Chapter 17: Argument of Strain
The preceding chapter has shown how difficult it is to assess the material and physical effects of air attack on civilian society. But, in turning to mental health during the war, and more particularly the reactions of people to air raids, the task is infinitely harder. Dead bodies are indisputable facts; they can be counted, and within limits the immediate cause of death can be identified, analysed and interpreted. States of mind cannot easily be classified, let alone measured, especially by those who lack the perspective that only time can give.
It would also be wrong so suppose, however detached the approach may appear to be, that anything like objectivity can be attained this field. Within the present limits of knowledge about human behaviour, there are few ascertainable facts that can be labelled either ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ and employed as verifiable statistics. A state of mind is neither absolute nor permanent; the experiences of the past cannot be separated from the experiences of the present or from the hopes and fears about tomorrow. What the Londoner thought about air attack during the years of approaching crisis, and between the outbreak of war and the bombing of Rotterdam, affected, for instances, his behaviour when the raids began in September 1940. For all these reasons this chapter is confined, first, to a statement about some of the expected and actual consequences of air attack and, secondly, to a tentative and limited interpretation of part of the available material.
Problems of morale have no doubt worried the leaders of armies and navies since organised battles were first staged. The singular thing about the Second World War was that the subject of morale among the civilian population—and not merely the fighting part of it—was being considered long before anyone believed that war was certain. There were, indeed, many speculations before 1939 about how men and women would behave under the stresses of air bombardment.1 Much of the talk and writing was empirical, for the expert—the psychiatrist—had little experience of such stresses, and he had to formulate his theories on the basis of what was known of the behaviour of individual men and women in sharply different circumstances.
It was not surprising, therefore, that ideas were often founded on
observations of Servicemen in the First World War, and sometimes of only those men who were judged at the time to have behaved in an abnormal way. This was not a sound method of thought. Apart from whether the observations and the ensuing deductions were faithfully drawn or not, it was assuming too much to conclude that the situation of the future would resemble that of the past; that the soldier and the civilian would be in much the same psychological environment; and that the soldier, because he was a member of a disciplined organisation, would be better equipped to meet the strain of air attack. This confusing of situation was one of the many reasons why there was before the war so much pessimism about civilian morale.
In simple terms, the experts foretold a mass outbreak of hysterical neurosis among the civilian population. It was expected that the conditions of life brought about by air raids would place an immediate and overwhelming strain upon the individual. Under this strain, people would regress to an earlier level of needs and desire. They would behave like frightened and unsatisfied children, and they would demand with the all-or-none vehemence of infants the security, food and warmth which the mother had given in the past. Many recommendations were accordingly made for the handling and treatment of these people in the event of war, one being that, to assist morale, instructional centres should be set up immediately a city had been raided so that householders might be taught how to make a habitable shelter out of a wrecked or partially wrecked house.2
The civilian was compared unfavourably with the soldier.3 The latter was thought of as a member of a group purposely trained and taught to face tasks which involved the possibility of death. He was in uniform, and the strict discipline under which he lived would, it was believed, save him from too much consideration about his own safety, except insofar as it touched the military efficiency of his group. But the civilian, isolated, unattached and unorganised, would have not such powerful checks to his desire for self-preservation. He (and she) would be expected to risk death to fulfil some quite inglorious task, like keeping the firm’s ledger up to date or tightening bolts in a factory. The flood-gates, it was said, might therefore be open to the full expression of the urge for self-preservation. ‘There is a real danger’, a psychiatrist wrote, ‘that he (the civilian) will seek, not security, but infantile security’.4
It is no exaggeration to say that in 1939 the leading mental health authorities in Britain feared a tremendous increase in disorders and emotional neurotic illnesses as soon as the Germans started to bomb.5 That was the essence of the advice which they voluntarily gave to the Ministry of Health. But the Government, while also taking a gloomy view—a view which found expression in many acts of commission and omission—did not go so far as the psychiatrists who, in fact, suggested that mental casualties might outnumber physical casualties by two or three to one.6
It need hardly be said that what actually happened completely falsified not only the forecasts of the psychiatrists but the less pessimistic forebodings of officials. It is important, in trying to understand why there forecasts were wrong, to understand also how they came to be made. In attempting some tentative explanation, a generous allowance must above all be made for the oppressive atmosphere of the time in which these psychiatrists—along with everyone else—lived. They were as sensitive as other people to the pressures and persuasions of a world afraid of war. They may, indeed, have been more deeply affected than most people because the meaning and consequences of air bombardment to civilian society were to them a matter of great concern.
