Volume 6 1939~1941

Doc No.

No. 102  NAI DFA Secretary’s Files P12/14/1

Memorandum from Denis R. McDonald to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)

DUBLIN, 24 June 1941

I am giving you, as requested, an account of some of the impressions which I gathered during my recent three months’ spell of duty at the London Office. It would be difficult, as you will, of course, appreciate, to extract sound general conclusions from individual impressions derived from experience of any one area of Great Britain (even though that area included London) and gathered at a time when world events are so full of shattering surprises that most people have realistically ceased to speculate about the future. I shall therefore confine myself to giving you an idea of the reaction of the people with whom I came into contact to war conditions in general, and of the trends of opinion among such people in regard to the war and in particular in regard to ourselves.

The predominant cause for worry in the present situation from the point of view of the average Londoner is the vulnerability of his city to the attacks of night raiders. There are now no day-raids worth speaking about. Alerts sounded after dark are, however, a frequent occurrence in the London area. These warnings very often come to nothing as the raiding planes have places up-country as their objectives and pass over London without dropping bombs. The warnings in the London area are often followed by a heavy anti-aircraft gun barrage and unless bombs are being dropped in one’s immediate vicinity it is difficult to discriminate between the sound of guns being fired and bomb explosions. The clanging of fire-engines in the streets is sometimes the best indication that bombs have been dropped in a nearby district in the midst of the barrage. When, however, a full scale attack on the London area is in progress, there is no chance of the listeners’ deceiving themselves that the bomb explosions are only the sounds of gun-fire. Night raids usually last for hours, the worst being from nightfall to dawn, but at present one can normally expect that the raiders will go away at dawn.

I have been through three of the heaviest raids that London had since the war began, and I have had the unpleasant fortune of hearing the sound of bombs rushing to earth within a hundred yards or so from where I stood. It is a very unnerving experience.

Hundreds of thousands of people of the poorer classes take shelter in the tube stations all over London each night whether or not a raid is likely to occur (wet or misty weather seems to afford some immunity from night-raiders) and they are in their places by an early hour. Bunks are now available for a limited number, but I think the majority must be those whose places are on the floors of the passages and on the staircases. The shelterers must remove themselves and their bedding out of the tube stations by about six o’clock in the morning, and a new occupation is provided for men who undertake to remove the shelterers’ suitcases and bundles for the day and bring them back at night to the appointed places. Most of the shelterers are happy enough to have permanent sleeping places in such deep shelters as the tubes and the company they afford each other is a consolation to them; they hear neither the guns nor the bombs, and may sleep well, provided their consciences or hard pavements do not perturb them. The aged, however, who form a large proportion must feel the hard- ship. I understand that the incidence of disease among the London troglodytes has been remarkably low and not at all due to their conditions of living under- ground. Another winter of it, combined with lowered nutrition (due to severe rationing) might produce bad results, but on the other hand the amenities for night shelterers in tube stations are being improved by degrees and such improvements will mitigate hardships.

The great mass of Londoners, excluding those who have the opportunity and facilities for living outside the metropolitan area at night, sleep in comparative danger in their homes. These people have grown accustomed to sleeping in their beds until they are awakened by heavy anti-aircraft gunfire – the alert by itself is not always sufficient to waken sound sleepers – and when the gunfire seems to be getting intense they may go to such underground shelter accommodation as they have available to them and resume sleeping if possible, or else they just lie in bed waiting for the sound of bombs. That, at all events, was my experience of the people in the hotel where I stayed, and I believe it is safe to assume that the same is true all over London. The most jittery people in the hotels are the Jews, and they are incurring the ill-will of their neighbours for their depressing effect on others during raids and their lack of active participation in the essential civil defence services. Anti-semitic feeling is strong in London and one is made to think how much indignation towards the Jews in Germany during the last war must have contributed to their present fate in that country. However in Britain still a Jew (Montague Burton) clothes the armed forces and a Jew (Salmon/Gluckstein, of Lyons & Co.) controls their food supplies. Apart from the Jews, the majority of the people seem to be rather brave in regard to the bombs. I am inclined to attribute this bravery however to the phlegmatic outlook of the British people. The idea which seems to shake most their complacency is that of their homes or places of business being gutted by bombs. It is the thought of material loss that drives them closest to a critical view of their country’s part in the present conflict.

