Chapter 2: The Expected Consequences
From these anticipations of the character of the attack that might be launched against the civilians of Britain there flowed the question: what kind of consequences will follow and how will people react.
The problem was rarely, if ever, put as comprehensively as this. But it arose, in one form or another, as each separate welfare or civil defence scheme was considered before the war. And it was stated, not in such general terms, but in more specific terms, but in more specific ways. If hospital beds and ambulances were needed, how many casualties would there be? If provision must be made for mortuaries and coffins, how big must the provision be? If evacuation was necessary, what was the number to be catered for?
These were but a few of the issues that had to be faced. The major consequences that were envisaged, and for which (as subsequent chapters show) plans were prepared, may roughly grouped under the following heads:
a. physical casualties (including effects on health),
b. material damage,
c. social distress, disorganisation and loss of morale
These immediate considerations dominated all else; for this reason, little thought was given before the war to the social problems that would arise later on from a full mobilisation of manpower and womanpower.
In 1924, the Air Staff had arrived at the assumption of fifty casualties per tons of bombs. This calculation, as chapter I has shown, was based on the experience derived from the raids during 1917–18. As the estimated scale of risk, or tonnage of bombs that might be dropped, rose in magnitude throughout the nineteen-thirties, a straightforward multiplication by fifty produced, on each occasion, a new and higher figure of estimated casualties. This simple, and easily remembered, multiplier soon acquired a validity to which, in statistical theory and for other reasons, it was hardly entitled.1 By 1937 its
origins were unknown to the majority of senior officials in the civil departments. Nevertheless, it was still applied in these departments to revised estimates by the Air Staff of the weight of bombs that might be dropped.
As different questions arose, in the planning of a variety of emergency services, the use of the multiplier of fifty casualties per ton of bombs to each problem a grim aspect. When the Committee of Imperial Defence was considering in 1937 compensation to civilians for loss of life or injury from air attack it assumed that the attack would continue for sixty days and that the total number of casualties might amount to 600,000 killed and 1,200,000 injured. The capital cost involved, on the basis of a given scale of compensation, was then estimated at £120,000,000. When the Ministry of Health, in 1938–39, was trying to compute the number of hospital beds required to deal with civilian air raid casualties, its translation of the Air Ministry’s 1937 and 1939 estimates led to figures ranging from 1,000,000 to 2,800,000 beds according to length of stay in hospital. Similar proportions were reached when other problems were investigated. The number of graves and coffins required was so great that the Home Office envisaged mass burials and the burning of bodies in lime. This was thought to be unavoidable, as otherwise 20,000,000 square feet of seasoned coffin timber would be needed each month at a cost of approximately £300,000.
The reports that reached the Government about air raid victims in the Spanish war did nothing to discredit the use of the multiplier of
fifty casualties per ton.2 The Air Raid Precautions Department substituted, in fact, a higher ratio of seventy-two. This figure was derived from a number of raids on Barcelona in March 1938 when forty-two tons of bombs caused—it was reported—3,000 casualties. Of this number, 1,000 were killed and, as to the remainder, the Department arbitrarily divided them between the ‘badly injured’ and the ‘slightly injured’. Thus, one ton of bombs would mean twenty-four persons dead, twenty-four seriously injured and twenty-four slightly injured. Of the injured, it was assumed that thirty-six would require hospital treatment.3 These speculative estimates had practical importance; they provided a formula from which was calculated the original yardstick of requirements for first aid parties and posts, rescue parties and other sectors of civil defence.
Such estimates of the number of civilians who might be killed and wounded4 in the first month or two of war provide a partial explanation of the reason why questions of civilian health remained in the background. The slower and more subtle effects of war were overshadowed. Those diseases which were considered as possible dangers were generally the cruder and more violent expressions of a disrupted society. There was some fear that a broken sanitary system and the pollution of water supplies would lead to outbreaks of such diseases as typhoid fever. Typhus and tetanus were others which were envisaged in this drastic picture of social disorganisation.
A large-scale movement of population constituted, according to some medical authorities, another threat to the health of the nation. The mixing of different strains of infection following upon mass evacuation from the towns and, as one medical journal warned, the ‘danger of serious disturbance of the epidemiological balance of the districts into which these town dwellers are introduced, arising from the difference between the immunity values of town and country
populations’,5 were expected to lead to more infectious disease. Anxiety about the insufficient amount of accommodation in infectious disease hospitals in reception areas was accordingly expressed by the Ministry of Health in July 1939. The shortage of hospital space in general was probably a more immediate cause of anxiety; nevertheless, there was some apprehension of what might follow a mass exodus from the towns. But this fear, whatever its scientific basis in the light of contemporary knowledge of immunity, never reached the point of materially influencing official policy. It was submerged, along with other fears, by the more dramatic threat of attack from the air.
The Government was not alone in regarding the prospect of damage to property with alarm. The conclusions it reached were withheld from publication, in order to avoid dismay among the public or for other reasons; but unofficial views often matched or exceeded those held by the authorities. The approach to the question of war damage insurance was a significant index of the trend of opinion. As early in October 1936, Lloyd’s and the insurance companies had decided to refuse to accept war risks insurance. Compensation, it was held, was no longer matter for private enterprise; the problem was now so vast that only the Government could shoulder the risks.
But the Government felt that the job was too big. The profit made by the state scheme during 1914–18 was not thought to be any guide to future contingencies and, in April 1937, the Cabinet decided that insurance against air risks was impossible.
At the same time as this decision was taken, a committee was set up to consider whether any form of compensation was feasible. This committee, employing the Air Staff estimates, concluded that it would be necessary ‘to envisage the possibility of damage amounting to £550,000,000 in the first three weeks of war’.6 In reaching this figure another multiplier was brought into play. As in the case of physical casualties, this also was derived from the 1914–18 experience. During these years the material damage caused by air raids was estimated at £14,250 per tons of bombs, and over the period of twelve months ended 20th May 1918 at £35,000 per ton. This latter figure was chosen, and it became the multiplier.
The report of this committee, which was accepted by the Cabinet in October 1938, embodied the general principle that in the event of
a major war ‘nothing more could be attempted than a scheme of partial compensation at the end of hostilities’.7 Nevertheless, the report served a useful purpose because it drew attention, for the first time, to the problem of damage to houses. This subject is discussed in a later chapter; here it is only necessary to give some indication of the scale of damage envisaged.
A new committee was established to study this problem. There is no need to report again on the method of estimation; it is sufficient to mention that the committee was led to state that, in the first twelve months of a major war, at least 500,000 houses might be totally destroyed or so badly damaged as to call for demolition, and at least 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 houses might be substantially damaged. The scale of damage to industrial property and public utilities was drawn to the same order of magnitude as for private houses.
The depressing conclusion reached by the Government whenever it considered war risks insurance simply endorsed such reports,8 while an attempt to plot the fall of bombs on London conjured up a picture of crippled public services and widespread disorganisation.9
Social Distress, Disorganisation and Loss of Morale
It followed inevitably that problems arising from confusion and disorganisation were emphasised as part of the expected consequences of air war upon civilians; a war to be conducted by the enemy first of air war upon civilians; a war to be conducted by the enemy first and foremost upon the unorganised, ununiformed and undisciplined section of the nation with the object of breaking its morale to the point of surrender. From this war there would ensue financial distress, difficulties of food distribution, breakdowns in transport, communications, gas, lighting and water supplies and, with all these strains, large numbers of people struggling to escape into the country. ‘This vast mass of human beings,’ to quote Mr. Churchill again, ‘without shelter and without food, without sanitation and without special provision for the maintenance of order, would confront the Government of the day with an administrative problem of the first magnitude.’10
The coming of the aeroplane added many new and unforeseeable problems to the task of administering the country in time of war. If disorder was to be prevented the chain of civil command on the home
front would have to be kept intact. It is easy to understand therefore, why, during the pre-war years when civil defence and allied questions were being studied, the importance of communications and administration was repeatedly emphasised. The regional system arose from such considerations; hence the appointment of regional commissioners, supported in each region by miniature home departments, to take over complete control of the area in the event of a breakdown in communication from the centre.
Another argument for decentralisation was the possibility that the seat of Government with the main Departments of State might have to be moved from London. This was one of the gravest of issues, and not the least of the difficulties involved was the problem of deciding whether any such move of departments should take place before or after the attack was made. There were some doubts whether, if the attack had started. The Admiralty, in a memorandum to the Cabinet after the Munich crisis in September 1938, thought that there was a real danger of air attacks on London producing ‘a temporary paralysis’ of some parts of the administrative machine.
For the limited purposes of this volume sufficient has been said to show that the Government was viewing with much concern the problem of maintaining communications and administrative control.11 About the question of public morale a good deal more must be said. In planning the emergency social services the Government thought it necessary to bear constantly in mind the possibility that civilian steadfastness might fail. For the war that threatened was seen to be something new. That this was recognised, and recognised many years before it came, was unprecedented. Never before, in the history of warfare, had there been so much study and so many plans which were concerned with the protection and welfare of the women and children of the nation.
A war of armies and navies was understood; discipline and behaviour were under control, the individual took from the group a recognised and accepted standard of conduct, and behaviour was within certain limits predictable. But how would civilians behave? They could not be put into uniform, neither given the same group loyalties nor controlled and led in the same way as an army.
Military authorities, when considering the problems that might arise in a future war, were rarely led to contemplate the contingency of wholesale neurosis and panic in the armies under their control. But this was a possibility which was never far from the minds of the civil authorities when they considered the need for emergency services to provide for the social consequences of a war on civilians.
