Useful Notes: The Home Front

Who do you think you are kidding Mr. Hitler,
If you think we're on the run?
We are the boys who will stop your little game.
We are the boys who will make you think again.
'Cause who do you think you are kidding Mr. Hitler,
If you think old England's done?

Britain during the Second World War. WW2 had such a massive impact on British history, it's usually referred to simply as "the war".

Whale Meat Again- Rationing

In January 1940 Britain introduced rationing, since 70% of its foodstuffs were imported and the Germans were attempting to implement a blockade of their own. All of Europe, including the neutral countries, implemented rationing for the duration of the war. The severity of rationing varied greatly: Germany, for example, imposed a strict but very generous rationing law until 1943, in order to keep up civilian morale. Germany herself had imported half her food before the war, and the German-occupied territories a tenth, so the food situation in occupied Europe became progressively more desperate as the war dragged on. Most famously, by autumn 1941 the situation in Germany's oldest colony (Hans Frank's Generalgouvernment) had become so dire that it was thought absolutely necessary to euthanize some of the natives to forestall food riots or even general rebellion. By all accounts the measure seems to have been a resounding success, with the removal of two almost universally disliked ethnic minorities (which together accounted for a tenth of the population of 20 million), allowing the official ration to be raised to survivable levels once more. Germany's own rationing situation changed in early 1943, when in the wake of Army Group A's destruction (at Stalingrad and in the eastern Ukraine) Germany mobilised her country's entire economic resources for war.

Throughout Europe rationing of grain and all other foods continued long after the war's end due to the wartime devastation of European agriculture. In Britain, bread was first rationed in 1946 because of delayed after-effects of the massive 1940-45 downswing in European agricultural production (specifically French, Benelux, German, and Soviet production) caused in large part by the Germans' wholesale acquisition of untold millions of farm-horses and tens of thousands of trucks and tractors. It was not until 1954 that the last item (bananas) stopped being rationed.

You would be given a ration book, with coupons for different products- you still had to pay for them. It wasn't much, but it actually improved many diets.

Typical weekly food rations for a British family of four in April 1945 were:
  • Bacon and Ham - 1lb (454g).
  • Meat - 4/8 (24p) worth, which bought around 4lb 12oz (2.15kg) depending on the cut.
  • Tea - 8oz (227g); that's around 100 cups worth or 3-4 cups per person per day.
  • Sugar - 2lb (907g).
  • Butter - 8oz (227g).
  • Lard - 8oz (227g).
  • Margarine - 1lb (454g).
  • Cheese - 8oz (227g); vegetarian families could trade in their meat and bacon ration for an additional 12oz (340g).

Other items:
  • Petrol (gas) was needed for the military and farming. The farming petrol was dyed red to stop people selling it on the black market. This didn't work since the dye came out if you ran it through a gas mask respirator (note that "red diesel" still exists today, denoting it as tax-exempt, with a much better dye).
  • Fish was not rationed, but very hard to get hold of. New types of fish were introduced, but generally unpalatable.
  • Beer was not rationed (bad for morale), but was frequently watered down, otherwise limited, or just plain unavailable. With France occupied by and Italy allied with Those Wacky Nazis and every part of the supply line from California filled up with high-priority war material, wine was Unobtainium .
    -Publican; "Looks like rain..."
    -Customer; "Aye, it sure ain't beer."
  • Eggs were scarce. People who had the space often kept hens: you were allowed to replace your official egg ration with an official hen food ration.
  • Only Slough could get Mars Bars.
  • Rubber (for tyres) was increasingly unavailable and became virtually unobtainable after The Fall of Singapore (and the consequent drying-up of most of the world's natural rubber supply). The expensive synthetic rubber (Buna, etc, all produced from coal) was reserved for military use. Civilians got by in much the same way they had pre-war - patching - but after a certain amount of wear-and-tear no further patching was possible and so the unavailabilty of new tires began to bite as the war wore on note .
  • You had to take your own food wrapping and sometimes your own glass to the pub.
  • Sausages were not rationed but were very very hard to get. They often had a lot of bread and suet in them, so much so The Times got a reasonably famous letter to the effect of "we don't know whether to put mustard or marmalade on them."
    • A joke of the period ran (in a thick mock-german accent):
      "The English make the best bread in the world!"
      "Jah, but why do they call it sausage?"

Restaurants were not subject to rationing, but limits on meals were put in.

Naturally, this led to black marketeering.

Apple crumble and carrot cake were two recipes popularized due to the necessities of rationing.

The Battle of Britain

"...the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin...if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'"
— Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, 18 June 1940note 

"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
— Prime Minister Winston Churchill to House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, 20 August 1940

Our Crowning Moment of Awesome.

