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Scared to Travel? Let Gladwell & WWII Londoners Allay Those Fears


A lesson in conquering fear by the brave Londoners under attack by German bombers during World War II via Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath.

German Bombers London WWII
Two German Dornier Do 17Z bombers over London. Taken from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

Traveling can be a scary thing. When we travel, we are leaving the comfort of our own home, the familiarity and empowerment we draw from that keeps us at ease on a daily basis. Perhaps there are particular places we fear traveling to, as we expect that we might not be well received, it might be too dangerous, or we simply are afraid that we will have a less-than-great time.

I recently finished the amazingly satisfying book by Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath. The book is, in a nutshell, about how our perceptions of advantages and disadvantages are systematically wrong at a societal level, and perhaps that some “disadvantages” leave the holder better poised to take on tasks in the future.

In one chapter of the book, he dealt with fear, and how its presence and the way we deal with it are key in determining our future outlook and “courage.” I’m going to quote from Gladwell’s David and Goliath, though he in turn quotes from a study done by one Canadian psychiatrist, J. T. MacCurdy, in a book called The Structure of Morale.

So, in the years before World War II, the British government was worried about how ill-equipped London was in case the Germans launched an air offensive against the city. London, with its throngs of civilians, was feared it could lose major portions of its population in the tragic event of a German bombing spree.

Winston Churchill described London as ‘the greatest target in the world. . . . He predicted that the city would be so helpless in the face of attack that between three and four million Londoners would flee to the countryside. In 1937, on the eve of the war, the British . . . issued a report with the direst prediction of all: a sustained German bombing attack would leave six hundred thousand dead and 1.2 million wounded and create mass panic in the streets. People would refuse to go to work. Industrial production would grind to a halt. The army would be useless against the Germans because it would be preoccupied with keeping order among the millions of panicked civilians. The country’s planners briefly considered building a massive network of underground bomb shelters across London, but they abandoned the plan out of a fear that if they did, the people who took refuge there would never come out. They set up several psychiatric hospitals just outside the city limits to handle what they expected would be a flood of psychological casualties. ‘There is every chance,’ the report stated, ‘that this could cost us the war.’ In the fall of 1940, the long-anticipated attack began.

From September 7, 1940 through May 21, 1941, the Germans relentlessly bombed London, as well as other major British cities. All told, in those eight months, Gladwell states that 40,000 people were killed, 46,000 were injured, and perhaps 1,000,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

It was everything the British government officials had feared—except that every one of their predictions about how Londoners would react turned out to be wrong.

The panic never came. The psychiatric hospitals built on the outskirts of London were switched over to military use because no one showed up. Many women and children were evacuated to the countryside as the bombing started. But people who needed to stay in the city by and large stayed. As the Blitz continued . . . the British authorities began to observe—to their astonishment—not just courage in the face of the bombing but something closer to indifference. ‘In October 1940 I had occasion to drive through South-East London just after a series of attacks on that district,’ one English psychiatrist wrote just after the war ended:

‘Every hundred yards or so, it seemed, there was a bomb crater or wreckage of what had once been a house or shop. The siren blew its warning and I looked to see what would happen. A nun seized the hand of a child she was escorting and hurried on. She and I seemed to be the only ones who had heard the warning. Small boys continued to play all over the pavements, shoppers went on haggling, a policeman directed traffic in majestic boredom and the bicyclists defied death and the traffic laws. No one, so far as I could see, even looked into the sky.’

I think you’ll agree this is hard to believe. The Blitz was war. The exploding bombs sent deadly shrapnel flying in every direction. The incendiaries left a different neighborhood in flames every night. More than a million people lost their homes. Thousands crammed into makeshift shelters in subway stations every night. Outside, between the thunder of planes overhead, the thud of explosions, the rattle of anti-aircraft guns, and the endless wails of ambulances, fire engines, and warning sirens, the noise was unrelenting. In one survey of Londoners, on the night of September 12, 1940, a third said that they had gotten no sleep the night before, and another third said they got fewer than four hours. Can you imagine how New Yorkers would have reacted if one of their office towers had been reduced to rubble not just once but every night for two and a half months?

The typical explanation for the reaction of Londoners is the British “stiff upper lip”—the stoicism said to be inherent in the English character. (Not surprisingly, this is the explanation most favored by the British themselves.) But one of the things that soon became clear was that it wasn’t just the British who behaved this way. Civilians from other countries also turned out to be unexpectedly resilient in the face of bombing. Bombing, it became clear, didn’t have the effect that everyone had thought it would have. It wasn’t until the end of the war that the puzzle was solved by the Canadian psychiatrist J. T. MacCurdy, in a book called The Structure of Morale.

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Christian Eilers
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Christian Eilers
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