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Chapter 16: Arithmetic of Stress

The chronological division of this book has now to be broken to a limited extent. In this and the following chapter the narrative looks backwards on the battles of 1940–1 and, at the same time, takes a forward view to the end of the war. The purpose is two-fold. First, to gather a comprehensive facts and figures some of the consequences of enemy air attack—by piloted aircraft, flying-bombs and rockets—to the civilian population and, secondly, to bring to an end the story of the post-raid services. There then remains to be told in subsequent chapters and against the continuing background of enemy attack and other war stresses the story of the evacuation and hospital services during the years 1940 to 1945.

For two-and-a-half years after the end of the first great series of raids there were no heavy assaults on Britain. Attacks of a different, and generally minor, character were delivered during 1942–3 as the German Air Force changed its technique, passed in strategy from the offensive to the defensive, and selected new targets for bombing. There were raids in the middle of 1942 on some of thee cathedral towns; Bath, Exeter, Norwich, Canterbury and York. There were sudden and vicious bombings by day and night of small towns and villages in areas around the coast. These ‘tip-and-run’ attacks—as they were called—were frequent in 1942–3, and left behind many problems of broken villages, shattered schools and isolated distress.

The early months of 1944 witnessed a sharp resurgence of raids by piloted aircraft. These were on a heavier scale than the sporadic excursions of 1942–3, and most of them were directed at London. They ceased as suddenly as they began. But London had only a few weeks of freedom before the flying-bomb attacked opened on 12th June 1944. This lasted for about three months, during which time over 5,000 bombs, out of about 8,000 launched, fell on London and south-eastern England.

With the collapse of the attack by land-launched flying-bombs the enemy began to despatch these weapons from aircraft. This method of warfare never became a menace to the civilian population, but the next one did. On 8th September 1944 the first long-range rocket was fired at Britain. Once again, London was the chief target. The assault continued to seven months, and a total of 1,054 rocket incidents were report on land. Of this number, 518 rockets fell within the London civil defence region. With the Allied advance into Holland in March

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1945, when the launching sites were occupied, the attack ceased. The last rocket landed in Kent on 27th March, and the last enemy-action incident of any kind on British soil occurred at Datchworth in Hertfordshire on 29th March when a flying-bomb was again used.1

All these attacks on the civilian population from 1942 to 1945 reproduced many of the social problems of 1940–1 which have been described in the preceding chapters. But with one exception—the task of repairing the damage to homes caused by flying-bombs and rockets—the post-raid services were never seriously tested as they had been during the winter of 1940–1. It was then that the main test and all the imperative issues arose. Thus, the story of the post-raid services is nearly completed.

When these services were called into action again in London and the south-east of England they functioned smoothly and well. They did so despite the fact that most parts of the scheme, rest centres, canteens, information and billeting, depended to an even greater extent than in earlier years on voluntary and part-time workers. But these services had always rested in large measure on the labour of volunteers. That, perhaps, was their genius. They were economical of manpower in a war which, although it was said to be a war of machines, was increasingly hungry for men and women.

In assessing the operational efficiency of the post-raid services—and to a great extent this evacuation services as well—allowance has always to be made for this factor of voluntary labour. It was mostly part-time and was largely given by those who were too old or too young, or too much occupied with household, teaching and other tasks, for service in factory or uniform. Often it was but partly trained. It was constantly shifting and changing its composition. From the summer of 1941 onwards it rarely retained a core of tested experience.

In consequence, the plans and policies of Government depended in large measure for their operational efficiency upon personal and not easily calculable elements. To pass judgement on the results from the standpoint of a nation with abundant reserves of men and materials, and able to afford trained, full-time staffs, would be unreal and unfair. In measuring achievement it has also to be remembered that there was no such thing as complete efficiency for most of these services. Air crews could set oil dumps alight, fire parties put out fires, rescue workers rescue the injured; but the worker in the rest centre, billet or information office reached no such operational finality. He or she could diminish, but never remove, the sufferings of homeless people and the fears of evacuated children.