How powerful these contemporary forces were in moulding opinion on questions relating to individual or group behaviour may be illustrated by two simple examples taken from the early war years. During these years, when the life of the nation was in danger, values changed rapidly, yet the process was so imperceptible that many people were unaware of the effect it had on their attitude to other people and to questions of behaviour in a society at war. For instance, what was regarded in one year as merely bad behaviour was censured more severely in the next. Some evidence in support of this statement comes from the two examples. First, the proportion of civilian prisoners punished, particularly for ‘idleness’, rose significantly after the outbreak of war, and again in 1941 after the air raids.7 Secondly, the
proportion of boys aged under fourteen years who were ordered corporal punishment for offences of various kinds by magistrates’ courts, which was falling before the war, rose during the two years of bombing (1940–1) by over six hundred percent. Thereafter, the proportion declined rapidly.8
These glimpses of the moral effects of a nation conducting war—conducting it alone and hard-pressed by the enemy—suggest that the aspirations and prejudices of the moment may have been reflected in the birching of more little boys. And so, in a similar kind of way, the national temper during the fateful months which preceded and followed the Munich crisis in 1938 may have influenced the psychiatrists. The events of this period forced a great many people to face as never before the possibility of air bombardment. Until then, it was something that could be avoided. Now the possibility had to be accepted. But emotionally the horror was still rejected, more especially by those with powerful imaginations. It was at this time that the leading mental health authorities in London expressed their worst forebodings in a memorandum to the Ministry of Health.9 These contemporary influences, while important, do not of course fully explain the origins of the alarm expressed by the psychiatrist and Government official alike. Other and even more complicated forces were at work which cannot, however, be discussed in this book.
Up to the end of 1948, no evidence was forthcoming to suggest that there had been any dramatic increase in neurotic illnesses or mental disorders in Britain during the war.10 The air raids of 1940–1 did not lead to a rise in the number of patients with such illnesses attending hospitals and clinics; in fact, there was a decrease. There was no indication of an increase in insanity, the number of suicides fell,11 the statistics
of drunkenness went down by more than one-half,12 there was much less disorderly in the streets and public places,13 while only the juvenile delinquency figures registered a rise.14 But these figures, it is well to remember, are not suitable for employment as an index of either juvenile or adult neurosis.
One criterion used to estimate the morale of a group during wartime was the amount of absence from work immediately after a city had been heavily bombed. It was thought that if the vast majority turned up at the factories and shops there was not likely, more general depression, but attendance at work ruled out an immediate collapse in standards or resort to what the psychiatrists called ‘infantile security’.
The Research and Experiments Department of the Ministry of Home Security studied this question in detail, and reference has already been to the inquiries concerning Bootle and Clydebank.15 The main conclusion of all the Department’s investigations (which covered the many raided areas) was that absence from work for personal reasons was closely associated with the amount of house damage. No other factor was important. A worker whose home was rendered permanently uninhabitable lost on the average about six days from his job. This does not seem an unreasonable amount of time to spend finding a fresh home, and gathering the family together again.
An outbreak of trekking, of nightly movements from target areas by thousands of people, which gave rise to much concern in the spring of 1941, was also investigated. It was found that, except for workers whose houses were seriously damaged, no more time (in
absence from work) was lost by those who trekked as compared with those who continued to sleep at home. The fact that many people chose to trudge off into the country each evening did not, by itself, imply a deterioration in morale. These people were afraid of the bombs; of dark hours of wakefulness, of listening, sometimes tense and sometimes nodding, for the drawn-out whine, and then the rumbling murmur of a house collapsing in the blackness. Above all, they wanted to sleep; for sleep was forgetfulness and rest. And to sleep—if only in a barn—was to behave normally; to lie awake was abnormal. So they ‘dispersed’ themselves at night-time in much the same way as armies spread out their troops and transport as a precaution against air attack.
