berehaven, but it insisted on maintaining its strict neutrality in the war.

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above: as in the First World War, German leaders gambled on knocking Britain out of the conflict by a submarine blockade. The map above shows the details of the first phase of this.

On 17 September the veteran HMS Courageous was sunk in the Western Approaches by two torpedoes by two torpedoes from U-29, which had already sunk three tankers. She slipped beneath the Hebridean waves in less than fifteen minutes, with only half of her thousand-strong crew being saved, some after an hour in the North Atlantic, where they kept up their morale by singing popular songs of the day such as ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’. One survivor recalled that the sea was so thick with oil we might have been swimming in treacle.

Why Britain was at War:

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After motoring home to Sissinghurst with Victor Cazalet on 3 September, Harold Nicolson found his sons waiting for him. Ben, aged twenty-five, thought the news ‘a tragedy’, an unwelcome interruption to his studies; Nigel, three years younger, who had just ‘come down’ from Oxford, ‘was immensely exhilarated’. Both were of an age to serve in the army; and both did, until final victory in the spring of 1945. In a symbolic act for what lay ahead, the flag flying above the Elizabethan Tower in the Sissinghurst garden was lowered. No sooner had the war started than Harold Nicolson was asked by Allen Lane, head of Penguin Books, to explain to the nation Why Britain is at War. He wrote the fifty-thousand-word Penguin Special in three weeks. Michael Sadleir, Harold’s regular publisher, called it ‘a masterpiece’. An instant success, it soon sold over a hundred thousand copies. Harold denied that the iniquities of the Versailles treaty had propelled Hitler to power, as so often presumed, claiming that by 1922 a majority of the German people had reconciled themselves to the treaty. By recklessly occupying the Ruhr in 1923, against British advice, French President Poincaré’s adventurism had galvanised German nationalist fervour, destroyed the German middle class and paved the way for the rise of Hitler. These arguments took little account of the first German economic miracle of the mid-twenties or the devastating effects of the world economic crisis of 1929. Nor was it prudent to reproach past leaders of Britain’s only ally in its war of survival against Nazi Germany, even if it was partly blameworthy.

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Harold was on firmer ground when he moved away from contemporary German history to justifying Britain’s motives for going to war. He wrote of a small island nation dependent for its survival not only on protecting the sea lanes to its imperial possessions but also on preserving the balance of power on the European mainland. Germany, then and now, threatened to violate these immutable principles. Britain’s reaction by going to war was prompted by a sound biological instinct … the instinct of self-preservation. By vividly contrasting the savage nature of the Nazi dictatorship, its ‘ruthless nihilism’, with the British conception of ‘decency and fairness’. Harold introduced a moral dimension to the conflict:

We entered this war to defend ourselves. We shall continue to, to its bitter end, in order to save humanity. … Only by imposing a just peace, one that does not outrage their pride or drive them to desperation can we guarantee thirty years to establish a new world order so powerful that even Germany will not dare to defy it.

But what kind of ‘new world order?’ It turned on rectifying the defects of the League of Nations, of organising its own armed forces and the need for its members to sacrifice a degree of national sovereignty. Harold looked forward optimistically to a ‘United States of Europe’, but whether Britain would play an active part in it remained a moot point. On one point, however, Harold was crystal clear: a social revolution was pending. Whatever the outcome of the war, we can be certain that the rich will lose … Their privileges and fortunes will go. His premonition that the war would generate ‘class warfare’, that the prerogatives of his class would be severely eroded, if not entirely swept away, haunted him throughout the war. Nicolson’s critique of Chamberlain’s diplomacy, and in particular the ruinous influence of Sir Horace Wilson may have found praise from R. A. Butler as wholly valid. But Butler remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after the PM’s downfall, describing Churchill as the greatest political adventurer of modern political history. Harold may have felt flattered, temporarily, by Butler’s words, but he would gain a more lasting satisfaction from knowing that his record of Britain’s misguided diplomacy had struck a sympathetic chord in hundreds of thousands of readers.

Harold wanted to find a wartime job commensurate with his talents. The Foreign Office, impressed by the success of Why Britain is at War, was keen that he should strengthen its Political Intelligence Department. Halifax was enthusiastic to make the appointment, but it was opposed by Horace Wilson, whom Nicolson had identified as a ‘chief sinner’ in the failure of British diplomacy. Nor did Harold make a significant impact in Parliament, where he had been elected as a National Labour MP in 1935. Apart from occasional questions about the activity of German propagandists in Britain, he remained silent. The Eden Group made up of Conservative dissidents, but with Harold in constant attendance, still functioned, usually over dinner at the Carlton Club. The general feeling of the company as autumn progressed was that Chamberlain had to be removed and replaced by Churchill. It remained an ineffectual group, however, which would only act when exceptional circumstances left it no option. Like many of his associates, Nicolson was in despair at Chamberlain’s lacklustre leadership. When urged to attack ‘these people at the helm’, he wavered, unwilling to disrupt national unity at that stage. Even so, no-one could deny that the war was going badly. Poland had fallen in less than a month, partitioned along the old Curzon line between Germany and the Soviet Union. In the west, the Allies were reluctant to take offensive action and Nicolson grew increasingly gloomy about the prospects of Britain, with France, emerging victorious from the conflict. However, even Harold could not help but be encouraged by immediate British successes at sea. He prematurely recorded that we have won the war at sea.

Appendices:

Historical Interpretation: Why was British resistance to Hitler left so late?

The historian Arthur Marwick emphasised the assumption, made by Chamberlain and others, that, regardless of their hateful ideologies and propaganda, Hitler and Mussolini were basically rational men who would keep their word, provided their main grievances were met. This assumption was not finally shaken until the occupation of Prague in March 1939. Borrowing a phrase from A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, he suggests that the Western statesmen believed that once the cloud of phrases which enveloped Fascist policy had been pushed aside there would be a foundation of goodwill on which a modus vivendi might be built. Both the dictators and the Western statesmen moved in the fog of their own beliefs and systems so that there was little fundamental understanding of each side’s position and precious little real communication. Sooner or later, therefore, a collision was almost inevitable. Arnold Toynbee, who had himself met Hitler, summed up this psychological gulf between the dictators and the Western statesmen:

An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany…and the outbreak of war…had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey…that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.

At the same time, the democracies were themselves divided between Left and Right just at the time when national unity was most needed in Britain and France. Although after the Prague coup the Pacifist tide was in sudden retreat, it is impossible to overestimate its significance prior to that event. The revulsion felt towards war was so strong that not even the series of German and Italian successes from 1935 onwards was enough to bring about the fundamental division in European opinions which manifested itself after the occupation of Prague. These divisions, especially in France, help to explain why there was no real attempt to resist Nazi Germany until 1939, and further encouraged Hitler in his belief that the Western powers were too weak to resist him. Added to this, the ideological conflict in Spain had served to distract attention from Hitler’s designs in central and eastern Europe in the previous three years.

Partly as a result of the Spanish conflict, a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union was not seen as a realistic possibility until after Hitler’s Prague coup of 14-15 March. Prior to this turning point, Soviet communism was still viewed as the greater of the two ideological evils. Hence Neville Chamberlain’s persistent attempts from May 1937 onwards to woo first Mussolini and then Hitler. Direct bilateral negotiations with the dictators seemed to be the only way to break the diplomatic deadlock. To resurrect the traditional alliance system, including Russia, would, it was argued, play into Hitler’s hands by allowing him to claim that Germany was being encircled again. However, it was this fear that actually played into his hands, because it enabled him to isolate and deal separately with his potential opponents. Moreover, it was the rumours of war which followed Prague, of impending German action against Poland and Romania, now entirely believable, which helped to reinforce the sea-change in mood which hardened and grew firmer throughout the summer of 1939.

It is also arguable whether, after the Munich Agreement, the rump Czechoslovak state was at all viable, never mind defensible. Relations between Czechs and Slovaks, who had never had more than the similarity of their languages in common, had reached a low point. The harsh reality was that the experimental state of Czechoslovakia, brought into being at Versailles out of the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, had to be written off. The only consolation for Chamberlain was that he had been able to demonstrate to important non-European opinion, that he had gone to the limits of reasonableness in pursuing the course that they had wanted, that Europe should work out its own salvation without calling on them to intervene, either diplomatically or militarily. After the Prague coup, the attitude of the British Dominions also began to change from the detachment shown six months earlier. This was crucial, as Britain could not go to war with the rearmed Reich without its Empire, especially at sea.

Despite the evidence of his critics, after the Prague debácle, Chamberlain became more defiant and determined in public, and his Cabinet was less nervous at the prospect of war than they had been at the time of the Munich Crisis. The military and intelligence reports were more encouraging and the Anglo-French relationship was better and more active than it had been.  At the end of 1936, Lord Vantissart had written, privately, that it was the job of the Foreign Office to hold the ring until 1939. They now felt confident enough to give a guarantee to the Polish government. This was a remarkable reversal of an attitude to central Europe held by all previous British governments. Perhaps it was given because, unlike Czechoslovakia, the Polish corridor meant that Poland was not land-locked and was therefore of direct interest to the British Empire, over which it now gained a measure of influence. However, there was little more, in reality, that Britain could do to preserve the independence or integrity of Poland in the event of a German attack. Moreover, the guarantee was not given in order to preclude German-Polish negotiation, but as a general warning to Hitler that Britain intended to make a stand. This warning was still vague enough for Hitler to believe that when it came to a crisis, Britain would back down, just as it had done over the Sudetenland.

If Britain and France had not pursued appeasement so vigorously for so long, there might have been some chance of an Anglo-French-Soviet alliance, though the price demanded by the Russians might have been too high.  Nevertheless, one further step Chamberlain had authorised after Prague was the opening of negotiations with Moscow.  All his instincts had previously recoiled from this step, both because of his dislike for the Soviet state and a belief that ‘encirclement’ would be counter-productive. The Anglo-Soviet discussions were slow and protected over the summer. There were sticking points, among them the status of the three independent Baltic republics and Polish concerns about Moscow’s intentions. A greater sense of urgency might have brought success, but the effort came to a dramatic halt on 23 August with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in Moscow.

Until that point, Stalin and Molotov were still prepared to consider a treaty of mutual assistance with Britain and France. But there were problems from the very start, since – in contrast to the attitude of Ribbentrop – the Western Allies were perceived as dawdling through the process of negotiations. The Soviet Ambassador to London had asked whether British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, would go to Moscow that summer to discuss matters directly with Molotov, but the British despatched a minor official and an obscure admiral instead who left England on a merchant ship at the beginning of August which took four days to arrive in Leningrad. Once the British delegation arrived in Moscow, the Soviets soon found evidence to confirm their London ambassador’s report that the delegates will not be able to make any decisions on the spot. … This does not promise any particular speed in the conduct of the negotiations. In fact, before he left for Moscow, Admiral Drax had been specifically told by Chamberlain and Halifax that in case of any difficulties with the Soviets he should try to string the negotiations out until October when winter conditions would make a Nazi invasion of Poland difficult. The British hoped that the mere threat of an alliance with the Soviet Union might act as a deterrent to the Germans.

