Primary History

World War 2: The war effort

  • The war effort

    Everyone was asked to help win the war, by making extra efforts and working harder on the 'home front'. Children saved pennies, collected scrap metal and food waste, and knitted woolly hats for soldiers and refugees. BBC Children's Hour ran a scrap-collecting competition. The winners collected 9 tons of scrap.

    With so many men away in the Forces, millions of women worked in factories, on buses and trains, and in hospitals and schools. Around 80,000 women joined the Women's Land Army to work on farms. By 1942, 400,000 British women were serving in the army, navy and air force. Women pilots flew planes from factories to RAF bases.

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  • Posters and propaganda

    Posters showed people how to put on a gas mask, how to plant vegetables, and how to collect scrap metal. A government information campaign told people what to do - and what not to do. 'Don'ts' included: don't burn too much coal on the fire, don't take a bus when you could walk, and don't gossip about work, because 'Careless Talk Costs Lives'. A spy might be listening!

    Posters, radio, films and newspapers were used to keep up people's spirits, make the most of victories and make fun of the enemy. This was propaganda. Governments controlled what was written in newspapers and said on the radio. This was censorship.

    You can see a selection of wartime posters in the picture section.

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  • Pots and pans into planes

    Scrap metal such as old cooking pans could be melted down and used again. Children with push-carts and old prams collected scrap metal from people's homes. They hoped old pots and pans would soon roar into the sky as a Spitfire plane!

    Iron railings from parks and gardens were also melted down. In places, you may still see stumps of metal on old walls where railings were cut off. Paper, glass bottles, tins and silver wrapping paper were all 'salvaged' (saved) to be recycled.

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  • What was Make Do and Mend?

    This wartime slogan encouraged people not to waste anything. With clothes rationed, it was a good idea to reuse old clothes or make new ones yourself. Sewing classes and leaflets showed people how to make coats from blankets, or baby clothes from old pillowcases. A tip for making shoes last longer was to paint the soles with varnish.

    If a chair broke, you mended it. If your sock had a hole, you got a needle and wool to 'darn' (repair) it. Clothes rationing lasted from 1941 until 1949.

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  • Help from overseas

    Wartime Britain was one huge military base, full of soldiers from many countries. There were Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Africans, Indians and West Indians. There were also people from occupied countries: French, Poles, Czechs, Norwegians and others. City streets were crowded with people in military uniforms. There were overseas civilian workers too, in factories.

    American planes flew from British airfields. The American airmen arranged children's parties, and many children got to like chewing gum and American 'candy' (sweets).

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Fun Facts
  • Old Christmas cards and crackers were turned into cartons for explosives.

  • 6 newspapers could be recycled into 4 boxes for rifle bullets.

  • American soldiers were called 'GIs', because their kit was stamped 'Government Issue'.

  • More than 2 million soldiers of the Indian Army served in World War 2

  • Towns had fund-raising events such as 'Warship Weeks' and 'Wings for Victory Weeks'.

  • Popular wartime dances were the foxtrot, conga, jive and jitterbug.

  • Nylon stockings were hard to buy, so some women painted their legs with a brownish cream. This made it look as if they were wearing stockings.

  • To prevent road accidents in the blackout, white bands were painted around trees and lamp-posts.

  • People used lots of slang expressions. Saying something was 'a piece of cake' meant it was 'easy'

  • Families were encouraged to take 'Holidays at Home'. Going to the park, not the seaside, saved using buses and trains.

  • A Home Guard book explained that pigeons could carry messages; the book pointed out that 'pigeons cannot talk' and so could not reveal secrets to the enemy if captured!

  • Soldiers were invited to watch children's dancing classes put on shows - the men got a free cup of tea!

  • Shoppers in butchers' shops were surprised to see unfamiliar cuts of meat. A comic rhyme explained it: 'Some animals now seem to grow, About a hundred tails or so...'.

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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.