Dispatches from the Blitz: Why Peter Ritchie Calder was a true war hero

He refused to toe the government line in 1940, and reported the stories he felt were vital.

Blitz mania is upon us. As the 70th anniversary looms, television teems with images from 1940. On BBC1, Dr Who confronts Daleks in the Cabinet War Rooms. Almost as absurdly, in Channel 4's Blitz Street, Tony Robinson bombs a replica 1940s terrace, supervised by safety inspectors.

Britons like sentimental accounts of wartime solidarity. They conceal darker memories, but we can console ourselves that such a massaging of reality was prevalent even back then. The government feared mass panic and the Ministry of Information (MoI) sought to sustain morale. Most journalists helped willingly; holding government to account in wartime takes rare courage.

For journalists reporting the Blitz, the challenge was intense. Any reporter who questioned official conduct risked denunciation for "giving succour to Nazis". Few tried. By September 1940 the government had already finessed the myth of Dunkirk, repackaging calamitous defeat as miraculous salvation. It hoped to sweeten Londoners' response to bombardment too.

The line was clear: plucky Brits, harmoniously united in a national family presided over by a paternal King, were "all in it together". Press coverage included plucky babies who slept soundly through Luftwaffe raids, bus drivers braving unexploded bombs, and a story about trawlermen who dodged German E-boats to catch cod. Titles such as the Daily Mirror and Daily Express drummed home the MoI's spin that the King, Queen and princesses shared their subjects' suffering and fortitude and were "in it" with them. In fact they were mostly at Windsor.

Peter Ritchie Calder, reporting for the Daily Herald, regarded himself as a watchdog, protecting the interests of ordinary people exposed to total war. He did his job brilliantly, putting his steel helmet on "in earnest for the first time" on the morning of 8 September 1940, to spend weeks trudging the battered streets of London's East End.

Calder, who would die in 1982 aged 76, wrote compelling stories fizzing with quotes, observations and the authentic voices of ordinary Londoners. The best of it was collected in a book, The Lesson of London, published in 1941 as part of a series edited by George Orwell.

An auxiliary fireman fighting blazes in riverside warehouses tells Calder: "It was bloody awful up on the water tower, playing the hose into the warehouse... I'd had a lot of practice, but not with three storeys threatening to topple on me at any minute. I don't mind admitting now that I was sick – twice. Once through the window, right into the fire, and again when I was relieved and got to the ground."

In a dock south of the Thames, a resident describes the firestorm effect created as incendiary bombs suck in oxygen: "You'd have thought that Jerry had brought his own gale with him."

Calder is horrified when children he profiled in 1939 are killed while sheltering in a school. "I knew that school would be bombed," writes Calder, "It was not a premonition. It was a calculable certainty. Three times I warned the Whitehall authorities during that evening that the people must be got away before more bombs dropped and certain disaster overtook them."

Calder is spurred to fury. He reveals that the planning to deal with homelessness among the bombed-out people of the East End is worthless. Officials treat like automata bomb victims displaying psychological symptoms "as acute as surgical shock".

The Government initially denies responsibility for housing and feeding survivors. This crucial work is left to the London boroughs, and they are starkly incompetent. Calder describes a "jigsaw of parochialism," and bureaucrats "as jealous of their territorial integrity as a beer baron of his precinct".

In one borough, official advice on where to find food and shelter means an eight-mile walk for mothers with exhausted, hungry children, with no certainty of a meal or bed at the end of it. There is vile snobbery: an official in prosperous Epping is horrified at the prospect of East Enders being evacuated to his borough. Bombed-out families multiply with each raid, but there are no arrangements for communal feeding. For reporting these facts Calder faces accusations of "giving comfort to the enemy". But his determination to speak truth to power hastens improvements.

If journalism is the first draft of history, that is just what Ritchie Calder was writing. His journalism inspired his son, the historian Angus Calder, to write the seminal academic histories of the Blitz, The People's War (1969) and The Myth of the Blitz (1991).

Ritchie's work also reminds us that dissident journalists published by independent news organisations are very good at reporting that holds power to account. To secure new 'first drafts' that can inform electorates, investigate wrongdoing and promote empathy, democracies must learn to cherish and fund a diverse range of quality independent journalism.

The state's interest is always to persuade media to depict its conduct favourably. During war, this interest becomes a compulsion.

Ritchie Calder was no pacifist. He ended the war in charge of propaganda for the D-Day landings. But his work encourages us to ask who is writing today's first draft of history. Saving journalism is not simply about protecting journalists' jobs. It means preserving the supply of awkward, dissident reporting that promotes progress in democratic states.

Tim Luckhurst is Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Finance Account Manager

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Finance Account Manager with...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Sphere Digital Recruitment: Display Account Manager

£25,000 to £35,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: The Company Our client are th...

Sphere Digital Recruitment: Sales Director

£80 – 120K : Sphere Digital Recruitment: Sales Director – Ad tech - £80 – 120K...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum