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 World War II. That had such a massive impact on British history, it's usually referred to simply as "The War".
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, until losses on the Eastern front finally convinced them to belatedly mobilize all of their 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. Bread rationing lasted until 1948. It was not until 1954 that the last items (meat, bananas, and a few other foodstuffs) 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).
- 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). The petrol ration for civilians was restored shortly after V-E Day, but in mid-1947, a transport and dock workers' strike led to a ban on the civilian usage of petrol that lasted a year. When the civilian petrol ration was restored, it was cut to a third of its previous size. Petrol rationing finally ended in late May 1950.
- Fish was not rationed, but could be very hard to get hold of due to wartime limitations on the fishing fleets and the general lack of transportation, with varieties of fish previously considered unpalatable making up ever-larger proportions of the catch.
- 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, 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.note
- 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 unavailability of new tires began to bite as the war wore on note .
- Clothing was rationed from June 1941 until May 1949.
- 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?"
- A joke of the period ran (in a thick mock-german accent):
Restaurants were not subject to rationing, but limits were put on meals. Newspapers were often reduced to four sides of a folded sheet to conserve paper. Even pencils were rationed as a vital war material.
Naturally, this led to black marketeering.
Apple crumble and carrot cake were two recipes popularized due to the necessities of rationing.
The Battle of The Fields
As mentioned before, Britain imported 70% of their foodstuffs prior to the war, in large part because British farmers were unable to compete with the "amber waves of grain" emanating from North America and had largely shifted away from commodity products like cereals to value-added products like fruit, meat, wool and dairy. Reversing this decades-long decline became a top national priority, with the stated goal of doubling domestic food production. This goal that proved difficult to meet despite returning an astounding six and a half million acres—an area nearly the size of Wales—to cereal production over the course of the war. Herds were culled, new crops were introduced, and new farming techniques were encouraged. The number of farm tractors tripled, as they were one of the few civilian machines considered vital enough to compete with tank production. Sugar beets replaced imported cane sugar because sugar was more than a luxury, it was a vital ingredient in food preservation. Farmers were exempted from compulsory military service and thousands of young women joined the Women's Land Army, AKA the "Land Girls", which served a duel purpose of increasing the agricultural labor force while decreasing the urban demand for agricultural products. Despite all of this effort rationing became gradually more stringent over the course of the war as overworked fields and farms gradually lost productivity, a situation only alleviated but never entirely cured by victory in the Battle of the Atlantic, which allowed US and Canadian foodstuffs to reach Britain once more, though much of that was consumed by the US and Canadian troops serving in Europe.
As a result of all these efforts: while there was of course grumbling about the state of food during the war, analysis of the situation concluded that it was on the whole a resounding success with Britons having a better quality diet during the duration.
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 (with 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 for a number of reasons - 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's Home Fleet from sending their invasion fleet 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 it's capacity for attacking the Home Fleet (which, by itself, was still comfortably more powerful than the entire German Navy - even with the rest of the Royal Navy being engaged in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean) was totally abysmal, something cemented by the scuttling of the French Fleet at Toulon in 1942. 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.
Furthermore, the Germans did successfully take some of the Channel Islands (most of which were geographically closer to France than Britain), something which, along the resultant uneasy mixture of pragmatic cooperation and outright collaboration. The former was because there was no real prospect of the islands being retaken, thanks to their location and by the time plans could be made, heavy fortification as part of the Atlantic Wall - they were bypassed on D-Day, and only surrendered the day after VE Day when they'd been informed of the German capitulation. The latter included reporting Jews who ended up in Auschwitz and Belsen, something which was largely overlooked until the 1990s, with more than a few acts of collaboration by officials being swept under the carpet - and unlike elsewhere in Europe, none were punished. However, while there was no violent resistance, participation in the non-violent resistance is estimated to have been as high proportionately as anywhere else in occupied territory, and by all accounts, many local officials did what they could to mitigate Nazi policies.
The mainland was a different matter. Britain had a few tricks up its sleeve. One of these their large and relatively advanced CHAIN HOME network of long frequency RDF ("Radio Distance Finding") stations - a technology better known today by the American acronym RADAR (RAdio Detection And Ranging).note 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 the eastern approaches to their entire (admittedly relatively small) country. Though primitive, these early long-wave stations had more than twice the detection range as sound detecting devices and could also determine range and altitude with a fair degree of accuracy, something no sound-based device could do.note
But even more important than the radar network was the extremely sophisticated intelligence system that forwarded information from the radar stations (and an even larger network of ground observers) to "Sector Stations" where it was collate and analyzed before being forwarded it to the central station at Bentley Priory 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 near as sophisticated and it was only matched by the US Navy's "Big Blue Blanket" 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 most iconic British fighter of the war (perhaps most iconic fighter plane full-stop), and arguably the best. Faster than the vast majority of its competitors thanks to its signature elliptical wing shape, it was more than a match for the German Messerschmitt 109, and later versions went toe to toe with the Messerschmidt 262, one of the first fighter jets to see combat. Modified versions used their speed to serve on photo-reconnaissance missions. While media both at the time and since focused on the glamorous 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 note .
