The Second World War



The Blackout was introduced in September 1939. This was to stop lights on the ground showing enemy aircraft where to drop their bombs.

Special Air Raid Wardens patrolled the streets after dark to make sure that no lights could be seen from house windows. People took a long time getting used to the Blackout.

Pillar-boxes were painted yellow, white stripes were painted on the roads and on lamp-posts. Blackout curtains were made to stop light escaping from windows in ordinary houses.

When men went out in the evening they were advised to leave their shirt-tails hanging out so that they could be seen by cars with dimmed headlights.

Even though steps were taken to make the streets safe, without proper lighting thousands of people died in accidents before the bombing even started.


By September 1939 nearly everybody in the country had been issued with a gas mask (38 million). People were instructed to carry their gas masks at all times in case of attack. Adults had masks that looked like a pig-snout and the children's were soon given nicknames such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Even babies had gas masks that they could be placed inside.

There was a genuine fear that the Germans would use gas, probably launched from aeroplanes or boats. Gas had been used on the battlefields during the First World War with terrible results but had not been used on civilian populations. Lots of work places had tests where members of staff had to wear a mask while working for 15 minutes or more and schools held frequent practices.

In the end gas was never used against the British, so the effectiveness of the preparations was never tested.



When the British and French armies were defeated in France by the Germans in May 1940 the future looked very bad. Britain was the last big country in Europe still fighting Hitler and faced the real threat of an invasion from the Germans across the sea from France.

The British army had been badly weakened by the defeat in France so the government quickly set up a volunteer army to make Britain harder to invade. This was originally called the Local Defence Volunteers but was later known as the Home Guard. It was sometimes nicknamed 'Dad's army' because it was made up of volunteers who were too old to serve in the regular army.

Hundreds of thousands of men joined the Home Guard in the summer of 1940 and served through the war. The force had some problems to begin with because they did not have proper weapons or uniforms. Despite this they began training to resist an enemy invasion and soon became a familiar sight around the country performing a number of roles.

Although it was expected, the Germans did not try to invade, so the Home Guard never faced an invading force and the question remains about how they would have fought


When Hitler came to power in 1933, British leaders worried that a new war might begin. By 1934, afraid that British cities and towns would be targets for bombing raids by aircraft, officials made secret plans to move infants, schoolchildren and some adults to the countryside if war began.

In 1938, during the Munich crisis, evacuation was very nearly started in Britain, but war was avoided and children remained at home. More detailed evacuation plans were prepared after the crisis. Evacuation was to be voluntary, with parents deciding whether to send their children away.

A year later, in September 1939, evacuation commenced several days before Britain entered the war. From the cities and big towns, schoolchildren, their teachers, mothers with children under five, pregnant women, and some disabled people were moved by train and road to smaller towns and villages in the countryside. The evacuation plan worked very well and 1 million children and adults were moved within 3 days, including 600,000 from London. The government was disappointed because it had hoped to evacuate 3 million people. More than half of all schoolchildren did not leave their homes in the cities and towns.

There were no big bombing raids on Britain in the first months of the war and, by early 1940, many children had returned home.

In June 1940, following the defeat of France, people were afraid that towns on the east and southeast coasts of England would be bombed, and there was a large evacuation of children from these towns to safer areas.

When heavy bombing raids started in the autumn of 1940 - the Blitz - another big evacuation began.


Later, in 1944, when Germany attacked Britain with flying bombs and rockets, and places like London were badly damaged again, a further large evacuation of children and mothers took place. This was the last evacuation of the war. Most evacuees were able to return home during 1945. Some, though, were orphans, because their parents had been killed in air raids.





In June 1940, after the defeat of France, Germany prepared to invade Britain. German leaders felt it was essential to destroy the British air force to stop it sinking the ships that would carry German soldiers across the Channel. Bombing raids on Britain started in July. In August the German air force concentrated its attack upon airfields, aircraft factories and radar stations. The Royal Air Force fought back hard in what was later known as the Battle of Britain.

The German air force nearly succeeded in crippling the British air force, but its losses of aircraft and aircrew were very high, and the invasion was postponed. Now, to force Britain to surrender, the attack was switched to other targets, such as docks, factories and railways. Because bombing was not accurate, and because most of these targets were in cities and towns, many bombs fell upon streets and houses, killing people and destroying property.

On 7 September 1940, 300 German bombers raided the London docks and, from then until May 1941, London was bombed heavily. Other cities and towns were also heavily bombed, including Swansea, Cardiff, Bristol, Southampton, Plymouth, Birmingham, Coventry and Liverpool. From October 5, the German raids took place only at night and the British defences of anti-aircraft guns and night fighters could not stop them. However, British planes went on bombing raids to Germany, attacking factories, cities and towns - especially the capital, Berlin.

Although many places in Britain were badly damaged during the Blitz, German bombing did not stop war production or force Britain to surrender.

