Media: the 1940 shelter scandal

by Richard North

Last Wednesday, I picked up on the Daily Worker’s reaction to the Fleet Street reporting of the early stages of the London Blitz, publishing as a “taster” a copy of a cartoon which commented on the the game being played by the press.

In this, there is an allusion to the untold story of how, as a matter of deliberate policy, the government refused to provide the people of the East End adequate protection from air raids. But the point of the barb was to draw attention to the fact that the media then actively colluded in suppressing the consequences of that policy, presenting a distorted and entirely untrue picture of events.

The story of the failed shelter policy is told at length in The Many Not The Few, but the new dimension is how the press quite deliberately covered up the failures, to the extent that I felt the story really must be given wider circulation.

It comes to light through the one exception to this cosy conspiracy – the Daily Worker newspaper. Consistently, for several years before the event, it warned about the inadequacies in the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) policies (see below, dated 20 April 1939 – click to enlarge).

As the official organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which had adopted in its manifesto improved ARP, it campaigned for better provision and, when this failed, charted the tragedy as it unfolded in September 1940 and onwards – attempting to bring relief to the people of the East End – until it was closed down by the government on 22 January 1941.

One can accept and understand that the establishment and the media (very often the same thing), should be chary about the Communists – they were, after all, seeking to foment revolution, and were quite open in their detestation of “capitalist warmongers”, “profiteers” and other “parasites”.

But despite that, over the years – and especially in the frenetic events of September 1940 – the Daily Worker’s reporting was largely accurate, relevant and honest. It needed to be for, in taking its anti-government line, it held itself wide open to censure under the Defence Regulations, and a Cabinet which was taking a personal and direct interest in its affairs, seeking an excuse to close it down.

Time and again, its accuracy is shown by reference to authoritative sources, not least then top secret Cabinet papers. Had the newspaper published falsehoods, or had it made errors in its report, doiubtless it would have been closed down much sooner than it was.

Notwithstanding its political bent, therefore, from this distance in time, it is possiible to asert that the paper took a courageous and responsble stance, showing up the other papers that chose deliberatly to ignore the growing tragedy and have to this day have perpetuated a distorted view of events, amounting to a cynical cover-up of quite staggering proportions.

Charting the story here, in a political blog, is not the best format for dealing with the subject, but its implications are as relevant to us today as they were then – in pointing out how easy it is for the media to lie, and then perpetuate a cover-up.

Thus, I will make a start today, and keep returning to the story, building up the picture, over the days and weeks, until the story is complete. I will, at the same time, integrate the material into the Days of Glory blog, which is my running narrative of the Battle of Britain, on which my book was based.

So, where to start? Well, we already did with the cartoon at the top of the page, which makes the point about the predictablity of the tragedy. But what is so telling about the cartoon is its date.

Published on 15 February 1939, more than six months before the war started – and more than 18 months before the start of the London Blitz, it shows that the Daily Worker was not relying on hindsight. The weaknesses in government policy were known, many complaints had been made, and the consequences were entirely predictable, as the cuttings I have used then show.

The first, dated Saturday 7 September 1940, was published the very morning of the day which marked the start of the London Blitz. Uniquely amongst the national newspapers, attention is drawn to the parlous state of London’s shelters.

There was no Sunday edition, so the next cutting is drawn from the Monday, 9 September (above), in which the casualty toll is highlighted, together with reference to the “notoriously cheerful” official communique.

The official policy was to distract public attention by focusing on the air battles, so while, the next day the Daily Worker (above) tells us: “Central London hit in 10-hour raid”, the establishment Daily Express focuses on 47 aircraft shot down during the day battle (below). Only then are we allowed to know that the night Blitz continued.

The contrast was not accidental. The one paper was pursuing the Communist Party line of pointing out the inadequacies of government policy. The other, with its proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, soon to join the War Cabinet, was trying to paper over the cracks with a barrage of propaganda.

Behind the scenes, though, another battle was being played out, one in which the Daily Worker played a central part, and which the other newspapers ignored. Therein lay the real scandal, to which we will return tomorrow.

3 responses to “Media: the 1940 shelter scandal

  1. Robert Groezinger

    What was the Daily Worker’s position on the Hitler-Stalin pact?

  2. Mr Halcombe – correct.

    The Communist disinformation and propaganda compaign against the West was bad enough in Britain and the United States – but it was deadly in France in 1940, where there was not just a defeatist campaign, there were also endless strikes and mass sabotage – thus helping to lead to the French collapse.

    The anti Western (excuses for the Axis) propaganda and disinformation campaign continues today – and some libertarians are involved in it (making excuses for the Empire of Japan and so on).

    The difference is one of motives – the Communists had vicious motives, the libertarians (the libertarians producing pro Axis stuff) do not.

    Indeed reading some of the stuff that Sean Gabb is publishing at the moment (for example a recent piece written by a science fiction writer who I like – L. Neil Smith), it seems to have been inspired by a sense of mischief – almost naughtyness.

    A bit like dealing with ten year old boys – in adult bodies. I suppose all men are little boys at heart – but we should try and control our sense of mischief when writing about serious subjects.