Dig for Victory: Britain's WW2 war on hunger
When war broke out in 1939, food shortages posed just as grave a threat to Britons as a German invasion. From Dig for Victory to the land girls, John Martin charts a nation’s battle with starvation
Listen to this article:
On the eve of the Second World War, those charged with putting food on Britons’ dinner tables were faced with a deeply unpalatable reality: the nation could barely feed itself. The statistics made for troubling reading.
Almost 90 per cent of the wheat Britain used in its bread was sourced from overseas – chiefly from the USA, Canada and Australia. Sugar was mainly derived from imported sugar cane; more than half of all meat was shipped from Australia, New Zealand and Argentina; and around 90 per cent of the nation’s butter was produced abroad. All in all, more than 70 per cent of Britain’s food was imported – and that was a far higher proportion than any other nation about to be embroiled in the conflict.
In peacetime, this fact gave little cause for concern. Britain’s global maritime supply chains saw to that. But in wartime, with German U-boats stalking the seas and threatening to sever shipping lanes linking Britain to its allies, the nation’s reliance on imported foodstuffs was potentially cata- strophic. In short, as war loomed, Britain was confronted with the prospect that it could be starved into submission.
What the nation did in response to this existential threat was as important as any battle that its troops fought on the front line. And that response involved increasing domestic food production to levels rarely before witnessed on these islands – by transforming farming methods, champion- ing grow-your-own, and rallying everyone from gardeners and land girls to farmers and evacuees to the cause.
Over the following decade, Britons had to tighten their belts, endure rationing and expose their palates to such culinary “delights” as powdered eggs and mock turkey. But the crusade worked. When the nation celebrated victory in 1945, it did so in the knowledge that as well as defeating its enemies on the battlefield, it had won the war on hunger.
More like this
- Listen | Professor John Martin charts the mission to save Britain from starvation during the Second World War
The wartime government implemented a raft of policies to boost food production, but only one has since acquired iconic status, and that is the Dig for Victory campaign. This nation-wide crusade saw Britons picking up their spades, heading into their gardens and transforming their outdoor spaces into mini vegetable patches.
Dig for Victory wasn’t just confined to domestic gardens. All available green spaces were viewed as potential allotments – from urban bomb sites to the edges of American airfields. Even the lawns and moat outside the Tower of London were transformed into communal vegetable patches.
The authorities were all too aware that if Dig for Victory was going to work, it needed full public buy-in – a fact that was reflected in the great lengths to which the government went to promote the campaign. It established Victory (or War) Gardens to demonstrate how grow-your-own worked in practice, it produced a blizzard of educational leaflets and posters, and it encouraged children to join in by growing vegetables at school. And if you went to the cinema, the chances are you would have seen a short Ministry of Information film promoting Dig for Victory before the main feature.
The citizen-army that lent its support to Dig for Victory didn’t just produce potatoes and carrots in their newly ploughed allotments. They also supplemented their diets by keeping chickens (for eggs and meat) and participating in pig clubs. Children were also encouraged to keep pet rabbits which would be periodically eaten.
Pig clubs consisted of small groups of households supplying food waste for their pig to eat, cleaning the pigsty and sharing the meat they produced. When the animals were slaughtered, under the watchful eye of the local policeman, regulations required that half of the meat be handed over to the Ministry of Food. One man who observed this process while a young boy, recalled the local police constable joking that he’d never before seen a pig with two heads. It seems that, in return for a joint of meat, the constable was willing to turn a blind eye to a little bending of the rules.
- Try your hand at a WW2 historical recipe for Homity pie
There’s no denying Dig for Victory’s impact on Britain’s green spaces. Research by the Royal Horticultural Society indicated that by the end of the conflict there were around 1.4 million allotments in Britain (up from an estimated 800,000 before the war). But the success of the campaign shouldn’t just be measured in the vegetables, eggs and meat that it produced for Britons’ plates. These additional supplies also freed up space on shipping to import weapons and other essential materials. Just as importantly, the campaign ensured that everyone, including children, had the opportunity to contribute to the war effort. When the Second World War is described as a people’s war, that is, to a certain extent at least, thanks to Dig for Victory.
