Alarming Reports from George Orwell

In the weeks leading up to the Blitz, Londoners were still learning how to respond to air-raid warnings

George Orwell wrote for the BBC from August 18, 1941 to November 24, 1943. His broadcasts were heard in India, Malaya, and Indonesia.

In the new book,  George Orwell: Diaries (Liveright Publishing), editor Peter Davison writes that following Germany’s invasion of Poland in September, 1939, Orwell offered his services to aid the war effort. (Orwell had fought in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and 1937, where he was wounded by a sniper. He returned to England in July 1937.) Orwell was refused a position in the Home Service Battalions due to his health, which dismayed him. “What is appalling is the unimaginativeness of a system which can find no use for a man who is below the average level of fitness but at least is not an invalid,” Orwell wrote in June 1940. “Any army needs an immense amount of clerical work, most of which is done by people who are perfectly healthy and only half-literate.” Case in point: When Orwell went to the recruiting station, his information was taken by “an old soldier with medals of the last war, who could barely write. In writing capital letters he more than once actually wrote them upside down.”

During the war, Orwell kept a detailed journal; in this excerpt he describes what air raid warnings were like for Londoners in the summer of 1940, before the worst days of the Blitz:


Last night an air raid warning about 1 a.m. It was a false alarm as regards London, but evidently there was a real raid somewhere. We got up and dressed, but did not go into the shelter. This is what everyone did, i.e. got up and then simply stood about talking, which seems very foolish. But it seems natural to get up when one hears the siren, and then in the absence of gunfire or other excitement one is ashamed to go to the shelter.


It appears that the night before last, during the air-raid alarm, many people all over London were woken by the All Clear signal, took that for the warning and went to the shelters and stayed there till morning, waiting for the All Clear. This after ten months of war and God knows how many explanations of air-raid precautions.


For the first 15 seconds there is great alarm, blowing of whistles and shouts to children to go indoors, then people begin to congregate on the streets and gaze expectantly at the sky.


This morning an air-raid warning about 3 a.m. Got up, looked at the time, then felt unable to do anything and promptly went to sleep again…. The fact that at present the alarm sounds all over a wide area when the German planes are only operating in one part of it, means not only that people are unnecessarily woken up or taken away from work, but that an impression is spread that an air-raid alarm will always be false, which is obviously dangerous.


This morning, for the first time, saw an aeroplane shot down. It fell slowly out of the clouds, nose foremost, just like a snipe that has been shot high overhead. Terrific jubilation among the people watching, punctuated every now and then by the question, “Are you sure it’s a German?” So puzzling are the directions given, and so many the types of aeroplane, that no one even knows which are German planes and which are our own. My only test is that if a bomber is seen over London it must be a German, whereas a fighter is likelier to be ours.


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