By Jacinta Mallon
Front Line, 1940-41, a booklet published by the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Home Security in 1942, claims to tell the ‘official story’ of civil defence during the blitzes on London and beyond. It arrived on my desk in 2019, as my family cleared out the attic of my grandparents’ old house – no mean task, as in over 60 years of living there they didn’t seem to throw much away! Tucked away in a forgotten cardboard box, we had found Front Line and a host of other propaganda publications which had been collected by my grandad during the conflict.
Front Line’s release in 1942, during a period of relative calm when restrictions on reporting around the bombing had been slightly relaxed, allowed it to be surprisingly blunt about some of the difficulties faced by these civilians under fire. A chapter examining the post-raid problem of homelessness is, for example, remarkably honest about the impact of the state’s initial, largely inadequate response, which left many civilians’ needs ‘unmet’ and threatened to reveal a ‘weak point’ in the nation’s armour.
However, this candour only went so far. The British were still at war, and the state was aware of the need to maintain both morale and an effective civil defence force. Unsurprisingly, in both its illustrations and text, Front Line thus drew upon many of the tropes of the now well-established British myth of the Second World War. The civilians of Front Line, whether officially engaged in the work of civil defence or not, are portrayed with an almost uniform stoicism and humour: ‘below this standard’, the anonymised author C. R. Leslie wrote, ‘very few fell’. The provincial blitzes, it is argued, provoked the same gritty determination that had been seen in the capital, showing that bravery and fortitude were not the preserve of Londoners alone.
It is worth noting that Front Line was an extremely successful publication: an initial print run of 120,000 copies proved insufficient, and a reprint was required. This picture of stoicism, then, was one which resonated with the British public. Nevertheless, it is also clear that Front Line, as a work of state propaganda, glossed over some of the less savoury aspects of life under fire. For example, the depth of resentment that many Britons felt at the perceived lack of state action – whether it was protection during raids, or welfare provision in the aftermath – is understandably still underplayed. Problems such as post-raid looting are similarly absent from this account, as is any hint of the state’s serious concern over intelligence reports of poor morale in provincial cities during this period.
So, Front Line does not provide us with a direct lens through which to examine the experiences of citizens who lived through the air raids of 1940-41 in Britain. It is, however, a useful source for thinking about how the state sought to influence and cope with the impact of mass bombardment on its citizens, both at the time and subsequently through its presentation of a particular narrative.
We found grandad’s copy of Front Line just as I was beginning to write my PhD proposal, and so some of the themes that it started to make me think about have suffused my research right from the very beginning. This alone makes it a thought-provoking source to return to, but it is not the only reason I picked it for this blog post. More broadly, it reminds me of the lovely fact that historical research can sometimes be as much about luck as it is about methodical detective work. Whether it comes to you in an offhand comment by a fellow conference attendee, in an archive document bundled in by chance with the folders you actually ordered, or in a cardboard box hidden in the corner of an attic, sources which spark our interest can find us just as often as we find them.
Jacinta Mallon is a third-year PhD student within the Centre for War, Media and Society. Her thesis examines experiences and understandings of home-loss in urban Britain during and after the Second World War.
Image Credit: From Frontispiece, Front Line, 1940-41: The Official Story of Civil Defence in Britain (London: HMSO, 1942. License: CC BY-SA 4.0