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World War Two: The Home Front

Updated on August 22, 2011

By 1940, Poland, Czechoslovakia, France and all the other occupied countries of Europe, had fallen under the tyrrany of the Nazi jackboot. If Britain didn't defend itself, it would surely suffer the same fate. Everyone had to do their bit as the country was plunged into a lingering, drawn-out war that would change the lives of everyone in Britain. While Britain's servicemen and women fought the Germans over land, sea and in the air, those on the 'Home Front' had to get used to a very different way of life indeed.

World War Two British children in gas masks.
World War Two British children in gas masks.

The Threat Of Nazi gas

A conflict with Germany had been looming for months as Hitler was reneging on more and more promises and telling more and more lies.

It became ever clearer that the British Government were going to have to prepare the people of Britain for a likely war.

Poison gas had been used in the first world war to a frightful extent and those fears were still raw in people's memories just 20 years later.

Everyone in Britain was convinced that the Germans, once they started bombing the country, would use this same horrifying weapon once more.

With the conditions in Europe becoming evermore worse by the day, the British Government were of the opinion that Germany would indeed use gas against the British people.

Public information notices began to go up all around the country, informing the people of where to go to pick up their issued gas masks.

They soon became a regular site on the streets of Britain, even though they were heartily disliked, because of their cumbersome nature and the unease of breathing in them.

The British people were made to carry out regular gas attack drills and by the time war broke out on the 1st September 1939, 38 million masks had been issued by the government to the general population.

Thankfully they were never put to the test, but they did remain an everyday part of the British people's lives until the end of the war.

As young men received their conscription notices, daily newsreels also appealed for volunteers for the auxiliary services.

These were to prove vital if Britain was to remain a force throughout the duration of the war.

The government appealed for one million men and women to assist in these auxiliary services which included nursing, air raid wardens, firefighters, land workers, Wrens and Home Guard duty.

Dad's Army

The Home Guard was established in 1940 and all the men who joined were volunteers, most of whom were either too old or medically unfit for the regular forces.

This was why they became affectionately known as 'Dad's Army'

Previously known as the Local Defence Volunteer Force, it was formed originally by retired officers from the first world war.

Initially however, the British Government was opposed to their inception, but when the Trades Union Congress lent it's backing, it began to change it's opinion.

When Winston Churchill gave his support to the scheme, there was no more debate to be had on the matter and the Home Guard became a national organisation.

When Anthony Eden, the Secretary of State for War, broadcast an appeal on the 14th May 1940, for volunteers for the Home Guard, the government were only expecting around 150,000 to sign up.

Within just 24 hours of that broadcast however, 250,000 had put their names forward for the organisation.

By August, that number had risen considerably to around 1.5 million and their motto was "Kill the Bosh"

Many of the men worked during the day and trained in the evenings, using a wide variety of weapons, donated by the public.

As well as being the first line of defence against a German invasion, their duties included public rescue of people trapped after air raids, preventing looting, manning road blocks and guarding airfields and factories.

Equipment and supplies were not in abundance however, the sight of the Home Guard performing drills with broomsticks instead of rifles was all too common and hardly inspired confidence.

Nor was it likely to strike fear into the hearts of the German Army.

Eventually though, the Home Guard were finally issued with rifles, even though they were American and dated from World War One.

The Introduction of Rationing

The Luftwaffe did it's best to bomb the country to the point of resignation in 1940, but the dreaded Nazi land invasion never materialised.

However, out in the Atlantic Sea, the deadly German U-boats were destroying the Allied merchant shipping fleet at an alarming rate.

Before the second world war, Britain imported 55 million tonnes of food a year, most of it form Canada and the USA, including a surprising 70% of it's meat.

Keeping the Atlantic sea routes open would be vital if the country was not going to starve.

With so much Allied shipping being sunk, the British government had no other option than to bring in rationing.

On January 8th, 1940, sugar, bacon and butter were amnong the first items to be rationed,

Britain's housewives would also soon be queuing for cheese, meat, milk, eggs and tea and before long, the rationing of petrol had also came into force.

As the finer things in life became so scarce, a thriving 'black market' arose, ran by the enterprising and resourceful.

The rationing of clothing was also put in place, and was controlled by a points system.

Each person was given an allowance of 66 points per year, just enough to buy one new outfit.

As the war continued however, this allowance was steadily reduced and by the end of the war, people struggled to buy even one new item of clothing.

Make Do And Mend

Clothing factories, if they had not been bombed already, were only making clothing for the armed forces so the country had to conduct a 'make do and mend' policy.

Women however, tried as best they could to keep up with the latest fashion. A popular phrase at the time was "When times are hard, hemlines rise" and some of the more reserved ladies of the country remarked that "hemlines rose quite a bit".

Nylon stockings were very fashionable, but in short supply, so even fake 'painted on' stockings, similair to the fake tans of today, were considered as a cheap alternative.

Some fashions were born out of necessity, short hair for example became the norm, as long hair and factory equipment were not a good combination.

Even a turban became a popular accessory as also worn by the young Princess Elizabeth.

Trousers on women, unheard of before the war, suddenly became perfectly acceptable, knitting became widely encouraged and it was clear that not even a war was going to stop Britain's women from indulging in their passion for clothing.

Even during those difficult war years, fashion shows were incredibly popular.

Women In The Workplace

With the men away fighting, Britain's women had to take on many new roles and the working women changed the face of Britain forever with Queen Elizabeth paying particular tribute to them.

The Womens Royal Naval Service or Wrens as they were more widely known, was formed in 1917 during World War One, but it was then disbanded in 1919.

In 1939, the service was renewed and the famous Wrens were reborn.

It wasn't easy for the Wrens to gain acceptance by their male comrades however, as taking on the roles of cooks, wireless operators and electricians was usually the duty of men.

But this attitude would gradually change over the course of the war and the men would come not only to accept the Wrens, but also to widely encourage their inclusion in the struggle to defeat Germany.

By 1944, there was a total of 75,000 Wrens, rising to 100,000 by the end of the war and 300 of them had lost their lives for the country.

There was work to do on land for the women of Britain too and many joined the Womens Land Army, more popularly known as 'The Land Girls'.

The Land Girls

These women came from all walks of life, but the newsreels portraying happy, smiling girls going about their daily work, didn't always tells the real story. Many endured notable hardship as they worked the land to help keep Britain fed.

For the equivalent of just £1:60 in today's money, the backbreaking work was monotonous and tiresome and the long working day often ran from 7:30 in the morning to 9:30 at night. Often, the farmer who owned the farm could be dead set against the women working his land as some felt that the work was a man's job and this attitude just heaped added pressure on the already overwrought women.

For many of the Land Girls, it was their first taste of life away from home, and homesickness was a common emotion. But for many of them who stayed in a local hostel together, a friendship and common bond was established that would last for a lifetime.

The part played by the Womens Land Army in the second world war, was never recognised by the British Government of the time, but in 2008, they were awarded a Special Badge Of Honour for recognition of their invaluable service.

The Auxiliary Territorial Service
The Auxiliary Territorial Service

Defending The Skies

By 1942, there was 217,000 women serving in the A.T.S, the Auxiliary Territorial Service.

Some 55,000 of these were assigned to Air Defence.

This you might think was a surprisingly high figure given that Winston Churchill had once ordered that " Women should not be allowed to fire weapons as the shooting of a young German, might be too much of a psychological burden for them to cope with".

The Vital British Factories

British factories vital to the supply of armaments, were staffed in the main by women and by 1943, they outnumbered the men by 3-1.

With so many women in the factories, the owners were given some particularly non-politically correct advice.

One magazine of the time even suggested that "the more larger women, were more even tempered and deficient than their underweight sisters".

The women of the factories produced all kinds of vital war supplies, from uniforms and aeroplanes to tanks and munitions.