Trekking ensured for most of those who undertook it a good night’s rest. The importance given to sleep during this period by the civilian population was sensible, for it was part of what Mr. Churchill called ‘making a job of this business of living and working under fire’.16 The tubes and the public shelters in London were other means whereby many people were able to sleep soundly. They were to Londoners what trekking was to the inhabitants of Plymouth, Hull and Merseyside.17 As dusk approached each evening, long queues of people, laden with bedding, filed towards the tubes and public shelters. Inside, a preference for informal organisation, based on give-and-take and good behaviour, manifested itself.
Yet, for many years before 1940, the place of the public shelter in civil defence policy had often been misunderstood.18 The Government feared to encourage a ‘deep shelter mentality’; it did not want a lot of ‘timorous troglodytes’ on its hands. By 1940, the question of deep shelters had become so entangled with politics as a result of the activities of the Communists that few people could look at the problem objectively. The function of the shelter as a safety-valve for the badly house, as a place to sleep in, and as a means of providing a feeling of warmth and security for those who found comfort in the actual presence of their fellows, was not properly grasped. This was partly because all-night raids were not expected, and partly because it was not realised that many of the poor of London did not violently object to sleeping together in rows; they had lived too long on top of one another to mind about any lack of privacy.
But, in fact, only a minority of people used these communal, underground refuges. At no period during the war did more than about one
person in seven in Metropolitan London spend the night in a tube station or public shelter. This peak figure was reached some time during September–October 1940 when Londoners were being ‘battle-conditioned’. In November, when the proportion had declined to one person in eight, the basements, railway arches, trenches and other public shelters were filled only to about forty percent of capacity. At this time, eight percent of the population were in public shelters, four percent in the tubes, one percent in surface shelters—making thirteen percent in communal shelters—while twenty-seven percent were in Anderson and other domestic shelters. Thus, among every ten persons six were sleeping in their homes in November 1940.19
In heavily bombed areas like Bermondsey, with many old, decaying and shaky houses, one-quarter of the people stayed in their homes, and another quarter slept in Anderson or surface shelters. The remainder (except for five percent on civil defence duties or night work) went to railway arches, tube stations and public shelters of various kinds.
After three months of the London raids, fewer people used these refuges. A survey of several South London boroughs, which were attacked in December 1940, showed that only about one-half of the number of people who had shelter accommodation within very easy reach actually made use of it, although they all had ample time to reach shelter between the sounding of the ‘alert’ and the first fall of bombs. It was estimated by the Ministry of Home Security that if these shelters had been used by those nearby the number of people killed and seriously injured among those exposed to 250 kg. bombs would have been reduced by one-half. By the beginning of 1941, most Londoners had probably reached some sort of working, though no doubt uncomfortable, arrangement with the conditions of life imposed by nightly air raids. In April 1941, the report of a survey in Islington and Southwark by the Ministry of Home Security concluded that ‘very little notice is taken of an alert without noise’. A number of persons moved from an upper to a lower floor, and a small number went to shelters.
It cannot be assumed because there was no panic, no rush to safety, that there was no anxiety. There was without doubt a great deal, for fears and heartaches were inevitable in the circumstances, and many private terrors must have been stifled in the darkness.20 It
was ‘a time of raids eyes and apprehension, of ears opened to the lance-like descending whistle of high-explosives (a sound that made the sky seem to very high and wide) and the dull, smothered boom that had shattered the house somewhere away out in the darkened streets’.21 If they were not to behave as the psychiatrists had expected, most people had therefore come to terms with bombing. No community could withstand a warning of danger once (on an average) every thirty-six hours for over five years without coming to terms in some way or another.
For the family, one form of adjustment to the emergencies of warfare was to divide, and for mothers and children to move to safer areas. For those members of the family left behind, at work, on Home Guard or Civil Defence duties, this allayed some of the anxieties. The great merit of the Government’s evacuation scheme was that it did offer an outlet for a considerable section of the population, particularly the children. The Government was wise to retain the voluntary nature of this conduit pipe to safety, despite the calls for compulsion from Parliament at the time of Dunkirk and again in the autumn of 1940. The scheme remained voluntary throughout all the raids, and it continued to function as a safety-valve for many Londoners. In such a war, safety-valves were indispensable to a society which placed more emphasis on cooperation than on compulsion. The evacuation scheme was one such outlet, shelters another, trekking a third, while the power of public opinion to force the Government to mend its ways and to clean up the rest centres and shelters, for instance, was the fourth and, perhaps, the most important.
People could use these temporary exits from danger—if they wanted to. That was the important fact for the majority of families;22 the knowledge that these facilities were available if the strain became unbearable; the knowledge that compulsion to stay in their homes and run the risk of bombing was not being enforced by the Government, by poverty or by other factors. That is why the Government was right to bow in acquiescence when Londoners took over the tube stations in September 1940.23 That is why the evacuation scheme was not a failure, even though the number who used it continued to fall as the months of bombing went by.
It has already been pointed out that a great many people chose not to make use of the public shelters or the tube stations during the winter of 1940–1. To this fact must be added the further fact that fewer people left London during the nine months of air attack than during the two or three weeks before and just after the outbreak of war. This area of Greater London lost about twelve percent of its civilian population between June 1940 and June 1941, as against seventeen percent between June 1939 and 30th September 1939.24
The London population of September 1940 was not, of course, composed of exactly the same people as a year earlier. The comparison is not, therefore, of like with like; for there may have been a section who needed evacuation more than rest. If this section—which, judging by the amount and speed of the return movement, seems to have been relatively small—left London in 1939 and stayed away, then it is arguable that the September 1940 population had already been, to some extent, sifted and selected as resistant to evacuation. But much of this is supposition. What does stand out is the order of magnitude of the two figures—the fact that 500,000 fewer people left Greater London during the bombing of 1940–1 than at the outbreak of war. In some senses, the phantasy of air attack may well have been worse than the reality, partly because phantasy seldom provides for the relief of tension through action. Moreover, to most adults the world of phantasy is a lonely world; unlike action, it does not usually permit cooperation and friendliness.
No objective or comprehensive explanation can be given of all the reasons, and combination of reasons, trivial and important, rational and irrational, which led so many families to decide during 1940–1 to say where they were. There was no single or simple pattern of
motives. A few good reasons may, however, be mentioned in general and more or less speculative terms.
Many parents knew that they could send their children away of they decided to change their minds. But some—and especially the mothers—had already experienced evacuation, and for many that was enough.25 For those and other parents, the shelters, both public and domestic, offered an alternative to evacuation and, what was particularly important, a way of keeping the family together. The solidarity of family life, as a principal factor in the early collapse of the first evacuation scheme, has already been discussed in Chapter X against the background of other social and economic factors. By the end of 1940, the stable base of the family seemed even more worth while when external danger had been experienced, for by then the comfort which the members of the family could give each other had been sensed and appreciated. Separation was harder to bear when familiarity with bombing has bred a certain philosophy of adjustment, and when danger to life had brought a greater cohesion to society in general and to the family in particular.
In the circumstances of 1940, the bases of sound morale among the civilian population rested on something more than the primary needs of life. Of course, the maintenance of food supplies, the provision and repair of homes, and security of employment were always of first importance. But other things vital in time of war mattered no less. Leadership was one, the sense of common effort and sacrifice was another. Self-control was easier when there was no awareness of injustice arising from the way in which the primary wants were met. The knowledge that large numbers of those who were privileged in the community were also carrying on with their work and facing the risks that ordinary people faced, the knowledge that such facilities as the evacuation and shelter schemes were available and were not limited to particular groups—here were important foundations of morale. The universal availability of services which often were not universally used had the function of ‘shock-absorption’.
