When I was quite small in the late 1940s, I recall leafing through some paper bound booklets of quite substantial length, packed full of pictures of the war at home, on land, on sea and in the air. I was riveted by them, fed by tales of how it all felt, for it was very green in the memories of my parents, grandparents and various aunts and uncles.
One, called the Battle of Britain August – October 1940 thrilled me, simply because aircraft thrilled me. Another, called Front Line 1940-1941 became a favourite because it contained a photograph of the lady who was then my nanny, called by me ‘Tatty’. In fact she was called Maude, and was recruited to the war effort in London because she could drive, not a universal accomplishment for women in those days. Thus with the blitz in full swing, Maude drove an ambulance. The auxiliary nurse who went with her as her crew was my grandmother, Margery, and their bond was strengthened by the horrors and fatigue of those grim months. Maude’s bachelor flat was soon bombed out and thereafter, at Granny’s suggestion she lodged with us.
Thus, inside the publication in question, one of the morale-raising booklets published by the Ministry of Information throughout the war, was included a photograph of Maude, complete with tin hat and gas mask, at the door of her vehicle looking anxiously up at the night sky, dramatically captioned ‘It was her business to get there.’ Pity they missed Granny, though! Their worst time, funnily enough was not in the blitz proper but during the V-1 bombardment in late summer and autumn 1944 which unleashed the worst devastation they ever saw and stretched them to the limit. When I was born, with the V-1 threat safely over, she stayed on as my nanny for four or five years before entering the family properly by marrying an uncle who worked at GCHQ in Chislehurst. Astonishing how the war brought people together.
What gives a book popular appeal was the question posed by the officials of the Ministry of Information’s Publications Unit during 1941. The way that it was answered led to the creation of these well-produced and well-written booklets and resulted in sales numbering in the tens of millions. By the end of the war, Ministry books were an established part of the country’s reading. Indeed, by collecting every one of the fairly lengthy series, one might accumulate a complete history of the Second World War from the British point of view.
The Ministry’s internal discussion over popularity began with the publication of a book which proved to be its most successful. The Battle of Britain, written by the popular author Hilary Saunders, was revised by the Ministry after it became a surprise best-seller in March 1941. The Ministry-edition boasted a superbly designed illustrated cover, eye-catching diagrams and action photographs. It sold 4.8 million copies in Britain in the six months following its release. A version published by the RAF lacked pictures and although much rarer comes in at about the same price in top quality condition: £12-£18. The Front Line, one can buy in good condition for between £6 and £10, and indeed I paid £4 for a tatty copy just to scan Auntie Maude in to illustrate this article! At Bamfords we invariably sell them in groups or with other items, but as a rule of thumb about £2-£5 a copy would be the calculator, although retail for copies of most titles in good condition vary from £20 to £40.
The Battle of Britain’s success was followed by that of the 126 page Bomber Command. This paperback was based on interviews with returning aircrew and promised to tell the story of a battle unlike any ‘fought before in the history of mankind;’ it quickly sold 1.25 million copies. Today even a scruffy edition will make £5-£8, a good one £15-£20: 310 today. The rarest one was an unillustrated booklet called How Hitler made the War, which was a cleverly arranged collection of actual foreign office documents 1933-1939 published in extract which speak entirely for themselves. It showed how Nazi Germany reneged on its Pact with Poland, and the final chapter, written by Sir Nevile Henderson (the British ambassador to Germany), is on Hitler and Hitlerism, demonstrating that Hitler had ‘made this war’ and should bear full responsibility. The scale of suffering and sacrifices that civilians were likely to experience persuaded the Government in 1939 that, although the war that Britain had declared against Nazism was widely acknowledged as being inevitable, it would still require explanation, hence this booklet and two others along the same lines. Neither were there any pictures in these – W H Smith told the Government (incorrectly as it turned out), that nobody would want to buy it; How Hitler, was a snip at 3d (1.25p), but such is its rarity that a copy in pristine condition will set you back well north of £30.
The Battle of Britain like its successors, used a mixture of texts, maps and images to create a narrative. They were intended to be cheap, their content was to be ‘dramatic, human, [and] lively’, and they were to be heavily illustrated and drew inspiration from contemporary illustrated magazines like Picture Post and Illustrated.
Generically these tomes were and are called ‘Official War Books’. Titles like Coastal Command, His Majesty’s Minesweepers (around £22 now), Roof over Britain and Transport Goes to War (which I loved, as it was mainly about trains, another enthusiast I enjoyed as an infant – £10 today) aimed to ‘tell the British war story’ by providing insight into particular parts of the war effort. Each book (of which in some cases there was more than one impression, sometimes with a different cover) was based upon at least one of the main themes of Ministry propaganda, eg. the laudable ‘the projection of Britain as a progressive, efficient, equalitarian democracy’; they were also regarded as a good way of influencing opinion abroad.
By 1943, the series had sold in excess of 20 million copies, and it was not unusual for individual titles to sell more than a million, hence the low prices today, making them a really accessible modern collectible as well as a rewarding one.
Sir John Reith, Minister of Information in 1940, perceptively declared on taking on the role, that news was the shock troops of propaganda, and that propaganda was the more effective when it told “the truth, nothing but the truth and, as near as possible, the whole truth”. As the war went on Official War Books were issued to various parts of the Empire to keep Britains only allies between June 1940 and December 1941 firmly on side and many were issued in a variety of appropriate local languages, too.
He was right, and so was the Ministry of Information. The publication of these fascinating paper-bound books did have the intended effect. Battle of Britain was read by over 75% of the population during the war, and the rest are thought to have averaged around 55%. There are still plenty out there, so get collecting!