The Blackout in the Second World War

The Blackout in the Second World War

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To make it difficult for the German bombers, the British government imposed a total blackout during the war. Every person had to make sure that they did not provide any lights that would give clues to the German pilots that they were passing over built-up areas. All householders had to use thick black curtains or blackout paint to stop any light showing through their windows. Shopkeepers not only had to black out their windows, but also had to provide a means for customers to leave and enter their premises without letting any light escape. (1)

Most people had to spend five minutes or more every evening blacking out their homes. "If they left a chink visible from the streets, an impertinent air raid warden or policeman would be knocking at their door, or ringing the bell with its new touch of luminous paint. There was an understandable tendency to neglect skylights and back windows. Having struggled with drawing pins and thick paper, or with heavy black curtains, citizens might contemplate going out after supper - and then reject the idea and settle down for a long read and an early night." (2)

At first lighting restrictions were enforced with improbable severity. On 22nd November 1940, a Naval Reserve officer was fined at Yarmouth for striking matches in a telephone kiosk so that a woman could see the dial. Ernest Walls from Eastbourne was fined for striking a match to light his pipe. In another case a man was arrested because his cigar glowed alternately brighter and dimmer, so that he might be signalling to a German aircraft. A young mother was prosecuted for running into a room, where the baby was having a fit, and turning on the light without first securing the blackout curtains." (3)

At first, no light whatsoever was allowed on the streets. All street lights were turned off. Even the red glow from a cigarette was banned, and a man who struck a match to look for his false teeth was fined ten shillings. Later, permission was given for small torches to be used on the streets, providing the beam was masked by tissue paper and pointed downwards. There were several cases where the courts appeared to act unfairly. George Lovell put up his blackout curtain and then went outside to make sure they were effective. They were not and while he was checking he was arrested and later fined by the courts for breaking blackout regulations. One historian has argued that the blackout "transformed conditions of life more thoroughly than any other single feature of the war". (4)

Jean Lucey Pratt, who lived in Slough, got into trouble with the authorities for blackout offences: "Not only left light on in bedroom in February but again about four weeks later and the whole performance of policemen climbing in after dark when I was out, to turn out light, was repeated. Excused myself from attending court for first summons and was fined 30 shillings. On the second occasion was charged with breaking blackout regulations and wasting fuel.... I attended court as bidden last Monday morning, quaking. I was expecting to have to pay out £5; at least £3 for the second blackout offence and £2 for the fuel charge. I pleaded guilty, accepted the policeman's evidence and explained in a small voice that I worked from 8.30 to 6 every day, was alone in the cottage, had no domestic help, had to get myself up and off in the morning by 8 o'clock, had not been well and in the early morning rush it was easy to forget the light. The bench went into a huddle and then I heard the chairman saying, '£1for each charge'. £2 in all! I paid promptly." (5)

The blackout caused serious problems for people travelling by motor car. In September 1939 it was announced that the only car sidelights were allowed. The results were alarming. Car accidents increased and the number of people killed on the roads almost doubled. The king's surgeon, Wilfred Trotter, wrote an article for the British Medical Journal where he pointed out that by "frightening the nation into blackout regulations, the Luftwaffe was able to kill 600 British citizens a month without ever taking to the air, at a cost to itself of exactly nothing." (6)

Harold Nicolson wrote about the problem in his diary: "Motor up ... to London. There are few signs of any undue activity beyond a few khaki figures at Staplehurst and some schoolboys filling sandbags at Maidstone. When we get near London we see a row of balloons hanging like black spots in the air. Go down to the House of Commons at 5.30. They have already darkened the building and lowered the lights... I dine at the Beefsteak (Club).... When I leave the Club, I am startled to find a perfectly black city. Nothing could be more dramatic or give one more of a shock than to leave the familiar Beefsteak and to find outside not the glitter of all the sky-signs, but a pall of black velvet." (7)

The Daily Telegraph reported in October, 1939: "Road deaths in Great Britain have more than doubled since the introduction of the black-out, it was revealed by the Ministry of Transport accident figures for September, issued yesterday. Last month 1,130 people were killed, compared with 617 in August and 554 in September last year. Of these, 633 were pedestrians." The Transport Minister Euan Wallace, "made an earnest appeal to all motor-drivers to recognise the need for a general and substantial reduction of speed in blackout conditions." (8)

The government was eventually forced to change the regulations. Dipped headlights were permitted as long as the driver had headlamp covers with three horizontal slits. To help drivers see where they were going in the dark, white lines were painted along the middle of the road. Curb edges and car bumpers were also painted white. To reduce accidents a 20 mph speed limit was imposed on night drivers. Ironically, the first man to be convicted for this offence was driving a hearse. Hand torches, were now allowed, if they were dimmed with a double thickness of white tissue paper and were switched off during elerts. (9)

The cities, without neon signs were utterly transformed after dark. According to Joyce Storey: "The cinema was a bible black bob. No bright neon emblazoned the names of the stars and the feature film revolving round and round in a star-studded endless silver square. These had been extinguished at the onset of the war. There wasn't even the all important grey liveried attendant with the gold braid epaulets on his shoulder shouting on the steps the number of seats available in the balcony. A very full, pleated blackout curtain now draped the great doors at the entrance to the foyer. Once inside their voluptuous folds, you came face to face with a high plywood partition forming a corridor along which the patrons shuffled. A sharp turn to the right at the end of this makeshift entrance led to the dimly lit paybox. So low was the light in that gloom, that it was advisable to have the right amount of money for the ticket; sometimes the keenest eye found it difficult to discern whether the right change had been given." (10)

The railways were also blacked out. Blinds on passenger trains were kept drawn and light-bulbs were painted blue. During air-raids all lights were extinguished on the trains. There were no lights on railway stations and although platform edges were painted white, a large number of accidents took place. It was very difficult to see when a train had arrived at a station and, even when this was established, to discover the name of the station. It became fairly common for passengers to get off at the wrong station - and sometimes for them to leave the carriage where there was no station at all. According to an official source these measures were causing "anxieties of women and young girls in the darkened streets at night or in blacked-out trains." (11)

In November 1939 the government agreed that churches, markets and street stalls could be partially illuminated. It was also agreed that restaurants and cinemas could use illuminated signs but these had to be put out when the air raid sirens sounded. The government also gave permission for local authorities to introduce glimmer lighting. This was specially altered street lamps that gave limited light in city centres and at road junctions. Winston Churchill issued a memorandum explaining that these changes were necessary in order to raise the "people's spirits". (12)

All windows, skylights, glazed doors or other openings which would show a light, will have to be screened in wartime with dark blinds or brown paper on the glass so that no light is visible from outside. You should now obtain any materials you may need for this purpose. Instructions will be issued about the dimming of lights on vehicles. No street lighting is allowed.

We are on the very verge of war, as Poland was this morning invaded by Germany, who will now carve up the country with the help of the Russians. At home there were more 'goodbyes', and Honor (Channon) has gone to Kelvedon. There is a blackout, complete and utter darkness, and all day the servants had been frantically hanging black curtains.

London was a very heartening place during the Blitz. A week later, for a split second, I thought I was being blown up, because I did leave the ground. I had beens driving along King's Cross Road in the black-out during a raid. Bombs were dropping, but you were no safer stationary than moving. I had no lights on because they bothered people; there was no moon; it was cloudy. The Luftwaffe had no special need to aim. London was a large enough target tto be hard to miss. There was a lot of noise, some of it from rail mounted AA. Then, suddenly, my car became airborne, it seemed to rise and came down with a fantastic crash. A little later, as I came to my senses, I heard a voice saying "Are you all right?" I found myself still in the driver’s seat with my hands on the steering wheel. I could not see a thing; the window was open. Looking through it I saw earth, looking up I could just identify a man looking down from three of four feet higher. I've no idea what I said, but he and his mate came down to my level. "Sure you'r OK Guv?" "You gave us a scare, never seen a car do the long jump before." said the other. They were Gas, Light and Coke Company men. The night before there had been some bad Gas ruptures; they had opened up a very big pit to get at the mains for re-routing. Bowling along without headlamps, alone in the middle of an empty totally dark road, I had not seen any difference in the quality of the black in front of my car, so I had driven smartly over the edge into the pit. The car's roof was just below street level, but there was no ramp up; there was plenty of room but no way out. Like many other Blitz problems this was instantly solved. Pure muscle power did it; the car was lifted up by some twenty willing hands and received by twenty others. Placed on its wheels beyond the pit, I started the engine. It worked; I arrived at Finsbury where we found that the steering had been badly damaged and that I had a few bruises.

Motor up ... Nothing could be more dramatic or give one more of a shock than to leave the familiar Beefsteak and to find outside not the glitter of all the sky-signs, but a pall of black velvet.

The cinema was a bible black bob. So low was the light in that gloom, that it was advisable to have the right amount of money for the ticket; sometimes the keenest eye found it difficult to discern whether the right change had been given.

This order... ran to some thirty-three articles and innumerable sub-paragraphs which everybody concerned with lighting in its various forms is required to understand ... I find it impossible to believe that the regulations could not have been in a simpler and more intelligible form.

Susan Home of 33 West Street, East Grinstead, was charged with a breach of blackout regulations. The light was showing through the scullery window. The window had not been blacked out. The light, added Inspector Fry, had been burning for 14 hours or so and consequently the defendant was also summoned for wasting fuel. Susan Home was fined 10s. for each offence.

Delay in replacing windows broken through enemy action led to the appearance of Laura Miller of 10 High Street, East Grinstead at the local Petty Sessions on Monday for causing an unscreened light to be displayed at her premises at 8.30 on 26th September and for wasting fuel. P.C. Jeal stated that he saw a bright light shining from a window at number 10, High Street. As he did not receive any reply, he forced an entry through the bathroom window and extinguished an electric lamp.

Laura Miller explained "I went out in a hurry about 7 p.m. and must have forgotten to turn out the light." She added that some of the windows which were broken recently by enemy action had been blacked-out with felt, and if it had not been for that, the light would not have been see. Mr. E. Blount said taking all the circumstances into consideration, only small penalties would be imposed. The defendant was fined 10s. on each summons.

The first impact of war was felt, not like a hammer blow at the head, to be warded off, but as a mass of itches, to be scratched and pondered. Most of the discomforts and frustrations of the period were very minor foretastes of the years of regulations and austerity which followed. The blackout, however, was an exception. Its impact was comprehensive and immediate. One of the most impassive official historians of the British effort observes, without exaggeration, that it 'transformed conditions of life more thoroughly than any other single feature of the war'.

In the first place, most people had to spend five minutes or more every evening blacking out their homes. If they left a chink visible from the streets, an impertinent air raid warden or policeman would be knocking at their door, or ringing the bell with its new touch of luminous paint. Having struggled with drawing pins and thick paper, or with heavy black curtains, citizens might contemplate going out after supper - and then reject the idea and settle down for a long read and an early night.

For to make one's way from back street or suburb to the city centre was a prospect fraught with depression and even danger. In September 1939 the total of people killed in road accidents increased by nearly one hundred per cent. This excludes others who walked into canals, fell down steps, plunged through glass roofs and toppled from railway platforms. A Gallup Poll published in January 1940 showed that by that stage about one person in five could claim to have sustained some injury as a result of the blackout - not serious, in most cases, but it was painful enough to walk into trees in the dark, fall over a kerb, crash into a pile of sandbags, or merely cannonade off a fat pedestrian.

(1) British government circular Lighting Restrictions (July, 1939)

(2) Angus Calder, The People's War: Britain 1939-45 (1969) page 63

(3) Donald Thomas, An Underworld at War (2003) page 35

(4) T. H. O'Brien, History of the Second World War: Civil Defence (1955) page 319

(5) Jean Lucey Pratt, diary entry (21st April, 1943)

(6) Wilfed Trotter, British Medical Journal (October, 1939)

(7) Harold Nicolson, diary entry (1st September, 1939)

(8) The Daily Telegraph (19th October, 1939)

(9) Angus Calder, The People's War: Britain 1939-45 (1969) page 63

(10) Joyce Storey, Joyce's War (1992) page 31

(11) Winston Churchill, memorandum (20th November, 1939)

(12) Winston Churchill, Gathering Storm (1948) page 383

The Blackout in the Second World War - History


The impact of air raid precautions in Britain and Germany has received little scholarly attention since the end of the Second World War. Of the protective measures brought about as a result of the invention of the bomber, the blackout was by far the most intrusive and extensive form of civil defence. Yet the historiography of the home front and the bombing war in Britain and Germany has tended to sideline the blackout, or else ignore it entirely. The lack of study given to the blackout is at odds with the scale of its impact across wartime society. This thesis furthers understanding of the blackout and the social history of the British and German home fronts by contextualising the blackout within the development of aviation, and its social and economic effects. It also examines the impact technology could have on the relationship between state and citizens, and addresses the lack of comparative research on Britain and Germany during the Second World War. The thesis draws on extensive research conducted in local and national government archives in Britain and Germany, as well as a wide range of secondary literature on the war and inter-war period. It argues that the blackout was a profound expansion of the state into the lives of each nation’s citizens, and though it was set within two politically very different states, it brought with it similar practical and social problems. The blackout, as the most ‘social’ form of civil defence, is an ideal aspect of the war by which to compare the British and German home fronts. Ultimately, the differences between the two countries were less important than the shared sense of obligation that the blackout principle was intended to foster within the wartime community.EThOS - Electronic Theses Online ServiceArts and Humanities Research CouncilGBUnited Kingdo

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10 facts about crime on the home front in the Second World War

From blackouts to blitzed homes, the Second World War presented a new world of opportunity for the criminally inclined, and the war years saw an unprecedented rise in British crime. Here, Mark Ellis, author of new book Merlin at War, explores the dodgy dealings and violent deeds that flourished on the home front

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Published: March 12, 2018 at 9:55 am

Looting was rife

On one day in November 1940, 20 of the 56 cases listed for hearing at the Old Bailey concerned looting offences. The total number of cases for the four months of the Blitz to the end of December was 4,584. When the Café de Paris restaurant and nightclub in Piccadilly suffered a direct hit by the Luftwaffe in 1941, rescuers had to battle their way through looters that were fighting to tear rings and other jewellery from the dead revellers. There were many cases in which looters weren’t just criminals and members of the public: firemen, wardens and other members of the defence forces often joined in too.

Killers had a field day

With cities and towns plunged into darkness every night, killers had a field day. A young airman, Gordon Cummins, was nicknamed ‘the Blackout Ripper’ and roamed the bomb-ravaged streets of London in search of young women to murder and mutilate. He killed at least four between 1941 and 1942 before he was caught and became an early victim of the infamous British hangman, Albert Pierrepoint.

Other later victims of Pierrepoint who began their murderous activities during the war were John Christie, of 10 Rillington Place fame and John Haigh, the ‘acid bath murderer’. The circumstances of the war assisted both men in their crimes. Despite a criminal record, manpower shortages helped Christie to become a part-time special police constable, and the associated veneer of respectability was very useful to him. Haigh found the war a convenient cover for explaining his first victim’s disappearance his claim that the man had run away to avoid conscription to the army successfully diverted suspicion.

Gang activity increased

In London, there were Jewish, Maltese and Italian gangs as well as cockney outfits. The Maltese Messina gang controlled the London vice scene with an iron fist. Prostitution boomed in the war in line with the massive inflow of soldiers, sailors and airmen. By 1944 there were over 1.5m GIs in Britain, while the home armed forces totalled 3m, many of whom were based on the home front. Hordes of servicemen would pour into London or other British towns and cities on nightly furloughs looking for fun. The Messina ran a huge gang of girls, nicknamed the ‘Piccadilly Commandos’ to satisfy London demand. The incidence of sexually transmitted diseases naturally soared, as did business for back-street abortionists.

The black market boomed

While there was always scope for individual entrepreneurialism, the criminal gangs soon came to dominate the black market. In London, the main player was Billy Hill, who grew up in Seven Dials which had been a major hub of London crime for centuries. He was quick to realise the potential of the war, not only the advantages conferred on the criminal classes by the blackout, rationing and the Blitz, but also the obvious benefits of police manpower being constrained due the loss of officers to the forces.

He duly took advantage and made a fortune, and was always grateful to the black market. He said of it in his memoirs: “It was the most fantastic side of civilian life in wartime. Make no mistake. It cost Britain millions of pounds. I didn’t make use of the black market, I fed it.”

Hill had many other strings to his bow. His gang pulled off a number of jewellery ‘smash and grabs’ early in the war, some staged spectacularly in London’s West End. These crimes were easier to pull off with Blitz chaos all around combined with a weakened and heavily stretched police force.

Rationing led to thefts

The most significant and lucrative black-market activities centred on the long list of staple products subject to rationing. Food, petrol and clothing rationing was administered through ration books and coupons. These provided forgers and thieves with great opportunities. In 1944, 14,000 newly issued ration books were stolen in a raid. They were sold for an estimated profit of £70,000, roughly equivalent to £3m today.

Forgery took place both on a small and a large scale but was hard to pin down. A rare major prosecution took place in Manchester in 1943, when 19 men were accused of involvement in a wide-ranging racket of selling forged clothing coupons. A printing press in Salford supplied a host of wholesalers in the north and south of England with high quality forgeries. The going rate for a sheet of forged coupons on Oxford Street was £10 – around £400 in today’s money. Rationing naturally gave rise to a great deal of corruption amongst shopkeepers, farmers and officials and many culprits ended up in court.

Conmen took advantage

Corruption was not confined to rationing and the black market. Many other wartime activities offered scope for the unscrupulous. For example, the massive amount of civil defence work commissioned was ripe for fraudsters. In west London, a dodgy contractor conspired for gain with the Hammersmith clerk of works to falsely certify air-raid shelters as sound when they had been shoddily built, fraudulently expensed and were unfit for purpose. People died who should have been safe from the bombs and manslaughter prosecutions followed.

Elsewhere, unscrupulous doctors profited from a popular scam of providing false military exemption certificates to shirkers. In Stepney, Dr William Sutton would freely issue such exemptions for half a crown without even bothering to see the candidate. He went to jail.

Crimes went international

Unusually, the writ of the wartime British courts did not extend to all crimes committed in the country. Crimes committed by American military personnel were exempt, as the US authorities insisted on trying such cases in their own courts, which were set up in several locations. The main one in London was near the US embassy in Grosvenor Square. This arrangement caused no real difficulty until some disturbing statistics became known. The record showed that many more black GIs were prosecuted than white ones and were given much stiffer sentences if convicted.

One case in particular drew public attention to this discrimination. Leroy Henry, a black GI, was convicted of rape, a capital offence for the Americans, on apparently flimsy evidence. He was sentenced to death by the presiding American colonel. The case led to deep public unease in the British press and elsewhere. Thirty-three thousand people from Bath, where the alleged rape took place, signed a petition calling for a reprieve. The common view was that Henry’s race was the principal reason for the conviction. General Eisenhower, the commander of US forces, had to intervene he threw out the verdict as unsafe and returned Henry to his unit.

Some workers’ rights became illegal

The wartime criminalisation of previously legitimate activities was another factor boosting crime figures. Striking, for example, became illegal under defence regulations in order to ensure that wartime industrial output was maintained at the maximum. Inevitably, this proved problematic. A 1942 miners’ strike at a Kent colliery led to the imprisonment of the miners’ leaders, and the threatened imprisonment of the 1,000-man workforce if they didn’t pay their fines. When nearly all of them didn’t pay, the government baulked at jailing such a huge number of working men and prevented the court from applying its sanction. No other strikers were imprisoned thereafter during the war, although fines continued to be levied.

People abused the system

The government set up various wartime compensation schemes for the population and people were quick to spot the opportunity for abuse. One scheme provided generously for people who had been bombed out. An enterprising man in Wandsworth in London claimed to have lost his home 19 times in three months and received a substantial sum each time. He was jailed for three years.

Other government initiatives, such as evacuation, were open to fraudulent manipulation. Some country families were happy to have children billeted with them, but others weren’t – and some resorted to bribery to evade the responsibility. Basil Seal, one of Evelyn Waugh’s protagonists in his wartime novel Put Out The Flags, takes advantage of his sister’s position as a billeting officer and makes a nice sum from this type of corrupt activity, illustrative of activity at the time.

Criminals became heroes

Not all criminals concentrated exclusively on feathering their own nests there were some criminal heroes. Some allowed their patriotic instincts to surface and supported the war effort. Perhaps the best known of these was the ace burglar and robber, Eddie Chapman, who was recruited by MI5 and became a British double agent. Known as ‘Agent Zigzag’, he was spectacularly successful at duping the Germans, who famously valued him so highly that they awarded him the Iron Cross. Returning from overseas service in 1944 he was pardoned for his previous crimes and awarded a substantial payment. He was quick to return to his criminal ways but avoided jail and eventually retired in some comfort.

With the German capitulation in 1945 came the end of the blackout and the bombs. The American and other foreign allied forces departed and British servicemen were demobilised. Life began to return to normal but some criminal-friendly wartime conditions lingered. Rationing did not end until 1954, so the black market thrived for a few more years yet. Some old gangs went away and some new ones took their place. Crime, as always, carried on but clearly the halcyon years of the war were over.

Just a few years ago, ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, a gangster who became something of a TV star in his final years, told a talk show host regretfully and seriously that he’d never been able to forgive the Germans for surrendering. Many old crooks echoed his sentiments they had never had it so good!

Merlin at War by Mark Ellis is out now (London Wall Publishing, 2017)

The Black Market

The black market was a response to rationing that was introduced during World War Two. While illegal, the black market became a driving force in the Home Front especially in the cities – for those who could afford the prices.

The activities of German U-boats in the Atlantic greatly restricted the amount of food that came into the country. Therefore the government had to introduce rationing so that everyone got a fair share – primarily of food. However, this led to a gap in the market, which was filled by those involved in black market activities. While cigarettes and alcohol were never rationed they were in short supply. Both these commodities were invariably acquired via the black market. The Ministry of Food investigated complaints against those suspected of being involved in the black market and the penalties for those caught could be severe – a fine of £500 and a possible two years in prison. The government also required offenders to pay three times the value of what they had been caught selling on top of the fine. By the standards of the time, a fine of £500 alone should have been a major deterrent let alone a prison sentence. However, these did not put off many of those involved. Their customers had no reason to inform the government, as they themselves would lose out if the only way to acquire what they wanted was through the black market. Therefore, the government fought a never-ending battle with those involved in the black market and possibly one that they could not win despite appointing 900 inspectors to enforce the law.