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At least one more factor has to be added to the list of incalculable elements which entered into the framing of policies for the protection of the civilian population. There was seldom a day in five years when enemy aeroplanes or flying-bombs or rockets were not over some part of Britain. Even if raiders were not signalled, there was always the threat of attack—a threat which touched not only the nerve-centre of Government, but many towns and villages throughout the country. A state of readiness became almost a permanent feature of life for those who manned the civil defence and post-raid services. A state of relaxation was not fully experienced until April 1945. Between the first bomb on Britain and the last, 2,019 days elapsed—a long and wearisome period during which, for the most part and for most people, nothing happened. But all the time there were threats; of bombs, of gas, of sabotage, of invasion and, at the end, of new and unsuspected horrors. At no time did the workers in the post-raid evacuation and hospital services know when the next attack might come, whether it would be by night or day, what form it would take, which city would suffer, how severe destruction would be, or how long it would last. In these sectors, the enemy held the initiative almost to the end.

London was on duty for most of the war. Between the first and last incident, the alert was sounded on 1,224 occasions. If these are averaged, it may be said that Londoners were threatened once every thirty-six hours for over five years, threatened at their work, having their meals, putting their children to bed, and going about the ordinary business of their lives.

In many ways it was a vastly different kind of war from the one expected. And the consequences, too, were curiously unlike those that had been feared.; The contrasts between forecast and event, emphasised more than once already, will now be rather more comprehensively surveyed.

The weight of the attack actually delivered by the German Air Force was considerably lighter than that which, it had been thought, might be dropped on the country. According to the provisional estimates summarised in Appendix 7, about 71,000 metric tons were dropped on the United Kingdom during the whole of the war. About 57,000 of these tons were dropped during the period to December 1941, and, of this quantity, about 8,200 tons were judged to have fallen in the London civil defence region.

The enemy appears to have claimed more than twice this tonnage. By a rough calculation based on certain German claims, the total would be around 174,000 tons.2 The writer is not competent to estimate the proportion of this total that should be put down to

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untruthful propaganda. Probably quite a large tonnage of the bombs intended for British targets fell in the sea, in rivers, and, unknown to the British authorities, in remote areas of the country. But there speculations cannot be pursued any further. The remarks that follow are based on the figure of 71,000 tons provided jointly by the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Home Security. If further research should show this figure to be too low, then the estimate of injury and damage per ton would need scaling down.

Before the war it was considered that, in certain circumstances, the Germans might be capable of dropping 3,500 tons on London during the first twenty-four hours of an all-out attack, and an average of 700 tons a day during at least the first fortnight.3 This would have meant a total of close on 10,000 tons in fourteen days. But, in fact, the weight of bombs dropped by piloted aircraft on London during the whole of the war did not reach this figure.4 Nor did any of the daily claims made by the enemy approach the maximum of 3,500 tons. The greatest claim made was 1,184 tons on London on 19th April 1941.

While the estimated weight of attack had been pushed too high, it had been chiefly the exaggeration of the casualty rate for each ton of high-explosive that had led to the estimates of immense numbers of wounded and dead. The early chapters of this book have sought to describe how Government departments struggled to plan hospital and other schemes on the assumption of fifty to seventy-two casualties per ton of bombs. It was suggested that one-third of these casualties might be immediately fatal, one-third seriously injured and one-third slightly injured.

The repeated application of these constants, derived in the main from the fragmentary experience of London in 1917–8, led to some grim calculations of dead and injured civilians. One estimate, based on the hypothesis of an attack lasting sixty days, put the number of casualties at 600,000 killed and 1,200,000 injured.5

At no period of the war did the actual casualty roll amount to more than a small fraction of these calculations. The greatest number of casualties actually experienced in any one twenty-four hours was even below the ‘conservative’ estimate of daily losses put forward by the Air Staff in 1924, when the vulnerability of London was being discussed by the Committee of Imperial Defence. In all, about 60,000 civilians in Britain were killed during the war, 86,000 were seriously injured and 149,000 were slightly injured.6 The total was thus

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295,000 casualties with a ration of one killed to 3.9 injured. There were, in addition, many people who sustained only very slight or trivial injuries—at a rough guess about 50,000.7 Generally, they either treated themselves or went to their own doctors.

