How greatly were the lives of British civilians affected by the Second World War 1939 - 45?
By Joanne Oliver
with permission; Joanne is a former pupil of Greenfield School
- this essay was done as piece of GCSE coursework.
the outbreak of war with Germany in September 1939 the British civilian
population were faced with changes to their economic and social
well-being. Young or old, rich or poor, no matter where they lived
everyone was affected to some degree.
of bombing and poison gas attacks prompted the Government to act quickly
and be prepared. By the end of September 1938, long before the outbreak of
war, 38 million gas masks had already been distributed to British
families. The gas mask became a familiar sight. It was carried around in a
cardboard box, which usually fell apart within a week, or slung over the
shoulder in a knapsack. Everywhere people went their gas mask went with
them. It was the
first piece of wartime equipment to affect the lives of all the British
population. Although bombing
and gas attacks were expected to be concentrated on towns and cities both
city dwellers and country dwellers, rich or poor, especially at the
beginning of the war, were afraid of and affected greatly by the thought
of poison gas attacks.
one liked wearing the gas masks. They had to be fitted over the head, had
a strong smell of rubber and disinfectant, steamed up inside and made
breathing difficult. During the early weeks of the war gas mask drills
disrupted the daily life of office, shop and factory workers as well as
those of school children. Mothers were greatly affected by the thought of
their babies suffocating inside their gas masks. The baby was placed
totally inside the gas mask and the mother had to pump air in all the
time. Mothers were terrified in case they were injured in a bomb blast and
could not pump air into their baby's mask. Small children were issued with
blue and red masks that looked like Mickey Mouse and although older
children had great fun making rude noises each time they blew air out
inside their mask they still disliked having to wear the gas mask.
ten year old boy from London remembered, "One annoyance vas the
gas mask. You had to carry it all the time..... Although I could breath in
it, I felt as if I couldn't.... The covering over my face, the cloudy
Perspex in front of my eyes, and the over-powering smell of rubber, made
me feel slightly panicky, though I still laughed each time I breathed out,
and the edges of the mask blew a gentle raspberry against my cheeks.
" Another ten year old boy from Tyneside remembered,
"Babies had gas masks, horses had gasmasks... ..Young children had
gay blue-and-red ones.... Soldiers had very grand hideous ones with round
eyepieces and a long trunk. Ours had a short trunk and a large window for
our eyes. The moment you put it on the window misted up, blinding you. Our
mums were told to rub soap on the inside of the window to prevent this. It
made it harder than ever to see and you got soap in your eyes. There was a
rubber washer under your chin that flipped up and hit you every time you
breathed in. you breathed out with a farting noise round your ears. If you
blew really hard you could make a very loud farting noise indeed. The
bottom of the mask soon filled up with spit and your face got so hot and
sweaty you could have screamed. "
normal everyday life of British civilians was affected even admission to
cinemas was refused to anyone not carrying a gas mask. The tops of pillar
boxes were painted with a special yellow paint which would change to red
if poisonous gas was present in the air. Fear of gas attacks affected
people's living conditions. Wherever possible a downstairs room would be
turned into an indoor refuge. The fireplace would be sealed, cracks in the
floors and walls sealed with paper and paste, doors and windows sealed and
vents blocked to prevent poisonous gas entering the room. However the
whole populations fear abated as the war progressed and the expected gas
attacks never in fact materialised. Most of the British population thought
gas would be Hitler's secret weapon but it was the only thing he failed to
use for fear of reprisals.
the threat of enemy bombing civilians throughout Britain were also faced
with the blackout. This affected both rural and urban areas. From I
September 1939 it became illegal to allow any light to show from a
building after sunset. Air raids were expected to take place during
darkness and if German bombers saw lights from buildings below they would
know exactly where to drop their bombs.
effects of the blackout were felt much more severely by the town and city
dwellers than the rural population. The countryside population didn't have
street lighting, shopping centres and late night entertainment and were
generally more used to finding their way around in the dark. In the towns
and cities dark streets made driving and getting about at night dangerous.
Cars and bicycles crawled along roads with their headlamps masked. In
September 1939 the number of road accidents rose alarmingly leading to the
total killed on the road being doubled. In fact at the beginning of the
blackout there were more casualties from road accidents than from enemy
action. White lines were painted on kerbs and lampposts in an effort to
help motorists and pedestrians. Speed restrictions were also introduced.
In one rural area a local farmer painted white stripes on his cows in case
they strayed onto the roads.
were also greatly-affected by the blackout, tripping over kerbstones,
twisting their ankles, bumping into one another and in some cases
colliding with lampposts and knocking themselves out. People lost their
door keys or couldn't find the keyhole in the dark. Men were encouraged to
leave their white shirt tails hanging out at night. Charlie Jones, a young
boy from Stoke Newington in north London, found it difficult walking
around in the blackout, "In the winter in
the blackout it was really dark even
on the main road..... We sometimes
went around with our shirt tails
hanging out so we 'd be easier
to see. It was difficult walking
around in the blackout. You were
always saying sorry after you 'd
bumped into something and then you'd
realise it was a lamppost. "
Audrey Sara remembered being on Mutley Plain, near Plymouth after dark and
having problems finding her way, "There was no moon
or stars. I might as well have
been down a coal mine. I had
to walk about one and a half miles
to my home and after bumping into
trees, lampposts and falling off kerbs,
I asked a lady if she could
tell me exactly where I was. The
answer was, "Hold my arm dear.
I 'm blind and I do this walk
every day. " She knew every
lamppost tree and kerb and she got
me to my home in no time.