Over 30,000 British people were killed during this period - over half in London, which was bombed almost every night.

The Blitz ended in mid-May 1941, when much of the German air force was sent east to prepare for the invasion of Russia. The immediate threat of a German invasion of Britain was over, although bombing was to continue at less intensive levels in 1942 and 1943.

By 1935, British officials were discussing air raid precautions. Little was done, though, until the crisis of 1938, when many European countries were alarmed by Germany's behaviour towards Czechoslovakia. In Britain there was panic as people were afraid of bombing attacks. Evacuation plans were hastily announced; anti-aircraft guns were set up; and deep trenches were dug in London parks to serve as air raid shelters. The crisis ended after talks in Munich but it had shown that British civil defence was weak.

One result of the crisis was the fast development of air raid precautions (A.R.P.) under the leadership of Sir John Anderson. Spending on A.R.P. rose from 9.5 million in 1937-38 to 51 million in 1939-40.

Experts said that bombing would kill hundreds of thousands of people. So, new plans were made for mass evacuation, the construction of large, public shelters, and the erection of small units in private gardens ("Anderson" shelters) and inside houses ("Morrison" shelters).

Although the War began in September 1939, bombing of Britain did not start immediately. People developed a false sense of security and were not keen to have shelters. Once heavy bombing began, from the summer of 1940 onwards, shelters became more popular. Railway arches and basements were also used and, in London, people slept at night in the Underground Stations and tunnels.

The shelters - big and small - saved the lives of very many people, but there were deaths when large bombs fell directly on shelters. In some cases, many people were killed at once - for example, 64 died at Balham Underground Station when it took a direct hit on 15 October 1940.

Late in the War, in 1944 and 1945, the German flying bombs and V 2 rockets were new dangers that caused many deaths.

By the end of the War, German bombing had killed just over 60,000 people in Britain. The experts had over-estimated the strength of the German air force, and the amount of bombs that it could drop. However, many more would have died if shelters had not been provided.

After war was declared in September 1939, the British government had to cut down on the amount of food it brought in from abroad as German submarines started bombing British supply ships. There was a worry that this would lead to shortages of food supplies in the shops and very high prices for what was left, making it very difficult for a lot of people to get enough to eat.

Rationing of food was introduced in January 1940. Everybody was issued with a ration book. This contained coupons that had to be handed in to the shops every time rationed food was bought. As well as the basic ration everybody had 16 coupons each month that they could spend on what they wished.

This made sure that everyone was able to buy and eat the basic food necessary to keep them fit and healthy. Bacon, butter and sugar were among the first things to be rationed. Some foods such as potatoes, fruit and fish were not rationed. People were able to buy these things, provided they could afford them and there were supplies in the shops.

The government tried to encourage people to grow their own food at home. The 'Dig for Victory' campaign started in October 1939 was one of the most famous of the war. It encouraged people to use every spare piece of land, including their gardens, to grow vegetables.



In 1939 most of the fuel, food and raw materials used in Britain was bought abroad and transported here in ships. This caused big problems at the start of the war. German submarines and aircraft were able to start weakening Britain's defences by attacking the ships and destroying supplies of resources essential for making weapons and fighting the war.

The government needed to try and make the country as self sufficient as possible. Any savings that could be made in the use of fuel, food and raw materials from abroad meant that fewer sailors had to risk their lives on the boats, and more money could be put into fighting the war.

Information campaigns were used to encourage people to make better use of resources at home, especially waste. These campaigns were a bit like the ones we have today to encourage us to be environmentally friendly by saving electricity and recycling rubbish.

Posters, information leaflets and slogans persuaded and reminded everyone that they had a part to play in fighting the war on the 'Home Front'. 'Saucepans for Spitfires' was one of the most famous campaigns. People were asked to give their aluminium pans so that they could be melted down to make parts for aircraft. In fact the government did not need any more aluminium but it believed the appeal meant people felt that they were doing something to defeat Hitler and helped to keep morale up.

The war caused a shortage of clothes and high prices for those that could be found in the shops. It was no longer possible to get supplies of clothes from abroad, and clothes manufacturers in Britain had to make things needed for the war such as uniforms and parachutes.

Clothes rationing was introduced in May 1941. This made sure that everyone had a fair share of what was available. Everybody was given a ration book with 66 clothing coupons that had to last for a year. Each item of clothing that was rationed was worth a certain number of coupons, for example one dress was worth eleven coupons. People still had to pay for clothes, but they had to hand over the right number of coupons each time they bought something.

The 'Make do and Mend' campaign was introduced by the government to encourage people to get as much wear as possible out of the clothes they already had. Posters and information leaflets gave people advice and ideas about how to do this. Evening classes were set up to teach people how to make new clothes out of bits of worn out old ones, rather than throw them away.