“You’d probably hear that there’d be some sugar about somewhere, if you could find your way to it, which had ‘fallen’ off the back of a lorry. Pheasants ‘came’ out of trees too.” (Jennifer Davies)

People most associated with the black market were commonly known as ‘spivs’. This was thought at the time to be ‘VIPS’ back-to-front. However, some believe that it came from a horse racing background or from the London Police who had SPIVS – ‘Suspected Persons and Itinerant Vagrants’. ‘Spiv’ was also the nickname of Henry Bagster, an infamous London crook from the start of the century.

In numerous post-war films and in the 1960’s/1970’s sitcom ‘Dad’s Army’, spivs were frequently portrayed as loveable rogues. There is little research to ascertain just how accurate such a portrayal was. However, it is probably a mythical one simply because so much money was at stake and the profits made by those involved in the black market could be great. The main source of food for the black market came from farmers. They got more out of the relationship than if they provided the government with all their food. Within towns and cities the blackout helped those involved in the black market, as it was easier to break into warehouses undetected. Docks were another source of illicit goods.

However, as might be expected in wartime when everyone was expected to ‘do their bit’, the activities of the spivs and their suppliers were not well received by all. A Member of Parliament called their activities “treason of the worst kind” and there were Parliamentary calls for the maximum five-year term in prison to be increased.

Gas Masks

Gas masks were issued to all British civilians at the start of World War Two. There was a very real fear in Britain that Nazi German bombers would drop poison gas bombs. Therefore, all civilians were issued with gas masks. The bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War had shown what could happen when bombers got through. The government had planned for tens of thousands of deaths in London alone. An advisor to the government – Liddell Hart – told the government to expect 250,000 deaths in the first week of the war alone.

At the start of the war some citizens had not been issued with a gas mask. In a government document “If war should come” (issued to people in July 1939), the explanation for this was that district leaders might have decided to keep gas masks in storage until they decided that an emergency situation had developed. However, the public was told to tell their local Air Raid Warden if they had not been issued with a gas mask and neighbours had. It was the responsibility of air raid wardens to ensure that everybody had been issued with a gas mask.

Babies had special gas masks made for them which would only be issued if an emergency situation arose – see above photo. Children were issued with what became known as “Mickey Mouse” gas masks – the nickname was an attempt by the government to make the gas masks seem less scary.

The Soviet T-34: The Lethal Tank that Won World War II?

On June 22, 1941, Nazi German launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive attack on the Soviet Union that was the largest invasion in history.

More than three million German soldiers, 150 divisions and 3,000 tanks comprised three mammoth army groups that created a front more than 1,800 miles long.

The Germans expected to face an inferior enemy. Giddy from victories in Poland and France, Hitler and many in his military high command believed it was the destiny of Germany to invade Russia. “The end of the Jewish domination in Russia will also be the end of Russia as a state,” Hitler announced in his manifesto Mein Kampf.

For months Germans won victory after resounding victory. But then the attack stalled—and the appearance of a new Soviet tank stunned the Wehrmacht.

It was the T-34. The new armored vehicle had an excellent 76-millimeter gun and thick sloped armor and cruised at more than 35 miles per hour. It possessed many advanced design features for the time—and it could blow German Panzers to Hell.

The T-34 had its problems—something we often forget when discussing a tank with a legendary reputation. The shortfalls included bad visibility for the crew and shoddy Soviet workmanship.

“They were good, but they were not miracle weapons and they had their faults,” writes Philip Kaplan in Rolling Thunder: A Century of Tank Warfare. “But the T-34, for all its faults, is now often referred to by tank experts and historians as possibly the best tank of the war.”

World War II German Field Marshall Ewald Von Kleist was more succinct. “The finest tank in the world,” is how he described the T-34.

The origins of the T-34 are simple enough. The Red Army sought a replacement for the BT-7 cavalry tank, which was fast-moving and lightly armored for use in maneuver warfare. It also had Christie suspension, one reason for the tank’s increased speed.

But during a 1938-to-1939 border war with Japan, the BT-7 fared poorly. Even with a low-powered gun, Japanese Type 95 tanks easily destroyed the BT-7s. Tank attack crews also assaulted the BT-7s with Molotov cocktails, reducing the Soviet tank to a flaming wreck when ignited gasoline dripped through chinks between poorly welded armor into the tank’s engine compartment.

The T-34 was the solution. It kept the Christie suspension, replaced the gasoline engine with a V-2 34 V12 diesel power plant and offered the crew speeds that were 10 miles per hour faster than the German Panzer III or Panzer IV.

Furthermore, the T-34’s high-velocity gun was capable of killing any tank in the world at the time.

“In 1941 when Hitler launched Barbarossa, the tank was indisputably the best in the world,” Jason Belcourt, a veteran of the U.S. Army who served in the armor branch, told War Is Boring. “The combination of sloped armor, big gun, good speed and good maneuverability was so much better than anything the Germans had on tracks.”

By mid-1941, the USSR had more than 22,000 tanks—more tanks than all the armies of the world combined, and four times the number of tanks in the German arsenal.

By the end of the war, the Soviet Union had produced nearly 60,000 T-34 tanks—proving the point that quantity does have a quality all of its own.

At first, the Germans were at a loss when it came to countering the threat the T-34 posed. The Germans’ standard anti-tank guns, the 37-millimeter Kwk36 and the 50-millimeter Kwk 38, couldn’t put a dent in the Soviet tank with a shot to its front.

That left the Germans with a limited set of tactics. German tankers could attempt flank shots with their guns. The Wehrmacht could lay mines. Soldiers risked their lives in close assaults employing satchel charges and Molotov cocktails.

In what could be called an act of desperation, the Germans even used modified 88-millimeter anti-aircraft guns to stop attacking T-34s with direct fire.

But the Russians never had enough trained crews for the tanks the Red Army fielded. The Soviets wasted the T-34 and its crews in vast numbers.

By the time the Soviets trained enough crews to man the T-34s, the Germans had tanks with high-velocity guns and better anti-tank weapons like the Panzerfaust, a recoilless anti-tank weapon with a high-explosive warhead.

But the Russians always had more T-34s than the Germans had Panzers or Tigers.

“Where the tank was decisive was in the battle of production,” Belcourt said. “From June 1941 until the end of the war, the Soviets were always producing a tank that was often good and never worse than adequate.”

The final verdict on the T-34 perhaps is less glowing than the legend that the Soviets weaved around the tank—but is still complimentary. The T-34 tipped the balance in favor of the USSR when it came to armored battle mass production of the tank outmatched anything the Germans could do when it came to manufacturing.

The T-34 in the hands of determined Soviet tankers routed the Germans at Kursk, the greatest tank battle of all time.

The T-34 was “undeniably revolutionary, but it was not the first in anything except how to combine thick sloped armor with a diesel engine, wide tracks and a big, relatively powerful gun,” Belcourt said. “They had all been done before, but never together.”

The Blackout in the Second World War - History

SS Admiral Halstead
The SS Admiral Halstead was in Port Darwin, Australia on February 19, 1942 with 14,000 barrels of high octane gasoline when the Japanese launched heavy air raids on the port. After the first raid, military authorities ordered the crew to leave the ship. For 9 days, 6 of her crew voluntarily reboarded her each morning to take her away from the docks, and each night brought her back to discharge her precious cargo. They manned her two machine guns successfully -- the SS Admiral Halstead was the only one of the 12 ships in the harbor which was not damaged or destroyed.

Battle for the Philippines
In October 1944 merchant ships delivered 30,000 troops and 500,000 tons of supplies to Leyte , during the invasion of the Philippines. They shot down at least 107 enemy planes during the almost continuous air attacks.

In the Mindoro invasion of the Philippines, more merchant mariners lost their lives than did members of all the other Armed Services combined. Sixty-eight mariners and Armed Guard on the SS John Burke and 71 on the SS Lewis E. Dyche disappeared, along with their ammunition-laden ships as result of kamikaze attacks. The SS Francisco Morazon , also in the same convoy, fired 10 tons of ammunition defending herself. A majority of the merchant ships sunk in the Pacific were sunk by kamikaze suicide pilots.

Twenty ships loaded with troops and ammunition were anchored at Leyte fighting off the round-the-clock kamikaze attacks. Merchant mariners were fully involved working with the Armed Guard gun crews, rescuing soldiers from fiery decks below, and often assisting the Army doctors with the wounded. One kamikaze hit the SS Morrison B. Waite, starting fires among the Army trucks below. Able seaman Anthony Martinez went into the cargo hold to rescue several soldiers who were unloading the trucks, then dove overboard to rescue two soldiers who were blown into the water.

Commenting on the part the Merchant Marine played in the Mindoro Invasion , Gen. Douglas MacArthur said: "I have ordered them off their ships and into foxholes when their ships became untenable under attack. The high caliber of efficiency and the courage they displayed mark their conduct throughout the entire campaign in the Southwest Pacific area. I hold no branch in higher esteem than the Merchant Marine. "

Mariners who participated in these invasions received veteran status in 1988 only after a long court battle!

Operation Downfall - Planned Invasion of Japan

[Landing barges at Okinawa carry ammunition, fuel, and other supplies
from the cargo ships seen on the horizon. War Shipping Administration photo]

Merchant ships delivered many of the 180,000 troops and over 1 million tons of supplies during the invasion of Okinawa while under attack from 2,000 kamikazes as well as other airplanes. The next invasion, OPERATION DOWNFALL , was to be the Japanese islands.

In April 1945 there were an estimated five million Japanese military, with nearly two million on the main islands. Japan's terrain was considered good for defense and difficult to attack. The invasion would be tougher than Normandy, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima or Okinawa.

The United States forces in the Pacific had suffered 300,000 battle casualties up to July 1st. The assault on Japan was predicted to kill and wound one million more Americans. Invasion plans involved nearly five million American soldiers, sailors, marines and coast guardsmen. Convoys carrying the troops and supplies to the landings in Japan would have to cross hundreds of miles of ocean on their way from the Marianas, the Philippines and Okinawa. Japan had 9,000 aircraft and 5,000 kamikaze ready for attacks on the invasion fleet.

The U.S. Merchant Marine was an essential part of this huge planned effort.

Dropping atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the signing of unconditional surrender on board the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945.

After the Japanese Surrender
While action by Japanese units continued in various areas throughout the Pacific, the U.S. Merchant Marine was given the job of transporting the surrendered armies back to Japan.

The Merchant Marine also had to return the tired, wounded, and dead U.S. troops home, and to bring replacement forces and supplies for the Occupation. Arms and bombs had to be returned to the U.S.. In December 1945, the War Shipping Administration listed 1,200 sailings - 400 more than in the busiest month of the previous 4 years. 49 U.S. merchant ships were sunk or damaged after V-J Day with at least 7 mariners killed and 30 wounded.

Merchant Marine in Every Invasion

The Merchant Marine on their Liberty ships, World War I vintage "Hog Islanders," and anything else that floated, took part in every invasion of World War II. Many Libertys had temporary accommodations for 200 troops and headed for the beaches under enemy fire with invasion barges in the rigging ready to lower .

[Ship unloading onto barge at Anzio, Italy, War Shipping Administration photo]

Allied invasions started in November 1942: North Africa, followed by Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, and Southern France . In the narrow Mediterranean, full of islands and peninsulas, ships always faced attack from land, as well as air and sea. They were attacked by airplanes, shore-based artillery, submarines, mines, frogmen, and glide bombs. During 9 days at Anzio , Italy, the Liberty ship SS F. Marion Crawford counted: 76 air attacks by 93 planes, and 203 near misses from shore artillery. The ship took 2 hits from 170 mm shells. Her crew hit 3 enemy planes.

The experience of a 13 ship convoy to Algeria in January 1943 was typical:
Junkers 87's [German planes] made torpedo runs at same time as a flight of dive bombers attacked. Liberty ship SS William Wirt, carrying aviation fuel, shoots down 4 bombers. A dud bomb landed inside her hold. One bomber crashes into Norwegian ship, which explodes and sinks. British ship carrying American troops torpedoed and sinks. Three waves of torpedo-bombers and high-level bombers stage attack. The Allies sink an Axis submarine. Torpedo-bombers and high-level bombers attack again SS William Wirt, shoots one bomber down. Two more air attacks sink one ship. On the homeward leg, another air attack near Gibraltar.

Ships and more ships, as far as the eye can see at Normandy beach. Note the large number
Liberty ships disgorging their cargo into small boats. This shows the part played by the
merchant marine in bringing the men and their equipment across the Channel for the invasion.
Barrage balloons protect the ships from attack by low-flying aircraft.
[War Shipping Administration photo]

American mariners took part in the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. In the two years before the invasion, enormous quantities of war materiel were ferried across the U-Boat infested Atlantic to Britain by merchant ships. About 2,700 merchant ships were involved in the first wave of the invasion on D-Day , landing troops and munitions under enemy fire.

In Operation Mulberry , about 1,000 American mariner volunteers sailed 22 obsolete merchant ships ( Blockships ), to be sunk as artificial harbors at the Omaha and Utah beachheads . These ships, many of which had previously suffered severe battle damage, were charged with explosives for quick scuttling. They sailed from England through mined waters, set up in position under severe shelling from the Germans, and were sunk. Behind this breakwater, prefabricated units were towed in to handle the unloading of men and equipment.

American mariners also crewed many of the tugs which towed the huge concrete caissons across the English channel to be sunk with the Blockships . During the next year, at great risk, mariners continued to shuttle 2.5 million troops, 17 million tons of munitions and supplies, and a half million trucks and tanks from England to France.

There were three major groups that represented the U.S. in World War II. Our fighting forces overseas, our production force at home and the Merchant Marine and the Naval Armed Guard, the link between them. Each force was dependent upon the other. The Merchant Marine was responsible for putting our armies and equipment on enemy territory and maintaining them there.

  • Troops
  • Ammunition, food, tanks, and winter boots for the U.S. and Allied infantry
  • Bombs, airplanes, and their fuel
  • Raw material needed to make all of the above

During World War II President Franklin D. Roosevelt and many military leaders praised the role of the U.S. Merchant Marine as the "Fourth Arm of Defense."

General Quarters! All Hands to Battle Stations! Naval Armed Guard and Mariners worked as a team manning the guns during WWII

Allied Merchant Ship Losses 1939 to 1943. Press Release, Office of War Information, Nov. 28, 1944


During World War II, Hiroshima was a city of considerable military importance. It contained the 2nd Army Headquarters, which commanded the defense of all of southern Japan. The city was a communications center, a storage point, and an assembly area for troops. To quote a Japanese report, "Probably more than a thousand times since the beginning of the war did the Hiroshima citizens see off with cries of 'Banzai' the troops leaving from the harbor."

The center of the city contained a number of reinforced concrete buildings as well as lighter structures. Outside the center, the area was congested by a dense collection of small wooden workshops set among Japanese houses a few larger industrial plants lay near the outskirts of the city.

The houses were of wooden construction with tile roofs. Many of the industrial buildings also were of wood frame construction. The city as a whole was highly susceptible to fire damage.

Some of the reinforced concrete buildings were of a far stronger construction than is required by normal standards in America, because of the earthquake danger in Japan. This exceptionally strong construction undoubtedly accounted for the fact that the framework of some of the buildings which were fairly close to the center of damage in the city did not collapse.

Another is that the blast was more downward than sideways this has much to do with the "survival" of the Prefectural Promotional Hall (pictured), which was only a few metres from the aiming point.

The population of Hiroshima had reached a peak of over 380,000 earlier in the war but prior to the atomic bombing the population had steadily decreased because of a systematic evacuation ordered by the Japanese government. At the time of the attack the population was approximately 255,000. This figure is based on the registered population, used by the Japanese in computing ration quantities, and the estimates of additional workers and troops who were brought into the city may not be highly accurate.

Hiroshima was the primary target of the first U.S. nuclear attack mission. The mission went smoothly in every respect. The weather was good, and the crew and equipment functioned perfectly. In every detail, the attack was carried out exactly as planned, and the bomb performed exactly as expected.

The bomb exploded over Hiroshima at 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945. About an hour previously, the Japanese early warning radar net had detected the approach of some American aircraft headed for the southern part of Japan. The alert had been given and radio broadcasting stopped in many cities, among them Hiroshima.

The planes approached the coast at a very high altitude. At nearly 8:00 A.M., the radar operator in Hiroshima determined that the number of planes coming in was very small - probably not more than three - and the air raid alert was lifted. The normal radio broadcast warning was given to the people that it might be advisable to go to shelter if B-29's were actually sighted, but no raid was expected beyond some sort of reconnaissance.

At 8:16 A.M., the B-29 Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb called "Little Boy" over the central part of the city and the bomb exploded with a blast equivalent to 12,000 tons of TNT, killing 80,000 outright.

At the same time, Tokyo control operator of the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation noticed that the Hiroshima station had gone off the air. He tried to use another telephone line to reestablish his program, but it too had failed. About twenty minutes later the Tokyo railroad telegraph center realized that the main line telegraph had stopped working just north of Hiroshima. From some small railway stops within ten miles of the city there came unofficial and confused reports of a terrible explosion in Hiroshima. All these reports were transmitted to the Headquarters of the Japanese General Staff.

Military headquarters repeatedly tried to call the Army Control Station in Hiroshima. The complete silence from that city puzzled the men at Headquarters they knew that no large enemy raid could have occurred, and they knew that no sizeable store of explosives was in Hiroshima at that time. A young officer of the Japanese General Staff was instructed to fly immediately to Hiroshima, to land, survey the damage, and return to Tokyo with reliable information for the staff. It was generally felt at Headquarters that nothing serious had taken place, that it was all a terrible rumor starting from a few sparks of truth.

The staff officer went to the airport and took off for the southwest. After flying for about three hours, while still nearly 100 miles from Hiroshima, he and his pilot saw a great cloud of smoke from the bomb. In the bright afternoon, the remains of Hiroshima were burning.

Their plane soon reached the city, around which they circled in disbelief. A great scar on the land, still burning, and covered by a heavy cloud of smoke, was all that was left of a great city. They landed south of the city, and the staff officer immediately began to organize relief measures, after reporting to Tokyo.

Tokyo's first knowledge of what had really caused the disaster came from the White House public announcement in Washington, sixteen hours after the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. By the end of 1945, it is estimated that 60,000 more people died due to nuclear fallout sickness. However, this total does not include longer term casualties from radiation exposure.

Starting almost immediately after the conclusion of World War II, and continuing to the present day, the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been questioned. Their use has been called barbarian since, besides destroying a military base and a military industrial center, tens of thousands of civilians were killed.

Some have claimed that the Japanese were already essentially defeated, and that use of the bombs was unnecessary. Some have also suggested that a demonstration of an atomic bomb in an uninhabited region should have been attempted.

In reply, defenders of the decision to use the bombs say that it is almost certain that the Japanese would not have surrendered without their use, and that hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - would have perished in the planned U.S. invasion of Japan.

To support their argument, they point out that the Japanese agreed to surrender only after the second bomb was dropped, when it was evident that the first was not an isolated event, and future prospects were for a continuing rain of such bombs. Actually, the U.S. did not have another atomic bomb ready after the bombing of Nagasaki due the difficulty of producing fissile material. Regarding the suggestion of a demonstration, they maintain that, given the mind-set of the Japanese at the time, it is unlikely that any conceivable benign demonstration would have induced surrender.

Others contend that Japan had been trying to surrender for at least two months, but the US refused by insisting on an unconditional surrender—which they did not get even after the bombing, the bone of contention being retention of the Emperor.

Tens of thousands of people marked the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city on August 6, 1985.

Life during the blackout

"I stood on the footway of Hungerford bridge across the Thames watching the lights of London go out. The whole great town was lit up like a fairyland, in a dazzle that reached into the sky, and then one by one, as a switch was pulled, each area went dark, the dazzle becoming a patchwork of lights being snuffed out here and there until a last one remained, and it too went out. What was left us was more than just wartime blackout, it was a fearful portent of what war was to be. We had not thought that we would have to fight in darkness, or that light would be our enemy."

Daily Herald journalist Mea Allan wrote those words in 1939 as she witnessed the introduction of universal blackout. From Thurso to Truro, from Hastings to Holyhead, Britain was plunged into darkness at sunset on 1 September, two days before war was declared. Street lights were switched off at the mains, vehicle headlights were masked to show only a crack of light, and stations were lit by candles. The nation endured this enforced darkness until 23 April 1945, 10 days after the liberation of Belsen, when the allied armies were advancing rapidly towards Berlin in a final pincer movement.

This was not Britain's first brush with the blackout: a limited version had been introduced in 1915 during the first world war, when German zeppelins began to drop bombs on their enemy. But then the lights were subdued or dimmed rather than dowsed, and only when a zeppelin was known to be en route. This time there were no half-measures. Preparations had begun as far back as 1937, as Hitler looked increasingly threatening and a war from the air was predicted. The Germans had held their first blackout exercise in Berlin in March 1935, an event comprehensively reported in the British press.

To police the new blackout, in March 1937 the Home Office appealed for 300,000 "citizen volunteers" to be trained as air raid precautions (ARP) wardens, rather unfairly immortalised in the television series Dad's Army officiously telling householders to "put out that light". Blackout rehearsals became routine from early 1938. Householders were urged to check for light leaks at ground level, while RAF bombers flew overhead to check from above. During an exercise in Suffolk in April 1938, the illuminated clock at Ipswich town hall stood out like a beacon as no one could discover how to switch it off. These experiments, monitored by the RAF, showed that traffic was the main problem – even cars driven on sidelights glittered like a string of beads from the air, revealing street patterns below.

This was the real significance of the blackout – it masked points of reference on the ground. Luftwaffe pilots identified targets using pre-war maps coupled with up-to-date reconnaissance photographs, but they needed to correlate these with landmarks on the ground. Tests by the RAF revealed the extent to which lack of lights on the ground confused even British pilots attempting to find landmarks.

Blackout was not the only defensive measure employed on the home front, however. Pilots' vision was impaired by smokescreens, created by burning barrels of tar near strategic targets such as reservoirs, while enormous barrage balloons filled with hydrogen formed visual and physical barriers to bombers. The Luftwaffe also had to deal with the vagaries of the weather, as well as searchlights and anti-aircraft guns.

In the months leading up to the declaration of war, women made and hung blackout curtains and blinds, and sealed any gaps round the edges with brown paper. Not only did houses no longer leak light they no longer let in air. The Times carried adverts for "ARP curtaining", available not only in black but in brown, green and dark blue. When London's Gaiety theatre closed, its brown velvet curtains bagged a high price at auction to be converted into superior blackout curtains.

Ordinary blackout curtains could not be washed, as this was apt to make them let through light. The government, therefore, issued a leaflet telling people to "hoover, shake, brush then iron" – the latter to make them more light-proof.

By the time war broke out, blackout at street level was more complete than from above, as Londoner Phylllis Warner described in her diary: "For the first minute going out of doors one is completely bewildered, then it is a matter of groping forward with nerves as well as hands outstretched."

Even after four years of war, fitter's mate Frank Forster found it easy to become disorientated walking round his hometown of Chester, as he wrote in his diary in1943: "Every journey one makes across the city during the blackout, especially on a very dark night, is a great adventure – although one is aware of certain landmarks, many of them are no use whatever, unless one is possessed of a good torch. One never knows what is in front of one beyond a distance of about three feet."

By the end of the first month of war there had been 1,130 road deaths attributed to the blackout, and coroners urged pedestrians to carry a newspaper or a white handkerchief to make them more visible. A coroner in Birmingham told old people to keep off the streets after dark, suggesting routine visits to the pub in the evening had to be relinquished for the war effort, as so many were killed when they stepped from pub into darkened street.

White paint was the main safety measure, and stripes were painted on kerbs, street refuges and round the doors of tube trains. Even with a 20mph speed limit, car crashes were frequent. A Lancastrian man painted his car white, and found other motorists gave him a wide berth. An Essex farmer even painted white stripes on his cattle so that they wouldn't be run over. Ghostly policemen controlled traffic with whistles, their capes and tunics dipped in luminous paint, and traffic lights were reduced to tiny crosses of red, amber and green. Sales of walking sticks, torches and batteries rocketed, as collisions even between pedestrians were common.

Rail travel, too, was made more difficult by the blackout. In darkened railway goods yards, porters struggled to read labels on freight travelling by train at night, which led to increasing delays for passengers. When they did travel, people had to sit in carriages shrouded by blinds, lit by cold blue lights, and patrolled by new lighting attendants whose job was to check the blackout.

Thousands struggled to work on gloomy winter mornings on buses whose numbers were now unlit, and therefore of uncertain destination unless announced by a conductor. Seventeen-year-old Monica McMurray worked at a Sheffield engineering factory and recorded in her diary for 1941: "This eternal smell of oil combined with next to no ventilation and artificial light at work is suffocating, I think I shall have to try to get on the land."

Ernie Britton, an office worker, expressed similar feelings to his sister Florrie, who lived in the United States. "In the factories . it's not so healthy never to see a bit of daylight except perhaps a snatch at midday break. During the past few weeks we've had fluorescent lighting (daylight) in our office and it makes a world of difference."

Elsewhere, stevedores drowned, knocked into harbours by cranes filling and emptying cargo holds. They were encouraged to wear white gloves to make themselves stand out. Even making a telephone call from a phonebox was no simple task, because it was so difficult to see the numbers on the dial. Burglary and mugging increased, and looters took advantage of deep blackout and bombed-out houses.

Did the blackout have any beneficial effects? Shops did at least allow staff to leave early so they could travel home safely, while the BBC Home Service urged people to look on the bright side, broadcasting talks to encourage them to look at the stars, which were "all the better for the blackout". Home-based hobbies such as indoor photography grew in popularity, and people made music rather than venturing out in the evening to hear it played.

It must have been some compensation to know that blackout was a common experience throughout the world. Three months after the outbreak of war, British newspapers reported that the Germans had developed luminous blackout paint in the colours of the rainbow to highlight kerbstones and pillars at railway stations. Neutral Switzerland had introduced blackout in November 1940, but debated its efficacy throughout the war. Unlit Swiss cities could be bombed in error, while blazing urban lights would act as a beacon to pinpoint targets across the border. There were protests in neutral Ireland, where compulsory blackout was considered to breach neutrality.

When blackout was lifted in April 1945, Scottish schoolboy Donald Gulliver wrote to his father who was away serving in the forces: "The light is on at the corner, and I was playing under it last night, and the night before."

In 1941 doctors had diagnosed a new condition among factory workers on the home front: blackout anaemia. Just as seasonal affective disorder is recognised today as being linked to a lack of natural light in winter, so depression was a recognised consequence of the blackout during the second world war. No wonder the Vera Lynn song When the Lights Go On Again All Over the World had such resonance on the home front.

Felicity Goodall is author of The People's War, published by Reader's Digest

The ‘Good War’ Myth of the Second World War

Images Used (From Left): (1) Reading of the Roll of Honour by a Yeoman Warder as part of the WWI centenary commemoration in London between September and November 2014 (2) London after the ‘Blitz’ or strategic bombing of the UK by Nazi Germany between September 1940 and May 1941 (3) Children in East End of London made homeless by Nazi Blitz during WWII

Life has been extremely miserable and violent in many parts of the world this year. Last year was the year of remembrance for many Europeans the Centenary of the WWI, which started in 2014 and the commemorations of the outbreak of the global warfare would continue till 2018. WWI is also known as the ‘Great War’. The public perception of the war being ‘Great’ indicates the enormous scale of the war and the term has also the moral connotations. The general feeling among the Allies is that they had been fighting against an Axis evil militarism. ‘Great War’ also carried the theme of Armageddon, the great biblical battle between the Good and the Evil to be fought during the end times. Other titles given to the conflict included ‘the Great War for Civilization’.

Besides articles, books, radio and television programs, around 5 million people visited the temporary art installation called ‘Blood Swept Lands & Seas of Red’ around the Tower of London as part of commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of WWI. 888,246 ceramic red poppies- one for every dead British & Colonial trooper- were planted by 17,500 volunteers to fill up the moat and the art installation remained in place between July and November 2014. The huge public turnout and the number of poppies provided a reminder that hardly any family in the United Kingdom was unaffected by the First World War. It is a deep-rooted folk memory. May 7 & 8, 2015 would see another milestone, the 70 th anniversary of ‘Victory in Europe’ (V-E) day. May 10, 2015 will also mark the 75 th anniversary of Churchill’s appointment as the PM of the United Kingdom. An implied difference between the first and second world wars is present. We often portray them as the Bad War and the Good War.

Image Used: Volunteers planting ceramic poppies in the temporary WWI centenary art installation ‘Blood Swept Lands & Seas of Red’ at the Tower of London

The WWI was fought between July 28, 1914 and November 11, 1918 and often the terms ‘the war to end wars’ and ‘a war to make the world safe for democracy’ had been falsely attributed to it. After the end of Second World War in 1945, Europe seemed to have finally achieved what had been promised in 1918. European countries did not fight each other for the next fifty years and cold war ended without any armies clashing in Europe.