Any attempt to relate these figures to tons of bombs is beset with a host of difficulties. The number exposed to risk, e.g. the number of people living in the target area, is an important complication; for, as the density of population per acre declined, so did the casualty effect of each ton of bombs. In London there was a steep decline in the casualty rate even a few miles from the centre. These large differences in the casualty rates (both per 1,000 population and per bomb dropped) showed the great advantages of evacuation even for quite short distances.8

Another confusing kind of factor is the number of people taking refuge in shelters of various kinds, particularly domestic ones. When the number was substantial, it usually had the effect of ‘spreading out’ the population over the target area .This factor operated chiefly at night-time, and thus tended to produce different casualty rates for night and day raids. During the day, people were not only concentrated in factories and offices, but they were also liable to be caught about the streets in large numbers. The Ministry of Home Security found that during 1940–3 the number of casualties per ton of bombs was roughly fifty percent higher in day raids than in night raids. Before the war it was generally believed that the enemy would attack during the daytime. The change in German tactics to night raids in September 1940, might, therefore, explain a part of the difference between the casualties expected and the casualties experienced during the raids of 1940–1. But it could explain only a small part, because although day raids were expected the estimated casualty rate per ton of bombs was calculated on the basis of night raids.

Many other factors complicate the problem of working out casualty rates; the type and power of the bomb used, the distance of fall of the bomb, the distribution of people in streets, gardens, buildings and shelters, the structure of buildings, the risks of injury from falling debris, the efficiency of rescue parties, the precision of bomb-aiming and so forth. The chance of a casualty occurring varied so greatly according to the relative importance of all these factors that only an

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over-all rate can be given as some indication of the order of magnitude of risk.

From an examination of a mass of data it would seem that one metric ton of high-explosive, dropped in night raids by piloted aircraft on large cities in Britain, killed about four to five people, and injured between ten to fifteen—most of them only slightly.9 The matter may, therefore, be summed up by saying that the total casualty rate per ton of bombs actually experienced by London and other large cities during 1940–1 lay between fifteen and twenty.

The difference between these figures and the pre-war estimates of fifty to seventy-two casualties per ton is far too wide to be explained on wholly technical or statistical grounds. Part of the explanation may lie in the effectiveness of the measures taken by the Government to protect civilian life and the fact that the Germans did not launch an attack on the outbreak of war. Other reasons may be found in the uncritical acceptance of historical evidence, in the lack of research concerning the effects of high-explosive bombs, in exaggerated ideas about the consequences of air bombardment and, finally, in a general over-estimation of Germany’s striking power in the air.10 All these reasons help to explain why the number of civilian casualties during the raids of 1940–1 was so much below what had been expected. The public mind of the nineteen-thirties in Britain and in many other countries, as well as the collective views of Governments, shared these pessimistic views about the menace of the bomb to human life. Perhaps the world paid too much tribute to this new instrument of war, and too much homage to the strength and ability of dictatorships.

As a means of mutilating and destroying the human body the bombing aeroplane was over-valued. Some part of its real effectiveness revealed itself with less melodrama than in the apocalyptic prophesies of the nineteen-thirties. Those visions of panic-stricken crowds and of mutilation and death had obscured the plain and humdrum problems of maintaining as going concerns the institution of the family and the business of living in cities.11

The two preceding chapters have described some of these problems as they arose during the attacks of 1940–1. It was shown that damage

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to homes, and the search for new places of shelter and rest, were among the more serious—if not the most serious—consequences of air attack on the civilian population.

Before the war, when the Government studied this problem of material damage, it was thought that destruction might be on such a scale as to rule out any question of compensation.12 The basis for this view was an estimate that, in the first twelve months of air attack in a major war, at least 500,000 houses might be totally destroyed or so badly damaged as to call for demolition, that another 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 houses might be substantially damaged, and that damage to industrial property might be equally serious.

There are difficulties in comparing these estimates with what actually happened, because of the way in which house-damage statistics were compiled. Doubts about the accuracy of these statistics have already been expressed.13 Perhaps their chief defect lay in the fact that a house, if damaged two or three times, was counted as two or three houses. The figures of houses totally destroyed or damaged beyond repair are, of course, much more reliable.

