Birmingham Air-Raid Media Reporting Mystery

Reading declassified records from the National Archives (formerly The Public Record Office) in Kew in Surrey and comparing them with old editions of newspapers, I've now resolved this issue.

It's admitted at the time that the policy was subject to many mistakes, ignoring, new factors and inconsistencies daily. So this is a BROAD explanation;

In September 1938 (the time of the Munich Conference) several Defence ("D") Notices were issued to the media by the government, stating certain facts were not to be mentioned in the event of war.

One of these (Number 3/AR) stated NO location of air-raids could be named without explicit authorisation. This was (in the hope) Nazi spies in the UK, or the Germans themselves etc, could not be sure which targets the Luftwaffe were hitting.

Back-sliding began, mostly under media pressure, and shortly after the outbreak of war the system was made voluntary! Regional censors were appointed by Whitehall. Journalists were asked to submit controversial articles in advance (many did not).

When the raids started, vague locations like "a Midland town", "a north-west town" or "a west Scottish town" etc were used for all places in newspapers.

The media pushed to be able to name London, and got that - but just "London", no area of it.

Initially, if a place was obvious from the air during the day (e.g. it had a large river the Luftwaffe simply followed or had no other urban area near it - or it lay on the coast) and if at least one Luftwaffe plane made it back to tell the tale and visibility was good so any bomber was able to tell where it was, it was usually named.

So when raided during the day this city was not named, but places like Norwich and Dover were (if one plane or more had definitely escaped back and it wasn't foggy etc). However that ban was by no means unique to Birmingham.

Of course daylight raids were soon mainly abandoned in favour of night ones later in 1940 (on a scale which dwarfed the day raids of course). So the rest of this article deals with that.

Birmingham had no unique policy of not being named when raided at night either.

London, at times Coventry and (arguably) Liverpool did, more liberal. However throughout the war the Birmingham night policy was the same as that for Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle, Cardiff, Bristol etc. (This will make getting any specific apology for Brum hard).

By November 1940 more and more factors made the London policy more liberal (some factors - the east was getting the brunt and people there were convinced "London" in newspapers meant just them but the west and other parts were having bombing and this had to be mentioned so East-Londoners would know and be somewhat pacified - the US media were wanted in London but censoring them was antagonistic and this might reflect in their reports and no point having different censorship for the then neutral-US and here, which would just annoy the UK media to boot - it was discovered that the air-raid preccaution technology in all trans-atlantic telegraph offices logged every London air-raid alert and automatically sent it to every telegraph office HQ in New York, Germany got them that way. It was decided to do nothing about this rather than stop all reports to the US, so allowing all air-raid alerts in London to be mentioned).

On 14th/15th November when Coventry was massively hit it was named chiefly in a failed attempt to incite the US into the war (it's raids began in August 1940 the week after Birmingham).

Later in November 1940, Birmingham and some other cities (Bristol and Southampton) were named by mistake having had massive raids after Coventry (again this to try and incite the US by an over-enthusiastic air-marshal in a radio speech to the US). It was assumed to be ok immediately after that but senior figures quickly over-ruled the decision and the ban on naming those cities was put back on.

Many more factors followed;

(e.g. the mistaken namings had helped the RAF bomb Germany in an unforeseen way because the Nazis newly named some German cities being hit to try to keep the US out of the war by making it look an equal battle - pressure from city leaders - not being told led to major rumour-mongering by the public, who blocked phonelines ringing friends/relatives to check on them etc - the Luftwaffe could find cities at night but then British boffins would jam the Luftwaffe navigation systems. Then the Germans would solve that in an ongoing cat-and-mouse game).

Then more media pressure meant retrospective naming when mentioning only civilian-area damage in large towns and cities was allowed after a month provided the exact day of the raid wasn't given (so the Germans wouldn't know which raids had missed and which ones hadn't). These weren't headlined but were in small paragraphs and usually weren't carried at all as "yesterday's news" didn't sell. So much for newspapers getting that concession.

Ten days had to pass before small businesses hit could publicise this to customers via the press (with vague dates). It couldn't always be carried on the exact tenth day. All adverts in papers had to be vague on this issue (shop adverts couldn't say something like, "We were hit last Monday but are still open", as the exact roads they were on could be looked up by spies etc).

By early December 1940, a compromise to deal with the problems of the ban whilst keeping people safe was decided - cities and large towns could be named only if raids were "serious" (London still had it's own more liberal policy).

In the many raids on Birmingham after, only those of mid-December 1940, early April 1941 and late July 1942 met that "serious" naming criteria. It was named then on front pages in headlines etc. Like the early London policy no district of Birmingham could be named though (only retrospective naming with a vague date allowed that).

The "Midland town" term was still used if raids were "small" after December 1940. The Air Ministry judged if they were "serious" or not and they named or used the vague term depending. Newspapers were supposed to then copy what they said. This again no different with Manchester and Glasgow etc as Birmingham.

