The First Day of the Blitz: September 7, 1940
Reviewed by Antoine Capet
Among scholars interested in the British Home Front in the Second World War, Professor Stansky is already well known for his London’s Burning and his ‘Henry Moore and the Blitz.’1 He now offers us a monograph on 7 September 1940, conventionally accepted as the first day of the London Blitz. Naturally, the field covered extends beyond that particular day (and night) to provide contextual information for those who are not yet familiar with the subject. This is the difficulty, of course, because so much has already been (well) written on the London Blitz, notably by Angus Calder2 (whom Stansky evidently does not fail to quote where appropriate), that the author has to navigate between two hazards: giving too much context on the war and Operation Seelöwe/Sealion (of which the London Blitz was or was not an essential element—historians continue to argue on its importance3) for those who are new to the subject or facing the accusation that his narrative of the events of 7 September 1940 is too narrowly focussed to provide proper perspective for the uninitiated.
The famous warning of 1932 by the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, that ‘the bomber will always get through,’ the lesson of Guernica and the extrapolations which had been made on the potential slaughter—together with the Civil Defence precautions, serve as a sort of backdrop to the actual unfolding of the bombing raids, recounted from Chapter III. Once more, Stansky faced a difficulty, since these bombing raids have been described in countless history books. His way out of that difficulty was to avoid giving a cold list of casualties, number of aircraft engaged and downed on each side or statistics of buildings destroyed (though we get ample figures), relying instead on the innumerable personal stories which have been published or consigned on diaries and letters now deposited at the Imperial War Museum. Many are printed here for the first time. The author is perfectly aware of the limitations of these testimonies: ‘It also does not necessarily follow that the memory recorded immediately after an event, although obviously fresher, is more or less true than a memory put down much later’ .
The wide range of personal accounts (by authors from all walks of life) quoted, sometimes with copious extracts, makes the book different both from the existing straight historical narratives and the volumes of memoirs written by a single author. For instance, a lot of people were in different cinemas (this was Saturday) when the raids started—and we get their several perceptions of what was going on outside, followed by their discovery (in some cases) that their houses had been bombed out, worrying for their relatives who might be under the rubble.
The First Day of the Blitz also makes extensive use of the letters and reports of Americans (not only journalists like Ed Murrow) who were eye witnesses and de facto participants since they were exposed to the danger like all residents of London. The voice-off in London Can Take It!, the 1940 nine-minute film by Humphrey Jennings, is that of Quentin Reynolds, the American correspondent for Colliers Weekly, and Stansky has an interesting discussion on how British resistance was perceived by foreign observers. The old phrases on ‘stiff upper lips’ and ‘unemotional Britons’ were naturally used as at least partial explanation for this unexpected resilience. Contrary to the Englishwoman Mollie Panter-Downes who wrote in the New Yorker that the poor were ‘emotionally more prone to panic’ , Stansky argues that they were so ‘accustomed to hardship’ that they tended ‘to accept what came their way’ , and he has very good passages on the importance of the ritual cup of tea after the ‘All Clear’—even among those who found that their property had been damaged.
In his last chapter, ‘The Myth, The Reality,’ Stansky offers his own re-examination of the concepts so well and so extensively developed by Calder, the People’s War and the Myth of the Blitz, leading to the idea that ‘the way the British handled the situation fitted in easily with their conception of themselves’ . He is naturally aware that, as he puts it, ‘national character is a slippery concept’4 —and that therefore the notion that thanks to their national character the British were uniquely suited to refuse to yield before Hitler’s bombs suffers from very severe limitations. Instead, Stansky prefers to extend the notion to include man’s remarkable resistance to terror in all its forms and in all countries, making comparisons between the London Blitz of 1940 and the attack on the New York World Trade Center in 2001 on several occasions. In this, he was able to cite Roy Jenkins as an authority. A few months before his death, the former Labour Minister and President of the European Commission (and author of a 1000-page biography of Churchill) felt impelled to insist on the parallel: ‘What Giuliani [Mayor of New York in 2001] succeeded in doing is what Churchill succeeded in doing in the dreadful summer of 1940: he managed to create an illusion that we were bound to win’ .
When Churchill visited the Silvertown district in the East End, probably the worst-hit area of the first day (and night) of the Blitz, on Sunday 8 September, nobody could be sure that whatever morale-boosting reassurance he may have given to the homeless and bereaved survivors would not in fact turn out to be an ‘illusion’ that final victory was a certainty. But Stansky’s book excellently documents how from that very first day most of the population did its utmost to make sure that the ‘illusion’ became reality—which of course it did in the end.
The First Day of the Blitz concludes on an equally reassuring note: ‘Both days, 61 years apart, were marked by death and destruction, but they also provided evidence of our ability to survive as human beings’ —let us only hope that this is not an ‘illusion’, either.
1. Peter Stansky & William Abrahams , London’s Burning: Life, Death and Art in the Second World War (London: Constable, 1994) [Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, Humphrey Jennings & Benjamin Britten]. Peter Stansky, ‘Henry Moore and the Blitz’, In Bean, J.M.W., ed., The Political Culture of Modern Britain: Studies in Memory of Stephen Koss (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987) 228-42. back
2. Angus Calder, The People’s War (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969 & Pimlico Paperbacks 1995). The Myth of the Blitz (London: Jonathan Cape, 1991 & Pimlico Paperbacks, 1995). back
3. See the recent debate originating in the publication of Brian James, ‘Pie in the Sky’ (History Today 56-9, 2006) 38-40. The three historians involved in the controversy started by this article over whether it was the Royal Air Force or the Royal Navy that decisively repulsed the invasion answer in the RUSI Journal (October 2006, 66-67) and on the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies site :
4. The most recent extensive discussion of this thorny question will be found in Peter Mandler, The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006). See review on the British Scholar site: