Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain's Finest Hour, May-September 1940 by Paul Addison and Jeremy A Crang

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Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain's Finest Hour, May-September 1940 by Paul Addison and Jeremy A Crang

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Luci Davin
Reviewed by Luci Davin
Summary: An insight into the thoughts of British people during one of the scariest periods of World War II.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: May 2011
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099548744

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This book is subtitled “Home Intelligence Reports on Britain’s Finest Hour – May to September 1940. It is a collection of reports from 1940 into the opinions, feelings and general state of morale of ordinary people around Britain in relation to the war with Germany.

The Home Intelligence Department had been set up by the government to assess home morale by studying immediate reactions to specific events and to find out public opinion on important issues, including pacifism. One reason for this was to provide a basis for publicity, that is, to plan propaganda and test its effectiveness. The reports drew on various sources, including Mass Observation, a market research style Wartime Social Survey, staff listening to conversations on the way to work, and visiting pubs and other places where lots of people went and talked to each other.

Reports were produced nearly every day, and include feedback from regional offices in Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Tunbridge Wells, Cambridge, Reading, Bristol, Nottingham and Belfast. I particularly liked the fact that there was so much information about views of the war in my home city (Leeds), as so much writing about the war is centred on the Blitz in London. The daily reports are presented in weekly sections with a background account of events that week – events in these months included the fall of France, Belgium and the Netherlands and the rescue of British soldiers from Dunkirk.

The nature of the reports means that they often feel a bit dry to read (these are Civil Service documents!) and rather repetitive. I think I would recommend reading it a bit at a time alongside other books rather than straight through. However, they do offer an invaluable and unvarnished insight into thoughts and feelings about events without the benefit of hindsight - the good, the bad and the ugly bits.

The book also brings home how frightening this time must have been – with the fall of France, British forces (and those from Empire countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Caribbean islands such as Jamaica) were on their own – neither the US or USSR joined the war until 1941. Interestingly, there are lots of references to people’s views on the desirability (or otherwise) of bringing these countries in on our side.

These reports give us a look beyond the popular images and stereotypes – one day morale may be good and people praising the government handling of the situation, the next day they may be sniping and complaining about rations and other people. Attitudes to refugees and evacuation come up very frequently. I was surprised to learn that many people, especially women, were still finding it hard to find jobs at this time, and to read several references to Labour Exchange Managers struggling to pacify angry women trying to get munitions work.

Listening to Britain includes an introduction on how these reports came to be produced, a glossary of people, places and other wartime phrases, and an index which includes place names, so I can look up all seven references to Stoke Newington here, for example.

This book was a challenging read at times, but I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes reading non-fiction about the war or fiction set at this time, and even more to anyone researching and writing work set in this period – how useful to be able to immerse yourself in the mindset of a different era in this way. My rating is for readability, it would rate higher for usefulness to readers and writers seeking to deepen their understanding of this period. Thank you to Vintage Books for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Our Longest Days: A People's History of the Second World War by Sandra Koa Wing uses lots of material drawn from Mass Observation. There are lots of good novels set during this period but one set in wartime Britain and reviewed here at the Bookbag is Run Rabbit Run by Barbara Mitchelhill, a children’s novel about a conscientious objector and his children.

Buy Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain's Finest Hour, May-September 1940 by Paul Addison and Jeremy A Crang at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain's Finest Hour, May-September 1940 by Paul Addison and Jeremy A Crang at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain's Finest Hour, May-September 1940 by Paul Addison and Jeremy A Crang at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain's Finest Hour, May-September 1940 by Paul Addison and Jeremy A Crang at Amazon.com.

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