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A striking message painted onto a pavement in Manchester reminds everyone to carry their gasmask at all times. The picture was taken on 5 September 1939.

The Home Front

The British civilian population during World War Two was mobilised in a way never seen before or since, living in a heavily regulated society and coming under sustained attack from the enemy.


Photo: A striking message painted onto a pavement in Manchester reminds everyone to carry their gasmask at all times. The picture was taken on 5 September 1939. (Getty Images)

Introduction

A striking message painted onto a pavement in Manchester reminds everyone to carry their gasmask at all times. The picture was taken on 5 September 1939. The Home Front

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More information about: The Home Front

The concept of a 'Home Front' - when civilians are mobilised en masse to support the war effort during a conflict - dates from World War One, as far as the British are concerned. It was re-activated in 1938 during the Munich crisis, when civilians were encouraged to enrol in Air Raid Precautions (ARP) or the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS).

Anticipating terror from the air

ARP was a reaction to the fear, shared throughout Europe in the 1930s, of the mass bombing of civilians from the air. In the 1930s, government estimates calculated that 600,000 people would be killed and 1.2 million injured in air raids during a future war.

Evacuation had already been running for two days by the time war with Germany was announced on 3 September 1939. Throughout the war, three million people were moved beyond the reach of German bombers, in what became a fundamentally life-changing event for many. The internment of German and Austrian 'aliens' also commenced at the outbreak of war, and those considered high risk were interned immediately. Later, Italian aliens were 'rounded up' under Churchill's orders after Italy joined the war in June 1940.

'Doing your bit'

The nation's labour was once again mobilised, and to an even greater extent than World War One. Half a million women joined the uniformed services, and millions more worked in the factories and on the land. Both men (from 1939) and women (from 1941) were conscripted. Men were even conscripted into the coal mines - one in ten of those enlisted domestically.

The regulation of society

Ration books were issued when food rationing came into force in January 1940. Imported items including meats, sugar, tea and coffee were divided equally between all adults and children. These goods arrived by merchant ship and were vulnerable to submarine attacks and blockades. Imported non-food items such as textiles, soap and petrol were also rationed.

The invasion scare of June-September 1940 caused all road and rail signposts and maps to be removed. A call for scrap metal to recycle into Spitfires resulted in the removal of decorative iron railings surrounding many civic spaces, and aluminium saucepans were collected by the million.

Public awareness was heightened by the protective sandbagging of public buildings and monuments, and the growth of allotments (3.5 million by 1943) in every spare area of playing field or village green. The pace of life was controlled by air raid alerts and all clears, as well as the enforcement of a war-long blackout.

Everywhere, Home Front posters exhorted citizens to 'Dig for Victory', remember that 'Careless Talk Costs Lives', whilst others repeated Churchill's phrase 'Let us Go Forward Together'.

Battling the Blitz

But it was the Blitz that really tested the public's mettle. After the RAF had beaten off the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, the German air force began their attempt to bomb British civilians into surrender. This continued until May 1941 when Hitler turned the force of his military on the Russians. The Germans came back at Britain during 1943 and 1944, however, firing their terrifying V1 bombs and launching V2 rockets from the continent.

A united nation?

The Home Front meant that daily life was disrupted and inconvenienced to an extraordinary degree, but life did go on. However, whilst the majority of the nation pulled together in its hour of need, some decided to make the most of the conflict. Crime rates rose substantially during the blackout, and the black market thrived.

The end of the war was celebrated jubilantly on 8 May 1945. Many partied and danced in the streets, but for others, it was marked by a sense of anti-climax and a loss of purpose.

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