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Addressing the ‘Myth of the Blitz’

Aldwych, London, 30 June 1944. © IWM, HU 129151.

Much has been published about the ‘Myth of the Blitz’ in London, and how the official representation of how Londoners ‘carried on’ was often at odds with the truth of nightly looting from bombed houses, crimes committed during the blackout, homelessness and the mass burials of bomb victims. Yet myths are still prevalent in the images which are routinely circulated: the dome of St Paul’s rising intact from the smoke from the burning City, the staged photograph of city gents selecting books in the ruined Holland House Library, the milkman continuing with his delivery round across the rubble after a night of heavy bombing. Images once made familiar will tend to be chosen again and again – picture researchers, publishers, museum curators – all have played a role in the perpetuating of certain stock images.

Holland House Library, London, 22 October 1940, © IWM, HU 131632.

My research enriches and provides a different, more honest version of how the Blitz was experienced. The work also extends awareness beyond the Blitz to the later bombing raids and rocket attacks on London from 1942 to March 1945. I have spent the last three years as an AHRC-funded student with a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership award between IWM and the University of Edinburgh, researching the London bomb damage section of the Ministry of Information Press & Censorship Photography Library archive. The photographs in this archive deepen and broaden the image-driven story of the bombing of London 1940 – 1945 in our cultural consciousness. Uncatalogued, and little known beyond IWM’s photography archive, I am in the privileged position of having worked through some 11,500 press photographs showing the raw reality of the impact of the bombing on London’s civilians.

South London, 14 September 1940, © IWM, HU 131409.

The majority have never been published, as far as my research has ascertained, and so are unknown. They have remained in their original brown boxes and filing cabinets, still retaining their unique classification system. Opening up this archive has been a visceral experience – truly touching the past. It has led me to many London Borough archives to try to identify the locations of the photographed incidents, to museums, private archives and the National Archives, where I have been able to piece together some of this library now archive’s history. It has also led me to individuals, willing to share their memories of life during the bombing in the streets around the IWM’s ‘headquarters’ building in Lambeth Road.

Prints were sent to the MOI Press & Censorship Bureau by editors and press agencies seeking permission for publication if they were unsure whether what was shown in the image or described in the accompanying press caption might contravene censorship guidelines. One print of every photograph submitted – marked with the censorship decisions – was retained to be used as a guiding reference to enable future decisions. In short this library now become archive was a practical working tool during the war.

Image censored as only a percentage of bomb damage could be shown, London, 24 June 1944, © IWM, MOI 331743, D:CAS.

 

The name of the victim was censored (reverse of photograph showing censorship marks, London, 21 February 1944, © IWM, HU 131466.

What does this archive tell us today? It speaks of the destruction of possessions and home, and of the violent loss of life. It shows people in shock and injured and it shows the dead. Photographs also depict how people did ‘carry on’ with their lives, making new homes, seeking shelter, collecting water at standpipes, exchanging news and shopping in makeshift stalls on ruined streets. This archive allows some of the well-known propaganda images to be joined by thousands of others taken of ordinary people in the extraordinary situation of war.

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