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
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
peopleHere's what Stephen Fry would say
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Proust as Captain Laure Berthaud in 'Spiral'
tvReview: Gritty, engaging and well-acted - it’s a wonder France’s biggest TV export isn’t broadcast on a more mainstream channel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Carmichael in still from Madam Bovary trailer
film
News
i100
Sport
Serena Williams holds the Australian Open title
sportAustralia Open 2015 final report
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

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Recruitment Genius: External Relations Executive

£33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An External Relations Executive is requi...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Project Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This established Digital Agency based in East ...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links