Bomb damaged city museum in 1941

Leeds City Museum View of dameage following an air raid.

What is morale and why is it so important?

Morale is a difficult concept to define. The historian Paul Addison described it as ‘the woolliest and most muddled concept of the war’ (Addison 1975, p. 121) as some behaviours could represent either strong or weak morale. For example, leaving a city before an air raid could be either a proactive or a fearful response. It was seen as representative of poor morale during the war, but could actually be seen as an indicator of good morale as most people returned to continue with the war effort once the bombs had fallen (Mackay 2003, pp. 81-82).

Revisionist historians have been accused of attributing ‘expressions of discomfort as indications of low morale’ (Hammal 2012, p. 39). This is problematic as discomfort was part and parcel of living through one of the toughest episodes in recent British history. All of this makes morale even harder to measure!

It is broadly accepted that bombing was a constant strain upon morale, but that there was a ‘steady acclimatisation’ to it over the course of the Blitz (Mackay 2003, pp. 74 and 79). However, it is also clear that morale varied from place to place and from city to city, with the nature and severity of bombing both shaping people’s responses (Beaven and Griffiths 1999, p. 71).

Patterns of bombing

The urban historians Brad Beaven and John Griffiths have shown that morale was shaped by patterns of bombing in different towns and cities. They argue that the structure and demography of cities affected the severity of raids as both determined whether it was possible for communities to function in spite of bomb damage (Beaven and Griffiths 1999, p. 72).

Towns and cities that were spread out with several main areas – like London, for instance – were better placed to cope with bombing than those where raids were concentrated on a single central area. In the second case, bombing was more likely to disrupt vital parts of the social fabric – like local landmarks, public houses, cinemas and transportation (Beaven and Griffiths 1999, p. 80).

Alwoodley Council School fire dame

Alwoodley Council School Inspecting Fire Damage

Bomb damage in a Leeds street

Bomb damage A Leeds street following the blitz

Morale in Leeds

Although bombs fell across the city, the raid on Leeds was concentrated on the city centre and the industrial areas surrounding the river Aire. The greatest damage occurred in Holbeck, Armley, lower Wortley and the railway land between Wellington Street and Wellington Road.

Reports produced after the raid show that it had a serious short-term impact on the city’s transport and telephone networks. However, the relatively small number of high explosive bombs and the quick response of firefighters meant that the damage was not as extensive as in other towns and cities.

As our case studies show, some key buildings were hit, but the damage was not severe enough to undermine the city’s morale.