Laurence Rees (2003) has suggested that it is not hard to see what caused the British to take their lackadaisical approach to negotiations with the Soviets. In the first place, British foreign policy had been predicated for years on the basis that a friendly relationship with Germany was of more value than an accommodation with the Soviet Union. Not only did many British loathe Stalin’s régime on ideological grounds, but there was also little confidence, in August 1939, in the power and utility of the Soviet armed forces. Moreover, the question of Poland was an obstacle in itself to the British reaching any kind of comprehensive agreement with the Soviet Union, as it was to in 1944. The British knew that for any military treaty to have meaning, the Soviets would have to be given permission to cross the Polish border to fight the Germans if, as looked likely, the Nazis decided to invade. But the Poles themselves were against any such idea. In the face of this impasse, the British delegation adopted the understandable, but ultimately self-defeating tactic of simply ignoring the subject whenever the question of Poland and its territorial integrity came up in discussion. When the Soviet Marshal Voroshilov asked directly on 14 August if the Red Army would be allowed to enter Poland in order to engage the Nazis, the Allied delegation made no reply.

However, Rees has also argued out that we must not run away with the idea that Stalin and the Soviet leadership were somehow driven into the hands of the Nazis by British and French misjudgment. Ultimately, the Western Allies had very little to offer the Soviets at the bargaining table. Stalin had no motivation for the Red Army being ‘drawn into conflict’ to help out other, unsympathetic régimes out of their self-created difficulties. He was just as much opposed to Britain and France, dominated by big business and oppressing the working people, as he was to Nazi Germany. On the other hand, the Nazis could offer something the Western Allies never could – the prospect of additional territory and material gain. So the meeting between Ribbentrop and Schulenberg for the Germans, and Stalin and Molotov for the Soviets whilst not a meeting of minds, was certainly a meeting of common interests. 

Through the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Germany succeeded in bringing the Soviet Union into the European conflict, thereby giving Hitler the assurance of Soviet neutrality in an attack on Poland. The Pact lifted an enormous burden from Hitler. He was free to attack Poland if he wished and British support was likely to be of little assistance to the Poles. There was some suspicion that Britain and France might decide, after all, not to go to war. However, the British hesitation in declaring war resulted more, in the event, from Chamberlain’s desire to act in concert with France than by any doubt about honouring its obligations. Chamberlain was forced by his Cabinet to declare the war he had consistently tried to avoid since 1937. Even after its outbreak, there was no anticipation of protracted conflict and he still hoped that there might be a place for negotiations, even if they must take place in the context of war.

That is not to suggest that Chamberlain’s psychological understanding and tactical methods were without blame. He did not understand either the nature and dynamics of the Nazi régime or the beliefs and practices of National Socialism. However, even Churchill displayed considerable naivety in this respect, describing Hitler as an old-fashioned patriot, determined to restore his country following its defeat. Lloyd George’s analysis of Hitler’s mind and intentions was no better.  Another set of men in power, or in power earlier, may have made some difference to the policies which were followed, but this would probably not have been vastly notable. Moreover, it was possible for many British people simultaneously to suffer anguish at the prospect of another war and to feel intense remorse at what they believed to be their leaders’ callous indifference to the plight of Czechoslovakia. However, Chamberlain and his colleagues, in common with the majority of British public opinion, supposed that it was quite reasonable to believe in a world in which there was an underlying harmony between nations. It was surely unbelievable that governments would set out deliberately to use force. After 1939, world politics evolved in a way that few observers could have predicted with confidence, even projecting from the events of 1938-1939.

Keith Robbins has argued that the policy of appeasement in Europe needs to be seen in the context of the decline of the British Empire in the thirties. However, the anxiety about the state of the Empire might have been excessive, in turn accelerating its decline. Certainly, Churchill saw signs of defeatism in government policies and believed that a display of resolution and self-confidence would bring its own reward. It is also possible that a greater willingness to threaten intervention might have deterred Hitler, at least in the short-term. In the longer term, however, Robbins concludes that it seems entirely likely that Hitler would have gone to war in circumstances which might have been as favourable as those of 1939.

In his diaries, at the beginning of November, Edmund Ironside reflected ironically on the military machine of command which was the War Cabinet. Men like Kingsley Wood and Belisha, together with Chamberlain, Halifax and Hoare had no military conception of any sort, even lacking ‘general knowledge of how to fight a campaign. Whilst the Army was under French command, the Air Force was not, and the Cabinet loved directing its operations, rather than allowing the Chief of Staff to do so. Later the same month, he admitted to being ‘perturbed’ at the lack of a plan in Cabinet. The ‘wait and see’ attitude to events in Europe, the lack of any plan for the Middle East, and the long and tedious discussions upon all and sundry, all added to the sense of inertia which stemmed from the leadership of the weary old man who dominated the ‘mediocrities’ around him who were supposed to bear the responsibilities of war government with him. Only Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, revealed any talent for the task, partly because he was managing the worse things that by then were happening at sea…

Documents:

A. Parliamentary Debates, House Of Commons (fifth series), vol 351 cols 293-4 (1939):

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

‘…we decided to send our Ambassador in Berlin instructions which he was to hand at 9 o’clock this morning to the German Foreign Secretary and which read as follows:

‘Sir, In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on the 1st September, I informed you… that unless the German Government were prepared to give… satisfactory assurances that (it) … had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.

‘Although this communication was made more than twenty-four hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks on Poland have continued and intensified. I have… to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a.m. British Summer Time today, 3rd September, satisfactory assurances… have been given… a state of war will exist between the two countries from that hour.’

‘This was the final note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.’

