Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Blitz and its Impact on US Public Opinion
As the impact of the Blitz on US public opinion was being debated in Washington, committees began to appear in great numbers throughout the country.  The two most prominent were the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies (CDAAA) chaired by William Allen White and the American First Committee (AFC) chaired by General Robert E. Wood.  Both committees included the Blitz as the most important part of their campaigns.  The CDAAA certainly showed the bombings in more explicit terms; mainly how they affected American democracy, public sympathies toward Great Britain and how she was defending American interests by acting as her front-line of defense, as well as the reality of American cities subjected to systematic destruction from the air.  The AFC reputed all these claims, adding the Blitz was being over-stated and was part of an orchestrated effort by Anglo-American propaganda organizations.  Furthermore, the anti-interventionists argued that any threat to American defense in the Western Hemisphere was justification to concentrate on hemispheric defense.

The Committee to Defend American by Aiding the Allies was created in the spring of 1940 by William Allen White.  White owned and operated the Emporia Gazette out of Emporia, Kansas and was registered Republican.  However, he supported many aspects of the President’s New Deal and openly supported Roosevelt’s steps towards aiding Britain’s fight against Hitler.
Throughout the summer of 1940, the CDAAA collected more that 250,000 signatures for a petition backing the Destroyers-for-Bases deal and more aid for Britain. As the bombings began to intensify, White stepped up his public plea for more aid to include American bombers.  The committee urged the President to send 25 flying fortresses to Great Britain in early September ‘to be of major help in restricting destruction from the air.’ According to the LA Times, the urgency of White’s appeal to the American public and Roosevelt had been ‘increased’ due to the ‘German onslaught upon London.’  White and the CDAAA had clear plans to include the bombings of first, London, and then all of Great Britain, as justification for their existence. [i]

White and the CDAAA’s push for ‘aid-short-of-war’ quickly developed into a national movement that included 626 branches throughout the country.[ii]  The CDAAA campaigned on many ways to achieve their aims and widen their base.  The ideas of appeasement not only provided the CDAAA with ammunition against the opposition, but also allowed the committee to promote their organisation as the defenders of democracy.  White called appeasement the ‘greatest danger in the country,’ and claimed that it was ‘treason to democracy.’  He argued that such ideas would only lead to a stalemate peace, and although it ‘would not mean that New York or New Orleans would be bombed,’ Hitler would do his best to implement his war of ideology in South America.[iii]

The opposition was an unlikely coalition of pacifists, communists, isolationists, anti-New Dealers, pro-German sympathizers, anti-Semites and leading businessmen.  Together they formed organisations such as the American Friends Service Committee, Verne Marshall’s Minister’s No War Committee, Committee of One, Keep America out of War Congress, and the National Legion of Mothers of America.  However, the America First Committee emerged as the leading anti-intervention organisation with nearly 800,000 members in 650 chapters across the country. 

The AFC was created by a group of Yale graduate students and quickly grew.  The AFC issued a four point program, arguing that ‘aid short of war’ weakened America’s defenses and threatened to involve America in war in Europe.  America should concentrate on hemispheric defense.  American democracy can only be preserved by keeping out of Britain’s war, and no foreign power can successfully attack a prepared United States.[iv] They argued against the Bases-for-Destroyers deal, publicly ridiculed and chastised Lend-Lease as nothing but a ‘dictator bill’ and campaigned heavily against US led convoys across the Atlantic.  They also attempted to educate the American public against pro-British propaganda, including the notion that German bombers could reach American cities. 

Shortly after the AFC began, the retired General and prominent businessmen Robert E. Wood was chosen as committee president.  Based mainly in Chicago, the 61 year-old Sears, Roebuck & Co. chairman immediately unleashed a public opinion campaign to match the Interventionists.  Despite a military background and having served in the First World War in France, Gen. Wood argued that it was not America’s place to fight another European war.  Because of his reputation as a successful businessman and patriot, Gen. Wood’s presence as the AFC’s acting president gathered considerable attention.  Wood toured the country warning the American public against the dangers of war and advocating for a stronger hemispheric defense.  Gen. Wood and the AFC rejected the CDAAA’s claim that Britain was fighting America’s war, stating that although he supported repealing the Neutrality Act in favour of Cash and Carry, he did not believe that America’s security depended on it. 

Less than a month after the Blitz began, Gen. Wood delivered a speech before the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations outlining the AFC’s strategies and choices. In addition to AFC’s established four points, Gen. Wood argued that aerial bombardment alone did not win wars.  Furthermore, he claimed a sustained aerial bombardment on Britain does not guarantee a German victory or even a successful invasion.  With the support of the AFC, Gen. Wood accused President Roosevelt of creating mass panic with comments that a defeated Britain meant German bombs falling on America cities.  ‘The air invasion of America is ridiculous,’ he told the group of supporters, ‘worthy of Hollywood and certainly not the White House.’ Along with the ideology, military strategy and politics, the AFC and Gen Wood argued that it was British-led propaganda like this that was affecting US public opinion.  Regardless of the civilian bombing, wrote Gen. Wood, Britain was an imperialistic world power bent on preserving as much of her empire as possible.[v] 


[i] LA Times, ‘Aid to Allies Group Urges Bombers Be Sent to British’, September 13, 1940, pg. 6.
[ii] LA Times, ‘Aid to Allies Group Urges Bombers Be Sent to British’, September 13, 1940, pg. 6.
[iii] The Chicago Tribune, ‘White Requests Aid for Britain on Wider Basis’, November 17, 1940, pg. ?
[iv] Justus Doenecke, The Battle Against Intervention, 1939-1941, (Kreiger PublishingCompany: Florida, 1997), pg. 37.
[v] ‘Our Foreign Policy’ Gen. Robert E Wood, 4 October 1940 Hoover Institute Box 281

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Blitz and the Rise of the Welfare State

The Second World War had a profound effect on civilian life in Britain.  By May 1940, there had been more civilian deaths in Britain than all three branches of the Armed Services combined.  As Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated, ‘This is a war of the unknown warriors,’ and those unknown warriors were the citizens of Great Britain -the home front had become the battle front.  Trenches were dug in backyards and public parks, cities and villages were fortified, roads were barricaded and factories were protected as if they were military bases.  It quickly became known as the ‘People’s War.’ 

As the threat of invasion became reality in the late summer of 1940, Britain’s government called upon its citizens to ‘stay calm and carry on.’  This included serving in the newly formed civil defenses – a ‘citizen’s army’ that required men and women of all classes to do their part in the impending Battle of Britain.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill told Britons that this would be their ‘finest hour,’ and encouraged anybody who would listen that not to surrender, but show the rest of the world what the people of Britain were made of.  People of all classes began to share common experiences of total war: Experiences that transcended the rigid class structure of traditional Britain.  When the bombs began to fall in late August/early September of 1940, most citizens believed that they would overcome these hardships and a fairer, more equal Britain would be the result.

 ‘The People’s War’ was a slogan that ensured a social revolution within British society: A revolution that was created by Nazi bombs breaking down British social barriers. Throughout the Blitz a massive propaganda campaign was mounted by the British government, aided considerably by American journalists and broadcasters, which encouraged the citizens of Britain to maintain their strength and promised that they would be rewarded for their bravery.  The ‘Spirit of the Blitz’ and ‘Britain Can Take It’ was as manufactured by the Ministry of Information as it was spontaneously conceived in the streets.  So when German bombs stopped falling in earnest in May 1941, Londoners and the rest of Britain began to look forward to the future, holding their politicians to their word.

However, the government was not prepared for Nazi bombers or the amount of people who had been left homeless.  There were not adequate plans for housing for those whose lives were so dramatically altered by the bombings.  As the government scrambled to come up with suitable and acceptable policies, people of London’s East End working class district continued to loose everything.  As early as February 1941, members of the public began openly lobbying the Ministry of Health for better sanitary conditions in shelters and better access to health care professionals.  

The first step towards rebuilding British society was the Beveridge Report.  Named after its Chairman, sociologist and economist William Beveridge, the influential document laid the foundations for what was to become the Welfare State in Great Britain.  The immensely popular document identified the five ‘Giant Evils’ of society: disease, squalor, ignorance, idleness and want.  The committee proposed vast changes and reforms to the current British system, which included the expansion of National Insurance and the creation of the National Health Service.  The ideas that government was responsible for all of its members of society, from the ‘cradle to the grave,’ were moved forward significantly by the events of the Blitz, claiming ‘A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is time for revolutions, not for patching.’

The Report mad three main principles

-Any proposal for the future, while they should use to the full the experience gathered in the past, should not be restricted by consideration of sectional interest established in the obtaining of the experience.

-Organization of social insurance should be treated as one part only of the comprehensive policy of social progress.

-Social security must be achieved by co-operation between the state and the individual.

I personally dont agree with all of the Beveridge Report and neither did most of the Labour party.  First of all, Beveridge was a economist with deep ties to the Conservative party.  His proposal that the  expansion of Natioal Insurance on the grounds that it was a flat rate and not means tested, didnt resenate well with the left.  The idea was that it served more like a State backed 'savings account' that paid out what one had paid in - much like the modern proposal backed by US Republicans for the privitiation of Social Security.  However, the foundation had been laid and the Labour victory in the Summer of 1945 allowed them to implement the report how they saw fit.

The ideas of the Blitz and the Second World War differed from the promise by the government for the soldiers returning from the First World War – ‘A land fit for heroes.’ Instead, Britons wanted a land where everyone had access to a decent education, sufficient health care and accommodation for all.  These ideas were broadcasted and published throughout Great Britain during the months of the Blitz with specific example aimed at those had suffered at the hands of the German raiders.  Patriots such as novelist and playwright J.B. Priestly, the brilliant academic Julian Huxley and even novelist George Orwell all called upon Britons stand up to the German bombs, while reaching out to all members of British society with the end goal of creating a better and stronger society when the bombs finished falling.

Although the Blitz was certainly used by many to promote a united sense of Britishness during a horrific and desperate time, at least it helped to promote the creation of the Welfare State.  The Blitz fostered the idea that all members of British society were responsible for the welfare of all.  The legacy of those ideas, whether manufactured or spontaneously conceived, helped lead to the Family Allowances Act of 1945, National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act of 1946 and 1948, The National Insurance Act of 1946 and 1949, the Pensions Act of 1947 and the National Health Service Act of 1946, all which ensured that those who fought and died in the Armed Services, as well as those in the Civil Defenses, did so for a fairer and more equal Great Britain. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Appeasement, Isolationism and the Road to War

When Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich in September 1938 promising ‘peace in our time’, he was met by cheers and congratulations from a wide range of supporters.  President Roosevelt sent a cable reading ‘good man’ and even fellow Tory critics such as Anthony Eden acknowledged some good had come from Chamberlain’s diplomatic victory.  Nevile Henderson, the British Ambassador to Berlin wrote Chamberlain stating ‘Millions of mothers will be blessing your name tonight for having saved their sons from the horrors of war.’  Chamberlain himself stated that his most vivid memory of the affair were the crowds and crowds of Germans cheering him as he departed Munich. Less than a year later, Great Britain and Germany were at war. [i]  

The diplomatic victory achieved at Munich was the last for Great Britain on her terms, and the last without America’s support.  At the time, Great Britain and the United States were closer together than they were further apart, but the ideology that separated them was the fundamental difference between two of the most powerful democracies.  Great Britain was a colonial empire, with over a quarter of the world falling under the jurisdiction of His Majesty’s Government.  While although the United States had a few colonial possession, they for the most part saw themselves as the defender of freedom and oppression from European imperialism. 

Politically and ideologically, Roosevelt and Chamberlain were not natural allies.  It is well documented that Chamberlain had little faith in America’s commitment to European affairs, stating ‘It is always best and safest to count on nothing from America except words.’[ii]  But the fact is that Chamberlain didn’t want a commitment from the US unless it was on Britain’s terms.  This simple fact is the key to understating Anglo-American relations before Munich.  Chamberlain feared above all that an alliance with the US would undo everything that ‘appeasement’ had stood for.  He knew if Great Britain depended too heavily on US aid, then Britain would be forced to make concessions on global trade, economic freedom and colonial home rule when it came to peace time, famously stating, ‘Heaven knows I don’t want the Americans to fight for us.  We should have to pay for that too dearly.’[iii]

The price that Britain would have to pay for American intervention was what Chamberlain thought made her great – her empire.  However, far from being Britain’s strength, the Empire was increasingly becoming a liability, undermining the government’s foreign policies to contain the aggressor powers.  After Britain and France’s victory in 1918, they assumed control of German and Ottoman possessions in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, stretching their means to the limit. At the same time Hitler was annexing half of Central Europe, Britain was trying to deal with a revolt in Palestine, Japanese aggression and territorial claims in Asia and growing unrest for home-rule in India.  In order to restore the balance and promote the prospect of peace, Britain had to relinquish some of her colonial possessions, and that was not something the British government was willing to do. 

