Britain started to prepare for the Second World War at least a year before it actually started.
In 1938, the government began to build new warships and increase its armaments. However, this war would not just involve soldiers. The government expected the war to disrupt and threaten the lives of civilians left at home. This happened in a variety of different ways, from cutting down railings to be melted down and used in munitions factories, to rationing and evacuation plans.
Between 1938 and 1939, the government thought of all the possible dangers and difficulties the Home Front would face during war, and started to take precautions. People were needed on the home front to help with all sorts of things. They were encouraged to plant vegetables on any spare land they had to supplement the rationing, but people were also recruited into a variety of essential positions such as Air Raid Wardens and the Home Guard. People were also encouraged to think about their safety, and the government spent a great deal of time educating people on what to do in situations such as an air raid, or a gas attack, as well as providing information on how to make rations stretch further and how to keep yourself healthy.
Evacuation plans had been in preparation well before the outbreak of war. Small-scale evacuation of women and children were carried out in September 1938 but the real evacuation began in September 1939. The government had planned to evacuate about three million people but in the end only one million left home. A few hours after the war was declared on 3 September 1939, almost all of them had been evacuated from the danger areas to the reception areas.
The biggest danger came from air raids. Air raids meant both danger and disruption. 60,595 civilians died as a result of enemy action in the UK. Homes, workplaces and public buildings were destroyed. Streets were subject to the ‘blackout’ – lighting restrictions – and the ban on street lighting caused a huge rise in car accidents. Volunteers were needed to be trained in civil defence duties. These included fire-fighting, first aid and ambulance driving.
Civilians were instructed in how to protect themselves against poison gas attacks and issued with gas masks, which they were encouraged to carry on all journeys. Fortunately, poison gas was never used as a weapon in Britain. They were also given materials to build air raid shelters in the backyards. Strong buildings were also prepared for use as air raid shelters.
The working lives of most of the adult population changed with the outbreak of war. To fight the war, men aged between 18 and 41 were needed in the navy and army. This would take them away from their jobs in factories and farms. To fill the shortage, women were recruited for jobs previously done by men. Women worked in the factories, constructing weapons and many others joined the Land Army to work on farms.
Much of the food, clothes and fuel which Britain needed came from abroad. The war disrupted and prevented these supplies from arriving. This meant shortages of the essentials to keep life going. In 1940, rationing was introduced in Britain. The ration book became indispensable for every man, woman and child, ensuring a fair distribution of what meagre essentials were available. The government also tried to encourage people to grow food on every available piece of land.
Another danger was from invasion. When in 1940 the Channel Isles fell into German hands and it looked as though the RAF was loosing the Battle of Britain, the government called on volunteers to join the Home Guard – Dad’s Army – to help defend Britain from attack.
This lesson asks pupils to develop their understanding of the war on the Home Front from their basic understanding. Through primary source analysis it examines how those involved on the Home Front were encouraged to deal with the war and the problems that shortages and uncertainty created.
Pupils investigate the organisation and bureaucracy behind the ARP system, before looking at details of how individuals were advised to take precautions. This lesson helps pupils understand the attitude to the war on the Home Front, as well as developing their ability to use source evidence to question and challenge existing beliefs.
This lesson can form part of studies for Key stage 1 and 2 Scheme of Work Unit 9 and Key stage 3 Scheme of Work Unit 18. In addition, it offers coverage of National Curriculum requirements for History in England, relating to general requirements of knowledge and understanding of events, people and changes in the past, together with breadth of study requirements to study significant events and developments from across the 20th century. Similarly there are clear links to citizenship and PSHE issues that can be explored further with teacher development.
Illustration : INF 3/96 – Dig on for Victory Poster
Source 1 : INF 3/98 – Dig for Plenty Poster
Source 2 : INF 13/171 – Don’t Do It Mother Poster
Source 3 A, B & C : HO 186/2247 – Gas Raid Quiz and Gas Mask Leaflets
Source 4 : INF 3/400 – Just a Good Afternoons Work poster
Source 5 A : HO 186/2247 – ARP Notice
Source 5 B : ZPER 34 – Air Raid house picture from the Illustrated London News, 1938
Source 6 : WO 199/94 – Conversation between Mr Celave & Capt. Denaro regarding beach mines
Source 7 : INF 3/232 – Be Careful what you say poster
West Indies Calling (1944)
Film about the contribution of West Indians to the war at home and abroad.
Films from the Home Front
A collection of moving images showing what life was like for ordinary people in Britain during World War II.
Children of World War II
Find out what life was like for children in the Second World War.