History as Hoax: Why the TV series ‘Hunting Hitler’ is fiction not fact

I have become alarmed at how many people appear to be taking the TV series Hunting Hitler seriously. The show, which started production in 2015 and has been aired on the History Channel, has now seen three seasons, the second of which is currently being shown in the UK. Viewer ratings have apparently been good and advertisers seem pleased, but I suspect serious historians will have major concerns.

The series has, at its heart, the bizarre claim that Adolf Hitler (along with his mistress- turned-wife Eva Braun) may have escaped from his Berlin bunker in April, 1945, and made his way by U-boat to South America, where he lived with Mrs. Hitler in utmost secrecy, planning a ‘Fourth Reich’ from the safety of a jungle in Argentina. The key word here is may. Regrettably, though, the documentary series ignores its own brief nod to theory and seeks to ‘prove’ beyond all doubt that Hitler did indeed escape. The ‘evidence’ that he did so is treated as being beyond question.

Hitler in April 1945 Last Appearance in PublicFirst of all, let’s remind ourselves about some key facts, which are accepted by the vast majority of serious academic historians, scholars who have studied the Third Reich and the last days of Hitler in near-forensic detail.

The Nazi leader, by then in very poor health, made his last public appearance (which was also filmed) outside his Berlin bunker on April 20th, 1945, when he inspected a line-up of young boy soldiers who were involved in the last desperate defence of the Reich’s capital city (see photo). Careful scrutiny of the footage shows a man who is exhausted and frail, barely able to smile, his hand shaking uncontrollably behind his back. Hitler was also photographed on April 28th (the last photo taken of him) surveying some bomb damage just outside the bunker.

In his final Will and Political Testimony, dictated to his young secretary, Traudl Junge, on April 29th, 1945, the day before he committed suicide in the bunker, the Nazi leader made it abundantly clear that he was choosing death rather than allow himself to fall into the hands of the Russians. He had also firmly rejected any pleas from his close associates to leave Berlin.

There was also overwhelming eyewitness evidence about Hitler’s last hours in the bunker, testimony collected from numerous interrogations and interviews conducted by British, American and Russian investigators. Moreover, Otto Gunsche (who died in 2003) was personally given the task by Hitler of cremating the Fuhrer’s remains, which Gunsche faithfully did in the garden just outside the bunker, placing the body of Eva Braun (the new Mrs. Hitler) alongside her late husband in a shallow ditch. Petrol was poured over the corpses to speed up the process of destruction. Despite this, Russian investigators were still able to collect some bone fragments.

Hunting Hitler series logo

Yet here we have another TV programme which refutes this history and, frankly, re-writes the past in the name of ‘infotainment’. Historical accuracy and factual evidence is pushed aside in order to construct a new and more glamorous version of the biographical details of Hitler’s life. The first series of Hunting Hitler used declassified FBI documents from 1947 (700 pages were declassified in 2014). These files contained reports which were devoted to collating all possible sightings of Hitler in the immediate years after the war. The second series expanded the range of documents to include declassified and other material from CIA and British intelligence sources, along with a diverse range of ‘documents’ from Argentina, Russia and Germany. All of this material has been put into a ‘database’ assembled especially for the documentary, which the show’s main host – Bob Baer – regularly draws on to find ‘evidence’ (or, rather, in his mind, confirmation) concerning the route Hitler took to get away and the names of those who supposedly helped him.

The problem with all this is that, although it uses the format of a documentary, it is not a carefully researched or authoritative documentary, backed up with contributions from professional historians or recognised experts on Nazism or the Third Reich. Instead, it is a frankly silly piece of conspiracy theory, which often treats gossip and newspaper rumour as ‘fact’, exploits the public’s continuing fascination with all things ‘Nazi’, and offers no credible evidence to back up its hugely misleading claims. I write as one who has specialised in the study of fascism for most of my academic career.

At one level, I suppose, I should just relax and simply file the programme under ‘fiction’, placing it alongside such conspiratorial series as Ancient Aliens. I should quietly accept that the misleadingly named ‘History’ channel has churned out yet another piece of hokum. At another level, though, I feel distinctly uncomfortable: Hunting Hitler is potentially dangerous. In fact, to my mind, it is a classic example of history dressed up as very irresponsible entertainment, a TV programme which breaks many of the accepted rules of serious historical research and makes some quite ludicrous assertions.

