The Blitz and its Legacy
Wartime Destruction to Post-War Reconstruction
Edited by Mark Clapson & Peter J. Larkham
Farnham, Ashgate, 2012
Hardcover. xiv+197p. ISBN 978-1409436980. £55.00
Reviewed by Matthew Hollow
Books that owe their origins to academic conferences can often vary in quality. Some have the capacity to spark fresh debate and insight by providing readers with a range of different perspectives on a specific topic; others, meanwhile, can feel more like hastily pieced-together collections of disjointed contributions with seemingly little in common. Thankfully, this particular edited volume very much falls into the former category.
The specific conference from which this book derives its name took place at the University of Westminster (UK) in September 2010 and fed into the wider Leverhulme-funded ‘Constructing Post-War Britain’ research project that the University was running at this time. As the editors themselves make clear in the introduction, one of the central aims of the conference (and wider research project it contributed to) was to try and encourage greater cross-disciplinary discussion on the topic of the Blitz and post-War reconstruction. The outcome of this commitment to inter-disciplinary discussion is a book that brings together an impressive number of high-profile academics from a range of different disciplines, including: history, planning, architecture, and geography. This breadth of different perspectives not only helps to differentiate this volume from other comparable titles on the market, it also serves to ensure that it appeals to as wide an academic audience as possible.
The book itself is comprised of 14 chapters (including the introduction), each written by a different author (or pair of authors). By comparison with most conventional edited volumes in the Arts & Humanities/Social Sciences, the lengths of these chapters are noticeably shorter than usual. However, this is not to say that the book in any way feels lightweight or insubstantial. Indeed, quite the contrary, the volume actually looks and feels more like the sort of stylish ‘coffee table book’ that one would likely find in an upmarket gallery or design studio—an impression reinforced by the 16 colour and 39 black-and-white finely-reproduced illustrations contained within.
In terms of its structure, the volume is loosely divided into two sections. In the first, the focus is predominantly on the damage (both physical and emotional) caused by the aerial bombardments themselves, whilst in the second section the emphasis switches much more towards the efforts that were made to re-plan and rebuild those cities and districts that were destroyed during the course of the Second World War. One inevitable consequence of this contrast in focus is that the chapters themselves do tend to vary quite considerably in terms of their content and scope. For instance, whereas in the first half of the book, the contributions mainly focus on the wartime experiences of specific social groups and/or organisation, in the second half of the book, the chapters tend to deal far more directly with the physical changes that took place in particular cities and geographical spaces in the postwar years. Similarly, whereas the contributions in the first half of the book often explicitly try to engage with wider ongoing historical debates related to the Blitz experience,(1) those included in the second half tend to speak far more directly to those working within the planning and architectural disciplines.
The first of the volume’s 13 original contributions is provided by Lindsey Dodd, who reinforces the internationalist credentials of the title by offering up a critically-informed discussion of the French population’s experience of wartime bombing. Drawing on a wide range of oral testimonies, she outlines the varied ways in which the Allied bombing campaign disrupted French society during the War. Her discussion is particularly strong in the sense that it serves to reinforce just how much of an impact these intensive bombing campaigns had (and continue to have) upon people’s mental health: ‘Bombing penetrated not just homes, but minds. That a generation of French people jump whenever the municipal siren is tested, and that thunderstorms and low-flying planes trigger fear and anxiety, are demonstrable impacts in the present’ .
Dodd’s entry is then followed by Sue Wheatcroft’s contribution, which focuses on the evacuation of disabled children during the Blitz. Again, her entry is sensitive to the emotional scars and ‘psychological damage’  that the experience of relocation had upon many of the children she is discussing. Yet, she is also at pains not to paint a too negative picture of evacuation, highlighting how ‘certain groups of children undoubtedly benefitted from the residential experience’  as well as pointing to the beneficial effects that the specially-created residential schools had in ‘raising awareness of children with disabilities among the general public who had previously been unused to seeing large groups of disabled children’ .
The following chapter by Shane Ewen then switches the focus somewhat by looking at the struggles that Britain’s assorted fire services faced in their attempts to cope with the chaos and destruction wrought by the German bombing campaign. Amongst the key issues he seeks to explore is the extent to which heroic Wartime portrayals of Blitz fire-fighting (embodied perhaps most famously by Humphrey Jennings’ 1943 film, Fires Were Started) actually reflected the reality of fire-fighting on the ground at the time. In chapter 5, Robin Woolven then moves the discussion on by looking at how the London County Council (LCC) attempted to come to terms with the enormous challenge of trying to clear away the huge amounts of debris left in the wake of the German bombings—emphasising how the LCC’s (ultimately successful) efforts in this respect proved vital in ‘preparing the damaged metropolis for the hoped for post-war reconstruction’ . This is followed by Susanne Cowan’s contribution, which focuses in on the extent to which the destruction brought about by the German bombing campaign helped to consolidate public opinion behind the aims of the British town planning movement. In the end, what her contribution shows is that, although many public officials and prominent planners did certainly try to ‘capitalize on the mythology of the Blitz’ , ‘the unified public consent for planning, which planners had imagined and hoped for, remained ephemeral, existing only as part of the mythical memories of the Blitz experience’ .
Catherine Flinn further elaborates upon these difficulties facing the British town planning profession by meticulously outlining the various materials and labour shortages that—in combination with the balance of payment crisis—hindered post-war reconstruction efforts throughout the 1940s and 50s. As she argues, these issues were of so serious a nature that they ultimately prevented any of the plans and proposals that were put forward in this period from being fully implemented . Any suggestion, however, that the actual reconstruction efforts that did subsequently take place in Britain after the cessation of hostilities did not have far-reaching consequences is rapidly quashed by Mark Clapson who, in the following chapter, describes the huge impact that the passing of the New Towns Act in 1946—and the subsequent construction of 20 purpose-built new towns—had upon traditional working-class London communities.
Neil Jackson then mixes things up once again by shifting the focus away from Britain and onto post-War Japan. His chapter offers the reader a slightly different perspective on the challenges of post-War reconstruction in that it shines a light on the many difficult decisions that confronted Japanese architects and planners in their attempts to both physically and socially rebuild their shattered country after the War. Similar sorts of issues are also touched upon in the following entry by Jeffry Diefendorf, which focuses in on the often highly-charged debates that took place in post-War Germany regarding the rebuilding of the nation’s civic and administrative buildings. As Diefendorf points out, such decisions were rarely straightforward:
The challenge of reconstructing [civic] buildings raised sensitive questions. On all levels, the legitimacy of government institutions had been drastically undermined by both the criminality of the Nazi regime and by the utter collapse of Nazi government at the end of the war…To establish the legitimate authority of city government and police after the defeat, were new city buildings needed, or could old buildings be restored or rebuilt without bearing the taint of Nazism? 
The next two contributions then switch the spotlight back onto Britain, highlighting the challenges and problems that arose during the reconstruction of Birmingham and Plymouth, respectively. In the first, David Adams and Peter J. Larkham make use of surviving oral testimonies from those who lived through the reconstruction period in Birmingham to explore popular perceptions of planning and reconstruction during this era. As they show, far from being unanimously welcomed, the modernist-inspired plans that were subsequently put forward for the redevelopment of Birmingham city centre were actually met with ‘significant public concerns, doubts and concerns’ . In the following chapter, Stephen Essex and Mark Brayshay then turn their attentions to the re-planning of Plymouth’s bombed-out city centre, focusing in particular upon the key figures and stakeholders involved in the planning process.
The final two chapters of the volume then shift the focus back onto the international scene, looking at the reconstruction efforts that took place in Alsace-Lorraine and Japan, respectively. In the first, Hugh Clout graphically details the region-wide destruction that took place during the War before moving on to look at the decision-making processes involved in the often contested post-War reconstruction effort. In the second, Junichie Hasegawa makes use of local newspaper reports to explore contemporary views of reconstruction in Sendai. Again, both contributions serve as a nice complement to the other entries on reconstruction in Britain featured in the collection.
Taken as a whole, then, there is clearly much to recommend about this volume. Not only does it successfully manage to shed fresh light on a number of well-trodden debates regarding the relationship between the Blitz and the post-War planning movement,(2) it also raises a number of original and interesting points about the emotional and social legacy of the Second World War bombing campaigns. From a personal perspective, I also particularly liked the way in which this edited collection consciously tried to move beyond the confines of wartime London by considering how other cities and peoples—both in the UK and elsewhere around the world—were affected by, and responded to, the destruction wrought by the aerial bombardments of the Second World War. Comparative international approaches of this sort have for too long been neglected in the historical literature on wartime destruction and post-conflict reconstruction and it is hoped that this volume will act as a something catalyst for further research in this area.
(1) Juliet Gardiner, The Blitz : The British Under Attack (London, Harper Press: 2010).
(2) See John Stevenson, ‘Planner’s Moon? The Second World War and the Planning Movement’, in H.L. Smith (ed.), War and Social Change : British Society in the Second World War (Manchester: University Press, 1986) : 58–77; Matthew Hollow, ‘Utopian Urges : Visions for Reconstruction in Britain, 1940–1950’, Planning Perspectives 27-4 (2012) : 569–585.
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