“You do your worst and we will do our best.”

Prime Minister Winston Churchill speaking of the Blitz on July 14, 1941

“if to-night the people of London were asked to cast their vote whether a convention should be entered into to stop the bombing of all cities, the overwhelming majority would cry, “No, we will mete out to the Germans the measure, and more than the measure, that they have meted out to us.”

“The people of London with one voice would say to Hitler: ‘You have committed every crime under the sun…. We will have no truce or parley with you, or the grisly gang who work your wicked will.’

“You do your worst and we will do our best.”

 

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The Home Front in Britain during the Second World War
The scene at Aldwych tube station 1940. Seventy nine tube stations were used as air raid shelters by Londoners, but they were not proof against a direct hit. (Photo courtesy Imperial War Museum)

In the beginning months of the Blitz, the government was opposed to people using the tube stations as bomb shelters. Most would not withstand a direct hit from a heavy German bombs and none of the stations had sanitary facilities to handle the crowds. Nonetheless, people were scared, one can hardly blame them, so people crammed into the Underground and the government gave way and began to improve the facilities in the tube stations. Most of them smelled like latrines in the early days before sanitation was improved. In less decorous neighborhoods, diarists record people copulating on the platforms.

If you have ever been to a tube station in London you can imagine how uncomfortable it must have been to be sleeping on the actual tracks themselves and the wooden blocks supporting the tracks. (Curiously known in England as sleepers).  The government began to install bunks and added Air Raid Wardens and Police to the stations to represent authority. Some people rarely came out of their tube shelters. They would go to work and go to their place in the tube where they had made friends and small groups had formed.

Besides being in the stations when the trains were not running, people would be in them when the trains were running. Passengers would glimpse thousands of people going about their daily lives oblivious to the rocketing underground trains which make one hell of a noise.

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People asleep on one of the platforms at Piccadilly, one of the busiest stations on the line. The train has stopped running since people are sleeping in the rail cars and one man, in the foreground, curled up on the floor of the car. (Photo courtesy of Life Magazine).

 

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A young woman plays a gramophone in an air raid shelter in north London during 1940.

A young woman places the gramophone needle on a record to bring some light relief to an air raid shelter, somewhere in north London. The rest of the shelterers appear to be enjoying her choice of music. In the background, one woman can be seen knitting, as others chat to pass the time. (photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum).

 

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Bomb Damage in London during the Second World War
Office workers making their way through debris as they go to work after a heavy air raid on London. (photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)

I think this would have a depressing effect on me if I passed this going to work. One of the trials mentioned in every diary or memoir I have read about the Blitz mentions how very tired everyone was. No one could sleep during the day when they were at work and at night the bombing and pounding of the anti-air craft guns kept people awake till the wee hours.

 

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View along the River Thames in London on 7 September 1940 towards smoke rising from the London docks after an air raid during the Blitz.

(photo courtesy of USNA from the New York Times Paris Bureau Collection.)

Losses to the German Luftwaffe during daylight bombing were such that the Luftwaffe had to eventually stop attacking during the day. Perversely, this gave Fighter Command a much needed break to rest pilots, bring new pilots up to speed, repair and refit aircraft and air stations, and deliver new planes.

INVERGORDEN MUTINY FORCES GREAT BRITAIN OFF THE GOLD STANDARD

 

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New York Times headline 9.21.31

In my previous posts on the Invergordon Mutiny of the Royal Navy, I wrote only about the effects on the Royal Navy. Like so much in life, the mutiny didn’t take place in isolation from other events nor was it pushed off the front page by more sensational news. That crews on some of the storied ships of the Royal Navy had mutinied was the most sensational front page news around the globe.

The world was in the middle of the Great Depression and news of instability in the largest, most admired navy on the globe caused people to worry—a lot. As hard as it is to picture this now, in the 1930s the British Empire stretched around the world. It was the largest empire in history and Great Britain was the most influential country in the country in the world. While the United States had the larger economy in spite of the Depression we pursued a policy of isolationism so we were not nearly as engaged around the world as the British. Hence what went on in London was far more important than what went on in Washington or Berlin or Paris. Then, as now, London was the center of global finance.

Since the Royal Navy was thought of as one of the bedrock institutions which underlay the power and prestige of the monarchy and the British government, for its main fleet to be in the hands of mutineers was shocking. I think a good analogy in our time would be if the US Marines refused to follow orders to simply carry out their everyday duties.

