Propaganda bestsellers: the role of paperbacks in the Second World War

In anticipation of the 2015 London Rare Book School, this blog post by Dr Henry Irving examines the idea behind the Ministry of Information’s Official War Books series. What gives a book popular appeal? This question was raised repeatedly in the Ministry of Information’s Publications Division during 1941. The way that it was answered led to the creation of a ‘new kind of book’ and resulted in sales numbering in the tens of millions. By the end of the war, Ministry books were an established part of the country’s reading, yet this chapter in British publishing history remains little known.  The Ministry’s internal discussion over popularity began with the publication of a book which proved to be its most successful. The Battle of Britain, written by the popular author Hilary Saunders, was revised by the Ministry after it became a surprise best-seller in March 1941. The Ministry-edition boasted an illustrated cover, eye-catching diagrams and action photographs. It sold 4.8 million copies in Britain in the six months following its release. The Battle of Britain’s success was followed by that of Bomber Command. This paperback was based on interviews with returning aircrews and promised to tell the story of a battle unlike any ‘fought before in the history of mankind’. Published just after the release of the Ministry of Information’s acclaimed documentary film ‘Target for Tonight’, it quickly sold 1.25 million copies. Robert Fraser (the head of the publications division) believed that figure would have been far higher ‘if only the copies could have been physically produced’. These successes led to questions because Fraser understood that ‘the book is not an easy...

World War II began 75 years ago with censorship chaos that echoes down the decades

From time to time members of the School of Advanced Study publish about their research on other websites. This post republishes that work from the original article. Republished from     By Henry Irving, School of Advanced Study (Institute of English Studies) At approximately 1.30 am in the night of September 11 1939 two police officers walked into the offices of the Daily Mail with instructions to seize all of its early editions. This action was repeated at newspaper offices and wholesale newsagents across the United Kingdom. A road block was set up in Fleet Street, trains from London were stopped, and members of the public had newspapers confiscated. The war had begun eight days earlier. And this chaotic situation 12 hours earlier. At midday on 11 September, an official radio broadcast in Paris had wrongly announced that British troops were engaged in offensive action against Nazi forces. The whereabouts of British troops had been kept strictly secret since the beginning of the war. So the announcement led to serious discussions within the British government. The Ministry of Information believed that there was little point suppressing a story which had already broken. The fact that reports of the broadcast had been picked up in the United States suggested that they would also have made their way into enemy hands. It was eventually agreed that the government should confirm the arrival of British troops in France. But the War Office remained wary that more important information might be accidentally disclosed. It became even more worried when government censors began to receive colourful stories about troops being welcomed with flowers and...

‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ at 75

The instruction to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has become one of the most recognisable slogans in British history. The phrase has reinforced a popular view of life in the Second World War and has been reproduced on everything from champagne flutes to smartphone cases. A window advertisement passed by one of our team on their daily commute even encourages them to ‘Keep Calm and Order Signage’. The original slogan was coined by the shadow Ministry of Information between 27 June and 6 July 1939 and was intended to form part of a series of three ‘Home Publicity’ posters that would be issued in the event of war. Although 2.45 million copies of the ‘Keep Calm’ design were printed in the days immediately preceding the Second World War, its display was never officially authorised and only a handful of the originals have survived to this day. It is something of an irony that the decision not to issue the poster was influenced by a belief that its restrained message was ‘too commonplace to be inspiring’ and fears that people might ‘resent having [it] crammed down their throats at every turn’. One cannot but wonder what those who made this decision would think of the way that the poster has been popularised in the years since a copy was ‘rediscovered’ in a box of second hand books in 2001. Given that other parts of the Ministry of Information’s campaign were highly criticised at the time, it is also reasonable to wonder whether the slogan would be as popular now had it been actually been issued! To mark the 75th anniversary...

Introducing MOI Digital

The Ministry of Information (MOI) is the focus of a major AHRC-funded research project being undertaken by Professor Simon Eliot of the Institute of English Studies in collaboration with Paul Vetch of the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London. On 28 July 1939 Samuel Hoare, the British Home Secretary, provided the House of Commons with an update on the progress being made to establish a Ministry of Information (MOI) in the event of war. He explained that the intention was to ‘build up a comprehensive and efficient machine that would be able to work as soon as war came upon us’ and that efforts had been made to consult as widely as possible. He stressed that he had made ‘contacts with people in every walk of life and every kind of opinion’. The MOI provides a unique case study for historians of communication.  Using all available methods, this was always a two-way process, with the MOI responsible for both the dissemination and the monitoring of information.  It was in this sense that the first Minister of Information, the Scottish Law Lord Hugh Macmillan, described his department as a ‘vehicle of communication between the Government and the public at home and abroad’. It is in a similar spirit that we announce the launch of MOI Digital. This website is the online home of the ‘Publishing and Communications History of the Ministry of Information’ project and details of our scholarly activities and a regularly updated blog. It also provides an opportunity for you to engage with the project’s development by contributing to its findings.  This is important. After all,...