Interesting things I have learned in the last fortnight.

1. Murray Walker commanded a tank in the Royal Scots Greys in North West Europe during the Second World War. Insert your own commentary joke here.

2. In the original version of this picture, LAC Daphne Pearson GC was holding a rifle, not her gas mask. Dame Laura Knight painted the image at a point when WAAFs carrying arms was a controversial issue, so she was encouraged to take out what she had thought was a nice artistic line. (Pearson was, at it turns out, a keen shot, but she won the George Cross for protecting a wounded airman, not shooting anyone).

(D. Pearson, In War and Peace: The Life and Times of Daphne Pearson GC (London, Thorogood, 2001), 96-97)

3. The Tank Museum at Bovington, where I spoke on ‘1914-18 in the context of 1939-45’ is well worth a visit. It would actually be a great place to teach a unit on technology and the Second World War, since you could demonstrate things like the difference in tank construction very easily, and draw out a whole load of fascinating industrial and cultural points. And even better, they have two examples of the Daimler Dingo Scout Car, the complicated gearbox of which got my grandfather a new army job in Egypt.

4. If you graph the data on men registered under the Military Training and National Service Acts 1939-1945, using figures for age, conscientious objection and choice of arm, you get quite interesting results.

(Figures from H.M.D. Parker, Manpower (London, HMSO, 1957), 488-490)

This graph shows the maximum age of men required to register at different points – the British started calling up young men, and then in the crisis of 1940 worked their way up to men up to 40, then reverted to new cohorts reaching the age of 18. It also shows (on the right hand scale) the percentage of those men who were provisionally registered as conscientious objectors at each point. Several writers (drawing on Angus Calder’s The People’s War have pointed out that the rate of objection was lower during the critical months of 1940 than it had been before, but in practice this seems part of a general trend. I’m not sure how important age was – younger men were also being called up at the same time – but it might be interesting to examine whether older men were less likely to claim CO status. No-one seems to have addressed this issue of age (and perhaps of exposure to different writings on the First World War?)

Generally, I think the implication of this data (contrary to the way that the difference between ’39 and ’40 is usually treated) is that conscientious objection was treated by the populace as a matter of faith – in other words, you don’t see a massive spike in objection when the war was going badly

That doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone was an enthusiastic warrior. The other two lines show the percentage of those registering expressing a preference for the Royal Navy (and Royal Marines) and the RAF. My presumption before I looked at this information was that everyone would have plumped for the RAF – nicer uniform, no obligation to serve in the really dangerous bit, no obligation to share a Flower class corvette with 100 other vomiting men in the middle of the Atlantic. So I was a bit surprised to see how many people wanted to join the RN in the middle of the war. Even if you can ‘do just as you please’ in the Navy, why did it become more attractive? Obviously, any expression of choice might be down to a whole range of things – news reporting, media image (thank you, In Which We Serve!), information from family and friends. But I do wonder whether one explanation might be about perceptions of safety. If you compare this graph to those I made earlier about the cumulative casualties across the services, you can see that the Navy got safer after the middle of the war, whereas the RAF carried on getting more dangerous. So this sort of information might contribute to a general discussion of perceptions of risk in Second World War Britain.

For those who’ve enquired about previous graphs, when I’ve got more time I’ll put them all up on separate pages with data).

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4 Responses to Interesting things I have learned in the last fortnight.

  1. Chris Williams says:

    Good post. I’ve just heard that Angus Calder died today. Never met him – though have a number of mutual friends – but I’ll always think of _People’s War_ as one of the classic British history books.

  2. Alan Allport says:

    Hmmm … one problem with this is that you didn’t have to take any risks by joining the RAF. Aircrew were all volunteers, and over four our of five airmen were ground-crew, which was one of the safest military occupations of the war and which usually meant home service to boot (a very important factor, I suspect).

  3. trenchfever says:

    True, Alan, but that’s why I thought it would be interesting to discuss _perceptions_ of risk. And I didn’t claim it was a definite link – like I said, I presumed that the RAF would be more popular throughout. I wonder whether perceptions of pay differentials changed?

  4. Alan Allport says:

    I wonder if there was any gaming of the system – that is, conscripts stating a preference for the RN not because it was their first choice but because they thought they were more likely to get in the Navy than the RAF? (I guess that would be the ‘Anywhere But the Army’ theory …)

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