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Feature essay

Home front, 1939–1945

  (Arthur) Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940) by Bassano, 1936 (Arthur) Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940) by Bassano, 1936
Unlike the home front in the First World War, that of 1939 to 1945 was to some extent planned in advance. By the summer of 1939 air raid wardens were at their posts, gas masks and ration books ready for distribution, and conscription in force. The Women's Voluntary Service, founded the previous year by Stella Isaacs, marchioness of Reading, was preparing to assist with the evacuation of women and children from areas at risk of bombing. During the first few days of the war the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, established a war cabinet and five new ministries: Home Security (attached to the Home Office), Information, Shipping, Economic Warfare, and Food.

Planning and politics

Expectations of dynamism were soon disappointed and the period from September 1939 to April 1940 came to be known as the ‘phoney war’. Under the Emergency Powers Act of August 1939 Whitehall already possessed the powers necessary to convert the economy from peace to total war, but required also the co-operation of the Labour Party and the trade unions to maximize war production. The chancellor of the exchequer, Sir John Simon, raised the standard rate of income tax from 5s. 6d. in the pound to 7s. 6d. Food subsidies were introduced, followed by the rationing of bacon, butter, and meat. In April 1940 Chamberlain appointed Frederick Marquis, Lord Woolton [see Marquis, Frederick James], a successful businessman who had run the John Lewis group of retail stores, as minister of food. It proved to be an inspired choice but with the exception of Winston Churchill, the first lord of the Admiralty, all the other leading figures in the government were staid personalities who lacked the common touch. The state of popular morale was uncertain. The faltering attempts of the Ministry of Information to sustain it were reflected in a famous poster of the period, which carried an unfortunate slogan devised by a career civil servant, A. P. Waterfield: ‘Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory’ (I. McLaine, Ministry of Morale: Home Front Morale and the Ministry of Information in World War II, 1979, 31).

  Clement Richard Attlee (1883–1967) by Sir James Gunn, 1950 Clement Richard Attlee (1883–1967) by Sir James Gunn, 1950
When Churchill succeeded Chamberlain on 10 May 1940 he formed a coalition government with a war cabinet of five including the leader of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee, and the deputy leader, Arthur Greenwood. Churchill is sometimes thought to have devolved the management of home affairs on to Labour ministers, but this is misleading. Attlee was a brisk and effective chairman of the cabinet during Churchill's many absences, but too self-effacing a personality to emerge as one of the ‘big beasts’ of wartime Whitehall. Greenwood, an ineffectual administrator dogged by a drink problem, was dismissed from office in February 1942.

The most powerful Labour members of the government were Ernest Bevin, the minister of labour and national service from May 1940, Herbert Morrison, home secretary and minister of home security from October 1940, and Hugh Dalton, minister of economic warfare from May 1940 to February 1942, and subsequently president of the Board of Trade. Bevin and Morrison, however, were antagonists and even if they had been allies there would have been no Labour hegemony over the home front. Conservatives continued to hold the majority of posts, while Churchill introduced old friends from the world of business. One of his first actions was to appoint the press magnate Lord Beaverbrook [see Aitken, William Maxwell] as minister of aircraft production. Frederick Leathers came in as minister of war transport, Oliver Lyttelton as president of the Board of Trade, and Wyndham Portal as minister of works. Lyttelton, who introduced clothes rationing in 1941, went on to be minister of production from 1942 to 1945. Portal was the driving force behind that familiar feature of the post-war landscape, the ‘prefab’ or prefabricated home, first produced in 1944.

The role of co-ordinator on the home front devolved upon Sir John Anderson, a former civil servant and governor of Bengal who had been recruited to office by Chamberlain as one of the non-party figures in the National Government. Much involved in pre-war preparations for civil defence, he had taken the decision to order half a million of the ‘Anderson shelters’ that were named after him. Generally regarded as pompous and aloof, he was a solitary figure with no popular following, but it was he more than anyone else who facilitated the transition to total war. When ill health compelled Chamberlain to resign in October 1940 Anderson succeeded him as lord president and gradually turned the lord president's committee into the overall co-ordinator of the civil committees. Meanwhile the emphasis in economic policy began to shift away from financial decisions to administrative or ‘physical’ controls over the economy, with manpower as the key resource. The ‘manpower budget’, of which Anderson took charge, became the principal means of allocating economic resources. When he moved to the Treasury as chancellor in September 1943, Anderson—‘the greatest administrator of his age, perhaps of any age’ (Oxford DNB)—took the manpower budget with him.

