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.



Gas Masks;  Blackout;  Evacuation;  The Home Guard and other volunteer groups; 

Air-raids (Fires, Morale, Shelters, Social classes, Birmingham, Coventry, Glasgow, Bristol); 

Rationing (Food, Cigarettes and alcohol, ‘Dig for Victory’, Clothes, Bevin boys, Furniture); 

Women (War work, Women’s Land Army, Conscription, Fire Brigade, Armed Services); 

Americans;  Leisure;  Children;  V1s and V2s; 

Conclusion – how greatly were the people of Britain affected by the war?




With 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.



Fears 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. 

Gas Masks

No 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. 


One 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. " 


The 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. 



With 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. 


The 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. 


Pedestrians 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 courting couples. 


Once 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. 



In 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 Service (W.V.S.). 


Evacuation 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. " 


The 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. 


For 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, 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. "  


Mothers 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! " 


Hosts 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. " 


There 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.  


In 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."   


At 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. 


The 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. 


Middle 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. " 


Some 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.   



The 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 horses. 

The Home Guard and other volunteer groups

To 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 his boss. 


One 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. 


The 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 British public. 


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. 


The 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.   



The 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. 


From 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 World War. 


Bombs 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 of London.” 


In 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.. 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. 


Huge 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. 


The 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. " 


London 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. 


Civilians 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. 


Some 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. 


The 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. 

Social classes

In 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. " 


On 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. 


German 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. 


In 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. "  


Even 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. 


Bombing 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. 



While 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 price. 


The 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 dried foods. 


Nursing 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. 


There 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 spuds. " 


The 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. ' 


Cigarettes 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 two tobacconists. 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. "  

Cigarettes and alcohol

One 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. 

‘Dig for Victory’

British 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 tripled. 


In 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. 


By 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. 


There 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 prosecuted an 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. 

Bevin boys

Civilians 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. 


"Utility 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. 


Even 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 pigs. 


These 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. 



The 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. 


Not 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. 


5,000,000 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.  

War work

Many 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 conditions. 

Women’s Land Army

In 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. 

Conscription of women workers

By 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. 

Fire Brigade

Although 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. 

Armed Services

By 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%. 


Before 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. 


Women proved to be the greatest unused natural resource that Britain had. 


British 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 mines. 


When 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 over-here. " 



The 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. 


At 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 troop concerts. 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. 


Civilians 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. 


Dance 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. 



The 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. 


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. " 


There 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.  


Absenteeism 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. 



On 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 bomb". 

V1s and V2s

Once 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, the office, ....and at night I lie and listen as the approaching bomb gets nearer, " wrote Vivienne Hall an inhabitant of London. 


Civilians 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. 


Anti-aircraft 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.  


On 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. 


Londoner's 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 years. 


The V.I and V.2 threat was brought to an end in March 1945 with the successful advances of the Allied forces throughout Europe. 



The 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. 

Conclusion – how greatly were the people of Britain affected by the war?

According 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 ever fabricated. 


Historians 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 the Blitz.  


Arthur 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.