As many as 18 million people died in WWI and over 70 million people died in WWII. Important difference was that up to 10 million or 55% of the total dead in WWI were combatants, while the horrible feature of the Second World War was that over 50 million or 71% of the total dead were civilians. This would be the true face of the WWII, also known as the Good War. This ‘Good War’ myth of the Second World War has been scrutinized by renowned British national daily, The Guardian.

The perception that WWII was nobler and finer than WWI is highly dubious, since such concept sanitizes so much, from the massacre of civilians by Allied bombings to the gang rape of millions of women by the Red Army at the time of victory. The sanctification of the later war has had more dangerous consequences than anathematizing the former. Worse than that is the glorification of the WWII and the assumption that the west is alone qualified and virtuous in distinguishing the political right from wrong. It is also not right to have the belief that our apparent virtuous ends must justify any means we apply, lighting up bomber flare paths in Dresden, Tripoli, Baghdad, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As the major European powers maintained a balance of power throughout Europe at the start of 1914, few expected another European war for real. Prolific British socialist journalist HN Brailsford stated in the spring of 1914 that there hadn’t been any possibility of any further wars among the six great powers. Even when Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, everyone thought that Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia and thus triggering of the First World War could be avoided.

Charles Edward Montague, lead writer & deputy editor of the Manchester Guardian, now the Guardian since 1959, was totally against the WWI before its commencement. However, appalled by the German treachery, he believed that one should join the war for a swift resolution. He was 47 and well over the age of enlistment. But he dyed his white hair black to fool the Army and got enlisted. A British war correspondent during WWI, H.W. Nevinson wrote that C.E. Montague was the only man he knew whose white hair had turned dark in a single night through ‘courage’. Every country was confident about a victory and expected a short war. The scale of the carnage became clear within weeks- when 27,000 French troopers were killed on August 23, 1914. Still confident of a short war, the Economist proclaimed that it was not economically or financially feasible to carry out the hostilities for many months on the ongoing scale. But the horrors continued for four more years on a larger scale and rulers of one country after another grasped human catastrophe and the grim political consequences. We should now look skeptically at the rhetoric of the ‘glorious dead’ who doesn’t ‘grow old’. The bereaved did not want to think that the death of their near and dear ones were in vein.

The forms of remembrance have been different in different countries. British memorials possess acute realism. Some remarkable works of gifted British sculptor Charles S. Jagger include the 1922 Great Western Railway War Memorial which is a bronze statue of a WWI soldier reading a letter from home and the 1925 Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner which depicts gunners dragging their guns through the mud.

The British Empire lost over 1.1 million soldiers and 80% of the dead were from the United Kingdom. The British considered that their losses were unimaginable while France, with a smaller population than the UK, lost over 1.4 million men and the dominant tone of war memorials in France is desolation. Pacifist war memorials were set up in some towns in France denouncing war with figures of children and widows rather than the combatants. One such famous memorial at Gentioux-Pigerolles in the Limousin region in central France has the inscriptions “À nos chers enfants” or ‘to our dear children’, followed by the names of the fallen, and then ‘maudite soit la guerre’ or ‘cursed be war’. Though controversial, such memorials suggested that these nations had lost the appetite for war. The First World War memorials in Germany were rather defiant than mournful. Some of the memorials listed the fallen and then ended with the words ‘Not one too many died for the Fatherland’ indicating that more efforts and sacrifices were required for a German victory. Another war memorial to the alumni of the University of Berlin who had been killed in the war bore the inscription ‘invictis victi victuri’ which means ‘to the unconquered from the conquered, who will themselves conquer’.

In the 1920s a good number of books have shaped our awareness and consciousness regarding war. Some of these were written by the English writers, such as- Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon, Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden, RC Sheriff’s play Journey’s End etc. An Australian novelist settled in England, Frederic Manning wrote Her Privates We. Erich Maria Remarque also wrote some famous German novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) and The Road Back (1931). These two novels with an anti-war theme by Remarque described the experiences of German soldiers during WWI. In 1933, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels banned Remarque’s works and the writer had to leave Germany to live in Switzerland. ‘A Time to Love and a Time to Die’ (1954) and ‘The Black Obelisk’ (1957) were among his famous post WWII anti-war novels. English poet and soldier Wilfred Owen’s well known poem ‘anthem for doomed youth’ incorporates the theme of the horror of war.

Winston Churchill was also a critic of war’s misconducts. When he took part in the WWI, he was dismayed at the stalemate situation on the Western Front during the first months of fighting and he asked whether there were any other alternatives than sending out troops to ‘chew barbed wire in Flanders’. After the shifts in the perceptions of the Great War, another world war began and Churchill was at the center of it. In his first speech as the Prime Minister of the UK, he said that his policy was to wage war against a monstrous tyranny. And ‘the good war’ theme popped up soon.

WWII became quite glorious and was infused with high moral purposes. In contrast with the First World War, there were lots of war books and movies with a cheerful mood after the WWII. One reason was the British had suffered in WWII about half the casualties of the WWI. But this reason was a misleading one too.

The WWI Battle of the Somme was brutal enough where hundreds of thousands of riflemen had been going over the top together to face immediate death. However, combats were extremely severe for the combatants during the WWII battles- like during the Battle of El Alamein, Italian battles, Invasion of Normandy etc. The 1964 BBC documentary ‘The Great War’ included the testimony of men who had fought in the WWI and served in a British firing squad. The squad had 300 soldiers who executed the British soldiers for desertion and cowardice during the war.

The massacre of over 5.9 million Jews, around 78% of the total Jews in occupied Europe, wasn’t yet called the Holocaust. Austrian born American historian completed his great work ‘the Destruction of the European Jews’ in 1955. However, he had to wait till 1961 for a publisher to accept and publish it. That was the year when Nazi lieutenant colonel and one of the organizers of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann’s war crime trial began in Israel. Israeli national intelligence agency, Mossad captured him from Argentina in 1960. Eichmann was found guilty of his war crimes and hanged in 1962. Frankfurt Auschwitz trials also sentenced 22 Nazi personnel in 1965.

Image Used: Children in East End of London made homeless by Nazi Blitz during WWII

Stalin’s statement about the ‘Great War’ was remarkable. He rightly said that England had provided the time, America had provided the money and Russia had provided the blood. In the early part of the WWII, Britain defied Hitler but could not possibly defeat him, until he brought his own doom by invading Russia in June 1941. For most Americans, ‘the war’ meant the war against Imperial Japan. The obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a highly debatable method for ending the WWII. The blood did flow freely in the East and 26 million Russians died including 9-14 million Russian Soldiers during the ‘good war’. The Nazi Germans butchered Jews wherever they went, and on the other hand, when the Red Army reached Germany it celebrated the victory with the worst act of mass rapes in the history of mankind.

More civilians than the soldiers were killed in the ‘good war’. Most distinctive British contribution to the war was the bombing that destroyed many cities of Germany and killed hundreds of thousands of Germans, mostly civilians and women and children. Our reverence for the ‘good war’ is a sentimental term. Our most recent ‘good wars’ include the 2003 invasion of Iraq and we had the idea that there hadn’t been any alternative but to participate in it. The overwhelming majority of those killed in Iraq since 2003 have been civilians and many of them were killed by western bombing. There is no such thing as a good war, but there may be necessary wars like the First and Second World Wars. We can’t, however, use the term ‘necessary’ about our latest wars.

Video Used: 2 hour long documentary on the Second World War. Showing the brutal parts of the so called ‘Good War’ Graphic content warning

Watch the video: Wacky Blackout 1942


  1. Shyam

    In my opinion. You were mistaken.

  2. Tedrick

    Why is this the only way? I am pondering how we can clarify this review.

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