For all its undoubted success in galvanising civilian morale, in terms of actual yield, Dig for Victory was far from the most successful food production crusade. That honour must go to the Ploughing-Up campaign, which saw much of Britain’s pasture land converted to arable. The government was all too aware that arable crops produced significantly more calories per acre than land left as pasture and used for livestock production – and, as early as the summer of 1939, it was providing a £2 per acre ploughing-up grant to farmers.
In fact, wartime officials were so invested in this ploughing revolution that they established a network of county-based War Agricultural Executive Committees (known as “War Ags”) across England and Wales to coordinate food production at a local level. The War Ags’ role was to encourage, direct and – if necessary – compel farmers to adopt more productive methods of farming. The results were extraordinary. Over a five-year period, Britain’s arable land increased to the tune of 5 million acres, dwarfing the rise that was achieved during the First World War.
A new workforce
It was all very well making millions of acres of land available for ploughing but with thousands of agricultural workers now enlisted into the armed forces, who was going to work that land? This was a question that weighed heavily on officials throughout the war – and it was one that they answered in a number of ways. They mobilised evacuees and schoolchildren via a harvest camp scheme. They also increasingly utilised the swelling ranks of German and Italian prisoners of war. (From July to September 1945, six out of ten German PoWs were pressed into working in agriculture, making up around 11 per cent of the agricultural labour force.) But, above all, they turned to the Women’s Land Army.
The WLA had proven itself before, plug- ging the agricultural labour gap back in the First World War. In the summer of 1939, as conflict with Germany loomed once more, the land girls (as members of the WLA were best known) were called into action again, descending on farms all over Britain to plough fields, sow seeds and pick produce.
“The land army fights in the fields,” declared Lady Gertrude Denman, director of the WLA. “It is in the fields of Britain that the most critical battle of the present war may well be fought and won.”
And it was because that battle was so critical that the government invested a huge amount of time and effort selling the concept of farm work. This was primarily aimed at potential female recruits, trumpeting the benefits of working in what posters portrayed as an idyllic open-air environment. But it was also directed at farmers themselves, who were sometimes uneasy at the prospect of women working on their land – citing concerns that they weren’t as physically strong and might distract male labourers.
The WLA was initially a voluntary organisation. Yet it wasn’t long before it came under the jurisdiction of the National Service Act. And that meant that single women between 20 and 30 years old (although this age range was later increased) and widows without children were directed to work in industry, agriculture or the armed forces.
They came from all walks of life, with huge numbers leaving the towns and cities to work on the land for the very first time. Many relished the experience. Others’ experiences were marred by homesickness and conflict with locals. Pay was low and the work tough and unrelenting. And nor, initially, did the land girls get the recognition they deserved. In fact, it wasn’t until December 2007 – following prolonged campaigning – that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs formally recognised the land girls’ contribution to Britain’s wartime survival by presenting a commemorative badge to 45,000 surviving members.
In his book Agriculture (part of The History of the Second World War series), published in 1955, the academic Sir Keith Murray hailed the wartime transition from pasture to arable farming as “an unqualified success story”. He eulogised over the “crusading enthusiasm to bring about a renaissance in British farming” that had resulted from “the progressive tenant farmers and farming land-owners on the committees”.
More recent research has suggested that wartime relations between the government and the agricultural community weren’t quite as harmonious as Murray would have had his readers believe – and, since the late 1990s, a number of cases have come to light of officialdom castigating tenant farmers for failing to toe the line.
Yet, for all that, Britain’s wartime agricultural revolution constitutes a remarkable achievement. By 1944, 90 per cent more wheat, 87 per cent more potatoes and 45 per cent more vegetables were being produced on British farms than they were before the war. In a conflict as all-consuming as the Second World War, that was potentially the difference between starvation and survival.
