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Chapter 9: The Phase of Uncertainty: September 1939–May 1940

What would have been the effect on the civil population if the war had opened with heavy air attacks on London and other cities? The Government had removed 1,500,000 mothers and children from the target areas, 2,000,000 other people had left, about 140,000 sick people were turned out of hospitals and others were transferred to safer areas, some 195,000 beds were made available for wounded civilians, and the civil defence and casualty services were mobilised for action. These measures, which no Government could be blamed for introducing before the bombs fell, were the result of many years of debate and planning. That they were incomplete and imperfectly organised will become apparent in the subsequent chapters. It is impossible, however, to estimate how all these emergency services would have functioned in the event of an attack in September 1939, and how quickly the lessons of experience would have been learnt and applied. These questions were answered—at least in part—a year later when the bombing of London began.

What had to be discussed at this point is the problem—or, rather, the series of problems—which arose during the period up to May 1940 as a consequence of the unexpected course of the war. This period of the war was described as ‘phoney’. The word was, apparently, imported from the United States, and it was generally employed to mean that the war was false; that the combatants were merely playing at war. The expression was politically useful to those who did not fact to accept the situation, to those who wanted to avoid the facts of Nazi doctrine and violence, and to those who, quite naturally, objected to having their lives disturbed. The war, it was said, was a ‘phoney’ one because no civilians in Britain or France were being bombed and killed, and because the ‘shooting war’ was not in evidence on the Western front. Despite its modern dress, the argument was old-fashioned; for it implied that war was simply and immediately a matter of noise and bloodshed.

To millions of people in Britain the war was already real enough. The shifting of population—the hurried movement from the cities, the migration of industry and commerce, schools and other institutions, and then the filtering back to the towns, directly affected the daily lives of from one-quarter to one-third of the people.1 The social

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stresses which accompanied and followed a movement of people and homes on such a scale cannot be measured; fr it was not just a matter of separated families and invaded homes. The framework of social services upon which modern communities have come to depend was—in parts and in different places—violently wrenched into disorder. The metropolitan area and other large cities were stripped for action; stripped of schools, evening institutes, clubs, nurseries, clinics, maternity homes, hospitals and the essentials of staff, equipment and buildings. Meanwhile, the reception areas were overloaded with population and short of all these things.

In many parts of Britain, children went for months without education and medical supervision; the school dental service closed down, eye defects were uncorrected and children remained in need of glasses, speech defect classes were suspended, the special schools for handicapped children, cripples and heart cases were disastrously affected, maternity and child welfare clinics were commandeered for civil defence purposes, sick people were unable to get into hospital, and the number of children receiving school meals drooped steeply. Even the milk industry faced a minor crisis owing to the disorganisation of the urban market for milk (a consequence of evacuation), and a sharp fall in the consumption of milk at schools. By the end of 1939, for instance, the quantity of milk used in the schools had fallen by over a third in England and Wales, and by nearly half in Scotland.

The expected war on civilian society had not come. The Government, in preparing to meet an immediate air onslaught, had put into operation its civil defence schemes and had, by doing so, upset the working of the peacetime social services. The wartime services were not yet wanted; the peacetime services were. Children still needed education; mothers still wanted their babies delivered’ babies still wanted nurseries.

But the threat of air attack had not evaporated with the bloodless passing of the first day of the war. At the end of December 1939, the Air Staff considered that nothing had happened to modify the assumptions made before the war. There was no assurance that ‘heavy and sustained air attacks’ would not take place at any time. The Home Secretary, in communicating this report to a worried Cabinet, asked for steps to be taken to ‘counter the spirit of false optimism’ that had arisen since the outbreak of war.

In addition to the war situation, many factors were contributing to what the Home Secretary described as ‘false optimism’. Evacuation and the general movement of population had created a degree of interference and inconvenience which seemed only acceptable in conditions of either invasion or massed air attacks. The dislocation of the educational system and other social services added to the general mood of irritation and frustration. At the same time, many people

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were worried by the rising cost of living,2 especially those families who had been affected by evacuation and those who were doing their best to make a home for evacuated children. For these and many social and political reasons the country was in a mood to exaggerate its immediate difficulties. In consequence, it was also (having by now learnt something of what evacuation meant) prepared to scale down the risk of air attack. The return to the cities increased in volume as the weeks passed and London remained unmolested. By the end of 1939 over 900,000 mothers and children had returned home, leaving only about 570,000 official evacuees still in the reception areas.