" The only people who seemed to enjoy the blackout were
again home life was affected. Cities and towns were expected to bear the
brunt of the bombing but at sunset houses in both urban and rural areas
covered their doors and windows with heavy curtains, blinds or thick paper
so that no light would show through. Some people painted over their
windows. Streets were patrolled by air raid wardens who reported blackout
offences such as letting light escape from the house when opening the door
or striking a match in the street. The guilty person would usually be
fined. The blackout affected British civilians until 17 September 1944 and
was then replaced by the "dim out". Many people found this as
annoying as the full blackout.
the spring of 1939 plans had been drawn up to evacuate children from
Britain's cities and ports. The government considered these areas to be
most at risk from bombing if war broke out and planned to evacuate three
and a half million people to the safety of the countryside. In fact less
than one and a half million took advantage of the Government's scheme. The
evacuation plan, known as "Operation Pied Piper", allowed
children under the age of 5 to be evacuated with their mothers. Older
children were accompanied by teachers and members of the Women's Voluntary
began on I September 1939, the day that Germany invaded Poland. In 4 days
72 London Transport Stations despatched 1.3 million children in 4000
special trains. Evacuation affected the lives, to different degrees, of
all those concerned, the children, the mothers and the hosts. The evacuees
travelled on trains for most of the day arriving at their destination
dirty, hungry and exhausted. They were then given something to eat while
they waited to meet their hosts for the first time. The actual process of
"being chosen" was traumatic to some children. At some of the
reception areas arrangements were so chaotic that children felt they were
being auctioned off At one reception centre a young girl recalled, "We
were fold to sit quietly on the
floor while the villagers and farmers
' wives came to choose which children
they wanted. I noticed boys of about
12 went very quickly-perhaps to help
on the farm. Eventually only my friend
Nancy and myself were left - two
plain straight-haired little girls wearing
glasses, now rather tearful. A large,
happy-looking, middle-aged lady rushed in
asking "Is that all you have
left? " A sad slow nod of
the head from our teacher, "I'll
take the poor bairns. " We were
led out of the hall with this
stranger and taken to a farm where
we spent two years. "
effects of evacuation were felt greatest by those children who had been
not only uprooted from their homes but also separated from their mothers.
One 9 year old boy remembers feeling rather like a parcel, "They
labelled me, addressed me and packed
me off to the country. "
He, like thousands of other children, spent most of the war living far
away from his parents.
some children the trauma of evacuation stayed with them throughout the war
and still affects them to this day. Mel Caiman, the cartoonist, recalled
his own personal experience, "/ have this image of
a small boy with a label round
his neck. The boy has no features
and is crying. He is carrying a
cardboard box which contains his gasmask.
I remember that labels with our names
on were pinned to our clothes before
we left London. I think I felt
that I had no identity and was
a parcel being posted to the country.
The labels frightened me as much
as the idea of leaving my parents.
A child of seven, if lost, can
tell people his name. A label, assumes
that he does not know his name,
or worse, has no name and is
given one at random from a list
of names... ..I know that we rehearsed
the evacuation every morning for a week, ....my sister and I would leave
home with our packed sandwiches and clothes.
We would say goodbye to our parents.
Our labels were pinned on and I
felt sick..... We had to leave home
without knowing if we would return
that day or not. We went through
this awful ritual of goodbye every
morning for a week. Every morning
I felt sick and kissed my parents
and felt I was leaving my name
and identity with them. Even nowadays
whenever I travel anywhere and have
to say goodbye to my own children,
I identify with that small boy. I
remember the label and the gasmask
and feel anxiety gripping my bowels.
I write my name on the luggage
labels and hope I do not return
to find my home bombed to ruins
and my identity lost somewhere underneath
the rubble. "
were obviously greatly affected by the evacuation. Not only did they have
to contend with the absence of their husbands, away fighting in the armed
forces, but also with the separation from their children. Some children
took buckets and spades with them because their mothers hadn't the heart
to tell them what was really happening, "/ thought it was
a Sunday-school outing down to the
seaside, sort of thing. Audi looked
out of the bus window and I
saw my mother crying outside and
I said to my brother, "What's
Mummy crying for? " and my brother
said, "Shut up! "
were only paid 8 shillings and 6 pence, about 42p, per week for each child
they took in. In some cases rural householders did not want evacuees
billeted on them but if you had a spare room you had to take them in. Many
of the evacuees came from the poorest parts of Britain's towns and cities
and were not used to having baths or eating meals at a table. Some were
smelly and dirty and suffering from scabies and impetigo. Many hosts were
greatly affected and distressed by evacuees behaviour which seemed to them
like bad manners, but in fact this was just the evacuees normal behaviour.
Two wartime children Bernard Kops, now a playwright, and his sister
evacuated from Stepney in London to Buckinghamshire found the comforts of
their new home quite strange and recalled, "Everything was
so clean in the room. We were
even given flannels and toothbrushes. We
'd never cleaned our teeth until
then. And hot water came from the
tap. And there was a lavatory upstairs.
And carpets. And something called an
eiderdown. And clean sheets. This was
all very odd and rather scaring.
were many complaints made against the evacuees by their hosts. Complaints
such as swearing, thieving, odd and rude behaviour, bed wetting and
general smelliness. One 13 year old boy refused to eat cereal and milk,
saying "I want some bloody beer and
some chips. " It was no wonder there were
tensions between the evacuees and their hosts.
some cases the evacuees were better off than the people they were billeted
on. They had left
homes in the city that had bathrooms and electric lights only to find
themselves in farm cottages with no electricity or piped water. So the
assumption that all evacuees were thieving, rude, unkempt and foul mouthed was in no way true, it was simply a
myth. There is evidence to the contrary as this extract from an interview with a child
evacuated in 1939 shows, "How wish the common
view of evacuees could be changed.
We were not all raised on a
diet offish and chips eaten from
newspaper, and many of us were quite
familiar with the origins of milk.
It is just as upsetting for a
clean and well-educated child to find
itself in a grubby semi-slum as the
other way round."
the beginning of evacuation local children were affected to a small degree
by the arrival of the "vackies" as they were known. They
generally found it hard to accept their presence. Eventually things
settled down to an uneasy truce between the town and country children. The
education of both evacuees and the local children was also affected to a
small degree. With so many children moving to the countryside there was a
shortage of classroom space and children often ended up being taught in
the open While many of the evacuees were affected badly by homesickness
and wanted nothing more than to return to their homes and parents in the
cities, for some their time spent in the countryside was a happy time.
They were not greatly affected by the separation from their parents. For
them it was the first time they had seen the countryside and they learned
about farms and animals and helped with the harvest. In some cases the
children were so happy in their new homes that they were reluctant to
return to the city.
lives of both hosts and evacuees would have been less traumatic if more
care had been paid to the billeting of evacuees with hosts from similar
social and economic backgrounds. There were many stories about evacuation
all of which reveal some terrible truths about British Society as it was
at the beginning of the war. Newspaper stories were critical of evacuees
but the writers of these reports had no real idea of the appalling slum
conditions in which they existed.
and upper class children were not affected by the evacuation. There were
no tearful farewells as they were already used to being away from home and
their parents. In fact most of these children enjoyed what seemed to them
a year long holiday in West Country hotels. One 12 year old girl evacuated
with her school to Devon recalled, "We travelled in
two charabancs, taking with us a
few members of staff and one of
the joint headmistresses. We were bound
for Woolacombe, a holiday resort in
North Devon, which was an idyllic
situation. We had lessons in the
morning and in the afternoon we were
free to do as we liked. We
could go anywhere in threes - one
to have an accident, one to stay
with her and one to run for
help. ....swimming was much more interesting
than it had been in the swimming
pool at Reigate. In September the
rest of our school was evacuated
and they took over four hotels. "
children were even evacuated overseas to the U.S.A., Canada and Australia
but this was halted in September 1940 when a U-boat sank a ship and 73
"seavacuees" were drowned. With no bombing between September and
Christmas many parents took their children back home although when bombing
of Britain's cities and towns began the following year evacuation began
again. In some cases evacuees stayed in the country all through the war.
Phoney War lasted well into 1940. Although German bombers did not appear
over British cities there were real fears of an invasion after the fall of
France. This fear of invasion prompted War Minister Anthony Eden to call
for a new defence force to be set up. Within one week 25,000 men, between
the ages of 17 and 65, were recruited into the Local Defence Volunteers.
By July 1940 the number of recruits had doubled and the force was renamed
the Home Guard, affectionately known as "Dad's Army". In the
early days few volunteers had arms. In Kent they had only one rifle
between 10 men. Even when the volunteers were issued uniforms they did not
always fit, but belonging to the Home Guard meant that these men, unable
to join the armed forces, could still help the war effort in an active
way. Nearly all members of the Home Guard worked at other jobs by day and
in their spare time trained for combat. Their main tasks were to keep
watch on the coastlines, railways, roads and public buildings for signs of
an enemy invasion. At first they wore armbands but shortly afterwards they
were linked to their county regiments and wore their colours and cap
badges. The Home Guard remained very regional. On Lake Windermere they
manned motor vessels whilst in Devon, Cornwall and Wales many members used
these British civilians being a member of the Home Guard affected their
lives to a small degree. It gave them a sense of involvement, an
opportunity to feel that they were "doing their bit" whilst at
the same time they still retained their normal civilian jobs. The
composition of the Home Guard was made up with members from all sections
of society, from ex-officers right down to school leavers. The experience
of the ex-officers was essential because often those with war experience
would be in command of those without. In some cases this had a great
effect on members’ lives as sometimes a worker would be in command of
and a half million people were already involved in Civil Defence in 1939.
These included air-raid wardens, ambulance drivers, first aid helpers and
fire fighters. When war broke out two million British people volunteered
to work in the Civil Defence. Air-raid wardens played an essential role.
Their duties included going to an incident and reporting it to the Control
Post, putting out minor fires, giving first aid, directing people to
shelters at the start of an air raid, investigating unexploded bombs and
enforcing regulations. The latter often earned them the nickname of
"Little Hitler" as they would report people for inadequate
blackout precautions. Wardens knew everyone within their area, an
essential part of the job. They needed to know whether people were day or
night workers and where each person slept in order to make rescue easier
and to avoid wasting time looking for survivors who might not be there.
Auxiliary Fire Service gave part time assistance to full time firemen.
During the Battle of Britain the A.F.S. gave invaluable service. Many lost
their lives in the line of duty. All firemen earned the respect of the
Civil Defence forces were stretched to the limit during the Blitz. In 1940
Fire Watchers were formed. This affected the lives of employees in
businesses and factories who were expected to volunteer to watch their
work place at night and weekends. In many cases they felt that their first
responsibility was to their own homes and families. By December it became
compulsory for every man working less than 60 hours a week and every woman
working less than 45 hours to carry out 48 hours of fire watching a month.
There were six million unpaid fire watchers by 1943.
list of essential volunteers was endless. The overstretched Police Force
were assisted by the Auxiliary Police Corps, A.P.C. Groups of gas, water,
electrical and post office engineers were kept on permanent alert in order
that repairs to essential services could be carried out quickly. The Red
Cross and St. John's Ambulance Brigade gave valuable medical and nursing
assistance in their local areas. W.V.S. helped with evacuation, provided
support and refreshments to the homeless, organised clothes collection and
ran charities. Each and everyone played their part.
long anticipated air activity began on 10 July 1940 but it was not until
August that the Germans began their attempted destruction of the R.A.F.
and its bases as a first step to the intended invasion. Although the
Germans intended targets in the Battle of Britain were mainly military
there were many civilian casualties stretching from Orkney to Aberdeen to
parts of the Midlands, to south London and especially Hampshire and the
Dover region. Air raid sirens and air raid shelters were now in regular
use. Civilians living near air bases were now well and truly affected by
the bombing, while those living in the south could hear the noise of enemy
planes coming in across the English Channel.
mid August 1940 the Germans had also been carrying out a limited bombing
campaign against British industrial and communications installations. On
24 August 1940 German bombers, whose targets were the oil refineries at
Thames Haven, drifted off course and dropped their bombs on central
London. Air attacks against Berlin followed in retaliation which then led
to a deliberate bombing campaign on British civilian cities by the German
Luftwaffe. On four consecutive nights beginning 28 August German bombers
attacked the city of Liverpool leaving huge fires raging in its commercial
centre. On Saturday, 7 September, at 5 o'clock on a glorious summer day,
the Germans carried out a mass bombing raid on the East End of London.
From this point onwards the lives of civilians throughout the capital and
major towns and cities began to be affected by the events of the Second
rained down on the docklands of West Ham and Bermondsey and on
neighbouring Poplar, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Stepney. The lives of
civilians living in humble homes in the East End of London were tragically
affected. The bombing raid killed 430 civilians, seriously injured a
further 1,600 and left thousands homeless. Entire streets vanished burying
mothers, fathers and children under tons of rubble. Air raid warden,
Barbara Nixon, watching from central London saw fire engines racing
eastward, clanging their bells. She recalled, "From our
vantage point it was remote and,
from a spectacular point of view,
beautiful. One had to force oneself
to picture the misery and the havoc
below in the most overcrowded area
the midst of the havoc teenager Len Jones remembers the whole of King
Street rising and falling, with shrapnel dancing off the cobbles. "The
suction and compression from the high
explosive blasts just pulled and pushed
you.. ...you could actually feel your
eyeballs being sucked out. " Most
civilians throughout Britain would learn as the war progressed that bomb
blasts had peculiar effects, victims could be ripped limb from limb or
left unharmed but stripped naked.
fires blazed. "Send all the bloody pumps
you've got, the whole bloody world's
on fire. " was the message sent by the fire
officer in charge at the Surrey docks. Here 250 acres of timber were on
fire together with rubber, paint, rum and pepper. Each material creating
its own explosion followed by clouds of asphyxiating smoke. The fires
could be seen from a distance of 30 miles. Throughout the night the
Germans dropped their incendiary and high explosive bombs creating more
and more mayhem. Although firemen, auxiliary and voluntary services fought
bravely nothing had prepared them for such devastation. Weary, red-eyed
and choking firemen were badly affected by the carnage and in some cases
the firemen themselves were cut off and burnt to death. A.R.P. workers
foiled valiantly to clear away rubble to allow survivors to be brought to
safety whilst W.V.S. workers led dazed families away from the devastation.
By the early
hours of Monday morning a steady stream of distressed residents were
leaving the area. There was no gas, electricity, water or telephones, no
bread or milk. After the first weekend of bombing refugees were spread all
over the countryside flooding places like Oxford and the suburbs of Essex.
"There are over 27,000 evacuees from
the east side of London, and in
is very pathetic to see them wandering
about the streets here - in many
cases unwanted and miserable, wrote a lady
from Oxford. Rest centres set up in schools and churches were inundated,
the people often stayed for weeks instead of hours. The people of the East
End just had nowhere to go. They had lost loved ones, their homes and
their possessions. The bombing of the East End completely exposed the
second rate construction of the shabby little streets which had once been
home to these refugees.
morale of the East End was badly affected. There was resentment that too
little had been done to protect its inhabitants. For the following 76
consecutive nights, except for 2 November, London was bombed but the
bombing was no longer targeted solely on the poor working class civilians
of the East End. German bombers dropped their loads all over the capital
making it now seem as if all Londoners were in it together. The young,
old, rich and poor were all severely affected by the random bombing. On 13
September 1940 Buckingham Palace was bombed prompting the Queen's famous
remark, "I'm glad we've been bombed,
it makes me feel that I can
look the East End in the face.
bore the brunt of the bombing raids and although British propaganda
insisted that Britain could "take if' the disruption to industry and
commerce was enormous. Daily life for all civilians was affected. The
routines of air raid drills, patrols by warders, blackouts and the taping
of windows to prevent flying glass in a bomb explosion became the pattern
of daily life whilst at the same time living under the constant threat of
attack. Morale was not as strong as British propaganda showed it to be.
Civilians were greatly affected by exhaustion, lack of sleep, bereavement,
and above all fear. By November 1940 the population of central London had
dropped by 25 per cent. Once more the lives of children were affected as
evacuation began again.
had to find shelter from the nightly bombing raids. Everyone in London
regardless of age, sex or class was in danger. Early in 1939 Anderson
shelters had been issued free to householders earning less than 250 per
year. These shelters were dug into the earth and covered with soil, all
very well if you lived in a property with a garden. They were also damp
and prone to flooding in wet weather. Public shelters were built of brick
and concrete and were much drier but civilians considered these unsafe. A
blast from a nearby bomb often caused walls and roofs to collapse. Many
people sought shelter in London's underground stations. By the end of
September 1940, 177,000 Londoners ate, drank, read, fed babies and slept
here. At the height of the Blitz all people taking shelter in London's
underground were affected by the appalling conditions in which lice and
mosquitoes thrived, but they would rather endure these conditions than
stay in their unprotected homes and risk losing their lives. Thousands
more civilians spent their nights in makeshift camps in Epping Forest.
Others found safety in the Tilbury shelter, an underground goods yard in
Stepney in the East End. Around 16,000 people spent their nights here in
appalling conditions. In Northfleet, east of London families set up home
in the long tunnels linking chalk quarries. In Rarnsgate on the east coast people
sheltered in purpose built deep tunnels that had just been completed
before the outbreak of war.
better off civilians, although affected by the bombing, did not have to
endure the same kind of discomfort. Chislehurst Caves in Kent were made
into a private paying enterprise. Here civilians had their own church,
barber, electricity and entertainment.
theory that all social classes mixed together can be questioned. There is
very little hard evidence of the mixing of social classes. In fact middle
class civilians were horrified by the squalor they saw in the early days
of bombing when they had to shelter in the underground or large public
shelters. Any accounts of friendliness and social contact can probably be
related to fear in times of danger or simply that they were suddenly
caught in an air raid and had no choice but to use public shelters. The
very rich continued to lead a totally separate existence.
October the Germans began to extend their bombing raids. Birmingham
suffered a heavy raid on the 25 October. Mrs. Price, a young bride working
in the Midlands said, "The first morning I
went in there was a bomb in
the workshop. Another morning, on arriving
in the centre of Birmingham to catch
the tram, there were 18 fires blazing
around us at the same time. Water
from the fire hoses was flooding
everywhere and fur coats were being
swilled down the street. "
14 November 100 acres of the city centre of Coventry were destroyed. The
Germans invented a new word for the mass destruction "coventrieren"
to coventrate. 400 German planes dropped 30,000 incendiaries and 500 tons
of bombs and land mines. 20,000 houses were totally destroyed and a
further 50,000 damaged. All civilians were greatly affected. They lost
loved ones, their homes and in some cases all of their possessions. 554
civilians were killed and a further 865 seriously injured. Firemen were
once again affected just as they had been when the East End of London was
bombed. 26 lost their lives and a further 200 were injured in the line of
duty. Hundreds of shops were damaged and supplies of gas, electricity,
water and telephones were totally disrupted affecting thousands of
civilians. Coventry’s tram system was unusable and only 25 buses out of
a fleet of 181 were left in action. Three quarters of the city's industry
was affected. Conditions were as desperate as they had been during the
first raid on the East End of London. The population of Coventry were
greatly affected by a shortage of food supplies. Army field kitchens were
set up until the W.V.S. could take over. Inhabitants received a special
issue of tinned corned beef from the Ministry of Food. It took a week to
establish an effective communal feeding centre.
bombing raids followed on many other British cities and ports, amongst
them were Birmingham, Southampton, Manchester, Sheffield, Portsmouth,
Leicester, Liverpool, Swansea, Bristol and Glasgow. Throughout the spring
of 1941 heavy bombing raids were made on the West Midlands and Merseyside.