Up to the end of May 1944, that is, before the effects of flying-bombs and rockets had been experienced, it was estimated by the Government that 3,034,000 houses in the United Kingdom had been damaged but not rendered permanently uninhabitable.14 Approximately 175,000 had been destroyed or damaged beyond repair, and 201,000 had been seriously damaged and rendered uninhabitable for a period of time. A great part of all this damage was sustained during the twelve months from September 1940.15

Although the attack delivered by the German Air Force was less heavy than that which had been expected before the war, it would seem, in comparing these figures, that in terms of the tonnage dropped the total damage sustained was greater than the total damage which had been expected. Even when some allowance is made for the imprecise counting of damaged housing—and perhaps one-quarter should be deducted on this account—the conclusion still holds good. It may be said, therefore, that the effects of one ton of high-explosive in damaging houses and in making people homeless were under-estimated before the war.

Scientists, as well as ministers, Government officials, and public opinion generally16 overlooked the magnitude of the problem of

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people without homes.17 Both scientists and officials were, no doubt, handicapped by the lack of data derived from experiment and research into the effects of the high-explosive bomb. Nevertheless, there was material available before the war which could have led to comprehension and action.18 When the raids came, the size and character of the problem of homelessness took the authorities by surprise. In general terms, one ton of high-explosive delivered on the built-up areas of London and other large cities destroyed or damaged beyond repair ten houses. Another twenty-five were rendered temporarily uninhabitable, and eighty were slightly damaged19 On the average, therefore, one ton affected 115 houses, made eighty people temporarily homeless, and caused another thirty-five to lose their homes permanently.20 For every civilian killed, thirty-five were bombed out of their homes.

It is difficult to measure the total effect on the housing situation of enemy action of all kinds during the whole of the war.21 To the complications that have been already mentioned, the flying-bomb and rocket attacks of 1944–5 added new ones. These attacks damaged or destroyed about 1,510,000 houses; but many of them had already sustained damage earlier in the war. If the figures for the two period from 1940 to May 1944 and from May 1944 to the end of the war are added together, the totals for the United Kingdom are:

222,000 houses destroyed or damaged beyond repair,22

4,698,000 houses sustained varying degrees of light to heavy damage (some of it rendering houses unfit for occupation for several years).

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The first figure is likely to be approximately correct; but the second, which does not refer to 4,698,000 different houses, may carry a margin of error from fifteen percent to thirty percent.

It may be assumed, from a study of what material exists, that double-counting involved about one-quarter of the 4,698,000 houses.23 In round figures, then, a total of 3,745,000 different houses in the United Kingdom were either damaged or destroyed during the Second World War. In other words, about two house in every seven were affected in some way by enemy action. In heavily attacked cities, like Plymouth, Hull and Coventry, the proportion was much higher. Of all houses in Plymouth, for instance, eight percent were completely destroyed and sixteen percent were rendered uninhabitable until at least mid-1944. Thus, one house in four was put out of action, and a great many more were temporarily unusable.

The brunt of destruction fell, however, on London. Of all houses in the country completely wiped out, and of all ‘damage incidents’, nearly sixty percent applied to the London civil defence region. This area, with its 2,151,000 houses—or one-sixth of the country’s stock—took more than half the damage and destruction. At the heart of the capital, the county of London itself, only about one house in ten escaped damage of some kind. Nearer the centre still, in the sector of Bermondsey for instance, only four houses in every hundred came through the war unscathed.24

The vast majority of the millions of people who continued to live in these 3,500,000 or so damaged houses emerged, at the end of the war, with a lower standard of accommodation and poorer equipment. The physical shell was not so good; there was less room because there were fewer houses and—since so much been destroyed and so little made—furniture and equipment had steadily deteriorated. Personal expenditure on household goods was forced down, by the need to make war, by seventy percent within three years of 1939; it continued to fall until 1945.25 Yet, by the end, 3,750,000 payments had been made by the Assistance board for damaged furniture and clothing to about 2,250,000 applicants.26 Nearly sixty percent of these applicant lived in the London region. The total of claims lodged with the Board of Trade for loss or damage to private chattels

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amounted, at the end of 1945, to £86,000,000,27 a sum to over one-half of expenditure in the United Kingdom on all furniture and furnishings in 1938.

