Although it was the men who were called up to fight on the front line as well as to defend the nation from bases around the country, the British people left behind at home also had a vital role to play in the war as part of the Home Front. It was vital that everyone was able to make a contribution to the ‘war effort’.
THE WAR EFFORT
Everyone was asked to help win the war, by making extra efforts and working harder on the 'Home Front'. Children saved pennies, even collected scrap metal to make munitions and food waste. Women everywhere knitted woolly hats and comforts for the men of the Armed Services. They also took responsibility in roles such as ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) as well as in service sectors such as mail delivery.
With so many men away in the armed forces, millions of women were recruited to work in factories, on buses and trains, and in hospitals and schools. Around 80,000 women joined the Women's Land Army to work on farms to help produce the food supplies so desperately needed to feed the nation. By 1942, 400,000 British women were serving in the Army, Navy and Air Force. Women pilots also flew much needed new aircraft from factories in the USA and the United Kingdom to RAF bases.
EVACUATION / CHILDREN AT WAR
At the start of the war in September 1939 the British Government realised that large cities would become prime targets for German bombers and that the civilian casualties would be high. Evacuation was introduced to move school children, teachers, mothers with children under the age of 5 and disabled people out of the threatened cities to the relative safety of the countryside.
Evacuation was voluntary and the Government hope that more than three million would take advantage of the scheme. However by the end of September 1939 just half of that number had been evacuated and later most of those returned home when there were no bombing raids during the period known as the Phoney War.
When the Battle of Britain and the Blitz began in1940, evacuation was re-introduced. The children to be evacuated assembled in school playgrounds wearing name and address tags and carrying their gas masks as well as their basic belongings in small cases. After saying tearful goodbyes to their parents they travelled by train or coach to the country destinations where they were met by the people who had agreed to house and care for them. Most of the evacuees had absolutely no idea who they would be staying with, what their lives would be like and if they would ever see their parents again.
THE BLITZ AND THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
The Blitz ( constant bombing raids by the enemy) started in 1940 and within a few weeks the daily bombing raids also continued at night. This was all part of Hitler’s tactic to increase the ‘fear factor’ and try to crush the nation’s morale. In London when the air raid sirens gave warning of an impending attack people would head for the nearest underground station for protection and stay there for the night.
There were public bomb shelters in most towns, but many people built their own Anderson Shelters in their back gardens so they had some protection if they could not get to the public shelters.
Anderson Shelters were made out of corrugated metal and despite being very basic were very strong. A hole had to be dug in the garden and then the shelter was placed in the hole and covered with layers of earth. Air raid sirens manned by the Home Guard warned that an air raid was due to begin.
THE BLACK OUT
To try and confuse the German bombers the British Government enforced a ‘black out’. Street lamps were switched off; homes had to have ‘black out’ curtains drawn to prevent any light escaping; car lights were covered. This made going out at night a very dangerous activity particularly in the early months of the blackout.
After May 1941, the bombing raids became less frequent as Hitler turned his attention to attacking Russia. Nevertheless, the effects of the Blitz were devastating. 43,000 people were killed, 87,000 were seriously injured and 2 million homes were destroyed.
RATIONING - FOOD, CLOTHES AND SHOPPING
Britain as an island had always imported food and other goods from overseas by sea and air. In 1939 when the war started most goods were transported by ship.
Hitler seized the opportunity to try and starve Britain into submission by using submarines to torpedo ships bringing essential supplies to Britain.
This forced the British Government to introduce rationing to make sure that everyone had a fair share of what was available.
Every man, woman and child was given a ration book for food and had to register with a grocery store. When someone bought rationed food, the grocer, butcher or baker placed a sticker in his or her ration book to show that the week’s ration had been purchased.
At first only essentials such as butter, sugar and bacon were rationed but by the end of 1940 all meat, eggs, cheese, jam, tea and milk were also included.
Clothes too were rationed from June 1941 due to a shortage of raw materials and factories having to concentrate their primary output on producing weapons, aircraft and munitions for the war.
DIGGING FOR VICTORY
Vegetables were not rationed but were often in very short supply. Everyone who had a garden was encouraged to plant and grow vegetables instead of flowers. This Government initiative was called ‘Digging for Victory’ and its poster campaign helped persuade people that by growing their own food they were helping to win the war.
Many public parks were turned into allotments as were railways sidings, window boxes and many other sites were there was some fertile land
The only fruit available was that grown in Britain i.e. apples, pears and strawberries. More exotic fruits such as bananas, oranges, peaches and other imported fruit were not available at all.
Dried egg powder was available and was used to make scrambled egg.
MAKE DO AND MEND
Second hand clothes were not rationed and children’s clothes were handed down from one child to the next or sold to other families. The Government used the slogan ‘Mend and Make Do’ to encourage to repair or patch torn and worn out clothes.
The Red Cross and Salvation Army were two of many organisations to operate clothes exchanges
To keep clothes clean, especially items of underwear as well as bedding, the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) operated mobile laundries in towns and cities. This service was essential for those who had been bombed out of their home and were staying in temporary accommodation for example.
With clothes rationed, it was a good idea to reuse old clothes or make new ones yourself. Sewing classes and leaflets showed people how to make coats from blankets, or baby clothes from old pillowcases. A tip for making shoes last longer was to paint the soles with varnish.
If a chair broke, you mended it. If your sock had a hole, you got a needle and wool to 'darn' (repair) it. Clothes rationing lasted from 1941 until 1949.
Please call or email us if you would like help with educational projects, for details of our displays, talks, presentations and any more information about the Home Front.
Please contact us if you would like help with educational projects or details about our displays, talks or presentations and for any more information about the Home Front.