Some of the smaller towns were never named (as that would have allowed better pin-pointing by the Luftwaffe, and fewer concerned people to block phonelines etc checking on relatives) but any small town known reasonably well in the US (or reckoned to be) tended to be named when bombed to incite that nation. This policy continued even after December 1941 and Pearl Harbour when you'd think it wouldn't matter.

Post-war, exact locations of UXB's found were given in newspapers. The attacks were not banned from being mentioned until the 1970's, just the details of the policy (one file I read was opened only in 1995 so some others may follow though no files really contradicted each other so it's reasonable to assume ones still closed won't say anything really different).

Remember, issues like the discovery of the Holocaust, A-Bomb, Cold War and major trouble in the Empire etc quickly pushed the Blitz from newspapers at the war's end. Then followed the Korean War, Space Race, Beatles etc. So the city bombing rarely was considered major news after the war. Printing technology meant souvenir pull-outs etc rarely existed. All of this, not a ban, explains little mention of the city bombing for decades after in newspapers.

Anniversaries of major or significant raids found the odd space in local newspapers (the August 2nd 1965 Evening Mail gave one inside page mentioning the first raid almost exactly 25 years before).

You'll find old newspapers will bear out this whole scenario. Which therefore must rule out any ban as being the reason for any present lack of recognition for Birmingham.

These former Top Secret files at the National Archives contain the relevant Whitehall/Cabinet/RAF memos etc on this subject;

HO 199/476 (Press censorship issues on 1943 air-raids - released 1995)

INF 1/181 (1938 D Notice details - released 1968)

INF 1/185 (Censorship policy amendments 1938-1944 - released 1968)

INF 1/845 (Policy on naming air-raided cities - released 1971)

PREM 4/3/21 (Churchill's papers on the 1940 Brum raids - released 1971)

(The Cabinet Paper which first mentions a Birmingham raid, in August 1940 - War Cabinet Weekly Resume Number 52 - was released in 1972).

Another file, HO 188/224, has the dates of Birmingham's air-raids with the number and type of bombs dropped etc in each (Sutton Coldfield and West Bromwich are in the file but listed separately). You can then look up old newspapers from the days after those raids in the Central Library. You'll see how the Birmingham naming policy throughout the war fits this conclusion;

1. From the first raid in August 1940 until November the city was not named (the "Midland town" term was used). Unless newspapers quoted the Nazis as saying Birmingham was hit (a practise which was often seriously frowned on by Whitehall).

2. Named (with Bristol and Southampton) in late November 1940. The mistaken naming radio-speech occured on the 25th and the media told it was ok on the 26th. This was classed as retrospective as it referred to the raids on 19th-22nd so buried away in London papers and in Birmingham this allowed prominent civilian buildings bombed to be named as no exact date was given in the report. As it was the first "official" naming it was on the front page of the Birmingham Mail.

3. After that it was named in front-page headlines only after `serious' raids - 11th/12th December 1940, 9th-11th April 1941 and 27th-30th July 1942. As the exact date of raids was given in these reports no specific area of the city was named, like the early London policy. (Remember newspapers took about a day longer to produce and gather news than today and how `serious' a raid had been took about a day meanwhile too for the Air Ministry to find out and decide).

4. After any `small' raid from early December 1940 onwards the "Midland town" term was used in the headline, but quoting the Nazis as saying Birmingham was still often used further down to get round the ban that still applied when reporting `small' raids.

5. From early December 1940, retrospective naming of the city (even specific areas named) in reports of any 4 to 5 week-old raid (without the exact date they occured and mentioning only civilian-area damage) buried away somewhere on inside pages.

6. From December 1940 whenever Birmingham newspapers gave the exact date of a raid they couldn't name a specific area of the city (Lozells etc). If they gave a vague date and waited at least 28 days before printing a report they could name areas. They chose the first option for front-pages and the other option for stories on inside pages (because that way round sold better). How much prominence Birmingham air-raids (or on anywhere else outside London) got each day in national papers varied depending on wider events of course but generally on this point the same applies with Fleet Street reports of the Birmingham raids.

7. "Front Line" book was issued in 1942, naming the city's 1940-41 raids retrospectively. Specific rules were drawn up overall for this special one-off project. Not totally the same as the newspaper rules, a bit more liberal.

8. The last raid on 23rd April 1943 was on a "Midland town" in front-page newspaper headlines as it was not considered `serious' enough.

9. Retrospectively in early September 1944 the overall casualty figures from all raids that had occured were allowed in newspapers.

That's the very long and complicated story. At first the government demanded a complete national news black-out, but unforeseen military and morale issues, needing the US to come in, and a hungry demanding media put an end to that plan.

The new policies that kept being drawn up at times confused everybody, and the files admit that, but confusion that at one time led to this city being named by mistake, not stopped it from being mentioned.

So contrary to what seems a popular belief, Birmingham was named. The notion it was not named compared to most cities is on the whole without foundation.

Goosemoor Lane History

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