US National Publications and the Blitz
No aspect of British society went un-reported to the American public. National publications such as LIFE, TIME, Haper’s Weekly, Saturday Evening Post and other magazines attempted to create a more definitive scenario, complete with photos that sought to contextualise Murrow’s words. The articles were not as sensationalised, and focused less on the exploits of the journalists themselves, instead attempting to capture the essence of being British. This bolstered Murrow and his colleagues’ credibility. When the American people picked up an edition of LIFE or Saturday Evening Post, the type of account which they read was very different from the stories which Guy Murchie and Raymond Daniell were writing for the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Although many of the articles included anecdotes of lack of sleep, air raid shelters and the spirit of the Blitz, most accounts spoke plainly about the lack of humanity involved. These publications were able to develop their characters with real depth. By the end of the article, the reader had somebody with a face, family and real problems with whom to identify.
American journalists in London and pro-British news agencies were the real driving forces behind these national publications. Without their lead from the field, TIME, LIFE and PM would not have been able to publish accurate accounts, or display such popular, powerful images. The Associated Press produced most of the material, and overwhelmingly supported aid-short-of-war. As already noted, Molly Painter-Downes’ ‘Letters for London’ segment featured regularly in The New Yorker, while others published accounts straight from London. The Chicago Tribune’s Guy Murchie featured regularly in TIME and LIFE magazines. Popular themes were often reported. The 14 October issue of TIME reproduced Murrow’s account praising Churchill’s efforts to rid the country of Nazi raiders, claiming that caste-conscious Britain was transforming over night as ‘all are equal under the bomb.’ A previous issue of TIME reported that ‘Smart Winston Churchill’ knew that the only chance Britain had at winning the war was predicated on the ‘enthusiastic support of the working classes.’[i]
By September 1940, wartime news was big money. No other story was bigger than that of German bombs falling on British cities. American correspondents, Walter Graebner and Allan Michie, gave a detailed account in LIFE of their night together on 18 September, during a night-long air raid. LIFE also provided photos of the aftermath.[ii] The account left little speculation as to who was in the wrong. The majority of US publications reported German civilian hardships very differently. Hitler’s ‘Master Plan’ justified a pro-British response. ‘We have built up a defence force superior to any other in the world,’ boasted Hitler, allowing the German people to go ‘about their business with perfect tranquillity.’ However, TIME was happy to point out that these ‘Hitlerian promises’ were soon broken by ‘waves of British bombers’ that ‘shuttled across the capital’ for nearly five hours. According to the article, this was ‘satisfying news’ to battered Londoners. It reported that Britain’s plan involved a three-pronged attack, smash German production, render coastal ports unusable and crack German morale. The entire article provided no justification outside the norms of war, whereas German raiders and Hitler were unleashing a new type of ‘total war.’[iii]
LIFE magazine presented the Blitz as a one-sided affair. Like other publications and newspapers, LIFE covered both sides fairly well, but was unapologetically pro-British. After the German government promised to punish the British a ‘thousand fold’ for their ‘organised terror’ against German cities, LIFE told the American people that the ‘dazed German public’ was unconvinced.[iv] Instead, it illustrated how the German government had recently boasted of its ‘all-out masterpieces of terrorism’ over the streets of London. The Battle of London became a major selling point for US journalists and publications. The Battle of Berlin, however, was relegated to the bottom of the page. There was nothing balanced about the magazine’s style of journalism. Although most stories had been wired from London, the editors presented the material as if the American public had witnessed it for themselves. As the Battle of Britain reached its climax, the 23 September issue claimed that Hitler had tried to destroy London.
LIFE reported the ‘facts’ as they appeared, including numbers of dead, houses destroyed, people made homeless and the names of historical monuments and buildings blasted into history. Many articles included anecdotes of mothers trying to change their children’s diapers and heat their bottles during an air raid in damp shelters, while others volunteered willingly to help in soup kitchens and canteens, serving sandwiches and cups of tea. Other issues ran articles on British war humour and the morale of the British public. Perhaps most tellingly, LIFE argued that unlike Poland, the Low Countries and France, Britain was not on the run, mainly because it had ‘simple stubborn guts.’[v]
TIME attempted to produce a more balanced approach of the Blitz. Before 7 September, TIME covered the bombings through the provision of equal column space to both German and British strategic bombing efforts. Their readership was more historically conservative than that of other major US publications. The editorial team committed at an early stage to unbiased journalism, and hence dedicated the same amount of press to both sides. The 9 September issue published a full-page map of R.A.F. aerial bombing targets in Germany, including factories, oil plants, munitions plants and other strategic targets.[vi]
However, as indiscriminate bombing became more frequent and eventually occurred every day, TIME shifted its focus towards a more pro-British effort. This shift reflected general US public opinion, rather than any change in policy. Therefore, German raids on British munitions plants now become acts of terrorism by barbarous warmongers. In the 16 September 1940 issue of TIME, the ‘Battle of Britain’ segment changed its neutral tone to include a scathing report on German aggression against London. Accompanied with photographs of the destruction, and captions which read ‘London’s First Refugees’, TIME reported that in the modern history of London, four catastrophes had occurred, the fire of St. Paul’s in 1087; the Great Fire of London in 1666; the Great Plague of the 17th century; and the indiscriminate bombings of September 1940. The first three, claimed the article, were ‘impersonal’ but the bombings bore the weight of the human mind, due to the fact that it was the ‘work of man.’ Waves of German bombers and fighter planes unleashed a ‘relentless’ attack on London of old school ‘Prussian military precision.’ The result was the ‘grimmest series of raids in history.’
TIME’s transformation during the opening months of the Blitz mirrored that of American public opinion. Germany became the unquestionable enemy, with Hitler viewed as one of history’s all-time greatest villains. ‘This is just what Hitler wants,’ stated the 16 September issue, ‘for Adolf Hitler knows the meaning of war. To the Fuehrer, political objectives are just as important as gas works and docks.’ TIME ultimately accepted that bombing civilian populations did not influence the outcome of military campaigns; but depicted the Blitz as an act of terrorism, supported by the point that German planes ‘bombed slums far more than other residential districts.’ Its editorial staff considered that Hitler was aiming to crack Britain’s ‘armor of morale’ and highlight class division.[vii]
TIME’s shift towards non-neutral reportage and sympathy for the British cause now became more evident. In its 14 October issue, it reported that with the ‘U.S. lending more & more aid, British confidence grew loud’, enabling morale to be replenished and British efforts to become more effective. [viii] However, when reporting Britain’s bombing campaign on Nazi Germany, it focused primarily on targets of military strategic importance and not civilian bombings. Although Britain’s policy of systematic bombings centred mainly on military targets, civilian populations were affected. Most US publications omitted the latter, and concentrated mainly on the former, perpetuating a sense of British moral supremacy. This system of reporting had a strong effect on American public opinion. The American people were much more inclined to believe that Britain was fighting a much cleaner and legal war; whereas the Nazis had attacked civilian populations in an effort to usher in a new kind of ‘total war.’
London’s ‘Civilian Army’ received considerable coverage from most publications. TIME devoted a regular column to ‘Civilians in Battle’, explaining the hardships and daily life under bombardment. Often, the attack on London’s civilian population was explained as a ‘methodical’ effort, through which the British people began to see themselves an ‘army of non-fighters’, forced to take the punishment and hold their nerve.
The Battle for London was the most publicised phase of the war to date. The 7 October 1940 issue of LIFE proclaimed that London was the ‘greatest battlefield of the war.’ Life in London had become something ‘new and terrible in history,’ surrounded by terror and uncertainty.[ix] A popular slogan circulating the city stated, ‘Join the Army and escape the war.’[x] Londoners posted copies of a notice found in an Australian trench during the previous war. It stated five unconditional certainties if the ‘enemy’ attempted to take their position. Despite the fact that 50,000,000 lbs of German bombs had been dropped on England, killing 3,500 civilians, LIFE insisted that ‘the position is emphatically being held.’
The 14 October issue of LIFE detailed the Grimmond family’s unlucky feat of being bombed-out twice within the first month of the Blitz. Dominating with this, the magazine produced a half-page photograph of the family standing on top of the ruins the following morning looking shocked, but not desperate. After the first bombing, the children were sent to Canada. Next to the article was a handwritten note from one of the daughters to her parents, ensuring them they were safe and enjoying themselves.[xi]
National publications capitalised on the American public’s fascination with underground shelters. Images of Londoners sleeping in underground cities left a lasting impression on the US public. Often, they echoed the reports from London. Many photos showed Londoners smiling and singing along, while the caption told the reader that this had taken place during an air raid. The powerful images had a very positive effect on their readership. The 14 October issue of LIFE printed several pictures of Londoners sleeping on the tracks and the escalators, leaving only a path for commuters desperate to get a full night’s sleep.[xii] However, most publications did not try to withhold that sanitation conditions were poor and most stations were inhabited by poorer citizens, some even traveling across town and queuing for hours for West End tube shelters.
Despite the fact that very few Londoners regularly used underground shelters, US publications littered their publications with images of makeshift civilian camps. The American press continued to portray these shelters as the epicentre of British resolve. TIME claimed that the tube station shelters had become the ‘chief centres where the civilian army encamped.’ [xiii] According to its 7 October issue, the ‘civilian army’ had even begun to assign ranks to their comrades, to help establish order and keep the shelters clean and running smoothly. In the boroughs of Camberwell and Lambeth, crowds of 18,000 gathered nightly under the guidance and support of their ‘Shelter Marshall’, Dick Levy, who helped ensure that the shelter stayed sanitised, and settled any disputes. [xiv]
Most publications agreed that a well-informed public would lead to sensible policy. Thus they reported the amount of damage in unbiased, factual terms, the amount of tonnage dropped on cities, ports and factories, and setbacks in regards to production. TIME stated that the Marshall of the Royal Air Force, Viscount ‘Boom’ Trenchard, claimed that these losses were off-setting production operating at full capacity. In an attempt to practice good journalism, the article closes by stating that, ‘Somewhere between the two opposing claims lay the truth.’ [xv]
In the same article, TIME reported the amount of damage done to American enterprises with British branches, the results ‘were not reassuring.’ Most companies cited lack of transportation, downed infrastructure and direct damage as the main reasons for not operating at full capacity. They argued that any delay in production would have devastating effects on Britain’s war effort and do even more harm to those producing non-military goods. Pro-intervention publications made the case for more protection against this damage, and thereby assist American industries doing business in war-torn Britain.
During late 1940 and early 1941, the Blitz was the most covered and photographed event within LIFE magazine’s pages. Its 16 September issue produced a photo of Margaret Curtis, aged 2, covered with bandages. Her mother had been killed trying to protect her. Other initial photos showed the widespread destruction of bombed-out London, and homeless refugees streaming out of the capitol.[xvi] However, no image personified America’s reaction to the Blitz like that which graced the cover of LIFE magazine on 23 September 1940. Eileen Dunne, a small child of three years, was sitting up in her hospital bed, with a bandage wrapped around her head and teddy bear in her folded arms. The caption read, ‘A German bomber whose crew had never met her dropped a bomb on her North England village.’ The image was reproduced throughout the country in a number of propaganda posters, pro-interventionists’ flyers and local newspapers. The photograph was taken by the prominent British photographer, Cecil Beaton. Beaton was instrumental in British efforts to influence US public opinion through the medium of photography. He was posted to the Ministry of Information, and quickly fell in line with their efforts, as Britain’s official wartime photographer, the majority of AP pictures which circulated the US during the Blitz came from his lens.[xvii]
The 23 September edition of LIFE, the first since the Blitz had begun, featured a complete spread of the bombings, including the ‘First Pictures of London’s Agony.’ It claimed that ‘some of the world’s most famous picture-postcards’ had crumbled under the weight of German bombs.[xviii] The editors of LIFE praised the British government for allowing the photos to be published, showing Londoner refugees fleeing the city in ‘scenes painfully’ reminiscent of recent European cities destroyed by German raids. Other images showed bombed-out streets with rubble strewn everywhere; and St. Paul’s Cathedral flanked with smoke and smouldering ashes. The 14 October issue printed a photo of 1,500 US government officials, praying in the Washington Cathedral for the victims of Britain and their families.[xix]
The use of photography as a tool of influence proved to be as important as Murrow’s use of radio. Hundreds of images of the destruction in London and other British cities presented the American public with the inescapable burden of wartime Britain. Most depicted bombed-out London at her worst. However, the images of gutted houses and the British public sweeping away the debris were always accompanied with a caption that claimed the citizens of Britain were happy to keep ‘London functioning’ through mass effort and friendly banter. The 7 October 1940 issue of LIFE displayed a full-page image of a building set alight by an incendiary bomb, with A.R.P. and Auxiliary Fire Servicemen scrambling to get the blaze under control. [xx] The caption read, ‘Every Fire is a Raging Inferno.’ The same issue published a photo of a Mrs Foster, who gave birth during an air raid, with an A.R.P. warden acting as a midwife. [xxi]
Like LIFE magazine, TIME’s coverage of the Blitz rested on the strength of its photography. Weekly images littered the publication, ranging from maps of bombsites to streams of refugees fleeing the city, pushing and carrying their possessions with them.[xxii] Shortly after the Blitz began, TIME focused primarily on the destruction of civil services. But as the bombings intensified, more images started to appear of the shelters and social conditions which had developed during the bombings. Refugees and children were repeatedly shown to the American public, in order to emphasise the more human elements of war. Political and military consequences were shown less, in an effort to force the US public to view the war through the lens of humanitarian struggle.
