So, what are you working on?

I’ve spent the last week or so working on tabulating British armed service and civilian casualties over time during the Second World War, as a means of getting to grips with telling the story of the war as a whole. Quite aside from the depressing nature of the topic – I do feel a bit like Brian in the clip above – it’s not easy: getting hold of good consistent data is hard, not least because the different services defined casualties in different ways, and the files at the PRO are often frustratingly incomplete. But I still think it’s a worthwhile project, and one that I’ll keep posting on as I work at it. When I’ve got the tables sorted out, I’ll get the QM History Dept to put them up on its research webspace.

Here’s the easy bit of it – there is a Home Office file that details civilian casualties by month. So here, to compare to Brett’s First World War equivalent, are those figures as a graph.


Here, killed is those killed outright or died of wounds, and seriously injured entails admission to hospital. Whilst this doesn’t give a day by day account, which even if I had the information would probably be too complex graphically, it does show the concentration of British civilian casualties in the winter of 1940-41, with a second bulge when the V weapons started to hit in 1944. In between those, it could be argued that more civilians were killed each year in traffic accidents than by enemy bombs (the document in which I found the Vice Chief of the General Staff making that just that argument is worth a post in itself). Looking at it quickly now, I wonder whether we can draw any conclusions from the small number of children relative to adults?

What working on all these figures – but particularly the service ones – has made me realise is just how politicised the issue of casualties was, internally and externally. I’m toying with the argument that this itself explains some of the differences between published sources for the two wars. What I want to do when I’ve got good national figures up is to compare these to the experience of individual civil and military communities.


6 Responses to So, what are you working on?

  1. Chris Williams says:

    The impact of Barbarossa was immense, wasn’t it?

  2. […] in 1939. I presume that these were passengers on ships lost at sea, and it suggests that the graph here should be relabelled as ‘Civilian Casualties from Enemy […]

  3. Very interesting graph.

    I am surprised at the number of children killed and seriously wounded, my impression was that most children had been evacuated from the larger cities in Britain and that maybe one in 10 had drifted back during the phoney war.

    Is it possible to work out how much impact Operation Pied Piper actually had on the number of child casualties?

    Is there any evidence that once the blitz started and there was a very real danger children started to be evacuated again?

  4. trenchfever says:

    Evacuation was potentially a colossal failure, in the sense that the uptake in 1939 was low in many areas, and that so many children drifted back. There were several additional evacuation schemes, and undoubtedly a reaction in the summer of 1940, as the threat from bombing became more apparent. The risk of invasion also caused largescale evacuations from coastal areas.
    Even so, we can see cases where long term evacuation didn’t really occur. Clydebank in Scotland, for example, had a relatively high take up of evacuation, with 3,400 children out of about 7,500 registered departing at the start of September 1939, and another 600 by the end of the year. Within two months, however, half those evacuated had returned, and by Christmas another quarter had done so. By the end of 1939, fewer than five per cent of Clydebank’s children were still away from home – a figure which still held true in March 1941, when the area was hit with two nights’ devastating incendiary bombing. (W. Boyd, ‘The Parents and Evacuation’, W. Boyd, ed, Evacuation in Scotland: A Record of Events and Experiments (Bickley, ULP, 1944), 120).
    Figuring out whether evacuation ‘worked’ would be very difficult, I think, given the variables involved. But perhaps the most important thing to remember here is that the biggest influence on the total number of casualties was probably German bombing.

  5. I guess you could look at the pre-war demographic ratios of adults:children and see if they are reflected in the casualty figures (assuming that most deaths from bombing were normally distributed across the urban population).

    It would also be interesting to see if there was any change in the adult:child ratios once the blitz had started and compare the differences between the blitz of 1940-41 and the use of V weapons in 1944.

    It is difficult to identify any such trends from your graph. Although the numbers of male:femail deaths in 1940-41 look almost equal while there seem to be slightly more female deaths in 1944.

    Any chance of you posting the raw data as a .CSV that can be downloaded into a stats package or spreadsheet?

  6. trenchfever says:

    ‘Assuming that most deaths in bombing were normally distributed across the urban population.’ I think that might be a big assumption in itself, particularly since that population changed during the war (nightime trekking as well as official and unofficial semi-permanent evacuation). I think that ‘Fighting with Figures’ does assign deaths by age group, but my copy seems to have gone walkabout since I last wrote about this.
    It’s a good idea to post some of them as a .csv. Will have a go at that when I’ve done some more writing.

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