These were some of the direct and measurable consequences of air attack on homes. They rendered homeless, as Chapter XIV has described, about 2,250,000 people during the first and most destructive phase of attack which ended in June 1941. They led, during the war, to over 53,000,000 attendances by men, women and children in the tube stations of London. They caused the central and local authorities to carry out more than 10,000,000 repair operations to damaged houses.28

The material damage to social institutions such as schools and hospitals also affected the home in a number of ways. Close on twenty percent of all elementary and secondary schools in England and Wales had been destroyed or damage to some degree by July 1941.29 Either children could not go to school for a time or else they were crowded together in larger classes. In London region, damage was inflicted on 687 occasions during the war to 326 hospitals and kindred institutions.30 As a result, room in hospital was reduced and waiting lists grew longer.

But tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs did more than all this. Their direct and material impression on the outward fabric of social organisation was more easily seen, more quickly grasped and dramatised, than the indirect. Yet it was often the prosaic and unobtrusive influences that affected most people. They twisted and marked the daily routine of life; meals were taken at different times and were often hurried by the impending note of the air-raid siren, while fire watching, civil defence and other wartime duties disarranged the quiet habits of the orderly. Sleep was something to be taken in instalments, often with other people and usually in uncomfortable, noisy place. There was more dirt about, much less ventilation because of the black-out, greater contrasts in air temperatures, and more risks of infection with the crowding together of people in shelters, tubes, rest centres, basements and other places.

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During the winter of 1940 the Government greatly feared a typhus epidemic.31 The accumulation of dirt, a rapid rise in the number of cases of scabies and skin diseases, and a generally favourable environment for the spread of infection, led to energetic preventive action by the Ministry of Health, the local authorities and experts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. A vigorous campaign for the immunisation of children against diphtheria was also started; the conjunction of air warfare and the distribution of free diphtheria prophylaxis providing a stimulus which hitherto had been lacking.

The kind of life that many people were forced to lead by actual or threatened air attack was often inimical to physical health, but such conditions were only part of the wider problem of the stamina of a nation at war. Their effects cannot be disentangled from all the other elements, physical and mental, which accompanied and followed a long and exhausting struggle. The statistician can point, for instance, to the fact that about 6,500 more babies died from disease in Britain during the two years 1940–1 as compared with the average for 1938–3932 when the infant death rates were relatively high compared with those recorded at the end of the war. The bombing of homes and the general disorganisation of life may be caused some of these excess infant deaths, but it is by no means clear that air attack was solely responsible. Other adverse factors connected with the war, economic, nutritional and social, such as the rise in the cost of living in 1939–40, may well have played a part.

Nor can the harmful influences of the war be isolated from those that were favourable to health. Some of the latter are easily identifiable; for example, the pouring of milk into children. Others can be identified only by asking complicated historical questions about the nurture of those who had to meet the test of war. The attempt to find a balance between so many varied and counteracting influences is bound to be difficult. It is postponed to the final chapter of this book.

Meanwhile, a few facts that can be precisely identified and measured are given here to illustrate, what may perhaps be called, the secondary effects of air warfare on civilian mortality. They show that the biological consequences of such warfare cannot be summed up solely in terms of those killed and injured by bombs; that many people died who would not have done so if the air weapon had not been used, and that many more sustained injuries which otherwise would not have befallen them.

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To establish these facts, an analysis was made of a part—but only a small part—of the vital statistics for the early war years. The tables are not reproduced here, but all the raw material can be found in the Registrar-General’s Annual Reviews for England and Wales.33 Two groups only were studied; children under the age of fifteen, and people aged over sixty-five. The populations at risk were not, therefore, affected by such factors as service in the Armed Forces. The figures given here, and designated ‘excess mortality’, represent the additional deaths in England and Wales during the war years in question over the peacetime averages for 1937–8.

The first question examined was accident in the home; that is, domestic mishaps resulting in death. In 1940, the year of the first heavy raids, there was a sudden rise in the number of children and old people burnt or scalded to death.34 Clothing was set alight by domestic fires, candles and paraffin lamps; kettles, pans and tea pots were overturned; there were accidental falls into fires.

Another feature of the accident death rate was that more children were suffocated to death in their beds or cots. By 1941 mortality under this heading for those aged under five had risen by sixty percent; thereafter it subsided. During the years 1940–3 an additional 426 children lost their lives in this way—a number larger than the total of deaths caused by war operations among all women in the Armed Forces to (at least) the end of 1943.35 Families had to sleep on basement floors, in domestic shelters and other crowded places. Improvised bedding and bulky pillows were used and people slept partly or fully dressed; often they were overtired and insensible to the cries of young children. It was in circumstances of this kind that 1,386 babies were suffocated to death during 1940–3—an excess mortality of 426 over the pre-war figures.