Great Britain’s policy of ‘appeasement’ was created out the necessity to maintain balance throughout her empire.  Chamberlain, amongst others, argued that too firm of a stance in one area of the world might disturb the balance in another.  This national strategy was spelled out in a 1935 Defense Requirement Committee report:

It is a cardinal requirement of our National and Imperial security that our foreign policy should be conducted as to avoid the possible development of a situation in which we might be confronted simultaneously with hostile Japan in the east, Germany in the west and any power of the main line of communication between the two.[iv]

When Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister in 1937, he continued this policy as his own.  The policy focused on Britain’s strength, such as trade and finance combined with decades of diplomatic experience.  Chamberlain never intended this policy as a concession to aggressive nations, but rather to continue Britain’s long history of adjustment and accommodation of conflicting interests, while promoting the prospect of peace and political stability.  However, Chamberlain was never able to successfully implement this policy, because the foreign affairs of the late 1930’s superseded Britain’s ability to produce a ‘Grand Settlement’.

As Professor Richard Overy points out, appeasement failed because Britain lacked the strength to implement it.  Britain was in no position to meet force with force, without upsetting the balance of risk, and subsequently destroying her global dominance.  Regarded as her foremost interest, the protection of the Empire was the direct reason for Britain’s appeasement policy.  The Empire was the cornerstone of Britain’s prestige and world influence, and there is very little evidence that suggests Chamberlain would have relinquished any part of it on anybody’s terms but his own. American neutrality only encouraged the aggressor countries to push the limits of the international community, and as the League of Nations steadily lost the ability to mediate, Britain was left holding the pieces.    


It was America’s natural position to sympathize with the victims of aggression.  However, at the height of isolationism, America’s relationship with Britain was strained at best. The Committee of Investigation of the Munitions Industry, also know as the Nye Committee after its sponsor, Republican Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota, sought to expose the munitions trading industry as the primary benefactor of America’s involvement in the First World War.  Roosevelt hoped to gain support for legislation that would allow him to nationalize the arms and munitions industry: instead Nye produced classified documents from the State Department exposing British and French financial dealings during the First World War in order to strengthen the Johnson Act of 1934. Although the committee found little evidence of conspiracy, the American public grew even more suspicious of British and French intentions. 

Still bitter over the last European war, many Americans saw Britain as manipulating foreign affairs to save her Empire and retain her economic dominance. Britain viewed the Neutrality Acts as evidence that America didn’t have the heart, or the interest in containing Hitler. Events like the Hoare-Laval Pact and the continued policy of appeasement only strengthened the isolationist’s argument and furthered Neutrality legislation.  There was a wide and popular sentiment across America that under no circumstances would the New World again be duped into doing the work of the Old World. 

In a failed attempt to ‘educate’ the American public, Roosevelt stated on 5 October 1937, ‘it seems to be unfortunately true that the epidemic of world lawlessness is spreading.’[v] Roosevelt suggested that aggressor countries should be ‘quarantined’ by those favoring peace.  Chamberlain supported the policy stating, ‘…he has voiced conviction of this country as well as his own.’  Privately, Roosevelt hoped to limit aggressor countries with economic sanctions enforced by an Anglo-American naval blockade, writing a few days later ‘I’m inclined to think that this is more Christian, as well as more political, that we should go to war with them.’[vi]  However, the President’s ‘Quarantine’ speech was immediately chastised by the press and condemned by the public.  Frustrated by the public’s reaction, Roosevelt warned that turning public opinion was going to be difficult, but necessary, writing ‘I believe that as time goes on we can slowly but surely make people realize that war will be a greater danger to us if close all the doors and windows than if we go out in the street and use our influence to curb the riot.’[vii]

Consequently, Chamberlain’s distrust of America grew. Aware of the Prime Minister’s indifference towards the US, Roosevelt told his Secretary of Commerce, Henry Morganthau, ‘We must recognize that fundamentally, he dislikes Americans.’ So when Roosevelt approached Chamberlain in January 1938 with a ‘peace plan’ to establish an international organization founded on the ideals of peace, disarmament and free trade, Chamberlain dismissed as ‘domestic consumption.’  Chamberlain had no faith in ‘collective security’ and feared American involvement would be disruptive just when he felt Britain was gaining the upper hand: ‘They [Germany and Italy] might even use it to postpone conversations with us if we were associated with it – they would see it as another attempt on the part of the democratic bloc to put the dictators in the wrong.’[viii]

Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, protested, declaring he would rather give the dictators a chance to break ties with the West, than risk good relations with the US.  In the end, Roosevelt postponed the plan and Eden resigned shortly after in protest of Chamberlain’s methods of appeasement.  This was truly the low point of Anglo-American relations leading up to war.   