A great many Londoners spend their nights outside the metropolitan area. I decided to do so myself after my experience of the big West End blitz of the 16th April. I came to the conclusion on looking about at that night’s damage that if one’s building is struck there is a very poor chance indeed of escaping even if one is underground. So I moved out to King’s Langley, a village in Hertfordshire not far from Watford. (Incidentally this village is situated in a part of the country which is rich in historic associations. It was the birth-place of the English Pope Adrian.) The countryside around King’s Langley is comparatively peaceful at night that is when one grows accustomed to the sound of planes passing overhead – they seem to follow the L.M.S. main line towards destinations up-country. The danger that bombs will be dropped is not so great in this part of the country though some did fall while I was there causing indiscriminate damage. It is a fighting zone in which there are no anti-aircraft batteries and the night-fighters in pursuing the raiders sometimes caused the latter to jettison their bombs in this region. There are numerous factories in the vicinity of King’s Langley including Dickinson’s paper mills at Apsley, the Ovaltine factory, Abbot’s Shoe factory where the drive for war production has displaced normal activities in favour of the production of aircraft mechanism. None of these factories has been hit by bombs.

This brings me to one of the main points that experience of aerial warfare teaches one. To be really effective in destroying the productive potential of a target area, bombing from the air must be not only intensive but very wide-spread. Bombing technique has recently been improved to enable the raiding plane to drop sticks of bombs which fall to earth within twenty or thirty yards of each other thereby causing intensive damage. But owing to the improved ground defences, raiders over Britain rarely fly lower than 15,000 feet and accurate bombing of specific objectives seems to be out of the question. It is only the highly organised widespread type of raid which causes the really serious damage, as for instance in the London docks, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Swansea, Bristol and elsewhere. The blitzing of the ports is certainly the most effective blow which German night-bombers can give to Britain.

It has been computed that about 50% of the ‘City’ of London has been destroyed. I can well believe that from what I have seen of the damage in that area. It is truly appalling. But I think that, apart from temporary commercial dislocation, even such a serious blow has not interfered much with Britain’s major war production effort. The West End raid of the 16th April in which upwards of 800 German planes were said to have taken part was to my mind a complete waste of German effort, the damage being mostly caused to commercial buildings. Such a raid must have required a great deal of close organisation. Taking it that each plane had a crew of 6 men on board and a ground crew of about 10 men at least, it must have required the services of at least 12,000 men to launch the planes apart from the effort required to load the planes with hundreds of tons of bombs and to prepare them for action. It was not worth it from a military point of view, in my opinion. It was, I think, significant that the German raiders did not return to London the following night even though many fires were still burning brightly enough to show splendid targets to the raiders. The West End raid was said to be a purely reprisal raid, of course, following as it did the alleged British bombing of historic buildings in Berlin.

The civilian population who are not accommodated in the tube stations suffer terribly in the raids on the East of London, and the same is true of the port towns where shelter accommodation is, I understand, still inadequate. My impression was that, on the whole, the civilian population were badly looked after. This impression was confirmed by conversations I had with an Irish surgeon who is on the staff of St. Olave’s Hospital, Rotherhithe S.E.16. His view was that the medical organisation for civilians was poor and ineffective. The best medical officers were stationed, idle for the most part, in military and naval barracks while the care of civilians was entrusted to a badly staffed and poorly organised Emergency Medical Service. A spirit of hard work and co-operation did not exist among the medical officers and my friend had a very poor opin- ion of the spirit of his English colleagues. He was astonished to find, for instance, after many months of work in Rotherhithe that he and a South African had been the only members of the staff who remained in the hospital on nights when not technically on duty. His colleagues made a special point of getting out of the dock zone where the hospital is situated at every opportunity.

The working class Cockney is in my opinion the finest type of Britisher. I have seen and spoken with quite a few such Cockneys during air-raids and their courageous phlegmatism is impressive. Most of those I met had served in the war of 1914-18 and they seemed quite devoid of the bitter patriotism that one might expect in them. In fact I was more than once surprised at their breadth of view in regard to the war and the realism with which they deplored the circumstances in which the war had been forced upon them. There is not much of the will to be in the conflict among such people and they are worried about their jobs and their homes and their future. They are critical too of the organisation for civilian relief. One man I spoke with informed me very bitterly that on the morning after the big blitz of the 16th April people seeking assistance had to wait for many hours for the help and advice they sought because the administration centre for public relief had been bombed out. It seems the relief organisation was in extreme disorder for days on that occasion. The working-class people too feel the pinch of the rationing measures acutely. The better-off classes who can eat in restaurants may supplement their rations with as much as they can buy. I have heard many bitter complaints on this score.