The rest centres, the feeding schemes, the casualty services, the compensation grants, and the whole apparatus of the post-raid services both official and voluntary occupied this role of absorbing shock. They took the edge off the calamities of damage and destruction; they could not prevent, but they helped to reduce, a great deal
of distress. Like the civil defence services, these schemes encouraged people to feel that they were not forgotten. They rendered much less likely (in William James’ phrase) an ‘unguaranteed existence’, with all its anxieties, its corruptions and its psychological maladies.
What this period of the war meant to a great many people was less social disparagement. There was nothing to be ashamed of in being ‘bombed out’ by the enemy. Public sympathy with, and approval of, families who suffered in the raids was in sharp contrast to the low social evaluation accorded to those who lost in material standards through being unemployed during the nineteen-thirties.26 The civilian war of 1939–45, with its many opportunities for service in civil defence and other schemes, also helped to satisfy an often inarticulate need; the need to be a wanted member of society. Circumstances were thus favourable to fuller self-expression, for there was plenty of scope for relieving a sense of inferiority and failure.
Looking back on these events after a lapse of many years, it could conceivably be argued that to some people the air raids brought security—not the security which spells passive acquiescence, but that which allows and encourages spontaneity. The onset of air raids followed a long period of unemployment. One thing that unemployment had not stimulated was an active body or mind.27 It might be suggested—though it cannot yet be asserted—that the absence of an increase in neurotic illness among the civilian population during the war brought useful work and an opportunity to play an active part within the community. The proximity of death, the spread of physical hardship, and the ubiquity of destructive forces which were more intelligible to the ordinary man than the working of economic laws, gave existence a different meaning, and old fears and responsibilities less significance. In the transparency of life that marked the days of bombing, wrote Miss Bowen, ‘the wall between the living and the living became less solid as the wall between the living and the dead thinned’.28 New aims for which to live, work that satisfied a large number of needs, a more cohesive society, fewer lonely people; all these elements helped to offset the circumstances which often lead to neurotic illness.
Some of these elements had been manifest during the First World War. After 1918, a Government report drew attention to a remarkable fall in the claims for sickness benefit from the civilian population
during the period of hostilities.29 This was attributed to a universal ‘will to work’ which, under the stress of national necessity, dominated the people during the years when ‘the fate of the country hung in the balance’. Lasswell, writing some years later on the significance and purposefulness of life in wartime, gave full rein to his imagination: ‘men with uncongenial spouses, wives with uncongenial husbands, youths with suppressed ambition, elderly men with their boredoms and faint yearnings for adventure, childless women and some wifeless men, the discredited ones who pine for a fresh deal in the game of life; all, and many more, found peace from mental fight’.30
The Second World War, while providing many opportunities for people to be useful members of a society with a single-hearted aim, was much less romantic than the first. It was also a longer war encompassing far more people; it dawdled intolerably between phases of action; it was more sternly and austerely conducted, and, except for some of the selfish ones, it was a more uncomfortable, physically upsetting war than 1914–18. In short, it imposed on a much larger part of the population the need to make a greater degree of adjustment in their personal lives for a much longer period.
The reaction to air raids by the mass of the people rested, in large measure, on this matter of adjustment. The capacity to adjust, and the extent to which people did in fact adjust themselves, depended on many factors. Some of the essential requirements for the development of sound morale have already been mentioned; leadership, an equitable sharing-out of food, shelter and social services, a job to do in a stable economy, and the provision of social safety-valves ranging from voluntary evacuation schemes to various mechanisms whereby public opinion could be effectively expressed. But these, by themselves were not enough.
Many people were helped to withstand by grossly abnormal situation of continuous air bombardment by being among their families and friends. The individual’s responsibility to his family, who respect he valued, was thus encouraged to develop its maximum strength. This applied in particular to the poorer sections of the population, for among those with little property and social esteem, family members and family relationships are extremely important. With his own family the individual is, and what is more feels like, ‘somebody’.
