Wednesday 20 May 2020

Mark Ellis on Coronavirus Britain v Wartime Britain

In recent weeks I’ve seen several media comments seeking to contrast our current Coronavirus troubles with those endured on the Home Front in World War 2. These have been mainly prompted by the rapid escalation of Coronavirus deaths, with the reported number now exceeding that of UK civilians killed during the Blitz in 1940/41. The two crises are of course very different but I thought it might be useful to set out some facts and figures to enable informed comparison.

As of the date of writing, there have been nearly 35,000 UK virus deaths according to the public health authorities. 32,000 deaths were caused by bombing in the Blitz and there were 87,000 casualties. The total number of war-related civilian deaths was 67,000.

The London Blitz lasted for eleven weeks and the city was bombed every night bar one. Other cities and towns were also subjected to heavy bombing. These included Swansea, Cardiff, Bristol, Southampton, Plymouth, Birmingham, Coventry and Liverpool. While the 1940/41 Blitz represented the worst phase of the Luftwaffe bombing of Britain, sporadic air attacks continued throughout the war. In 1944 London again came under heavy bombardment, this time from German V1 (and later V2) missiles, or as they were better known, ‘Doodlebugs’. These killed over 6,000 people and caused more than 18,000 casualties.

In addition to civilian casualties, over 384,000 members of the armed forces lost their lives in the war.

The wartime population had some deprivations which we in lockdown don’t have and vice versa.

Wartime food options were very limited. Many basic products, such as sugar, meats, fats, bacon, and cheese were rationed. A number of other products, though not rationed, were hard to find. Tropical fruits such as bananas, oranges and lemons were like gold dust. By contrast during the current crisis, apart from the hoarding panics seen in the early days, most food and other domestic products have been in plentiful supply. There is one point of food shopping we have in common, though – the requirement to form long queues.

Apart from a few weeks at the outset of the war, cinemas, theatres, dancehalls and other places of entertainment were open for the duration. We appear to have a while yet to wait for them to be open to us. It should, however, be remembered that the wartime population had few forms of home family  entertainment. The radio, playing cards and reading were pretty much the extent. People from then would be astonished at our world of Netflix, Spotify, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Wartime pubs and restaurants were open. Restaurant fare, except occasionally if you were very rich, was limited, but if you wanted a change of scene from home, you could get it. We cannot, and it seems we have some weeks to wait before we can.

In the war, as now, major sporting events were put on hold. However, ordinary sport carried on during the war years. Professional league football was suspended between 1939 and 1945 but where possible, other non-professional competition continued. Inter-service football matches were popular and drew large crowds.  Rugby and cricket continued on a similar basis. There were no limitations on the sporting activities ordinary people could engage in, other than where facilities had been put to alternative wartime use. Most golf clubs stayed open. Some new rules were introduced to accommodate the war. For example Richmond Golf Club introduced a rule that ‘in competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play’.

Parks have been a godsend to many of us during the lockdown. In WW2 most remained open, but some areas of parkland were unavailable as they were taken over for military use. In London there were gun batteries in Hyde Park and Holland Park. Other park space was used for allotments and air raid shelters.

Petrol was rationed and many people mothballed their cars for the duration of the war. Traffic on the roads declined substantially then, as it has during lockdown. Shortages of petrol have not, however, been the problem for us.

The war had a terrible impact on the economy. It took a long time for Britain to recover and the last repayment of US and Canadian war debts was only made by the British Government in 2006. The economic impact of the virus is clearly going to be substantial, although one hopes much more short-lived.

So there are points of similarity and points of difference between then and now. The biggest overall difference, however, is that the crisis faced by the British people in the war was an existential one. Defeat would have meant the loss of liberty and the British way of life. Tragic as the impact of the pandemic has been for many, it has not placed the existence of the country in peril.  

A Death in Mayfair by Mark Ellis (Published by Headline)
December 1941.  On a bright Sunday morning in Hawaii, Japanese planes swoop down and attack the US naval base at Pearl Harbour. America enters the war and Britain no longer stands alone against Hitler.  Conditions on the home front remain bleak. In a city pulverised by the Blitz, with rampant crime and corruption and overstretched police resources, life for Scotland Yard detective Frank Merlin continues as arduous as ever.  In the week of Japan's aggression, the shattered body of beautiful film star Laura Curzon is found on the pavement beneath her Mayfair apartment, an apparent suicide. A mile away, the body of a strangled young girl is discovered in the rubble of a bombed-out building.   Merlin and his team investigate, encountering fraudulent film moguls, philandering movie stars, depraved Satanists and brutal gangsters as they battle through a wintry London in pursuit of the truth.

More information about Mark Ellis can be found on his website.   He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter @MarkEllis15

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