|An Odd Way to View
World War II
by Brian Grafton
I am a (now inactive) collector of Penguin Books. Given the vast number of
Penguins that have been published under the various marks (Penguin, Pelican,
Peregrine, Puffin, Ptarmigan, Peacock and the like), my collection – at some
3,000 volumes – is small: I have met collectors with 8,000+ volumes to their
name. Rather oddly, to my mind, and to the best of my knowledge, Penguin Books
itself does not know how many volumes it has published.
As in much of the British Commonwealth, at least in the years between 1960 and
1975, Penguin Books played a large part in my education in Canada: they
supplied much of the secondary reading for many of my university studies.
Volumes dealing with history, archaeology, literature, culture, science,
architecture, art, music scores and the like were all found in Penguin or
Pelican Books. When my university years were over, I discarded most of my
textbooks. But the Penguins remained; they weren't textbooks, but cultural
references reflecting my own history. And they were, for the most part, damned
About 15 years ago, when I was looking for books about World War II that were
written and published during the war, I stumbled across a strange variant
Penguin publication on the Royal Navy – Owen Rutter's British Navy's Air Arm
– a 1944 Penguin Special (S222) published jointly in the US by Penguin and the
Infantry Journal. The book had as a sub-title "The Official Story of the
British Navy's Air Operations", and the copyright, duly noted on the verso of
the title page, was listed as held by "the Controller of His Britannic
Majesty's Stationery Office". Below that was the simple statement: "Printed in
the United States of America". There were enough seeming contradictions here to
catch my eye.
Of course, I bought the volume. And began looking for more "Specials". And
found I had been swallowed by a publishing house.
Penguin Books in the Thirties in Great Britain
In July, 1935, a new publishing house announced its presence in England by
offering ten titles to the reading public. None of the titles was very
exciting, and none was a new publication: all were older works in biography,
mystery, fiction and humour. Yet for four reasons they stood out: first, they
were bound in stiffish paper covers; second, the print quality was quite good,
and the presentation quite appealing; and third, their price was a mere
sixpence (6d) each. Many publishers had met at least some of these criteria
before; Gollanz had even met all three, though I believe only through his
company's book club and with selected titles. These new books, however, added a
fourth element: they were available where normal working class and lower-middle
class folks shopped – in shops such as Woolworth's. In fact, without
Woolworth's, this new publishing venture would not have gotten off the ground.
The covers of most of the ten volumes were a rather bright orange, though there
were rich green and rather intense blue covers as well. What they had in common
was a stylized drawing of a rather dumpy bird, and, on the cover (and the dust
jacket: these paperbacked books had dust jackets!) the simple words: "Penguin
Books". To nearly everyone's surprise, the "first ten", as they became known –
each printed in initial runs of 10,000 – proved immensely popular. Within a
month, many of the original ten volumes were being reprinted. A new, and
different, publishing house had born. Less obviously, but more importantly, a
revolution in public access to knowledge began to take shape.
Two years later, Penguin applied the same formula to non-fiction. Under the
"Pelican" name, Penguin offered its readers respected studies in science,
sociology, art history, and such fields – this time in covers of distinctive
blue, and still at the surprising 6d price. In effect, Penguin Books was making
both literature and non-fiction available to the working and lower middle
classes of Britain – groups who had never been considered by most publishing
houses as book buyers.
A caveat might be necessary here, for I do not wish to suggest that
Alan Lane and his brothers founded Penguin Books with the intention of
educating the masses, or from any political motivation. I honestly believe they
were simply looking for a market, and realized that the publishing process of
the time was one which, for the most part, made book ownership a luxury many
Englishmen could not afford. They knew that men and women were readers; there
were dozens of reading clubs, lending libraries of various types, and a growing
number of institutions offering various forms of "improvement" in various
fields. At a guess, I would expect that literacy in Britain was at the time
higher on a per capita basis than in the major Commonwealth nations or
the U.S. I've never doubted that the Lane brothers – at least in 1935 – were
simply canny book publishers; I'm comfortable with the idea that Penguin was
searching for nothing but that economic point which might turn a nation of
readers into a nation of book buyers. At 6d, they found it.
When Penguin introduced those first ten volumes in 1935, it was introducing
them to a nation under a many great strains. Economically, Great Britain was in
great difficulty: through the years between the wars unemployment was
consistently over one million souls, rising at times to over four million
during the 30s. "The Dole" and "The Means Test" became ‘markers' for entire
areas of the country – largely, it must be admitted, class markers –
particularly in England's north. Politically, the government remained, through
most of the period, listless at best: Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and his
appetite for sleep were a hallmark for the lack of government initiatives
through much of the period. Chamberlain, though not prone to doze off in
Cabinet as Baldwin was purported to do, would prove only slightly more
effective than Baldwin when he became Prime Minister in 1937. Socially, the
class structure, which had supposedly been swept away in the trenches of the
Great War, had risen like a Phoenix in a miraculous and healthy rebirth.
Intellectually, there was tension between ideological left and right which
found expression through literature, drama, philosophy, economics, university
‘movements' (I'm thinking about the ‘Peace Pledge' movement, for example), and
– as the decade continued – through increasingly activist groups such as
Moseley's British Union of Fascists or those British, American, and other
citizens who had joined the International Brigades to fight against the
Falangists in Spain.
I offer this as a background to Penguin Books for two reasons. First, because –
whatever Alan Lane and his brothers may have dreamed of when they started
Penguin Books – the success of their house, and the impact it had on ordinary
men and women from the very beginning, was much greater than they could have
imagined when the "first ten" were offered for sale. Second, because by the end
of Britain's years of austerity – some sixteen years after Penguin's first ten
volumes appeared – Penguin Books would be recognized as one of the great
publishing houses in the English-speaking world. Penguin Books represented, in
fact, a revolution in the provision of information wherever English was spoken.
I believe that the war had a great deal to do with Penguin's success. More, I
believe Penguin's activities had some impact on the war itself, both in Great
Britain, in the US, and to some extent in Occupied Europe, the Middle East,
India and the members of the Commonwealth at large. What I offer from this
point on is, admittedly, a bit of dabbling. I have not studied or researched
the phenomenon of "Penguin Books at War", but am intrigued by the possibilities
of the role they played.
The Years Before the War: Penguin Specials
For some reason, in late 1937 Penguin Books signaled a change in direction.
Whereas to this point Penguin had been largely a simple publisher, it suddenly
became a voice calling for readiness at home, for resolution abroad, for
aggressive rejection of the political creeds of Germany, Italy, and Spain. I
don't know what may have led to this increasingly energetic stance. It may have
been the political implications of the still-raging Spanish Civil War, or the
increasing aggression from Germany and Italy. It may have arisen from the
growth of Moseley's British Union of Fascists, or from the development of the
International Brigades; it may have been embarrassment over political decisions
at home. In truth, it may have been a simple evaluation of opportunities in the
book market! Whatever its reasons, without being strident Penguin – in addition
to maintaining its central purpose of offering decent literature and sound
non-fiction to its readers – introduced a new series: "Penguin Specials".
I view the "Specials" as political volumes, for reasons which will become
apparent. But I must point out that not all "Specials" are political. There are
volumes on ballet, opera, literary taste, and design; there are volumes on
biology and on coral reefs. Essentially, I believe that the "Specials" were, in
their inception, experimental. They broke the niche Penguin had created for
itself in 1935, of a house offering reprints of decent books which had been
received well in more expensive formats. By venturing into the world of
offering true first editions – books commissioned by the publisher to meet a
perceived market – Penguin was taking a large step to a different level of
publishing. As it happened, this step was taken at a time of growing political
controversy. My impression is that, seeing the interest in political issues of
the day which the early "Specials" generated, Alan Lane and his brothers
decided to go where the readers wanted.
The first Special appeared in late 1937. At first glance, it seemed to be a
typical Penguin volume: a reprint of a 1933 publication titled Germany Puts the
Clock Back. There were, however, certain indications that this Penguin
was different. First: Edgar Mowrer, the author, was both an American and a
journalist, with experience in European capitals where Fascism had been gaining
strength. He was neither a novelist, nor an academic, nor a theorist, nor an
apologist. He was a news professional who had drawn conclusions about the
advent of Fascism based on his own experience. Second: Mowrer was induced to
add a chapter updating his argument to include 1937 events. Third: the book
became "hot" property. Penguin's first imprint appeared in December 1937. It
was reprinted in the same month, and then again in February 1938, and again in
March 1938. With revisions, it was reprinted again in April 1938, and – with
even more changes – in August. Another reprint followed in November 1938,
perhaps because of the events in Munich, followed by a reprint with further
revisions in February 1939 after the implications of Munich were becoming
clear. For whatever reasons, and by whatever standards, seven reprints in the
space of 15 months – even with Penguin's notoriously small print runs – suggest
that Penguin had a best-seller on its hands.
