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Where history happened: life on the home front

In light of a new BBC series, Wartime Farm, historian Juliet Gardiner explores what life on the home front was like during the Second World War and examines nine related places

A British waitress serves American servicemen inside Rainbow Corner, Piccadilly, January 1945. (Getty Images)
Published: September 7, 2012 at 4:24 pm
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This article was first published in the September 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 


The home front was more than just a description of life in Britain during the Second World War, it was a call to action. And, as Churchill recognised, the war could be lost as easily here as on the battlefield. The forces needed to be supplied with food, armaments, equipment, ships and planes, and the civilian population had to become part of the war machine in order to produce them.

A massive, sustained war production effort was essential, and that involved morale too. If people were terrified by air raids, they might flee the cities and refuse to return to work; if widespread panic broke out, there might be calls to surrender to Nazi Germany.

It was this thinking that partly informed the government’s initial refusal to let Londoners shelter down the tube during the Blitz, which raged from September 1940 to May 1941. Tube trains needed to be kept running, but there was also concern that those sheltering there would refuse to come up once the bombing stopped.

While the home front was a place of regulation, shortages and restrictions for six long years, considerable effort was put into monitoring people’s morale all over Britain, particularly after heavy bombing raids.

The East End of London, Merseyside, Clydeside, Southampton, Plymouth, Hull and Swansea were among the many places that were blitzed, or that suffered ‘tip ‘n’ run’ raids, where one or two enemy planes dropped their bombs on a selected town and escaped before they could be intercepted.

In the so-called Baedeker raids in April and June 1942, the Luftwaffe deliberately targeted strategically unimportant, but picturesque cities in England in revenge for an Allied attack on the city of Lübeck in northern Germany. The targets were reputedly selected from the German Baedeker tourist guide to Britain, and included Bath, Exeter, Canterbury and Norwich.

Even before Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, the impact was felt in every corner of the land. Gas masks were issued to the entire population – though soon few people bothered to carry them. The expectation that bombs would fall straight away, resulting in large numbers of dead and wounded, meant that the call went out to ‘Get the children away’ from towns and cities in the danger zones.

From 1–3 September 1939, some 1.9 million children were evacuated under the government scheme, either with their schools, or their mothers or carers if they were under school age, to ‘safe’ or ‘reception areas’ in the countryside or by the sea. Thousands more families made arrangements with friends or relations in the country or overseas. During the so-called ‘phoney war’, when bombs failed to materialise with the ferocity expected, there was a gradual drift back home – some 60 per cent of evacuees had returned home by January 1940, although there were further exoduses when the Blitz started, and with the arrival of the V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets in June 1944.

It wasn’t only the air raids that caused death and injury. The introduction of the blackout on 1 September 1939, with draconian penalties for disregard, resulted in a 100 per cent increase in accidents on the roads compared to the same period the previous year. The pitch black streets made venturing out hazardous, and staying at home gloomy.

Near nightly bombing raids from September 1940 made the British seek shelter either at home, in public shelters or anywhere they could find that felt safe from the Luftwaffe’s attacks. Night after night of disturbed sleep took a heavy toll, leaving people exhausted, and ill-equipped to struggle through the debris, and disrupted transport services into work the next day.

And there wasn’t much joy to be had at the dinner table either. Food rationing came into effect in January 1940 followed by clothes rationing in June 1941. Although no one went seriously hungry, the wartime diet grew increasingly monotonous and was tough on housewives. The Ministry of Food’s recipes were broadcast by the BBC Kitchen Front programme every morning, but people could only buy whatever happened to be in the shops.

The Women’s Land Army helped grow food for the nation. (The National Archives/SSPL/Getty Images)
The Women’s Land Army helped grow food for the nation. (The National Archives/SSPL/Getty Images)

Some women worked part-time in munitions or aircraft factories, or signed up as Air Raid Precaution wardens, members of the Women’s Voluntary Service or as fire watchers looking out for incendiary bombs. Unmarried women were either conscripted into the Forces or directed into war production, while others volunteered to work on the land, toiling around the clock to dig up arable land for cereal crops to feed the nation.

Britain’s island status put the country at risk from a U-boat blockade of food and supplies coming across the Atlantic, so householders did their bit to keep their families fed, by planting vegetables instead of flowers.

Britain was transformed by the Second World War. The country might have been grieving, in ruins, shabby and deeply in debt by 1945, but the people were also resolute that the sacrifices of war must be rewarded by a more equitable peace – for all.

9 related places


Bridge of Waithe, Orkney Islands

Where the war claimed its first civilian death in Britain

On 16 March 1940, James Isbister, a 27-year-old labourer, became the first civilian to be killed by a bomb dropped on Britain in the Second World War. Isbister had been standing in the doorway of his croft in the Bridge of Waithe, a remote hamlet on Orkney, “when planes roared over the district and bombs began falling”. It is thought that in the failing light, the Luftwaffe, returning from a mission to Norway, mistook the hamlet for an airfield.

The Orkney Islands might be remote but they were on the frontline of the war. Scapa Flow is a treacherous stretch of water that, in Winston Churchill’s words, provided “the true strategic point from which the British Navy can control the exits from the North Sea and enforce the blockade”. The Islands were soon crammed with military personnel – including women from the Women’s Royal Naval Service and the Auxiliary Territorial Service.

After a German U-boat managed to slip under the barriers of the Scapa Flow and blow up the battleship Royal Oak, killing 833 men, Italian prisoners of war were sent to the islands to build ‘Churchill barriers’ to protect Scapa Flow, and a causeway to link the islands.

Italian PoWs, led by Signor Domenico Chiocchetti, transformed a Nissen hut at Lamb Holm, Orkney, into a beautifully decorated, and now restored, chapel, which can still be seen today. James Isbister is buried in Kirkwall (St Olaf’s) cemetery.



Eastbourne Pier, East Sussex

Where machine guns were positioned to protect Britain’s coastline

On 20 July 1940 Hitler issued directive number 16, Preparations for the Invasion of Britain: Operation Sealion. The fall of France and the Low Countries meant Britain’s defences needed to be reconfigured.

The most vulnerable areas were along the south and east coasts facing occupied Europe. Emergency coastal batteries, often equipped with guns taken from First World War battleships, were constructed to protect ports and likely landing places. Beaches were made impenetrable with huge coils of barbed wire and reinforced with minefields and anti-tank barriers.

The Victorian pier in Eastbourne had part of its decking removed and its theatre provided a perfect site for machine guns, ready to repel any attempted enemy landings. An anti-aircraft gun was sited midway along the length. In December 1942, an exploding mine damaged the pier and some nearby hotels.

This pier escaped lightly, however. When peace returned, it got its boardwalk back and it remains a popular visitor attraction. Most piers on these coasts were ‘sectioned’, that is, part of the structure was blown up so it would be impossible for invading troops to climb ashore. Felixstowe’s pier was a fraction of its original length when it reopened after the war. Southend’s long pier was another that was fortified with guns and pillboxes, but survived intact.



Abney Park Blitz Memorial, Stoke Newington, London

Where a memorial to local bomb victims was created

According to the Daily Express journalist Hilde Marchant, an “incident” (which is how bombing raids were described) in Stoke Newington was the “greatest bombing tragedy of the whole of London”.

The siren sounded at around 8pm on 13 October 1940 and most of the residents of Coronation Avenue, a 19th-century block of flats, clambered down to the basement. where they were joined by a number of passers-by – the basement had been designated ‘Public Shelter number 5’ and was open to all-comers.

A heavy bomb fell in the centre of the building, penetrating five floors and detonating in the basement. The floor caved in, choking smoke filled the air, and those not killed by falling masonry found the exits blocked by rubble. Effluence and water poured from the ruptured sewage, water and gas pipes, drowning or suffocating many who had survived the initial impact. It took more than a week to excavate: 154 were killed and 26 bodies were never identified.

A large number of Jewish people were killed, many of whom had fled from Nazi Germany or Austria. Most were buried in their own burial grounds, while others were laid to rest in Abney Park cemetery, which had long been the final resting place for a number of radicals.

The Blitz Memorial sits in the Abney Park Trust memorial park and woodland nature reserve.



Senate House, Bloomsbury, London

Where some of Britain’s most creative communicators once gathered 

When Senate House, the administrative centre of the University of London in the heart of Bloomsbury, was completed in 1936, some described its design as “brutalist, Stalinist, and totalitarian”.

The concrete neo-classical building, at the time the second tallest in London after St Paul’s Cathedral, was the work of Charles Holden, architect of London’s most futuristic underground stations. It remains a forbidding structure today, with rows of blank windows, and must have seemed fit for purpose when the Ministry of Information (MoI) requisitioned it on the outbreak of the Second World War.

Reputed to house 999 (in fact 954) of Britain’s most creative communicators, including Graham Greene and John Betjeman, nevertheless, the MoI managed to get most things wrong until Churchill’s protégée Brendan Bracken took over as director in July 1941. The ‘Ministry of Disinformation’ began to become “efficient and unobtrusive”. Bracken dropped the infantile and patronising exhortations of the early days of the war, established good relations with the press and recognised that if the British public felt they were being kept in the picture about the progress of the war, even if the news was bad, they would in fact ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

The building is now home to the University of London’s Senate House Libraries.

020 7862 8500



Nottingham University, Sutton Bonington Campus Leicestershire

Where Women’s Land Army recruits received training before ‘digging for Britain’

Since Britain was a net importer of food before the war – 90 per cent of fats and cereals and around 50 per cent of meat came from abroad – it was an urgent priority to make the country as self sufficient as possible, as fast as possible. Farmers worked around the clock ploughing up grassland to grow wheat, oats, barley and potatoes to feed a hungry nation.

But since so many agricultural labourers had signed up for the forces, the Women’s Land Army (WLA) recruited some 80,000 unmarried women to fill the gaps.

At first farmers tended to be dubious that a ‘mere slip of a girl’ would be much use around the farm, but most grew to respect the ‘townies’ – half of whom came from London and the industrial north – who were prepared to don corduroy breeches and turn their hands to ploughing, harvesting, tending to livestock and catching rats in all weathers.

The Midland Agricultural and Dairy College at Kingston-on-Soar, Nottingham, was one of several agricultural colleges and farm institutes that provided a month’s training course plus 10 shillings a week pay for Women’s Land Army recruits, while other volunteers were trained on the job.

The college was based in the main building on the University of Nottingham’s Sutton Bonington Campus, south of the city on the Leicestershire/Nottinghamshire border. These days it houses the School of Biosciences.



Shaftesbury Ave, Central London

Where a ‘little island of America’ played host to US troops

Soon after the raid on Pearl Harbor, the first of what would eventually be more than 1.5 million US troops began to arrive in Britain in February 1942. However, US authorities were well aware that many of the GIs (Government Issue) were uneasy about being sent to help sort out a squabble among the European family.

To make the experience of being ‘over there’ less painful, the American Red Cross set up numerous ‘little islands of America’. PXs (the US equivalent of navy, army and air force institutes) sprang up wherever GIs were stationed, and clubs opened to give the men somewhere to spend their leave.

The most famous of these was Rainbow Corner, which was open 24 hours a day. Here GIs could get the sort of food they were used to – hamburgers, waffles, donuts, Coke – they could jitterbug, shoot craps (a gambling game played with two dice), play pool, and listen to music. They could also sleep off a hangover – acquired elsewhere, as Rainbow Corner was not licensed. Volunteers darned their socks or sewed on stripes – with a farthing underneath for good luck.

Rainbow Corner occupied premises on Shaftesbury Avenue in the West End.



St Luke’s Church, Liverpool Merseyside

Where a bombed-out building now hosts community events

In 1941, an article in the Architectural Review suggested that “the ruin… represents the apotheosis of the past… When [the Blitz] is over, a few of the wrecked buildings might well be left as permanent ruins not... as object lessons to future war mongers, or for any other moral purpose, but for the sake of the intensely evocative atmosphere common to all ruins, which gives them … their beauty. To posterity they will as effectively represent the dissolution of our prewar civilization as Fountains Abbey does the dissolution of the monasteries”.

After the war, several badly bombed towns and cities took up the article’s suggestion. Devastated churches such as St Luke’s, Liverpool, Holyrood in Southampton, Charles Church in Plymouth, Christ Church Greyfriars in the City of London, and others, were not rebuilt, but instead cleared of rubble and debris. The rampant buddleia and willow herb was hacked back to create peaceful gardens where today people can sit on wooden benches among flowers and bowers to contemplate what tranquillity peace can eventually bring to soothe the wounds of war.

St Luke’s in Liverpool was badly bombed in 1941, leaving only the clock tower intact. It is now used as a community space and a quiet refuge.



Monument to the Women of World War II, Whitehall, London

Where the role of women in the Second World War is celebrated

Almost every town or village throughout the United Kingdom has its war memorial dedicated to members of the armed forces killed in action. Memorials to the civilian dead are less common. There are plaques commemorating incidents in which non-military personnel were involved, and there are also several statues including one near St Paul’s Cathedral to ‘Heroes with Grimy Faces’, honouring the 1,027 firemen and more than 24 firewomen who were killed in the line of duty. Another, at Liverpool Street station, remembers the Jewish children fleeing from Nazi Germany and Austria with the Kindertransport.

In 2004 a memorial to the animals killed in action was unveiled. But it was not until July 2005 that a monument to the women of the Second World War was unveiled by the Queen and dedicated by Baroness Betty Boothroyd, then speaker of the House of Commons and a tireless campaigner for the cause.

The sombre bronze statue depicts 17 sets of clothing symbolising the hundreds of jobs that women undertook in the Second World War, including a nursing cape, a police overall and a welding mask.

The Animals’ Memorial is at Brook Gate, Park Lane, on the edge of Hyde Park, and the Monument to the Women of World War II is in Whitehall.



Chislehurst Caves, Kent

Where thousands sheltered from Blitz bombings

Finding a place to shelter during the Blitz was most people’s priority. The choice was an Anderson shelter in the garden, the cellar or under the stairs, while others sought refuge in designated public shelters, under railway arches or bridges, down the Underground – anywhere they felt safe. Others made use of railway tunnels, or natural caves hollowed out of the Dover cliffs, Reigate in Surrey, Nottingham and other places.

One of the most famous public shelters was Chislehurst Caves, a 22-mile series of tunnels used to quarry chalk. During the autumn of 1940, 12,000–15,000 Londoners made the trek to Kent every evening in special trains. At first conditions were primitive, with bare earth floors, candles, and a single cold water tap. But these gradually improved: electric light was installed, donkeys pulled away ash-can lavatories, the local council provided beds, and the Red Cross opened a medical centre, complete with an operating theatre. There were regular film shows; a dance hall and a piano for sing-songs. There were also church services on Sundays.

Guided tours of Chislehurst Caves are offered from Wednesday to Sunday, and every day during school and bank holidays.

020 8467 3264



Juliet Gardiner is the author of The Blitz: The British Under Attack (HarperPress, 2010). She recently appeared in the BBC One series Turn Back Time: The Family


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