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The Secret History of the Blitz Paperback – May 5, 2016
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About the Author
Joshua Levine has written six bestselling histories including titles in the hugely popular 'Forgotten Voices' series published by Ebury. Beauty and Atrocity, his account of the Irish Troubles, was nominated for the Writers' Guild Book of the Year award. On a Wing and a Prayer, his history of the pilots of the First World War, has been turned into a major British television documentary. He has written and presented a number of programmes for BBC Radio 4. In a previous life, he was a criminal barrister. He lives in London.
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The first major air raid on Britain was on the 18th June, 1940; although the Blitz itself is generally agreed to have begun on the 7th September, 1940. So, how did people behave during the Blitz? Daily life certainly became dangerous and there was an ever-present fear of invasion; yet it was also exciting and a time of optimism for many. Some felt afraid and were ashamed, almost all were exhausted by a lack of sleep and, until the government finally managed to organise unsympathetic agencies, people suffered financial distress and homelessness with little relief. However, despite fears that people would fall apart, generally those in the affected areas did become accustomed to these most difficult circumstances and even bombing became routine.
The author looks at how Britain changed through the events of the Blitz and covers everything from criticisms of shelter provision, German spies, internment, the arrival of people from different countries and cultures, the sexual revolution and crime. Along the way, there are detours into little known areas of wartime Britain – I certainly had no idea there was oil drilling in Sherwood Forest – and secret trials of those accused of espionage.
Despite the fact that many people were, obviously and naturally, afraid of being bombed, volunteering kept the population busy, involved and helped morale. London before 1939 was not a cosmopolitan city – less than 3% of the city were born abroad, mostly in Ireland. Suddenly, there were an influx of foreigners; Belgians, French, Poles, Czechs and Dutch fleeing the Nazi’s and Canadian troops arriving to help the war effort. Later, West Indians arrived offering to fight for their perceived mother country (sadly, many were received with ingratitude), while there was always the ugly spectre of anti-Semitism. Mass Observation reports reported comments describing Jews as arrogant and greedy, while there were plenty of openly voiced remarks, such as, “No wonder Hitler threw them out!”
Certainly, people found that their experiences were heightened by the threat of death and there was a feeling of living for the moment. The blackout offered anonymity and excitement to many – people had love affairs, they were freed from the usual conventions and they had the opportunity to behave in ways they would not have considered before – or after – the war. However, along with romance came a dark side, with the blackout seeing an increase in sexual assault and a massive rise in crime. There was looting (sometimes even from members of the emergency services) of damaged buildings. The chief reason for this rise in crime was, obviously, opportunity and this is explored in depth in this book. However, even thieves have a conscience and I was impressed that when a group of men attempted to burgle a warehouse and were interrupted by an exploding bomb, one risked his life to rescue a woman from a burning building – later slipping away when the authorities attempted to take his details…
So, did the country bravely pull together during wartime? The answer is that, mostly, they did. Yes, there was psychological damage and trauma, but also a mood of defiance and a feeling – boosted by government – that the civilian population could take it. During the Blitz, the one topic of conversation seemed to be air raids and people shared their experiences and dealt with their fear by voicing it. It was a time of extremes, both good and bad, and I feel humbled by some of the stories in this book and urge anyone with an interest in this era to read this wonderful book. Lastly, I thank the author for writing such an immersive account of this time and all those he interviewed for sharing their stories with his readers.
"Blitz Spirit" was the term that evolved to cover life as an on-going target. The Germans began their bombing campaign as a prelude to "Operation Sea Lion", their proposed invasion of the UK. In 1940, Hitler began to turn his attention to the east - the Soviet Union - where he figured he could get a quick victory and then return to the UK. Unfortunately for him, the invasion of the Soviet Union, beginning in the summer of 1941 was not successful and he was mired in the mud and snow until the tide turned and the Russians moved west. The Blitz bombing of the UK began in September 1940 and ended in May 1941, though bombing raids continued til 1944.
What was it like to live under the constant threat of aerial bombardment? Not easy as thousands were killed or injured. Businesses were wrecked by bombs, and often looting by the citizenry occurred after the "All Clear". Socially, during this time, barriers were coming down between classes as many people pitched in to help. Levine looks at the first "sexual revolution" as people realised that life could be over in an instant and it was best to "enjoy the moment". I think that's common in war-time, in all societies.
"Blitz Spirit" could also extend to clever and not-so-legal ways of making a living. Levine cites the case of one young man with a bad heart, who was turned down for the army. He then rented out his body, posing as another man - who had paid him - to take and fail the physical. Evidently he made quite a tidy sum before being found by the authorities. (This "ploy" is written about in the delightful war-time novel, "Crooked Heart", by Lissa Evans). Of course, the black market was a fertile field for boosting one's income and many people bought, bartered, and traded rationed items. These are only a few of the topics Levine covers in his book.
"The Secret History of the Blitz" is a thorough look at the war years, written in an engaging way.
My only caveat is that, even though the author has conducted exhaustive research on the topic, occasionally his political views come to the surface. While that is not necessarily a negative, it makes the reader wonder if certain segments of the book are written from the perspective of events as perceived during the war or from contemporary politics. However, that does not detract from the overall quality of the book.
In the meantime, as I said, I'm still waiting for *my* turn, and I bought the book. So I guess I might want to advise people to buy two copies, because other history buffs are going to kerp snatching this out of your fingers before you even get a chance ;)