The women who helped save wartime Christmas

Recreating Christmas 1944 at Chislehurst caves Recreating Christmas 1944 underground at Chislehurst caves, where 15,000 people celebrated Christmas

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Christmas is usually a season to look forward to, but during WWII, morale in Britain was stretched to breaking point and families were forced to put many traditions on hold.

After the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944, many people began to believe that the war would soon be over.

But Britain was about to come under renewed aerial attack from new Nazi weapons, fired at London, which killed 9,000 civilians and injured 25,000 more.

First came the V1 bombs or "doodlebugs", up to 100 a day, screaming down from the sky as they fell. Then came the V2 rockets, which came silently with no warning.

Watch a V2 rocket and the devastation it caused

Doodlebugs and rockets - Germany's Final Measures in WWII

As Britain faced its sixth wartime Christmas, many families - particularly in the South East of England - had lost everything.

The bombings stirred a renewed sense of doubt and despair, says Prof Karen Sayer, a social historian from Leeds Trinity University.

"Suddenly there was a genuine fear it might all kick off again. There was a heart-stopping horror of feeling like it wasn't going to end."

Candied carrot

Life on a wartime farm

Peter Ginn, Ruth Goodman from Wartime Farm

Rationing had increased year on year, making 1944 a particularly bad Christmas.

The Women's Voluntary Services (WVS) took on the task of lifting spirits. They distributed warm clothing and blankets to families who had lost everything, and helped get extra food to people in the countryside.

Sugar was heavily rationed but the WVS sourced additional rations for Christmas menus from what was available - rabbit and carrots. A menu of baked rabbit with stuffing and carrot soup was followed with dessert - candied carrot, carrot cake and carrot fudge were among the innovative ways to use up a glut of the vegetable.

The fudge was made with grated carrots in gelatine and makeshift marzipan was made from ground beans mixed with almond essence.

At its peak the WVS had more than one million members. They became one of the most important organisations on the home front during WWII, says Prof Sayer.

"They offered real practical help to people who by this point were in considerable distress, absolutely worn down and at their wits end."

They sought to bring back some of the sparkle to Christmas by organising dances for adults and parties for children.

In particular, they tried to recreate some of the magic, especially for the youngest children who had never known a peacetime Christmas, by encouraging people to make toys and decorations,

The wartime "Make Do and Mend" campaign involved collecting waste materials such as old clothes and rags to turn into handbags or cushion covers.

As well as making these practical items, they showed people how to make toys from scraps and rubbish.

Injured soldiers in hospital were taught how to make wooden toy trains out of ordinary pieces of wood. Other projects saw intricate dolls houses made from household waste such as matchboxes.

Magazines also provided ideas for making Christmas decorations - such as lanterns from scraps of wallpaper, or physalis fruit (Chinese lanterns) strung together like paper chains.

From the sky, the enemy unwittingly provided another decoration - strips of metal foil called chaff. It was dropped by Nazis planes to confuse the radar into thinking there was a military attack.

Hobbies magazine from 1942 Books and pamphlets encouraged everyone to have a go at making toys

The WVS helped in all aspects of life during the war, and "tried to make everybody's life a little bit better", says Prof Sayer.

They helped turn a wartime Christmas into a day that was a little more special, she adds.

"Their help continued after the war but gradually, as their families began to need them more, women turned back to their own lives."

Christmas in caves

Women's work during WWII

Wartime poster
  • Women made up a third of the workforce during WWII, in the metal and chemical industries, as well as in ship-building and vehicle manufacture
  • They worked on the railways, canals and on buses, and women built Waterloo Bridge in London
  • Flexible working hours and nurseries soon became commonplace to accommodate the needs of working women with children
  • Women's contributions were highlighted in newspapers and magazines but as the war ended, publications took for granted the return of women to the home

But not everybody would have sought help from the WVS, who were mostly older, middle class women, says Dr Becky Taylor from Birkbeck College, University of London.

"It's easy to forget the informal ways people helped each other. Working class communities already had a strong tradition of self-help."

The poorest working class people wouldn't have been able to afford toys at Christmas even before the war, she adds.

"Clearly any child would be thrilled, but toys and decorations were not necessarily recreating a Christmas that they missed."

On Christmas Day, 1944, the bombs stopped for the day, but thousands remained in underground shelters.

Chislehurst Caves, 10 miles (16km) outside of London, sheltered 15,000 people. It became a mini town, with a cinema, a chapel, a citizens advice bureau and a hospital.

Some people lived there for weeks at a time. On Christmas day meals were prepared for them by the WVS and the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army provided spiritual comfort and music.

For a day at least, it was a chance to escape some of the hardship and misery of war.

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