The War at Home

In World War II, Britain faced a desperate choice. The nation could choose to partner with the Third Reich’s atrocities and brutal expansion. Or Britain could appease Hitler and hope to be left alone while Nazism spread to its neighbors. Or the nation could declare war, despite what Winston Churchill called a “lamentable” lack of preparation, not to mention a widespread public desire for peace, and risk annihilation.

For a time Britain seemed poised to go the appeasement route, but at last it was decided that, as Ève Curie put it, “Peace at any price is no peace at all.” The nation committed itself to war. My book series, The Dr. Benjamin Bones Mysteries, begins at this point, with the declaration of war. I intend to take readers all the way through the war years (and possibly beyond) through the Bones mysteries and their companion series, The Magic of Cornwall.

However, not everyone today knows that Britain’s war wasn’t fought only by soldiers overseas. Far from it. In the USA, the Second World War happened far away, and was understood via newsreels, photojournalism, Hollywood propaganda, letters home, political speeches, and the stories told by returning soldiers. In Britain, the war was fought at home in dozens of ways. Virtually every British citizen was expected to support the war effort, including mothers, old men, and young children. Collectively the British gave up their time, money, personal possessions, comfort, peacetime freedoms, and in some cases, their lives.

In World War I, the nation suffered widespread food and labor shortages. Many men in key positions at home were sent overseas, leaving critical industries unsupported. There weren’t enough men left to plant crops, raise livestock, and keep the factories going. In World War II, the government selected certain men to remain at home and serve there. These men were said to be in “reserved” occupations. Dr. Bones, a young London physician, is therefore destined to spend the war in England. But he’s compelled to go where he’s most needed, which in his case is a part of the West Country called Cornwall.

Women were to play key roles in the war at home. As in the USA, where “Rosie the Riveter” became an icon of female factory workers filling in for men overseas, females in Britain took on a variety of roles, many for the first time. For example, there were Land Girls who were dispatched to farms to plow, plant, and harvest.

As the war progressed, all unmarried women from age 20-30 were expected to join a service. If not the Land Army, the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNS, pronounced “wrens”) or another service like the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs, pronounced “whaffs”) or the Women’s Auxiliary Terrain Service (WATS). Britain’s future queen, Princess Elizabeth, was a mechanic with the WATS.

Women were to play key roles in the war at home. As in the USA, where “Rosie the Riveter” became an icon of female factory workers filling in for men overseas, females in Britain took on a variety of roles, many for the first time. For example, there were Land Girls who were dispatched to farms to plow, plant, and harvest.

Even before the war started in earnest, new laws and regulations took effect to prevent the hunger and privation that happened in WWI. This meant food rationing, clothes rationing, suspension of minor luxuries like ladies’ cosmetics (in some cases, the cosmetic factories literally transformed their operation into weapons manufacturing), curfews, and a ban on all outdoor lighting after sundown called the Blackout.

As readers of Marriage Can Be Murder know, the Blackout was dangerous and proved deadly to many citizens, especially in cities where the residents had been accustomed to at least some light at all times.

Pedestrians altered their routines and learned to wear reflective clothing. Some of those with dogs to walk even bought reflective jackets for their pooches. If this sounds sentimental, it was the exception, not the rule. Sadly, there was such a panic among pet owners, who feared their companion animals would suffer terribly during a possible invasion, bombing, or chemical gas attack, that as many as 750,000 pets were euthanized in the war’s early days.

Creature comforts became harder for citizens to obtain. Cigarettes, certain medicines, ladies’ stockings, even sugar: life had to be lived with little or none of these things, and as cheerfully as possible. “Mustn’t grumble” is how the motto went. A citizen’s chief virtue, after patriotism, was consideration for others. This included not moaning about the small daily sacrifices that affected everyone.

But civilian life at home during WWII wasn’t only about long, dark nights at home or “mock apple pie” that contained no apples and no more than half a cup of sugar. Even before the formal declaration of war on 3 September 1939, British citizens, particularly Londoners, feared two things: bombs and chemical warfare.

Every citizen was issued a gas mask and required to carry it with them everywhere. Mothers could buy gas-resistant prams for their babies. Readers of Marriage Can Be Murder may recall that Dr. Bones had little faith in mass-produced, unfitted gas masks saving anyone in the event of true chemical warfare. But the issuing of such items helped quell public panic by reassuring citizens that they could do something to defend themselves.

Men too old to join the service were expected to serve at home. The Air Raids Protocols service and the Home Guard employed mostly men. In the USA, viewers familiar with old British TV shows like Dad’s Army (recently made into a feature film starring Toby Jones and Bill Nighy) may think of the Home Guard as a bit of laugh, just a club for geezers to pretend they were soldiers, and the ARP Wardens may be remembered only as Blackout compliance officers. But both these service groups, as well as professional and volunteer firefighters, were pivotal to public safety and civilian aid during the war, especially in cities like London and Plymouth, which were heavily bombed.

Today in Britain there are Home Guard reenactors to help us understand more about the role of citizens in World War II.

Protecting oneself from bombs was a constant worry for many families. In London, underground shelters (such as Tube stations) were preferred. It would have been terribly uncomfortable, men, women, and children huddled together on the platform and often camping out all night, but in most cases, it was safer than staying at home. In the morning, the men and women would still go to work, the children would still attend school, and life would go on with as little complaint as possible. After all, in another part of the city, people might be in hospital, grieving the loss of family members, or facing the wreckage of a bombed-out house.

For those in the city who had no garden and did stay at home, there was a Morrison shelter. It was designed to provide one bed-sized (or coffin-sized) area into a reinforced safe zone.

For those with gardens, there was the iconic Anderson shelter. When properly assembled and bolstered with earth, it was considered far safer than remaining inside the home and hoping for the best. But as someone who’s sat in an Anderson shelter in the Imperial War Museum of London, I can tell you, they’re very small. And they were prone to taking in water!

Try to imagine it. You’re a mum whose husband is off to war. You’re at home with two small children and a babe in arms. Just after you get them in their nightclothes and tucked into bed, the air raid siren goes off. It might be thirty degrees outside and raining; it doesn’t matter. You have no choice but to drag the kids out of bed, put coats over their pajamas, and get them all into the shelter. It must have been terrifying when the bombs were whistling, and infuriating when only a drill. Best case scenario: you all return to bed in an hour or so, cold and wet and miserable. Worst case scenario: your house, or your neighbor’s house, takes a hit, and you emerge to see part of your community burning or reduced to rubble.

In most cases, the comforts of Anderson shelter were as follows: a light bulb and a place to lie down. In some, however, the homeowners added little comforts, like books for the children or a hand-crank wireless, to make the situation more bearable for everyone.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short survey of the War at Home. I have many more details and will continue to add to this page with additional photos and supplemental blog posts. In the meantime, here’s your humble authoress, sitting in an Anderson shelter:

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