Daily life during World War Two
by Dr Martin Johnes, University of Wales Swansea
The war affected every aspect of daily life, and meant that everyone endured hardships and sacrifices. People's weariness with these hardships was as much a threat to popular morale as the physical dangers of war.
But there were benefits too. Whether it was through meeting the overseas troops who were stationed across Wales or just paying close attention to news of battles in far-off places, the horizons of Welsh people were extended by the war. Wages increased, unemployment virtually disappeared and hopes were raised that the war just might create a fairer world.
Even little things like paying for a bus became a trial in the dark.
One of the first and most significant changes the war brought to daily life was the blackout. To avoid aiding German bombers, all lights after dusk were banned. At first it seemed a novelty and some people walked around looking at the darkness and the starlit night sky. But it quickly became more one of the biggest annoyances of wartime life. Both driving and walking were both very difficult and dangerous. Shopping hours were cut and even little things like paying for a bus became a trial in the dark. Some people even worried that it was providing young couples with opportunities to behave promiscuously. In urban areas during the period of regular air raids people accepted the blackout had a very real purpose but most of Wales did not experience bombing and the blackout was another trial to endure.
The government, aware of the impact rationing had on morale, never rationed bread, potatoes, cigarettes or beer.
Another hardship was rationing but it was stoically accepted by most people, not matter how much they grumbled. Wartime diets were not only limited in quantity but they were also rather plain and tedious. People were introduced to new foods like dried egg but lost touch with old ones like oranges and bananas. The government, aware of the impact rationing had on morale, never rationed bread, potatoes, cigarettes or beer. The fact that rationing affected everyone did create a sense of shared sacrifice that cut across class lines but eating at restaurants was not rationed. This meant that those with money did have access to more food.
For the working class rationing even had some benefits. Food prices were controlled and there was more emphasis on vegetables and balanced diets. This meant that nutrition levels rose during the war. Nor was there the same sense of loss for many working people. New clothing had always been a luxury and imported fruit had never been especially widespread in either industrial or rural inter-war Wales. There, women had always struggled to feed their families because of a lack of money. A Monmouthshire housewife remarked in 1942, 'We've been rationed here for years, so it's nothing new to us'.
Nonetheless, the general shortages did significantly increase crime levels. The number of recorded crimes in south Wales rose by 84 percent between 1939 and 1945, with violent crimes against property rising by nearly 150 percent. The notion of equal and shared sacrifices was not always a reality.
The government told people to cope with shortages with slogans like "Dig for Victory" and "Make Do and Mend". Such slogans were part of a whole variety of demands that the government fed to people through posters, leaflets, the cinema and radio. The wireless became central to people's lives as a source of information, news and entertainment.
But however much people relied on it, there was still a degree of cynicism about the censorship and propaganda of both the BBC and Ministry of Information. There was a constant feeling that important bad news, such as the causalities suffered in air raids, was being withheld. Rumours about invasions, spies and conspiracies became a constant feature of the war. Nonetheless, it was still a period when the BBC assumed a pivotal place in daily life, which it tried to respond to with radio programming that reflected the diversity of the British people, including broadcasting the news in Welsh to the whole of the UK.
The problem was, we were earning more money, but we didn't have anything to spend it on!
As the war dragged on, people became increasingly weary of the demands and constraints it placed on daily life. Tiredness, ill health and the strains of balancing work and domestic responsibilities caused significant levels of absenteeism amongst women workers. The general war weariness were exacerbated by what south Wales miners' leader Arthur Horner called 'the most drab and sordid existence, with nothing to do and nowhere to go except work'. The higher wages and overtime opportunities the war brought was only of limited use, as one munitions worker recalled: 'The problem was, we were earning more money, but we didn't have anything to spend it on!' Small pleasures like a pint, a dance, a film or a kiss became all the more important to people.
Some 15,000 Welshmen were killed in the war.
For six long years people coped with the daily hardships of war, as well as the constant fear for the safety of their loved ones who were serving abroad. When it all ended and the soldiers, sailors and airmen returned home, often looking tanned and well fed, there was even some resentment that those in the forces did not understand how hard life on the Home Front had been. But many did not return home. Some 15,000 Welshmen were killed in the war. Others returned physically or mentally shattered by their experiences of war. For everyone, daily existence had been difficult but readjusting to peacetime and family life was going to be hard too.