After the failed ‘Peace Plan’, Roosevelt gave up on turning Britain away from appeasement and focused on an ‘unneutral re-armament’ effort.  Re-armament was seen by both Roosevelt and Chamberlain as a deterrent to war: an alternative rather than preparation.  On 28 January, the President went before Congress and asked for funds to increase the armament program solely on the basis that, in comparison to other nations, the US had inadequate land and sea defenses.  Secretary of State Cordell Hull specifically targeted the naval re-armament program arguing that it was the duty of the current administration to do everything possible to prevent being drawn into war because of ill-prepared measures. 

After Munich, Roosevelt re-called his Ambassador to Paris, William C. Bullitt, to assess Chamberlain’s agreement.  Amongst other things, Bullitt expressed the growing anxiety within the British and French public, particularly in London and Paris, of Germany’s intentions of mass aerial bombardment.  Privately, Roosevelt believed that the Allies would not be able to withstand such terror.  He told Bullitt that if Hitler successfully unleashed a campaign of terror, that France and Britain could very well be defeated.  Furthermore, Bullitt told Roosevelt that French Prime Minister wouldn’t have signed the agreement if France had three to four thousand more military aircraft.  The next day Roosevelt told reporters that he wanted $500 million appropriated to the defense budget for the production of military aircraft. 

In January 1939, Roosevelt followed up his promise for an increased defense budget by asking the Senate Appropriations Committee for 500 million dollars for military spending. He also began attacking the neutrality laws arguing the existing laws ‘may actually give aid to the aggressor and deny it to the victim.’  In a meeting with the Senate Military Affairs Committee on 31 January, the President candidly revealed his true intention in aiding the British and French.  He proposed a policy of ‘Cash and Carry’ that would provide significant war materials to the Allies, while denying access to Italy and Germany.  Playing on the fear of the Committee, Roosevelt stated that as it stood, Hitler and Mussolini had a 50/50 chance on defeating the Allies. Although the President acknowledged that this may be an ‘unnuetral’ policy of ‘self protection’, he argued that it was the best way to reduce the possibility of war coming to the United States. [ix]

[i] Richard Overy, The Road to War.  (Macmillian: London, 1989), pg. 89.
[ii] Overy, Origin, pg. 22.
[iii] Chamberlain to Ida, 27 Jan. 1940, NC 18/1/1140
[iv] Overy, Origins, pg. 17.
[v] State Release 1937, No.419, pg. 279.
[vi] Reynolds, From Munich to Pearl Harbor, pg. 38.
[vii] Overy, TRTW, pg. 275-276
[viii] Reynolds, Alliance. Pg. 126.
[ix] Reynolds, Munich to Pearl Harbor, pg. 47.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dennis Dettman June 20, 1949 - February 2, 2011

Tribute to Denny Dettman

I knew a man, a common farmer, the father of five sons,
And in them the fathers of sons, and in them the fathers of sons.

This man was a wonderful vigor, calmness, beauty of person,
The shape of his head, the pale yellow and white of his hair and
beard, the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes, the richness
and breadth of his manners,
These I used to go and visit him to see, he was wise also,
He was six feet tall, his sons were massive, clean, bearded, tan-faced, handsome,
They and his daughters loved him, all who saw him loved him,
They did not love him by allowance, they loved him with personal love,
He drank water only, the blood show'd like scarlet through the
clear-brown skin of his face,
He was a frequent gunner and fisher, he sail'd his boat himself, he
had a fine one presented to him by a ship-joiner, he had
fowling-pieces presented to him by men that loved him,
When he went with his five sons and many grand-sons to hunt or fish,
you would pick him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang,
You would wish long and long to be with him, you would wish to sit
by him in the boat that you and he might touch each other.