 

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New York Times 9.20.31

Financial markets do not like uncertainty. The mutiny caused the London stock market to sell off and forced the British Empire off the gold standard. Prior to what was then known as the Great War, all British currency had been backed by gold, a policy which minimized inflation and made for “hard money.” And being backed by gold, you could actually exchange your paper currency of the British pound into gold. (The United States dropped the gold standard in 1932)

Because the British Empire was the leading economic force in the world, they dictated this exchange rate system which pegged all the major currencies in the world to a fixed rate exchange relative to the price of gold. This system broke apart because of massive deficit spending by Great Britain and other Western governments during the First World War.

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Winston Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924

Twelve years later, in 1924,  Churchill entered the cabinet of Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin as Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1925, the Baldwin government decided to re-instate the gold standard–a disastrous economic decision. Often the re-institution of this policy is blamed on Winston Churchill.

In actuality, Churchill was vehemently opposed to this action and was supported by much of British industry and several of the major commercial banks. Senior officials in the Exchequer, the Governor of the Bank of England and the “establishment” in general demanded this return to the gold standard.

On 21 February 1925, Churchill wrote one of the senior officials in the Exchequer:

“The Treasury has never, it seems to me, faced the profound significance of what Mr. Keynes calls ‘the paradox of unemployment amidst dearth.’ The Governor [of the Bank of England] shows himself perfectly happy in the spectacle of Britain possessing the finest credit in the world simultaneously with a million and a quarter unemployed.”

As strong a personality as he was, Churchill could not stand alone against the wishes of the powerful officials of the Exchequer, the Governor of the Bank of England, the upper classes in general and his colleagues in the Cabinet. So the British government re-instated the gold standard and the system of fixed exchange rates in 1925. This policy tightened the money supply at the beginning of England’s slow economic recovery from the war.

Tightening the money supply slowed the growth of the British economy relative to the economies of the other major powers such as the US. Over time this policy resulted a slow strangulation of the British economy. One of the worst problems caused to the economy by the return of the gold standard was it overvalued the British pound by as much as 25% against other currencies and made British exports more expensive.

This caused the British industry to lose a number of key markets throughout the world. For an economy dependent on exports, this was calamitous. The policy was even more foolish since it blunted the other main economic policy of the government which was to re-capture export markets lost during the war.

Winston Churchill well understood that tightening the money supply through the re-imposition of the gold standard would strangle the British economy. His tutor in this matter was none other than the economist John Maynard Keynes. It is Keynes who advocated an increase in the money supply in a recession/depression. Whenever you hear or read the expression “Keynesian policy” or “Keynesian stimulus,” this is a reference to the British economist John Maynard Keynes.

The massive expenditure by the US Government during World War Two, a classic Keynesian stimulus policy, is what finally dragged the United States out of the Great Depression. (Obviously not everyone agrees with Lord Keynes as he was later known after his elevation to the peerage).

As the years went on, the re-imposition of the gold standard at its parity to the British pound prior to the war, inflicted major deflation in Great Britain. This  forced the Baldwin cabinet into cutting in government spending—much of it taken from social welfare programs which were keeping more than a million members of the British working class from absolute penury.

In 1929, the Great Depression struck, causing a massive dislocation of the economies of the industrialized world. In spite of this, the British government refused to drop the gold standard so as to maintain their high credit rating in international markets. The Baldwin cabinet was forced to make more cuts in government spending—including severe reduction of the military and naval budgets— or estimates as the British call them. This was done to balance the budget without thought as to how and get out of the slump caused by the re-imposition of the gold standard. At this time, Churchill resigned from the Cabinet.

London market sells off

New York Times 9.20.31

 

In 1931, the crisis came to a head. Gold was flowing out the country and the British government had been forced to borrow from the US and the French to defend their currency at parity to gold. Government expenditure on pensions, unemployment, benefits to veterans rose while revenue declined. A balanced budget would be almost impossible to create. Yet Baldwin was determined to do so because he felt it would damage Great Britain’s prestige to go off the gold standard. This was not a wise decision.

To maintain the gold standard the British had to reassure foreign creditors in order to stem the outflow of gold–which they could not afford to continue for much longer. So against all sensible advice,  government released a balanced budget in 1931. This was accomplished by increased taxes and massive cuts in social spending. This exacerbated the iniquity of the British class system and just as bad, cut military estimates to the bone and more. The budget passed and the savage cuts took effect. This worsened the Depression in Great Britain.