Clearly, Penguin's first "Special" – like all Penguin publications of the time,
it had a sequential number on the spine, in this case, "S1" – was a runaway
hit. But that was just the beginning. G.T. Garratt's Mussolini's Roman Empire
("S2"), first published in February 1938, was reprinted three times – twice
with new material or revisions – by August of the same year. Tabouis' Blackmail
or War – Penguin's "S3" – went through four printings between February
and May 1938, with a revision during those three months. Penguin Specials
appeared to be meeting a public need for "breaking" information, and all at
only 6d per volume.
I stress the price because, for the first time, Penguin was offering the public
well-written, thoughtful studies of current political affairs at a price which
all but the indigent could afford. Their success demonstrated what had not been
appreciated before: the ordinary citizens of Great Britain wanted to be
informed, and were willing to pay for the privilege.
The "Specials" tapped into a huge, largely untouched market. Other publishers –
Gollancz is the one that comes to mind – were offering fascinating volumes on
social/political issues, but their volumes typically cost 2/6 (i.e., two
shillings and sixpence, a considerable expense). This price was acceptable to
those with money to squander: 2/6 would not cripple the middle classes or the
intellectuals. But Penguin was offering volumes for something like the price of
a pint of bitter. The response was incredible: if Penguin followed its normal
printing patterns from the time (and I have not been able to confirm this),
"S1" sold 70,000 volumes in 15 months, "S2" 40,000 in seven months, and "S3"
40,000 in four months.
Penguin's editorial (or, perhaps, political) decisions helped inform a broad
sector of public opinion as war approached. Between December 1937 and the
declaration of war on September 3, 1939, Penguin introduced about forty
"Specials", in addition to the 200 or so new volumes published under the
regular Penguin and Pelican logos. The exact number of "Specials" published
during those 19 months is hard to pin down: Penguin's sequential numbering
system was often more for the convenience of the publisher than the public.
Nevertheless, for those who might be counting, that is an average of about one
new "Special" every two weeks – a truly incredible number of publications
dealing with challenging issues as war grew nearer.
Looking over the titles and authors published as "Specials", it appears to me
that Penguin was both encouraging active and informed participation in the
great public debate that was now raging in Britain, and leaning rather heavily
away from policies of appeasement or gestures of accommodation. A Penguin
statement appears to disagree with my reading of the situation; in an editorial
comment, Penguin said "…we have no political axe to grind and…are prepared to
publish any book from the extreme Left to the extreme Right, which in our
opinion merits being brought to the attention of the reading public". This
statement, however, was offered in 1940, by which time Britain was at war. In
truth, Penguin did publish essays from both Left and Right. "S21", the Marquess
of Londonderry's Ourselves and Germany, argues for better relations
with Germany, using Munich as a positive indication of Germany's integrity and
a basis for future discussions. Most "Specials" in the 19 months between "S1"
and the declaration of war, however, despite how fully they might be couched in
neutral, diplomatic language, stressed the differences between German, Italian
and Spanish values and those held by the western European democracies. I'm not
suggesting the early Penguin "Specials" were war-mongering diatribes or
anti-fascist propaganda. On the contrary, they appear to be well-thought-out,
rather academic studies of growing tensions throughout Europe, offered during
the the increasingly expected collision course between Germany (and, later,
Italy) and those who would face them in the coming war. In the final analysis,
the "Specials" provided literate Great Britain a course in contemporary
range of nations discussed in the prewar "Specials" is worth noting: China,
Czechoslovakia, Spain, Britain, Poland, Italy, Germany, Russia, the West Indies
and Suez are found in various volumes. China, of course, had been at war with
Japan for some years, and Suez – a lifeline for the British Empire – was under
threat by Mussolini's posturing in the Mediterranean. In addition, Hitler,
Mussolini, the refugee challenge and the Jewish question are each focal points
in one or more volumes. Three consecutive publications chosen more or less at
random – S8 was The Air Defence of Britain (October 1938); S9 was Europe
and the Czechs (September 1938); and S10 The Jewish Problem (November
1938) – indicate Penguin's scope and vision: they were covering current social,
political and military issues as broadly as possible.
