Like much of our work the Homefront Recall Project has brought together people of various ages and backgrounds. The core of the project was gathering in and recording the memories of those who lived through WWII on the Homefront, largely in Edinburgh.
These memories are not about the major battles of war but the everyday struggles of coping with rationing, the blackouts and evacuation. Many of these stories are about a wartime childhood.
They convey for the most part a sense of normality and calm. The common answer to the question ‘How did you cope?’ has been ‘We just got on with it.’ All this material has been shared in a special way via drama workshops, script writing and improvisation. The actors and technicians involved in this process were students and schoolchildren, as well as older and retired people.
Out of all this has come a play entitled ‘The Memory Bank’ performed at Queen Margaret College's Theatre in Edinburgh. A series of workshops and a drama production at Trinity Primary School also in Edinburgh.IIt's been a project people have enjoyed on so many levels. Particularly rewarding has been the reaction of those who gave their memories of the Homefront as the source material.
Please read to these memories of ordinary folk in extraordinary times. Also have a look at the activities pages below. We hope you find them to be both entertaining and allow you to think about what life was like then.
The War Begins
Chamberlain announced Britain’s declaration of war on the 3rd September 1939.
‘I was in church and the minister came and told us. Somebody came and told him and he came and told us. Sunday morning. We didn’t know what to do, what was goin’ to happen. We felt afraid.’
During the years prior to 1939 many people were concerned that another world war was likely. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party were popular in Germany and there was support for the Nazis in Great Britain, the United States and France. Hitler had occupied what was Czechoslovakia and this had raised alarm throughout Europe. Hitler’s next plan was to invade and occupy Poland.
Poland endured heavy shelling; resistance ended on 17 September. After the initial Polish campaign the British government expected that Hitler would turn his campaign towards the UK. They expected heavy bombardment and children were evacuated to the countryside as Britain and France prepared for invasion.
‘Neville Chamberlain announced it and then the sirens went and we were a’ sayin’ “What dae we dae? Dae we jist sit here and die or whit dae we dae?” And then the ‘All Clear’ went and it was a beautiful day.’
‘We were all huddled about in wee groups and they were discussing what this was going to mean.’
‘It was a Sunday morning and in these days there was no traffic in our street, which was Prince Regent Street. Everybody seemed to come out their houses and talk to one another. I was swinging on the gate and I was aware that they were all waiting on eleven o’clock coming because they were goin’ tae get some information aboot this Chamberlain or somebody.’
During this time there was a lull as the different sides attempted to negotiate a peace without any fighting and that would avoid embarrassment. There was little in the way of armed conflict initially although the HMS Royal Oak was sunk in Scapa Flow in Orkney by the German U-Boat 47, with heavy loss of life.
‘Ah thought a bomb would come through the roof any minute now but nothing happened for a long time.’
The ‘Phoney War’
The Phoney War led many to think nothing would happen but on 10 May 1940 Germany invaded France and the Low Countries heralding the war starring in earnest.
‘Most of our information came from the radio. Everybody congregated round the set, the wireless at six o’clock and nine o’clock. Everything stopped to hear the latest bulletin and for a long, long time it was all bad news, bad news ‘cos we were gettin’ thoroughly beat.’
Air Raids and Evacuation
The biggest threat to Britons during the war was from air attacks. London suffered the most but other cities around the country were also attacked including Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. Scotland witnessed the first civilian casualties in the war with the German bombing of the huge Scapa Flow naval base in Orkney in March 1940. Edinburgh experienced bombing early in the war with the Forth Rail becoming a target for the Luftwaffe on October 16, 1939. Many other Scottish cities were the victims of enemy bombings - Aberdeen was the most frequently bombed city in Scotland, and Fraserburgh became known as Hell Fire Corner.
However, the worst attack happened on the night of 13-14 September 1941 when Clydebank and Glasgow were the victims of a massive blitz attack by over 200 German bombers. Clydeside was an obvious target as it was the site of a huge complex of industrial production and shipyards. Only 7 houses in Clydebank were undamaged, and 35,000 of its 47,000 people were made homeless. 300 people were killed that night.
By the end of the war Scotland's fatality list from enemy action totalled 2,298, with a further 2,167 injured and 3,558 slightly injured. There was also a lot of structural damage caused by the 250 enemy air raids.
How do you think it felt to see your country in such danger?
'When that bomb went off I had to run home to see if my mother's house was alright. It wis ok but the kitchen roof was down but ma auntie's house in Prince Regent Street, they were a top flat wi' young kids, it wis smashed to pieces. None of them were hurt.’
‘Ma father used tae watch the Messerschmitts fightin' each other, goin' across the Forth. He used tae stand and watch them goin' over our head.’
‘I thought a bomb wis goin' tae come through the roof any minute.
‘We were in the shelter and everything went black and ma dad was out. If your business or where you worked was anywhere near when there was a raid ye had to go there and it wis called fire watching. Aw the guys had to take a turn jist tae make sure the building didnae [catch] fire wi' an incendiary or something. He came back to the shelter and he said, - The place is in a hell of a mess' ken. He had walked back doon after the landmine had fell. There were chunks o' plaster and that fae the church at the top o' the street. It had been aw damaged.’
‘Aw the shutters had been blown off and strewn across the room, every ceiling in the house wis brought down, the fly sweeps had left their bags of soot in the garret and when that happened everything wis covered in soot.’
Protection from Air Raids
The government took action quickly to protect the country against these air raids and other threats to the country.
There were lots of ways you could try to protect your home from the effects of an air raid. Windows were taped up to protect against damage from splintered glass. When a bomb exploded the blast would shatter the glass. For even more protection from bomb blasts, sandbags were propped up against windows. In fact, so many sandbags were needed that all of the jute produced in Dundee was used to make them! Cracks in the walls and floors were sealed with paper and paste. Ceilings were propped up with wood to strengthen them.
Many people had an Anderson Shelter in their gardens. These were made of corrugated steel covered with earth and had room for about 6 people. When an air raid was about to take place a siren would sound and those with an Anderson Shelter would run to the shelter to take cover. It gave good protection against shrapnel and flying glass. Those who did not have a garden were given a Morrison Shelter, named after Herbert Morrison, Minister for Home Security. These shelters could be set up indoors.
Families were encouraged to stock their shelters or refuge rooms with some food and other basic supplies such as water, blankets, clothing, chamber pot, disinfectant and a wireless to keep up-to-date with conditions and safety instructions. The shelters often ended up being used for other purposes.
‘We used tae get in the Anderson Shelter. They horrible things. It wis terrible. It wis never used as an Anderson Shelter. We couldn't put it under the ground, there were too many pipes, we had it as just a garden shed. That's what they ended up as. They had bunk-beds in them.
Ma sister said if that dog barks the night there's going to be a raid and as sure as fate it happened. She must have had a sixth sense. She used tae scurry away underneath the blankets.The dog no ma sister.
I wis having ma first son and I had everything in a suitcase, ye ken fir a first baby, and every time the sirens went ma sister grabbed this case and there was one night when we got up there she jist had the handle.’
The black-out was an important way of defending against air attacks. Homes, shops, cars and trains had to put up heavy curtains - sometimes up to three layers thick - or paint their windows to prevent any light escaping. Cars also had to be blacked out.
‘The cars had a wee cross cut oot for the headlights and ye see things comin' towards ye and it wis just a cross.’
Street lights were no longer used. All this made it more difficult for German bombers to find their targets. To make sure that people were following the rules, Air Raid Protection (ARP) wardens patrolled the streets and could fine people for showing any light. There were also concerns that areas would become more dangerous due to the lack of street lights. However, although there was an increase in road accidents, crime rates did not increase as much as people thought they would.
‘The blackout was ok in the summer but it was horrendous in the winter. We had built up sandbags round each doorway and opening and if you didn't know where you were. I had a black eye once. I had walked right into the sandbag but we were young then.’
‘The blackout itself was comical in lots of ways. Ma auntie got these wooden frames made and she got blackout material and if you came in and banged the door the blackout fell doon.and the warden would be screamin’ - Put that light out! Oh there were a lot of funny things as well.’
‘It was dark you know, ye had to stumble across the room and pull the curtains before you could put the light on.’
‘The ARP warden used tae pound round the streets. Ye'd maybe be sittin' listenin' tae a wireless and aw ye wid hear wis a whistle - Put that light out!’
The Home Guard
Threats from the air were not the only danger to the people of Britain. From the very beginning of the war one of the biggest fears was invasion.
'We were being upset. It was still quite vivid and when war was declared we were expectin' invasion. We were expectin' them to walk down the road with their jack boots but that didnae happen.’
In Scotland, defences were established all along the coastline, for example, there were large guns placed on Inchkeith Island in the Firth of Forth to protect Rosyth naval base. These were seen as very important as German forces occupied France, Belgium and the Netherlands from early on in the war and could have used this area as a base to invade Britain. In the event of an invasion civilians would be called upon to help defend the country and citizens joined the Local Defence Volunteers (later renamed the Home Guard) to ‘do their bit’. The Home Guard had little equipment to fight with at the beginning of the war; some members were even forced to do their training using garden tools and chairlegs. Due to their lack of weapons, the fact that few of them had uniforms and that many were over 40 (the age limit for military service), some people made fun of the Home Guard. They began to call it Dad's Army.
‘Ah can remember the Dad's Army. There wis an auld guy in the next flat below us and he wis like Captain Mainwaring. But they took it serious and on a Sunday morning ye used tae see them, hear the tackety boots comin' roond the corner and signalling to one another. Ah wish you could see it, they were on their tummy crawlin'. Ah wis watchin' frae the windae. There wis maybe about twenty and then they wid do their drill.’
Although people made fun of them, some historians have pointed out how important they were. For example, one historian, Peter Fleming, said that in 1940 it would have been impossible to train all the soldiers needed if they had to keep watch on Britain's 5,000 miles of coastline at the same time.
From the very first day of the war the government moved about 1.5 million women and children from areas at high risk of bombing to safer areas. Most people did not want to be moved and some of the first wave of people returned home. Once the blitz started the policy was restored. The evacuees (or wee vaccies as they were often called in Scotland ) came from big cities like Aberdeen, industrial areas like Glasgow and cities with ports such as Edinburgh. They were sent to the countryside, some with their mother, some on their own, to live with families there. The whole experience could be difficult and evacuees were sent to very different houses or environments. Some were allocated to live in big houses or farms; others lived with their school friends or teachers. Some children and their teachers were sent to evacuation camps, such as the Broomlee camp at West Linton and the Middleton camp near Peebles.
‘Ah went to Midlem, just five miles outside Selkirk and ah remember going by train and ah remember havin' a label on me coat, me tinny and me gas mask and a wee case. We arrived oh I don't know how long it took and we all went into the village hall, where presumably everybody was chosen. I was too young to be bothered by that ‘cos I was billeted with a family who lived in the next stair and we were billeted in the manse. This poor housekeeper who didn't have much experience of children was landed with a woman and five children just like that. I don't know where the minister was, I presume he was a padre in the army or one of the forces. We weren't there for very long but we certainly went to school. I remember going to school and the school was just one room. So there was everybody from five to secondary school age in the one room and three divisions. I was at the top of the infants.’
‘It seemed for ever to me but it couldn't have been very long 'cos ma father came down and took me away 'cos it was a phoney war, nothin' was happening.’
‘The news was coming over the radio as the first sirens were sounded and most people ran out into the street but that didn't really come to anything. Then we had a year of preparation. We were grateful for that year, otherwise we were so unready.’
However, when the Blitz began in 1940 there was a new wave of evacuation, and the same happened again in 1944 when the Germans used V1 flying bombs and V2 missiles to bomb Britain.
The evacuation of children also highlighted the problems of poverty and malnourishment in inner city populations. The findings led to increased food provision for children as part of their rations with more milk and better school meals.
As well as bringing bad news to people the radio provided great entertainment. Many programmes were designed to improve morale but others were specifically produced for children.
‘Dae ye mind of Dick Barton Special Agent, quarter tae seven every night?’
- Imagine you are about to be evacuated and you are allowed to take only one case of clothes and other items. What would you take with you?
- Imagine you have been evacuated and write a letter to your mum or a friend describing what it is like living somewhere completely different, away from your family.
- Write a newspaper article explaining why children had to be evacuated.
- Keep a TV diary for a week - write down everything you watch and compare it to a child living during World War 2 who may have only had the radio for entertainment. What would you miss?
How did air raids, black-outs and evacuation affect people? What did they feel about them? What do you think you would miss if you were evacuated? Do you think there might have been anything good about being evacuated? What do you think it would have been like to have black-outs and air raids? With no TV or computer games what games do you think children played?
Food and Rationing
During the war the Germans made very good use of their U-boats (submarines) to attack Britain's war effort. They tried to sink the merchant ships that were used to carry various foods and supplies to Britain. (The Germans used a similar tactic during World War 1 and in 1917 Britain almost ran out of food!) To stop food shortages in the Second World War the government encouraged British people to grow their own food and to turn all spare land into allotments. Gardens, flowerbeds and public parks: any available space was used.
‘The Meadows, the Edinburgh Meadows was all converted into allotments. You had an area and it was allocated to you and you could grow certain vegetables on it.’
