Personal Accounts

Personal accounts provide another way of understanding perceptions of the Blitz. They provide first hand accounts and allow individual experiences to be compared with those that were put across by the newspapers.

Diarist 5230

One of the most impressive accounts of the raid on Leeds comes from Arthur White. He was a Mass Observation diarist, who kept a record of his daily life from August 1939 to August 1945. He was one of twelve Mass Observers living in Leeds, but his diary is the most complete and is full of snippets of overheard conversations alongside his own thoughts.

Arthur White lived on Beeston Road in south Leeds and was a shopkeeper, owning two men’s clothing stores in Leeds and Harrogate. His diaries shed light on his interest in the news and war-related gossip, as well as his decision to give up smoking cigarettes in favour of smoking a pipe. That being said, he admits he felt the ‘urge’ to purchase a packet, no doubt due to a need to find an escape which would allow him to cope with the onset of the Second World War (White, M-O Diary 5230, 15 March 1941).

'Leeds has caught it at last'

White’s diary entry for 15 March recounts his journey from home to Harrogate, stopping at one of his suppliers to inspect the damage done the night before. His account is peppered with fragments of conversation from the people around him. This makes his account all the more compelling, as it is tells us not only how White felt but how many others were feeling too.

On the bus into town, White tells us that there was ‘whispering and the movement of bodies – then the remark “Leeds has caught it at last”’. The remark implies that people thought it was only a matter of time before the city fell victim to a heavy bombing raid (White, M-O Diary 5230, 15 March 1941).

White’s diary provides a detailed description of the damaged caused during the raid. He observes ‘buildings with all their windows blown in’, ‘roadways full of broken glass’ and ‘a lingering smell of dust and smoke is everywhere’. He is thankful, however, that he found that his own shop had been ‘un-damaged’ (White, M-O Diary 5230, 15 March 1941).

The human cost of the raid is also touched on. White records someone talking about eight deaths in their area, with rescue crews still searching for bodies, and a conversation about a young female warden who had died. His diary hints at how uncomfortable the destruction, death, and more than likely shock, have left him feeling, claiming throughout the entry that he felt ‘restless’ (White, M-O Diary 5230, 15 March 1941).

Page from Mr White's diary

Extract from Mr. White’s diary, exploring the aftermath of the raid (Source: Mass Observation Online)

Analysis and comparisons

Arthur White’s testimony paints a very different picture to that put forward by the press. The newspapers pushed the idea that no matter what the damage, often said to be only minimal, the British public would bounce back more resilient than ever. However, we can see from White that this is simply not the case. Many died or were left with serious injuries, a large number of buildings in the city centre were hit and everyone in the account, including White himself, were clearly shaken by the events.

While the newspapers attempted to boost morale, diaries – even when written for someone else – allowed for private reflection. In short, the work of Mr. White is of huge value as it presents the ground-level feelings and experiences of those who lived through the Blitz, more than a newspaper ever could.