An interesting internet meme, and now popular product, is to modify the text from the first sign in the row, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” with modifications to reflect whatever the creator feels would make that sign adorable. Personally I enjoy the modification of history and its being used in new ways but I find the general reaction to this poster – that it is somehow adorably British – at odds with the dark nature of these three posters. The green one and the blue one were used during the early part of World War II, in an effort to promote public calm and stability in what was felt by many as the impending German-induced air apocalypse upon British cities. The unused red poster, you see, was designed to be deployed in the anticipated smoking rubble of British cities after the German air campaign leveled them. Now the key thing I need to point out here is that I am not discussing the actual devastation wrought upon London and other British cities during the Blitz, that was a campaign of bombing that the British people endured, discovered they could survive it, and pushed through. No what I am discussing here is the nearly numbing terror the British government, and much of the population felt, in 1939 regarding the impending destruction of British cities by German air attack.
The terror in 1939 was that any air attack on British cities would result in the absolute destruction of those cities, with millions dead and vast swatches of the city destroyed and uninhabitable. The prevailing theory in 1939 among many in the British government was that air raids would be horrifically destructive, that wars would be won or lost by shattered cities and a haunted populace unable to resist any further. These theories stemmed from the earlier ideas of an Italian military general and theorist named Giulio Douhet, (whom more shall be spoken of in a future entry), who argued that airplanes carrying bombs would make other forms of war obsolete. The theory was that their ability to make any area the front lines of battle, and their capacity to theoretically ruin a nations ability to fight, were felt by Douhet and others as the keys to victory in a modern war. For those who are particularly attentive you might notice how some of this sounds familiar…
That’s right, the fears of 1939 Britain were actually quite similar to the worries during the Cold War of the United States (and the Soviet Union) about the impact of bombing attacks upon their cities using nuclear weapons. Now with the power of hindsight we know that aerial bombardment was simply not that destructive with World War II technology used in the battlefield, so the poster that is now an amusing relic can be looked upon as a bit silly and overly dramatic. However, and this to my eye is the most interesting twist, although the British didn’t know it their concerns were actually not that far off the mark had Germany used a new weapon added to its potential arsenal in 1937 – tabun and in 1939 sarin nerve gases.
These new weapons, still being developed by Germany in quantities sufficient to be used in battle, were the pinnacle of chemical weapons technology in the 1940s and years ahead of anything the Allied powers had in their chemical arsenals. Had Germany chosen to use these weapons in its bombing campaign against Britain the effects would have been potentially devastating – each of those agents was incredibly lethal and potent – modern nerve agents capable of causing severe injury or death with only minute levels of exposure. Combine that with the lack of any effect defense by the targeted cities, and the lack of any Allied means of wrecking equivalent damage, and you had a weapon that might have changed the course of the war. Interestingly enough it was fear by Germany of retaliation by the Allies, specifically worry they had similar agents, that prevented them being used. When you think on that also remember that this was in good part due to Hitler personally ordering that these weapons not be used – both from his experiences in World War I when he was gassed and because of his fear of what these weapons could do to his own cities if used against Germany.
So enjoy the poster “Keep Calm and Carry On” but remember it was not meant as an adorable way to keep Britain’s upper lip stiff – it was meant to reassure a population after the anticipated reduction of their entire city, and hundreds of thousands if not millions of their colleagues wiped away in a massive bombing attack, were expected as a very real result of the war.
Sources: Wikipedia entry on the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster series.