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The Will to Win: British Strategy, Propaganda, and Public Opinion 1940-1942

Editorial Note: As the Second World War Research Group prepares for our 2017 conference on the subject of ‘When East Meets West: The Second World War in Global Perspective’, we present the fourth of five posts based on papers presented at our 2016 conference on '1940-1942: The Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century?'.

A British soldier gives a V-for-Victory sign to German prisoners captured at El Alamein, 26 October 1942. (Source: © IWM (E 18522))

From the Fall of France to the Second Battle of Alamein, it was apparent to Churchill and the British leadership that both immediate British survival and eventual victory would depend on the political and popular will to continue the war in a period when military victories would be scarce, of which the motivation of British troops in battle was only a part. Between June 1940 and May 1941, a cross-Channel invasion was still possible, and the Blitz was in progress. Thereafter, the British faced a severe crisis in the Battle of the Atlantic; the Japanese threat in the Far East became real with the fall of Singapore; and their sole means of attacking Germany directly, the night bomber offensive, was shown to be largely ineffective. Axis air power severely challenged the Royal Navy’s domination of the Mediterranean, including the debacle on Crete and the siege of Malta, while in the Western Desert, after December 1940 the British Army was dogged by a pattern of unsuccessful attacks and repeated defeats. This was also the first British war in which the concerns of a civilian population about loved ones among the troops sent overseas were reciprocated on a large scale by anxieties among the troops over enemy bombing and submarine attacks on civilians.

It is a neglected aspect of the most radical inter-war British military theories that they were based on an assumption of the extreme vulnerability of the mass of the urban working-class to psychological as much as to physical attack. These theories were the central tenet of air warfare in the form of strategic bombing theories, and in land warfare were extended to include a belief that the morale of a mass conscript army would be fragile when compared to a smaller but professionalised and mechanised military elite, and that a country’s civilian morale could be undermined by propaganda as a preliminary to a military invasion. This military lack of faith in the mass of the people was only one aspect of a larger mistrust held by political and social elites in democracy. The experience of mass propaganda in the First World War, the inter-war rise of the demagogues, the radio as a new form of influencing public opinion, and the growth of commercial advertising, all suggested a mass population, whether in uniform or not, that was vulnerable to propaganda and psychological manipulation. For the British, all these beliefs found their apparent final proof in the almost inexplicable collapse of France in 1940.

As part of a programme entitled 'Meet John Londoner', here we see Mrs Galraith, a member of the public, answering a question posed by correspondent Wynford Vaughan Thomas. Mrs Galraith's face is partly obscured by the microphone held by Vaughan Thomas. The interview is taking place in a sunny Victoria Gardens on Victoria Embankment and behind them, part of the Houses of Parliament can be seen, covered in scaffolding. This photograph was probably taken in September 1941. (Source: © IWM (D 4577))

The Chamberlain government had at first emphasised security, secrecy, and the concealment of bad news and its principal concern about the BEF in France was that its morale would be undermined before it got a chance to fight. Despite lacking any surviving First World War records, British propagandists in 1940 had personal experience of being propagandised when younger, and the expansion of the franchise in 1918 and 1928 had given ministers and civil servants a better feel for a mass electorate. The BBC had since 1922 developed a relationship with its radio listeners which gave it a realistic sense of public attitudes. Also, the establishment of Mass Observation in 1937 had shown the value of opinion polling techniques and population sampling.

The British government was also determined to avoid the highly triumphalist style of propaganda used by the Germans. British methods of propaganda rapidly became very close to those of the First World War: the government controlled and censored the content of news while leaving packaging, commentary, and opinion to the existing media outlets: chiefly radio, newspapers, and newsreel films. Measurable public debates did take place during the war on major changes in British strategy, most notably the progressive switch 1940-1943 to night-time city bombing. But these debates took place after the policy had been introduced, and the consequences had been reported and made public. British propaganda campaigns around the Empire were largely bilateral: some Dominion reporters and cameramen worked for their own forces, others as part of an international or imperial fraternity. As in the First World War, the principal British overseas target was the neutrality of the United States. Through a series of Neutrality Acts passed in the late 1930s, the United States had made it illegal for belligerents to conduct propaganda on America soil. The British response to this was a propaganda campaign to influence American opinion that was so sophisticated as to be almost invisible, including the propaganda presentation of the Battle of Britain and the subsequent Blitz.

The chief concern remained British civilian morale. From June 1941, onwards the Minister of Information, Brendan Bracken, presented to the War Cabinet a monthly report, based on assessments which consistently placed British public morale in the lower half of a 20-point scale, other than for three brief peaks: in summer 1941 when the Blitz ended, and the Soviet Union entered the war; at the end of the year with the relief of Tobruk and the entry of the United States; and again, in May 1942 at the start of the Gazala battles. In early 1942 these figures were sufficiently worrying for the Ministry of Information to adopt a style of deliberate exhortation briefly. Most British public discontent reflected political and public frustration at a failure to prosecute the war more effectively. The British public was generally more bellicose than their government, providing a mandate for future escalation. This also led the Ministry of Information to conclude that emphasising German war crimes or atrocities as a propaganda motif was unnecessary, so promoting the myth of the early part of the Second World War as a ‘clean war’ for the British.

A striking photograph of War Savings posters around the base of Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square. The lions at the base of the Column can also be seen, as can a flock of pigeons, flying overhead. The poster tells citizens 'It's up to 'U' to buy War Savings'. (Source: © IWM (D 5598))

After the Fall of France, the British propaganda approach to victories was usually cautious, prompted by a strong sense that with repeated defeats the British people were not only more bellicose than their government, but also more cynical. However, the progressive shift in the grand strategic balance during early 1942 led to the perceived need for a decisive British victory on land in political and propaganda as well as military terms. The symbolism of the Second Battle of Alamein, very important at the time, was as the last great land battle in the West of the British Empire. But the public response remained cynical and cautious, as Bracken told that War Cabinet, ‘now as suspicious as the ancient Greeks of any exultation that seems to challenge fate’. Nevertheless, after November 1942, Bracken discontinued his monthly reports on public morale, seeing them as no longer needed. Over the next three months, public morale and support for the government rose to above 70 percent and stayed in that region for the rest of the war.

This post first appeared at Defence-in-Depth, the blog of the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.

Stephen Badsey PhD MA (Cantab.) FRHistS is Professor of Conflict Studies in the Department of History, Politics and War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton. He was educated at Cambridge University, made a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1995, and joined the University of Wolverhampton in 2007. Prof Badsey is an internationally acknowledged specialist on military-media issues since the middle 19th Century, including the uses of propaganda. His other research interests include land and air-land warfare since the start of the 19th Century, military thought since the middle 18th Century, the British Army since the middle 19th Century, and the wars of the British Empire and its successors including counterinsurgency. He has published over 100 books and articles on military and media subjects, including counterfactual history and the portrayal of warfare by films and television. He frequently appears on television and in other media as a historian and commentator.

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