It seems sometimes to have been accepted almost as a matter of course that widespread neurosis and panic would ensue.
In sifting the many thousands of papers, which passed through Governmental agencies during the nineteen-twenties and nineteen-thirties, it is difficult to find even a hint that this fear of a collapse in morale was based on much else than instinctive opinion. Occasionally the searcher is rewarded by a reference to behaviour in the First World War; sometimes with a comment or two on the experience of the Spanish people during the civil war. But the value of even this scanty material was lessened, partly because morale is insusceptible to measurement, and partly because the evidence had passed through a dense and reduplicated veil of human interpretation.
There were for instance some records from the First World War of London’s reaction to attacking aircraft. It was said that during the winter of 1917–18 over 10,000 people packed themselves into one underground station and that, night after night, more than 100,000 people (as many as 300,000 on one occasion in February 1918) took shelter in the tubes. This behaviour was produced by perhaps half-a-dozen slow moving aircraft carrying somewhat primitive high-explosive bombs, a large proportion of which failed to explode.
These reports, which were accepted by the Committee of Imperial Defence, together with evidence supplied by the railways and certain industries on the effect of raids and rumours of raids on their work-people, led the first committee on air raid precautions to conclude that the moral effect of air attack in a future war would be ‘out of all proportion greater’ than the physical consequences. This committee, which it must be remembered was reporting in 1924, even went so far as to suggest that ‘the most probable cause of chaos in the community will be the moral collapse of the personnel employed in the working of the vital public services’. Statements such as these cannot of course be properly interpreted if they are divorced from the public temper and the time when they were written. And this was when doubts about the permanence of world peace were gathering force; when men like Marshal Foch were speaking of the ‘crushing moral effect on a nation … to the point of disarming the Government’ of the air weapon in a future war.
So far as the Government’s study of civil defence problems was concerned, these speculations in 1924 seem to mark the beginning of the feat that morale might break. This fear remained as a hideous question-mark to plague one planning committee after another throughout the nineteen-thirties. It let the first evacuation committee in 1931 to visualise its task not as a problem of getting people away from London but of preventing ‘a disorderly general flight’.12
The emphasis did not change materially during the following eight years. From December 1937 to the period of the Munich crisis in September 1938, discussions proceeded between the War Office, the Home Office and the Commissioner of Police about a request by the latter for some 17,000 regular troops. These troops were wanted, in addition to the recruitment of 20,000 reserve constables, to control the exodus from London and to prevent panic at stations, at the entrance to tubes and at certain provincial centres.13 The problem was stated in a letter from the War Office to the Home Office in December 1937 as ‘comparable to the duties undertaken by the Army in aid of the civil authorities after the Quetta earthquake in 1935’. The method by which military assistance was to be invoked was laid down in the Government War Book, while in the instructions issued the Army Council to General Officers Commanding-in-Chief it was stated that the ‘initial preoccupation’ of the troops would be ‘to sustain public morale’. ‘The public should be aware’, continued these instructions,’ that there ware available formed and disciplined bodies of troops read to assist in minimising the effect of air raids’.
The same underlying anxiety about public behaviour no doubt prompted the Ministry of Health, when it was considering in March 1939 the problem of relief for air raid refugees, to ask the India Office to recommend for inclusion in its committee an official experienced in the ‘management’ of large masses of people.14 In the preparations, too, for the hospital care of civilian casualties the Ministry of Health thought that cases of neurosis were ‘not only inevitable’ but ‘a probable menace’ unless adequate arrangements were made, and treatment restricted to severe cases, ‘in order to prevent the organisation from being swamped’.
Official persons were not the only ones to hold these beliefs. Views that were often expressed by unofficial authorities on mental health were gloomier still. A few characteristic examples may be selected from an abundance of material. In the middle of 1938 a number of eminent psychiatrists from the London teaching hospitals and clinics formed a committee to consider the mental health services in time of war. A report was drawn up and presented to the Ministry of Health
which envisaged a large and elaborate organisation providing immediate treatment centres in the bombed areas, out-patient clinics running a twenty-four hour service on the outskirts of cities, special hospitals, camps and work settlements in safer areas, and mobile teams of psychiatrists and mobile child guidance clinics. It was suggested that psychiatric casualties might exceed physical casualties by three to one.15 This would have meant, on the basis of the Government’s estimates of killed and wounded, some 3–4 million cases of acute panic, hysteria and other neurotic conditions during the first six months of air attack. In September 1938, the medical director of one well-known London clinic thought that it was ‘clear to everyone that there must be an immediate inundation with cases of neurosis on the declaration of war—and certainly after the first air raid’,16 while in April 1939, the Mental Health Emergency Committee informed the Ministry of Health Emergency Committee informed the Ministry of Health that the number of sufferers from mental and nervous disorders would, in the event of war, ‘increase to an extent never before experienced’.17
And what was the answer? The psychiatrists had recommended a large and elaborate mental health service; the Government had looked to the Army and to the police to stiffen public opinion. This belief in the stabilising value of bodies of uniformed men was, however, difficult to reconcile with the size of the problem. There were not enough policemen and, in any event, the force would have innumerable new tasks to tackle in time of war. The Army, conscious that its job was to fight the enemy, did not take kindly to the proposal that part of its strength should be engaged on keeping order among nervous civilians or in disciplining the civil defence services. It was, therefore, quite early in the nineteen-thirties, when official thinking began to reach the stage of administrative detail, that the Government had to give up the idea of using the military to control civil defence personnel.18 This meant that the question mark about civilian behaviour under air attack became even more crucial. The discipline if the people would have to be stiffened without the aid of
soldiers. When a special committee was established in 1937 to review the air raid precautions, hospital and fire brigade schemes, the maintenance of morale of the people was stated to be the first aim of these services. To the House of Commons, the Home Secretary described this objective in stronger terms when he said, in moving the second reading the Air Raid Precautions Bill, that its primary job was to ‘ensure the country against panic’.19
These fears about public order, which expressed themselves in the autumn of 1938 by concern at the inadequate number of troops and policemen in London, were deepened by the Air Staff’s estimates of the rapidly growing striking power of the German Air Force. Anticipations of the mental strain were linked with anticipations of the physical ordeal. There were some officials who had spent many years in grisly intimacy with the most sombre problems, such as the disposal of the dead.20 One of the earliest acts of guidance about war measures given by the Ministry of Health to local authorities was the issue, in April 1939, of 1,000,000 burial forms.21
It is uncomfortably easy for the historian to look back on this period and to imply criticism of the temper and mood which Ministers and officials brought to their task of planning the wartime social services. For this mood, this fear of war which might end civilisation, was something which infected both Government and people. ‘We had entered a period’, wrote Mr. Churchill, ‘when the weapon which had played a considerable part in the previous war had become obsessive in men’s minds, and also a prime military factor. Ministers had to imagine the most frightful scenes of ruin and slaughter in London if we quarrelled with the German dictator’.22
It was the duty of the Government to envisage the consequences to the civil population of air warfare; of necessity, therefore, it had to consider the worst that might happen. As things turned out, the worst did not happen. The enemy air force launched its mass attacks on London not in September 1939 but in September 1940, and, even then, the weight and destructiveness of its attack proved to be far less than the experts had believed likely.23 The men who held responsibility for planning civil defence and the emergency services could not have known these facts in advance. To the limits of administrative practicability, they had to make what provision they could to cope with the sombre possibilities which were presented to them.
If the attack had come as soon, and had been as devastating. as they feared, their anxiety on the scope of public morale might not have been refuted so emphatically as in 1940 it seemed to be. That anxiety in any case, was fully shared by the country’s unofficial experts in mental health.
But were not the experts perhaps too remote from the ordinary people of Britain, who in dangerous times of the past had usually shown no lack of defiance and steadfastness? Would Londoners behave in a future war as it was said they had behaved in 1917–18? Would not the passage of twenty years of acquaintance with the aeroplane make a difference? And, even more to the point, was a nightly trek to the tubes by thousands of people an index of panic at a time when air raid precautions and evacuation had hardly been thought of?
There were observers who found little that was alarming in the conduct of the British people during the First World War, and much that might have given comfort twenty years later. An American historian quoted an observer in 1916: ‘Great Britain has been acquiring a unitary aim of purpose. The aim itself is warlike; but it has been attained with some increase of mental peace’.24 The War Office Committee of Inquiry into Shell Shock concluded that the war had produced no new nervous disorders; those which did occur had previously been recognised in civil medical practice.25 A British civil servant and historian, looking back on what he called ‘ the years of collective endeavour’, remembered how the war had provided many people with a purpose and a sense of usefulness, which were the basis of high morale.26 Similar testimony had been given contemporaneously by a social psychiatrist who recognised in the British nation the homogeneity, endurance, enterprise and all the other qualities of a ‘warrior’ people.27 ‘The history of England’, he wrote, ‘seems to show with remarkable constancy that the national consciousness has been in its most effective action limited to those elementary conceptions which have been simple and broad enough to manifest themselves in a common purpose of great strength and tenacity’. As he saw it in 1916, the form of social organisation represented by England contained a strength not possessed by her enemy, a resistant nucleus of moral power capable of intense growth.
Admittedly, other observers found it difficult to discern these reserves of strength and moral power in the Britain of the nineteen-thirties. Yet they were still there, in the same people, waiting to be summoned.