By Barry Turner
Published by Icon Books
Most Britons are proud of their country’s role in helping to bring about victory in the Second World War. There is nothing to be proud of, however, in the way the government and its agencies ran the first nine months of war, from September 1939 to May 1940 – the period known as ‘the Phoney War’.
It was a period in which staggering official incompetence and the proclamation of thousands of petty rules helped generate a widespread sense of defeatism. It is usually said that nothing much happened in these months. This, of course, is not true. Poland was defeated and wiped off the map. Mass murders and extermination began. The Wehrmacht trained to become one of the most-impressive fighting machines the world has ever seen. And, towards the end, came the loss of Norway and the complete failure of a combined Royal Navy and Army force to save it.
Barry Turner’s Waiting for War provides an amusing panorama of a nation failing to go to war efficiently or effectively. The mass evacuation of women and children from London and other cities revealed massive divisions – not just between city and country, but huge class divides within British society.
Children from some of the poorest families in the country horrified their hosts by not using knives and forks but their fingers ‘like at home’. Two brothers were given a bed to share and lay down on either side leaving a gap in the middle. When asked by their temporary parents what this was for, one of the boys replied, ‘Well, where’s you gonna sleep?’
As the bombs failed to rain down, mothers and evacuees returned in vast numbers. The whole exercise had been a huge waste of time – though it would be repeated more effectively later.
The blackout, policed by officious ARP wardens, created chaos and led to more than 2,500 deaths and 30,000 injuries on the roads in four months. The Establishment revealed how remote it was by ordering the closure of cinemas, theatres, and sporting venues – only to relent within weeks when it was realised how disastrous this was for public morale.
The Ministry of Information was staffed with former barristers, retired Indian civil servants, and various worthies who thought they knew what was best for everyone. They had no sense of how popular culture operated. As J B Priestley put it, it needed to be ‘a little less Lincoln’s Inn Fields and a little more Gracie Fields’.
Meanwhile, bureaucracies that desperately needed reform to cope with war were left unchallenged. There were 1,600 separate fire services across the country, each jealously guarding their independence. They did not come together until the Blitz made it essential.
Turner has nothing very new to say in this familiar territory, and I do not like the fact that he provides sources only for a small proportion of his often extensive quotations. But his book is a reminder of how inept government can be when it is badly led and poorly organised in a period of immense change.
Review by Taylor Downing
This article was published in the January 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.