Total War, Britain during the Second World War Essay

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Part 1: The outbreak of war

When war broke out on 3 September 1939, the mood in Britain was very serious. Nobody expected that the war was going to be Over by Christmas. The British government reacted quickly. There had been a war scare in September 1938 at the time of the Munich Crisis and this provided valuable practice for the real thing. In the meantime, gas-masks had been produced for everybody in the population and air-raid shelters had been constructed. The Emergency Powers Act, which allowed the government to control public life throughout the war was passed in August 1939. On aspect of it was the introduction of Identity Cards, which had to be carried at all times. These were also used for National Registration which allowed people to be called up for the armed forces or for war work.

Fears of bombing

It was widely believed that British towns and cities would be bombed immediately after war was declared and that hundreds of thousands of people would be killed or wounded. In 1937 the Air Ministry had estimated that on the first day of a war with Germany, 3,500 tonnes of bombs would be dropped on Britain and that a further 700 tonnes would be dropped on every day after that. Deaths were estimated at fifty people for every tonne of bombs. 1,250,000 cardboard coffins were produced and plans were made for mass burials. The casualties expected would require 2,800,000 hospital beds, so all hospitals were taken over by the government under the Emergency Medical Service. Their work was co-ordinated for the first time and all non-emergency patients, and many people who were seriously ill, were sent home. Cinemas and theatres were closed and new regulations were introduced by the Defence of the Realm Act. It became an offence to be seen without a gas-mask

The calculations of the numbers of bombs dropped and people killed were based on completely inaccurate figures. The German airforce (the Luftwaffe) had been very effective during the Spanish Civil War, when it had had almost no opposition and had been able to bomb at low level in daylight. Bombing Britain was quite another proposition as the Germans found out in 1940. One major advantage that Britain had was that Robert Watson Watt had invented Radar in 1936 and by 1939 a network of radar Stations had been built along the east and south coasts. These were able to warn the RAF of approaching raids.

Regulations from September 1939

In the first few months of the war, several new ministries were set up to organise the fight against Germany. Food, Shipping, Economic Warfare and Information all came under government control. At first, these new ministries had little effect, but over the next six months they became more and more important. The Ministry of Information began to make films that warned the British people of the possible dangers of the war and also how to recognise German paratroops and spies. Lord Woolton became Minister of Food in April 1940 and began to encourage the British people to save food. He also organised the publication of recipe books to help housewives overcome the monotony of the diet under rationing. His most famous creation was Woolton Pie, which was made from vegetables and potatoes.

Air Raid Precautions

A blackout went into force immediately in September 1939. All lights had to be hidden at night. Blackout material could be bought cheaply and windows were taped to prevent people being injured by flying glass. Anderson air-raid shelters were distributed; these were dug into the garden and covered with earth. They were designed to protect people against falling brickwork if the houses were bombed. In areas where it was impossible to use Anderson shelters, large concrete shelters with curved roofs were constructed.

Many people, however, had no gardens and no public shelters, particularly if they lived in city centres or in flats. Some moved in with friends or relatives during warnings, others moved onto the ground floor. Here they constructed a safe room, sometimes in a cellar. From 1941, some people used a Morrison shelter, which was a steel cage, which fitted under a dining table. To reduce the likelihood of casualties, people were advised to keep off the streets as much as possible.

To tackle the effects of bombing, the British government set up a series of Auxiliary Services, of which the Air Raid Precaution (ARP) was one. Just as important were the Observer Corps, which watched for planes on high buildings, counting and identifying them for the RAF controllers after they had been picked up on radar and the Auxiliary Fire Service, which worked alongside the Fire Brigade and Heavy Rescue Squads, which tried to find the victims of air-raids,


Evacuation was the moving of children and other vulnerable people from areas that were likely to be bombed during the Second World War. About 1,500,000 people were evacuated during the period from 1 to 4 September. Britain was divided into three regions, Evacuation areas, Neutral Areas and Reception Areas. People at risk were moved from Evacuation areas to Reception areas in the four day period. The whole transport system was taken over for the purpose.

Numbers of people evacuated in September 1939

Schoolchildren 827,000

Mothers and children 524,000

Pregnant women 13,000

Blind and disabled people 7,000

Teachers 103,000

Children were moved in school groups with their teachers. They were allowed to take one suitcase and had labels around their necks in case they got lost. Evacuation was not compulsory and many people refused to go. In all about 48% of schoolchildren left evacuation areas. In the reception areas host families were allowed to choose the evacuees they wanted. This could create problems because some children did not find homes.

Government propaganda

To back up the new regulations and to remind the people of Britain that great care was needed, the government bombarded them with propaganda. There were wireless broadcasts, posters and a large number of short films. Some showed how to fit a gas mask, others described simple fire precaution, but all emphasised the need for people to remain calm.