Once France fell the eyes of the Nazi War Mare-with-panje-cartnote  turned to Italy's new enemy of Greece, the ally-turned enemy of Yugoslavia (which had suffered a British-backed coup), and Britain itself. After Dunkirk the British army was in tatters, although if it had failed to evacuate as many troops from France things would have been even worse. During the first year of the battle of Britain the only adequately-armed (wih machine guns, mortars, artillery, trucks, and radios) division in Britain was Canadian, the British forces having abandoned eight divisions' (120,000 combat troops) worth of heavy-weapons and machinery in the retreat. A galling and at the time much-noted consequence was that the lorries and motor vehicles, as well as some tanks abandoned in France, were refurbished and used to equip German 'third-rate' and anti-partisan units. Many saw action as far as Belgrade and Minsk under their new drivers (because they used such unorthodox parts and were worse than useless against contemporary Soviet armoured vehicles, they were used to massacre civilians and kill partisans). When the cream of the Wehrmacht's armoured forces were destroyed in the western Ukraine in 1943-44, some of these British tanks were actually put back into front-line usage... to little effect.

If Germany had taken the British Isles then an Allied invasion of Europe would have had to come through the Mediterranean, which would have made things rather bloody what with the poor infrastructure and all the hills and mountains. However, the prospects of Germany successfully invading and conquering Britain were non-existent - not that this was known by the people of Britain at the time. Indeed, Mass Observation-magazine reports of the time show that the 'middle classes' (rich people, basically) thought that invasion and defeat was more likely than poorer people; 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing', as they say, and this is reflected in their generally lower morale throughout the war.

Achtung, "Spuckfeuer"! The RAF

Germany decided that in order to invade it needed Total Air Superiority, to prevent the RAF and the Royal Navy from sending their invasion fleet down to the bottom of the English Channel. And so the campaign against the RAF began.

(This would have been very difficult. Britain could replace planes and pilots faster than Germany could, with the added bonus that an RAF pilot who bailed out could be returned to the fray, whereas a Luftwaffe one was permanently lost to the Germans. Even if the Luftwaffe had gained aerial superiority, it would have been likely to be a fleeting victory and its capacity for attacking the Royal Navy was totally abysmal. However, the disabling of runways (by making large holes in them with bombs, for example) could easily have led to a downward spiral: fewer runways means fewer planes in the air, meaning more bombers get through to destroy runways, until you run out of runways and the remaining planes start getting destroyed on the ground.)

Britain had a few tricks up its sleeve. One of these was a large and relatively advanced network of RADAR (RAdio Detection And Ranging) installations. While most of the world's military powers, such as France and the USSR, had just a few sets Britain had invested in creating several dozen. These gave them near-total coverage of their entire (admittedly very small) country, and moreover the devices had more than half again as much range as sound-ranging devices and a greater degree of accuracy about enemy strengths to boot. But even more important than the radar network was the extremely sophisticated intelligence system that forwarded information from the radar stations to "Sector Stations" where it was collate and analyzed before being forwarded it to a central station where all available information was plotted on large maps. This allowed the RAF manage their resources "on the fly" and pick-and-choose which forces to engage, ensuring lower losses and good odds in every engagement. The Germans never even conceived of anything anywhere nearly as sophisticated and it was only matched by the US Navy's Combat Information Centers in the final months of the war.

As the high-intensity operations dragged on these factors became even more important than either side's chosen tactics or even their policies on the use of combat-methamphetamines, which only delayed the need for sleep and could not eliminate it. Of course, loose lips sink aircraft, and Britain didn't want the Luftwaffe to know just how important an effective and efficient RADAR system had been to their operations, so they publicly proclaimed that the pilots had very good eyesight from eating carrots. Carrots suddenly became very popular in Britain, and while the Luftwaffe didn't swallow that particular lie it did give credence to the idea that they had underestimated the Commonwealth's aircraft-production capabilities.

Although the Chain Home stations were expensive and crude, this meant that they could be built using parts built in recently re-tooled factories - allowing them to be finished before The Battle of Britain - and were relatively reliable and easy to maintain. It became apparent to Luftwaffe intelligence that the effectiveness of the British defence was at least partly down to the RADAR installations, rather than just raw numbers, but they (accurately) determined that it would've been a waste of time to attempt to destroy the installations. Later in the war the US Army Air Force came to pride itself upon the accuracy it displayed as a product of the good bomb-sights on its 'planes and their insistence on daytime-bombing, often touting the term 'precision-bombing'. However, their definition of 'precision bombing' was 'landing 2% of bombs within 50m of the target', with each bomb having a blast radius of (considerably) less than 50m to boot. Early-war bombing was considerably less accurate than that.

The Chain Home stations (later joined by Chain Home Low and Chain Home Extra Low, mobile units intended to lower the minimum detection height of the RADAR) became vital, and their operators became capable of interpreting more in the data than the stations were designed to give them. They could not only tell where the enemy was but their speed, height, direction of flight and even the rough number of enemy planes. The creation of this system was driven by Hugh Caswall Tremenheere "Stuffy" Dowding, the head of Fighter Command, who tied the wide network of Radar, spotting stations, and airfields together by telephone and radio, enabling fighters to be launched at the optimum time for interception; as with the Bletchley Park codebreakers, Fighter Command was a triumph of technological innovation, forward thinking, and applied intelligence.

Of course the best way to avoid death and costly losses is to have the Germans drop their bombs in the wrong places. In doing so the British effectively developed, independently, their own home-grown variant of 'Maskirovka' or 'operational deception'. A special command in Bomber command was set up, with the aid of stage magicians, to make decoy aircraft and buildings. 297 decoy sites, including several entire airfields, were built. About 1 in 20 German bombs landed on a British decoy, and the deceptions-personnel went on to work on various operations including the 1944 Overlord amphibious offensive.

The pride of the Royal Air Force was the Supermarine Spitfire, indisputably the best British fighter of the war, and more than a match for the German Messerschmitt 109. While media both at the time and since focused on the Spitfire, the more numerous fighter was the Hawker Hurricane - not as fast and agile as the Spitfire, but rugged, dependable and just as loved by its pilots. In a case of Boring Yet Practical, the Hurricane's stability in flight, which made it less suited for dogfighting, made it far more capable when it came to the business of taking on German bombers; the Spitfires drew the glory, ideally keeping the German fighter escorts occupied, but the Hurricanes almost certainly saved more lives on the ground.

The Germans found the RAF to be a more effective opposing force than the virtually non-existent Polish, Norwegian, and BENELUX air forces, or the technically-superior but outnumbered and ill-employed French Air Force. Nevertheless much damage was done and some believe that if the Germans had continued to press their anti-RAF bombings, rather than switching to the Blitz, they may have broken through.

It wasn't just British pilots, of course. About a fifth were Commonwealth or People from Occupied Europe. The Poles were especially good, if characteristically iffy about letting enemy pilots survive even after bailing out, and remarkably numerous given the long journey through occupied Europe they had had to undertake. There was also a group of US volunteers and a motley collection of scattered individuals from around the world, including neutral countries such as Ireland.

15 September 1940, although by no means the day with most fighting, had an air of "the deciding moment about" it and is often believed to be the point where Hitler realised the Goering's offensive had failed and should be called off, and so it has become Battle of Britain Day. Winston Churchill's account of that day in The Second World War is well worth reading (but with a great heaping of salt regarding his own role in events, as always) - the RAF launched pretty much everything they had and were fortunate that the Germans ran out of fuel just as their planes had to land.

The Blitz

"You said the war was 'practically over already'. So why are we down here?"
Vyacheslav Molotov, to Joachim von Ribbetrop, while taking shelter from British air-raid.

"Phoenix Resurectum"
— Written on a slate placed over a bombed out church in Plymouth.

In addition to bombing RAF airstrips and factories, the Germans also bombed industrial targets. During a raid on Thames Haven, on 24 August 1940, some German aircraft strayed over London and dropped bombs in the city. This prompted the British to mount a retaliatory raid on Berlin the next night causing 50 deaths. One of the British attacks that followed actually forced Vyacheslav Molotov to take shelter during negotiations for a second Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, prompting the quote above. Hitler was said to be enraged that the British had effectively made him break his promise to the German people (that no German civilian would suffer as a result of the war) and on 5 September 1940, at the urging of the Luftwaffe HQ, he issued a directive "... for disruptive attacks on the population and air defences of major British cities, including London, by day and night". The Luftwaffe began day and night attacks on British cities, concentrating on London. This relieved the pressure on the RAF's airfields but increased the civilians death tolls drastically. This was the beginning of the period known as The Blitz.

The idea was to flatten the cities, wreck the infrastructure and demoralise the people. Despite creating plot fodder for a generation of childrens' books, it didn't really work. While the Blitz was the lowest point of British public support for the war before 1944-45, which was when the war first became unwanted by a majority of citizens, it was also a high point of anti-German hatred. Every night the people of major cities on the South coast (and elsewhere) were bombed, and in the immediate aftermath of losing family members and homes the universal reaction was despair and skepticism of ultimate victory. That said, the people who had not actually lost anything themselves generally got over the initial shock very quickly. Moreover in the months and weeks, or even days, following personal loss many people were filled with extraordinary bloodlust and hatred for Germans. "We are all in this together" was the official line that smoothed over these very different and changing attitudes: if your shop-front was blown in you swept up the glass and hung a "more open than usual" sign on the door frame, if half your factory was flattened you put up tarpaulins and carried on working in the other half.

Agreement with the Ministry of Information's official line that everyone was taking the whole thing with calm stoicism was the exception, not the rule, of course. But being British, and with there being a war on, very few people actually said otherwise (especially not in public). Many slept far from their homes before going into work each day.

It was during this period that King George VI and his queen, Elizabeth (no, not that one, though then-Princess Elizabeth was well-loved in her own right), supposedly won the enduring devotion of their people; the King vowed to remain in London "for the duration," and, despite his stutter, made a series of wartime broadcasts that helped keep morale up even as bombs rained over southern England. Buckingham Palace was bombed at the height of the Blitz, and the Queen Mother cemented her place in the hearts of the British people forever with the quote, "Finally. Now I can look the [heavily bombed] East End in the face." She also said, when asked why the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were not sent to the relative safety of the Commonwealth — after all, the Dutch royals-in-exile had sent their Queen and princesses to Canada — that "The girls cannot go without me; I cannot go without the King; and the King will never leave his country." Elizabeth and Margaret would remain in Buckingham Palace or nearby Windsor Castle for the duration, and HRH Elizabeth joined up with the Women's Auxiliaries as a driver and auto mechanic during the final months of the war. She remains both the only female member in the history of the British Crown to hold a military title in her own rightnote  and the last living sovereign to be a veteran of the Second World War.

Of course, as with every element of the national mythology which has accumulated about Britain's wartime experience, this whole tale should be taken with a certain pinch (or more) of salt. The royals seem to have been booed and jeered by crowds on one notable occasion when they were perceived to be fleeing the city, only for the news coverage of the event to report that they had been respectfully cheered instead.

It was more than the British citizenry and the Commonwealth being impressed by (or suitably dubious of) the Ministry of Information's Stiff Upper Lip portrayal of the British people's general reaction to the whole affair; the Americans, whom Winston Churchill desperately hoped would help, were watching this grand drama themselves. At first, people like US Ambassador Joe Kennedy brusquely wrote off the UK as doomed and American isolationists like Charles Lindbergh did everything in their power to persuade Americans that the British were going to be a bunch of Jewish duped pushovers to the unstoppable Nazi war machine, so the USA should just let them fall. However, great American reporters on assignment in the UK like Edward R. Murrow knew better as they breathlessly sent back inspiring stories of the indomitable British character determined to endure war's trials and then strike back. Slowly, Britain learned that Americans were more and more coming on to their side as US President Franklin D. Roosevelt got the political ammunition he needed to send help.

Despite all the destruction deaths and wounds were not as high as expected, mostly because pre-war projections for this kind of attack bordered on the insanely fatalistic. Most families with a garden had an Anderson shelter, a mostly underground bomb shelter. In London, despite instructions to the contrary, people used The London Underground as a shelter, and seeing as you could buy a platform ticket and stay as long as you liked anyway, no one could do anything about it. People without bomb shelters were told to crouch under the table.

Plymouth was bombed so thoroughly that it was said that if Sir Francis Drake (the guy who fought the Spanish Armada) had sailed into harbour and was told that the city was destroyed he would look over the remnants and say "look like it is all here to me." The above quote means "From the ashes, we will rise." And they did.

One of the most famous raids was on the industrial city Coventry on 14 November 1940, which killed at least 568 people and devastated much of the city, including destroying the ancient cathedral. The common theory is that ULTRA decrypts identified Coventry as a target, but the city could not be warned without alerting the Germans that the British were reading their messages, so the bombing was allowed to occur. RV Jones, a wartime scientist, however, says that the relevant message was not decrypted in time. He also pointed out that the Germans were using radio navigation beacons to find their targets, and on 14 November the British jammers were set to the wrong frequency and did precisely nothing.

Quite a few of the German bombs didn't go off, leading to a lot of work (and casualties) for people who defused the things. German bombs are still being found in London today, one recently causing major traffic disruption in the Bow area for four days.
  • Kent police dispatchers have an informal script for dealing with the phone calls from worried gardeners whose spades have just hit something suspiciously round and metal. Apparently a major component is 'Did you touch it? Don't touch it.'

The Blitz effectively ended around 16 May 1941, when Hitler transferred most of his bombers in France to the Eastern Front in preparation for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the USSR. The General Staff had told him - some of them lying through their teeth but, worse still, most really believing it - the Soviet Union would be defeated in two weeks. In the third week the German Army's reserves could be demobilised, halving the size of the army overnight, and the Soviet Union's vast material wealth would be available for use against Britain. Of course, history took a different course, almost entirely because invading Russia successfully is only slightly more difficult than walking to Pluto — or, as the world found out, achieving total air superiority over Great Britain without having a real plan how to do that or sticking to it. Germans or no, the whole war went down about as well as a plan dreamt up and carried out by a bunch of infighting genocidal racist conspiracy-theorists would have been expected to.

There was some further bombing by German aircraft in 1942 (the "Baedeker Blitz"), which targeted tourist cities without any military reason. (To be fair, these were in retaliation for RAF bombing of similar German cities, such as Lubeck. Both were partly motivated also because these cities were poorly defended and burned easily.) and the largely ineffective raids of 1943/4.

Where are we again? Signs, or the lack thereof

In order to make any German invasion harder, road signs were removed in the South of England. This meant that you really had to know the area well in order to travel there.

Church bells were silenced for most of the war, with the aim only to ring them as an invasion alarm (this occurred once during the Battle of Britain). Often all but one of the bells would be melted down for the war effort anyway, leaving just a single, lonely, bell in the tower after the war.

After the victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein in Nov. 1942, Churchill ordered the bells to be rung for the first time in years to celebrate.

Turn Out That Light! The Blackout

In order so that their cities were not advertised to any German bomber that happened to be in the vicinity, the British employed a strict blackout policy. Tube carriages had blackout netting attached to their windows, which stayed on so well that the 1938 trains found on the Isle of Wight's Island Line today still have bits of it attached.

One woman was arrested and imprisoned for ironing in the dark one night, rather than putting her blackouts up. The ARP warden could see the iron's pilot light from the street.

Lighting up cigarettes in the street was banned too and car headlights had to be mostly taped off- not that many people had cars anyway (a lot of people learned to drive during the war, thus creating a car boom post-war and major railway closures).

The blackout affected German strategy- particularly with the use of incendiary bombs. They aimed to cause fires to guide the conventional bombers.

Are You My Mummy? Gas Masks

The Germans had a known chemical weapons capacity (they first weaponized sarin) and Italy had used gas in Abyssinia. The British government were afraid of the impact German gas attacks might cause (they'd all seen the effects in World War One).

Everyone in the country was issued with gas masks, required to be carried at all times. There were "Mickey Mouse" red masks for children and gas mask drills at schools. The latter weren't taken too seriously- you could make rude noises by blowing through the rubber.

Postboxes were painted so they would change colour if gas was present.

They were never needed. The German Army was even more dependent on horse-transport than the British were, and Germany itself was far less well-prepared for gas attacks than the British Isles were. Moreover British retaliation-in-kind upon German civilians would have made The Party very unpopular.

A quick note on the Doctor Who example referenced — the gas masks in "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" are historically inaccurate, as civilian masks had only a single visor in the adult version. These were made for the show — masks for the period have asbestos in.

A very temporary truce - Class

British wartime propaganda only partially succeeded in channelling the hatred and strife of Britain's Class Warfare outward. There were a number of early cock-ups, with the Evacuation in particular resulting in a distinct flare-up as working class children (and the mothers of the very youngest) were sent to live with middle- and upper-class families. Many of these families found that the demands of feeding their new tenants meant that they were unable to eat the kind and quality of food they were used to. Others simply disliked sharing their homes with such 'rude' and 'common' people. The experience as a whole seems to have reinforced rather than break down class prejudice, later Evacuations striving to match children with families of similar socio-economic status wherever possible.

Ultimately, the level of labour unrest was directly related to the danger that people felt they were in, as people's wartime conditions were generally just as if not more unpleasant than prewar conditions. Although wartime laws prevented employers from firing anyone without wading through a small sea of red tape and government approvals (which were generally only forthcoming for criminal activity), they also prevented people from leaving the so-called 'Essential Industries' (related to weapons-production) without doing likewise. There was also plenty to complain about as the shifts were generally very long (up to 10 hours a day six days a week), travel-time was not accounted for (when for some it could add another 4 hours daily), the demands of running your household were not accounted for (regardless of whether you were a single man living alone or a mother with twelve children), and some people were paid more than others for various and often dubious reasons (such as women, who received 2/3 pay for all jobs in government service).

The primacy of personal danger to productivity is pretty easily established. In 1938 about 2 million working days were lost to strike action, half of these being from the ever-militant Coal Miners (famed for their role in the 1926 General Strike in particular). This figure is notable because Coal Miners accounted for less than 4% of the entire (insured) workforce. In 1940 the number of days lost decreased to just 500,000 because The Blitz resulted in a drastic reduction in the mid-latter part of the year, but as more and more considered the danger to have passed the number of strikes rose slowly but steadily. After US entry and Soviet victory at Stalingrad made victory seem truly inevitable, in 1943 strike-days rose to a million and by 1945 the pre-war level had been recovered in full. The bulk of the decrease and increase in strike action was accounted for by the Coal Miners and people conscripted into Coal Mining as a form of National Service, who felt particularly hard done by by measures to reward miners based on the productivity of their pit. This penalised miners operating in small mines (a third of the workforce, but less than 10% of output) and even more unfairly mines with poorer seams (such as those in Cumbria, the poorest in the UK). The Conscripts were also very resentful at being used for mining work when most of their peers were in military service, since the whole affair was distinctly unglamorous and literally a very dirty business.

"The White Cliffs of Dover"- Entertainment

"Vera, what has become of you?"
Pink Floyd, "Vera" (about Vera Lynn)

Television switched off as soon as the war began and did not come back on until after it had finished. The BBC kept going in the form of radio. Note that at this time not many people had television sets in the first place, so this was less of an inconvenience than it would be now. There was one network for the British audience, the BBC Home Service, which today is now BBC Radio 4. The BBC overseas broadcasting was of valuable help to La Résistance (who got coded messages telling them that D-Day was imminent through it) and for propaganda purposes, as it also broadcast in German.

The troops were entertained by the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). While there were quite a few talented people in that organisation, they were spread thin and the entertainment was generally sub-standard. People joked that ENSA stood for "Every Night Something Awful".

