Skip to main content


The Second World War and COVID-19: building narratives

4 June 2020

In our latest post, Dr Leon Gooberman relates the narratives surrounding the unfolding COVID-19 crisis and the end of the Second World War in Europe.

The COVID-19 crisis coincided recently with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Coincidence prompted comparisons between the trajectories of mobilisation within both periods. But what can such comparisons tell us? While we do not know how the COVID-19 crisis will unfold, our knowledge of the war follows familiar patterns that shape contemporary comparisons.

It is often assumed that the UK under Chamberlain was wholly unprepared in 1939, and the country stood alone when Churchill assumed power in May 1940. The government then mobilised industry quickly and a ‘people’s war’ ended in victory. But some of these assumptions are problematic. If the UK was unprepared in 1939, where did the Spitfire and Hurricane fighters come from during the Battle of Britain? They did not appear suddenly; both types were developed from the early 1930s as part of rearmament and giant factories were constructed later in the decade. Meanwhile, partial dependence on food imports presented obvious risks should war break out. The government responded by preparing rationing systems to conserve food, and local committees to control wartime agriculture. Committees mobilised when war broke out and were very successful in driving greater production.

Does this exonerate Chamberlain? No. Appeasement was a disaster and the army, apart from a few units, was neglected and under-equipped. Rearmament was handicapped by short-sighted Treasury arguments that spending more would harm defence because it would damage the economy and prevent future expenditure. Unfortunately, the Treasury could act on its arguments. It restricted expenditure and, for example, stopped construction workers working night shifts to accelerate the completion of munitions factories in south Wales during the summer of 1939 as such shifts meant higher wages.

But surely all this changed in 1940 when the UK stood alone? The UK faced imminent invasion in 1940 and was isolated militarily. But it also headed a global empire and trading system. These attributes eased isolation, and the empire accounted for over 40 per cent of all imports by value throughout the war. Some supply chains held despite grievous shipping losses. All imports ranged from semi-finished steel and ingots; two million tons in 1940 and 1.5 million tons in 1943, to living cattle; 560,000 in 1940 and 409,000 in 1943.

What about mobilising industry to fight a ‘people’s war’?  Munitions production did grow quickly from 1939 but it did not peak until 1944, after a protracted and occasionally chaotic administrative process. Three Ministries supplied war material to the services and their full co-ordination took years to achieve. A Production Council was created in 1940 to drive co-operation but failed. It was replaced in 1941 by a Production Executive which also failed, partly because the Minister for Supply did not want to be shouted at by the Minister for Labour. The executive was replaced in 1942 by a Ministry of Production. The new Ministry struggled initially but succeeded in 1943, as joint working was incentivised by the need to wring industrial capacity from a mobilised economy.

Relations away from Whitehall were equally poor. The official attempting to co-ordinate production in Wales in late 1941 compared intragovernmental tensions to the war in North Africa. Meanwhile, the Board of Trade allocated factory space but refused to join intragovernmental structures. Deadlock continued until it was outmanoeuvred by 1943 and forced to co-operate. Even the mobilisation of labour was protracted, with industrial conscription introduced gradually. Finally, industrial relations in the coal industry were explosive, government policy was ineffective, and productivity and output fell continuously.

But none of this mattered over time. The UK’s economy and labour market were fully mobilised after 1943 and almost two million women had joined the paid labour force. Total munitions production in early 1944 was 1.6 times the level of early 1942 and far higher than that of 1939. As early as 1942 the government was surprised to find that some of its factories were producing too much ammunition. Scarcity of war material was a distant memory by early 1944 as parts of the UK became a giant parking area for British, American, and Canadian troops preparing for D-Day.

Wartime events prompt two points. One is that that we will not be able to know exactly what happened overall in the current crisis until after it has happened. Using Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous typology, many known knowns are doubtful, and known unknowns and unknown unknowns are lost in a fog of confusion. But it is tempting to jump immediately to overall conclusions, although the frenetic commentary from all sides that is a prominent feature of this crisis often does little but reinforce pre-existing partisan positions. The other point is that even after this crisis has subsided, we may still have gaps in our understanding. Looking at the second world war tells us that received narratives can sometimes be problematic.

Many critical impacts of this crisis in the UK will be the responsibility of the UK Government. Some may be attributable to other governments. Others will be the product of a vast range of different factors, and most will be attributable to a combination. But we have yet to unpick all these elements, or how they interact in different environments. Such uncertainty means that the quick answers offered by all sides on COVID-19 will often be wrong. Initial overviews are best left to epidemiologists once they have assembled sufficient evidence. We can then digest the broader implications, avoid misleading narratives, and arm ourselves for the next pandemic.   

Dr Leon Gooberman is a Lecturer in Employment Relations at Cardiff Business School.


1 comment
  1. Ed Heery

    Interesting blog, Leon. Just read the two volumes of Daniel Todman’s Britain at War, which is a great overview. Good at puncturing received wisdom and with a strong emphasis on the War as an episode of decline – Britain began it as a Great Power and ended it as an American client. Lots on the Home Front and the intense rivalry between different parts of Government, in the manner you describe

Comments are closed.