Of the 57 nations that took part in the Second World War. Britain and the British Commonwealth fought from start to finish.
The war began for Britain on a note of weary resignation, unlike 1914 when the country went to war with flags waving and bands playing.There was a note of relief that the illusions of the appeasement were at last over, coloured by a genuine fear that the country would soon be blanketed with poison gas and mass casualties from bombing, but the machinery of war for a population under siege was ready.Conscription and a register of reserved occupations had been introduced shortly before the out break of war.The Munich crisis had been a signal for the digging of air raid shelters, the issue of gas masks and a militarization of the country.
When war came on the 3rd of September 1939, the plans were already in action "Operation Pied Piper"(which started on the 30th August). Dealt with the evacuation of children, and one and half million were moved under the official scheme, in a matter of days.By January 1940, when the bombs had failed to materialise half of these official evacuees had returned home while at least two million other children were unofficially dispersed.Some children were sent to Canada and South Africa until the sinking of an evacuee ship tragically ended this privileged form of flight to safety. (for more information on evacuees go to the evacuee reunion association)
The blackout was also introduced right at the beginning, plunging British cities into inky darkness.Heavy curtains hid lit interiors, street lighting was extinguished and motor vehicles groped about with pencil thin screened headlight beams.Gas masks were issued to everyone including children and babies and it was obligatory to carry them.Gas attacks were however never made.The period of the phoney war ended in April 1940 when the Germans struck north into Scandinavia.
On 10th May Chamberlain’s Conservative Government gave way to a Coalition Government (headed by Winston Churchill) which took office as the panzers drove into France.One of the Government’s first acts was to pass an extended Emergency Powers (Defence) Act giving them sweeping powers to sequester property, censor the media and the mails, and order the lives of individuals in service of the war effort.
The new mood of reality matched the hour, France fell and the British Expeditionary Force came back beaten from Dunkirk, but at least they came back – along with a ragbag of Dutch, French, Czechs, Poles, Norwegians and Danes - governments in exile with remnants of their armies now wearing British battledress along with the rest.The whole nation it seemed was in uniform.
With the threat of invasion imminent and especially the threat of a descent by parachutists, in May 1940 Local Defence Volunteers were called on.At first a motley collection of old men and boys armed with pikes and rook rifles later the name changed to Home Guard.In July a well armed militia taught at least the basics of street fighting and tank hunting.Service in the Home Guard gave many citizens a sense of really being in the war effort and of direct defiance to Hitler, as did service in other paramilitary volunteer organizations that proliferated such as the ARP (AIR Raid Precautions), later renamed Civil Defence, the Auxiliary Fire Service, the Women’s Voluntary Service, and so on.
The military aspects of the first German air offensive against Britain are covered below.Although the BLITZ was designed as a military softening up before invasion and as an extension of the U-Boat campaign by attacks on ports, a key target was the British people’s morale.How close did it get to succeeding?
BATTLE OF BRITAIN.
The triumph in France brought German airpower to the Channel coast.The bulk of the British Army might have been snatchedfrom the Dunkirk beaches but if the bedraggled infantryhad kept their rifles, they had left behind their tanks and heavy equipment.
The R.A.F. had lost almost a thousand aircraft in France, 477 of them fighters.The German’s, however had no readymade plan to invade immediately and when Hitler came up with a plan in July for the invasion of England. (Operation Sealion) time was already running out.But with the Royal Navy still intact and the Kriegsmarine unable to challenge it directly, the invasion would require complete air superiority the R.A.F. would be the first target.
Through July harassing raids were made on British coastal targets and channel shipping in an attempt to bring the R.A.F. up to battle while landing craft and barges were assembled and an invasion force put together.
By August Goerring had gathered 2,800 aircraft, 900 fighters and 1,300 bombers grouped in 3 Air Fleets.Kesselrings Luftflotte II based in northern France and Sperrle’s Luftflotte IV based in Norway.Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding’s command could put up 650 fighters in 52 Squadrons, 60 per cent of them being Hawker Hurricanes.