The Phoney War

Within a few weeks of the declaration of war, many of the precautions seemed to be pointless, because there were no air-raids and no fighting. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), which had been sent to Belgium, saw no action at all. People began to get careless, gas masks were left at home, children began to come home from evacuation and by January 1940 40% of all evacuees had returned home. There was a general air that perhaps nothing was going to happen after all and there were still a million people unemployed. This was very surprising as industries had been put on a war footing and production had been increased. It was a sign that the government was a little half-hearted in its methods

By December most places of entertainment were open again. Cinemas and theatres ignored the regulations ordering them to close.During the Phoney War regulations were gradually ignored. People became more careless about carrying their gas masks and observing the black out


During the Phoney war, the government introduced rationing in January 1940. This continued throughout the war. At first only some foods were rationed, but clothing, soap and furniture were all added later. Rationing did not end in 1945, but lasted until 1953. Some foods, notably bread, were rationed for the first time after the end of the war. It was believed that bread would have been too much of a blow to peoples morale while the fighting was still going on.

Reasons for rationing

There were a number of reasons for the introduction of rationing. In the first place it was intended to ensure that Britain had an adequate supply of food. In 1939 Britain only produced about 45% of its food supply, the rest was imported. Britain had been threatened with starvation during the Napoleonic War and during the First World War and it was an obvious way of attacking the country

Rationing was also intended to keep up morale by ensuring that everybody was treated equally. The government realised that food prices were going to rise and did not want the rich to be able to buy things that others could not afford. King George VI allowed his ration book to be published and kept to the limits set.

Rationing was also meant to try to ensure that people in Britain were as healthy as possible; this had two purposes. Fit people would be able to work, but they would also needs little hospital care or other medical treatment. Both of these would help the war effort tremendously as there were bound to be many urgent casualties from bombing.

The rationing system

Under rationing the amounts of food that people got each week were strictly controlled. Everyone was issued with a ration book and then had to register with a butcher, a grocer and a dairy, who were then supplied with enough food for their customers. The ration book had to be taken on holidays and given to the landlady or hotel. But not everybody received the same rations. A committee was set up to decide how much nutrition people in different jobs required. Workers in heavy industry received more, as did pregnant women. Workers in office jobs received less.

Special supplements were made available for young children; orange juice and cod liver oil became common and lasted long after the war. The government also produced artificial meats. Such as SPAM and MOR. These were made from off-cuts of pork and ham and were tinned. They survived on school dinner menus until well into the 1970s

To help families, school meals were made available for every child so that mothers could work during the day and not have to worry about their children at lunchtime. British restaurants were opened to give people cheap meals at lunchtime and in the evening. These were off the ration.

Despite all of the governments attempts to ensure that people were treated equally, there was a black market in food. Sometimes it was simply odd pieces of meat that were left over after all of an anima; had been cut up. Liver, kidneys and other offal could be made into sausages and sold under the counter. People who lived in the countryside often had food to spare and could sell it to black marketeers, who resold it at a profit. Much more serious were cases of smuggling or the theft of food before it reached the shops.

Part 2: Blitzkrieg

Ideas about the war changed overnight on 9 April 1940, when the Germans invaded Denmark and then Norway. A month later Holland, Belgium and France were also attacked. All five countries were quickly overrun and by 22 June Hitler was master of western Europe. The Phoney War now seemed nothing more than a distant memory.

In Britain the most important effect of the German attacks was the resignation of Neville Chamberlain as prime minister and the appointment of Winston Churchill. At first there was a good deal of pressure on Churchill from his Cabinet to make peace with Hitler, but he refused. Instead he began to make a series of speeches designed to raise the morale of the British people. The most important of these came at the end of May and the beginning of June, when the survivors of the BEF, 310,000 men, were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk and Calais. It was nothing more than a disaster, but Churchill and the press turned it into a victory. It became known as the miracle of Dunkirk. The Daily Mirror had the headline, BLOODY MARVELLOUS.

The BBC news on 31 May reported the evacuation like this:

All night and all day men of the undefeated British Expeditionary Force have been coming home. From interviews with the men it is clear they have come back in glory; that their morale is as high as ever, and that they are anxious to be back again To have a real crack at Jerry.

This was what became known as the Dunkirk Spirit, but in fact it was a sign that the newspapers and the BBC were heavily censored during the Second World War. They were banned from publishing stories that might destroy peoples morale. This became even more important during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz later in 1940.

The Battle of Britain

In July the Germans began to attack British targets. At first they bombed shipping in the English Channel and then attacked ports on the south coast and radar stations, but from the middle of August they attacked the Royal Air Force (RAF). The bases used by the RAF in southern England were bombed and then the German air force, the Luftwaffe, fought battles in the skies against Fighter Command.

As these attacks developed, the government wanted to make the British people feel that they were playing their part in the fighting. In July an appeal went out for people to hand in old pots and pans and anything else made from aluminium. They were told that this scrap metal would be used to make fighter aircraft. This was not true. It was impossible to make high performance aircraft out of scrap metal, but it made people believe that they were doing something to help. In any case, during the Battle of Britain there was no shortage of fighters. It was pilots who were in short supply.


