This day, in 1940, is officially recognised as the start of the Battle of Britain, a fight for control of the skies that would begin the German bombing campaign known as the Blitz.
A bombing campaign against British cities was not unforeseen. Before the war, the Chamberlain government feared deadly raids by the German Luftwaffe, estimating the potential lives that could be lost and the damage that would be done. It was assumed that, within weeks of the war commencing, the death toll would be in the many hundreds of thousands; they planned for the mass evacuation of children, widespread blackouts, and anti-aircraft defences. Yet, these preparations were the “minimum necessary to allay fears”.
Flimsy Anderson shelters were issued if you had a garden and earned less than £5 per week, otherwise you had to pay for one yourselves. Failing that you should shelter under the stairs. Initially, the use of tube stations and underground tunnels were not going to be used as public shelters.
Gas masks were issued but the standard ones were carried in a cardboard box and inferior to those issued to the military and ARP wardens. Their sturdier gas masks came with a separate respirator that was carried in a robust shoulder bag.
In the event, ‘only’ 40,000 civilians were killed during the Blitz; the government had anticipated hundreds of thousands. Their gamble had paid off.
Fast forward to the threat of nuclear war in the 1960s, Harold Macmillan’s government considered that the only serious defence was for Britain to develop its own nuclear deterrent. Bunkers capable of withstanding an atomic attack were built, but only for carrying on the business of government, not for the population at large.
The people were left to follow the government published advice. How to protect yourselves during a nuclear attack: paint your windows to reflect radiation, stay at home, and find the safest place in the house to shelter.
This advice was epitomised in the lyrics of a Dubliners song called “Protect and Survive”:
For they give us a four-minute warning
When the rockets are on their way
To give us time to panic and Christians time to pray
So when you hear the siren’s going
Place your head between your thighs
Whilst maintaining this posture
You can make a final gesture
And with a little muscular pressure
You can kiss your arse goodbye
If Boris Johnson did indeed say “no more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands” as alleged by Dominic Cummings then we could say, if we were minded to be kind, that he was simply advocating a utilitarian decision just like his predecessors did in the 1930s and 1960s.
Chamberlain and Macmillan both flipped the coin and won. Johnson’s coin is now spinning. How will it fall?
Principle source: Edgerton, David. “When It Comes to National Emergencies, Britain Has a Tradition of Cold Calculation.” The Guardian, The Guardian, 17 Mar. 2020, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/17/national-emergencies-britain-government-health-covid-19-1940s-and-50s. Accessed 10 July 2021.