Review: The Secret History of the Blitz, Joshua Levine

The concept of ‘the Blitz’ is a powerful one within the British psyche.  Following recent terror attacks, attempts by foreign press to insinuate that Britain is ‘cowed’ always leads to belligerent Tweets back to the effect that ‘Britain Can Take It’.  We have taken it, many times, and we have never been broken.  In The Secret History of the Blitz, Levine sets out to establish how far the spirit of the Blitz existed in reality.  He asks ‘Did [people] sing Roll Out the Barrel in communal shelters, shaking their fists at ‘bloody Adolf’ before cheerfully dodging the debris next morning on their way to work? Or did they loot from bombed-out houses, fiddle their rations and curse foreigners, while hoping for a negotiated peace that would save their wretched lives?’  It is perhaps unsurprising that the answer is found to be a mixture of the two.  Still, as Levine sifts through archives and diaries, he manages to make the voices he unearths seem both more alive and more like us – for all their flaws, these people were a lot like us.

Secret History divides the topics up by chapter rather than chronology, but still traces the overall timeline of the war.  The book is treasure trove of unknown facts.  The chapter on the Coventry bomb opens with a letter featuring Joan Thornton’s horrified description of the blast, before shifting into enquiries on her friend’s holiday.  The date is 1 September 1939 and the device in question had been planted by the IRA.  Levine does not examine the Blitz as an isolated incident but how it fit into the overall life of the nation and most of all how its legacy lingers on today.

The story of Sherwood Forest’s short-lived oil industry was a real surprise to me, having never heard of this, described by Churchill as ‘the greatest secret of the war’.  Naturally the strategic importance of guaranteeing a British oil supply was quite high, but British inexperience meant that Americans had to be drafted in to help, with a large group living in a monastery during their time in the United Kingdom.

Most startling for me were the personal accounts.  Levine won me over early on with his dry observation that ‘If you share any DNA with the author, you will  be wondering, at regular intervals, how you would have coped with the privations and problems of the period’.  The answer seems to have shifted from person to person.  At seventy years distance, I could not help but feel a sympathy for the unfortunate author CP Snow who was ‘humiliated’ to discover himself to be ‘less brave than the average man’ and utterly terrified by the raids.  Like so many, he had ‘expected the elementary human qualities.  It was unpleasant to find them lacking’.  He was by no means alone in his struggles.

The case of Ida Rodway, who killed her disabled husband following from the stress of being made homeless after being bombed-out, illustrates how people could be utterly overwhelmed by situations which were not of their making.  Levine points out how the long-held Poor Law mentality began to crack during the Blitz.  The original idea of the law had been to shame the destitute so that they would try anything before asking for charity, but when people are only destitute because they have lost all their possessions due to being bombed during a war which their government had gotten them into in the first place, the attitude has to change.  Britain was woefully unprepared for how many people’s homes would be destroyed by the Luftwaffe but this event, catastrophic though it was, does seem to have paved the way for the dawn of the welfare state.  The Citizen’s Advice Bureau was first formed to advise bombed-out citizens – times were rapidly required to change.

Another aspect that brought people together was simple forced proximity.  Vera Reid describes sitting in Piccadilly Circus tube station night after night, watching as a tiny baby grew until it could sit up, seeing an old man learn to knit and eventually make himself a pair of gloves.  People who never came into contact before the war suddenly got an insight into each other’s lives.  This was not to say that life was rosy in the shelters – 53 year-old George Hall was sent to prison for fourteen days for snoring in a public shelter (he had used abusive language towards the people who kept waking him up to complain).  Elizabeth Robson sheltered in the basement with her family and their two Irish maids.  The constant ‘Mary Mother of God’ of the two girls’ Hail Marys eventually drew Robson’s brother-in-law to say ‘I’m terribly sorry, I can’t stand that’.  This detail stood out for me – I could imagine both the maids’ terror and also how the constant repetition in a high stress situation could drive you distracted.

There are so many distressing details which emerge through Secret History and in particular the harrowing work carried out by the rescue workers.  Twenty-seven year-old Gwen Hughes was in a public shelter in Southampton with her two children when it was hit by a bomb.  Buried beneath the rubble, she heard her son scream and then grow silent and felt the water rising around them from the severed main.  She could hear her fireman husband trying to get to them, was able to speak to him but he could not get to her.  When husband Monty asked a colleague what to do if they could not rescue his family, the advice was to shoot them to spare them the misery of drowning.  Miraculously, the family were saved – but they were the sole survivors.  In Coventry, rescue workers approached a shelter in Greyfriars Green and a voice called out that there were twelve survivors.  However, a policeman ordered the rescuers away as two unexploded bombs had been found nearby.  By the time the scene was made safe three days later, only one old man was still alive.  They could hear these people’s voices but could do nothing to save them.

Yet still, one of the most remarkable observations that Levine makes is how widespread the feeling of disengagement was.  Various Mass-Observation reports note the ‘enormous amount of simply sitting about with no occupation of any kind’.  While the play Thunder Rock, roaring success in London and total flop in New York, advocated fighting back and overcoming the oppressors and at the other extreme the Ida Rodways of this world gave into despair, there was another group.  These people ambled down to the shelter, tried to find a quiet corner and just did … nothing.  They were not the spivs trying to make a quick buck on the black market, nor the frantic volunteers trying to set up canteens and organise relief efforts.  By the very fact that they did little of note, their story and experiences faded, but yet it does seem that for ‘a surprising number of people, almost nothing happened at all’.