Among young children, accidental death, in simple and unexpected dress, was (and is) never far away. The war, with all its drabness of unlit streets, darkened rooms and stairways, brought it perceptibly nearer. Mothers stumbled in the gloom; mistakes were made with food and drink; the sudden note of the air raid siren, summoning fear, or the shuddering whine of a bomb, brought flurried haste and anxiety. Nearly 200 more babies died from ‘suffocation by food’ during 1940–3. The number dying because of the ‘accidental swallowing of a foreign body’ rose by fifty percent during 1940–2.

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Outside the home, children were less safe than before the war, despite a great decrease in the amount of traffic on the roads and the removal of large numbers of children from the cities to country areas. While the death rate from road accidents fell considerably among adults during 1940–3, many more children were killed. They were, in fact, the only group to suffer increasingly in this way. They did so because there was less schooling, less supervision, with fathers away and more mothers at work outside the home, and more need for children to shop and run errands.

The war, and particularly the lessons of air attack, created another risk for young children—the fascination of playing with water which so few city children normally enjoy. The emergency water tanks, provided on bombed sites and other places, supplied a new diversion for the adventurous. During 1940–3 an additional 756 children aged up to fifteen were drowned, not from bathing in the sea or at swimming baths, but in emergency water tanks, sewerage tanks, wells and elsewhere. About 130 children were drowned in the emergency tanks during 1941–5.

As among children, so too among people aged over sixty-five, the war years brought an increased risk of accidental injury and death. It is significant that the number of accidental deaths among elderly people began to rise in 1939, for it suggests that the black-out alone was responsible, whereas the rise among children did not really show itself until the bombing in 1940. The effect of a war environment on the loneliness and limited capacity of old age to help itself led to an excess mortality during 1939–41 of over 2,300 elderly people from ‘falling downstairs, out of bed, elsewhere in the home, out of doors, and in unknown circumstances’.

To unlock the doors of of only a few homes with statistical keys of this kind, and to recreate but a fraction of the human situations which total war production, tells its own story of pain and suffering. The circumstances of these domestic accidents cannot be recounted here; only the bare facts are known. These may now be summed up in three items:

1. Number of excess deaths during 1940–2 among children aged 0–5 from accidents of all kinds 1,060
2. Number of excess deaths during 1940–2 among children aged 5–15 from accidents of all kinds 966
3. Number of excess deaths during 1939–41 among men and women aged over 65 from accidents of all kinds 4,471

While this figure may not seem very large for three years of war, it may be observed for the historically interested that only about 6,700

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seamen were killed by enemy action during the whole of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars of 1793–1815.36

The figure of 6,497 additional deaths, amounting to just over ten percent of the number of civilians directly killed by the enemy, measures, of course, only a part of the total mortality from accidental deaths attributable to the war. A comprehensive study would need to include all population groups, and it would have to extend to the factory, the workshop and other places of risk, as well as the home and the street. And those who would try to add up the total costs would also have to take account of lives shortened by injury,37 not just during 1939–45 but in later years, and of people who died prematurely leaving death certificates which made mention only of the action of their hearts and not of the circumstances that led to the end of life.38

Even if such a study were embarked on, it would not be possible to finished it. The biological cost of any war, let alone war on civilian society, can never be summed up with any finality. There are men and women who are maimed and prevented from marrying, the children who have died because of a worsening in their physical environment, the adolescents who have contracted tuberculosis for some reason arising from the war, the babies who have not been born and cannot now be born, and all the defects and injuries, subtle and gross, which one generation hands on in irrevocable fashion to succeeding ones.

It is only part of the complete total, the direct and immediate cost of the war in civilian life, that can be definitely set down in figures. The figures are given in Appendix 8. It is there shown that 62,464 civilians died as a result of war operations in Great Britain. In addition, about 86,000 were seriously injured, and about 150,000 were slightly injured. Approximately one-half all these casualties were borne by London. Not until two years of war had passed did the number of civilians killed fall below the total of fatal casualties among soldiers, sailors and airmen. Not until over three years had passed

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was it possible to say that the enemy had killed more soldiers than women and children.39