                                                                        - Walt Whitman

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster part I

The years between the Blitz of 1940/41 and the V1 and V2 rockets of 1944/45 were commonly known as the lull.  Consisting mainly of nuisance and reprisal raids, this period saw very little enemy bombardment in comparison.  However, on 3 March 1943, Britain suffered its greatest wartime civilian loss of life, when 173 people perished at the Bethnal Green tube shelter during an air raid.  At 8:17 p.m. on March 3rd, the air-raid warning sounded and a large number of people in the Bethnal Green area started to make their way towards the shelter.  According to most accounts, people were entering the shelter in an orderly fashion and without haste, when, without warning, a salvo of anti-aircraft rockets were discharged from nearby Victoria Park.  The loud swooshing sound given off by these new A.A. guns had never been heard before by the people of Bethnal Green and was immediately mistaken for German bombs.  Compounded with frightened people screaming ‘they’re bombs, they’re bombs, everybody get down! etc,’ the large crowd flew into a panic and surged ahead, desperate to gain shelter. A woman fell, either as a result of this surge or as an “unlucky coincidence”, on the third step from the bottom while holding or leading a child, creating a domino effect and within 90 seconds some 300 people were entangled in a mass pile-up. 

Shelter wardens and civilians immediately tried to free people from the entanglement, but with little success.  The lack of light due to the blackout along with the adverse weather conditions made the task even more difficult.  The first ambulance arrived at 8:50 and by 11.30 all of the casualties had been removed from the stairway and taken to various hospitals and churches throughout Bethnal Green and the East End.  In total 173 people were killed, 60 were treated for serious injuries and 10 were released with only bumps and bruises.

The Home Office War Room received a message on 4 March at 0840 stating that a panic had occurred at the Bethnal Green tube shelter the previous night and 178 people were killed and 60 more seriously injured.[1]  Sir Ernest Gower, London Regional Commissioner, also submitted a report on behalf of the Emergency Committee of Bethnal Green to the Home Office on March 4th, stating that the deaths at the tube shelter had been caused by a panic.  He also stated that the panic had been caused by the anti-aircraft guns that were fired in Victoria Park.

There were a number of matters the Home Secretary, Mr. Herbert Morrison, needed to address immediately in regards to the disaster, starting with whether there should be an independent inquiry and who would conduct it.  The Home Secretary argued that; in the absence of any ‘reason to the contrary’, any enquiry should be held in public.[2]  A public enquiry would have a ‘reassuring’ effect and do more to address public opinion; while a private enquiry might suggest the Government had something to hide.  Lastly, and most importantly, there was a huge demand for a public enquiry by the relatives of the victims and the rest of the residents of Bethnal Green. 

Arguments presented by the Home Office for a private enquiry emphasized the issue of home security.  Another argument for a private enquiry was the effect on morale and how the public would react to hearing an account of the events that might include fear and panic. The third argument for a private enquiry was to eliminate the possibility of ‘irresponsible or disaffected local interest and personages’ being given the opportunity to use the unfortunate event as ‘propaganda’, i.e. Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists.   To this point there were three arguments for a public enquiry and three arguments for a private enquiry.  However, the fourth and prevailing argument in favor of a private enquiry, and the most important in the eyes of the Home Office, simply stated ‘We are at war.’[3]

In a statement in The Times on 6th March, Mr. Morrison claimed that the ‘Government will probe this matter to the utmost.’  He expressed his personal sympathies to ‘all of those who have suffered the loss of relatives and friends in this tragic accident’, but was quick to point out that Londoners were ‘tested and hardened’ and were able to ‘bear suffering and loss bravely as any people in the world.’[4]  He also warned the public of pursuing negligence through blame by stating ‘no good Londoner will want to indulge in any scope goat hunting.’  With that said, he tried to reassure the public that the Government had every intention to bring to justice anyone found of negligence, including officials from the Ministry of Home Security.

On the 8 March, the Home secretary met with Deputy Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, Secretary of State, Anthony Eden and other members of the War Cabinet. After a brief overview the previous week’s activities, he referred to the tragedy in Bethnal Green.  The minutes state that the disaster had not been started by panic, but rather by one or two people that had fallen due to blackout conditions, which prompted others to fall, creating a mass pile-up.  Mr. Morrison informed the other members of the War Cabinet that a meeting had been held by the newly formed Victims’ Relatives Committee and they demanded a public enquiry.[5]  The committee proposed to circulate a ‘monster petition’ to put the necessary pressure on the government to hold an enquiry, preferably under the chairmanship of a judge,  to eliminate any possibility of the incident form being ‘hushed up.’ 