There were 520 plots on the Meadows, but there were many other areas around Edinburgh that were used as emergency allotments during the war. These included Balgreen Park, Bruntsfield Links, Victoria Park, Joppa Quarry, Meadowbank, Craiglockart, Craigentinny Golf Course, Inverleith Park and many more.
Dig for Victory
This was known as the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. It had two main advantages for the war effort – firstly, if people grew their own food Britain would not starve, and secondly it meant that ships could carry important war supplies (like guns and ammunition) instead of imported foodstuffs. With the lack of imported foodstuffs, exotic foods, including fruits like bananas, became extremely rare. Alternatives to bananas were developed which used mashed parsnips and banana essence. They were used to make banana sandwiches but were not very enjoyable and in no way replaced the real thing. When bananas reappeared in the shops some children had never seen them before and didn’t know what to do with them or how to eat them.
How would you describe a banana to someone who had never seen one before?
‘I had my first banana when I was six and I never had another until I was thirteen.’
‘Ma son was three when the first bananas came into Rankin’s and he wis tryin’ to eat it wi’ the skin on and he didna’ know what it was.’
The war meant shortages of many things, not just food, and the public was encouraged to save energy and recycle as much as possible: Make do and Mend was the motto. Families were urged to collect waste paper, bones and metal: paper was used for cartridge wads, rifle cases, food containers; bones were to be used to make glue for aeroplanes, explosives and fertilizer; and metal could be used in aeroplanes, tanks and guns.
Food Shortages - Rationing
Although the Dig for Victory campaign helped with food supplies, there were still serious shortages of food and the government introduced rationing to cope with this. Rationing was a way of ensuring that everyone received a fair amount of food to ensure that the whole nation stayed healthy.
‘If it hadn’t been for the housewives there would have been chaos, 'cos they a' helped each other.’
The Ministry of Food worked out what the rations would be. The head of this department, Lord Woolton, was influenced by Scottish scientist Sir John Boyd Orr, whose studies showed that only the wealthiest half of the British population had a good, healthy diet. As a result the ministry worked out the required amounts that would ensure people got the necessary basic vitamins and protein in their diets. It also published healthy eating tips and recipes in the newspapers and came up with characters like Potato Pete and Dr Carrot to encourage people to eat healthily.
Healthy Eating - Government Issued Recipe
Here is the recipe for Woolton Pie, a cheap vegetable-based meal, which was named after Lord Woolton:
- 500g potatoes
- 500g cauliflower
- 500g swedes
- 500g carrots
- spring onions
- 1 teaspoon vegetable extract
- 1 teaspoon oatmeal
Cook ingredients together for 10 mins, with enough water to cover. Stir to prevent sticking, cool, put into pie dish, spinkle with parsley, cover with crust of mashed potato or pastry and cook in moderate oven until pastry cooked. Serve hot with brown gravy.
People were encouraged to cook a number of cheap, nutritious dishes which substituted meat with vegetables or pulses. Spam was introduced to Great Britain from the USA in 1941. It was produced as a cheap and nutritious substitute for fresh meat and although it was welcomed when it was first available, it quickly lost its novelty appeal:
‘You had Spam ordinary, you had Spam fritters, you had Spam stew, you had Spam rissoles, you had Spam everything, and I never want to see Spam again in my life.’
Getting your Ration Books and Queuing
Every person was issued with a ration book which had a page for each rationed item, divided into squares that were cancelled out each week. The following things were rationed:
- sugar (340g reduced to 225g)
- jam/honey (450g every month)
- meat (1s/2d worth = 6p)
- bacon (225g reduced to 115g)
- fat (lard and butter together) (225g)
- milk (one tin of dried milk (4 pints) every 4 weeks)
- cheese (85g reduced to 50g)
- eggs (one per fortnight, plus bonus extra 12 dried
- eggs every 8 weeks)
- tea (50g)
‘Mum had chickens so we had eggs and of course with sugar rationing all my family liked sugar except myself so my mother used to change her cheese ration for sugar, so that was a kind of black market.’
‘It was my job to go for the rations on a Friday afternoon after school and it took forever. I used to take a book with me and now I have an aversion to queuing.’
Children received special rations of milk, cod liver oil and fruit juice. Can you think why this was?
‘Bananas and oranges you could only get at a greengrocer. And you could only get them if you had a green ration book which you had if you’d a child.’
Nothing was wasted; people ate pigs' brains, cows udders, carrot marmalade and calf’s feet pie. Kitchen scraps were collected for pig bins to be turned into animal feed.
‘We used no to have a lot of meat and this day we had a whole plateful of meat but it was horrible and it wis snook, it wis whale meat. Oh it wis dreadful, na’en o’ us ate it. It wis more oily than fishy.’
Rations were the fairest way to ensure people had enough to eat, and many poorer families had the healthiest diet they ever had. Children benefited greatly from this. For example, the number of children in Scotland who died before they reached 1 year of age fell by 27 per cent between 1939 and 1945. In Glasgow, the average height of 13 year olds increased by almost 2 inches (5 cm) by the end of the war.
Living on Rations
However, despite all these advantages, people grew tired of living on rations:
‘Potatoes and milk, potatoes and margarine, dried eggs.’
‘They used to put margarine in a butter wrapper so that I would eat it and I used to say ‘There’s something awfi funny about this butter’ but you didn’t have any brands of anything, you had national margarine, you had national cheese which tasted like national soap.’
There was always the black market where people could acquire the occasional luxury item of food or sometimes quite basic foods:
‘The shops were very good, they got in all the contraband and they gave it to us. There were big queues to wait to get fruit on a Sunday morning and sweets and that.’
How did rationing affect people in Scotland? How did people feel about rations?
- Design a poster to advertise the Dig for Victory campaign.
- Imagine you are a mother or a child during the war. Write a letter to a friend describing how rationing affected you and your family.
- Working with a partner, write a radio advert (lasting no more than 1 minute) from the government trying to make people feel good about living on rations.
- Keep a food diary for a week – write down EVERYTHING you eat and drink. Compare it with a child's rations during WW2:
- Sugar: 340g reduced to 225g
- Jam/honey: 450g every month
- Meat: 1s/2d worth=6p
- Bacon: 225g reduced to 115g
- Fat: 225g
- Milk: 4 pints every 4 weeks
- Cheese: 85g reduced to 50g
- Eggs: One per fortnight, plus bonus extra 12 dried eggs every 8 weeks
- Tea: 50g
What would you miss most if you had to survive on WW2 rations and why?
Is there anything you would like about living on rations?
Can you think of any advantages of living on these rations?
The End of the War
VE and VJ days
On 8 May 1945 General Jodl signed Germany's surrender, and Winston Churchill declared the war in Europe had ended. Many people throughout Europe had street parties, bonfires and held dances and other festivities to celebrate the ending of hostilities. However, not everyone felt like celebrating and many people continued to feel much grief and sorrow at the loss of loved ones during the fighting.
‘She'd lost her only son and all she had left was Rose, the adopted daughter, who I loved dearly and who loved me dearly. VE day, ah didnae know what was goin' to happen. She closed the curtains, she locked the door and that was it. We sat in silence. Ah canny even remember if she made food. We just sat the whole day and now I understand it ‘cos I've got sons of my own but then I thought ‘What's goin' tae happen to us?' Poor woman eh?’
‘About the Holocaust I wis sitting in a matinee performance for children in the Alhambra Cinema and the news came on and it showed you them from Belsen and that was a heck of a shock. I can see these images today, I mean to show that at a cinema full of children.’
Things were very difficult in post-war Europe as the world tried to come to terms with what had happened. In Britain, although many wartime restrictions were lifted and those who had joined the forces were demobbed, the economy of the country took many years to recover. The new Labour Government introduced new social and health care systems but things were still hard. Some rationing, particularly of sugar and sweets, continued until 1953 which probably helped our dental health.
Although fighting in Europe had stopped in May, the war was not completely over and hostilities with Japan continued for several months. The United States had been developing the Atomic bomb and decided to use it against Japan. The first A-bomb (‘Little Boy') was dropped on Hiroshima on 6th August 1945. The effects were devastating: 60% of the city was destroyed, 70,000 inhabitants died instantaneously. The second (‘Fat Man') was dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August where 20,000 people died immediately. Thousands more would die later of radiation effects from the bombs.
‘That day, VJ Day, they made a huge big bonfire to celebrate. They got all the trees oot the woods. Ah can remember that. Ah didnae know, I didn't know what the repercussions were, that we wer'nae, if I remember, I do, I'm telling a lie here. I remember the A bomb, the Atom bomb, being dropped on Hiroshima and the Americans threatened to drop another one unless they signed a peace treaty. I think they dropped one on Nagasaki as well. Aye and that's how the war ended.’
The Allies celebrated VJ Day on 15th August and Japan officially surrendered to the USA on 2nd September 1945. The Second World War was over and now the world had to start rebuilding its towns and cities, economies and, most importantly, its families and communities.