Once again the civilian population of these areas were greatly affected.
Glasgow Cuthbert Douse remembered helping to dig his grandmother out of
the house, "We had to dig with our
hands but her arm was jammed by
the windowsill. I remember my father
telling me to turn away because
the only way to get her out
was to pull. I'm afraid he pulled
three of her fingers off getting her
out of the debris. "
In Bristol one woman wrote in her diary, "Jerry
is here early tonight. Siren went
five minutes ago. Yes, he's here
all right. Some bombs are being dropped
and afire has started already to
the east of us... .we \e been
through hell. Never have I experienced
anything like it. Tummy still wobbly.
Fires and bombs everywhere..... We didn't
need any light for the room was
lit up with the glare of the
fires. Wine Street looks as if it
is no more.... Our sitting room window
woodwork is so hot you can hardly
bear your hand on it. The house
rocks as the bombs drop. "
Sometimes it was not a fleet of German bombers that caused the terrible
damage but a single plane as a civilian from Lowestoft recalled, "One
lone raider loomed out of the clouds
above the main street and dropped
four bombs on to shops and a
crowded restaurant. Seventy people were
killed and more than a hundred injured.
The individual dive bomber made it
seem much more personal - one enemy
plane looking for someone to kill.
country areas suffered. Kent, south-east of London was known as "bomb
alley" because it was on the German bombers flight path to London.
Inhabitants of the outlying villages became quite used to the noise of
enemy aircraft overhead. A pasture on one farm in Kent was scarred with 93
bomb holes - one of them 12.2m across.
raids were carried out both during daylight hours and at night but it was
the night raids that affected civilians the most. These raids caused the
most terror and devastation. Gradually people adapted to the raids. Staff
in shops and offices were allowed to finish work early in order to make
arrangements before the air raid sirens sounded. After a night spent in
air raid shelters civilians would emerge the next morning and it would be
back to work as usual. In some cases civilians emerged from the shelters
and found their homes totally demolished. The worst of the Blitz was over
by the summer of 1941 but raids continued to affect different parts of the
country from time to time. In 1942 the "Baedeker raids' were launched
by the Germans against Britain's historic cities, in particular Bath,
Exeter, Norwich, York and Canterbury. These raids affected the civilian
population considerably. It brought anxiety and grief to many families who
had considered themselves safe from the dangers of bombing. Morale
plummeted when an area was severely bombed but civilians rallied after the
first shock wore off and the majority of them managed to carry on. The
decline in German bombing improved the morale of British civilians
although they still had to put up with the serious inconveniences caused
by earlier bombing raids.
bombing raids dominated the autumn of 1940 and the first half of 1941 the
following months were dominated by the Battle of the Atlantic. Most of
Britain's food was brought in by ship but once the war started the German
navy began its campaign to sink any ships bringing food to Britain. German
U-boats found the slow and lightly armed merchant ships easy targets.
Between March and May 1941 over 320 merchant ships, on route for Britain,
were sunk. British farmers were unable to grow the amount of food needed
to feed the whole population.
Food such as
flour, meat and sugar were in short supply. Rationing was introduced in
staves and was viewed as both necessary and fair by civilians. Rationing
affected both the rich and the poorl The rich were affected to a greater
degree because of their inability to purchase their usual goods and
luxuries even though they still had wealth they were now restricted to the
same amount of ration vouchers as everyone else. Rationing of food
affected farmers to a lesser degree because they were able to produce
their own. Every person in Britain was issued with a ration book. They
then registered with their local grocer and butcher and coupons had to be
handed over to the shopkeeper when food was bought. Rationed food prices
were fixed by the Government and had to be sold by the shopkeeper at that
British population were encouraged to use margarine, corned beef and dried
egg powder in place of the rationed butter, meat and fresh eggs. Tea,
cooking fats, jam and cheese were also rationed. A points system was
introduced for foods such as breakfast cereals, biscuits, canned fruit and
fish. In 1942 this system was extended to include many other canned and
and expectant mothers and children were affected to a lesser degree by
rationing. The state ensured that they received a higher quota of eggs and
milk than was allowed by the rationing system. The Ministry of Health
arranged for every child to receive daily milk, cod liver oil and orange
juice to boost their vitamin intake. Propaganda figures. Doctor Carrot and
Potato Pete, were created to encourage the consumption of vegetables.
Often the best meals would be obtained in a factory canteen or in the
"British Restaurants". Minced beef with carrots and parsnip was
a popular dish. For the privileged few lavish meals were available in
places such as Claridges, but for all classes bread and potatoes were the
staple foods. Bread was never rationed but the war-time "National
Loaf' was coarse and grey in colour.
were usually long queues, even for rationed goods. Housewives were badly
affected by this at the beginning of the war. A million of them queued
everyday for their groceries, eventually becoming resigned to the
situation. A young girl from Liverpool recalled, "When people
who'd been out at war for a time
returned to their home town people
put up banners saying "Welcome home,
Peter! " Well when rationing was
on, mums had to queue for hours.
One day, my mum was gone all
day queuing for potatoes, and when
she came home there was a big
banner across the street saying "Welcome
home Mum ", because she 'd been
gone all day for a couple of
Ministry of Health obtained Spam, dried eggs and dried milk from the
United States. Some civilians learned to have a real affection for the
dried eggs. One Tynesider recalled, "We never starved
but we ate some bloody funny things.
Best was American dried egg. You
poured a thin trickle into the frying
pan, then as it cooked it blew
up like a balloon, till it was
two inches thick, like a big yellow
humped back whale. And we had whale
meat that tasted strongly offish, unless
you soaked it for twenty four hours
in vinegar, after which it tasted
of vinegar. But there was so much
of it - great big bloody steaks
as big as your plate - that
we didn't care what it tasted like.
and alcohol were never rationed but nevertheless they were often in short
supply. A Liverpool girl said, "When me and my
sister were about 9 and 11 years
old, my dad used to smoke Winston
cigarettes. So every morning about five
our dad woke us up. There were
So one of us went in one queue
and the other in the other queue.
When we got the cigarettes we swapped
queues to get some more. We done
this every morning for two years,
every morning except Sunday. "
way to have more food was to grow it so the Government encouraged
civilians to "Dig for Victory" to make Britain as
self-sufficient as possible. This affected many town and city dwellers.
Householders dug up their lawns and flowerbeds and planted vegetables in
their place. Five families from Chelsea cleared a bomb site and made it
into allotments. Parks, road side verges and railway embankments were made
over to vegetable plots. The Minister of Agriculture asked for every
able-bodied person to dig an allotment in their spare time. By 1943 there
were 1.4 million allotments in Britain growing an assortment of
vegetables. It was not unusual to see chickens, rabbits and pigs being
reared in people's gardens.
farmers were affected to a greater degree than civilians by the "Dig
for Victory" campaign. Farmers cut down on their livestock farming,
ploughed up their pasture land and marginal land that they had, and
focused their attention on growing crops. With help from the Government
British farming took a huge leap towards total mechanisation. So the
"Dig for Victory" campaign affected them in a positive way.
Between 1939 and 1945 the number of tractors in use on British farms
June 1941 clothes rationing was introduced. Each person in Britain was
allowed 66 clothing coupons per year. This points system affected everyone
regardless of class, although the better off didn't suffer to the same
degree as the poor. Those who could afford it would have their old clothes
remodelled by a professional designer, whilst the less well off did their
own alterations at home. They sometimes made use of handy tips found in
women's magazines. Service materials such as army blankets and parachute
silk were turned into clothes. Winter coats were made from curtain
material. New utility clothing was also introduced affecting both mean and
women. Men's trousers were made without turn-ups whilst women's skirts
were short and straight to save on fabric. A woman from Walsall recalled
how shoe polish and gravy browning became necessary fashion accessories, "Stockings
were in short supply so girls coloured
their legs with tan cream or gravy
browning - very nice until it rained!
A friend would draw a line down the
back of your legs, with an eyebrow
pencil, for the seam. " Beetroot
juice was often used for lipstick.
1942 soap was in short supply and water had to be used very carefully.
Everyone was affected. All civilians were asked not to use more than 5
inches of water in their baths because the coal needed to heat the water
was needed far more by the weapons factories.
was also a shortage of miners to work the pits. In December 1943,
following a severe drop in coal production, Ernest Bevin sent a number of
young men called up for National service to work in the mines instead of
the armed forces. The "Bevin boys" as they became known were
selected by ballot. One out of every ten was picked to work in the mines.
Only 15,000 actually served at the coal face. Many young men were greatly
affected by this, they wanted to fight not work in the mines. Arthur
Jenner of Bethnal Green, a member of the Home Guard since the age of 16,
refused to become a coal miner insisting he wanted to fight for his
country. When he was
indulgent magistrate called him "public-spirited" and urged the
authorities to think again. Ernest Bevin said, "It was for
a magistrate to apply the law, not
to pontificate about public issues.”
Jenner ended up working in a mine. This selection by ballot did, however,
bring together men from many different types of backgrounds. Before the
war these men's paths would never have crossed.
were asked to use gas and electricity sparingly in their homes. Petrol was
already rationed affecting those who were wealthy enough to own a vehicle.
furniture" was also introduced. This was made to certain
specifications which saved on raw materials. New furniture was available
to those setting up home for the first time and to those who had been
bombed and lost everything.
with rationing, cloth and other materials were scarce. There were
campaigns to utilise all possible salvage materials. Materials such as
rags, waste paper, aluminium pots and pans, bones and edible waste were
all saved. Iron railings around both public and private gardens were used
for ships and tanks. Aluminium pans were collected to make fighter planes,
bones were used to shape glue and the edible waste was used for feeding
campaigns affected people in a positive way. They helped to keep domestic
morale high. Even children were affected. They were encouraged to go out
in search of salvage. All civilians in Britain felt as though they were
contributing to the war effort.
war brought changes to everyone's lives but it was probably the lives of
women that were affected the most. In the spring of 1941, the Minister of
Labour, Ernest Bevin, announced the call up of British women to help in
the war effort. Conscription did not affect women with children under 14
years of age.
only did women have to contend with the strains and problems of losing
their husbands or boyfriends to the forces, of losing their children to
evacuation, of losing their homes in bombing raids, of queuing hours every
day for food but also they now had to fill the gaps in Britain's
workforce, gaps caused by conscription.
women went to work in factories and shipyards where many of them trained
as machine operators or fitters. A special training school in Slough
prepared female machinists for the machine shops in engineering factories.
They learned how to weld metal, make parts for weapons, assemble shells,
tanks, aircraft and ships. Many women faced hostility from male workers.
Jean Wynne, a Sheffield munitions worker recalled, "When we
went in, it was horrible because
the young chaps who worked there
knew very well that any moment they
would have to go off to war.
They had to stay on just long
enough to show us how to handle
the machines.... They were mad because
they 'd been called up. They were
mad at us for taking over their
jobs.... .They didn 't want to show
us what to do and they made
things really awkward. Never clearly explaining
anything. " In many cases the men's initial resentment
abated. By the middle of the war women and those men remaining were
working amicably together on jobs demanding similar levels of skills.
women joined the Women's Land Army. Volunteers were called for to take the
place of thousands of male farm workers who had been called up. "Land
Girls" carried out every type of farm job in one of Britain's most
vital industries, jobs such as sowing seeds, tending herds, harvesting
crops, muck spreading, ditch digging, mending machinery, tree felling and
even rat catching. They worked a 50 hour week with one week paid holiday a
year. This back breaking work was often carried out in appalling weather
1943 the Government decided to conscript all available women between the
ages of 18 and 50 into war work. Women were now carrying out jobs such as
driving buses, loading trains, sweeping streets and delivering post and
milk. It was unusual to see any male ticket collectors on any form of
transport. By October 1944, 320,000 women had employment in the Civil
Service, making up 48 per cent of its total workforce.
1943 London's Fire Brigade employed 4,300 women, driving cars, delivering
despatches and working in the control rooms. Women joined the emergency
services as A.R.P. wardens, first aid nurses and cooks in mobile canteens.
The W.V.S. helped in many ways with the war effort. They ran canteens,
brought tea and blankets to bomb victims and helped with evacuation. One
member of the W.V.S. from Yorkshire disarmed and captured a German
parachutist by threatening him with a pitchfork.
women were not allowed to fight in battle they worked in every branch of
the Armed Forces. Those who joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service A.T.S.,
helped direct anti-aircraft gunfire. They plotted the course of enemy
bombers and passed this information on to gunsites, searchlights and other
defence services. In March 1945, Princess Elizabeth trained as a driver in
the A.T.S., where she learned to drive and maintain vehicles. Those women
who joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force W.A.A.F., worked as mechanics
on aircraft and operated barrage balloons. Members of the Women's Royal
Naval Services W.R.N.S., served on board ship and on shore as radio
operators and ambulance drivers. Some women even flew planes taking them
from the factory to the air fields.
1943, 9 out of 10 single women and 8 out of 10 married women were working
in the armed forces or industry. The number of women employed in
engineering and vehicle building rose from 9% to 34%.
the outbreak of war it was common practice in many professions to sack
women as soon as they married. During the war many married women were
employed to fill the gaps. The old myths about the unreliability of
married women were soon exposed for what they were. In 1943 mothers keen
to do war work protested at the shortages of nurseries in London.
Employers, encouraged by the Government, experimented with the setting up
of nurseries so that women with young children could go out to work.
proved to be the greatest unused natural resource that Britain had.
women's lifestyles were greatly affected by the Second World War. Many
women enjoyed these changes. It gave them a chance to earn wages and to
face new challenges. It also brought about new freedoms. Pubs were now
filled with women whereas in pre war Britain women were never seen in
pubs, likewise before the war no respectable married woman would have gone
to a dance without her husband, but as the war continued more and more
frequented dance halls for the fun and friendship. In some cases these
friendships led to infidelity. Women were also affected by discrimination.
They did not get equal pay with men nor any opportunities for promotion
although they did almost every job that a man did, except go down the
America entered the war, after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Britain saw a
great influx of American troops. Over the next three years one and half
million G.l.s were stationed in Britain. British schoolchildren were
greatly affected and influenced by the G.I.s. American slang swept the
nation and American comics flooded in. According to one young Tyneside
boy, "The Yanks were tops. We abandoned
our faithful Hurricanes and Spitfires, which
had only won the Battle of Britain,
the American fighters had much more
exciting names, even swearing names, like
the Grumman Hellcat. Above all, there
was the Flying Fortress, that carried
so many guns and flew in such
tight groups six miles high, that
no German fighter would dare come
near it. And it had a bomb
sight so accurate that it could drop
a bomb into a pickle barrel from
20,000 feet" Girls and young women were also affected
by the G.l.s. They were well paid, won stylishly tailored uniforms and
were generous with items they obtained from their camp stores, items such
as cigarettes, nylon stockings, scented soaps, chocolate and chewing gum.
Young women were totally overwhelmed and captivated by the American
servicemen. 80,000 British girls became G.I. brides and emigrated to
America. Older British males were obviously less enthusiastic towards the
Americans. The most common phrase used about American servicemen was that
they were, "over-paid, over-dressed, over-sexed and
blackout, petrol shortages and bombing raids affected British civilians
leisure time. As most people owned a radio they now spent their evenings
at home listening to the news and their favourite programmes. The nine
o'clock news on the B.B.C. Home Services was a lifeline for many. Women
listened to the Kitchen Front broadcasts at 8.18 a.m. on weekdays and
children listened to Children's Hour with its characters Larry the Lamb
and Dennis the Dachshund. Tommy Handley's I.T.M.A., It's That Man Again,
was a particular favourite of British adults. It was said, "If
Hitler chose to invade England between
8.30 and 9 p.m. on a Thursday
he would have an easy job of
it, because the whole country would
be tuned in to Tommy Handley. "
The half hour programme proved to be more of a morale booster to the
British population than any government propaganda. The Forces Programme
also attracted a large civilian audience, with Sincerely Yours, presented
by "Forces" Sweetheart Vera Lynn, one of its great successes.
the beginning of the war all civilians were affected by the closure of
cinemas and theatres. However, when no bombs fell these gradually
reopened. During the war between 25 and 30 million cinema tickets were
sold each week. For each person going to the theatre one hundred went to
the cinema. The most popular films were adventure films, comedies,
westerns and musicals from the United States, but Gone With the Wind was
the most successful movie of all, playing non stop in London's West End
from spring 1940 until spring 1944. Northern stars George Formby and
Gracie Fields were extremely popular and much sought after to appear in
The Entertainments Services Association, E.N.S.A. was formed to help the
war effort putting on shows for the servicemen. By January 1941 E.N.S.A.
was also providing weekly concerts in about twenty air-raid shelters.
were greatly affected by the loss of sporting events. At the beginning of
the war anything floodlit was closed. This affected greyhound racing and
speedway in particular. In many cases by the time sporting venues were
able to reopen it was no longer possible to do so. Arsenal's football
ground had been turned over to civil defence, Twickenham had been turned
into allotments, the Oval cricket ground was now a prison of war camp and
on Wimbledon's tennis courts sheep grazed and vegetables grew. When
football restarted many of the original team had joined the armed forces
and the crowds were restricted to 15,000.
Halls were the main public places of entertainment and the chief meeting
places for men and women. British women enjoyed dancing with soldiers,
especially Americans, who taught them how to jitterbug and jive.
Second World War had a great disruptive effect on children's education,
especially for those living in the capital and in large towns and cities.
At the beginning of the war authorities had expected all children to be
evacuated from London and two thirds of the schools were taken over for
civil defence. However not all children wanted to be evacuated and no
arrangements had been made to cater for these children's education.
Teachers were evacuated to the countryside with their pupils and school
doctors and nurses were reassigned. Jean Stafford, a schoolgirl recalled, "half-time
schooling started - or, rather, hardly
any time schooling. " Elder children
roamed the streets. After a few weeks many of the children who had been
evacuated began to drift back from the country and the problem
intensified. By January 1940 at least 200,000 London children needed
educating but only 15 out of 900 London schools were open by 11 January. A
further 40 reopened the following week. Parents demanded speedier action
and were promised that schools would reopen as soon as adequate air raid
shelters were available for the children.
who had roamed the streets were pleased to be returning to school. A young
boy from Fulham recalled, "I was tired to
death of kicking around home. Except
when the snow was on the ground
and I could have some snowballing,
there was nothing to do. "
was a shortage of qualified teachers, especially in the south east, as
many had joined the armed forces. Married women were now allowed to return
to their teaching jobs, jobs they were forced to give up once they
married. Books were also in short supply. In the cities and towns bombing
raids affected children's education. Sometimes lessons were continued in
the air raid shelters and many children found this exciting. Schools
became targets for the German bombers. A 1100 lb. bomb was dropped on
Sandhurst Road School in Catford, 38 children and 6 teachers were killed
or died shortly afterwards and many more were seriously injured. Many
schools were badly damaged in bombing raids and had to be closed, once
again disrupting children's education.
affected children's education greatly. Children missed school because they
did household chores, looked after brothers and sisters, and queued for
food while their mothers were doing war work.
15 June 1944, long after the Baedeker Raids and with no major daylight
raids for months, air raid sirens sounded over London and the south east
once again. It was 10 o'clock the following morning when the all clear was
given. The Government admitted that attacks by "pilotless
planes" had begun. This new weapon, the V.I. was a small plane
without a pilot carrying a charge of high explosives .The V.I. landed when
the fuel ran out or sometimes dived straight into the ground. Even if they
were shot down they still exploded with an enormous blast. Casualties from
the V.I. attacks were high, as many came over during the day when it was
difficult for civilians to take shelter. Because of their characteristic
sound the V.I. was christened "doodlebug" or "buzz
again the lives of civilians living in the London area were severely
affected, once again children's lives were greatly affected as evacuation
began again. The conditions of the earlier Blitz had returned. Civilians
took to the underground shelters. For the first few days people were tired
and frightened. At least during the Blitz they could sleep during the day
but the relentless stream of V.I.s made this impossible, "We no\v
live, sleep (when we can), eat and
think of nothing but flying bombs.
They are always with us, ....at the
office, ....and at night I lie and
listen as the approaching bomb gets
nearer, " wrote Vivienne Hall an inhabitant of London.
in the Croyden area were affected the most by the V.I. attacks. 142 V.I.s
fell there, destroying 1,000 houses and severely damaging a further
57,000. Wandsworth was the next hardest hit followed by Lewisham and
Woolwich. The Government took the view that the Germans should be kept
guessing where the bombs were dropping and the media were forbidden to
reveal that the capital was affected. Londoners were discontented about
this and on the 18 June 1944, Londoner Vere Hodgson said, "The
last 3 days have been one long
alert and no one has had much
sleep. Nothing is said on the wireless
or in the papers except.. ...Southern
England! This is us - and we
are all fed up. " The morale of
civilians in the London area was at its lowest in late June and early
July. In Bermondsey a cereal warehouse was hit. The area around it was
flooded with 3 feet of grain. A fire started and the firemen's hoses
washed the grain into the drains where it swelled and blocked the flow of
sewage. The people living here were greatly affected, not only did they
have to contend with the flying bombs but also with the stench and the
plague of flies that followed this incident.
defences were moved towards the coast which helped to contain the V.I.
threat. By August the V.I. launch pads in northern France were overrun by
allied forces but by then almost 6,000 civilians had been killed and
16,000 severely injured. However the Germans were still able to fire V.I.s
from piloted planes so the attacks continued. They were less frequent but
now they were spread over a wider area. Between 12 June and 5 September,
6725 flying bombs approached the coast of England, 3463 of these were
destroyed by anti aircraft guns, fighters and balloons.
8 September 1944 the German V. 2 was brought into service. The first
explosion at Chiswick followed a little later by an explosion at Epping
was heard all over London. The Government admitted that Britain was being
attacked by rockets. Between 8 September 1944 and 27 March 1945, 1054
V.2's fell on Britain, about half in the London area. The majority landed
in the East End or outer suburbs to the east and north. Civilians in
Ilford were the worst affected with 35 hits, followed by West Ham,
Barking, Dagenham and Walthamstow. People in the East End of London began
once again to wonder if they were being deliberately targeted.
suffered the V. 2 attacks without too much distress because the rockets
came so rarely and there was no interruption to sleep unless one landed
nearby. They did have complaints, but these were against the Government
for their incompetence in providing shelter and their inability to have
houses, that had been damaged by bombs, repaired. In Croyden some
civilians were living in garages, empty shops, Anderson shelters and rest
centres because there houses were not fit to live in. This problem was
compounded when the evacuees began to return The V.I and V.2 attacks
totally destroyed 30,000 houses in the London area and damaged another
1,250,000. Many civilians were severely affected. They were left homeless
or in houses that were badly in need or repair. Their suffering was made
worse with the harsh winter of 1944 - 1945, which was the coldest for 50
V.I and V.2 threat was brought to an end in March 1945 with the successful
advances of the Allied forces throughout Europe.
whole of the British civilian population was affected in some way by the
Second World War. No-one emerged unscathed. The Blitz took its toll on the
city dwellers, especially London and the East End. Rationing affected
virtually everyone except those who could grow their own supplies.
Children, mothers and hosts were affected by evacuation and the whole
population, regardless of where they lived was affected by the blackout
and the threat of poison gas attacks. 355,000 British soldiers and
civilians were killed during the Second World War. For those who survived
the immediate effect of the post war years was that life for most people
was a good deal better than it had been in the 1930's, despite the fact
that high taxation continued, austerity and rationing remained and there
was a severe shortage in housing.
to many historians much of what is written or said about the Home Front in
World War II is myth rather than fact. I believe however that the evidence
supports the facts rather than the myth. Although people's memories are
selective war is a powerful experience for those who live through it so
their memories will be sharp and accurate. Newspaper and radio propaganda
would, it is true, present only favourable or morale boosting facts and
information and suppress unfavourable news but it was rare that it was
are divided in their views about the popular beliefs about the nature of
World War II. For example Angus Calder used the cliched phrase 'The
People's War" ironically in his writings and said that, "The
effect of the war was not to
sweep society onto a new course but
to hasten its progress along the
old grooves. " Dr. Henry Polling reinforced
Calder's view that the war didn't have a deep effect on British society
and Tom Harrison criticised the myths about national unity and heroism in
Marwick however believed that there was some truth in the myths and that
British society was changed as a result of World War II but maybe not as
much as or in the direction that some would have liked. Paul Addison's
book The Road to 1945; British Politics and the Second World War agrees
with Arthur Marwick's view and Addison stresses the changes that actually
did take place in British society without any attempt to exaggerate.