LIFE and TIME were anxious to justify their support for American aid. Despite publishing open letters and condemnation by leading members of the opposition, LIFE continued to publish weekly accounts and photos of the Blitz. In its 16 December issue, the ‘Picture of the Week’ showed a downed German plane in the fields of rural England amongst a flock of sheep, with the caption reading, ‘A new hazard for English mutton.’[xxiii] In the same issue, Cecil Beaton’s photos of Oxford Street in ruins illustrated how the UK was still able to function amidst the chaos and destruction. The article claimed that the greatest middle-class shopping district outside the US had taken a ‘terrific plastering from German bombs’; but still ‘does good business.’ Despite looking like ‘a city of Flanders’ and ‘masonry tumbling to the ground,’ business was ‘booming.’[xxiv]
The 23 December 1940, Christmas issue of LIFE published an article highlighting the destruction of Coventry; and the new phase of the Blitz, which included provincial Britain. The article included five pages of the destruction, including a photo of a hollowed-out Coventry Cathedral. Despite the widespread death and destruction of the raid, most captions claimed that the city would continue to fight and defend itself against Nazi bombs. The headline read, ‘We’re Ruined But We’re Not Beaten.’ [xxv] National publications rushed to print accounts of the bombings and graphic pictures of the widespread destruction. In the February 1941 edition of Harper’s Magazine, a picture of St. Paul’s cathedral during the Blitz was produced, with the caption, ‘But Still It Isn’t As Bad As You Expected.’[xxvi] Beaton’s photo of St. Paul’s emerging through the smoke caused by the raid of 29 December was reproduced and circulated within the US on a much larger scale than in Britain.
[i] ‘The Revolution’ TIME 16 September 1940, Vol. XXXVI (part I), No. 12, pg. 33.
[ii] ‘A Bad Bombing in Bloomsbury’ Walter Graebner & Allan Michie, LIFE 30 September 1940, vol. 9, No. 14, p. 25-26.
[iii] ‘Battle of Britain’ TIME 21 October 1940, Vol. XXXVI (part II) No. 18, p. 27-28.
[iv] ‘Blitzkrieg Manners’ LIFE 4 November 1940, Vol. 9, No. 16, p.
[v] ‘Death of a Speaker’ LIFE 30 September 1940, vol. 9, No. 14, p. 22.
[vi] ‘R.A.F. Over Germany’ TIME, 9 September 1940, Volume XXXVI (Part I), No,11, p. 21.
[vii] ‘Battle of Britain’ TIME, 16 September 1940, Volume XXXVI (part I) No.11, p. 21.
[viii] ‘Battle of Britain’ TIME 14 October 1940, Vol. XXXVI (part II) No. 17, p. 34
[ix] ‘The Bombing of London’ LIFE 7 October 1940, Vol. 9, No. 15, p. 85.
[x] ‘London Fights Poor Man’s War’ LIFE 7 October 1940, Vol. 9, No. 15, pg. 6.
[xi] ‘Battle of Britain’ TIME 21 October 1940, Vol. XXXVI (part II), No. 18, p. 27-28.
[xii] ‘The Poor of London Try to Find a Night’s Sleep by Seizing the Subway’ LIFE 14 October 1940, vol. 9, No. 16, p. 33.
[xiii] ‘Civilian in Battle’ TIME 7 October 1940, Vol. XXXVI (part II), No. 1, p. 27,
[xiv] ‘Civilian in Battle’ TIME 7 October 1940, Vol. XXXVI (part II), No. 1, pg 27.
[xv] ‘Civilian in Battle’ TIME 7 October 1940, Vol. XXXVI (part II), No. 1, p. 40.
[xvi] ‘German Bombers Go To England To Die’ LIFE 16 September 1940, Vol. 9, No. 12, p. 28
[xvii] LIFE 23 September 1940, vol. 9, No. 13, p. 3.
[xviii] ‘First Pictures of London’s Agony’ LIFE 23 September 1940, vol. 9, No. 13, p. 23.
[xix] ‘Picture of the Week’ LIFE 14 October 1940, vol. 9, No. 16, p. 29.
[xx] ‘The Bombing of London’ LIFE 7 October 1940, Vol. 9, No. 15, p. 92.
[xxi] ‘The Bombing of London’ LIFE 7 October 1940, Vol. 9, No. 15, p.89.
[xxii] Great Britain’s Capital is Smashed from the Air’ TIME 16 September 1940, Volume XXXVI (Part 1), NO. 12, p. 21-27.
[xxiii] ‘Picture of the Week’ LIFE 16 Demeber 1940, Vol. 9, No.25, p. 25
[xxiv] ‘Oxford Street, Greatest Shopping Street Still Does Good Business’ LIFE 16 December 1940, Vol. 9, No. 25, p. 61.
[xxv] ‘Germans Bombing of Coventry, “We’re Ruined But We’re Not Beaten’” LIFE 23 December 1940, Vol. 9, No. 27, p. 8-13.