However, the men in the factories were still paid more than the women, even though they did exactly the same jobs. Sometimes unskilled male workers received better pay than skilled females. They had to endure long 10 hour shifts, day and night too.

The munitions factories were particularly difficult places to work in and working with TNT (trinitrotoluene) turned the skin a pallid yellow colour and this earned the women the nickname 'The Canaries'

Digging For Victory

Despite the stirling efforts of the Land Girls, there was still a dire shortage of fruit and vegetables. The government then launched it's 'Dig For Victory' campaign.

The idea was that anyone who could, should attempt to grow their own fruit and vegetables.

During the course of the war the Ministry did many things to promote to the people of Britain, the importance of growing their own food.

Cinema newsreels gave helpful instructions to the more inexperienced gardener on how best to establish a vegetable patch.

In addition to posters and leaflets, radio broadcasts were heard in the form of food flashes and new advertisements.

Lord Woolton was appointed the Minister of Food, he was a particularly amiable and influential man with a great business acumen, which ensured that the Dig for Victory campaign was a success and the British people did not starve during or after the war.

The whole of Britain's Home Front was encouraged to convert private gardens into mini-allotments. Not just this, but parks, public gardens and numerous areas of vacant wasteland were dug up for planting fruit and vegetables.

Kensington Gardens in south London actually dug up all its flowers and planted rows upon rows of cabbages. The government also encouraged people to keep a few small animals such as chickens or ducks for producing eggs.

Some communities even set up their own pig clubs, feeding the pigs on kitchen scraps and sharing the pork when the pigs had been slaughtered.

Overpaid, Oversexed and Over Here!

After Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese on December 7th, 1941, the United States entered the war.

Britain now had to prepare itself for another invasion, this time by the American G.I's.

The first of the American troops landed in Britain in January 1942.

Most of the men had never been away from home before and the American authorities were determined to prepare them for the British way of life.

They were all given a detailed guide book on various British customs and behaviour and were expected to conduct themselves in accordance with British laws.

Many British women were immediately captivated by the occupying G.I's. The Hollywood-style charm combined with the availability of Hershey's chocolate bars and nylon stockings were an overwhelming attraction, and wartime promiscuity was rife.

This led the British male population to enviously declare the Americans as "Overpaid, oversexed and over here".

Not the friendliest of welcomes to our so called 'Allies' then!.

Although it was the G.I's who were more widely remembered in popular memory, the United States Womens Auxiliary Corps were also stationed in Britain during World War Two.

They formed part of the regular U.S. Army and worked as typists, telephone operators, cooks and drivers.

The Nazis V2 rocket of WW2
The Nazis V2 rocket of WW2

A New And Deadly Threat

Towards the end of the war, Hitler tried one last way to attack the British people.

The V1 flying bomb or 'Doodlebug' as it became known, was unleashed to deadly effect.

It would make a distinctive motorised sound before it went silent, signalling the moment that it was about to drop to the ground.

Their frightening drone could be heard day and night, it's eerie noise eminating from it's pulse jet engine.

In September 1944, the V1 was replaced by the even more powerful V2 (or A4 rocket).

The supersonic V2 arrived before it could be heard, it was capable of hitting Britain just 5 minutes after it had been launched from the Netherlands, over 200 miles away.

There was no warning when the first V2 landed on London on September 8th and it would be the first of over a thousand to land on the country.

The End Of The War

On May 7th 1945, the day arrived that everyone in Britain and the rest of Europe had longed for, Nazi Germany had finally surrendered to the Allies and the most destructive war ever seen was at an end.

The country must now reflect upon the horrific loss of life, terrible destruction and painful costs. But on the early summer day of May 8th 1945, they could at least enjoy a day of victory and the coming of peace.

After six long, arduous years, it was finally all over and for those on the Home Front, who had done their bit to earn Britain the final victory, life would slowly return to normal, although somehow, it would never be quite the same again.


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