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

Entering London from the Great North Road the day after war had been declared, was rather like entering a besieged city. Terrible air attacks had been expected and London was considered the most likely target.

The barrage balloons overhead emphasised the difference between London and the country; notice boards at Hendon and Mill Hill giving notice of air raids seemed to mark the entrance. The motor coaches filled with evacuated children and occasional cars filled with luggage, all going in the opposite direction, added to the impression of impending danger…

Air raid shelters, sandbags and barrage balloons were, of course, already familiar, but the War Rescue Police came as a surprise. They wore ordinary clothes, and a blue tin hat, armlet and service respirator was their only uniform. Everybody was busy doing little odd jobs, sticking brown paper tape on windows, collecting precious papers and valuables together with a first-aid kit, and some spare clothes in a suit-case, just in case… When they had finished work and made their simple preparations, they walked out in the brilliant sunshine that seemed to have accompanied the outbreak of war, and tried to realise that this was it. But however short a walk they took, the gas marks were inevitably with them, uncomfortable and a nuisance, but from Prime Minister to charwoman everybody carried one.

We expected air raids on the H G Wells’ scale after nerving ourselves to expect Apocalypse after dark, felt almost disappointed when day brought the usual round of milkmen, newspaper boys, and the ordinary routine…

I found myself circling a church at 4 a.m. in the dark, vainly trying to find the way in to relieve the warden on duty inside. When I got in, I found him in the crypt sitting on a coffin reading a thriller… 

C. René Cutforth, Later Than We Thought (1976)

A Journalist’s personal account of the final year of the thirties:

Oddly enough, this great tide of woes seemed to put a new spirit into the British people. The news was so bad that none of the old attitudes was relevant any more. Peace Pledge Unions and Popular Fronts were now beside the point, like a man on the scaffold deciding to mount a ‘No more Hanging’ movement. The illusions of the Thirties gradually melted away, and there had been many. In the new cold light, the ‘committed’ could be seen as the self-licensed liars and con-men so many of them had become, whether Left or Right, whether Hitler’s ‘new manliness’ had held them mesmerised or Stalin’s ‘workers’ paradise’.

The last to go were the illusions about the power of Britain in the world. We might survive, we now knew, and that was all. Conscription came in on 1 July. In August there was a trial blackout and, since the whole world had now gone mad, the Russians signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.  If you felt like being funny. it was a bit of a joke to listen to the Communists trying to find something nice to say about their new ally. 

The present seemed not to exist, we only had a past and a future. Works of art were being stored in the caves of Derbyshire and the mine shafts of Wales. From Canterbury, we evacuated the stained glass and from our great cities the children. We’d ‘bought it’ as the phrase then was, and at eleven o’ clock on 3 September, we heard Mr Chamberlain, speaking in a strained and disgusted voice, tell us that we were at war with Germany. We were surprised by how little we felt. A minute later, the air-raid siren sounded. It was the last of the Thirties’ false alarms.

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On 3 September, Chamberlain made his famous broadcast to tell the British nation that it was at war with Germany. An air-raid siren sounded in earnest for the first time, though it was a false alarm; a Royal Proclamation was issued calling up the Reserves and Churchill was at last brought in. (Picture: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library, published in Cutforth’s book).

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

A British poet reflects on a ‘low, dishonest decade’ from New York:

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Wystan Auden was the leader of a group of poets named after him, but all they had in common was a Marxist frame of mind which characterised the ‘new voice of the period’ (Cutforth). They launched the revolutionary movement which was to create the intellectual climate of the time, and from the start, Auden’s was the voice of the decade. They wanted to bring on the death of the old gang, the death of us. He always sounded as if ten thousand revolutionaries were fighting to snatch his words from the press as they appeared. In fact, their audience was so small that it often seemed that they were writing to each other. Auden’s line, It is later than you think, might have been the motto of the whole group. George Orwell criticised their slavish worship of the Soviet Union, and regarded them as divorced from humanity: they had never met anybody from outside their own social class, he said, and this annoyed them greatly because he was right. Auden himself had left Britain with Christopher Isherwood for China in 1938 (pictured above, with Auden on the right), and was in New York in September 1939 when he wrote his famous and often misused poem on the outbreak of war. It begins in despair:

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

John Swift, Asa Briggs (ed.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books (chapter on ‘The Atlantic War, 1939-45’).

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (Historical Association Studies). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

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Family Life, Labour and Leisure: The Forward March of Women in Britain, 1930-40.   Leave a comment

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Chapter One: Semi-detached Britain.

The experience of women between the wars was part of a broader re-making of the main social classes, especially the professional middle classes and the working classes, a social reformation on a scale not witnessed for almost a century, with the maturation of the first industrial revolution. As early as 1934, a woman Oxford graduate commented:

Both the new rich and the new poor have learnt that the old social orders were not immutable, that the roles of Lazarus and his patron were interchangeable. It is significant that you seldom hear nowadays the phrase which was once so common, “know my station”…

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During the 1930s, well-to-do families could enjoy a rising standard of living, and it was possible for them either to evade the problems of society and, despite the declining number of domestic servants, to escape from them. Even the less well-to-do, provided they were employed, could react in these ways to their circumstances since, for the first time in modern times, the benefits of industrialisation began to be applied on a large-scale to the home as well as to the factory. New industries, geared to consumer demand, prospered while old basic industries declined. Meanwhile, ‘mass entertainment’, becoming an industry and sustained by new technical media, often encouraged the flight from the uneasy present, and the holiday resorts boomed.

The experience of the thirties remained fragmented and divided, yet as the decade went by it proved increasingly difficult completely to ignore the international ‘crises’. There was no domestic crisis equivalent to the General Strike of 1926, but the economic recovery after 1934 which raised the country out of the trough of unemployment and hunger was limited and precarious. It was recognised that, in part, the recovery depended on a rearmament programme which might ultimately involve Britain in another World War. Even after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, there was still no sense of common direction. The government, still the ‘National’ government which had been returned to power with a huge majority during the economic crisis of 1931, was not fully representative of the nation, even after its re-election in 1935. The war was fought so fitfully at first that it was called ‘the phoney war’ at the time.

It was not until the ‘Blitzkrieg’ of the summer and autumn of 1940 that Churchill’s new government was able to mobilise the full support of the vast majority of the British people. Their support was forthcoming not just because it was commanded, but because there was a strong popular feeling that the world could not remain safe or happy so long as Hitler was dominating Europe. With the ‘Blitz’, the ‘semi-detached’ period of British social history came to an end. With hindsight, the years between 1919 and 1940 looked like ‘the years the locust had eaten’, years of wasted resources and people. Yet this was not what they seemed like at the time to growing numbers of people who felt themselves to be ‘middle-class’, for whom there was much to enjoy and be thankful for. The contrasting measurements of the main social indexes – in health, employment, education, housing, food and leisure – revealed exactly how fortunate they were. One Yorkshirewoman, quoted in F. W. Hirst’s The Consequences of the War to Great Britain (1934), was convinced that…

… class distinctions have been positively toppled over since the Great War, or rather social barriers have been removed, not entirely by the upper class becoming less exclusive but much more by a general uplifting in the standard of living… Luxuries once enjoyed by the few are now regarded as ordinary expenditure by young people whose immediate antecedents were accustomed to such amenities, … Take for example the telephone, wireless, electric light, motor-cars, pictures. It might be said that these are all recent inventions brought into common use by the developments of science; but unless the standard of living had been considerably raised, these would still have been considered great luxuries to be used only by the wealthier classes. … (Yet) the landed aristocracy have been almost taxed out of existence, and are mostly living in a much less luxurious way than before the War; and the middle classes are undoubtedly labouring under a burden of taxation such as they have never before been called upon to bear. 

Even by 1941, by no means all of His Majesty’s subjects were enjoying such luxuries. For those on B. S. Rowntree’s poverty line’, whether in the depressed areas or in the ‘pockets’ of poverty in the more prosperous towns and cities, such luxuries remained far out of reach. Theirs was a more basic daily ‘fayre’:

Breakfast, Wednesday: Bread and dripping, tea. Dinner: Liver and onions, bread and butter and tea. Tea: bread and butter, beetroot, tea. Supper: Cocao … Breakfast, Friday: Bread and dripping, tea. Dinner: Cod and chips, bread and butter and tea. Tea: Bread and butter, tomatoes, jam, tea. Supper: None. Breakfast, Saturday: Bread and dripping, tea…

In his 1941 report, Poverty and Progress, he also found that taking the average figure for children of all ages there was a difference of five and three-quarter pounds between the average weight of girls in social classes A and B and D and E, while the girls in class X were on average twelve and a quarter pounds heavier than those in A and B. The boys in classes D and E were four and three-quarter pounds heavier and those in class X were eight and a quarter pounds heavier than those in classes A and B. Thus, the ‘weight gap’ between social classes was far greater among girls than boys of the same age. By the end of the thirties, impoverishment had also taken its toll on the diets of older women among the ‘respectable working classes’. William Cameron wrote in Common People of how…

Mother was glad to see Dick, and Catherine was glad to see him too. Visitors were rare. No one goes to see poor people. Even relatives stay away… Dick belonged to that aristocracy of Labour who have hot dinners with vegetables every day, eat real butter on Sundays, and have fresh cows’ milk with their tea. Mother made him a cup of tea and cut him a slice of bread and margarine, a sincere gesture of hospitality. She wanted him to feel at home.

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Thus the growing prosperity among many working-class families helped to underline the widening of divisions between sections of that class. However, with the decline of domestic service, the wealth and powers of both the aristocracy and the upper middle classes were also declining rapidly. The Quakers had long-held an antipathy for the inducement of men and women into selling themselves into service in exchange for shelter, food and clothes in order to gratify the ostentation and indulgences and lusts of their fellow-men. These objections, voiced by Shipley N. Brayshaw in his Swarthmore Lecture, Unemployment and Plenty (1933), were beginning to find a wider appeal among middle classes consciences:

Wealth should enlarge a man’s capacity for useful work and culture. Morally it is not a charter for an idle life while monopolizing the services of others. In the ideal state there would be no shortage of domestic help for responsible people or for those engaged in work of outstanding value to their fellows. The attendants, or servants, of such people would be taking a useful and worthy part in the work of the community, but if they gave the same advice to an idle rich man they would be flunkies…

On the other hand, obsequious service would be withheld, neither man nor woman would accept domestic service of the old humiliating type with its low status. It would be difficult to obtain any personal service which ministered merely to laziness, luxury, or vanity. To serve another, who serves no one, is to be the underlying of a parasite. There is always something humiliating in giving such service, and not many people with a decent alternative would submit to it.                                 

The towns of Britain greatly changed their appearance between the wars: in the twenty years between 1919 and 1939 four million houses were built and the towns spread outwards in all directions. Most of these were built by private enterprise so that the outer suburbs of most modern cities and towns are still quite largely a legacy of the thirties. Between January 1935 and the outbreak of war, 1,807,682 houses were built, more than three-quarters of them by unsubsidised private enterprise. In 1939, one-third of all the houses in Britain had been built during the previous twenty years. These figures were a sign of how much, and how quickly, England in particular, a country of smaller families, was changing. The old Victorian or Edwardian family terraced house was a dreary home, long and narrow and dark, with a tiny front garden in which nothing would grow after the hedge had been planted, and a very narrow strip at the back giving a view of countless others of the same sort. Quite apart from being cramped and dark, it had the added inconvenience that coal had to be delivered through the house, and if you owned a motor-bike that too had to go through the front door, down the passage and out at the back.