In general, the outlook of the mass of the people did not appear to me to favour the war, even though of course the comments I have heard invariably ended up with the suggestion that they were not going to let ‘Jerry’ get away with it. But the people are beginning to be convinced in spite of their own propaganda that the German superiority in equipment and organisation were to be reckoned with very seriously indeed. I think that the defeats in Greece and in Crete disturbed public confidence considerably and seemed to produce a great deal of silent depression. A cartoon which appeared in the London evening papers after the withdrawal from Crete had been announced was significant of public resentment of the failure of British military policy. It showed an army war-lord and a naval commander wading ashore (an island showing across the sea in the background) and looking in a startled manner over their shoulders at a swarm of Nazi planes in the sky: the caption was ‘Take your umbrella with you next time.’

As I have said, the people are having it brought home to them that their leadership and in large measure their military equipment may be outdated. In the train to King’s Langley, I have heard a soldier telling his friends of his experiences at Dunkirk. He seemed much impressed by the German method and equipment. One point he made was that the British soldier carries his equipment mostly on his shoulders with his respirator strapped in place on his chest. When he became weary his back bent forwards with the weight of the equipment and it was difficult for him to walk erect when tired. The German soldier, on the other hand, carried the weight of his equipment mostly on his belt and could straighten his back with ease. The German respirator was carried at the side leaving the soldier ’s chest unencumbered. The advantage of this arrangement was that the German soldier could find cover more easily than the British because the latter had to find a hollow place which would accommodate the respirator on his chest. Furthermore while the British infantry were obliged to march long distances on foot, their German opponents arrived at the scene of battle in lorries and in remarkable order. My outspoken informant also told his friends that many of the officers at Dunkirk had been shot by their sergeants.

This brings me to another topic on which I have heard a good many gratuitous opinions, namely the old school tie in the armed forces. Genuine respect for the tradition is at a low ebb from what I could see and hear. A Worshipful Master of a Masonic Lodge with whom I became closely acquainted in King’s Langley expressed to me complete lack of confidence in the type of young man who was being called upon to lead in the life and death struggle facing Britain, and he seemed to think, after his experience of the last war, that the partial encroachment on class distinctions which the war has brought about in Britain was but a passing phase, on the assumption that Britain would not go under, and that a reaction such as that which took place after the last war would negative the ‘good results’. This Masonic friend of mine was very critical of the state of affairs. His view point, however, was somewhat parochial and he filled me with stories of the stupid conduct of people in the Home Guard who would not work under the leadership of others and such matters. His stories, however, led me to think that organisation or the lack of it in the civilian defence services must be a thorny problem for the authorities particularly in rural England. He informed me that the evacuation of women and children from London to his district had caused many a heart- break. He himself had had to take a group of dirty children who, during their stay, caused an internal injury to his very charming wife when she interfered in a fight between them. As a means to an end he became a billeting officer for a few weeks and got rid of the children by sending them elsewhere.

From my conversations on these topics and from my experience too of the unsatisfactory working of the ‘voluntary’ fire-watching schemes in London, I have lost my former belief in the good citizenship of the average Briton.

I should mention at this stage that the Worshipful Master most kindly brought me through the countryside in Hertfordshire in his car at week-ends and I saw a good deal of the country. From a hill on Dunstable Downs (close- by Whipsnade) I saw at close quarters the R.A.F. beam radio station at Ivinghoe. I am attaching a diagram showing a very clever scheme of camouflage in operation there.1 I should probably have never noticed it had not my friend asked me pointedly if I saw anything interesting. Incidentally I was struck by the large areas in this part of the country in which no defence works were to be seen, and the numerous very suitable landing places afforded by open level fields. It would, I presume, be unsafe to be trapped into supposing on such thin evidence that an aerial invasion of Britain could succeed. It would, presumably, have to be accompanied by a sea invasion in large forces and the coastal belt of Britain is strongly defended. The theory of defence is probably based on the effective potential of the Home Guard towards mopping up parachutists before they got very far. But the experience of Malmo set people thinking. The strength of the defence in Britain as compared with that in Crete was popularly held to be that the R.A.F. were swarming in Britain and had bases close by the scenes of possible operations, while in Crete they had had to remove themselves. Three weeks ago, most people in Britain believed or rather feared that invasion would come. The circulation of the Government pamphlet containing advice on what to do in the event of an invasion, coming as it did just after Crete sharpened the expectation of an invasion before the end of the summer. The outbreak of war between Germany and Russia will be a wonderful relief to Government and people alike – they had begun to despair of such a deus ex machina.

