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Debunking the Blitz spirit myth

By Nicci Rae

This month, while addressing the nation, Queen Elizabth, like so many others compared the behaviour of us Brits during the pandemic to that of UK residents during World War II.  

This is based on the idea that the British people, in the face of adversity, pull together and ‘keep calm and carry on’.  

While this idea may seem romantic to many patriots, is it actually based in fact?  For a start, the infamous ‘keep calm and carry on’ slogan was never actually used by the British government.  Despite 2.46 million posts bearing the slogan being printed, it was ultimately decided that the message was patronising and divisive and the project was shelved.  

In a similar vein, in 2020, the government scrapped an advertising campaign which suggested that artists and creatives retrain to become computer programmers.

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Getting on with it

These days, we’re led to believe that, during the second world war, the population dealt with bomb raids, rationing and the never ending sirens with good humour and love for their fellow man but, dig a little deeper and things start to look a little different.  

We’ll start with that infamous cheeriness – when it came to measuring the morale of the country, Churchill and his government did very little to actually find out how people were feeling.  

Sure, people carried on working and supporting each other but, in all likelihood, this was because they had very little choice in the matter if they didn’t want to starve. 

As for the whole ‘goodwill to all men’ thing, this also seems to be a myth which has been proliferated over the years; in fact, at the height of the blitz, crime was as rife in dear old blighty as it is in 2021.  In 1941, the most common recorded crimes were:

Looting the living – and the dead

Debunking the Blitz spirit myth Harrow Online
Children of an eastern suburb of London, who have been made homeless by the random bombs of the Nazi night raiders, waiting outside the wreckage of what was their home. Credit: via Pingnews

Between September 1941 and December 1941, The Old Bailey heard 4584 London looting cases.  Whenever a building, be it a commercial property or a residential home, was bombed, members of the public and, at times, even wardens and members of the armed forces would descend upon the building to salvage and steal whatever they could.  

One of the most famous – and most horrifying – incidents occurred when the exclusive Cafe de Paris restaurant and nightclub was bombed and looters picked their way through the wreckage to steal jewellery and watches from the club’s injured and dying customers.

In 2020, cybercrime rather than looting was the weapon of choice when it came to theft – figures show that incidences of cybercrime rose from 22% in 2019 to 26% in 2020 as more people relied on the internet for shopping.

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Opportunity knocks

While rationing was a hardship for most UK residents, it created a fantastic black market opportunity for some shadier members of society. As well as hardened criminals, ordinary folk were known to continue to claim rations in the names of their deceased family members in order to make ends meet.  

As well as the trade of rationing and looted goods, London’s new wave of organised crime included prostitution as criminal gangs – including the Maletese Messina – enlisted women for the ‘Piccadilly Commandos’ to be supplied to members of the armed services.

Although its hard to say whether prostitution was a problem during the pandemic, other kinds of crime emerged such as theft from the cars of medical workers and online scams.

Workers Rights

As the war effort continued, several new laws came into place which would be considered illegal in today’s world.  These included a law which made it illegal to take time off work in some industries and also made it illegal to go on strike.  In 2020, workers rights were also at the forefront but in terms of furlough schemes and benefits.

Under cover of darkness

One crime which never seems to go out of fashion is, of course, murder – and this was as rife in 1941 as it is today.  During the blitz, a killer known as the ‘Blackout Ripper’ terrorised the streets of London, murdering four women during a six day period.  

The killer, a young airman by the name of Gordon Cummins, was thankfully caught but murder rates continued to soar across the country; often with the hope that the chaos of war would help to cover up the crime.  

One such crime was that of Harry Dobkin who murdered his wife and buried her body underneath a wrecked chapel in Vauxhall in the hope that she would be mistaken for an air raid victim.

In 2020, despite the fact that much of the country was under a ‘stay at home’ order, homicides in the UK rose from 769 to 809 from 2019 to 2020 – sadly, many of these involved young people on the streets of our cities.  

Highly publicised cases included the tragic deaths of Nicole Smallman, aged 27, and Bibaa Henry, aged 46 who were murdered in a Wembley park following a birthday celebration.

While there’s no doubt that people in 1941 showed great mettle in some really tough circumstances, many were simply trying to survive. While we can draw comparisons between the blitz and lockdown, it’s certainly not an equal one –  during the pandemic, many employees have had to deal with the hardship of being furloughed and being forced to stay at home – in 1941, their counterparts were climbing over rubble and navigating huge holes in the roads in order to reach their workplaces.

We know, of course, that the hardship of World War II ended with a victory for the Brits and, as the COVID-19 vaccine program continues at an astonishing speed, it is very much the hope that this battle will end the same way.

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