The government also called for people to save anything that could be reused. Children went out on salvage operations to collect scrap materials and people were urged to Make do and mend, rather than buy something new.

The Local Defence Volunteers

Men who could not join the army for one reason or another were asked to enlist in the new Local Defence Volunteers in May 1940. The LDV soon got a much more catchy name and became the Home Guard, although it was its nickname of Dads Army that really stuck. It was mostly made up of older men, often former soldiers. At first units had no uniforms and few weapons, but they eventually became better organised.

The Home Guards main role was to take over duties from the regular army. It patrolled beaches, stood sentry duty at nights and weekends and even rounded up German pilots after they were shot down. Home Guard battalions were also trained to carry on a guerrilla war after a German invasion and secret hide-outs were constructed. How much use the Home Guard would actually have been if the Germans had ever invaded was never discovered.

Winston Churchill made out that the Home Guard was an effective force in a speech in November 1940. He sounded just like Captain Mainwaring in Dads Army.

Such a force is of the highest value and importance. A country where every street and every village bristles with resolute armed men is a country which would not be able to be overthrown.

Another version of the fighting capacity of the Home Guard was given by one of its members.

We of the Home Guard knew full well that in 1940 and 1941 we were the biggest bluff ever, and Hitler dared not call it.

The turning point of the Battle of Britain

At first, the attacks by the Luftwaffe were defeated by the RAF. Three German planes were shot down for every one British. But by the end of August the tide was beginning to turn. In the first week of September, the Germans began to get the upper hand. But at the end of the week Hitler ran out of patience and called off the attacks on Fighter Command. Instead he ordered night time bombing raids on London. For a week Fighter Command was able to rest and repair its planes and get new pilots into action.

Hitler ordered the change of plan because he was not prepared to wait any longer for the Luftwaffe to gain control of the skies. It was one example of many of Hitler interfering in matters that he knew little about. The RAF had also bombed Berlin for the first, which Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, had said would never happen. The switch to bombing London was by way of reprisal.

During the second week of September London was bombed every night and there was nothing that the RAF could do about it. On the first night of bombing the anti-aircraft defences around London fired 140,000 shells and did not hit a single German plane. Most British fighters were unable to fly at night, so the German were virtually unopposed.

The success in bombing London by night, encouraged the Germans to try by day. So on 15 September there was another change of plan by the Germans. Instead of attacking London by night, they attacked London during daylight. This was the biggest raid of the war so far. Every available British fighter was put up into the air to attack the German planes, but although Fighter Command was stretched to the limit, it managed to hold on.

That evening the BBC news claimed that 180 German planes had been shot down over Britain. Once again the BBC was being used to make the day out to be a great victory for Britain. In fact the real number was fifty-nine. But even this was a great victory. The losses were too high for the Germans to accept over a long period and there were no more daylight attacks.

The Blitz

After the failure of the Luftwaffe to defeat Fighter Command, the Germans began to bomb London and other British cities by night. It was the Blitz. It continued throughout September, October and November in 1940, and then began again in the spring of 1941. Attacks slackened off in May 1941 as the Germans moved planes east to prepare for the invasion of the Soviet Union.

The worst affected city was London, where 13,000 people were killed in 1940. In the rest of Britain about 10,000 people were killed. Coventry was hit by a very heavy raid in November 1940, which destroyed the centre of the city and killed about 500 people. Belfast was not bombed until April 1941, when the Belfast Blitz killed nearly one thousand people.

Bombing came in several forms. The most common bombs were incendiaries. These were small bombs which burst into flames when they hit the ground. The Germans also used high explosive bombs, weighing 500 or 1,000 pounds, but the most dangerous were land mines, which drifted down on parachutes and exploded later. On average the Germans dropped 200 tonnes of bombs every twenty-four hours, but on 15 October, 538 tonnes of bombs were dropped, the largest amount at any time during the war.

At first bombing was concentrated on central London, particularly the docks. German planes followed the line of the Thames and then dropped their bombs on the East End. Damage was severe, not only to buildings, but also to morale, which was Hitlers main aim.

Why did the Germans bomb British cities?

The Blitz began after Hitler gave up his attempt to invade Britain in September 1940; this had been called Operation Sealion. In fact it is very doubtful that the Germans ever really considered invading Britain. Hitlers generals were completely against an invasion and the shipping needed to carry an army across the Channel did not exist, but nobody in Britain knew that at the time.

Instead Hitler turned to bombing Britain as a means of forcing the British government to surrender. Throughout the 1930s there had been widespread belief that bombing would be devastating. This belief was reinforced by the success of the German Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War. In an air-raid in 1937 it had almost destroyed the Spanish city of Guernica. Hitler believed that similar tactics could be used against Britain.

The Blitz was really intended to break the morale of the British people. If they saw their homes being destroyed and their loved ones being killed, Hitler believed that they would force the government to come to terms with him.

Hitler justified the Blitz by claiming that German bombers were attacking military targets. German propaganda films described attacks on war factories and installations, but most German bombing was at night and was indiscriminate.