According to the minutes, Morrison also favored an enquiry, but felt that it should not be held in public.  The Home Secretary suggested that Mr. Laurence Dunne, a Metropolitan Magistrate, handle the proceedings of the enquiry and after a short discussion, the War Cabinet endorsed his proposal.  Mr. Morrison and the War Cabinet initially favored the conclusion of the enquiry being made public, but only after strict security considerations.  The War Cabinet also agreed that a statement should be made, by the Home Secretary in the House of Commons on the 10th of March.[6]

The following day the Home Office released a statement to the press stating that Mr. Laurence Dunne would be conducting the inquest on the behalf of His Majesty’s Government, and although the enquiry was to be held in public, any sensitive material that could be valuable to the enemy may be held in private.  Furthermore, the press report stated that ‘the results of the enquiry will be published’.[7] 

The Home Secretary addressed Parliament on March 10th and after a brief account of the events of the disaster, he stated
The Government are determined to do whatever is possible to throw light upon the circumstances attending this sad event.  Without in any was assuming that there was negligence in any quarter, the Government wish to be assured, and wish the public to be assured, that any avoidable defect either in the structure and equipment of the shelter, or in the arrangements for its staffing, or for the supervision of those within the shelter, is brought to light so that steps can be taken both in this shelter and elsewhere to minimize the risk of any.

Morrison continued his address by reminding Members of Parliament that:

As many aspects of the incident concern Civil Defense arrangements related to acts of war, on which it is undesirable that information should be given to the enemy, the Government have decided in the national interest that the inquiry shorn be held in private; but the conclusion will, subject to security considerations, be published.[8]     

[1] HO 205/227
[2] HO 205/227
[3] HO 205/227
[4] The Times March 6, 1943/ HO 192/348
[5] CAB 65/33/38
[6] CAB 65/33/38
[7] HO 205/207
[8] HC Deb 10 March 1943 vol. 387 cc668-71

The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster part II

On April 3rd the Home Secretary presented the War Cabinet and the Civil Defense Committee with memorandum W.P. (43) 137 which summarized the conclusion of Mr. Dunne’s inquest. It stated that the main cause of the disaster was a forward surge of shelterers who had been ‘considerably alarmed by the discharge of a salvo of anti-aircraft rockets.’  Mr. Dunne concluded that the crowd was ‘out of hand and frantic with nervousness and worry’ and although ‘panic is not the right word’ there was certainly those that showed a ‘loss of self-control’ which was escalated by additional anti-aircraft fire.[1] 

The Home Secretary also expressed a certain amount of anxiety with the Report’s references to ‘psychological causes’ as one of the main reasons for the disaster.  He feared that it would have had a huge affect on morale and ‘be likely to assist the enemy.’[2]  He felt that that point made by Mr. Dunne would be beneficial to the enemy and detrimental to national security.  Therefore, he prepared a summary for publication, in conjunction with Mr. Dunne and with his approval, modifying these statements in regards to psychological causes of the disaster, but not to ‘criticisms of errors of commission or omission in administration.’  Mr. Dunne agreed to the modifications and the White Paper was subsequently agreed upon as the official statement by His Majesty’s Government.

However, the Home Secretary soon concluded that, by omitting the main cause of the incident on the grounds of national security, the balance of the report had been disturbed and therefore made the Bethnal Green authorities seem responsible for the disaster.  Therefore, the decision to produce the White Paper was abandoned by Morrison and a copy of the Dunne Report was sent to the Bethnal Green Emergency Committee to reassure them that they were free from any responsibility. However, Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act of 1911 prevented the Bethnal Green authorities from making any public statement on the matter.

On the 5th of April the War Cabinet met once again, this time Winston Churchill sat in on the meeting. The main discussion was about Memorandum W.P. (43) 137 and whether the contents of the Dunne inquest should be made public.  Because Morrison had stated in the House of Commons on March 8th that subject to security considerations the findings of the Report would be published, the pressure by the people of Bethnal Green to hold a public enquiry had eased.   The Home Secretary feared that by not publishing the findings of the Report, it would appear that the Government had something to hide from the public. However, it was the view of the other members of the War Cabinet, including the Prime Minister, that publication of the conclusion would draw “disproportionate importance (of the event), and might encourage the enemy to make further nuisance raids.’[3]

The War Cabinet decided that the Government would not publish the conclusion to the Dunne report, but instead the Home Secretary would make another statement in the House of Commons.[4]  Mr. Morrison was to include in his statement to the House of Commons that Mr. Dunne’s report had been fully received and suggestions from the findings had already been implemented and modifications for the Bethnal Green Tube Shelter and all air raid shelter throughout the country, had been taken to help reduce the risk of something like this from happening again.    

