Public awareness of the war was heightened by the sandbagging of public buildings and monuments, to protect them, and the growth of allotments (3.5 million by 1943) in every spare area of playing field or village green. Air raid sirens sounding ‘alerts’ and ‘all clears’ and the enforcement of a ‘Black Out’ from 1 September 1939 until the war’s end controlled the pace of life.
'Italian POWs working on farms actually gained better working conditions than Land Army girls'
The invasion scare of June-September caused all road and rail signposts and maps to be removed. A call for scrap metal to recycle into Spitfires resulted in the decorative iron railings surrounding many a civic park or garden being removed, whilst aluminum saucepans were collected by the million.
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’.
It is easy to become romantic about this era, when the nation pulled together in its hour of need, but new research suggests that crime rates rose substantially during the black out, many cases of looting occurred and the black market flourished. Other injustices flourished.
Italian POWs working on farms actually gained better working conditions than Land Army girls, and exiles from Nazi Germany were – bizarrely - interned as enemy aliens on the Isle of Man – the very people who were sworn enemies of Hitler!
The fighter pilot Richard Hillary (who was killed in 1943) has left us with this popular picture of London during the 1940-1 Blitz, which in many ways captures the mood of the whole country at this time:
‘I had been put out of action before the real fury of the night attacks had been let loose, and ... had seen nothing of the damage. In the hospital, from the newspapers and ... those who came to see me, I gained a somewhat hazy idea of what was going on. On the one hand I saw London as a city hysterically gay, a city doomed, with nerves so strained that a life of synthetic gaiety alone prevented them from snapping. My other picture was of a London bloody but unbowed, of a people grimly determined to see this thing through ... London night-life did exist.
Though the sirens might scream and the bombs fall, restaurants and cocktail bars remained open and full every night of the week ... Whilst the bombs were dropping on London (and they were dropping every night in my time in the hospital), and while half of London was enjoying itself, the other half was not asleep. It was striving to make London as normal a city by night as it had become by day.
Anti-aircraft crews, studded around fields, parks and streets, were momentarily silhouetted against the sky by the sudden flash of their guns. The Auxiliary Fire Service, spread out in a network of squads through the capital, was standing by, ready at a moment’s notice to deal with the inevitable fires; air raid wardens, tireless in their care of shelters and work of rescue, patrolled their areas watchfully ...’
Richard Hillary, The Last Enemy