 

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So the new semi-detached house was very popular, even if the ‘detachment’ was no greater than a few feet. The earlier semi-detached were usually pebble-dashed plain square boxes with the slate roof of the nineteenth century, but by the thirties, they were mostly of brick and had red tile roofs. Terraced housing was still being built, but the romantic English ideas of privacy and a decent bit of garden all to yourself defeated the best intentions of the town planners. The most expensive semi-detached houses had a variety of features stuck on to give the much-desired air of individuality – bow windows and porches, turrets and latticed windows, even battlements. Many looked like miniature Tudor manors. In some streets, no two were alike, so strong was the reaction against uniformity, and they had names as well as numbers, all in the strong tradition of the English country house. Superior people mocked them, but they were a great improvement on their predecessors for their incumbents and the accusation that they were ‘jerry-built’ was untrue of the vast majority.

 

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There was surprisingly little ‘vox pop’ on radio programmes, but there was a great vogue for cinema documentary particularly among the politically conscious minority in the late 1930s, and in 1937 ‘Mass Observation’ was founded to note directly, without intermediate comment or theory, what people were saying about anything and everything in streets and public houses. J. B. Priestley portrayed the setting of all this in his English Journey (1934) which is comparable in its significance with Cobbett’s Rural Rides of the previous century. In it, Priestley wrote of an…

… England of … filling stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance halls and cafés, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworth’s, motor-coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing and dirt tracks, swimming pools, and everything given away for cigarette coupons. 

As well as providing a useful corrective to the pessimistic view of the thirties typified by George Orwell’s work, among others, Priestley shows that the ‘two nations’ view of later historians such as E. J. Hobsbawm, was grossly oversimplified. There was certainly widespread depression and appalling human suffering, but it was regionalised, if not localised, rather than general. He identified ‘three Englands’, the first that of ‘Old England’, the country of the cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire. Then there was that created by the nineteenth century, the industrial England of coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways, making up the larger part of the Midlands and the North. His third England was the new post-war England, belonging to the contemporary age. This was the one described above, which he went on to describes as…

…essentially democratic… You need money in this England, but you don’t need much money. It is a large-scale, mass-production job, with cut prices. You could almost accept Woolworth’s as its symbol… In this England, for the first time in history, Jack and Jill are nearly as good as their master and mistress… Most of the work … is rapidly becoming standardised… and its leisure is being handed over to standardisation too. It is a cleaner, tidier, healthier, saner world than that of nineteenth century industrialism. 

Here then were the three Englands I had seen… and as I looked back on my journey I saw how these three were variously and most fascinatingly mingled in every part of the country…

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Most English people were enjoying a richer life than any previously known in the history of the world: longer (and paid) holidays, shorter hours, higher real wages. They had the motor car, cinemas, radio sets, electrical appliances. Yet the result of the National Government’s actions to save the pound resulted in the children of the unemployed having less margarine on their bread, while government ministers, along with the government ministers were able to enjoy Christmas 1931 in their warm, comfortable homes. Such was the equality of sacrifice experienced in Britain in the early thirties. Unemployment continued to rise through the winter of 1931-2, reaching a peak in the third quarter of 1932 when there were almost three million out of work throughout Great Britain. From that point onwards, as the map below shows, the divergence between depressed and prosperous Britain widened in terms both of levels of unemployment and the overall standard of living, due to the cuts in unemployment benefit and the introduction of the means test.

 

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Source: Ministry of Labour

 

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The politics of the post-1945 era were fought out on the record of the pre-war years. As late as 1951 the Labour Party campaigned with election slogan ‘Ask your Dad!’, an illustration of the way in which the emotive image of the ‘hungry thirties’ had become part of the repertoire of political cliché. Perhaps the slogan, ‘Ask your Mam!’ would have evoked a different response, as for most women the thirties were a release from domestic drudgery and an opportunity to do useful work outside the home. Nevertheless, the popular view of the decade as a period of unrelieved failure was undoubtedly hardened and reinforced in the years after the war; a view which became sharpened against the background of full employment and affluence of the 1950s and 1960s. Even in the next period of mass unemployment in the 1970s, the ghost of the thirties stalked political platforms and the media as a symbol of economic disaster, social deprivation and political discontent. A concentration on unemployment and social distress does not, however, represent an accurate portrayal of the decade. Beside the pictures of the unemployed and the impoverished, of the dole queues and hunger marches must be placed those of another Britain of new industries, prosperous suburbs and a rising standard of living for most if not all.

 

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Any of the objects in the photograph above, nearly all incompatible in style, could have been found together in any smart middle-class home of the thirties, exercising the primary function of making the owner feel up to date. Some of the forms claim to be austere, but the general effect is both cluttered and cosy. During the whole inter-war period, interior decoration and furnishings, like all the other arts, were in furious reaction against the Victorian belief in ‘Nature’. Man’s function in the universe was seen as intellectual. His job was analysis, not nature worship. None of nature’s curves was acceptable anymore, only segments of circles. In the twenties only those who were rich, leisured and intellectual enough cared about such fashions, but by the mid-thirties the idea of ‘modern’ and ‘bringing the house up to date’ had percolated down to the lower middle classes. The result was a softening of the austere ideal. A chair might be for sitting on, but when you weren’t sitting on it, you had to look at it. As women’s curves returned, it began to be appreciated in the decorators’ trade that Man, as well as being a machine for living, also had dreams, mostly of a sensual kind. It was the era of the suburban tennis club and John Betjeman’s adored Pam, you great big mountainous sports girl. If your quite small income was reasonably secure, you could enjoy a very happy, active, highly organised and, of course, rather snobbish social life in the outer suburbs in the thirties, with Who’s for tennis? as your watchword in the daytime and Shall we dance? in the evenings, with big bands flooding through the wireless, all glamorous under new electric lighting bouncing off walls and ‘limed’ oak furniture.