In the teeth of a crisis
The wartime food production drive also provided Britain with a number of salutary lessons to be applied long after the end of the conflict. One of these lessons was the need for the state to establish a long-term commit- ment to supporting agriculture not only in the teeth of a national crisis, but also during times of peace. To that end, the landmark 1947 Agriculture Act gave farmers an assured market and guaranteed prices for their produce. It also placed agriculture on more of a business footing, based on a modern agricultural revolution that encouraged the adoption of more productive scientific methods of farming.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of this approach on British agriculture – in both economic and ecological terms. On the positive side of the ledger, between 1950 and 1990 agricultural productivity doubled in Great Britain. However, much of this rise was driven by the application of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides to our farmland. That the postwar modernisation of farming has adversely affected flora and fauna diversity is surely beyond doubt.
For good or bad, the agricultural revolu- tion has transformed farming in Great Britain over the past eight decades – and that, to a very large extent, can be traced back to the spectre of starvation that stalked the nation during the Second World War.
Spuds, pies and inner tubes: 7 seven foodstuffs found on the wartime plate
1. Something fishy
The wartime shortage of meat and fish encouraged the Ministry of Food to popularise alternatives such as whale meat and snoek piquant (snook) imported from South Africa. Newspapers and radio broadcasts provided instructions on how to prepare and cook these fish. Yet not everyone was sold on their benefits. One commentator claimed that whale meat was rather like trying to eat the inner tube of a car tyre.
2. The superstar vegetable
The Ministry of Food spent much of the war encouraging the population to eat more carrots – chiefly because they were particularly suited to gardens and allotments. In fact, government officials were so enamoured of the vegetables that they even suggested that children should eat them instead of lollies.
The idea that carrots improve your eyesight largely has its roots in a Second World War propaganda campaign. During the war the Royal Air Force employed radar, which helped pilots shoot down German enemy planes at night. However, the pilots’ success was officially attributed to them eating large numbers of carrots.
3. Pie minister
In the early 1940s, Britons began to tuck into a pastry dish of vegetables that had apparently first been served up in London’s Savoy Hotel. That dish is known as the Woolton Pie, due to the fact that it was popularised by Frederick Marquis, 1st Lord Woolton, who served as Minister of Food from 1940–43.
The Woolton Pie contained very little fat, sugar and meat, due to war-time rationing. But cooks worked wonders in compensating for short- ages. Some even added a handful of stinging nettles or dandelions to the pie to pep up its flavour.
4. The daily mush
Bread wasn’t rationed during the Second World War, but the composition of the loaf did change – and, in the eyes of many Britons, not for the better. In 1942, in order to combat the shortages of white flour made from imported hard grained wheats, the Fed- eration of Bakers unveiled the National Loaf. This was similar to brown bread and contained added calcium and vitamins. But that didn’t save it from being labelled as mushy and unappetising.The war also saw the Ministry of Food attempting to popularise the idea that eating crusts made your hair curl.
5. Declaring war on fatigue
The potato was another vegetable beloved of the Ministry of Food during the Second World War – for the dual reasons that it wasn’t rationed and it contained vitamin C, which helps prevent fatigue and fight infection.
The ministry invented cartoon characters such as “Potato Pete” to bang the drum for the trusty spud, accompanied by a series of recipe books detailing the best ways to consume them.
6. Powder problems
The government and the population at large had to agree to disagree when it came to powdered eggs (or dried eggs, as they were known colloquially). The authorities championed them as an ideal substitute for fresh eggs, which were subject to rationing restrictions. Britons, however, widely turned their noses up at them. The official response to these criticisms was that powdered eggs were the same as fresh eggs and that the consumer was simply mixing the powder incorrectly.
7. A mock Christmas
There was a turkey-shaped hole in the traditional Christmas meal throughout the Second World War. A shortage of the domesticated bird led the Ministry of Food to come up with the idea of promoting the Murkey (mock turkey) in a bid to boost morale. The Murkey was a piece of breast meat from a sheep, reshaped by the butcher to look like a turkey and garnished accordingly. There was a problem, however: it still tasted like mutton – and was widely regarded as a poor imitation of the real thing.
John Martin is a visiting professor of agrarian history at the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading University
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine