S1 E2: Business as Usual
Throughout the war, cities were bombed and civilian populations on the home front were in grave danger. The UK was bombed during the blitz and suffered over 40,000 casualties- about half of them in London. The Nazis planned to demoralize the British and force them to surrender. Rather than be defeated and demoralized by the bombings, the British people rallied together and were more determined than ever to stand against the enemy threat. On the ruins of bombed out buildings, they raised the flag and posted signs declaring, "business as usual." Their spirit would not be broken.
Left: German planes over London on the first day of the sustained blitz, Sept. 7, 1940, © IWM (C 5424). Center: People sleeping on the crowded platform of Elephant and Castle tube station while taking shelter from German air raids during the London Blitz, © IWM (D 1568).
Right: Roof spotters scanning the horizon on the roof of a Fleet Street newspaper office during an air raid warning in London, © IWM (HU 86169).
Occupation: Channel Islands
In the English Channel, just off the coast of France, lie a group of "channel islands" organized as two separate self-governing bodies- the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey. These are English Crown dependencies, meaning that they are not only self-governed but also not a part of the UK, although the UK is responsible for the defense and international relations of the islands.
In June 1940, when invasion of the islands seemed imminent, the British government made the decision to withdraw the lieutenant governors and demilitarize the islands. The island governors were left to face the German occupation alone, the best they could. Most young men left to join Allied fighting forces and many others evacuated- over 13% of Jersey residents, and 40% of Guernsey residents.
Alderney, a three-square-mile island in the Bailiwick of Guernsey, evacuated practically all of its 1,500 residents before the Germans invaded. The Nazis constructed 2 concentration camps and 2 work camps on the island and approximately 700 camp inmates died there.
For the islanders who stayed behind, German occupation proved extremely difficult and in some cases, deadly. Over 2,000 people were deported and some jews were sent to concentration camps. Acts of resistance were also punished and especially by the end of the war, food shortages became so severe, the islanders were on the verge of starvation. Red Cross parcels finally arrived to assist the starving people in December 1944.
With nowhere to go, and under the scrutiny of their occupiers, islanders couldn't speak freely, had to keep a curfew and were almost always short on food. However, in interviews with islanders after the occupation, many believed their occupation was much less severe than that of France or Holland. The Attorney General of Guernsey referred to it as "the model occupation" and did what they could to live at peace with the Germans. Some islanders were able to live at peace with their occupiers, viewing them as ordinary soldiers- young men who wanted to go back home and for the war to be over as much as they did.
I didn't learn about this small chapter of WWII in school and I was so interested by this topic when I stumbled on it a few years ago. The six-episode television series, Island at War, provides interesting insight into the dynamics of the occupation and can be watched on Amazon Prime. Also, the 2018 movie, Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, is a heartwarming look into the life of a group of friends who endured the ups and down of occupation. I recommend checking out both if you are interested in learning more.
Also, stay tuned for an upcoming podcast when I will talk about the French occupation and a woman-led resistance network who supplied valuable intelligence to the British!
Operation Pied Piper child evacuations
In the podcast, I spent some time talking about the heartbreaking decision for parents to send their children away to the countryside. I can't imagine how difficult it was to live through air raids and to try to keep your children safe in such a chaotic time. At the time child evacuations seemed like the only option and the obvious choice to keep children safe. But I was also surprised by some modern research that suggested that sending children away to the "safer" countryside, and separation from parents was also traumatizing for some children. Click the picture above for more information.
Read more in depth about Operation Pied Piper here: https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-evacuated-children-of-the-second-world-war
In the podcast, I talked about how Great Britain mobilized their civilian population- including women- for war work more effectively than any other combatant nation. Women were conscripted in December 1941, and given the choice to either work in industry or join an auxiliary service. An auxiliary is an organized group that supplements a military or government entity, but is not directly incorporated. Auxiliary services were created as a way for women to help the military or government by taking on essential, non-combat related jobs, to free up men for the combat roles. Many were created as a result of World War I but were disbanded after that war's conclusion. Then at the outbreak of WWII, many auxiliary servies were reorganized and adapted for more modern times.
In the United States, the auxiliary service for the Air Force was Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), for the Navy: Women Accepted for Volunteer Service (WAVES), and for the Army: the Women's Army Corps (WAC). I will talk more about these in a future episode.
In Great Britain the auxiliary services were the WRNS or Wrens (the Women's Royal Naval Service), the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force), and the ATS (the Auxiliary Territorial Service). The ATS had its roots in the original Army auxiliary founded in WWI and was the largest of the three. The ATS incorporating a wide range of jobs, from cooks, orderlies, clerks, and drivers, to serving on anti-aircraft batteries, radar operators, military police and searchlight operators.
Left: An ATS Motorcycle Messenger sits on her motorbike while receiving instructions from a corporal at the Motor Transport Company training center in Surrey © IWM (D 5721)
Center: At an anti-aircraft site, members of the ATS operate a height and range finder, calculating data on enemy aircraft for passing to the Gun Post Officer © IWM (TR 459)
Right: Wrens at Signal City Naval Station practice receiving and transmitting. Signal City housed 200 Wrens, who handled hundreds of daily secret Navy messages © IWM (A 13722)
The Women's Land Army
In the podcast I focused a lot on the Women's Land Army, a branch of the ATS that made a significant and very important contribution to boosting Britain's food supply during the war. Over 8,000 Land Girls performed a wide variety of jobs, and worked in all weather conditions all over the country. A quarter of all Land Girls worked in the dairy industry, some were even employed by the famous Kew Gardens in Surrey to do horticultural work, like planting camomile to be used as a quick-growing wiry camouflage for new airfields. An extremely important aspect of land work was cultivating new land for food production, like a huge project in east England where Land Girls operated heavy machinery such as excavators and tractors to transform areas of land previously unsuitable for farming.