Grey Wolf

The inspiration for the series goes back to a very poorly reviewed book published a few years ago, Grey Wolf: The Escape of Adolf Hitler (2011), co-authored by two British writers, Simon Dunstan and Gerrard Williams. The latter author, Williams, is one of the ‘team’ whose ‘crack’ members feature in each episode of Hunting Hitler. Bob Baer, the main presenter of the series, is a former CIA officer who, since his retirement, has reinvented himself as an author and occasional TV commentator on ‘intelligence’ matters. How on earth he became involved in the series is puzzling – the programme-makers must have made him an offer he simply could not refuse.

Baer, according to the premise of the series, assembled a crack ‘team’ of investigators in 2015, which, as well as Williams, has included an ex-American Special Forces operative Tim Kennedy (who is in real life a mixed martial arts fighter), a former Green Beret soldier, various local guides, and a ‘historian’ (James Holland) who has written popular histories of the Second World War. Again, in my estimation, any historian worth their salt would not associate themselves with this series, or risk serious damage to their reputation. But, on reflection, such opportunities must be a huge temptation for an author to help generate additional publicity for their books on military history.

Hunting Hitler interview

Over the course of the three series of Hunting Hitler, the special ‘team’ has been sent to various locations across the globe (ranging from Germany, Spain, Norway and Austria in Europe, to Argentina in South America). They have been ‘tasked’ (to use the lingo) with seeking out and assembling the evidence for the trail (or trails) that the Nazi dictator took to enable his masterly ‘escape’. There has been plenty of talk about secret tunnels, clandestine S.S. ‘networks’, gold dumped in lakes, hidden Nazi safety deposit boxes, and forgotten advanced technology. Strong hints have been dropped that Hitler used a new Nazi ‘jet’ aircraft, or an advanced U-boat or seaplane, and may even have taken some ‘heavy water’ with him (i.e. to develop a Nazi nuclear bomb). It is all very Indiana Jones.

Hunting Hitler lair

In series one, for example, members of the team came across what was described as ‘a mysterious Nazi lair in the Argentinian jungle’ (see photo), while in the second series much time was devoted to pursuing leads in far-flung valleys in Austria and Italy. The difference between a novel and a documentary was increasingly blurred, and the line between fantasy and reality has been frequently crossed. It is a (very poor) Hollywood version of history.

With a dramatic voice-over provided by narrator Dave Hoffman, some atmospheric music at key moments, and plenty of hand-held camera angles and reality-TV style shots, the purpose of the ‘documentary’ is clearly to present the theory of Hitler’s escape as not just a theory, but as a ‘no-brainer’ fact. In each new episode, the standard formula is that the ‘team’, directed by Baer and his assistant from an office in Los Angeles, collects new intelligence and clues in an urgent race against time, as if they were on a major international manhunt.

The reality is that this gallant team assembles and selects evidence to fit their own predetermined belief that Hitler definitely escaped from Europe and reached his new haven. Any new bit of evidence that does not quite fit their conviction is often brushed aside or dismissed. When members of the team interview people, there are lots of over-dramatized exchanges and knowing looks caught on camera between the main team members (or ‘investigators’). And if they don’t get what they want to hear from ‘eye-witnesses’ or other people they have tracked down, or the interviewee has seemed hesitant or reluctant, the team’s usual line is that the interviewee is ‘still afraid’ of the consequences of talking, some seventy or so years after the war.

Hunting Hitler team

At times, the ‘hunt’ for Hitler’s escape route has been treated like a modern-day manhunt for somebody who is still alive, with the ‘team’ racing about in a small convoy of dark-coloured four-by-four cars, driving into villages or towns in excited expectation. Much of the investigative work, though, has bordered on the farcical. In one episode of series two, where members of the team followed a Nazi ‘ratline’ to a hotel in the South Tyrol, a piece of ‘state-of-the-art’ equipment was used to identify possible burial sites in the hotel grounds for Nazi safe deposit boxes, which one member of the team suggested would contain ‘stashed secret plans’ for safe routes and ‘money, maps, contacts’. Once an airborne drone had been used to identify two possible locations, a mechanical digger was then brought in on the ground to dig down at the sites: but all that was finally dug up was rubble and some old hotel sewage pipes at one site, and an old shovel head at the other site! Trying to explain away the latter, it was claimed that somebody had already dug there and the holes had been ‘looted in 1945’.

There has been plenty of this kind of nonsense in other episodes, ranging from trawling lakes for crashed planes to engaging in underwater dives to sunken wrecks, or trying to gain entry to locked churches. If people do not co-operate with the team’s inquiries, there are dark hints that such individuals may be part of the ‘cover-up’ of the real story.

Unfortunately, the History channel  regularly chooses to put ratings above any historical accuracy, and Hunting Hitler is a typical example of this. It is a Hollywood-style version of history; it is seriously flawed in its treatment of evidence and is a classic lesson in how not to conduct objective historical research. This should always be borne in mind if you happen to catch an episode.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

Posted in European History, Fascism, German History, Media history, Public History, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Alt-America: New book explores the rise of the radical right in the age of Trump

A new book by U.S. journalist and historian David Neiwert, Alt-AmericaThe Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump (Verso, 2017), explores how the American extreme right has been growing steadily since the 1990s and has now received a considerable boost with the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House.

Alt-America by David Neiwert

Indeed, the new book contains some revealing investigative insights into President Trump’s ties to and influence on the radical and far right.

At the same time, Neiwert takes the reader through the complex maze of radical rightwing groups, movements and networks that have evolved over recent years and have taken new hope from Trump’s statements, behaviour and policies – such as his ‘America First’ nationalism, his tendency to indulge in conspiracy theory, and his outspoken criticisms of the ‘fake news’ of the ‘liberal’ mainstream media.

A major theme in the study concerns the role of the internet, and how the online world of the early 21st century has given a revolutionary rebirth to a type of politics that most people had assumed had gone forever: anti-liberal, anti-feminist, politically incorrect, conspiratorial, intolerant and markedly racist. Such ideas have been exemplified in the so-called ‘alt-right’, a movement that first emerged in the USA and has now spread its influence to Europe and other parts of the globe, helped considerably by the ‘borderless’ nature of the web and social media.

In particular, Neiwert explains how the term ‘alt-right’ (a term now used regularly by many commentators in discussions of radical right politics) actually came into being. Richard Spencer, a white nationalist and editor of a conservative magazine, coined the term ‘alternative right’ in 2009 when describing what he believed was a new kind of conservatism in America. It was a fresh version of conservatism that, Spencer claimed, differed strongly from neo-conservatism (of the kind usually found on the right of the Republican party) and was open to ‘racialist’ politics.

Less than a year later, in early 2010, Spencer founded his own webzine on the internet and named it The Alternative Right. Due to the nature of internet discourse, the movement the webzine promoted was quickly shortened to ‘alt-right’, and the name has stuck.

Neiwert’s new book is also helpful in a number of other important ways. The internet played a huge role in the evolution of the alt-right’s new version of conservative politics. He points out, for example, that the alt-right movement established itself ‘primarily through its cultural agility – its ability to stay at the forefront of events, themes, ideas, and names in the media by adapting them to their own uses and then running wild with them’. In other words, alt-righters have been adept at hi-jacking ideas and images from popular culture, and have used the internet extensively to bring about the online radicalization of many young white Americans.


Where does Donald Trump fit into all this? Neiwert notes that, by the summer of 2015, the alt-right ‘was gaining significant momentum as an online movement’. However, it lacked a real leader or easily identifiable figurehead – a charismatic political figure around whom it could coalesce, ‘whom its members could devote their energies to electing to office’. Enter Donald Trump.

Worryingly, millionaire businessman Trump’s dramatic entry into Republican politics provided the alt-right, in a sense, with just such a figure. Trump, of course, was not a virgin when it came to politics. A Donald Trump candidacy had been first mooted in 1992, when he was (briefly) considered as a running mate for George H.W. Bush, but lost out to Dan Quayle. Trump also considered running on a Reform Party ticket in 1999.

According to Neiwert, however, Trump first started taking seriously the idea of a bid for the presidency in 2011, publicly speculating about running against the incumbent president, Barak Obama.

