Eighty years ago a newspaper cartoon touches a raw nerve


 Little better illustrates the strains with which Churchill and his government were having to cope under the combined assault of military defeats and discontent with his premiership, than the wild and disproportionate reaction to a cartoon in the left-wing and immensely popular tabloid  Daily Mirror: one of the most famous of the war. Philip Zec's savage image of a survivor from a torpedoed ship clinging to a raft above the line, "The price of petrol has been increased by one penny - Official", hardly deserves to be considered subversive. Zec's claim that it was an attack on waste might have been somewhat disingenuous; the sailor's suffering is the true price of petrol. But Churchill's assertion that it was an attack on profiteering by petrol companies barely stands up to examination. The Labour Home Secretary Herbert Morrison supported Churchill but, perhaps fortunately for them, the government failed to suppress or punish the Mirror. Labour left-winger Nye Bevan forced a debate in the Commons on press freedom which made it plain just how counter-productive such a move would have been. 

The cartoon's true offence was to bring uncomfortably close the fact that Britain was almost losing the Battle of the Atlantic. It juxtaposed the true horror of war with the leaden prose of bureaucracy which was arguably the more authentic voice of wartime government than Churchill's rhetoric. Moreover, the Mirror had no obvious single proprietor whom the government could pressurise informally and so provided a powerful outlet for widespread discontent with wartime restrictions and controls.

The extent to which the war dominated the lives of almost everyone in the country was brought home when the call-up age for men was lifted to 45 from 41. The conscription of doctors and dentists was also increased to meet the burgeoing needs of the armed services for medical care.

The Japanese advances continued, seemingly unstoppably. They faced no serious resistance as they advanced northwards up the Malyasian peninsula. Rangoon, the administrative and commercial hub of British rule in the area was abandoned without a fight. To the south the Dutch forces on the island of Java surrendered unconditionally to the invaders. The local Dutch radio station went off air with the message, "We are closing now. Farewell till better times. Long live the Queen."