The date was the 3rd of September, 1939. It was a Sunday and unseasonably warm out, in London at least. In homes across the nation preparations were underway for the usual Sunday lunch of roast beef or chicken and those who had a wireless already had it on, its familiar voices prattling in the background.
At 11.15 precisely, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was to address the nation. As the time drew near mothers put down the potatoes they were peeling, fathers called their children inside and the whole family gathered, stomachs churning in anticipation of what they knew was coming.
For a while now, war had been in the air. The Munich Agreement and its promise of ‘Peace For Our Time’ was only a year old but already felt like a relic of a different time. In recent months, civilians had been enlisted to the Auxiliary Fire and Air Raid Precautions services, backyard air raid shelters had been built and gas masks issued. Two days earlier, the evacuation of children had begun.
Now that Germany had invaded Poland the fates of many were sealed. Chamberlain’s long struggle to win peace had failed and Britain, alongside France, now had no choice but to stop Germany by force. Chamberlain’s speech ended with the words; “Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against – brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution – and against them I am certain that the right will prevail.” (1)
Mobilising the Home Front
Almost immediately the sirens went off and the entire nation was jolted into the terrifying realisation that their lives, and their country, would never be the same again. Of that day, Bill Clavey remembers,*
“… the warning siren, which we had previously heard in practice, sounded its dreadful ominous undulating wail. Surely not, they can’t be coming already, and with uncertainty and not quite sure of what action to take, we all went to the front room window.” (2)
At the outbreak of war, the Armed Forces Act forced any man between the ages of 18 and 41 to register for service. Those deemed medically unfit or needed at home due to their work in industries were exempt for now, as were women. The government knew that it wasn’t enough to build the most effective army, air-force and navy possible and send them overseas to meet the enemy. The enemy would also be fought in the streets, in the workplace and in the home.
The women and men who were to remain behind waved off their fathers, sons, brothers and friends, not knowing whether they’d ever see them again, then got to work contributing to the war effort in any way they could. Teenagers, women, people with disabilities and retirees were all mobilised. A teenager at the time, Jack Taylor recalls WW1 vets joining the Home Guard:
“As the early days and weeks moved on there was a need to mobilise the manpower who would be over military age. The obvious selection of this reserve manpower were the old sweats of the First World War. The ex-First World War veterans were again recognised as a valuable asset, bent backs miraculously straightened, the slow step of age changed into a smarter gait and talk was of square bashing, old regiments and reminiscences of methods of military drilling were exchanged.” (3)
By August 1940 over 700,000 women had joined the British Army, serving in organisations such as the Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens), the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (Waffs) and the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Later, in December 1941, the number of women serving in these organisations swelled when Parliament passed a second National Service Act making all unmarried women and childless widows between 20 and 30 liable to call-up.
A huge number of women also volunteered or were forced to join the industrial sector that directly fed into the war effort. Working class women had been working in factories in Great Britain for years but now traditionally masculine roles were open to them. Many female factory workers shifted into metal-working, creating armaments for use on the battlefield. Annie Ferguson remembers her time working at Haig Pit, a coal mine:
“All through the war I worked as a ‘Screen Lass’. This was on the ‘Pit Top’ and involved picking metal and stone out from the coal… Everything was on a conveyor belt. Then two of us had to shovel the waste down a chute into a crusher and the wagons below. It was a great big shovel and you could be on this for the full eight-hour shift. They’ve got one of the shovels in the Haig Mining Museum now.”(4)
It is estimated that over 7 million women entered the workforce during World War Two. When the working day was done, women returned to their domestic duties and often struggled to keep up domestic chores alongside gruelling labour.
Dig For Victory
At the time, as now, Great Britain imported a large amount of its its food and one of Germany’s principal strategies in the early days of the war was to target ships carrying food supplies. To counteract this threat rationing came into force in January 1940 at which time bacon, butter and sugar were rationed. All meat, jam, tea, cereal, cheese, eggs, milk and dried fruit, amongst other things were soon added to the ration list.
For many the National Loaf, introduced in 1942 was a sticking point, quite literally as the tasteless, grey, wholemeal loaf had a tendancy to stick people’s dentures together. The ingredients needed to produce white bread were either unavailable or deemed unecessary as the National Loaf could be produced on British soil.
Early in the war, fresh fruit became scant and the government launched a successful ‘dig for victory’ campaign that urged citizens to plant victory gardens in which they could grow their own produce. Clothing was also rationed and to help those struggling to clothe themselves the British Ministry of Information released a pamphlet entitled, Make Do and Mend. In it, women were offered advice on mend and resuse old clothing, practices most of the working class population were already highly accomplished in.
Don’t Do It, Mother!
In many wartime homes in cities across Great Britain, no matter how much time was spent ‘digging for victory’ or ‘making do and mending’, there would never be enough to go around. Pre-empting the scarcity of food and constant threat of death from the skies, actions were taken before war was even announced to remove children from the cities and send them to the countryside.
On the 1st of September 1939, 1.5 million children washed and dressed for school as usual but were sent home, told only that they were going on a trip the next morning. City kids, many of them poor and living in London’s notorious insect-infested slums, were excited at the prospect taking a train out to the countryside. Little did they know that for most it would be years before they returned home. An anonymous writer describes the trauma of being evacuated to America:
“Whether they believed it or not, they told us that the separation would not be for more than a year. But at 14, a year is a very long time, and I reacted with revulsion, with rage, with panic, cried most of the time in the few weeks leading up to the journey to Liverpool, and refused to be reconciled to my fate. My sister Claudia seemed to think it would be an exciting adventure.” (6)
Officially evacuation was voluntary but there was a genuine fear that children who remained in cities were not safe and many families were grateful to relinquish the care of their children to rural hosts. While some children flourished in their new surroundings others floundered and were left vulnerable to abuse.
Death from Above
Any city-dwelling mother who kept her children close to her must have regretted her decision by September 1940 when Nazi Germany unleashed the Blitz. The Blitz was a devastating aerial bombing campaign that killed an estimated 43,000 civilians and smashed cities to pieces. In September 1940 alone 5,300 tonnes of explosives were dropped on British heads by the Luftwaffe. For eight months night raids were constant and black-out was strictly enforced. Anderson shelters, flimsy-looking corrugated steel structure covered with a layer of soil, became a home away from home and thousands of Londoners took to sleeping in Tube stations.
Alice Beanse’s account describes the 7th of September 1940 as one of the most traumatic days of her life:
“… when Hitler decided to unleash his fury on the East End of London, and my mother, father and I endured, along with thousands of other people, the worst bombing attack on that part of London. That day will live with me forever.” (6)
In Britain, the Second World War did not end on the 8th May 1945 when Prime Minister, Winston Churchill broadcast his message to the nation, just as it had not begun on 3rd September 1939 when Neville Chamberlain had broadcast his. A long road to recovery lay ahead and people immediately set about building a country back up out of the rubble. Anti-war sentiment was surprisingly rare, especially following the war when the full horror of the Nazi’s final solution became known, and the people of Great Britain were united for a time. It was this sense of solidarity that led to the emergence of the collective welfare state.
Physically and mentally scarred men returned from the battlefront, women returned from the workplace and children returned from their temporary rural homes, each carrying their own painful memories and resentments. For those who survived the war life went on but it was a life that would never be quite the same again.
* Between June 2003 and January 2006, the BBC ran the WW2 People’s War Project with the aim of collecting the memories of people who had lived and fought during World War Two. All quotes used in this article have been gleaned from the online archive of this project.