10 tips for surviving on the home front during the Second World War
During the Second World War millions of men bid farewell to their families in order to fight for their country. But how did those left behind cope?
In her book, Living on the Home Front, Megan Westley reveals how those at home had to Keep Calm and Carry On – rationing their food and clothing, measuring out their bath water, and rethinking their leisure time.
Here, writing for History Extra, Megan shares 10 tips for surviving on the home front...
Waste was criminal during the Second World War – sometimes literally. In 1942 it became illegal to throw away or burn paper (the No 48 Paper Control Order on 4 September 1942 brought paper supply under the control of the Ministry of Production). With national supplies running low, all waste was frowned upon. Make Do and Mend invaded Britain, with guides showing how to prolong the life of clothing and household linen.
Ships importing food were often attacked, and men died to supply the kitchen table – throwing away food, therefore, was seen as an insult. Instead, leftovers were re-used and scraps kept for pig food.
Top tip: Keep on the right side of Churchill by reducing the amount you buy, reusing what you can, and recycling what is no longer needed.
Have a food plan
Food rationing is one of the best-known aspects of the home front. Running from 1940 to 1954, rationing controlled available food and ensured that everybody – regardless of income – had their fair share. By the end of the war it restricted the sale of sugar, cooking fats, meat, tea, milk, tinned and dried fruits, eggs, jams, sweets and cheese.
Top tip: To make the most of rations and prevent supplies from running out mid-week, it is wise to plan meals in advance. Fail to do so, and you’ll find yourself eating nothing but wartime champ (cabbage, potato and carrots) for days.
Dig for Victory
The Dig for Victory campaign, which encouraged householders to grow their own food, was launched in October 1939. Parks, gardens and even the moat of the Tower of London were turned over to vegetables. Gardens were seen as ‘munitions factories’, supplying the nation in its hour of need.
Top tip: Use as much of your garden as possible, although a reasonable crop of well-chosen produce can be achieved in limited space by using borders and pots. Potatoes, carrots, onions and kale are all staples of the Victory Garden. Fruit trees, especially apples, are also prized.
Land girls watch aircraft overhead. (Getty Images)
Holiday at home
If you visited a train station during the Second World War you’d most likely be confronted with the question “is your journey really necessary?” With overseas travel off the cards, and fuel in short supply, people were encouraged to make the most of what their local area had to offer.
During summer the Holidays at Home scheme came into its own, inspiring events and outdoor entertainment. London’s parks hosted weekend concerts and fairs, and donkeys were brought to Leeds.
Top tip: For a wartime holiday, embrace the landscape around your home: take a walk, pack a picnic, or become a tourist for the day.
Learn to cook
Today, we think of the 1940s housewife as a domestic goddess. Actually, at the start of the war many women didn’t really know how to cook. This presented a problem: with the introduction of rationing, creative cookery was essential.
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The Ministry of Food’s Kitchen Front campaign was launched in April 1940, incorporating cookery demonstrations and radio hints. Advice ranged from nutrition and recipes, to the best ways to keep glass splinters out of food during an air raid.
Top tip: Prepare meals from scratch and be more inventive with what is available. This will lead to healthier diets and far less food waste. Mock crab, anyone?
Rethink your leisure time
Wartime life had far fewer distractions than today’s world. Though television existed in 1939 it was suspended at the outbreak of war, along with local radio programming. Instead, one national Home Service radio station was established, becoming a lifeline for those on the home front by providing news, household hints, and entertainment.
For the rest of the time, it was back to basics. People read books, tended their vegetables, took up handicrafts, and wrote letters to keep in touch.
Top tip: Go back to basics – read books, tend your vegetables, take up handicrafts and write letters to keep in touch.
Munitions workers enjoy a tea break. (Getty Images)
Get it for free
Every year, mother nature puts on a wonderful show of edible goods. With so much food rationed or unavailable, foraging was a practical way of supplementing the diet.
The Ministry of Food certainly thought so, publishing Hedgerow Harvest guides to help. A popular recipe was for vitamin C-rich rosehip syrup, made when oranges were scarce.
Top tip: Blackberries, elderberries, wild garlic and stinging nettles are all easy picks. Fruits can be made into jam to last through the winter; wild garlic provides flavour in the absence of onions and garlic, and stinging nettles are a good alternative to spinach.
Stay out of the supermarket
The easy world of supermarkets simply didn’t exist in the 1940s. Instead, people traipsed from grocer to butcher, baker, and candlestick maker. Today, small shops such as these often have more seasonal or artisan products, and the quality can be far better.
Top tip: Visiting local farmers’ markets can save both time and money. The well stocked have a good range of stalls selling basic staples such as vegetables, bread, milk and fish. An advantage is that buying direct from the producer can be much cheaper, and the food fresher and less well travelled.
Items were bought and kept, rather than thrown away. One good reason for this is that they were so hard to come by. Shortages in materials led to the sale of utility clothing in 1941 and utility furniture in 1943, all marked with a ‘CC41’ logo. Utility items were simple and functional, made to meet strict criteria dictating how much material or timber could be used in their manufacture.
Today’s world of cheap disposable imports goes against the wartime grain. When austerity ended, however, the novelty of new items becoming available sparked the beginning of modern consumer culture.
Top tip: Waste not, want not.
Love thy neighbour
With a war to fight on the global stage, Britons were urged to beat Hitler by banding together. Domestic conflicts were dissuaded, and instead neighbours swapped vegetables and helped install Anderson shelters – pre-fabricated from corrugated iron and then buried in gardens.
Many civilians volunteered for work that was hard, dangerous, or far away from home. The moral re-armament campaign, epitomised in Daphne du Maurier’s patriotic book Come Wind, Come Weather, promoted selflessness and unity in a crisis.
Top tip: Roll up your sleeves, go to work, and keep smiling. Also be sure to love thy neighbour.
Megan Westley is the author of Living on the Home Front, which was published by Amberley Publishing.