Workers at war

  Ernest Bevin (1881–1951) by Felix H. Man, 1939–40 Ernest Bevin (1881–1951) by Felix H. Man, 1939–40
The responsibility for the supply of manpower rested with another member of the lord president's committee, Ernest Bevin. Robustly independent and patriotic, the minister of labour was a working class statesman whose contribution to the growth of war production won high praise from Churchill. Rather than make use of the powers of industrial conscription conferred on him by statute he preferred as far as possible to rely on the voluntary co-operation of trade unions and workers. In return he obtained for them substantial improvements in wages and welfare, and more extensive trade union representation in Whitehall. As the confidence of workers grew, however, industrial disputes became more frequent. Nor was Bevin able to rely wholly on voluntary methods. His most draconian measure was the decision to compel one in every ten male conscripts—among them the future comedian Eric Morecambe—to work as ‘Bevin boys’ in the coal mines.

Civil liberties were certain to be curtailed in wartime and most of all in periods of great emergency. Panic fears of a ‘fifth column’ led to the internment without trial, between May and July 1940, of 22,000 German and Austrian ‘enemy aliens’, the majority of whom were refugees from Nazism. Under defence regulation 18B, which gave the home secretary the right to imprison anyone he believed likely to endanger the safety of the realm, Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, and Captain Maule Ramsay, the MP for Peebles, were among those detained. The Communist Party continued to operate but the fear of communist subversion was great enough to persuade the war cabinet, and the home secretary Herbert Morrison, to close down the Daily Worker in January 1941. It was a measure of the authoritarian ethos of the war years that Morrison's most unpopular action as home secretary was a blow for civil liberty: the release of Mosley in November 1943.

  Amy Johnson (1903–1941) by John Capstack, c.1933–5 Amy Johnson (1903–1941) by John Capstack, c.1933–5
In December 1941 it was announced that women were to be conscripted for the first time. There was some grumbling but no serious opposition. Initially the measure was confined to young single women who were given the choice between a job in war industry and recruitment to one of the women's auxiliary services, but it was gradually extended and eventually included married women, who could be directed to part-time work. The wartime media often highlighted the role of ‘emancipated’ women who joined the armed forces or took the place of men in the shipyards or the engineering workshops. Female aviators like Pauline Gower or Amy Johnson received almost as much publicity as fighter or bomber pilots. There were also a handful of women who were prominent in public life: the Labour MP Dr Edith Summerskill, a champion of women's rights and socialized medicine; Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, a Liberal politician and member of the BBC board of governors; Eleanor Rathbone, the independent MP whose long campaign for maternal welfare bore fruit in the Family Allowances Act of 1945; the pacifist Vera Brittain, one of the first to protest against the saturation bombing of German cities.

But it was most of all as wives and mothers, in charge of cooking, cleaning, washing, and childcare, that women made their contribution to the home front. For them the siege economy enforced by the battle of the Atlantic brought shortages and queues and experiments in ‘making do’. The diaries of Nella Last and Clara Milburn, both written in response to an appeal from Mass-Observation, offer vivid accounts of the housewife's role, and the constant anxieties of mothers for the safety of their sons in the armed forces (R. Broad and S. Fleming, eds., Nella Last's War: a Mother's Diary 1939–1945, 1983 edn; P. Donnelly, ed., Mrs Milburn's Diaries: an Englishwoman's Day-to-Day Reflections 1939–1945, 1989 edn). Though both women were Conservative in politics, Nella Last was changed by her wartime experiences. Voluntary work outside the home increased her self-confidence and stimulated a desire for greater independence. ‘I can never go back’, she wrote in June 1945, ‘to that harem existence my husband thinks so desirable’ (18 June 1945, Nella Last's War, 289) .

Maintaining morale

  (Florence) Elsie Waters (1893–1990) by unknown photographer [left, with her sister, Doris Ethel Waters] (Florence) Elsie Waters (1893–1990) by unknown photographer [left, with her sister, Doris Ethel Waters]
Second only to the need for greater war production on the home front was the imperative of sustaining morale. Morale itself was hard to define or measure, but perceptions of it, and arguments about how to sustain it, were a constant factor on the home front. Regular reports on the state of popular morale were circulated to government departments by the Ministry of Information's home intelligence department, and the adjutant-general, Sir Ronald Adam, set up a War Office committee in 1942 to monitor the morale of the troops. From the monarchy down most people in public life recognized the need to display their confidence in the outcome of the conflict and their solidarity with ‘the people's war’. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited the blitzed cities and mingled with the public. So did Churchill, whose broadcast speeches kindled a glow of defiance even at the most depressing times. Almost as popular and good for morale was the minister of food, Lord Woolton. As food shortages grew in 1941–2 he was compelled to announce successive extensions of rationing, but through the effective use of public relations he gave the ministry a human face and the character of a strict but kindly uncle. He himself was an accomplished broadcaster and the ministry also benefited greatly from its close working relationship with the BBC, whose Kitchen Front programme gave housewives help and advice on how to make the most of the food available in the shops. Among the regular performers on the show, which had an audience of five million, were the ‘Radio Doctor’, Charles Hill, and the comedians Elsie Waters and her sister Doris Waters [see under Waters, Elsie].