There were also some "Pelican Specials", mixed in with the Penguins and
numbered sequentially with them, but with blue-and-white banded covers rather
than the Penguin "Special" red/orange-and-white bands. Pelican "Specials"
covered subjects as diverse and apparently incongruous to the Penguin
"Specials" as ballet, modern German art, agricultural capacity, microbes, and
design. I raise them for two reasons: first, because there remains in some of
the Pelican "Specials" a playfulness which appears to reflect the youth and
exuberance of the Lane brothers. In Hugh Nicol's Microbes by the Millions
(S28), for example – a volume dedicated by the author "To Daughter Barbara, who
became ‘Penguin'-conscious at a very early age" – the second of the seven
appendices, "Looking-Glass Chemistry" appears in reversed type in the Table of
Contents. This might be a bit of cheeky fluff, but to see such a game being
played in a 1939 publication is heartening. It also bolsters an earlier point
that the "Specials" were experimental in nature.
Secondly, even these Pelicans offered more than a whiff of confrontation and
even forboding in them. "S6", Modern German Art, deals with
exhibitions of "degenerate" German art. At the time, Germany placed all Jewish
or Jewish-inspired art under the label "degenerate". It is worth noting that on
both the cover and the dust jacket of this volume there is the following
statement, written in upper case, and with the author's name in bold. I offer
it as it appeared: "THE AUTHOR [of this volume: ed] IS A VERY WELL-KNOWN GERMAN
ART CRITIC WHO FOR SPECIAL REASONS MUST HIDE HIS IDENTITY UNDER THE NAME OF
PETER THOENE." Written in upper- and lower-case, this message
could have identified whether this person was a German art critic, or a critic
of German art. By implication, at least, that could have been dangerous. In
this case, Penguin seems to be making a point through typography.
Without wishing to make an issue of it, I would tend to argue that, even in
volumes which were not overtly political, Penguin was increasingly making
political statements in all its "Specials" as the war approached. This trend
would continue as the war progressed, particularly when Penguin started
publishing "Specials" in the US.
The War in Europe
After the British declaration of war on September 3, the next two "Specials" to
appear – S44 and S45, both appearing in October – were astonishing. S44, Light
on Moscow, by D.N. Pritt (K.C., M.P.), includes commentary on the
Soviet Union's "occupying the White-Russian and Ukrainian territories of
Eastern Poland" – an event which began only in mid-September, two weeks before
publication. By its fourth reprint (in January, 1940), S44 would be further
revised to include comments on the Finnish campaign. To my way of thinking, at
least, Penguin Books were clearly maintaining their professed commitment to the
British public: "we will keep you as informed as possible!".
the second of the October volumes, was equally fascinating. It appeared within
a month of Chamberlain's declaration of war, was "reproduced by permission of
the Controller of His Britannic Majesty's Stationery Office", and was titled The
Government Blue Book. Quite forthrightly, and without editorial
comment, S45 offers some 144 official or recognized documents, statements,
communiqués and/or agreements which are germane to the outbreak of war,
beginning with the German-Polish agreement of January 26, 1934. The contents of
S45 are often mind-numbing, and are as dull to read as any collection of
government documents can be. There is no indication of how accurate or complete
the documents might be, though the use of the term "government blue book",
together with the Seal of the Controller, suggests some kind of government
"arrangement" with Penguin Books. This is the first indication I know of that
Penguin was forging links with the British government.
Penguin would continue to publish "Specials" throughout the war. By a rough
count, there were some 110 Specials produced between 1939 and 1945 – something
like a volume every two-and-a-half weeks for the duration. Most "Specials"
offered challenging essays dealing with issues that the war itself had raised.
Many of the volumes were short, and they were printed on increasingly inferior
paper: within weeks of the outbreak of war, the quantity of paper available to
publishers was severely restricted (quantities quickly dropped to 60% of
pre-war levels), and as the war continued the quality of the paper declined
dramatically as well. To some extent, Penguin found ways around the
quantitative restrictions, but it could do little about the quality of paper or
of binding materials in Great Britain.