However, the semi-official "soldiers' shows" which evolved on an ad-hoc basis as local entertainment for the troops, in which talented servicemen performed to entertain their mates and keep morale up, spawned an entire generation of talent who after demob became the mainstays of British entertainment until superceded in the 1960's and 1970's by the Monty Python generation. Artistes who honed their craft on their mates included Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Tommy Cooper, Norman Vaughan, and many others. The Goon Show, cited as a seminal influence on later British comedy, had its origins in WW2 as a satirical reaction to the petty indignities and Colonel-Blimp-like leadership imposed by the armed forces

Theatres and cinemas were initially closed, but reopened to keep up morale. A number of fairly well-known wartime propaganda movies were made including:
  • Henry V, the Olivier version.
  • Went the Day Well?
  • In Which We Serve

Music wise, the era is remembered for the Glamorous Wartime Singer Vera Lynn, aka "The Forces' Sweetheart", who is still alive today, although long retired from singing. "We'll Meet Again" or "The White Cliffs of Dover" is a Standard Snippet for a British war movie. The period was also enriched by the more proletarian Gracie Fields, a northern chanteuse who could be described as the Hurricane to Dame Vera's Spitfire. Buck-toothed comedian and ukelele-accompanied singer George Formby is also remembered with great affection.

The Home Guard

Problem 1: The only normally-armed division in Great Britain is Canadian. It is also, being a mere division, possessed of just 14,000 men as against the invasion force of at least a fifty thousand.

Problem 2: There are many British citizens who could in theory fight, if trained, but for one reason or another cannot join the armed forces (too young, too old, reserved occupation such as farming).

Problem 3: Morale.

Answer: The Local Defence Volunteers, later re-named The Home Guard. Unpaid and, at least to start with, badly trained and equipped, these units were given army surplus and hand-me-downs. They were often the butt of jokes and many did not take them seriouslynote . Hitler himself thought they were a cover for something else, and was partly right. But they did valuable work, such as fire-watching, emergency work and assisting in training exercises. Their primary function was to act as an anti-paratrooper force.

There were a more than a few embarrassing instances when they where deployed as opponents in training exercises against the regular army. They had a lot of old soldiers in their ranks and a very good understanding of local terrain, leading to a nasty habit of winning.

Accidents and blunders were a common occurrence. They ranged from the daft to the downright tragic. One man ended up killing his wife while cleaning his rifle in the kitchen. Another, very young soldier accidentally killed a boy his own age on while supervising a factory. He rode up on his bicycle and the soldier told him to stop, believing he was a spy. It turned he was just there because he liked to watch them work inside the factory, and that he didn't stop because he was deaf and that he didn't hear the private's orders. The worst part of it was that he had aimed for the bicycle wheel because he had no intention of killing him, but the bullet riccocheted up from the ground and hit the boy in the back.

We will never know how effective they would have been, but one thing is for sure, they were keen and inventive. As one army officer running an explosives training course was heard to say, dangerously keen and terrifyingly inventive. Most famous these days as the setting for the comedy Dads Army. The show depicts a lot of elements quite faithfully.

WAAFs, Wrens, and Factory Girls

Recognizing their distinct population disadvantage against the Axis Powers, the UK moved as quickly as possible to full military and industrial mobilization, something the Fascist, but Inefficient Germans failed to achieve until 1943, the Japanese until 1944 and the Italians never did (and even then women were distinctly underrepresented in the German armed forces, handicapped as they were by a fundamentally reactionary political philosphy.) By contrast, women had been serving in the the Royal Air Force since the 1920s and the Royal Army and Navy since 1938 and the British made full use of as many women as possible in administrative and support positions. Initially it was done primarily in the name of freeing men to fight, but it soon became apparent that these women had undeveloped talents and important skills to contribute, and an entire generation of young women (including the future Queen Elizabeth II) learned to drive as part of the war effort.

In addition to driving trucks and ambulances, women served vitally important roles in the data collection and analysis efforts which made the British war effort so effective. Britain's highly sophisticated antiaircraft defense network and the Royal Navy's western ocean frontier equivalent were staffed primarily by members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Service and Women's Royal Naval Service. England's success in both the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic depended largely on the efforts of hundreds of women who processed, analyzed, and plotted incoming reports and then transmitted the resulting orders back down to the sea and air defenses. The famous codebreakers at Bletchly Park were largely women as well.

On the production front women replaced men on the factory floor, but perhaps more importantly they made up the legions of draftspersons required by the aircraft and shipping industries. Back in those pre-CAD days any new design or changes to an existing design required new drawings to be made by hand, something many women proved to be particularly adept at. Drafting was considered so important that mechanical pencil sharpeners were actually banned, for fear that they would waste too much of the precious drafting pencils. England's remarkable aircraft production — in particular the dozens of Marks of Spitfires — would have been impossible without the efforts of the women who translated the ideas to paper. Unfortunately, for some reason Britain's industrous women never received the recognition given their American "Rosie the Riveter" counterparts, although one female engineer did manage to achieve a small degree of fame; Beatrice "Tilly" Shilling. The Spitfire's Rolls-Royce Merlin engine did not use fuel-injection, and as a result could become flooded during negative-G manouvers (diving, or flying inverted). Tilly came up with the solution officially designated the R.A.E. Restrictor, a washer-like flow restrictor that prevented flooding; the pilots called it "Miss Shilling's Orifice".

