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When war broke out in September 1939, the British government expected that the effects on life in Britain would be very serious. Throughout the 1930s there had been many predictions about the effects that bombing would have on cities. In May 1937 there was newsreel film of the attack by the Condor Legion on the Spanish city of Guernica. So it was believed that bombing would cause massive destruction and loss of life.

How did the people of Britain defend themselves against German attacks?

What effects did bombing have on Britain?

What effects did rationing and evacuation have on people in Britain?


 
How did the people of Britain defend themselves against German attacks?
 
  The British Government had already carried out evacuation procedures and other preparations in September 1938 at the time of the Munich Crisis. In 1939, therefore, it was fully prepared. 38,000,000 gas masks, 1,250,000 cardboard coffins and 400,000 Anderson shelters had been produced to try to prepare for the effects of bombing.

Immediately war began many regulations and restrictions came into force. It became an offence not to carry your gas mask at all times; cars had to be immobilised; blackout regulations were enforced. 1,250,000 people were evacuated.

However, for seven months very little happened and people began to relax. Many children returned home and the period became known as the "phoney war". This came to an end in April 1940 when Hitler invaded Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France. Within a matter of weeks the British Army in France was cut off at Dunkirk and had to be rescued. By the end of June 1940, Britain was facing Germany alone and seemed likely to be invaded at any moment. The army had lost most of its equipment at Dunkirk and the men who had been conscripted in 1939 and 1940 were not yet ready for action.

If Hitler had been able to invade in 1940, there would have been very little that could have been done. Why he failed is explained in the article on Axis Success.

In the summer of 1940 the government tried to do all it could to prevent an invasion:
The Local Defence Volunteers were set up, later to be called the Home Guard. These were men who were too old to serve in the army or who were in "reserved occupations". They trained every week, but would not have been able to defeat the German Army.
Children were sent out to collect foliage for camouflage and people were asked to hand in scrap metal so that it could be used for planes for the RAF. These were really attempts to keep morale up and to make people believe that they were doing something to help.
The south coast was quickly fortified. Machine-gun posts were built in medieval castles. Signposts and the names of railway stations were removed so that German forces would not know where they were. Church bells were kept silent. They would only be rung in the event of an invasion.
Much more important was the line of radar stations that had been built since 1937 along the east and south coasts. These warned the RAF when attacks were coming in the summer and autumn of 1940. In addition thousands of volunteers worked in the Observer Corps, identifying and counting German planes as they flew over.

In September 1940, after Hitler had given up trying to invade Britain, the Blitz began. This was a period of heavy bombing of British cities by night. London was bombed for fifty-three nights in a row.
A blackout had been enforced in 1939. All lights had to be hidden at night. Windows were taped to prevent people being injured by flying glass.
Anderson air-raid shelters were distributed. These were dug into the garden and covered with earth. They were designed to protect people against falling brickwork if the houses were bombed.
All houses had to have a safe room, usually in a cellar or on the ground floor, where people could sleep during a raid if there was no shelter. Some people slept in a Morrison shelter, a steel cage that fitted under a dining table.
Air Raid Precaution Wardens were appointed for every street. They had the job of checking everybody's house. They had to be told how many people were sleeping in each house each night. Other volunteers manned the Auxiliary Fire Service, the Civil Defence or the Women's Voluntary Service, which looked after casualties, or worked as fire-watchers to put out incendiary bombs.

In 1944 and 1945 Britain was attacked from the air once again.
The first attacks came from pilotless rocket planes called V1s. Each rocket carried about one tonne of explosive and when it ran out of fuel it fell to the ground and exploded. At first there was little that could be done about these, but eventually many of the anti-aircraft guns around London were moved down to the south coast and used to shoot down the rockets as they came over.
V2s were a much more serious threat. They were real rockets that were fired from sites in Holland. They could not be shot down and there was no defence against them. The attacks were only stopped when the launch sites were overrun in 1945.
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What effects did bombing have on Britain?
 

 
  The Blitz was the name given to the prolonged period of bombing of British cities, which began in September 1940 and lasted until November. The worst affected city was London, where 13,000 people were killed in 1940. In the rest of Britain 10,000 people were killed. Coventry was hit by a very heavy raid in November 1940, which destroyed the centre of the city and killed about 500 people. Belfast was not bombed until April 1941, when the "Belfast Blitz" killed nearly one thousand people.
The Blitz began after Hitler gave up his attempt to invade Britain in September 1940; this had been called "Operation Sealion". He was trying to force Britain to surrender. The Blitz was really intended to break the morale of the British people. If they saw their homes being destroyed and their loved ones being killed, Hitler believed that they would force the government to come to terms with him.
The Blitz was also an attempt to destroy industry. In London the docks were attacked regularly and this meant that people living in the East End were often bombed. The Luftwaffe, the German airforce, also tried to hit railway lines and junctions.

At the time the government would only allow stories to be published in newspapers which said how well the British people were coping. "Britain can take it" was one slogan. This was an example of propaganda.

In fact there are many examples of people being very near to total despair in the winter of 1941. The Blitz had much more devastating effects than the government was prepared to admit:
In October 1940 Balham underground station was hit by a bomb that burst a water main. Sixty-four people drowned. This story was never released until after the war, because many people sheltered from air raids in underground stations. If they had found out what had happened there might well have been panic.

Overall bombing had very little effect on the war effort. Most factories recovered from the effects of an air raid in two to three days and the total loss of life from air raids was about 60,000. This was far less than had been expected at the beginning of the war.
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What effects did rationing and evacuation have on people in Britain?
 

 
  Rationing was introduced in January 1940 and was gradually extended during the war. Food was the main item, but petrol, clothing and furniture were also rationed.

Rationing had two aims:
  1. To make the supplies of food go as far as possible. This was very important because Britain was not producing enough food to feed the population in 1939.
  2. To make sure that the people who needed food really got it. A council was set up to work out how much nutrition different people needed. Children and pregnant mothers received more.
The foods that were rationed were meat, fats, cheese, butter, eggs and sweets. Bread, potatoes and vegetables were never rationed. Milk was rationed, but at a high level. Rationing led to an improvement in people's health as they could not eat fatty foods and had to eat more vegetables, potatoes and bread. However, most people found it boring and it had a serious effect on morale. Often it was the housewife who had to try to find ways of coming up with new ways of cooking the same limited range of foods.

Many children were evacuated from city centres; some of the families they went to were very surprised at their state of health. In 1941 there was a series of articles published by the Women's Institute describing the health, clothing and manners of many children from city centres. These effects made many realise that something should and could be done to improve the lives of the people of Britain when the war ended.

So in 1941 the government asked Sir William Beveridge to lead a commission of inquiry to find out what could be done. It was Beveridge's report in 1942 which led to the creation of the Welfare State.

Both Rationing and Evacuation affected women much more than men. It was the housewife who had to cope with them. Sir Winston Churchill stated that it was the housewives of Britain who enabled the country to survive Hitler's attempts to force surrender.

 

 

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