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The Blitz: Firemen, stoicism, and deathscapes

Dying and the Dead module

This week's post focuses on death and grief in the Second World War, in Jake's contribution to our series of blog posts from MA students

By Jake Leigh-Howarth, MA Student, University of Leeds

For most civilians in World War Two, the Blitz was a horrifying reality check that brought the pandemonium of distant battlefields home. Initiated by the German Luftwaffe in autumn 1940, the Blitz was an assault against major UK cities and industrial towns that sought not only to cripple Britain financially, but to break the morale of its citizens.

The Imperial War Museum holds in its collections an impressive plethora of Blitz sources, mainly pictures, that tell the story of war that was, in every sense of the word, ‘total’. But one of the most revealing of these sources is video footage of the Blitz in London and Manchester on December 29th and 30th of 1940. It shows harrowing images of skeletal buildings enshrouded in flame, groups of firemen attempting to put out the flames, and civilians and soldiers carrying out their daily routines amidst the rubble of their city. The focus on real people falls in line with the Museum’s aim to “tell the human stories of lives engulfed in war” and illustrates that the film’s purpose is to underline not only the horrors of the Blitz but the people that lived through it, such as the firefighters.

The footage was filmed by the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU), an army unit usually employed on the battlefields of World War Two. At the time, these dramatic pictures of the Blitz were the AFPU’s first ‘scoop’, and were used extensively in newsreels. At a special film screening at the War Office, Winston Churchill himself watched them in their entirety and was heavily moved.

During the Blitz London was the hardest hit, being bombed 56 out of 57 nights from September 7th 1940 and bearing the brunt of most of the attacks. But Manchester and other provincial towns were also targeted, and in small compact cities the devastation was immense. In Manchester the heaviest bombing occurred between the 22nd and 24th December, with 8000 homes destroyed.

Firstly, the film shows the struggle of the Fire Services in London and Manchester to deal with incendiary fires. At 7:51 minutes, two firemen sharing a hosepipe struggle to battle an inferno that has engulfed two buildings in an alleyway. At 8:24, a larger group of seven frantically assail a fire that has inundated a three-storey building. These shots and others clearly illustrated the fires were overwhelming and almost impossible to deal with.

However, around December 1940, in the middle of the Blitz, the Fire Service was also being heavily criticised for its poor organisation and coordination. The cumulative effect of obstacles and delays was that the fires spread quicker, causing even greater destruction. As Shane Ewen and other fire service historians have commented, the destructive nature of the Blitz highlighted serious inadequacies in the fire service that prompted major nationalisation reforms in May 1941.

Next, in comparison with their surroundings, the people in the film are striking with their calm faces. Shown at 5:15 minutes are the blank faces of men digging through the rubble, presumably for bodies, and at 9:40 with the husks of buildings in the background, a soldier stands solemnly with his rifle. Such images can tell us a lot about attitudes towards death and dying in World War Two. The historian Pat Jalland has argued that sorrow was repressed in the interest of morale because grief was seen as a disruptive emotion that had to be controlled.

Historian Lucy Noakes’ work has identified stoic responses as the only proper response to grief in wartime Britain, especially for men. Since the previous war, male grieving was characterised by the ‘stiff upper lip’, and women, seen as more emotional than men, were expected to emulate it. But Linda Maynard has shown that in private men, too, poorly managed their grief, and were subject to the same bursts of agony stereotypically associated with female grieving. It becomes clear then that the men in the film are probably holding back their feelings because they are in a public space, and that a deeper more invisible pain plagues them.

Finally the film’s portrayal of ruined cities illustrated that the Blitz landscape was both horrifying and spectacular. Perhaps the most iconic of these shots occurs at 1:06 minutes in, when the cameraman atop St Paul’s Cathedral pans across a post-apocalyptic panorama. In the shadows the silhouette of a soldier holding a cross contrasts powerfully with the hellish inferno beyond. With this, the Blitz landscape becomes imbued with the symbolism of death.

Indeed, academic writing on ‘deathscapes’ posits that places can be linked to the emotions of dying. Avril Maddrell argues places that have meaning in relation to death can act as catalysts to evoke grief, memories, sadness, and comfort. By extension, evocative landscapes can be used for remembrance and symbolism.

The Blitz landscape became a symbol of British stoicism. During World War Two, propaganda film ‘Britain can take it’ used footage of the Blitz to show the resilience of normal people in the face of German destruction. Nowadays traces of this stoicism remain ingrained in the national identity and are quietly expressed with mugs and posters urging us to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

So why is this source significant? First, it visually illustrates the manpower shortages suffered by the Fire Service during the Blitz. Next it offers a glimpse of stoic public attitudes towards death and dying. Finally, it contributes to our understanding of how the Blitz deathscape was used for symbolic purposes and in propaganda. Most importantly however, it forms the basis of our visual impressions of the Blitz, especially because the footage has been used in many documentaries of the Blitz (for example at 3:58). Historically it is significant because it probably influenced Winton Churchill and the War Office, who viewed these films personally, to nationalise the Fire Service in May 1941.