The maintenance of physical contact between the members of a social unit also helped to meet another imperative need in time of war; the need to be related to the world outside, to ideas, values and social patterns that bestow a sense of ‘belonging’. When threatened with death, moral aloneness becomes a man even more intolerable
than in peacetime, and perhaps more hurtful than physical isolation.31 In certain of these respects, the civilian had advantages over the soldier separated as he was from his family, and often from his social group.
Yet, before the war, some psychiatrists had considered that soldiers might stand the strain of air attack better than civilians. But the truth may be found to point in the reverse direction when all the evidence has eventually been sifted.32 The civilian was freer to adjust himself than the solider; in his environment there was often more scope for individual responsibility to flourish, and he was not usually cut off, as the soldier was, from his family.
It was just this factor of family separation which had received insufficient attention before 1939 from the psychiatrists and those experts in mental health who advised the Government. The most prevalent and the most marked symptom of psychological disturbance among the civilian population during the war was not panic or hysteria but bed-wetting.33 Its importance as a social problem was demonstrated as a result of the evacuation of children, and observations showed that it was primarily caused by separation from the family.34
Many people discovered for themselves during the raids that best prescription for stability was to keep the family together. Resistance to evacuation grew in strength after the first few weeks of London’s bombing until, by November 1940, almost as many children were returning to London as were leaving. And this was while London was still being bombed nearly ever night. So poor was the response to the Government’s repeated plea to ‘get the children away’ the compulsory measures were thought, at one time, to be inevitable. The refusal of wives and mothers to be separated from their husbands and their older children was even more marked.
All this is understandable if it is accepted that a stable society rests on the basis of stable family life. A threat to society implies a threat to the family, and when the physical hazards of air attack were present, families naturally tended to close their ranks. Staying at home, keeping the family together, and pursing many of the ordinary activities
of life made adjustment easier. Men and women clung to these things, for they symbolised normal life, and helped them to minimise the abnormal situation.
Pessimistic views before the war about civilian morale were partly due to the assumption that air raids would tax the limits of potential adjustment. Events showed that most people had a greater capacity to adjust themselves than was thought possible: a tough resilience to the changed conditions of life imposed on them. Nor was it realised that there would be such a widespread and spontaneous development of ways of keeping up morale; friendliness, the constant talk about bombs, the attitude of ;if it’s got your number on it’, and a preoccupation with apparently frivolous activities like going to the pub as usual or having a permanent wave.
There were also compensations about this civilian war, as Sansom noted in his story of Westminster.35 Certain responsibilities were pushed off or postponed. Others were assumed, but of a different, a more vivid, a shorter-lived nature. ‘There are sensations of new virility, of paradoxical freedom, and of a rather bawdy “live-for-to-day” philosophy. New tolerances are born between people; offsetting the paleness of worn nerves and the lining of sorrow there occurs a marvellous incidence of smiles where smiles have never been before: an unsettling vista of smiles, for one wondered how unsympathetic life could have been before, one was ashamed to reflect that it had needed a war to disinter the state of everyday comradeship.’
It was not altogether remarkable that people who were dug out of the ruins of their homes first asked, not for food or safety, but for their false teeth. Nor was it just an odd streak of personality that made mothers in rest centres and shelters more worried about awkward behaviour by their children about death. The only possible way—as these mothers found—of dealing with death was to ignore it. Keeping ledgers up to date, worrying about false teeth, and correcting the manners of children affirmed the individual’s confidence in life and, in the process, maintained morale.
While a few brief and hesitant reasons have been offered to explain the absence of any breakdown in mental health during the air battles of the Second World War they do not rule out the possibility of some harmful psychological effects. Anxiety may have been temporarily suppressed; conflicts with ‘conscience’ may have been masked, and it is conceivable that the effects of air bombardment could manifest themselves among some people after, and not during, the war. Moreover, and taking a longer view, it could be said that the neuroses of one generation may be an expression of the mental condition of an earlier one. But what form all these troubles would take, if
they did appear, is not for the present writer to say; for the problem cannot be studied, not only to air raids, but to all the other consequences of a long war and a difficult period of adjustment to peace.