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.
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, including The Chronicles of Narnia, 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. It is no coincidence that this era was the origin of the famous slogan, 'Keep Calm and Carry On.'
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 children won't go without me. I won't leave the King. And the King will never leave."
Churchill made sure the nation heard that comment when he angrily overruled the censors trying to hush the strike up; after all, the population would not be complaining about enduring the bombs as much if the Royal Family has to dodge them too. 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, whilst homes without a cellar were provided with a Morrison shelter, a cage-like indoor 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 - the government, despite initial attempts to stop it, ended up shrugging and going with 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 "looks 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 notably beautiful industrial city Coventry on 14 November 1940, which killed at least 568 people and devastated much of the city, including destroying the ancient cathedral - it is sometimes claimed to have inspired the infamous Firebombing of Dresden (also a famously beautiful industrial city). In any case, because of the devastation both cities suffered, they ended up in a twin-city arrangement after the war. 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"note ), 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 it has been suggested, for revenge, something noted by RAF Air Marshal 'Bomber' Harris when he famously said, "They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind", and the largely ineffective raids of 1943/4.
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,note leaving just a single, lonely, bell in the tower after the war.
After the victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein in November 1942, Churchill ordered the bells to be rung for the first time in years to celebrate.
Put That Light Out! 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 I).
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 singularly creepy 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.
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 broken down class prejudice, and later Evacuations strove to match children with families of similar socio-economic status wherever possible to minimise inter-class interaction.
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.
Like the USA, the UK was able to censor undesirable and propagate desirable narratives in media without appearing hypocritical by overtly contradicting the principles of 'Free Speech' which it endorsed. This was done by making the production of media contingent on Ministry of Information (MoI) approval, the promotion of self-censorship among artists by appealing to their patriotic and/or anti-Nazi sentiment, and allocating MoI funding to the production of media which propagated desirable messages. Separately, the War Office also gave desirable films free access to military assets and denied access to undesirable ones. The two ministries did not always agree on what constituted a desirable message - famously, the The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was approved and funded by the MoI, but denied weapons and vehicles by the War Office (forcing the producers to resort to bribery).
Like its contemporaries in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, by 1942 the MoI had fully come around to the view that a 'pure' entertainment work with a well-crafted and desirable message was better at influencing public opinion than an Edutainment Show. This was particularly the case with films, which were extremely expensive investments and so subjected to a high degree of scrutiny. Perhaps the most famous film to be approved and funded by the MoI was A Matter of Life and Death (1945). This was thought useful because it promised to have a high entertainment value and prominently featured life-saving romantic love and friendship between British and American characters, which it was hoped would promote Anglo-American trust and goodwill in the postwar period.
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 superseded 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:
Music wise, the era is remembered for the Glamorous Wartime Singer Vera Lynn, aka "The Forces' Sweetheart", who, as recently as 2009, at the age of 92, topped the UK Album Charts with her 'Best Of' album. "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.
Problem 1: The only land unit in Great Britain which has artillery, mortars, or trucks is Canadian and it has just 14,000 people. The invasion force will have at least fifty thousand well-armed troops.
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 or railway work).
Problem 3: Morale.
Answer: The Local Defence Volunteers, later re-named The Home Guard. Unpaid and initially badly trained and equipped, these units were given army surplus and hand-me-downs when they became available but often had to make do with whatever they could scrounge up; the majority of Home Guard platoons were in rural areas, where there were at least plenty of privately owned shotguns and small-game rifles to go around, but members going on patrol with nothing but pitchforks or axe handles was not unheard of. 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 were deployed as opponents in training exercises against the regular army. They had a lot of men from the previous war 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 ricocheted 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 Dad's Army. The show depicts a lot of elements quite faithfully.
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 philosophy.) By contrast, women had been serving in the Royal Air Force since the 1920s and the Army and Royal 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 Bletchley Park were largely women as well. A less bellicose but no less important organization was the Women's Land Army, which recruited young women to provide agricultural labour in place of the young men called to the colours.
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 industrious 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".
Britain's full mobilization also extended to the arts and sciences. Unlike Fascist, but Inefficient Germany, where the research efforts were often uncoordinated and scattered amongst various competing interests, England mobilized Academia for the duration. Their first task, a comprehensive review of old lab notebooks to see if anything useful had been overlooked, produced penicillin — the original experiment being written off in the 1920s as a failure. Anything promising was promptly re-investigated; Promising research they lacked the time or resources to follow up on was sent to the United States — national survival trumping national interest for the duration. The brilliant codebreakers at Bletchley Park are justly famous: less well known but no less important were the brilliant scientists of the Meteorological Office, whose weather forecasting gave the Western Allies a huge advantage throughout the entire war. Their crowning achievement came when they identified the narrow lull between two storm fronts that allowed the D-Day landings to proceed. Radar was rapidly developed from meter to centimeter and ultimately millimeter bands, allowing allied aircraft to go from spotting submarines to periscopes, ASDIC (soon re-christened with the more descriptive acronym SONAR) installations were made better, smaller, and more reliable. A huge range of weapons, from effective to wacky, were designed and tested. One of the best examples came shortly after D-Day, when it was found that the dust from dirt airfields in France was damaging the powerful Napier Sabre engines on Hawker Typhoon fighter bombers, a collection of aerodynamicists and engineers, designed, tested, and fielded an effective cyclonic air filter in just 24 hours. But perhaps their greatest achievement was the "Wizard War", where British radio and radar specialists engaged their German counterparts in an ever-escalating battle of spoofing, jamming, counter-jamming and other electronic countermeasures and soundly defeated them at virtually every turn.
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. The village road systems were stretched to accommodate tens of thousands of over-sized lorries. 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 American egalitarianism were to have significant influence on postwar life. (But not, as the legends would have it, baseball, which was actually more popular in interwar Britain than it is today.) It was also their first exposure to some less welcome things, like overt racial segregation and sexually transmitted diseases. For the Americans it was a pleasant respite or interlude between or before the unpleasant realities of combat, an exposure to a genuine lack of racial segregation (which is not to say that Britain didn't have problems with racism - it did - it just didn't enforce formal segregation) and a useful introduction to the people they'd been sent to help. Nor was the exchange entirely one-way, as tens of thousands of Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, and Fleet Air Arm personnel were sent "stateside" for training, taking advantage of America's weather and wide-open (and enemy free) skies and harbours.
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 reciprocated 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 otherwise unobtainable goods 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.
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 by radar-guided anti-aircraft fire using proximity fuses or intercepted by fighters, with one Spitfire pilot reportedly flipping one over with his wing, though reports of this becoming a standard tactic were greatly exaggerated.* Eventually London was protected by a nearly impenetrable three-ring defense, with an outer ring of the fastest long-range fighters (Tempests, Mustangs, and later the Gloster Meteor, the first jet fighter to enter service) an middle ring of short ranged Spitfires and and inner ring of AA guns that collectively accounted for nearly 80% of the V1s launched towards the end of the campaign.
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 stopAlthough... more ; 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. And it was a very costly weapon compared to the V-1; One V-2 was as expensive as a fighter plane and in addition, to distil the fuel alcohol for a single V-2 launch, required about 30 tonnes of potatoes at a time when food was becoming very scarce in Germany. More people died making it (French and particularly Soviet POWs 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 as well-known as its two siblings, but it was nonetheless another attempt by Hitler to terrorize the British mainland. It actually was not a single cannon but an underground complex of 25 guns, each one consisting of a single breech-loading barrel to which additional breeches were attached up its length at set intervals, its appearance earning it the codename "Tausendfüßler" (Millipede). The idea was that as the cannon fired, charges placed in the additional breeches would detonate as the projectile passed them at precisely timed intervals, accelerating it to an extremely high velocity so to successfully fly over the channel and hit London from its site at Mimoyecques, France. The "London gun" consisted of five shafts each containing five 500-foot-long barrels, side by side.
The design itself was rather flawed; while a small-scale mockup was successfully fired to prove the theory, the larger gun was plagued by several problems, including timing, maintenance, and a rather nasty habit of the initial propellant detonation racing ahead of the projectile and setting off the acceleration charges prematurely, accidentally slowing the projectile down rather than speeding it up or just causing the entire cannon to explode. It was never actually fired against London note , but Stubborn old Winston had it destroyed regardless, there was no way he was going to chance having THAT aimed at the UK, whether it actually worked or not.
- So, in conclusion:
- 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 plagued by mechanical problems never used in service.
They did however suck resources and money away from the German military to the point that one Allied scientist, Freeman Dyson, described it as practically a unilateral act of disarmament by Nazi Germany. Well done, Vergeltungswaffe.
Britain did quite a lot of intelligence work during the war.
(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 inaccurate 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; it's also been adapted into a musical and a 2021 film starring Colin Firth, both named simply "Operation Mincemeat".
- 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 fluorescent 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 a.k.a. 'the Baker Street Irregulars' a.k.a. the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, 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. Former Agents include Ian Fleming, Jon Pertwee a.k.a the 3rd Doctor (who notably favoured a more secret agent style and gadget based approach to the role), and Christopher Lee, with Fleming apparently basing James Bond on both of the latter. 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 - though the fact that the Lord of the Rings DVD commentary revealed that Christopher Lee apparently knew exactly the sound someone makes when they're stabbed in the back is perhaps indicative.
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 the Deputy Prime Minister of the coalition War Ministry, Clement Attlee...