It was in the very same year that Trump came out as a ‘Birther’. This was a racist conspiracy theory, widely ridiculed by the U.S. media, which claimed that Obama was not born in Hawaii and was not, in fact, a ‘true’ American. In April, 2011, for example, Trump told reporters that he now believed that there was ‘a big possibility’ that Obama’s presidency might be in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Despite much criticism of his view, Trump remained doggedly committed to this bizarre claim for years afterwards, and it was precisely this kind of language that made those who eventually identified themselves as ‘alt-right’ so enthusiastic about the idea of a Trump presidency. Rightly or wrongly, they saw Trump as ‘their man’. And it is clear that, when he entered the White House, Trump surrounded himself with a number of advisers who evidently had certain ‘alt-right’ sympathies or espoused similar views.

White House

The book is rich in detail and evidence. As Neiwert persuasively argues, Trump’s ideas and rhetoric on a whole range of issues emboldened and empowered rightwing extremists across the USA. The new president’s rhetoric seemingly gave permission for long-suppressed hatreds and resentments, together with some very angry bigotry, to rise to the surface of U.S. society and ‘unleash the nation’s dark id’.

In other words, Trump has created ‘Alt-America’, a country where, in some parts at least (especially in the Rust Belt areas), the radical right has now become a real force with real influence, and liberalism is very much on the defensive.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University


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Suffrage 100: National Archives to host events to mark 1918 Act

The UK’s National Archives (TNA), located at Kew in South-West London, will host a variety of events during 2018 to mark the centenary of the groundbreaking Representation of the People Act 1918, which granted women over the age of 30 in Britain the right to vote.

A number of events have been arranged for February and March, 2018, in partnership with Vote 100, events which will also make use of rare TNA documents and records from the time.


On Friday, 9th February, at 18.00-21.00, there will be a special screening of the recent critically acclaimed Hollywood movie Suffragette, which stars Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep. Those who attend will also be able to see some of the original documents that relate to the fight for women’s right to vote in the early 20th century. The document display will be open from 17.30, and the screening of the film will also have an introduction before it begins.

On Tuesday, 20th February, a debate will be held from 18.00-19.30 entitled ‘Did Militancy help or hinder the fight for the Franchise?’ Dr. Fern Riddell (BBC’s Suffragettes Forever!), Elizabeth Crawford (author of The Women’s Suffrage Movement), and Professor Krista Cowman (University of Lincoln) will discuss whether the militancy of the Suffragette movement, which arguably hit its peak around 1912, helped or hindered their cause.

On Thursday 15th March, a talk will be given at 14.00-15.00 by Diane Atkinson about her forthcoming book Rise Up Women!, a study which celebrates the achievements of the women who campaigned tirelessly for women’s rights and paved the way for women to break into what, until 1918, was an exclusively male-dominated political system in Britain. History was also further made when, the following year, Lady Nancy Astor became the first female MP in the House of Commons.

On Wednesday 28th March, a free talk and document display will take place at 14.00-15.00 entitled ‘Locating London’s Suffrage Legacy’, which will explore the people and areas of London associated with the suffrage campaign. Although the suffrage movement was active throughout the British Isles, in many ways the UK’s capital city was a hub for both militant and constitutional campaigning.

The National Archives

The special centenary events at Kew, which will be part of the nationwide Vote 100 commemorations, will also see the opening of a new suffrage exhibition in April, located in TNA’s Keeper’s Gallery on the ground floor. As a taster for this, and while the main exhibition is prepared, the first floor Reading Room at TNA has a display about the groups which supported women’s suffrage in London. This runs from January-July, 2018.

The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, is open Tuesdays-Saturdays.

For more information on upcoming TNA events, visit:




Posted in Archives, British history, Events, Gender History, Local History, Museums, Public History, The National Archives, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Secret Heroism: Remembering the ‘listeners’ of Bletchley Park

Many of us are now familiar with the story of Bletchley Park, the British government’s top-secret code-breaking establishment in World War Two, and the huge achievements of some of the key staff there, such as Alan Turing. Bletchley Park secretly broke the German ‘Enigma’ codes, helped turn the tide of war in the Atlantic, and was also the home of ‘Colossus’, the world’s first semi-programmable computer.

