Meeting public expectations

I came across a little-known story about the London Blitz yesterday, best summarised in this article by Londoner Simon Webb, or if you’re impatient of more reading, in his YouTube video on the subject.

It seems that it was realised, by the scientists and politicians of the 1930s, that the experience of World War 1 air-raids on London showed there was no effective ground-based anti-aircraft technology. “The bomber will always get through,” said Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in 1932. As eminent a scientist as J.B.S. Haldane pointed out that anti-aircraft guns had killed almost as many civilians as the bombs themselves in the First War.

Yet nothing much was done to fix it, and when German air-raids started in 1940, the “Something Must Be Done” principle meant that the knowledge fromexperience was abandoned, and WW1 naval guns set in concrete were deployed by the government anyway, using HE shells on unreliable timer fuses. Later, even larger naval guns were deployed. Londoners felt that “Jerry is getting a taste of his own medicine.” But Jerry wasn’t – they were.

Trying to hit small moving targets like bombers, ten seconds of shell-flight away, meant the initial success rate was one aircraft down for 20,000 shells fired, though technical improvements reduced that to 1:8,000 by the end of the Blitz.

However, since the main purpose was to maintain morale (or rather, perhaps, to stop civilians abandoning London’s industries and damaging the war effort), Home Guard units with no idea how to aim were deployed to set up on trucks near public shelters, so the actual hit rate remained low. On one internet thread Ian Hogg writes:

The Admiralty had found some WW1 self-propelled guns, which were three-inch weapons fitted to high-angle mounts on the backs of motor lorries; they were tasked to drive around London’s streets during air raids, stopping whenever they saw a public air-raid shelter and loosing off some rounds.

In reply, one Bryan White recalls:

It may have been one of my father’s friends (50 years ago) telling me that his job (part of the Home Guard?) was part of the team firing one of the AA guns in London. They didn’t have a clue how to aim it, but didn’t really care as all they were concerned about was keeping up morale for the local citizens. The regular Thump-Thump let them know (think) that the planes weren’t getting away with the bombing.

The net result was that few planes were actually hit, but by encouraging pilots to fly higher the German bombing was rendered more indiscriminate. An important factory is a small target requiring careful aim – but if that fails and you have to maintain altitude, a city is a target you can’t miss:

There were complaints from outlying suburbs that German bombers were jettisoning their weapons early, rather than pressing on to central London.

Meanwhile, what goes up must come down. Lumps of British anti-aircraft shrapnel fell on the cities when the shells exploded, and HE shells themselves exploded on falling to the ground when the time-fuses failed as they often did. Accordingly it is estimated that around half the Blitz deaths (or c.25,000 in London) were from British anti-aircraft fire.

My own father used to tell me that he initially volunteered for anti-aircraft work, but because of his experience in telephony he was drafted into signals work in the RAF instead, and ended the war in a rather safe spot in Nigeria. In retrospect I’m glad that, though he may not have killed any Nazis, at least he didn’t have the blood of English civilians on his hands.


The lesson for today is, I think, to understand the psychology behind this rather tragic waste of civilian life. In purely strategic terms, perhaps keeping industry going and winning the war was the aim. Perhaps one can make some moral case that sparing factories at the expense of civilian lives serves the greater good, but it’s something of a “total war” calculus.

But at a more venial level, the government simply did not dare “follow the science,” and admit that in practical terms anti-aircraft barrage of that type was not only ineffective, but counterproductive. It was actually the public who insisted, or so the government assumed, that “Something Must Be Done.” As the cynical saying goes on, “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore this must be done.” It was not that vox pop weighed the situation, and chose the survival of the targeted factories above their families’ lives. It was that they misjudged the situation, thinking that they were being defended, whereas in fact they were being mortally endangered by the very measures taken, for very little advantage.


The comparisons to COVID are legion. The emotional gut-reactions of the fearful may be seen on any comment page on COVID articles in the press (though it has to be said that they appear to be a minority in the comments, if not in the opinion polls).

It is common sense, these civilians insist, that the more you lock down the nation, the more lives will be saved. But they have not read the research papers showing that lockdowns make little difference to COVID mortality, may increase deaths among the vulnerable, and probably favour the emergence of the new strains SAGE worries about so much. Hence, the government is blamed by these folks for not locking down harder and longer, in blithe disregard of the proven disastrous effects of lockdowns acknowledged even by the WHO, at least on a good day.

What we need is more testing, they assure us – despite the impossibility of saying precisely what is to be gained by it at this endemic stage of the game, other than guaranteeing a permanent casedemic.

Yesterday morning I noticed a typical comment blaming the continued existence of the crisis on the selfish people who mixed in parks and on crowded beaches last summer, instead of dutifully staying indoors and becoming more deficient in Vitamin D. Yet by the same afternoon the headlines were about how a SAGE scientist has revealed that there was not even a single outbreak of COVID traced back to the much-photographed crowded beaches. I knew that was the case for Devon, from our own local data, but it seems there was not a single case across the whole country. Not one. I also knew, from visiting our local beaches, that masks there were almost non-existent and social distancing distinctly casual, and from my hotelier friend that the carefree attitudes continued within “hospitality” venues too.

Beaches are not special – it follows that the whole policy of forbidding outside gatherings, so devastating to the economy and to individual well-being, was built on sand, except where it has become concreted immovably into the national psyche. Maybe you’d be wise to have held off from football matches and rock festivals, but the evidence has been in since last summer that pub gardens, park benches, beauty spots, and even demonstrations against the status quo would not endanger life one iota, at least from Coronaviruses. That this is consistent with former pandemic guidelines should not surprise us.

The really sobering thing about the Blitz anti-aircraft story, though, is that it is not a classified secret only now being revealed to a shocked public. Rather, it was well known during the war, newspapers covering stories of weddings being bloodily disrupted by exploding anti-aircraft ordinance. But it was conveniently forgotten after the war.

Maybe that, too, parallels our situation: a minority of blockheads insists that the policies we are following really are protecting us from disaster. A big majority of the population, knowing they can’t do anything to change government policy because objections are effectively forbidden, shrug and get on with life as best they can. Only a small percentage of people questions rationally, and vocally, whether a policy that does more harm than good is really worth continuing. The government, and their Groupthink advisors, have too much skin in the game by now to backtrack.

Most of those groups will have no motive for reflecting whether things could have been better managed once the show is over. There was no public inquiry into unnecessary deaths in the Blitz of World War II. Instead, it was more convenient to discourage too much reflection in favour of the construction of an heroic myth of the “Spirit of the Blitz” – a myth, incidentally, that has been milked for all it is worth over the duration of the COVID crisis.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in History, Medicine, Politics and sociology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply