Inspirations: The psychology of a city under fire

  • 9/11 and the Blitz both showed the fortitude of civilian populations under attack.
  • Both contradicted assumptions that attacks would lead to mass panic.
  • Behaviourist Solly Zuckerman documented civilian resilience during the Hull Blitz.
  • Zuckerman’s work gives a more realistic picture of what to expect than many writers have appreciated.


How Hollywood used to expect people to respond to an emergency (Nate Steiner [CC / Flickr])

New York must be the most devastated city in cinematic history. We’ve watched giant apes beat their chests from the empire state building, monsters rise from the sea to devastate its skyscrapers and aliens descend from space to blow things up with gleeful relish. Throughout the twentieth century, fictional New Yorkers could be relied on the react in an entertainingly irrational way. If they weren’t running and screaming in mass panic, they were clustering on top of high buildings to welcome hostile aliens in Independence Day or looting abandoned shops in Godzilla.

Then the new century proved Hollywood tragically wrong. The attack on 11th September 2001 was as unexpected and horrifying as anything New Yorkers had faced on film. In the middle of a normal Tuesday morning, they found blazing skyscrapers collapsing around them. No one knew what was happening or what would come next. Instead of the hysteria that Hollywood expected of them, the vast majority of New Yorkers calmly removed themselves from danger, stopping to help each other when needed.

Solly Zuckerman’s apes

Since that day, New York has continued to be attacked on film but the reactions of fictional New Yorkers are very different. Cloverfield showed an orderly evacuation from a malevolent monster while a slew of Spiderman films have shown ordinary people stepping up to help each other and Spiderman himself. As a human being, I am appalled by the tragedy of 9/11 and the consequences of it. As a storyteller who occasionally throws characters into the midst of crisis, I am interested to know how a population under attack is likely to react and how the pre-9/11 storytellers got it so wrong.

One man who would not have been surprised by the impeccable behaviour of New Yorkers under fire was Solly Zuckerman, a South African who travelled to Britain in 1925 to embark


Solly Zuckerman in Tobruk, Libya, in 1943, when he was advising the RAF on bombing tactics (University of East Anglia [Wikimedia Commons])

on a career in behavioural zoology. At a time when most work on animal behaviour was done by simply watching animals and jotting down impressions, Zuckerman adopted what he called ‘the deterministic point of view of the physiologist’, applying a level of scientific rigour that won the respect of the scientific establishment.

His pre-war and early wartime work has recently been summarised in War on Fear, an article by science historian Ian Burney, which contains insights invaluable to any writer who shares my predisposition for throwing heavy and unpleasant objects at my characters.

Zuckerman’s work caught the attention of one of the great British scientists of the mid-20th century, JD ‘Sage’ Bernal, who recruited him into the Ministry of Home Security’s Research Department. By then, war with Nazi Germany was looking dangerously likely, and with war would come bombs. A lot of bombs, on British cities. Bernal wanted Zuckerman to take the techniques he’d used to demystify primate society and apply them to understand how Englishmen were likely to behave under bombardment.

The massing Luftwaffe

Britain had been bombed before, during the First World War, but the Kaiser’s Zeppelins and biplanes had only operated in small numbers. A new war would set Britain against the Luftwaffe’s several hundred bombers, which had demonstrated their devastating power in the bombing of Guernica and Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War.


Junkers 88s, one of the main bombers used in the Blitz, over Aigues Mortes, France in 1942 (ww2gallery [CC / Flickr])

The British government knew that if war came again, it would be the sort of industrial war it had fought from 1914 to 1918. The courage of soldiers, sailors and aircrew on the front line would amount to nothing but meaningless sacrifice unless they were supplied with equipment. That equipment would come from factories manned by men and women living in Britain’s cities, where they would have to churn out everything from bullets to battleships faster than the Germans could. No wonder that the Ministry of Home Security expected those men and women to become a target for German bombers.

Bombing could flatten a factory but the question put to Zuckerman was whether, if the factories could be kept functioning, the workforce would continue to turn up and operate them. Zuckerman found that planning on the subject was based more on speculation than on evidence. Hugh Trenchard, feted as the father of the Royal Air Force, had made the oft-quoted statement that the ‘moral’ effect of bombing would outweigh the material damage by a factor of 20:1. Like Hollywood in the 1990s, Trenchard believed that a civilian population would be reduced to panic and hysteria if it came under attack, and the infrastructure of the country would collapse in short order.

The shell-shock controversy

Zuckerman soon found that Trenchard’s ratio was no more than an unsubstantiated opinion, and set about gathering what evidence he could in the absence of actual bombing. His first problem was that the physical effects of blast on the human body were poorly


A First World War is treated for shell-shock (Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine [CC / Flickr])

understood. In 1915, army doctor Charles Myers had coined the term ‘shell-shock’ to describe a wide range of psychological disorders in soldiers returning from combat that did not appear to be related to physical injury. Myers sparked a controversy over whether shell-shock was a purely psychological condition caused by the horrors of combat, or whether it was the result of brain damage caused by the concussion of high explosive shells. The latter possibility was supported by the observation that men could be killed by an explosion with little or no apparent injury, and perhaps by the willingness of sympathetic doctors to diagnose a physical injury so shell-shocked soldiers could receive a disability pension.

The controversy was unresolved by the end of the First World War, or indeed twenty years later. Zuckerman’s first task was to resolve it, which he did by blowing up unfortunate rats and rabbits in a laboratory. He found that while a nearby explosion could kill by rupturing the lungs, it did not cause brain damage. Shell-shock was in fact a purely psychological phenomenon which encompasses several diagnoses used by modern psychology, of which the best known is post-traumatic stress disorder.

To a government already worried about ‘civilian neurosis’, Zuckerman’s results cannot have been reassuring. It was already believed that soldiers, being young men with army


The remains of Coventry Cathedral are preserved as a memorial (Nigel Swales [CC / Flickr])

training, were more resilient than civilians. If soldiers could be rendered psychologically incapable by combat, what would happen in a war that put civilians in the front line?


Although Zuckerman’s results implied that every one of the many cases of shell-shock diagnosed during the First World War was a psychological rather than a physical injury, the belief that psychological damage was a form of malingering persisted. As war came to look inevitable, the government passed the 1939 Personal Injuries (Emergency Provisions) Act offering compensation for civilians injured by bombing:

The diagnosis of concussion should be made only when the history or clinical symptoms leave no reasonable doubt that the patient has suffered physical injury either by the direct explosion of a shell or bomb, by being knocked over by it, or by being buried under debris of a building or shelter.

The implication was clear: psychological damage alone was to be treated as a try-on.

Not long after that, Zuckerman and the government got the chance to find out. The first bombs fell on London on 7th September, 1940. It was to be the first of 57 consecutive


The original ‘Keep Calm and Carry on’ poster, issued by the Ministry of Information (Martin Burns [CC / Flickr])

nights of bombing, opening a campaign that would last into the following spring and would see most of Britain’s cities bombed at least once. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands injured. So great was the devastation that after a raid on Coventry in November 1940, the German Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, coined the verb ‘koventrieren’ or ‘coventrate’, meaning to utterly destroy or in modern parlance, to ‘nuke’.

As people picked their way out of the rubble, there was no sign of the feared civilian neurosis. People continued to go to work every day, even if they had to spend their nights in Anderson shelters. The phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, which appeared on Ministry of Information posters to become the catchphrase of the time.

Through the first phase of the bombing that would become known as the ‘Blitz’, Zuckerman continued to work mostly on the physical impact of blast. He measured bombsites and the injuries of people caught in them, and used what he learned to direct the efforts of the rescue teams who dug people out of the wreckage of their own homes. His most tangible contribution was designing the ‘civilian defence helmet’, or ‘Zuckerman helmet’ as everyone called it, to protect civil defence workers from flying debris.

The Hull-Birmingham neurosis survey

Zuckerman never lost interest in the psychological effects of bombing, which he and Bernal delved into in detail with their 1941 ‘Hull-Birmingham neurosis survey’. Far from crippling the country at the first sign of bombing, Zuckerman had to go looking for civilian neurosis. He had always been sceptical about it, but he was keen to find out what the psychological effects of intense bombing were.


Soldiers clearing bomb damage in Hull (Imperial War Museum [Wikimedia Commons])

There was no better place to look than Hull, which was the most intensively bombed city in Britain. As well as being a hub of industry and shipping, Hull was unfortunate enough to be on Britain’s east coast where German bombers could get their bombs away and turn away over the North Sea with minimal time spent over Britain itself. Although London received a greater tonnage of bombs than Hull, Hull was a much smaller city. By the end of the war, only one house in twenty had escaped damage.

The government was worried about the habit of ‘trekking’ that had been adopted by many of Hull’s citizens, by which they would leave the city by night and wait out the raids. Was this the first sign of breaking morale and impending civilian neurosis?

No, Zuckerman concluded, it was not. It was, he concluded, ‘a considered response to the situation’. The people of Hull were not, after all, abandoning their city. They returned every day and they continued to work the factories and the port so if they had found a safer and more comfortable place to wait out the bombing, who could blame them?

Two fingers to the Luftwaffe

In his final report on the Hull-Birmingham survey, Zuckerman concluded what Hollywood had forgotten by the 1990s: civilian populations under attack are far more resilient than they are usually given credit for. Certainly, the Luftwaffe simply did not have what they


Bomb damage in Coventry (Coventry City Council [CC / Flickr])

would need to stop the people of Britain hammering out those bullets and battleships. His report concluded with the final sentence:

We are not yet in a position to state what intensity of raiding would result in the complete breakdown of the life and work of a town, but it is probably of the order of 5 times greater than any that has been experienced in this country up till now.

Zuckerman intended the report to put to rest the idea of winning a war by bombing a country into a collective nervous breakdown. He was later recruited into the Royal Air Force’s British Bombing Survey Unit, where he advocated precision bombing of military objectives. He was one of the architects of the air attacks on rail transport in occupied France that badly disrupted the German reaction to the invasion of Normandy.

Area bombing

Not everyone agreed that Zuckerman’s work proved that bombing civilians was pointless. Frederick Lindemann, the government’s senior scientific advisor who had been recently ennobled as Lord Cherwell, drew a different conclusion: If a civilian population would not break unless it was bombed at least five times harder than Hull, then the RAF would have


Frederick Lindemann standing next to Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Imperial War Museum [Wikimedia Commons])

to bomb German cities at least five times harder than the Luftwaffe had bombed Hull. As the Luftwaffe’s offensive was winding down, the RAF’s counter-offensive was gaining momentum with an influx of reservist crews who had finally completed their training, and new four-engine heavy bombers that carried more than twice the bomb load of anything in the Luftwaffe’s inventory.

Along with Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Lindemann developed a strategy of ‘area bombing’, abandoning the idea of aiming for specific targets but rather regarding an entire city as the target. Lindemann and Harris planned to pound German cities into dust until their populations simply gave up.

Some RAF planners called the new strategy ‘morale bombing’ while the Germans would come to call it ‘terror bombing’, it would not be incorrect to simply use the term ‘terrorism’.

It was a doctrine that would dominate allied bombing strategy from 1942 onward, leading to progressively larger forces of heavy bombers attacking German cities. The RAF’s night raids were joined by American daylight raids from 1943 onward, and underpinned the American strategy of bombing Japan from mid-1944 to the ultimate morale bombing: the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Historians debate the efficacy of morale bombing to this day. Lindemann and Harris’s detractors argue that deliberately slaughtering civilians is tantamount to a war crime, and that the thousands of young men who died bombing German and Japanese cities were sacrificed to a flawed policy. Their supporters argue that for a reservist air force with


The Avro Lancaster, the backbone of the RAF’s bombing offensive against Germany (Paul King [CC / Flickr])

inexperienced crews operating mainly by night, precision bombing was simply not possible and a city was the smallest target they could be expected to hit. Further, they argue that civilians were legitimate targets as they were supplying their country’s combatants, and that it was Germany and Japan that legitimised the tactic by their own bombing of British and Chinese cities. There remains no consensus on whether or not area bombing was effective. German morale did not break, but the question of whether area bombing damaged German industry more than an alternative tactic has never been and probably never will be settled.

Zuckerman’s legacy

Zuckerman himself was very much on the side of the detractors, stating in his autobiography that area bombing was ‘the very reverse of what we had stated’ in the report. As an advisor to several post-war governments, he argued unsuccessfully against the policy of accumulating a more and more powerful nuclear arsenal, but nobody was listening. To his frustration, his Hull-Birmingham survey was used as evidence for the US Air Force’s Operation Linebacker II, the bombing of North Vietnamese cities in 1972.


A family has just emerged from a shelter to find their house has been destroyed. They are not panicking (Bill Strain [CC / Flickr])

That didn’t work either.

As a scientist, Zuckerman showed how proper scientific technique could be applied to studies of both humans and animals. His greatest finding was that rather than resorting to panic and hysteria at the first sign of trouble, civilian morale is very difficult to break. It’s something that policy-makers and storytellers alike would be well advised to remember.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

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