Primary History

World War 2: Children at war

  • Britain in 1939

    At school, children learned about the British Empire, now the Commonwealth. But in 1939 few British children had ever travelled outside Britain. If they had a holiday, most went to the seaside or the country. In a typical family, dad worked while mum looked after the home. Most young people left school at 14, and started work.

    Not many people had cars. Most people travelled by bus, train or bike, or walked. Television started in 1936, but very few people had a TV set. Instead families listened to the radio or 'wireless'.

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  • Children at war

    Thousands of children left home for the first time as evacuees. School lessons and exams went on more or less as usual, though children also learned 'air raid drill' and how to put on a gas mask. At night, many children slept in air raid shelters.

    There were fewer toys for Christmas or birthdays, and not many sweets either. Many seaside beaches were closed. However, children found new playgrounds on 'bombsites' - waste ground where buildings had been flattened by bombs.

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  • How did the war change things?

    Many families were split up. Fathers, uncles and brothers left home to join the Forces (army, navy or air force). People travelled more, to do war work and to fight overseas. Mothers and older sisters went to work in factories.

    There was rationing of food, clothes and other goods. Air raids made it hard to get a good night's sleep. Bomb damage often meant no gas or electricity. Train and bus journeys took longer. Going to school or work often meant walking over bricks and broken glass in the streets. At night, the blackout made towns and cities dark.

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  • Civilians in danger

    The government expected civilians to face air attacks from enemy planes. So air raid shelters were built. Plans were made to evacuate women and children to the countryside. Gas masks were given out, to protect people from poison gas. Fortunately, poison gas bombs were not dropped on Britain.

    During World War 2 more than 60,000 people in Britain were killed in bombing raids. Houses, factories and schools were destroyed. Many people lost homes and possessions. However, people were thankful that Britain was not occupied like other countries - such as France, Norway, China and the Philippines.

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  • Occupied countries

    Occupied countries (like France and Norway) were invaded and taken over by the enemy. Occupation was hard for the people. It meant the end of freedom: you had to work and do what you were told, or be punished.

    For children, occupation meant being hungry (enemy soldiers took the best food) and scared (the enemy sometimes took away or killed your family and friends). Anyone who fought back, by joining the Resistance, risked jail or death. Jews from all over occupied Europe, including thousands of children, were rounded up, and sent to die in prison camps.

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Fun Facts
  • There were no computers or computer games in 1939. Home computers had not been invented.

  • Wartime birthday cards were smaller, because paper was rationed.

  • One tip for beating the blackout was to fix a cocoa tin over a light to give a narrow beam - enough to read by.

  • People passed the time with books like 'The Blackout Book', which had puzzles and quizzes to do indoors.

  • Rubbing white polish on the front door step meant visitors wouldn't trip over in the blackout

  • In 1939 a TV set cost about the same as a small car. Few people owned either a TV or a car.

  • A favourite for breakfast or tea was bread and 'dripping' (the cooled solid fat from roast meat).

  • Britain's king and queen in 1939 were King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Their eldest daughter, now Queen Elizabeth II, was 13 when the war began.

  • A A Milne, who wrote the Winnie the Pooh stories, wrote a radio 'war speech' for the Queen in 1939 - but she never broadcast it.

  • Many boys wore short trousers until they left junior school, when they were given their first pair of long trousers.

  • Schoolboys in the 1940s often wore school caps, as part of their school uniform. Girls wore school hats too.

  • Some children's books made fun of the Nazis. They had funny titles such as 'This is a Nazti book'.

  • You could eat crisps during the war (in a special economy war pack). Salt came in a twist of paper inside the pack - to sprinkle as you liked.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

air raid
An attack by planes dropping bombs.
air raid drill
Practice for what to do in air raid, such as going to the shelter.
air raid shelter
A building to protect people from bombs.
Countries (including Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the USA) who joined forces to fight the Axis Powers.
Small plot of land for growing vegetables.
atomic bomb
Weapon first used in 1945 when two bombs were dropped on Japan, killing more than 100,000 people.
Axis Powers
Germany, Japan, Italy and other countries that were allies in World War 2.
Wartime ban on street lights and other lights at night.
German air raids, from a German word 'blitzkrieg' which means 'lightning war'.
British Empire
Countries ruled by Britain.
Controlling what people say or write.
People not in the armed forces.
Civil Defence
A network of civilian volunteers who assisted in the war effort by helping in air raids and rescuing people from bombed buildings.
Group of friendly countries almost all of which were once part of the British Empire.
concentration camp
Prison where Jews and other prisoners were kept by the Nazis.
Slip of paper marked or torn out of a ration book.
6 June 1944, the date Allied forces landed in Normandy, France.
department store
Large shop selling different things in different departments.

E to G

Someone who was evacuated, moved from a danger area to a safer place.
Places where things are made.
The Army, Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and other services.
Frank,Anne (1929-1945)
A German Jewish girl who spent two years hiding from the Nazis in a house in Holland. Her wartime diary was published after the war.
gas mask
Face mask to protect people against poison gas.
general election
Vote to choose Members of Parliament, and a new government.
Machine for playing music records.

H to L

Hitler,Adolf (1929-1945)
Leader of Nazi Germany.
Mass murder of Jews and other people by the Nazis.
host family
People who took in evacuees to live with them.
Attacked and taken over by an enemy.
People who follow the religion of Judaism.
To free from an enemy's control.

M to O

military uniform
Clothing worn by soldiers, sailors and airmen.
To do with the navy or warships.
A fight between ships at sea.
Short for National Socialist Party (in Germany), a follower of Hitler was also called a Nazi.
Taken over by enemy forces.

P to S

prime minister
Leader of the government of Britain.
prisoners of war
Soldiers captured by the other side.
Controlling news media (such as radio) to show your side in the best way.
Controlling the supply of food, clothes, petrol and other things.
A person forced to leave their home, often by war.
A list of names. In WW2 people had to register with shops before they could use their ration books there.
Fighting back in an occupied country, for example by refusing to help the enemy.
scrap metal
Waste metal such as old cooking pans.
Machine that made a wailing noise as a warning when enemy planes were seen.
A catchy phrase or saying.
Soviet Union
Country made up of Russia and other states that are now independent.
steam train
A train pulled by a locomotive burning coal.
stirrup pump
Small hand pump for squirting water to put out fires.

T to Z

A short message sent by phone, then printed out and delivered.
London's Tube rail system.
United Nations
Organization set up in 1945 by the Allies to work for world peace.
People who don't eat meat.
war crime
Mass murder or cruel treatment of people during a war.
Wooden board with ridges, for scrubbing dirty clothes on.