The Blitz was an attempt to destroy industry. In London the docks were attacked regularly and this meant that people living in the East End were often bombed. The Luftwaffe, the German airforce, also tried to hit railway lines, junctions, power stations and gas-holders. But the real impact of prolonged bombing was felt be ordinary people, especially in working class areas near the centres of big cities.

Air raid Precautions

The key role in organising the protection of the British people from the effects of air raids lay in the hands of the Air Raid Precaution (ARP) wardens were appointed for every street. They wore a black uniform and white steel helmets. Wardens had the job of checking all the houses in their area. Each house had to have a bucket to put out fire, a safe room where people could shelter and blackout. Wardens had to be told how many people were sleeping in each house each night, and in which room. This was to ensure that people could be rescued if the house was bombed. Because they had so many duties and powers, ARP wardens were sometimes accused of interfering in peoples private lives.

ARP Wardens could prosecute if precautions were not obeyed. The fine for breaking blackout regulations could be as much as ¯¿½150, followed by imprisonment.

Air Raid Shelters

Despite the large numbers of air raid shelters that had been built and handed out, many people, particularly in city centres, had no where to go during a raid. In London people began to gather outside tube stations and demand to be allowed to shelter down on the platforms. At first the government refused to allow this to happen because it wanted to ensure that the trains could be used for transport. However, the early attacks were so severe and so damaging to morale, that the decision was reversed. One of the first stations to be opened was Bethnal Green in the East End.

Despite the efforts of the government, however, by November 1940 60 % of Londoners were still sleeping every night in their own houses without any adequate protection. To try to cater for these people, the government produce the Morrison shelter, a steel cage, which fitted underneath a dining table. These began to be distributed in January 1941, in time for the second big wave of attacks in which about 25,000 people were killed.

The effects of the Blitz

The main reason for the change of heart by the government was that, despite the precautions, the effects of bombing were much more devastating than had been anticipated. This was partly because the period of the Phoney war had led people to believe that there would be little actual fighting, but also because there was no slow build-up of bombing. When the Blitz started in earnest in September 1940, it came without warning and there were signs of real panic.

The government attempted to maintain morale by publishing stories of bravery and determination, which created the impression that Britain could take it. Photographs were published in newspapers of smiling people clearing up after the night before.

The Daily Herald published this account of an air raid on 9 September 1940.

East London paused for a moment yesterday to lick its wounds after what had been planned by Hitler as a night of terror. But it carried on.

During a five hour tour of the bombed area, I met only one person who was fed up a youth who complained that there were not enough shelters.

The purpose of this article was clear. The government was desperate to maintain the morale of the British people in the face of the effects of mass bombing. However, the truth was often very different. In fact there are many examples of people being very near to total despair in the winter of 1941. The Blitz had much more devastating effects than the government was prepared to admit.

This is part of an official report describing the situation in the East End of London in September 1940. It gives a completely different picture of the effects of the Blitz from the official line.

The whole story of the last weekend has been one of unplanned hysteria. The newspaper versions of life going on normally in the East End are greatly distorted. There was no bread, no milk, no telephones. There is no humour or laughter. There was thus every excuse for people to be distressed. There was no understanding in the huge government buildings of central London for the tiny crumbled streets of massed populations.

Some stories were suppressed by the government altogether. In October 1940, Balham underground station was hit by a bomb, which burst a water main. Sixty-four people were drowned. This story was never released until after the war, because many people sheltered from air-raids in underground stations. If they had found out what had happened there might well have been panic. Photographs of the damage caused by the attack on Balham were never published. They show a bus in a huge hole in the middle of the street. Other underground stations were hit, including Piccadilly and Acton.

The government also prevented the publication of other photographs that might have affected the morale of the British people. Dead bodies were never shown, nor were people complaining. Stories and interviews with people who were depressed or demoralised were kept from the newspapers. The government was able to do this because it imposed total censorship on all newspapers and other publications. It also controlled the news broadcasts of the BBC. Reports exaggerated the successes of the Royal Air Force and played down the effects of German action.

The government also attempted to create the impression that Britain could take it for the USA. US newsreels showed the people of London getting on with the job after nights of destruction.

The government attempts to suppress the truth about the effects of bombing were part of a larger attempt to control the spreading of news during the war. Censorship was a very effective method of controlling what people found out about, but it could have negative effects. If there was no news in the newspapers, people might well imagine that the situation was worse than it really was. So government propaganda fell into three categories. Stories and photographs were censored so that the British people were prevented from hearing the worst effects of German bombing. But at the same time, stories were invented which described British heroism in the face of German attacks.

A more inventive form of propaganda was carried out by the Ministry of Information, which produced films to warn and encourage the British people about the dangers that they were facing and how they could protect themselves. These were all sponsored by the government.

Perhaps most successful of all were feature films that presented a positive image of the war effort, even in defeat. Films like F for Freddie and In which we serve, showed the British forces fighting back against all odds.

What effects did bombing have on industry?