 

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Among ordinary people plastics had begun their career in the form of Bakelite, which in the early days was remarkably ugly, cast either in that chocolate-brown which rendered schools, prisons and other institutions so depressing at the time, or mottled like the cover of a penny notebook. Light fittings, switches and wireless sets were mostly in Bakelite. The wireless set was the centrepiece in most homes, with its great red-hot valves like an electric fire. Thirties furniture, angular and ugly, was meant to have a ‘structural look’. Everything from teapots to cigarette cases was cubical if possible, symbolising the discarding of sentiment and other non-essentials.

In the thirties, then, if you had a job, and particularly if you had one in the new light industries, you were not badly off, and your parents’ way of life could be dismally restricted and archaic. It was only the old-fashioned heavy basic industries, such as King Coal, which were now all but derelict: in the new industries based on electricity or petrol instead of steam, and consumer goods instead of iron and steel, there was a genuine and rising prosperity. Plastics appeared in the thirties, and man-made fabrics, beginning with artificial silk, were going well by the end of the decade. There was a great increase in the employment of women in the new electric and electronic factories, where equally new nimble-fingered techniques proved beyond the scope of the old-fashioned muscular worker, however skilled. Domestic servants, ‘the maids’, whose reluctance to come forward for employment had provoked so much indignation in letters to the middle-class press in the twenties, were now becoming even more difficult to get. They now demanded real pay, a day off in the week and tolerable rooms to live in. There was also a boom in the new ‘labour-saving’ appliances, which meant a reduction in the demand for servants and shortened the hours needed by women for domestic labour.

 

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Mass production was not confined to the emerging motor industry, and the fashion business, in particular, had adopted American methods in producing for the popular market. Though competition was fierce, clothing was an expanding home market. Montague Burton, the Tailor of Taste in every High Street could fit men out with a good suit for fifty shillings. The numbers employed in tailoring increased by a hundred percent between 1921 and 1938 to a record fifty thousand. The National Union of  Tailor and Garment Workers recruited heavily during the late thirties and despite opposition from some companies made substantial progress in the organisation of major manufacturers. The ‘Ideal Clothiers’, where the picture below was taken at their Elsden Road factory in Wellingborough, Northants, in 1937, was one of the big producers that accepted the complete unionisation of their staff. Employing more than two thousand workers at eight factories, engaged in the manufacture of men’s, ladies’ and children’s tailored outerwear, all employees were members of the NUTGW. Conditions of employment contrasted sharply with the familiar sweatshops of the tailoring trade and a progressive management offered the rare security of a non-contributory pension fund.

 

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It was in the thirties that the British middle-class scene turned visibly modern. The huge iron kitchen range had owned a red-faced cook or ‘cook-general’, often an apt title for a tyrant of the kitchen. When she failed to appear in her place of duty to be roasted alive at the range until she was properly scarlet, preferring to work in a factory, the range had to go, to be replaced by a gas or electric cooker. In turn, this relieved the maids of the desperate weekly chore of black-leading the monster and since, during the decade, hundreds of thousands of people were employed as door-to-door salesmen demonstrating vacuum cleaners, and stainless steel knives came into use, along with electric fires which eliminated most of the coal-heaving, a kitchen full of girls became more and more of a luxury. Only the copper and the great iron mangle stayed on for years to prolong the penal servitude of the past.

Americans, it was well-known, had washing machines, but only a few of the eccentric and under-bred ‘new rich’ were hardy enough to transplant them to into British society. For many years after the refrigerator had become standard domestic equipment in the USA, a cold slate slab in the north-east corner of the house where the larder with its gauze window still had its place was the Britons’ main line of defence against food poisoning. Every one of the labour-saving domestic appliances had to be begged, prayed and fought for by women against a strong male rearguard action, which resented each one of them as it arrived as a part of a process called Americanisation, which aimed at destroying good old high-bred British stoicism and the cold bath ethic, and would lead us all into decadence and ruin. As one small concession to modernity, the earliest pieces of electric equipment to be found in the British home was the hair-dryer. Women themselves sometimes shared men’s resistance or ambivalence to modernity, particularly to changes in the ways of bringing up children. F. W. Hirst’s Oxford graduate interviewee commented:

The post-war generation suffers from a sort of inward instability, a lack of character, due, probably, to the somewhat hysterical atmosphere of their childhood. There seems nowadays to be no desire to provide for the future or look beyond tomorrow. The war shattered that sense of security which brooded over Victorian homes, and made men buy estates and lay down cellars against their old age and for the benefit of their sons… Before the war children (in better class families at least) were kept apart from elders, had their own good plain food in the nursery and found their own simple amusements. Now they mix more with their elders, sit down to table with them, play the same games, and expect and get much more attention and amusement… But it is a great reflection on the common sense of parents of today that the indulgence and lack of discipline which were pardonable in wartime should be allowed to remain, and the fact that for four years Age had to stand aside and admire the feats of Youth is a poor defence for the absence of respect from the younger generation to the older in 1933. 