The subject matter of the wartime "Specials" might give pause to many readers
today, but the issues raised were considered critical during the war. Such
• John Price: Organized Labour in the War (S70; 1940)
• John Haddam: God in a World at War (S73; no date)
• Keith Horsefield: The Real Cost of the War (S76; 1940)
• Edward Glover: The Psychology of Fear and Courage (S79; 1940)
• Louis Lévy: The Truth About France (S84; 1941)
• William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury: Christianity and the Social Order
• Maurice Edelman: How Russia Prepared (S110; 1942)
• H.G. Wells: An Indictment of the Roman Catholic Church (S129; 1943)
• Phyllis Bottome: Our New Order, or Hitler's? (S134; 1943).
Penguin, it appears, decided to maintain "Specials" as a series committed to
"intellectual integrity and "reasoned debate" as the war continued.
Despite Penguin's official editorial stance
– which, to be honest, I find a bit forced – certain Penguin Specials became
"military" volumes simply because of their excellence and value. The most
famous of these is S82, Aircraft Recognition, by R.A. Saville-Sneath.
The excellence of Saville-Sneath's volume arose from two devices. The first was
simply a question of categorization: he grouped aircraft by obvious
distinctions: number of engines; location of the wing (low, mid, or high). But
he also introduced a ¾ view from below – the view most ground observers would
have of an aircraft flying above them. Offered originally as a guide to the
general public, it was quickly adopted by RAF Observers, and was soon issued as
a Service Edition. In my own collection, I have copies of the standard Special
(S82), a US Special (also S82), and at least two other imprints of
Saville-Sneath's volume – a Service Edition volume (designation: SE, with no
number) and a US version co-produced by Penguin US and the Infantry Journal
(also S82). There were also US spin-offs from the original, including the 1942 What's
That Plane, by Walter Pitkin Jr. – numbered S201 – the first of the
Penguin Specials published in the US for a distinctly US market. Pitkin's
volume did not include the famous ¾ views which made Saville-Sneath's
publication so useful, but it was very popular, going through ten printings
between March 1942 and November 1943.
Penguin Specials in a Global War
As part of its plan for expansion, Penguin Books had entered the US market in
July 1939. Despite the events of September, the Penguin rep. – Ian Ballantine –
was moderately successful in establishing Penguin as a publishing house in the
US. Ballantine's real coup, however, was the relationship he formed with the
Infantry Journal. Amongst other things, this would assure Penguin of a decent
supply of paper for its US publications. It would also do much to establish the
Penguin name in the US.
The collaboration between the Infantry Journal (in Washington, DC) and Penguin
US (in New York) introduced a new line of titles – many of them under the
"Penguin Special" title – geared to the US war effort. They were, in my
opinion, not introduced without some slightly false starts. Certain UK
"Specials", reproduced by Penguin US and using UK numbering, were inappropriate
for the US market. The UK and the US were, when it gets right down to it, at
war for different reasons. What Penguin Books saw as essential to British
morale, and the British war effort, were not necessarily appropriate for the
United States or the American war effort.
Even after the US "Specials" were well and truly launched – with the S200
series – certain UK volumes continued to appear in the list of US publications.
Two in my collection are US-S207 and US-S213, both clearly labeled as Penguin
Specials. The first (S207) is the Archbishop of Canterbury's Christianity and
Social Order, published in England as S104. William Temple initially
wrote the volume as Archbishop of York; it was reprinted when he became
Archbishop of Canterbury (and de facto spiritual head of the Church of
England). He later became an outspoken critic of the bomber war. The second
volume (S213) was W.K. Hancock's Empire in a Changing World. It is
possible that William Temple's treatise might have been of interest in the US
as a reflection of Christian values in a world at war, rather than by his
position in the Church of England. Hancock's volume, on the other hand, is not
one I would not have expected to be a good sell in the US in 1943: the US – for
understandable reasons – had never indicated any desire to fight to protect the
British Empire. Volumes such as these were, I believe, errors on Penguin's
part, propagated by the mistaken belief that the issues crucial to the UK would
find a resonance in the US. Penguin Books were wrong in this assessment. The US
didn't need to borrow British reasons for fighting: they had Pearl Harbour.
After some errors, Penguin US would recognize the differences between US and
British/Commonwealth requirements, and would change focus to what the US market
Once the collaboration between Penguin and the Infantry Journal was worked out,
the physical format of the books changed quite dramatically. From the
beginning, Penguins in Britain were of a uniform size (7 1/8" H x 4 3/8" W).
The Penguin/Infantry Journal volumes published in the US were considerably
smaller (6 7/8" H x 4 ¼" W). Quite honestly, I'm not certain why this occurred,
but the reasons were most likely practical ones. Press sizes and bindery
capabilities are one possibility, though such restrictions would not explain
why the US Specials published without Infantry Journal collaboration are the
same height as English Specials (though not quite so wide). More likely as an
explanation is the imposition of wartime regulations limiting the use of a
strategic resource such as paper. Certainly, other US paperbacks I have from
the war years (largely from Pocket Books, Ace, and Dell) match the dimensions
of the Penguin/Infantry Journal volumes. In one of them (Pocket Book 230), The
Pocket Aviation Quiz Book (1943), on what would normally be the
half-title page, is the following: "This Pocket Book is made in strict
conformity with WPB regulations restricting the use of strategic materials."
In this smaller format, the Penguin/Infantry Journal collaboration produced a
large number of volumes. These seem to fall into three categories. The first
were strictly "military" volumes, as the following indicate: S203, Guerrilla
Warfare; S212, Psychology for the Fighting Man; S214, Hitler's Second
Army; S226, The Battle is the Pay-off; S237, Pipeline to
Battle. As far as I know – I have not seen the complete series – these
are more aggressive, practical volumes than Penguin had ever introduced in
Great Britain, with the exception of S75, New Ways of War. The authors
are, by-and-large, military men of one sort or another, ranging from members of
the British Brigade in Spain (e.g., ‘Yank' Levy, Canadian-born, US raised, but
trained by the British and ultimately an instructor for the Home Guard), to
Major Peter Rainier of the Royal Engineers in North Africa, to assorted writers
given rank in exchange for their ability to write stirring works. For a variety
of reasons, the volumes make very interesting reading.
The second group offered assurance to US citizens: S220, Guadalcanal Diary,
honouring the USMC and the first major success in the ground war in the
Pacific; S221, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, dealing with the Doolittle
raid; S222, The British Navy's Air Arm, which seems to have been
designed to assure the US that the Royal Navy would remain a fighting force.
Some of these have become classics from World War II, and were not published
first by Penguin/Infantry Journal. Tregaskis' Guadalcanal Diary and
Lawson's Thirty Seconds over Tokyo certainly fit this category.
The third category is predominantly fiction or popular biography, and includes
works by authors such as John Steinbeck (The Moon is Down), George
Stewart (Storm) and Harold Lamb (Genghis Khan: Emperor of All Men
). That these were volumes meant for enlisted personnel as well as the US
public at large seems fairly obvious.
The covers of the US 200 series books make clear the collaboration between
Penguin and the Infantry Journal, usually in a banner across the bottom of the
cover saying "Infantry Journal/Penguin Books". The spines, however – on all but
two volumes in my possession – say "Fighting Forces Penguin Special". This may
suggest that the Infantry Journal/Penguin Specials were considered publications
for US forces, though I'm not entirely convinced that this was the case. It is
just as easy to accept that this was merely a marketing technique to link
potential buyers with the US armed forces. Until I have seen more copies of
Infantry Journal/Penguin Specials, or other publications which were designated
solely for US armed forces, I would be uncomfortable taking this further, as
far as the US market is concerned. Certainly, the Penguin/Infantry Journal
itself gives differing explanations in the books themselves, sometimes
declaring a volume to be designed for the fighting troops and sometimes saying
a volume is designed to promote civilian understanding of the war.
Other Penguin Efforts: Hansard
While the Penguin Specials in both Britain and the US have their own
fascination, the parent company in the UK became involved, for at least three
years, in other activities which played their part in the war effort.
Earlier, I mentioned "S45" – The Government Blue Book, published in
October 1939. I believe it was yet another of Penguin's "experiments"; a
testing of the waters to see what kind of reader interest there was in this
area. Compared with the success of other "Specials", S45 was not immensely
successful: it took two months to go to reprint. There was clearly interest
with the readers. But there wasn't much that took place after the declaration
of war to commit to another volume of the same kind.
As anyone interested in World War II knows, the time between October 1939 and
April 1940 became known as "The Phony War", the "Sitzkrieg", and by one or two
less printable names. When Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, just a month
before the major German invasion against the West on May 10, the British
military was once more caught more or less flat-footed. Churchill, as First
Lord of the Admiralty, was as much to blame for this as anyone. But the weight
of failure fell on Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. When it was clear that
Allied intervention in Norway was doomed to failure, Chamberlain was called to
account in the House of Commons. This took place during the first week of May
1940, immediately before the German invasion of The Low Countries and France.
That week in the Commons has been described as one of the most thrilling (and
vicious) times the Commons has ever seen. By the end of the debate, Chamberlain
had been dismissed and Churchill had become Prime Minister…just in time for a
By August, 1940, Penguin Books offered its readers yet another new series –
Penguin "Hansard" (starting with H1). Even these volumes went into additional
printings very quickly, with the first reprint of H1 appearing within one
month. For those of you who do not know, my understanding is that Hansard (we
still have Hansard in my province in 2006) is recognized, going back to the
middle years of the Nineteenth Century, as the official record of the
activities of any House of Commons. It is, I am led to believe, similar to the
Congressional Record. Typically, the production of Hansard has been seen as a
function of the private sector. Somehow – perhaps on the strength of the
popularity of S45, which in many was has the "feel" of a Hansard volume –
Penguin acquired the rights to publish the record of House of Commons debate.
There is an interesting sidelight on this: H1 announced that its contents
covered the debate during the transition from Chamberlain to Churchill, but
describes itself as "a digest of the House of Commons Official Report…". The
reprint, however, claims the copy was "taken verbatim from the House of Commons
Official Report…" To my mind, there is a difference between a digest and verbatim
Penguin Hansard continued for some time, though I have not seen a "Hansard"
covering debates after the Japanese and US entered the war. I have copies of H1
to H6 (except for H5, which covers the crucial Balkan campaign and the early
days of Barbarossa ), which cover the time from Churchill's
installation as PM to the impact of Germany's invasion of Russia and
Churchill's speech to the Commons on war with Japan. I have doubts concerning
the completeness of these ‘Hansards: I sense they are all digests, drawn from
I think what Penguin offers in these volumes is accurate information. The
"Hansards" may not provide every word of every debate, but I assume that what
they provide is accurate. This is not, I admit, very good historical research,
or even a conclusion which can be defended, because it is based on a circular
argument. Penguin Books has, through my lifetime, maintained a reputation for
excellence and accuracy. That reputation began, I believe, with Penguin's war
work. If that isn't a circular argument, I don't think I've ever seen one!
My acceptance of what Penguin offered in their "Hansards" is, however, just one
more part of what happened when Penguin Books met World War II. Until December
1937, Penguin Books was a novelty in British publishing which was attempting to
make a name and a place for itself in a niche market: popular books in fiction,
history, science and the like for those who could not meet the prices of other
houses. With the publication of S1, Germany Puts the Clock Back, Penguin
was changed forever.
Worth Some Thought
During WW2, Penguin Books began 19 new series. Most were simply part of the
marketing program of an expanding publishing house. But with the introduction
of the Penguin Specials, and the spin-offs from Specials that took place as the
war intensified, Penguin became a different kind of publishing house than it
was prior to December, 1937.
Penguin Specials played two roles in the development of Penguin Books.
In the UK, I think it is possible to say that Penguin played an important role
in informing and directing public opinion about the issues leading up to the
war and the issues arising from the outbreak of hostilities. In the US, Penguin
was more active in its commitment to war issues, partly because this was the quid
pro quo for additional paper.
Other Penguin endeavours – I think particularly of "Penguin New Writing",
edited by John Lehmann – approached war issues from different perspectives.
Lehmann was, as far as I know a communist, or at least a deeply committed
socialist. But the "New Writing" series was for the British as inspiring and
propagandistic as a volume like "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" were in the US.
Lehmann kept the sense of British letters alive through a very difficult time.
Even an abbreviated assessment of "New Writing" might deserve at least the same
kind of abbreviated commentary that is given to Penguin Specials in this brief
In the 20th century, war is, as we all know, based on full national commitment.
IMHO, Penguin Books – almost by accident – found a way to commit a substantial
portion of its House to the support of the war effort, both in the Commonwealth
and in the US.
It may be worth the time of some other booklovers to attempt to determine
whether publishers in their countries played the same kind of crucial role
during WW2. While I understand that military operations are determined by
humans, weapons and military acumen, we have also recognized the role of
propaganda. My point is that ordinary publishing houses may also have had an
intriguing role to play.
Copyright © 2007 Brian Grafton.
Written by Brian Grafton. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Brian Grafton at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published online: 02/17/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.