Yet on the flip side, one of the most disturbing chapters centred around the appalling treatment of the ‘enemy aliens’.  Pet shop owner Mr Azario lived peacefully in Tooting for forty-two years until he was whisked away for internment.  His last words to his wife and daughter were, ‘I shall never come back’.  The ship he was put in was the Arandora Star and when it was torpedoed in the Atlantic, he lost his life.  The Daily Mirror reported that ‘the aliens thought only of their own skins and fought in a mad scramble for the lifeboats’ but the surviving crew members reported the opposite to be true.

As Levine points out, there are uncomfortable parallels here to how British politicians and the press warn a Muslim fifth column.  World War Two set the precedent of putting aside civil liberties in the name of security and we are still having to decide where the line should be drawn.  In the words of Magna Carta, To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

Chapters on the wartime sexual revolution and the spike in crime have their share of shocking anecdotes but are not themselves unexpected.  It was interesting though to read of a temporarily more lax attitude towards the prosecution of homosexuals during the conflict, since these men were needed to fight.  The sad truth though is that this was not reflective of a new era of tolerance – the 1950s saw a fightback and government attitudes hardened.  Britain would have to wait until the 1960s for greater social permissiveness to gather pace.

Levine’s book is alive with detail, from the anecdotes of the incompetent German spies, one of whom defended by his landlady as surely not a spy as he was ‘ever so nice’ to the horrific case of Rachel Dobkin, whose body was dumped in a bombed-out church to hide the evidence.  The Dobkin case made pioneering use of forensic photography to secure the conviction of Dobkin’s husband.  Levine points out that there was no one unified response to the war.  One bereaved mother said years later ‘I still feel hatred for the Germans: they took everything off me.’ Another who had also lost her son said of the Germans ‘They didn’t ask for war. They lost their sons. We lost our sons.’  People responded differently.

For some it was ‘bad form’ to allow a siren to interrupt a restaurant conversation.  Other regarded the ‘We’re all in it together’ propaganda as akin to ‘a pub bore’.  Yet there were some whose lives were forever altered.  Policeman Les Waters’ four year-old daughter was so scared by the Blitz that her hair fell out.  There was a sharp rise in stress-related illness including the loosening of teeth and the outbreak of boils.  This does not contradict the idea of wartime stoicism but it hints at the cost which lay behind it.

It is clear that Levine is anxious to link up the Blitz period to the modern era.  He makes repeated reference to events current in 2015, such as the 7/7 terror attack in London and the 2011 riots.  Given the rather memorable events of the past two years though, this does give the book a slightly dated feel.  The European Referendum, Brexit, on-going terror attacks – a lot has changed since this book came out and our national identity has shifted with it.  In some ways though, Secret History gave me some hope.  A group of burglars aiming for a safe were interrupted by a bombing raid and gave up on their enterprise when they saw a young girl in trouble in the rubble.  They saw the child safe to a policeman then refused to give their details.  There was good to be found even in the bleakest of times and it does seem that behind all the propaganda, Britain really could ‘take it’.

Highly readable and well-researched, Secret History brought fresh context to an area of history – no mean feat when one considers quite how much has been written about the Blitz.  Levine has a rich sympathy for his subjects, be they high or low, male or female, native born British or ‘enemy alien’.   A warm-hearted and fascinating book, enthusiasts for the period will not be disappointed.

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The Secret History of the Blitz by Joshua Levine
Published by Simon & Schuster on July 30th 2015
Pages: 373

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5 thoughts on “Review: The Secret History of the Blitz, Joshua Levine

  1. Now this is curious, I bought this book a few months ago as I’ve always been interested in the ‘real’ history of WWII rather than that we can glean from the propaganda of the day and the myths that we are still fed about what it was actually like, particularly on the ‘Home Front’.

    Thankfully, there a number of writers, historians and documentary makers who are willing to search out these stories even though they know there will be people who will dismiss their conclusions preferring to hang on to the popular ‘myths’ (despite there being very few people alive today who were adults during that time.)

    I started to read this book and found myself struggling with the first chapter, and I’m sorry to say it was returned to the TBR pile. Having read your review I wonder whether I should try again but this time dip in to it, as it does seem in places it is the kind of work I was expecting (I probably will!)

    1. How funny – I hope you can give it another try and that you enjoy it better then.

      I’m a fan of the social history of WW2 and this really did make an effort to understand what went on from a different perspective. It neither painted the people who lived through it as heroes or villains –

    2. How funny – I hope you can give it another try and that you enjoy it better then.

      I’m a fan of the social history of WW2 and this really did make an effort to understand what went on from a different perspective. It neither painted the people who lived through it as heroes or villains – far more nuanced than what normally comes across!

      Hope your month has been good 🙂

  2. I have been long been fascinated with life in Britain during WWII and I own shelves of books on the subject. This is one that I happened to put in my online cart yesterday. I have been dithering about buying anything because I just returned from a vacation where I bought a lot of books. Your review is giving me the excuse I need to give in and buy it.

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