Wrens operating the Colossus computer, 1943.

A combination of the work of historians and recent Hollywood movies has provided researchers with a much better picture of the role of secret code-breaking in helping the Allies bring about the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. But we often overlook the fact that, as well as brilliant mathematicians, scientists, language scholars and other key experts (many of them drawn from Britain’s top-class Universities), Bletchley also employed many hundreds of other people, and a considerable number of these did not actually work at the site itself, but were stationed in other parts of the British Isles. Bletchley had a large but highly secretive ‘support network’ of people who fed vital information and messages back to the main station, known back then as ‘Station X’.

Towards the end of last year, it was reported in the British press that 97-year old great-grandmother Alison Robins, a mother of three who had seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, had quietly died in a nursing home in Bristol, after suffering from dementia.

Apart from close members of her family, many of those who encountered Alison in her later years were not aware of the secret but vital role she had played in World War Two. Alison was one of the last surviving Bletchley Park ‘listeners’, who was responsible for passing messages to Britain’s top-secret wartime code-breaking establishment in Buckinghamshire.

Dressed in civilian clothes, her job involved being positioned at various and rather isolated points around the British coastline. When on duty, she had to stay up all night and eavesdrop on messages from German submarines and ships that were covertly operating in the seas around Britain and were trying to sink British and American vessels. This was extremely important and confidential work, equally important in many ways as some of the main work that took place at Bletchley Park itself. Recalling her duties some years later, Alison told her children that ‘anyone who thinks black coffee keeps you awake is wrong – the only thing that keeps you awake is the thought that if you fall asleep people will die’.

Alison Robins

Before her job working as a ‘listener’, Alison, who had left school with no qualifications, had joined and served as a ‘WREN’ in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (see photo), but had become rather bored just working in the canteen at the Royal Navy College, and had taught herself Morse Code in her spare time. After becoming a ‘listener’ for the network that served Bletchley, she found herself working alongside people who could also speak German, so Alison purchased a book, Hugo’s Teach Yourself German in Three Months, which gave her a working knowledge of the language. Although she could not speak German fluently, she picked up enough so that she was able to translate key phrases and write them down.

According to her family, Alison (who had signed the Official Secrets Act in the war), very rarely spoke about her wartime experiences, but it is known that her husband, Maurice, who also spoke German, was sent to Germany just after the war, and carried out translation work during the Nuremberg Trials, where the leading surviving Nazis had been prosecuted by the Allies for war crimes.

Interestingly, when Maurice returned back to Britain, the devoted couple embarked on their own process of ‘reconciliation’ with Germans. When some German POWs (Prisoners-of-War) were working at the bottom of their garden, Alison and Maurice gave the men regular cups of tea and also invited them to lunch. Alison’s daughter, Jill, told the press after her mother’s death: ‘It was very practical – my parents went to talk to them, I think that was a really important part of the post-war period for them’. Jill added: ‘My mother was lovely – we all adored her’.

What Alison Robins’s life does is to help remind us of the importance of the ‘listeners’ in the Bletchley story, their contribution to the war effort and defeat of fascism, and also the incredible spirit of generosity that a number of people demonstrated in the immediate post-war years, despite all the wartime trauma and stress they had been through.

Bletchley Park

The code-breaking and intelligence gathering operations of Bletchley Park and its associated networks came to an end in 1946, but much of its pioneering work was continued in a new organisation now known as GCHQ (the Government Communications Headquarters).

The Bletchley Park site itself, after years of falling into disrepair, was ‘saved’ by voluntary and other work conducted by fundraisers, local historians and conservation experts. The Bletchley Park Trust, set up to regenerate the site, has helped finance a visitor centre and various interactive exhibitions. The famous Bletchley mansion, its huts and its grounds is today a heritage site, open to the general public. Significantly, the wartime role of Bletchley is also the subject of on-going research by historians who specialise in intelligence and the history of the ‘secret state’.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: Wikipedia Commons)

For more information on Bletchley, see: https://www.bletchleypark.org.uk


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Breaking Free? New evidence released on Major’s tensions with Thatcher

Historians of British history in the 1980s and early 1990s have been given an interesting New Year present for 2018 by The National Archives (TNA), with the release of formerly secret government files which provide fascinating new evidence on the tensions between Margaret Thatcher and her successor as Conservative Prime Minister, John Major.