The new industries also produced a new style of worker and greatly augmented the middle class at its lower-paid end; it was these people, together with the old middle class of independent shopkeepers, tradesmen and small businessmen, with the professional upper middle class, the new financial and managerial upper class and the remnants of the land-owning democracy, who could have been expected to vote solidly for the National Government. In the event, they were joined by at least half of the old working class who were in dire straits, in what was a clear vote for tradition and stability at a time of crisis, both in 1931 and 1935.

With the upper classes more or less relegated to their crumbling estates in most areas of the country, it was the middle classes who took over the administration of English example and precept. In their hands, gentility became a furious competition and strange arbitrary rules grew up about clothes and fashion. Both men and women took an active role in this competition. Women’s judgements on the appearances of human beings had more of a biological than a social bias, and they were undergoing a profound transformation. The contemporary journalist René Cutforth observed that…

The old Twenties air of raffish individuality allied with a cool, if gin-soaked alienation was on the way out, along with the slate-pencil silhouette, the cloche hat, the cropped hair and the long cigarette holder. Breasts, hips and bottoms made a sudden and welcome comeback to the rapturous applause of their old fans, and this coincided with the introduction of the permanent wave. Overnight, it seemed, there was scarcely straight-haired woman with any pretensions to fashion to be seen throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom; dresses became longer as curves came in again and clothes were suddenly very soft and pretty, even fussy, and crepe de chine was the fashionable material. These were middle-class fashions. The upper class bought its clothes in Paris or Saville Row. The working-class had not enough money to affect fashion at all.

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Later in the decade, women’s fashions produced a round hat in black felt, of exactly the cut and shape of a parish priest’s. This was the ‘Puritan’ hat and originally indicated that its wearer was a bigoted fanatic dedicated to sex in its purest and most clinical form, unadulterated by any other kind of feeling whatever, a high priestess of the erotic, according to René Cutforth. There was no doubt in his mind that the British of that time were more inhibited sexually than most other Europeans, but he was also convinced that the followers of Freud, enthusiasts in stripping sex of its romantic trappings and of any feeling other than physical excitement, produced as many casualties as cures.  The sexual missionaries claimed D. H. Lawrence as their ally but by the time he had died in 1930, he had already detested and disowned them. Women in Love had shown that he was on the side of intuition against intellect, of feelings against concepts, of the sense of touch against the kingdom of the eye, of feminine sensibilities against masculine lust. Instinct, in his view, had been bossed around by the mind for far too long: it was time it staged a comeback. It did, in the thirties, as his influence continued to grow.

Another infection of mass conditioning which also crossed the channel, but whose virus bred much milder mutations in the British atmosphere was the Wandervogel, very much in vogue in the twenties in Germany.

 

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The Women’s League of Health and Beauty, led by Prunella Stack, was another manifestation of this continental vogue for mass parades. Women in every town and village in the land disported themselves of physical training, rolling about on the floors of gymnasiums, drill halls and village institutes, clad in a uniform of shorts and white satin blouses. ‘Hiking’ also began in the early thirties. ‘Going for walks’ in the countryside had been a British pastime for centuries. In the thirties, the countryside was much more attractive than it was after the second world war for two main reasons. Firstly, agricultural labourers, unable to live on their wages during the Depression, had moved in large numbers to the towns, so fields were ill-tended and wild plants grew everywhere. Secondly, chemical insecticides had not yet arrived to achieve the dull uniformity of efficient farming which became ubiquitous in later decades of the twentieth century.

 

003

Walking, therefore, became a mass pursuit, with a uniform of shorts and open shirts. Carrying a knapsack or a rucksack on their backs, the hikers, the majority of them women in groups of five or six as shown in the picture above, ‘invaded’ the countryside in vast numbers. Special trains were laid on from the big cities to take them out into the wilder spots. The body, which had simply meant sex in the twenties, now came to mean health and hygiene. Sunbathing and nudism were also pursuits which, for some reason, had to be done in groups. These were derived from nature therapies devised by the Germans to help children who suffered from malnutrition in the days of the Allied blockade.

 

025

The figures for car ownership also indicated rapid social change towards a more democratic society. The roads to the seaside were jammed with family cars and swimming pools were crowded. Thousands of people had tasted the delights of flying in Alan Cobham’s Air Circuses, and in the thirties flying was still glamorous. Amy Johnson was the ‘Truly British Girl’, brought up in Hull where her father owned a fish business, and flying for her was an escape from the humdrum into the high altitude where popular heroes lived. She was a solicitor’s typist but had made herself a fully qualified pilot and mechanic, a rare combination. She wrote to Sir Sefton Branker, the Civil Aviation Chief, about her ambition and Sir Sefton found sponsors for her. Amy bought an old green Gipsy Moth, called it Jason, rebuilt it with her own hands and flew single-handed to Australia in 1930. She became an instant success, ‘our’ Amy as much as Gracie Fields, the Lancashire mill-girl singer, was ‘our Gracie’. That was not because of any warm proletarian solidarity on Amy’s part, but merely the result of her Yorkshire accent. She filled the role of popular heroine and played the part of wonder-woman for years. She married Jim Mollison (pictured bottom), another record-breaking flyer and they became the first husband and wife to fly the Atlantic, but Mollison was something of a playboy and never really as good a flyer as Amy. Her serial came to an end when she crashed, unpublicised, during the war while flying a transport plane. She was, perhaps, the first modern British heroine. Heroes and heroines were much sought after in the thirties, particularly in sport. Thousands crammed into Wimbledon to watch British players Bunny Austin and Betty Nuthall (below) fight bravely and long against the great Americans.

 

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