On April 8th, exactly one month after his first comments on the matter, Mr. Morrison addressed the House of Commons.  This time he had every intention in making a definitive statement on the official position of the His Majesty’s Government. The Home Secretary stated:

It is impossible to make a fair summary of the report or even the conclusion,                      
without conveying information valuable to the enemy.  The omission of some of          
the conclusion on security grounds disturbs the balance and must have the effect      
of misleading any reader who has not had access to the full text.  In these            
circumstances the Government have regretfully felt bound to decide not to publish           
the conclusion.  It is difficult to judge how far all the factors that contributed to         
the accident could have been foreseen and provided against, but after careful     
consideration I have reached the conclusion that acts of culpable negligence are            
not properly to be included amongst causes.  Certain suggestions were made by    
Mr. Dunne for modifications of existing arrangements which might reduce the      
risk of further disaster of this kind, and action is already being taken to introduce       
these modifications, not only at this shelter but at similar shelters elsewhere.[5]

Sir Percy Harris, Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green and the main advocate for the publication of the Dunne Report, quickly followed up the Home Secretary’s opening comment by asking him “Does he (Herbert Morrison) realize the bad effect there will be on the morale of the people if suspicion arises that he want to conceal the facts that have been stated to the magistrate who made the inquiry?”  To which Morrison replied:

I think the House and the people of the district concerned know me sufficiently well to believe that I would not wish to suppress this report in order to protect anybody.  I would not do that, but I am in the dilemma that if I seek to make a summary, it will not be a fair summary if I eliminate those points on which there are security objections.[6]

Although Mr. Morrison both publicly and privately thanked Mr. Dunne for his thorough and articulate report, he still withheld the conclusion from the public.  Mr. Dunne endorsed the Home Secretary’s decision to withhold the Report’s findings, but harbored suspicions that this was the Government’s intentions from the beginning. 

By July of 1944, the debate over the publication of the Dunne Report began to resurface in Parliament because of a highly publicized lawsuit filed against the Bethnal Green authorities by Mrs. Anne Baker.  Mrs. Baker lost her daughter and husband in the shelter disaster and filed a suit in July of 1943 through the law offices of Messers Dolland and Hearse. Over the next twelve months the details of the incident were heard for the first time in a public court of law.  Mrs. Baker’s claim stated that the Bethnal Green Council was guilty of negligence because they did not provide a safe and proper entrance to the shelter; the staircase was dangerous; the steps were uneven and worn; the light was insufficient and there were no handrails running down the middle of the stairway.  In absence of the Dunne Report as inadmissible evidence on grounds of national security, Mr. Justice Singleton of the King’s Bench Division had no choice than to rule on 18th of July 1944, that the accident was not caused by the guns firing at Victoria Park, but rather the poor conditions of the stairs and the insufficient light.  Mrs. Baker was awarded 950 pounds for her damages in the form of her husband’s death, 250 pounds in damages of her daughter’s death and 100 pounds awarded for the damages of her own injuries, totaling 1,150 pounds. 

On January 19, 1945 the Government agreed to publish the Dunne Report in its entirety in an address made to the House of Commons by the Minister of the Exchequer, Sir John Anderson.  There had already been dozens of lawsuits filed on behalf of the victims’ relatives and survivors.  The Ministry of Home Security issued a statement on March 2nd, 1945, stating that those who were receiving a pension due to damages inflicted by the accident were free to decide whether to maintain their pension position or pursue their rights at law.  However, if they chose to pursue their legal rights, they would forfeit their government pension.  By 1951 there had been over 250 claims filed and the Ministry of the Exchequer made its last payment in January of the same year, bringing the total to L69,613 14. 4.   

The censoring of the Dunne Report essentially did very little to prevent the details of the accident from being withheld from the public.  Mrs. Baker’s case divulged all of the same sensitive material within the Dunne Report, including references to psychological causes, panic and the name of the borough that was held accountable for negligence.  Sadly, the real loser of the entire unfortunate event was the Bethnal Green authorities.  Accused and convicted of negligence due to the censoring of the Dunne Report, the Bethnal Green council were effectively gagged from proving the innocence; something that has altered the history of the disaster to this day.

[1] PREM 4/40/15
[2] PREM 4/40/15
[3] CAB 65/34/2
[4] CAB 65/34/2
[5] HC Deb 08 April 1943 vol. 388 cc 786-8
[6] HC Deb 08 April 1943 vol. 388 cc 786-8