The Blitz was a time of terror and misery. Almost 100,000 people were killed or seriously injured over eight-and-a-half months of brutal enemy action. For those directly affected, the Blitz starts and ends there, a period of unremitting darkness.
For others, however, the Blitz was a time of possibilities. Shocked out of their rhythms by fear and necessity, ordinary people pulled together and helped strangers. They spoke to each other for the first time. They found common ground amidst the chaos where none had existed before. And at the same time, they broke rules and exploited each other. They were selfish in ways they could barely have imagined. People behaved very well – and they behaved very badly.
The Blitz, after all, was a time of extremes. Extremes of experience, extremes of behaviour, extremes of reaction. In every possible direction. Take the case of Ida Rodway. Ida was an ordinary law-abiding woman in her late sixties from east London. In early October 1940, she went to fetch her blind husband, Joseph, his morning cup of tea. But as the water boiled, Ida changed her mind. She picked up an axe and a carving knife instead. Returning to her husband, she attacked him with the axe. It quickly broke. So she slit his throat with the knife.
Ida was a devoted wife. Joseph’s brother never remembered the couple sharing a harsh word. But they were as truly victims of the Blitz as anybody killed by an aerial mine or a high explosive bomb. In September, they had been bombed out of their Hackney home, and after several days in hospital had begun sleeping on Ida’s sister’s floor. Joseph’s mental state was deteriorating and he rarely knew where he was. They were about to lose their labour money and Ida had no idea how or where they were going to live, or what to do about the bombed house that still contained all their possessions. Hopeless, helpless and overwhelmed, she did what she considered to be the kindest thing for her husband. Charged with murder, she was found unfit to plead at the Old Bailey, and committed to Broadmoor where she died a few years later.
This was truly a crime of the Blitz. Yet the extremes of the period had other, more positive, effects. They changed the attitudes and expectations of Britain’s citizens. And as expectations altered, the fight against Nazism became intertwined with the fight for a better future. Women, for example, were encouraged to step outside the home, to become independent, to contribute actively to the war effort. Yes, they were paid less than men to do their widely varying work. Yes, they were still required to run the home. And yes, when it was all over, they were expected to step aside and allow the men to replace them. But for the duration, their lives opened up in extraordinary ways.
Sexually, too, attitudes and behaviours shifted. In her diary on 7 September 1940 – the day the daytime bombing of London began – nineteen-year-old Joan Wyndham wrote ‘As the opposite of death is life, I think I shall get seduced by Rupert.’ As good as her word, she went to bed with her boyfriend. ‘If that’s really all there is to it, I’d rather have a good smoke,’ she told her diary afterwards. But disappointing or not, her experience was not unusual. Many people had love affairs they would not have had before the war. These ranged from isolated experiences to ‘wartime marriages’, liaisons intended to last for the duration before being dropped – the sexual equivalent, perhaps, of powdered egg.
Many of the freedoms and attitudes that we nowadays take for granted were forged in the Blitz’s dark crucible. The country owes a far larger debt to the period than has been acknowledged. This was the time when the vulnerable in society began to be protected, when a sense of collective responsibility began to form, when plans were first laid for a National Health Service and an Education Act offering free secondary education to all. It was the period when a War Aims Cabinet Committee, composed mainly of Conservatives, delivered a paper declaring that economic, social and educational practices would, in future, have to be overhauled in order to secure a reasonable standard of life for the entire population. The Blitz was certainly a time of misery – but it was also a time attitudes and behaviours changed. And it was a time when the sacrifices made by ordinary British people began to tilt the balance of society in their favour. For better or for worse – depending on one’s point of view – we have been living with the consequences ever since.