From 8 to 18 August the Luftwaffe mounted large scale raids on the airfields of the R.AF front line groups Nos 11 and 12.On 15th August, grandly dubbed by Goerring - Adlertag (or Eagle Day) the Luftwaffe mounted more than 1,790 sorties in five major attacks on targets extending in a 500 mile arc from Newcastle toWeymouth, we lost 25 to 34 R.A.F. aircraft in the process.In spite of continued attacks, the defenders enjoyed the advantage ofradar plus a gleaning of enemy intentions from ultra intelligence, and were thus able to concentrate our airmen to meet the attacks.Also significant was the fact that lightly damaged machines and especially pilots fell on friendly territory and could be put back into the battle.
On 24th August the Luftwaffe switched to attacks on inland R.A.F. fighter sector stations.
By the end of the month the defence was close to cracking – the wastage both of aircraft and pilots was simply outstripping replacements.If the attacks on Fighter Command went on, the R.A.F. would go down fighting but they would go down just the same, numbers would decide the issue.
On 25th and 26th August R.A.F. bombers had made a feeble night raid on Berlin, repeating the attack on the night of 6th September.In a rage Hitler ordered the attack switched from Fighter Command airfields and control centres to London itself, a huge target but at least a single one on which the R.A.F. could concentrate its defence.
Daylight raids on the capital continued to the end of September but the toll on the bombers was heavy. Bomber Command struck back with a raid on barges and lighters massed for a seaborne invasion and on the 17th Hitler decided to postpone Sealion indefinitely.The last daylight raid was on 30th September, from which time German bombers switched to the night blitz on British cities.In the month from 13th August to 15th September the Luftwaffe lost 1,216 aircraft to the R.A.F. 688, from 1st July to 31st October the Luftwaffe lost 2,848 aircraft to the R.A.F. 1,446 to all causes. For each R.A.F. aircraft actually shot down in combat, the Luftwaffe lost one and a half.
THE NIGHT BLITZ ON BRITAIN.
With Sealion postponed, the Luftwaffe abandoned its attempt to destroy Fighter Command and switched to night attacks on British cities and production centres. London was the prime target and between 7th September and 13th November 1940 there were raids virtually every night.
The devastating attack on Coventry on 14th November marked a change of policy from pounding the political target of the capital to long-term strategic attacks on provincial industrial centres, and particularly ports, as an extension of the U-Boat blockade.The bomber aircraft of Luftflotte s II and III were primarily HE 111s DO 217s and Ju 88s, each with comparatively light bomb loads, using the direction finding device called Knickebein (crooked leg) and later a more sophisticated device called X-Gerat fitted in special path finding aircraft to find their critical targets in the dark.
By early 1941 the R.A.F. were putting up in defence hastily adapted night fighter aircraft with primitive airborne intercept (A-I) radar.
In the early spring of 1941 the Luftwaffe began a new campaign.Between 19th February and 12th May it made 61 attacks, the majority against ports including London.In two raids on the 16th and 19th April, well over 2,000 people were killed and 140,000 dwellings destroyed.However, as these furious attacks were reaching a climax the Luftwaffe’s bomber Gruppen were pulling out heading eastwards under a cloak of secrecy to support another vast Blitzkrieg.By 21st May of the 44 bomber groups that had conducted the blitz on Britain, only four were left.
In nine months from 7th September 1940 to the end of May 1941 the Luftwaffe dropped some 46,000 tons of high explosive and 110,000 incendiaries a total of 54,420 tons of bombs.
British casualties amounted to over 40,000 civilian dead, 86,000 seriously injured and 150,000 slightly injured.
Two million houses had been destroyed or damaged, 60 per cent of them in London.British industrial production and tonnage moving through the ports was not however seriously affected and internal communications were not disrupted.