The National Archives

Margaret Thatcher was British Prime Minister (PM) from 1979-1990, and, towards the end of her time in office, had alarmed her Cabinet by stating in an interview with the press that she intended to ‘go on and on’. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, a significant number of the Cabinet had decided that Thatcher had developed something of a ‘bunker mentality’ in 10 Downing Street, with her refusing to acknowledge the unpopularity of some of her own cherished policies, especially the controversial Poll Tax.

Some of her Cabinet Ministers had concluded that, far from being an election ‘winner’ (she had won three General Elections: 1979; 1983; and 1987), Mrs. Thatcher was now a potential election ‘loser’. They effectively engineered her removal as Conservative leader and PM in late 1990 (she resigned in November, 1990), and a new leadership contest was held to find a fresh head for the Conservative Party and a new PM (under Britain’s unwritten constitution, power can be handed over from one PM to another without the need for a General Election). Much to the surprise of many commentators, John Major, at that point still seen as a Thatcherite loyalist (a ‘dry’ in Thatcher’s terminology), but not as very charismatic or forceful, inherited the former PM’s crown and became the new Premier.

John Major

However, Major, who had served periods as Chancellor of the Exchequer and also as Foreign Secretary under Thatcher, was determined not to be seen as just another Thatcherite free-market clone. He wanted to ‘break free’ from Mrs. Thatcher’s long shadow and imprint his own brand of Conservatism on the Party and country. Indeed, in private, he resented any attempt by his predecessor to be a ‘back seat driver’ (so to speak) of his new Premiership. On the other hand, Major was still somewhat limited in how he could go about building his own distinctive version of Conservatism, as Thatcher still had notably strong support both on the Conservative back-benches in Parliament and among the wider grass-roots members of the Party.

As many historians are aware, Margaret Thatcher, who relished her reputation as the ‘Iron Lady’, never really recovered from her loss of the Premiership, and what she clearly regarded as a ‘betrayal’ by members of her own Cabinet. She found it very difficult to adjust to her new life as an ex-Premier.

Files newly released by The National Archives (TNA) at Kew, south-west London, appear to provide further confirmation of this. One file in particular includes a record of a private meeting held between Mrs. Thatcher’s anointed successor, Major, and Thatcher herself, just weeks after her loss of power, where she sought to lecture the new PM on his economic policy.

Although Thatcher had regarded Major as a loyalist and as somebody who would carry on the Thatcherite ‘revolution’, she soon became disillusioned with his leadership. As the new PM, Major had quickly announced that he intended to scrap the Poll Tax and also voiced the need for a more ‘compassionate’ version of Conservatism.

margretthatcherDismayed by this, Thatcher’s relationship with Major soon became frosty. In fact, the new evidence seems to show how rapidly relations soured between the two. In a bid to clear the air, and to reassure her that he was not changing what he called the main ‘drift of policy’, Major invited his predecessor to a meeting in his rooms in the House of Commons in January, 1991. However, this did not go too well and there was evident tension in the room. Mrs. Thatcher, perhaps predictably, sought to offer advice on what she saw as ‘excessively high’ interests rates which, she said, were risking a recession. She also compared Major’s economic policy to Winston Churchill’s controversial decision as Chancellor in 1925 to return Britain to the Gold Standard, which had resulted in deflation and mass unemployment. As an official Minute in the file noted: ‘Mrs. Thatcher said conditions on the economy were very tough. She believed there was a danger of repeating Churchill’s historic error’.

Major clearly resented this comment. He responded that the situation was ‘not remotely comparable’. Mrs. Thatcher, though, refusing to back down, then went on to criticise Major’s decision to abandon her flagship policy, the Poll Tax. Major appears to have hit back, telling Thatcher that the tax was not ‘politically sustainable’.

Thatcher with Major 1992

Although the meeting seems to have ended in a cordial way, Major apparently remained determined to show Mrs. Thatcher that he was now very much the main driver of policy and power in the country, and that she needed to accept her retirement with grace. As the 1992 General Election loomed, secret plans were drawn up by the Conservative Party Chairman, Chris Patten, to ensure that Thatcher did not have a big presence in the upcoming Conservative campaign, including in the final rally of the campaign. However, according to the new files, Mrs. Thatcher’s supporters, when they found out about this, let it be known to Patten that she would be ‘hurt’ about this.

