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What the Devil won't tell you

Life during wartime: What the London Home Front can teach us about our new normal

This column is a bit of a departure, but I think it’s kind of interesting-slash-fascinating and Lord only knows why — I think it’s relevant today.

I was watching a British docudrama/reality TV show of sorts about what life was like in the UK during World War II. A family on the show had to live like a typical Londoner between 1939 and 1945.

I wonder why the specifics of an age of national privation and sacrifice to save lives would inform wisdom today. Another way of looking at is, examining a history of how freedom dies with temporary restrictions. Something about it seems relevant. What could it be?

There's just something oddly timely going on as a new coronavirus variant has been discovered in southern England and the government establishes new restrictions that all but cancel Christmas.

Meanwhile we in the States insist on as little disruption as possible to Cracker Barrel night.

In 1939, the Brits did the damndest thing. They pulled together during a crisis. No one blamed the communist party, no one blamed the George Soros of the day (the Rothschilds or the International Jewish conspiracy). And there wasn’t much in the way of dissent.

On Sept. 1, 1939, German tanks, dive bombers and infantry swept in, flew over and drove through Poland. The war the British and French had sought to avoid was on and it was a rematch of 1914-1918. The cost to the troops would be less than the First World War but the civilian deaths would become far more regular in Europe.

During one 57-day stretch known as the London Blitz, bombers struck every night and the city lost nearly 1,000 people a night to air raids. Or, as some might put it today, 8,599,000 lived every night of senseless government overreach.

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This is just an idea of what the jack boot of government looks like and how social peer pressure gets people to act.

Pet slaughter and bunnies for dinner

Voluntarily, the people of London immediately started killing their dogs and cats. The fear was it would cost too much to feed them. So 300,000 fine family friends were “put down” in the opening months of the war. Now, some of this appears to be panicky overkill. But they did it.

Were they heartless people who hated furry critters? No. See, the other thing that happened was that the government encouraged them to raise, slaughter and eat rabbits. It’s a meat source that easily reproduces and meat was going to be in short supply.

The Brits hated this. Rabbits are cute, furry and warm. The people began to think of them as pets and many simply could not bear killing the family bunny. Others cried as they ate the new family pets.

But this was freaking serious. Bombs were about to start falling. Their countrymen and women would be on the front lines of a life or death struggle.

But hey, at least no one told them to wear a mask. Oh, wait. Gas masks. No one told them to wear a simply three-ply piece of cloth that over their mouth and nose.

Get Ready to Dig

Next up was the air raid shelter. People with back gardens (what we Americans call “yards”), were told to build their own shelter. They would buy it from the government for today’s equivalent of $300.

It gets better. Assembling this thing wasn’t easy or optional. It required digging four feet down into thick London soil a hole that was about 60 square feet. That’s 240 cubic feet of soil but keep the sod. Then they had to assemble the shelter out of corrugated steel panels and cover it with sod.

Some of the people who had to do this were 50 or 60 years old. So neighbors pitched in for some bizarre reason. The UK was a free country. Why would anyone do anything for anyone who wasn’t them? We need to wormhole the memo back to them, apparently.

As many as 15,000 Londoners were forced into the Chiselhurst Caves below the city. They were actually old chalk mines but the distinction was probably lost on the people who had to use them.

Be afraid of the dark

Next up was blackout preparations. They were in no way optional. 

See, when slow lumbering bombers flew overhead, they preferred to do so at night to avoid fast and nimble British fighter aircraft. The bombers used radio navigation aids to figure out where the city should be. A bunch of lights would have been a lot more helpful.

Any house, emitting any light would draw bombers. A family leaving a well lit home on the way to an air raid shelter could face a fine. That light told the Germans "people are over here!"

So all windows had to be covered so no light escaped. Blackout cops would come inspect each house. In this documentary, they found a woman who had done it when she was 17.

Imagine a 17-year-old girl walking through your house and checking over the exterior and fining some of your neighbors (not saying whom, or which country they want to make great again) $300 in today’s money for having a single blade of light escape a single bathroom window.

Early in the war, 80 percent of Londoners were fined.

Could have been worse, I guess. They could have been told to get that mask. Was that house destroyed across the street fake news and a deep state plot?

By the way, this made driving at night incredibly dangerous. In the first months of the war, the number of vehicle related deaths doubled.

This is the thing. Only 70,000 British civilians were killed by German bombs. That’s only about zero point five percent of the population. In the U.S., that would mean 500,000 would die. Hardly an emergency, right?

Getting rational

Next up was rationing.

Ohhh, rationing. Starting in January 1940, a trip to the store meant the grocer would hand you a week supplies and it weren’t much. Every week, each person got 12 ounces of flour, a a few ounces of meat and some lard. It was enough to barely cover a lunch tray.

Families were constantly hungry. Their stomachs churned. Their tempers flared.

Then came a points system. Each person got five points a week. A can of condensed milk cost 4 points. A can of peaches would run eight points. And a family of four would make do with one roll of toilet paper each week.

Water wasn’t rationed per se, but hot water was. A family of four would get five inches of hot water once a week for the bathtub and the water had to be shared to save fuel.

The one thing in abundance was SPAM. The U.S. sent cans of SPAM in huge numbers. Standard Processed American Meat was sweet ambrosia to a country that thinks blood sausage is a good idea.

For the father of the woman editing this column — who grew up in Southampton during the Blitz — it's still comfort food.

All of this was done for the preposterous reason of helping the troops on the battlefield who needed the resources more because their reality was life and death. In other words, a typical London family sacrificed for people who weren’t even them. Suckers. Losers.

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I mean, 90 percent of the soldiers in the Royal Army came back from the war. Odds were they were going to be fine. What’s the big deal?

Home Front at home

In the U.S., 418,00 soldiers were killed during the war. That's just another way of saying the average service member had a 97.5 percent chance of coming back.

That didn’t stop us from rationing, starting victory gardens and drives for material.

There were wage and price controls. Those wage controls are one form of freedom-robbing socialism that saved the U.S. from another. Employer-provided health care took off during WWII because the government wouldn't let companies pay workers more. So business started adding health care as a way to draw more and better workers.

Had they not done this, we probably would have gone the national health care route the rest of the world did. I could make the argument anyway.

Bond Age

And man, was the media in on it.

My early days in journalism were spent in Globe and Flagstaff, where both papers had a tradition of looking back to briefly discuss the news 100, 50 and 25 years before. So part of our assignments, as reporters, was to gather a months worth of these tidbits by reviewing microfilm of old editions.

In both places, from 1943 to 1945, there was only one story dominating local coverage: War bond drives. Yes, everybody was expected to serve the state by buying war bonds. I can not impress enough of you how big of a deal this was.

There zero, nada, zilch letters to the editor reading “I live in a free country. I do what I want.” Probably because that person would at best be a social pariah and at worst get their liberty-loving ass kicked by patriotic neighbors.

The media and Hollywood was publicly shaming people into forking over their hard-earned money for a war that was far away and fought by other people.

I mean, just 2.5 percent of the 16 million who put on a uniform was killed. What’s the big deal? They could have been killed stateside in a gardening accident.

It’s not like 300,000 had died from preventable deaths during a 10-month span. Right?

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Who could imagine such a thing? That might be an actual emergency.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things the Devil won’t.

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Aldwych tube station being used as a bomb shelter in 1940.


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