The effects of bombing on industry were much less severe than had been expected. It was one thing to drop bombs on a large city, where there were many houses, but quite another to try to hit a target like a factory. In addition, most German bombing was at night and was not aimed at specific targets. By and large it failed to put industry out of action and most factories were able to resume production within two to three days of being hit.

From early 1941 attacks on Britain became less serious. The last major attack was the Belfast Blitz in April 1941, which killed more than a thousand people. At the same time the Royal Air Force, and later the Unites States Army Air Force, began to bomb Germany. The attacks on German targets were much more severe than the Blitz. For every tonne of bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe on British cities, the Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Force dropped 315 tonnes on Germany. Allied bombing also proved much less damaging than was expected. Even at the very end of the war, it has been estimated that German industry was operating at 90% capacity.

Part 3: Total War

By the end of 1940, everybody in Britain was at war. Government propaganda tried to persuade the British people to be aware of the dangers that they were facing at all times and to do all they could to help the war effort. Posters, wireless broadcasts and films asked them to save all that they could. One piece of coal less a day, one potato less for a meal, only five inches of water in a bath, no unnecessary journeys, either by car or by train were among the requests made by the government.


To help support the British people in the long years of the war, the government tried to provide entertainment for boosting morale. Popular entertainers went to army camps, Vera Lynn became the forces sweetheart, but just as much effort went into entertaining people at home. Wireless programmes, such as Much Binding in the Marsh, about an imaginary village, and ITMA (Its That Man Again), starring Tommy Handley, were very popular and carried constant references to the war. Dame Myra Hess, a concert pianist, gave free concerts at lunchtimes in Central London. Feature films were made showing the armed forces in action. F for Freddie was about an RAF bombing raid and In Which we Serve was about the Royal Navy. Most famous of all was the film Went the Day Well, which described a landing by German paratroops in a small village and gave people information about the ways that they could be spotted.

The BBC began completely new programmes in an effort to involve ordinary people in the war. Every day there were two broadcasts, at 10.30 am and 3.00 pm of Music while you work. This was intended to help people combat the monotony of war work. Even more successful was Workers Playtime, which was broadcast at 12.30 pm from a different factory every day. This was a half hour live programme with four or five entertainers. Both of these wireless programmes were so popular that they survived long after the war ended.

The impact of evacuation

Many of the evacuees who had returned home during the Phoney War were evacuated again in September and October 1940. However, there was even greater resistance to being moved this time. 68% of women and children refused to be evacuated and at least 53% of London children were still in the city in late 1940.

Evacuation led to a complete mixing of social classes. Children went off to their evacuation areas with the rest of the pupils from their school. Their new homes could be anything from a cottage, to a farm or even a castle. Never before had the poor and the better off in Britain found out so much about how the other half lived, as children from middle class families were sent to live with working class families and vice versa.

Many host families were horrified at the state of health of evacuees who came from city centres.

In 1941 the Womens Institute compiled a report on the health of evacuees and listed the problems that they suffered from.

The state of the children was such that the school had to be fumigated.

The children were filthy. We have never seen so many verminous children lacking any knowledge of clean habits. They had not ha d a bath for months.

One child was suffering from scabies, the majority had it in their hair, and the others had dirty septic sores all over their bodies.

Some of the children were sent in their ragged little garments. Most of the children were walking on the ground, their shoes had no soles and just uppers hanging together.

Many of the mothers and children were bed wetters

On children like these, evacuation had very positive effects. One woman wrote in 1940.

Some children from poor areas have become almost unrecognisable within a few weeks. One small girl was so chubby that she needed a larger size gas mask.

However, there were many reports of difficulties with evacuation. Children often found adapting to new ways almost impossible and ran away. Many drifted back to the cities.

Nevertheless, the overall effect of these experiences was to produce pressure on the government to try to improve the lives of people in Britain. This was one of the reasons for the setting up of the Beveridge Commission in 1941.

The impact of rationing

Rationing also had unexpected results. Despite having much less choice of food in shops, during the war, people began to get healthier. This was partly because the British Government wanted them to and partly because rationing stopped them eating foods that were bad for them and made them eat foods which were healthy for them.



Sweets, Meat, Butter, Jam, Vegetables, Bread, Potatoes, Fish,

Cheese, Fats Milk (actually milk was rationed,

but the milk ration was 3 pints a

week and this was an increase for

most people)

These restrictions meant that from 1940 to 1945, the consumption of potatoes rose by 40%, of vegetables by 30% and of milk by 30%. For many people, rationing actually meant an increased and an improved supply of food every week. Poor people found that they were getting a much better diet than they had been before the war.

The government also urged people to produce as much food for themselves as they could. More than 50% of working people began to keep allotments. These were part of the Dig for Victory campaign. By 1943 there were 1,400,000 allotments in Britain.

Rationing had a profound effect on government policy. Before it had been believed that it was impossible to make major changes to the nations health. Many politicians did not even believe that it was the governments responsibility. Together with the evidence that evacuation gave of life in the inner cities, rationing helped changed these views on the role of government.