In the end, Major and Patten compromised, and Thatcher was invited to a big rally at the beginning of the campaign instead. Major could still not quite break free from the wishes of the ‘Iron Lady’.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)


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Committees, Queues and Christmas: The crisis over food supplies in Kingston and Surbiton in 1917

One hundred years ago, in December, 1917, as people on the home front in Surrey faced their fourth Christmas at war, it was evident that a major crisis had developed over food supplies, and many families, still determined to celebrate a traditional Christmas despite the anxieties of the conflict, faced growing shortages of basic foodstuffs.

During the First World War a large number of men from farms in Surrey (as with other agricultural parts of the south), had joined the Armed Forces, leaving the county short of both agricultural workers and horses. Added to this, a combination of a relatively poor wheat harvest in 1916, and the declaration by Germany of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, had also increasingly led to shortages of certain types of food in wartime Britain.

Arthur Keysall Yapp

Attempts had been made to address the situation. Various schemes of voluntary rationing had been introduced in February, 1917, and Prime Minister Lloyd George had appointed Sir Arthur Yapp (see photo) as the national Director of the ‘Food Economy Campaign’. An evangelical churchman, Yapp (1869-1936) had farming forebears and was well-known for his eloquent speeches and energetic devotion to serving the nation and community, which he saw as part of his Christian calling. The government thus launched propaganda campaigns at both national and local level to try and persuade people to economise in their food consumption as much as possible, with Sir Arthur proclaiming that this was a ‘patriotic duty’.

Local food stores across Surrey tried to encourage shoppers to be flexible and change their eating habits. In Kingston, for example, the ‘International Stores’ greengrocers, in their adverts during the course of 1917, urged people to ‘Help Win’ by drinking coffee for breakfast: ‘To alter your Breakfast “taste” for the time being is not a great sacrifice, but it will enable the Food Controller to more easily cope with the present shortage of tea’.

Save Bread WW1 poster

However, by the autumn of 1917, ‘food’ and its availability had nevertheless become a major source of public grumbling and discontent, exemplified in rising criticism of local ‘bureaucracy’ and also the growing frequency of long (and sometimes disorderly) queues outside food retailers. This frustration was possibly reinforced by a lack of detailed news about what was happening at the Front; wartime censorship only allowed certain types of news to be carried in the domestic press, and local newspaper editors appear to have compensated for this by ensuring that food (and the lack of it), together with questions about food quality and retail prices, received plenty of coverage instead.

One sign of the strength of feeling over food was the growing unpopularity among the public of Local Food Control Committees. Perceived by critics (including the newspapers) as symptomatic of mushrooming state bureaucracy in wartime, these were the special committees, headed by a local ‘Food Controller’, that had been set up at local municipal level across the country (including in Surrey) to help regulate the supply of food, and to try to ensure fair prices and equitable distribution. By late 1917, the daily challenge of obtaining sugar, margarine, butter, milk, meat, and other foods had led to increased public anxiety and discontent, and to complaints about a lack of accountability on the part of some of the Local Food Control Committees.

As the Surrey Comet newspaper warned in early December, 1917, the ‘strain of months of scarcity’ undoubtedly lay ahead: ‘Naturally enough, increased interest is being manifested in all matters affecting the food supply… and a desire exists to know what the Local Food Control Committees are doing’. The newspaper noted that, locally, while the Brentford and Twickenham Food Control Committees had opened up their meetings to the press, and the Richmond Committee had just decided to do so, the Committees ‘at Kingston and elsewhere in this immediate neighbourhood still sit behind closed doors’.  The paper then asked: ‘But why? Surely this is a matter that closely affects everybody in the district, and the man in the street and the woman in the queue want to know what is being done to safeguard their interests, which are not always identical with those of the retailer or the wholesale dealer’.

