"Britain Can Take It:" Rethinking British Morale in 1940

By Craig Stewart-Hunter
2011, Vol. 3 No. 03 | pg. 1/2 |

"Britain can take"1 it refers to a film produced by the Ministry of Information in 1940, which had been originally titled “London can take it”2 and produced for the American public. The film portrays a rather happy go lucky picture of Britain during the early stages of World War II. Did this film, with its bold statement, fit the feeling of the nation at the time though?

The bombardment, or Blitz, of British cities by the Luftwaffe between September 1940 and May 1941, has been idolized and ‘mythologized’ in the popular memory and imagery as one of Britain’s finest moments of togetherness and national unity. The raids by the German Luftwaffe were mainly concentrated on British urban industrial cities and ports, killing approximately 66,000 civilians (amount killed by end of war through bombing)3, from all walks of life. Clausewitz argued that the population's ‘involvement determined the intensity with which the war would be waged,’4 making this, in a sense, a ‘people’s war’

This essay explores how the statement "Britain can take it" was in fact misleading and does not portray the actual feeling of the nation and its state of morale at the time. Although the phrase does perhaps create an illusion of social unity at the time, which was created by the use of films and other media to portray positive morale, there was a growing disenchantment in urban areas, which found themselves "unable to take it," so to speak.

In looking at the statement “Britain can take it”, we can examine whether this idea was overly exaggerated and by referring to the reports of the government agencies of the time, such as Mass Observation (M.O.), the Ministry of Information (M.O.I.), and the historiography of the event, we can see that Britain was not really taking it.

West End London Air Raid Shelter during World War II

West End London Air Raid Shelter during World War II

There has been a continuing historiographical debate as to whether the Blitz really did bring about a national unity and the idea that `Britain can take it’. The war-time generation of historians depicts the blitz as the turning point in British history; A. J. P. Taylor believed that it marked a ‘coming of age’5 for Britain and that the mutual suffering moved people towards a more heightened Sense of social solidarity, and that ‘Britons found themselves’6.

The generation of historians born after the war though have been able to write with a more critical detachment regarding the popular image of the Blitz and the myth of Britain can take it, here amongst a heightening social tension and class based resentment, a rather bleaker outlook surrounding the Blitz is formed, an outlook perhaps for many of the population that would leave them with a feeling of hopeless, being ill-informed and at worst defeatism.

The Blitz brought into play the civilian population of Britain for the first time, although bombing raids had occurred during the First World War nothing on the scale of this had transpired before7. A. Calder saw it as unique and definitive moment in the history of Britain where the civilian population came together to fight a common foe8, the Blitz though for many of the population would mean the shattering of a normal life, with sleepless nights coupled with the possibility of emerging after the all clear to find their homes destroyed.

The Government using the M.O.I would give an outward appearance that all was well and that Britain could take it, this was accomplished by the release of numerous forms of public propaganda such as posters, films and radio broadcasts which portrayed high spirits, normality and the will to carry on, all transpire to give an illusion maintaining that the civilian populations morale was at an all-time high. To bolster this illusion the government produced daily reports on morale, which contained research from the

M.O.9 This continuing morale was seen by Pointing to be the work of the government rather than actual feelings of civilians10. A public image therefore seems too emerged that Britain could face the challenges of the blitz, along with the threat of invasion. Films therefore like ‘Britain can take it’ bolstered these illusions, the reality though was a different matter.

Past historiographical accounts have led to the myth of a Blitz spirit arising, Historians such as Calder and Marwick in early studies regarding Britain during the Second World War suggest that morale was robust and showed no weakness11, these ideas on morale would be later revised by historians by involving a more in-depth study of M.O reports and intelligence reports which would show a new and completely different picture of the state of morale in Britain.

These reports were compiled from numerous areas around the country and showed a rather bleaker picture involving the actual state of morale than the government of the time portrays in the media. Reports from Coventry and other industrial cities and ports such as Southampton, Plymouth, Birmingham and Merseyside all showed that after sustained bombing many people found ‘their world was turned upside down’12.This was also the case in other cities and of course would have an effect on morale. Reports of defeatism, talk of being let down by the Government and the possibility of surrender shows that the idea of a high state of morale was in fact a myth.

Responses from the public recorded after bombing raids is arguably the best evidence of a lack morale and faith in the government. Accounts from Coventry saw ‘A great depression and open signs of hysteria’13 , Bristol recorded people feeling ‘Let down by the Government’14. Plymouth recorded signs of the population being unable to stand the bombing and that “Sooner or later the morale of other towns will go‘15. Many M.O. reports showed people for the first time ‘Arguing for immediate surrender’16.

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