The ease with which the nations health was improved was noticed by many people, including the playwright George Bernard Shaw. He commented on the improvement in complexions and the reduction in obesity.

Rationing also affected clothing, furniture and petrol. The points for clothing included soap and the number needed to buy clothing rose throughout the war. There was a big effort to persuade people to make do and mend rather than buy anything new. People who dressed showily were regarded with suspicion. The king always dressed in uniform and queen wore the same dresses over and over again. To ensure that cheap good quality furniture was available, the utility mark was introduced. This guaranteed that products would last.

Part 4: Women during the Second World War

At the beginning of the war all women were classified as mobile or immobile. Mobile meant that they were capable of joining the armed forces or of undertaking full time war work. Immobile meant that they were housewives looking after children or elderly relatives. Many of these women registered for voluntary work with organisations such as the Womens Voluntary Service (WVS), but others demanded part time work in industry. The governments reaction was to ask women to stick to their existing jobs or stay at home. The Ministry of Information issued the following statement.

The woman who carries on with her job and does voluntary work in her spare time is doing her full share.

Nevertheless, despite the rather vague attitude of the government, many women began to work in all kinds of industries. Women were employed in aircraft factories, where they worked a sixteen hour day seven days a week, without any bank holidays. Many also worked in munitions factories. Others worked as mechanics, lorry drivers and engineers. All women received lower pay than men doing the same work. They also found that the National Insurance Act and the Personal Injuries Act (which gave workers compensation for injuries at work) discriminated against them

Conscription of women

The work of women was not properly organised by the government until 1941. In April 1941 all women were forced to register for work, but the real change was brought about by a report published by the Ministry of Labour in October. This showed that 2,000,000 more workers were needed in the armed forces and war industries. In December 1941 conscription of women aged nineteen to thirty was introduced. From then on the number of women steadily increased. By 1943 17,000,000 women aged between fourteen and sixty-four were either in the forces or in essential war work. That included 90% of single women and 80% of married women with children over fourteen.

Factory work

1943 was the year when women proved how valuable they were in the war effort. They occupied 57% of the jobs in factories, and, when they were in direct competition with men, often showed that they could do better. The Ministry of Information published details of womens achievements. A woman welder produced thirty feet more than a man on similar work. A woman in a munitions factory produced 120 pieces of equipment a day, compared to 100 by her male colleagues.

But conditions could be very poor, as this description of a new factory in 1942 showed.

Sanitation for 250 workers in our shop is ten washbowls and six lavatories and there is a very bad supply of hot water. We are given five minutes for 250 people to wash and use the lavatories.

One woman worker described her experiences in 1942.

Working in factories is not fun. To be shut in for hours on end without even a window to see daylight was grim. The noise was terrific and at night when you shut your eyes to sleep all the noise would start again in your head. Night shifts were the worst. The work was very often monotonous. I think boredom was our worst enemy.

Many of the women working in factories faced a twelve hour day in places a long way from home. The new munitions factories were often built in remote areas, to aoiv the risk of bombing, where travel was difficult. Pay for women was also lower than for men, usually about 75% of a mans wage. In engineering women earned 43 shillings (¯¿½2.15) a week when they started, compared to a mans pay of sixty five shillings and sixpence (¯¿½3.28). What made this worse was that women away from home often had to live in hostels, which could cost them 25 (¯¿½1.25) or 30 shillings (¯¿½1.50 a week). This made it impossible to save money for a visit home.

The work of women factory workers was, however, recognised by the government. In 1942 Clement Attlee, the deputy prime minister, said that:

The work that women are performing in munitions factories has to be seen to be believed. Precision engineering, which a few years ago would have made a skilled turners hair stand on end is now performed with dead accuracy by girls with no industrial experience.

In 1944 Winston Churchill stated that:

This war effort could not have been achieved if the women had not marched forward in millions and undertaken all kinds of tasks and work.

However, two months later Churchill refused to allow women schoolteachers the same pay as men and called the request impertinence. An Equal Pay Commission was set up in 1943, but it had no powers. By the end of the war women were no nearer equality with men in pay than they had been in 1939, unless they were on piece rates. That would mean that they were paid for every item that they produced, and not for the number of hours that they worked. In 1946 a Royal Commission on Equal Pay reported that women should be given equal pay with men.

Women at home were not better treated. The lowest ranks in the armed forces were only paid two shillings a day in 1939. That meant 70 p a week. A wife with two children received a weekly allowance ¯¿½1.25 at a time when wages ranged from ¯¿½3-¯¿½10. Not until 1943 were wives of servicemen paid a War Service Grant of ¯¿½3 a week.

Women in the armed forces

In the armed forces women began to play a more and more important role. By 1943 there were 443,000 women in the forces. They operated searchlights and barrage balloons and served in anti-aircraft batteries. In the navy they overhauled torpedoes and depth charges and repaired ships. As well as administrative tasks in the army, they also drove convoys, acted as despatch riders and worked in Intelligence. Many of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park were women. In the Air Transport Auxiliary Service they flew planes to RAF bases. One woman later explained how she had to be able to fly twenty-nine different planes. This was no easy feat when all flying was manual.