Sessions House Ewell Road Surbiton 1936

A week later, in its coverage of the Food Control Committee operated by Surbiton District Council, the Comet included some revealing details about how the shortages of food were leading to some draconian and controversial measures. The newspaper recorded that the Surbiton Committee, which was based at the Council Offices in Ewell Road, Surbiton (see photo), had requested that all Bakers in the district ‘agree to the use of not less than 5 per cent of potatoes in the bread they bake’. The paper also observed that a new order had been made by the national Ministry of Food conferring upon every Local Food Control Committee ‘the power of enforcing within their area all orders made by the Food Controller’, with the power to prosecute any offence ‘occasioned by a breach of such orders’. On the other hand, the Comet noted with satisfaction that the Surbiton Committee, in contrast to Kingston’s Committee, had now finally agreed to allow representatives of the press into all their future meetings.

In nearby Kingston, the question of food and foodstuff shortages appears to have become particularly difficult by mid-to-late December, 1917, as families prepared for Christmas and tried to stock up on essential supplies. On December 22nd, for example, the Surrey Comet noted that: ‘Difficulties in food supplies have become acute in Kingston, and the long queues waiting for margarine, sugar and tea have raised serious problems’.

Elsewhere in the same edition, the paper reported that the only shop in Kingston that had secured a large supply of margarine (the Maypole Dairy Company, in Clarence Street) had been ‘besieged’ daily by crowds of people, ‘many of whom have waited for hours in the bitter cold in the hope of securing a little of the coveted fat’. Moreover, the Comet noted that, on several occasions, the queue – four or five people deep – had extended round into Union Street, with an estimated 500-800 people, the bulk being women and children, ‘and it has been a pitiful sight to see them standing for hours in the bitter frost and fog’.

A letter of protest also appeared in the newspaper, penned by Emily Jones, of Portsmouth Road in Kingston, and copied to the Local Kingston Food Controller, Dr. H. Beale Collins. Jones wrote, she said, to protest against the ‘method of distribution’ of food supplies in the town, drawing upon her own experiences of waiting for hours in a queue on two consecutive days, and having also personally witnessed some queue-jumping. She argued that something had to be done ‘to obviate what is rapidly becoming a scandalous condition of food distribution’.

Food queue in WW1 Reading

This situation was not unique to Kingston, and similar difficulties concerning food, the perceived ‘unfairness’ of how it was being distributed, and the long food queues, were reported from across Surrey and, indeed, from other parts of the country (see, for example, the photo here of a food queue in the town of Reading). But, using the new powers now granted to them from central government, and under pressure to deal rapidly with the problem of ‘queues’, Local Food Committees began to take more decisive action, including in Kingston.

A couple of days before Christmas, the Surrey Comet thus reported that, whereas the Kingston Committee had previously claimed that it was powerless to prevent the queues, ‘strong representations’ had been made by the Kingston Food Controller, Dr. Beale Collins, to the Ministry of Food in London, calling for ‘stringent measures’. The Ministry had now granted the Local Committee the power to control food supplies and requisition any surplus for transfer to other shops if needed. Consequently, the final 1917 issue of the Comet reported that, during the previous week, the Kingston Committee’s new power to commandeer margarine supplies for fairer distribution had been put into force, ‘with the immediate result that the margarine queues have ceased to exist and a grave public scandal has been terminated’. Five tons of margarine had been commandeered from the Maypole Dairy Company and redistributed to various retail outlets across Kingston.

As the county of Surrey entered 1918, food was to remain a major source of controversy and, although some of the immediate problems over queues had been alleviated, the government in London remained very keen to maintain the national ‘Food Economy Campaign’. Sir Arthur Yapp issued a New Year’s message, saying the nation generally ‘must make a tremendous effort’  to support the campaign and take its watchword – ‘S.O.S.’, ‘Save or Starve’ – to heart. He warned that, if voluntary rationing of food was not followed more enthusiastically, then it could lead to compulsory rationing (this did indeed eventually happen in 1918).

At local level, the Surrey Comet of December 29th sought to reinforce the urgency of Sir Arthur’s message, giving it a clear patriotic tone: ‘New Year is the time for making good resolutions… Waste no food is one good resolution which we should all make this year, and having made, should keep’. The paper added: ‘For we are up against it… Saving does not mean hoarding in stores and cupboards – only traitors do that. Saving means avoiding waste of every kind; we must not eat more than we need… Every time we take a bigger helping than is necessary we are firing a shot for the Hun’.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)




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