I visited Oxford one Sunday. The town is mostly occupied by evacuees from London and the colleges are bereft of students most of whom have been called up. Balliol and one or two other colleges are occupied by the military authorities. There is no evidence at all of bombing in Oxford, but the sound of training planes is to be heard every minute of the day. There are a number of large R.A.F. training centres in the neighbourhood. The R.A.F. people impress one with their appearance of physical fitness, and the standard of intelligence seems high. It cannot be so high in the Army. I was sitting at a table in a hotel at Oxford with an Army Officer (First Lieutenant) and his wife. The wife was doing a crossword puzzle and she asked her husband what was the meaning of ‘decade.’ The First Lieutenant said that he was not sure but he thought it meant an awfully long time! One rather hefty student of Exeter College, Oxford, whom I met in the ‘Mitre’ told me that he was going up to London the next day, but, he added quickly he didn’t intend spending the night there. Frankly, he said, he didn’t like it while there was a possibility of a blitz. I mention these as instances of very usual types.

You will, no doubt, feel that it is time I came to the point of opinion in Britain towards Ireland. I felt constrained, of course, to wait for unsolicited opinion about us from those with whom I came into contact. To raise the ‘Irish question’, as they still call it in Britain, is sufficient to invite suspicion and to limit any free expression of views. One comment which I overheard in the train is indicative of a large mass of uninformed opinion concerning Ireland. Some people were discussing the disastrous blitzing of Swansea early in May. One man who seemed to know Swansea very thoroughly said that during the previous week six spies had been caught there. Two of them were found signalling to aircraft with lights at night and were seen by a villager who had them arrested. The arrest led to the discovery of the four others. The question was asked whether the spies were British, and the man replied that one was a Belgian and five were Irishmen, some of whom had worked in Swansea most of their lives. The only comment made by the man’s companions was that ‘these Irish are an unintelligible crowd.’ There is a vast lack of correct information concerning Ireland and consequently a corresponding lack of sympathy which might very easily be won if it were given half a chance to develop. Among the more informed people, however, I detected quite a remarkable appreciation of our viewpoint even on such thorny questions as the Ports. The principal comment of my Masonic friend in King’s Langley on the subject of our neutrality was that it was a ‘damn fine thing to hold on to if the politicians in Britain and America don’t make it impossible.’ I made the passing acquaintance of a resident in King’s Langley who worked in a newspaper office in Fleet Street. He was a very interesting fellow, and assuming that I was British he gave me his views very freely. It was the night after Dublin had been bombed. ‘You know’, he said, ‘I don’t blame the Irish or the Turks for keeping out of it. If there is a fight in the next street and we think we can keep out of it by not turning a corner we all do so very gladly. I have a lot of admiration for the way the Irish are behaving even though it does not suit ourselves. So far as we are concerned, there is not one bright spark anywhere. We may win eventually – I hope we do – but one never knows how the cat will jump.’

I found many people very interested in Ireland and very glad to hear the Irish point of view. I found the Worshipful Master, whom I referred to above, to be rather interested in legal subjects and I presented him with a copy of the Irish Constitution which he loved to discuss.

I had a friend in King’s Langley who was the Captain in charge of the local Army Dental centre. He was a student with me in U.C.C. He told me that the British authorities had a very good impression of the training displayed by the army reservists from Ireland who joined the British Forces. I heard from another source that a recent enquiry into Army organisation had produced a report which stressed the fine qualities of the British N.C.Os. many of whom as it happens are Irish. My dental friend seemed to believe strongly that any armed interference with us by Britain would give rise to deep resentment among the large number of Irishmen who hold key positions in the British services, as well as among the rank and file who are serving because it suits them or because they were conscripted. This view was expressed to me in several other quarters besides.

Interest in Ireland was, of course, very greatly stimulated by the question of conscription in Northern Ireland while I was in London. I had to do a great deal of explaining to such friends as I had made to help them to understand our viewpoint. Their reaction was favourable in the main, and I think that it was with considerable relief that the people learned that the conscription issue was dropped. Our victory in this and other matters has gone far towards installing a healthy respect for us in the rather slow-witted British mind. Mr. Churchill’s change of face was fortunately obscured by the news of the sinking of the Bismarck.2.

[signed] D. R. MCDONALD

1Not printed

2The German battleship Bismarck was sunk by the British navy in the Atlantic on 27 May 1941