Overpaid, Overfed, Oversexed and Over Here

Sometimes referred to as the "Friendly Invasion" or the "Benevolent Occupation", central and southern England played an ambivalent host to hundreds of thousands of US servicemen during the war years, particularly during the buildup to the Normandy Invasion. Some areas of the country that had never even seen a foreigner before were overrun by strangers in olive drab, and the US 8th and 9th Air Forces eventually outnumbered the RAF. Some rural areas actually had more military age American men than British as the locals were all either working in war industries or away serving elsewhere.

For many Britons, in particular the young ones, it was their first exposure to another culture. Some things, like American music and middle-class Americans with working-class style egalitarian beliefs were to have significant influence on postwar life. It was also their first exposure to some less welcome things, like STDs and overt racial segregation. For the Americans it was a pleasant respite or interlude between or before the unpleasant realities of combat, and a useful introduction the the people they'd been sent to help.

For the most part people were got along well despite the inevitable misunderstandings, though you would think it was all sunshine and rainbows from the British and American propaganda of the times. Much as you'd expect, there were extra-marital affairs and children born out of wedlock as women succumbed to the attentions of the men they had available while their own served overseas. The Americans also offered serious competition for unattached women, because they were sharply dressed, comparatively well paid, had hundreds of pilots (and even some fighter pilots!) among them, and had access to goods unobtainable on the civilian market (like chocolate and nylon stockings) through the vast American supply system. Not all these relationships were temporary, with a fair few lifelong friendships and enough marriages that the term "war bride" became prominent in the postwar American and Canadian Lexicon. In the end, none of the fuss caused by the Americans was insurmountable and not everyone—particularly the children—was glad to see them go.

Vengeance Weapon

Vergeltungswaffe in German. After the battle of Britain was won as a resounding victory for the British and the war had turned against Germany, Hitler decided he needed a miracle weapon to win. In that at least, he was right. There are three things that were called Vergeltungswaffe.


The forerunner of the cruise missile, between June 1944 and 29 March 1945, around 8,000 V1s were fired at targets in southeastern England (mostly London) and Belgium (mostly Antwerp). It had a distinct pulsing sound to the engine hence the nickname "buzz bomb" or "doodlebug". When the engine stopped, that was when you took cover.

They could be shot down with anti-aircraft fire with proximity fuses or intercepted by fighters, with one Spitfire pilot flipping one over with his wings.

  • This is referenced in The Unit, when Bob tries it on a plane carrying a chemical weapon. It doesn't work.


The V-2 was the first ballistic missile and first man-made object launched into space, the progenitor of all modern rockets. Over 3,000 V-2s were launched by the German Wehrmacht against Allied targets in World War II. Unlike the V-1, they were completely impossible to stop; luckily, their accuracy left much to be desired, which Britain's Doublecross system worked hard to make worse with disinformation of the missiles' impact locations.

More people died making it (French and particularly Soviet POW were used as slave-labourers) than were killed by it.

At the war's end the USSR took the research-sites and some of the factories (which were in what then became Poland), but the USA managed to get the lion's share of the scientists courtesy of their Operation Paperclip (to extract, pardon, and employ all useful German technical experts). The innovations thus yielded advanced the missile programs of pretty much all the allied powers, and the US and USSR in particular (an orbital launch vehicle is just a ballistic missile with a satellite or capsule instead of a warhead).


The V-3 cannon was not a single cannon but an underground complex of 25 guns, designed to lob shells at London from its site at Mimoyecques, France. The "London gun" consisted of five shafts each containing five 500-foot-long barrels, side by side.

Stubborn old Winston had it destroyed before it ever entered service, there was no way he was having THAT aimed at the UK.

The V-1 was capable of being intercepted and was inaccurate. The V-2 was too scarce, too small and / or too inaccurate. The V-3 was never used.

They did however suck resources and money away from the army. Well done, Vergeltungswaffe.

The Enigma Variations- Intelligence Operations

Britain did quite a lot of intelligence work during the war, much of it warranting the title of Crowning Moment of Awesome.

(Nimrod, Variation Number 9 of Elgar's Variations, is always played on Remembrance Sunday)