Top L: Members of the Women's Timber Corps saw larch poles in training © IWM (TR 912)
Top R: Land Army Rat Catchers (yes, you read that right!) train on a farm in Sussex. Pests like rats posed a serious threat to the British food supply (there were thought to be over 50 million rats in Britain during the war) so teams of Land Girls were trained to kill the vermin, including foxes, rabbits, and moles © IWM (D 11256)
Bottom L: WLA recruitment poster aimed at city dwellers, promoting the work as being a healthy alternative to factory or other city jobs © IWM (Art.IWM PST 6078)
Bottom C: A Land Girl stacking hay on a farm © IWM (D 18056)
Bottom R: Land Girl, Doreen Bacchus, on a tractor in Suffolk training camp © IWM (TR 909)
Bletchley Park Code Breakers
Another really interesting group of women that I mentioned briefly during the podcast are the code breakers and machine operators at Bletchley Park. Bletchley was a 18th century mansion and estate that housed the British Government Code and Cypher School, which intercepted and decoded secret Axis communications during the war. By 1945, 75% of the staff at Bletchley were women- many recruited from the WRNS (Wrens) auxiliary service. For some more information on Bletchley, visit this site: https://bletchleypark.org.uk/our-story/bletchley-park-people/who-were-the-codebreakers.
Women of the SOE
Another important contribution to the intelligence sector that came from Women's Auxiliary services were the women of the SOE, Special Operations Executive. A branch of the ATS (the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, FANY) housed a small and very secret group of women recruited to work at the SOE. These women were highly skilled, worked in coding, wireless transmissions, and provided administrative support- operating in several theaters of war. Some even parachuted behind enemy lines into German occupied France. Of the 39 Auxiliary women who were sent into France by the SOE, 13 were captured and executed by the Gestapo. I am going to dedicate a future episode to these amazing and brave women, so stayed tuned for more!
During the war, the consumption of food and materials were closely guarded, reduced, and in some cases completely halted because they were needed on the front lines or in war related manufacturing. Ration books were issued with ration stamps. In the U.S., the Office of Price Administration would designate which, and how many, stamps needed to be used to purchased goods they designated as "rationed," and they also determined how many goods could be purchased under each ration book. The system could be confusing but even children were taught the basics so they could assist with the family shopping.
Left: American ration book no. 2 (they were updated over the years). Right: stamps from ration book no. 3. Photo credit The National World War II Museum. Learn more about rationing in the U.S. here.
The Black Market
It probably comes as no surprise that along with rationing, shortages, and the complete absences of some goods, a back market began to grow and flourish in virtually every country. Those who were wealthy or had enough extra money to pay for black market goods could purchase extra quantities of certain goods "behind the counter"- but at a steep price. The penalties for such offenses were quite high (usually a steep fine, or even jail time) but many turned a blind eye. There were also regulations in place to prevent price gouging for non-rationed items, but since some were hard to find and usually acquired illegally, buyers couldn't easily report the price gouging to authorities without implicating themselves as buyers of illegal goods.
Some families or close communities would work together by pooling coupons or trading coupons for items the others had in abundance. A neighbor who had egg-laying chickens might exchange his eggs for coupons to buy products he needed more, for example. With friends and neighbors working closely together, some people found a way to meet the food needs of the entire group in a way that was fair and efficient, if not completely legal.
Check out this interesting article from BBC which provides insight about war time laws in England and how some people ended up breaking them https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-33566789
Left: A propaganda poster demonstrates the power simple scrap metal can have for the war effort. Credit: National Archives, 44-PA-1688.* National Archives Identifier: 515359
Right: Rita Hayworth sacrifices her "unessential" metal car bumpers for the war effort, 1942
Credit: National Archives, 208-PU-91B-5. National Archives Identifier: 535932
Attacks on the U.S.
On the podcast, I talked a lot about countries that endured bombing raids during that war, and the immense toll that took on the people living there. The US was lucky enough to be geographically isolated from direct bombings and remained safe during the war. But aircraft technology was improving really quickly during this time, and new bombers were capable of traveling further and further distances between air bases. For example, the Boeing B-24 (introduced in 1941) had a range of 1,500 miles with max bomb load. The B29, introduced May 1944, had a range of 3,250 with a bomb load- more than double the B-24's capability less than 3 years prior!
With the rapidly changing aircraft technology, the threat of bombings over the U.S. became more plausible as the war went on. It was especially so on the west coast, given its proximity to the Pacific Theater. But all over the country, drills were conducted to help prepare residents, including school children, for what to do if a bombing raid did occur.
As I was researching this topic, I was surprised to learn that there actually were a series of attacks on the U.S. during the war- including the bombing of a military site on the coast of Oregon, a German spy ring, Japanese fire balloons, and Nazi saboteurs that were uncovered by the FBI. I think I was most amazed by the Japanese fire balloons... Read the article on the History Channel's website here: https://www.history.com/news/5-attacks-on-u-s-soil-during-world-war-ii
I have enjoyed researching for episodes 1 and 2, and getting to know the stories of women on the home-front of World War II so much. And sharing it all with you on the podcast and blog has been even more rewarding. I hope you learned something and feel an impact from what their stories can teach us today.
Stay tuned for Episode 3 and don't forget to subscribe to my podcast on the Apple iTunes Podcast app, so you automatically get new episodes. In the meantime, add your name to my email list and follow me on social media to get bonus content and see more posts about the topic.