While this movement was in progress the civil defence and casualty services were being violently assailed by some sections of the press. A report to the War Cabinet in December 1939 drew attention to the tendency, ‘in quarters which reflect and shape public opinion, to decry as unnecessary or over-cautious many of the measures which have been taken to safeguard the national interests against air attack’. Within a fortnight of the outbreak of war the ‘colossal ramp’ of air raid precautions was being ‘revealed’, and the consequential waste of taxpayers’ money formed a subject for sensational headlines.3 Pressure for cuts in the wartime services came from many quarters—within as well as without the Government. The President of the British Employers’ Confederation complained that whole-time civil defence workers were apparently doing nothing, while their employers badly needed their services. From many sources it was alleged that air raid precautions were interfering with the business life of the community. Practically every aspect of the civil defence and emergency arrangements were criticised as one time or another. The imposition of blackout, and the closing of cinemas, theatres and other forms of entertainment at the beginning of the war led to a lot of grumbling, and lighting restrictions were blamed for the serious increase in the number of people killed and injured in road accidents.4

In September 1939 the total of men, women and children killed in road accidents increased by nearly one hundred percent, while in the four-month period to the end of 1939 over 1,700 more than the peacetime average for the period were killed—the vast majority being pedestrians.5 The number of injured also rose sharply. These were the first of Britain’s war casualties on land.

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It was during the first eight months of war, when intellectual and emotional unreadiness, uncertainties about the future course of hostilities, and difficulties bread by conflicting needs and interests were all conspiring to weaken both policy and its application, that the civil defence and evacuation schemes acquired a bad name. Moreover, continual press attacks on the workers in these services sapped morale, while the experience of evacuation and the absence of air attacks on London helped to destroy much of the goodwill in the reception areas towards the billeting of mothers and children. The irresponsible agitation for a huge programme of camps for evacuees which developed after the Munich crisis in September 19386 arose again in the winter of 1939–40. But in this field as in others there was no easy or comfortable solution to the strains and stresses of the war upon which the nation had embarked.

Under the combined pressure of all these influences, the civil defence and casualty services were, by the end of 1939, showing signs of crumbling. The Government feared that Christmas might bring the evacuation scheme to an end. A steady seeping away of civil defence workers was threatening to reduce the number of whole-time staff to small proportions.7 The number of beds available in the hospital scheme for civilian air raid casualties had fallen from 195,000 on the outbreak of war to 145,000 in January 1940.8

This situation was brought about not only by newspaper agitation and demands in Parliament for financial economy and the easing of hardships, but also by the Government’s concern about rising public expenditure and the danger of inflation. The precedent of an economy—or retrenchment—campaign which began in July 1915 was followed in the Second World War, although on this occasion the Treasury was quicker off the mark.9 This early emphasis on thrift had little as yet to do with manpower or material shortages, for unemployment remained obstinately high and, as late as January 1940, still embraced 1,603,000 people.10

The reasons for the continued dominance of financial orthodoxy were, however, many and complicated and cannot be discussed here.

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Their treatment belongs to the companion volume on economic and price problems.11 Nevertheless, it will be necessary to show from time to time in the next few chapters what these financial policies meant to the health and social services, and how they often collided with the Government’s other policies for the new wartime services.

In this period of the war neither Government nor people were single-minded. Some policies spoke for civilian safety; others for comfort. Some policies demanded economy in money; other spending for defence. Pressures for the full resumption of education and the peacetime health services often conflicted with the needs of civil defence, while the Government’s desire to maintain parental responsibility by enforcing the repayment of billeting allowances ran counter to its policy of keeping the evacuated children in the country. The times were not dangerous—only stressful, uncertain and threatening danger.

The state of the social services in 1939 and the first half of 1940 has to be seen against this background sketch of the first eight months of the war. Historically, the period is an important one, for despite—the dilemmas and the difficulties of insuring against air attack, restarting the social services and preventing inflation, the Government was obliged to reach many decisions which, eventually, were to have a profound effect on the quality of the help provided for the people during the war.

In the next two chapters some of the more important issues are worked out in detail, and some of the generalisations that have been made in this chapter are clothed with the necessary evidence. The problems that arose with the adaptation of peacetime services to war purposes are explained, and an account is given of the course of the evacuation and hospital schemes during the period to May 1940. A separate chapter is devoted to administrative and local government matters and this concludes part II.