  (Lewis John) Wynford  Vaughan-Thomas (1908–1987) by Haywood Magee, 1949 (Lewis John) Wynford Vaughan-Thomas (1908–1987) by Haywood Magee, 1949
The BBC won a deservedly high reputation for its wartime role. Its news bulletins were trusted and greatly enhanced by the reports of its own war correspondents, among whom were Richard Dimbleby, Godfrey Talbot, and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. The Sunday evening Postcript series of broadcast talks gave J. B. Priestley—and many others—a platform for reflections and commentaries on the progress of the war. The Brains Trust, in which a panel of ‘wise men’—the three regulars were Julian Huxley, Cyril Joad, and Commander A. B. Campbell—answered questions from listeners was a classic BBC concoction of the instructive and the amusing. But if the BBC fulfilled its Reithian mission to educate and inform, it excelled itself in the sphere of ‘variety’. Music and laughter were the best prescriptions of all for morale and the BBC supplied both in abundance. Vera Lynn had her critics but audience research showed that she truly was ‘the forces' sweetheart’, with Anne Shelton almost rivalling her in popularity. The attempts of Lord Haw-Haw (William Joyce) to spread alarm and despondency were drowned out by comedians like ‘big-hearted’ Arthur Askey, or Tommy Handley and the surreal humour of ITMA (It's That Man Again).

  Thomas Reginald Handley (1892–1949) by unknown photographer Thomas Reginald Handley (1892–1949) by unknown photographer
Like the BBC, the British film industry rose to the occasion. The Ministry of Information's Crown Film Unit, under the direction of Ian Dalrymple, gave the documentary film movement a central role in war propaganda with feature-length productions like Harry Watt's Target for Tonight (1941) and Humphrey Jennings's Fires Were Started (1943), both of which obtained release in the commercial cinema. At Ealing Studios Michael Balcon and his team of directors blended fictional narratives with a documentary style to produce greater social realism in such films as Went the Day Well? (1942) and The Foreman Went to France (1942). Wartime audiences, however, also hungered for fantasy. They enjoyed the historical romance of Alexander Korda's That Hamilton Woman (1941), one of Churchill's favourite films, or the Gainsborough melodramas starring Margaret Lockwood, the most popular actress in 1943, 1944, 1945, and 1946 (R. McKibbin, Classes and Cultures: England 1918–1951, 1998, 441). In an era when most films were in black and white there were also occasional Technicolor treats, including two masterpieces: Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and Laurence Olivier's Henry V (1944).

The arts: CEMA and ENSA

The score for Henry V was the work of William Walton, the most eminent British classical composer of the day. His musical reputation, like the romantic patriotism with which it was associated, was soon to be overshadowed by the achievements of Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten, both of whom were among the 59,000 conscientious objectors to military service. Tippett, whose oratorio A Child of Our Time was written during the war, refused even non-combatant duties and was punished with a three-month sentence in Wormwood Scrubs. Britten was granted exemption from military service on the far from onerous condition that he give concerts for CEMA, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. His War Requiem, the ultimate expression of his pacifism, was written in 1961 to mark the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral.

Dame  Gracie Fields (1898–1979) by James JarchéDame Gracie Fields (1898–1979) by James Jarché
Government support for the arts was one of the more enduring consequences of the war. CEMA was first established in December 1939 with a grant from the Pilgrim Trust and the mission of bringing art to the people. But in April 1940 the Treasury agreed to a request from the minister of information, Sir John Reith, for a supplementary grant. By 1945, when CEMA was reorganized as the Arts Council of Great Britain, it was wholly subsidized by the government. With Walford Davies as director of music, Kenneth Clark as director of art, and Sir Kenneth Barnes as director of drama, CEMA brought concerts, exhibitions, and drama to the factories and village halls in the provinces, an early manifestation of ‘the people's war’. Clark also revived a First World War scheme, the war artists advisory committee, and commissioned some 325 artists to record Britain at war. Hence such memorable images of the home front as Henry Moore's sketches of people huddled for shelter in the London tube, or Stanley Spencer's paintings of shipyard workers on the Clyde.

  George Formby (1904–1961) by A. J. Tanner, 1953 George Formby (1904–1961) by A. J. Tanner, 1953
While CEMA was ‘highbrow’, the reputation of Basil Dean's Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) was decidedly ‘lowbrow’. The purpose of ENSA, which had been set up at the outbreak of war, was to recruit performers of all kinds to entertain the armed forces. Although it attracted the services of a number of major stars, including Gracie Fields and George Formby, it paid poor fees and, as Angus Calder explains, ‘relied heavily on low-grade and near amateur talent’ (A. Calder, The People's War, 1969, 372). According to the comedian Tommy Trinder, ENSA stood for ‘Every Night Something Awful’. Awful it might be, but J. B. Priestley could still discern in ENSA the seeds of a new and better social order. Describing a routine performed by two desperately bad comedians to the delight of a seemingly mindless factory audience he wrote of ‘a kind of struggling goodness in it; a mysterious promise … of man's ultimate deliverance and freedom, a whisper of his home-coming among the stars’ (quoted in R. Hewison, Under Siege: Literary Life in London, 1939–1945, 1979 edn, 162) .

A social revolution?

In his pamphlet The Lion and the Unicorn (1941) George Orwell [see Blair, Eric Arthur] prophesied that the war could only be won through a social revolution that would abolish the stock exchange, nationalize industry, and sweep away traditional class divisions. He was not entirely mistaken. The coalition and the ‘people's war’ established a new political context in which socialists and social reformers were able to create a momentum in favour of change. Operating partly through propaganda outside the government, and partly by manoeuvre inside it, they asserted that a social reforming agenda should be recognized as an essential part of the war effort. This was a thesis most Conservatives rejected, but there was little they could do to prevent a ferment of ideas and proposals for ‘social reconstruction’.

  William Henry Beveridge (1879–1963) by Helen Muspratt, 1938 William Henry Beveridge (1879–1963) by Helen Muspratt, 1938
Socialists like Dalton and Morrison continued to argue for nationalization and economic planning and their faith in the virtues of a centralized economy was reinforced by wartime experience. William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 to 1944, preached a moderate programme of welfare reforms within a Christian framework. J. M. Keynes, a lifelong Liberal, sought a managed economy in which unemployment would be reduced, or inflation prevented, through fiscal and budgetary techniques. The Conservative R. A. Butler, appointed president of the Board of Education in 1941, pressed for and obtained major reforms in the 1944 Education Act. The architect Patrick Abercrombie proposed in his Greater London Plan (1944) to regulate the spread of the city through the introduction of green belts and new towns. Reconstruction projects were indeed many and various but most had one thing in common: a shift towards more state intervention. It was in protest against this apparently overwhelming tide of opinion that Friedrich Hayek published in 1944 The Road to Serfdom, with its ironic dedication to ‘the socialists of all parties’.

The pace of post-war planning was accelerated by William Beveridge, an eminent economist with a long and distinguished record of public service. Going far beyond the narrow terms of reference he had been given as chairman of an enquiry into social insurance, he published in December 1942 a report that proposed a comprehensive system of social security linked to family allowances, a national health service, and policies to prevent mass unemployment. It was acclaimed by much of the press and public as a manifesto for a new Britain and a statement of the aims for which the war was being fought. It also marked a turning point: the moment at which politics ceased to revolve around the conduct of the war and began to focus on the future at home.

Although Conservatives in general were lukewarm or hostile, Beveridge's report was received with such acclaim by the Labour Party that it could not be rejected out of hand without imperilling the coalition. The Conservatives, therefore, were compelled to give ground and as proof of the government's good intentions Churchill appointed Woolton as minister of reconstruction in November 1943. White papers on health, employment policy, and social security followed, but the Conservatives never recovered electorally from their initial hostility to the report. The by-elections won by Sir Richard Acland's Common Wealth party and other left-wing independents foreshadowed Churchill's downfall and Labour's ‘landslide’ victory in the general election of July 1945. After the surrender of Japan the following month there was no longer a battlefront, and ‘home front’ became only a figure of speech. But rationing, austerity, and controls were to endure for almost a decade, and the social and cultural legacy for longer still.

Paul Addison


J. Capstack, photograph, 1933–5, NPG; Amy Johnson [see illus.] · Bassano, photograph, 1936, NPG; (Arthur) Neville Chamberlain [see illus.] · H. Muspratt, photograph, 1938, NPG; William Henry Beveridge, Baron Beveridge [see illus.] · F. H. Man, photograph, 1939–40, NPG; Ernest Bevin [see illus.] · H. Magee, photograph, 1949, Hult. Arch.; (Lewis John) Wynford Vaughan-Thomas [see illus.] · J. Gunn, oils, 1950, priv. coll.; Clement Richard Attlee, first Earl Attlee [see illus.] · A. J. Tanner, photograph, 1953, Sci. Mus., Science and Society Picture Library; George Formby [see illus.] · J. Jarché, photograph, National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, Kodak collection; Dame Gracie Fields [see illus.] · double portrait, photograph, NPG; (Florence) Elsie Waters [see illus.] · photograph, repro. in T. Kavanagh, Tommy Handley (1949); Thomas Reginald Handley [see illus.]