Of particular note are:
  • Station X, the codename for Bletchley Park. Assembling crossword puzzle fanatics, mathematicians (famously, Alan Turing), electronics engineers, and assorted others, Station X succeeded in industrialising the business of signals intelligence. Intelligence derived from the breaking of the Wermacht's three-rotor Enigma machine was codenamed ULTRA; Turing helped design the machines, known as bombes, that applied the principles discovered by Czech and Polish cypher experts on an unprecedented scale, to the extent that it was suspected that the British had sometimes read secret messages before the Germans hadnote . They also broke several other systems during the war; The Kreigsmarine had a four-rotor Enigma, used by the German U-boat fleet, the breaking of which ultimately won the battle of the Atlantic and secured supply lines from America. There was also a ten-rotor system based on teletype codes that was used for extremely high-level German government traffic; that was broken by a machine named Colossus, which fell only slightly short of being the first stored-program electronic computer. The intelligence services also organised the fabrication of cover stories to hide the fact that we were breaking the German codes; a large part of that consisted of locating German agents inside Britain based on ULTRA decrypts, and promptly turning them into double-agents.
  • Double Cross System- the use of captured German agents for deception purposes, including convincing the Germans D-Day would be at Calais - to the extent that some of the agents involved got the Iron Cross from the Germans - and Operation Crossbow, where the Germans were made, by false intelligence reports, to alter the aiming settings of the V-1 and V-2 so they would land further from London. The people in charge of the operation were called The Twenty Committee, as 20 in Roman Numerals is XX.
    • It was discovered after the war that Double Cross had been so good at its job that every single German agent in Britain had been turned. On the other hand, they also discovered - rather later on - that a British Soviet agent, Anthony Blunt of the Cambridge spy ring, had actually worked as the personal assistant to Guy Liddell, one of the key players in the Double Cross System; everything the British were doing to feed the Germans innacurate information was being reported to Moscow, and could potentially have fallen into German hands as a result. Tar Robertson, another key player in the Committee, disliked Blunt intensely - but due to a touch of homophobia on Robertson's part, and not because he suspected Blunt was a spy.
  • Another operation (Called Operation Mincemeat) involving disguising a dead tramp as a British soldier; the corpse was set to wash up on a Spanish beach with papers that suggested the Allies were not going to attack Sicily (the obvious target) but were actually only going to use Sicily as a distraction for a two-pronged assault, Sardinia on one side, the Grecian islands and the Balkans on the other. The deception was so successful that Sicily was taken with minimal Allied casualties. This incident was later immortalized in book and film as The Man Who Never Was.
    • Mincemeat had the unintended but brilliant side effect of completely destroying the Army high command's faith in captured documents for the rest of the war. Throughout the war the Soviets kept their operational plans extremely close to their chests to prevent any possible leakage, accepting the attendant risk of operational incoherence. But the Americans and British valued the total comprehension of their operational plans by every element of their forces, accepting the attendant risk of the plans being intercepted. In the early days of both D-Day and Operation Market-Garden the Germans captured genuine Allied plans that could have been used to severely hamper the operations, but they ignored them out of fear of another Mincemeat-style deception.
  • The Cabinet War Rooms, built in London under the instruction of Neville Chamberlain (but most famously used by Winston Churchill), were a state of the art bunker (although it was 1943 before it was bombproof and Churchill had a habit of going up on the roof during the Blitz to watch the planes in any case) and intelligence hub that had the UK's first florescent lighting for its war maps and a transatlantic phone link to the White House. The scrambling equipment for the phone was so big that the actual line ended in Westminster and an extension was set up and concealed by the simple expedient of putting a toilet door lock on it, everyone assumed that Churchill had a private loo. Apparently Churchill infuriated the White House staff by ringing whenever he had a question or idea, regardless of whether it was 3 AM or not.
  • The Special Operations Executive, created by Churchill and part set up by Chamberlain while he was in the war cabinet, with the mandate to "Set Europe Ablaze" with every last act of sabotage and dirty trickery that the trainers could think of. Trained and dropped spies over Europe to help the resistance groups, ordinary men and women risking life and limb sending secrets back the British Government. They were also responsible for Operation ANTHROPOID, training and inserting the two Czechoslovakian nationals who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SS and major architect of the Holocaust. We won't know the full story of what they did and where until after all of their agents are dead as the files are sealed until then. This is a pitty as that means we won't know exactly how awesome Christopher Lee is until he isn't around for us to be in awe of him.

The War's End

Upon German surrender on the 7th of May, and the day after, people all over Europe threw what may have been the Greatest. Party. EVER. The streets of every city were flooded with people celebrating, and some of the footage of it has to be seen to be believed. Here's an old newsreel of the event. The festivities seemed to have dropped off when the continent ran out of alcohol.

However, the war didn't end with the defeat of Germany... and when the British public realised that, morale and public support for the war sunk to a new low. As May and June dragged on it became crystal-clear that Japan wouldn't surrender just because Germany had and that the British public didn't give two hoots whether Britain got to Burma, Malaya, Hong Kong etc back: they were sick of high taxation, they were sick of rationing, they were sick of people dying (especially the specific bits they were dying for), and they wanted political and social reform to build the country anew. And they were very specific on that last part: they had not died in the tens of thousands just to get the old Britain back, they wanted a new one - better than before. In short they wanted the findings of ''The Beveridge Report'' implemented so that everyone would be fed, everyone would be educated, everyone would have a place to call home, everyone would have a job, and everyone would be looked after when they were sick or unemployed or old. Winston Churchill infamously opposed the implementation of the report, at least until he realised that it was so popular that his party would lose for sure if they continued to do so. Ultimately his refusal to explicitly endorse implementing the report cost him victory in the General Election on the 5th of July 1945... ushering in the Labour Party and a political unknown, the quiet and soft-spoken Clement Attlee...