Women in the voluntary services

Many women entered the voluntary services, although there was opposition to them at first. One woman was turned down at first when she tried to be an ARP warden in December 1939.

The Town Hall had objections. First they said they did not want any more women, and asked WHY I wanted to work when I was married. At length after four or five weeks they agreed to appoint me.

As the war progressed, attitudes to women changed. In 1943 there were 180,000 women in the Civil Defence, which looked after local areas, and 47,000 in the fire services. 130,000 women served as messengers and despatch riders for the post office. Hundreds of thousands of others worked in auxiliary medical centres, first aid posts, mobile canteens and rest centres. Several million acted as fire-watchers who waited for incendiary bombs to fall and the tried to put out the fires that they started.

Women were not allowed to join the Home Guard, because Churchill did not want women to be involved in the front line, but many women took matters into their own hands and joined the Womens Home Defence Movement. They learnt how to handle firearms and prepared for an invasion.

The Land Army

80,000 women volunteered to work in the Land Army. British farming had somehow to produce as much food as possible to try to prevent the country being starved to death. During the war an extra 27,000,000 acres were ploughed up for arable. Land girls were often badly treated. One woman described her work in 1941.

In a large farm in Lincolnshire we worked for twelve hours a day at very hard and monotonous work and received no training. Wages were 28 shillings (¯¿½1.40) a week, out of which we had to pay ¯¿½1 for our billets. At a smaller farm in Huntingdon where we expected to be trained in tractor driving we were made to do odd jobs, including kitchen work for the farmers wife. The farmer gave us no training and refused to pay us any wages.

In the newspapers, however, it was a different story.

The Land Girls are hard at work in Herefordshire operating excavators on the heavy wasteland in the district. They can cut ditches at a rate of twenty yards an hour

Women in the home

But in many ways the biggest challenge facing many women during the Second World War was making the rationing system work. No one ever went short of food, but coping with ration books and rations that could vary from week to week was a major task, especially in a large family.

One woman described how people were always on the look out for something extra.

Queuing became an obsession for some people. If one stopped in a shopping or market district to speak to a friend, one often found a queue forming. What are we queuing for? was a common question.

An even bigger task was trying to provide some sort of variety in a diet that largely consisted of green vegetables, potatoes and bread. Manufacturers produced sauces, instant puddings and supplements to try to make the weekly rations look a little more appetising and go a little further. The government realised that food was very important to morale and supplied hundreds of recipes. The first came out in Food Education Memos. These advised the cook never to mention what was in the meal before it was eaten. The ingredients of Hasty Pudding were: six tablespoons of oatmeal, three of suet, a pint of cold water and one onion. Mock Haggis contained bacon rinds, oatmeal, bicarbonate of soda, one leek and vegetable water. Other recipes included, Cabbage Soup, Cold Cream of Pea Soup (without cream), Fish and Leek Pudding, Sheeps Head Broth and Pigs Cheek Baked.

Women were also asked to avoid all forms of waste. They were given instructions on how to cook when there was very little gas and what to do when there was an air-raid.

If an air-raid signal takes you away from your kitchen for an indefinite time, the first thing to do is stop the heat; if you do this your food cannot get burnt, and we will tell you how to continue the cooking when you come back to the kitchen. An accident, a sudden call for help may call the housewife away from the stove.

A leaflet issued by the Ministry of Food urged women to take as much care with the weeks rations.

Spread your rations and allowances so that you get part of each of them every day, making sure that each member of your family gets his proper share. On those days when you have no meat, make up for it with cheese, fish or dried peas or beans cooked with dried eggs or milk. Every day serve a pound of green vegetables, or root vegetables (dont forget swedes, especially when greens are scarce) and a salad.

What was all the more remarkable, was that the women who were coping with rationing were the same women who were working during the day, doing voluntary work in the evenings and looking after their families. At the end of the war Winston Churchill admitted that without this unseen and unrecognised army of women the war could easily have been lost. It is easy to count the numbers of women who served in the armed forces and who volunteered for relief work. It is possible to describe the work that they undertook. But it is almost impossible to record the efforts of the millions of women who struggled to keep their households and families together for year after year.

Chapter 5: The Beveridge Report

In July 1940 the writer J.B. Priestley wrote:

I will tell you what we did for servicemen and their young wives at the end of the last war. We did nothing. After the cheering and the flag waving was over, and all the medals were given out, somehow the young heroes disappeared, but in a year or two there were a lot of shabby men about, who didnt seem to have been lucky in the scramble for jobs.

In 1941, in the middle of the war the British Government asked Sir William Beveridge to lead a Royal Commission to consider how Britain should be rebuilt after the war. The Beveridge Report was published in 1942.

Beveridge recommended that the people of Britain should be protected from Five Giant Evils; Squalor, Ignorance, Want, Idleness and Disease. It went on to explain how this could be done. Beveridge said that the Government should take responsibility for the welfare of the people of Britain, From the Cradle to the Grave. It recommended that a Welfare State should be set up in Britain.

Why was the Beveridge Report published?

William Beveridge was a civil servant and he had been involved in the Liberal reforms of the years from 1906 to 1914. The Liberal Reforms had only helped a minority of people in Britain. The families of wage earners did not receive benefits and there was no automatic entitlement to medical treatment. Many mothers put off medical treatment for themselves in order to pay for treatment for their children

In 1936 Seebohm Rowntree published a second Report into poverty in Britain. The findings of his first report, in 1901, had been one of the reasons for the Liberal Reforms before the First World War. The second report had shown that poverty still existed in Britain and about 10% of the population suffered real hardship. Our Towns, which was published from 1939-42 revealed that many poor families had only four shillings (20 p) for food a week

The suffering of the British people during the Second World War convinced many politicians that real action must be taken. After the First World War, David Lloyd George had announced that he was going to build homes fit for heroes to live in, but the economic problems of the inter-war years had prevented major changes.

By 1942 there was even more powerful evidence of the need for change. Evacuation had showed just what the lives of some people in Britain were like. Many evacuees were in very poor health. The reports published by the Womens Institute that described the physical state of many evacuees. It revealed that they suffered from infestations of lice and many diseases caused by malnutrition.

Rationing had shown that government intervention could be effective. Beforehand some politicians had stated that it was impossible to improve the health of the nation; rationing changed it almost overnight. In addition the government provided dietary supplements fore the first time, such as orange juice and cod liver oil. These had major impact on the health of children.

A major campaign was launched by the Picture Post, a weekly magazine to publicise the extent of the problems faced by the British people and the Beveridge Report became a best seller. The British government said that it was going to set up a Welfare State as soon as the war ended.


The first part of the Welfare State was put into place in 1944. The Coalition government passed the Butler Education Act. This was based on the Hadow report of 1926 and the Spens report of 1938.

The Butler Education Act, 1944

The Butler Education Act, which was passed in 1944, was the first part of the Welfare State to be put into practice. It tackled one of Beveridges Five Giant Evils, Ignorance. The Act set up a Ministry of Education to replace the Board of Education. This immediately suggested that the government was giving education greater priority. All fees for state schools were abolished and the school leaving age was raised to fifteen. This meant that all children would attend secondary schools for the first time. They would go to primary schools from the ages of five to eleven and then to secondary schools from the ages of eleven to fifteen.

At the age of eleven, all children would take a test, the eleven plus, to decide what form of secondary education was appropriate for them. There were to be three types of schools, Grammar. Secondary Modern and Technical. All three types of schools were to enjoy of equal status and equal resources.

The 1944 Act marked an important change in educational policy in Britain. For the first time the government acknowledged that all children had a right to secondary education free of charge. The Act also granted, in theory at least, equality of opportunity in education to girls. Free and compulsory secondary schooling seemed to suggest that girls would no longer be prevented from gaining the education needed for a career. No more would they be forced into unskilled and lowly paid work at an early age, which they gave up when they got married. Unfortunately there were many more grammar schools for boys than there were for girls and the raising of the school leaving age to fifteen made little difference at first.

The end of the war

After almost six years of struggle the end of the war was greeted with great relief and rejoicing. The British people had faced the test and had won. But for any many of the people who had given so much to the war effort, peace proved to be something of a disappointment, as one woman welder in a ship yard found out several months before the war ended.

There were twelve women welders in the yard at the time and we were sent for one morning and the personnel officer sat there at his desk. He lifted his head and he said one word redundant. That was a new word in our vocabulary. We really didnt know exactly what it meant. There was no reason given. There was no explanation. There was plenty of work in the yard.

The reason was of course very simple. As the war came to an end, what some women had feared all along actually happened. Women were sacked so that men could get their jobs back. All over the country, women were dismissed after years of hard work. All kinds of advertisements put pressure on women to go back to the home, just as they had put pressure on women to be careful and not waste anything for the last six years. When women went to Labour Exchanges (the forerunners of job centres), they found that the chances of getting a job were slim. The government stated that men should have priority over women for all jobs.

The official government line was:

It is doubtless true that there are many jobs done during the war by women for which men are better suited, both mentally and physically. And, if there is to be a nation in the future, there must be children and children mean homes and endless chores.. So that there must naturally be a drift back from the services and the factories to domestic work.

In one sense, however, the governments attitude was understandable and many women accepted it. Men who had been in the forces for years needed and deserved work when they were demobbed (demobilised). Equality for women needed a prolonged period of peace and was not achieved until more than forty years after the end of the war.

The Second World War did result in major changes in Britain. The Welfare State that was introduced from 1946 to 1948 was a revolution in the ways that poverty and ill health were tackled. The Butler Education Act was the first attempt to provide some form of equality of opportunity for children in Britain. But the cost of the war had been much greater than anyone realised at the time. Within a few years of it being set up, the Welfare State had to be cut back and charges introduced for some services. It was nearly eight years after the end of the war before all forms of rationing were abolished in Britain.

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