These massive cuts made in military budgets were never made good nor were military expenditures increased until the mid-1930s. Because of the foolish decision to cut the military budgets of the services so much, critical measures such as rebuilding and enhancing the defenses of Malta, of Singapore and even of the Royal Navy fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow, were all to have painful and bloody consequences to the British in the Second World War.

What makes these decisions so damning to the government of Stanley Baldwin is experts at the time predicted the under investment in the military, especially the Royal Navy, would have bitter consequences.

Said Churchill of the Baldwin government after he had been pushed out of the cabinet:

“The government cannot make up its mind, or they cannot get the Prime Minister to make up his mind so they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent.”

 

 

 

The Man Who Saved Western Civilization

 

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Winston Churchill in 1941 as Prime Minister of Great Britain and leader of the British Empire.

“In war: resolution, In defeat: defiance, In victory: magnanimity, In peace: goodwill.”  WSC 1946

The photograph, which epitomizes Churchill’s defiance of the Nazis and his determination to defeat Hitler, has become the iconic photograph of Winston Churchill. It is speculated that this photograph, now in the public domain, has been reproduced more than any other photograph in the world.

Yousuf Karsh, a Canadian of Armenian descent, took this photo of Churchill on 30 December 1941 after Churchill had gave a speech to Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa.

 

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When World War Two began, the British Empire ruled one-fifth of the population of the globe and controlled one-quarter of the land area of the world including all of present day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Malaya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Namibia, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, UAE, Oman, Aden, Qatar, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Singapore et al. It is the largest empire known to have existed in history.

Writes Max Hastings in Winston’s War, “Churchill was the greatest Englishman and one of the greatest human beings of the twentieth century, indeed of all time.”  It is hard not to agree with this. Over the last two years I have been reading and reading to prep myself to write my next novel which will about a Royal Navy officer in World War Two. To give a sense of verisimilitude to the narrative I have steeped myself in English history of that time and Churchill towers above everyone else.

This wasn’t a surprise to me and won’t be to you but what did surprise me in re-reading so much English history is how much Great Britain and the Empire depended on his leadership during the early years of the war. “Everything depended on him and him alone. Only he had the power to make the nation believe it could win,” wrote Cabinet Secretary Sir Edward Bridges.

I don’t think I have read a memoir from an Englishman about World War Two which doesn’t make the point over and over that it was Churchill’s dogged determination, infectious optimism in public and his magnificent oratory, which kept Britain fighting alone for almost two years. The British had never imagined in their worst nightmare that they would end up fighting the Germans alone. They always presumed that France, with a far larger army, would be in the war against Germany with them.

I have downloaded a number of Churchill’s speeches and listened to them over and over to catch the mood of the era. His defiance, his wit and his frank admission to the British people of what they were going to go through never cease to impress me. More important, is the what I can only describe as the awesome inspiration his speeches possess. Almost seventy years later, his words can make my hair stand on end and vitally communicate the sense of urgency he felt.

The most somber of his speeches is quoted the most so I will include just a few lines here that send chills down my spine. After France collapsed and surrendered to the Germans, Churchill stood in front of Parliament and said, “the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization…” (by which he meant Western civilization)And, of course, he was right. And the British won this battle by themselves. We did almost nothing to help them at that point.

Despite the library of books written about him, Churchill remains a mystery. “Opaque,” as Max Hastings wrote, “because he wished it thus.”  When Churchill took center stage, he was well aware he was playing the role of a lifetime and he played his role with greater skill than any actor in all of history. He knew that everything he did would be studied and dissected down to the last jot, so while he lived in the brutal present, he always had his eye on posterity. It is one of the reasons he refused to keep a diary or journal. He did not want people to know what he thought at different times during the war.

By all logic the British should have negotiated with the Nazis while they were still in a position of relative strength. But thank God they did not. And the reason they did not was a man named Winston Churchill. We owe him a debt of gratitude which can never be repaid. In the entire history of the United States, only two people have ever been made honorary citizens of the US: the Marquis de Lafayette and Winston Churchill.

 

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 This photograph was taken in Boston during Churchill’s lecture tour in 1900 about the Boer War. (Photo courtesy US Library of Congress).