When an area was severely bombed for the first time, morale took a dive but the dire war predications of mass slaughter were not borne out.After the first shock, morale knitted people together and the routine of the air raid warning - KEEP calm and carry on was the propaganda message - but in a sense it was true.A Home Office memorandum of October 1940 judged the effects of the raids to be transient.London people lost much sleep and suffered anxiety and discomfort but there was no panic and no mass evacuation it reported.
In fact in the first years of the war the most serious threat to Britain’s survival was not air bombardment but the U-Boat campaign which, if successful, would subject the country to slow starvation.Rationing began in January 1940, bacon, sugar, and butter.Through 1940-41 the number of basic foods on rations increased, meat in March, tea in July, margarine and fats, jam and marmalade in March 1941 and cheese in May.Overall however rationing worked, food was monotonous but it was there while the points system introduced in December 1941 allowed exotic, foods such as rice or canned fruit which had an arbitrary points rating attached at least to be had if infrequently.Under the scheme each ration book holder had 16 points to spend as they wished at any shop which had the items they wanted.
The Ministry of Food provided well meaning nutritious menus and exhortations to try for substitute dishes such as the famous Woolton pie and carrot tart while pressing American Spam or whale meat on a suspicious public.Whale meat was the one item the British public could not stomach.The gravest shortages were of imported fruit such as bananas or oranges, supplies of which simply dried up, and of eggs because chickens had been slaughtered either to eat or because there was no food to feed them.The average was one egg a fortnight with none at all for long periods.From June 1942 dried eggs began to appear, again greeted with suspicion but remorselessly pushed by the Ministry of Food.Milk distribution was controlled from November 1941, with every family allowed a tin of dried milk once a month.Full cream National Dried Milk was available for infants, who overall, got a level of care unheard of in the years of the depression.
The Second World War was the first in which the electronic media played a part.The BBC had a fledgling television service which was shut down on 1st September 1939, but the wireless was both the most important influence on morale and the most important channel for government information.On the outbreak of war the BCC was geared to broadcast dour news bulletins interspersed with solemn music but this just frightened people.What they wanted most was entertainment, it was the same with sports and leisure facilities such as dance halls and cinemas which, after initial restrictions were reopened and enjoyed record patronage.The wireless was the focus of the nation in crisis; used in a masterly and inspiring way by Churchill and the nightly news was listened to in silent reverence.It was also the disseminator of (censored) mass entertainment.The comedy ITMA (Its That Man Again) starring Tommy Handley was a phenomenon on its own, made up of catch phrases which may seem indecipherable to another generation, but “Can I do you now sir”, (the refrain of Mrs Mopp), “Dis is Funt” (Funt was the German spy) “Ta Ta for Now” and “I Don’t Mind If I do”, (Colonel Chinstraps reaction to any offer of alcohol) entered the public imagination as much as Churchill exhortation to fight them on the landing grounds.
Politics did not sleep through the years of emergency power control.Parliament remained in session, bi–elections were fought and after the invasion of the Soviet Union, the far left embraced the war wholeheartedly (the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker, was shut down for a time in 1941).The Labour Party consolidated its position from within the Coalition Government with Clement Attlee as Deputy Prime Minister and Ernest Bevin as Employment Secretary.From 1942 all young men of eighteen called up were either in the forces or sent down the mines it became a matter of ballot.In all 45,000 Bevin Boys as they were known, went down the mines.
The war years were marked by a political questioning of the economic abuses of the 1930’s and the promise shown by wartime central direction, egalitarianism and state welfare.The Beveridge report of December 1942 on the future of the states social responsibilities insisted that organisation of social insurance should be treated as one part of a comprehensive policy of social progress, while the Butler Education Act of 1944 ensured for the first time that secondary education would be received by all children.
Peoples’ memories were long and patience short.In spite of Churchill’s enormous prestige as war leader, when Britain went to the polls in July 1945, the Labour Party won with a big majority.They seemed to promise the radical change for which the war had created a demand, not just among traditional working class voters but among the middle class.The peoples’ war it seemed to some could be turned to peoples’ peace.