It’s incorrect to say there was no resistance to safety measures around the Blitz

23 July 2020
What was claimed

In World War Two, when Londoners were asked to black out their homes at night, none complained or objected.

Our verdict

This is incorrect. There are recorded instances of numerous objections to blackout and Blitz safety measures.

A tweet by actor Jason Alexander about the Blitz has been shared thousands of times across social media. The tweet says:

“In WW2, Londoners were asked to black out their homes at night so the enemy bombers wouldn’t see the lights & know where to target. No Londoner said,”It’s my right to have lights on”. Cuz others would say,”your light on endangers us.”Substitute “light” for “mask”. Now argue.”

The central claim of this tweet is that there wasn’t any objection from Londoners to the preventative methods brought in during the “Blitz” bombing campaign on London from 1940 to 1941, and in particular it mentions the blackout. This is incorrect. 

Suggesting that measures to combat the Blitz were happily accepted is not true. As many historians and commentators have pointed out, theBlitz spirithas come to be seen as a propaganda effort which lacks the nuances felt across the country. 

There are numerous examples of people complaining, objecting to, and even circumventing safety guidance during the Blitz. 

Blackout measures introduced in 1939, where external lighting had to be limited during hours of darkness and extinguished during air raids, were certainly the subject of complaints. Historian Robert Mackay writes that at the time, the public felt this measure was the most inconvenient aspect of the war, due to the lack of bombs in late 1939 and early 1940. He adds that those enforcing blackout, such as volunteer ARP wardens, were unpopular. Blackout measures also led to a rise in traffic and road-related deaths early on in the war, which at one point were higher than Royal Air Force and Navy deaths according to a report in the New York Times. Despite frustrations, blackout was a successful measure, with most UK cities described from the air as “comprehensively darkened”.

Other safety measures weren’t perfectly adhered to. The Centre for War, State, and Society at the University of Exeter notes that a significant cause of death early on in the Blitz was due to a failure to find shelter, with bodies pulled from the rubble indicating that victims had been sleeping in upstairs rooms. 

An often-cited example to contrast the “Blitz spirit” argument is how much looting happened of bombed and empty buildings. The issue became so bad in London that some MPs requested a director of anti-looting measures be appointed. Other crimes, such as pickpocketing and assault, also occurred during the darkness.

In addition to this, government evacuation advice was also loosely adhered to. In the early months of the war, many people refused to follow official advice, with children returning from the countryside where they had been evacuated for Christmas and throughout early 1940. Again, by the time the Blitz bombings began these rules were being followed more closely.

The stark divide in-class experiences of the Blitz also fuelled protest and complaint. Many wealthier people were able to leave targeted cities like London for safer country houses. Those overwhelmingly affected by the bombs were those without other options—particularly poorer working-class people living in crowded conditions around the targeted docks. One notable protest saw future MP Phil Piratin lead a group to the Savoy Hotel’s shelter where they demanded tea, bread and butter. This was part of a protest to draw attention to the conditions in these luxury shelters compared to those for poorer people. There was also a push for people to be allowed to shelter in tube stations. This was initially discouraged by the government, but the general public flocked to stations when heavy bombing began in September 1940.

Generally, since the outbreak of Covid-19, historians have disputed the comparisons between the Blitz and the pandemic, noting ahistorical interpretations of the “Blitz spirit” may not be the approach to take when dealing with a virus outbreak.

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