In May 1940, Winston Churchill entered Downing Street convinced that the war could only be won through the complete mobilisation of Britain’s civilian population. The British home front was as important as any battleground. Throughout the war, the Ministry of Information (under Alfred Duff Cooper and later Brenden Bracken) tried to boost public morale through propaganda campaigns. It also frequently prevented (or at least delayed) the press from publishing information that would damage public spirits, such as photographs of bomb-damaged houses in poor parts of London.
The Home Guard, or ‘Local Defense Volunteers’, was formed on 14 May 1940, a response to the Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden’s call for ‘men of all ages who wish to do something for the defense of their country’. The Home Guard became a key plank of the strategy of civilian mobilization. 1.5 million men rushed to join, convinced by the bleak international picture that a German invasion was on its way. Throughout June and July 1940 ordinary people made preparations for the expected onslaught, including the collection of scrap iron to make armaments and the construction of concrete pillboxes in suburban parks.
Women also played a crucial role on the home front, fighting a daily battle of rationing, recycling, reusing, and cultivating food in allotments and gardens. From 1941, women were called up for war work, including as mechanics, engineers, munitions workers, air raid wardens and fire engine drivers. More than 80,000 women joined the Women’s Land Army, enduring tough conditions and long hours in isolated rural outposts in order to prevent Britain from being ‘starved out’. In cities, the Women’s Voluntary Service prided itself on doing ‘whatever was needed’, mainly providing support (and much needed tea and refreshments) to victims of the Blitz and those sheltering in Underground stations.
From September 1940, the Blitz - the sustained bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany - hit many towns and cities across the country, particularly London, Coventry and Hull. Beginning with the bombing of London on 7 September 1940, which went on for 57 consecutive nights, and lasting until 10 May 1941, more than 43,000 civilians were killed by bombing and over a million houses were destroyed or damaged in London alone.
While the Blitz spread fear, it also engendered a strong feeling of community and collective stoicism, through urban populations. As gas masks, air raid sirens and blackouts became part of daily life for many Britons, 3.5 million children were evacuated to the countryside, where they had very mixed experiences. As families waited nervously for news of loved ones serving on the front lines, a telegram from the War Office – which carried the news of the death or capture of soldiers – became a universally feared symbol of the tragedy and arbitrariness of the war.
Rationing was another unwelcome yet necessary fact of life. Before the war, Britain had imported 55 million tons of food each year; by October 1939, this figure had fallen to just 12 million. Not just food, but also clothing, furniture and petrol were rationed, helping to create a booming black market, which traded items such as petrol coupons, eggs, nylon stockings and cigarettes. Rationing would continue until 1954, when limits on the purchase of meat and bacon were lifted.
One of the most popular items traded on the black market was SPAM, brought to Britain by US soldiers. Yet the roughly two million American servicemen who arrived in Britain in preparation for the Normandy landings became renowned for more than their dubious canned meat. As the GI’s became friendly with the local population, leaving a trail of broken hearts and a significant number of pregnancies in their wake, the English comedian Tommy Trinder famously referred to them as: “overpaid, oversexed and over here.”
Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain was a struggle between the German Luftwaffe (commanded by Herman Goring) and the British Royal Air force (headed by Sir Hugh Dowding’s Fighter Command), which raged over Britain between July and October 1940. The battle, which was the first major military campaign in history to be fought entirely in the air, was the result of a German plan to win air superiority over Southern Britain and the English Channel by destroying the British air force and aircraft industry. Hitler saw victory in the battle as a prelude to the invasion of Britain (codenamed Operation Sealion).
In May 1940, German forces had overrun Belgium, the Netherlands and northern France using Blitzkrieg (‘Lightening War’) tactics. With the USA and the Soviet Union both still mired in hesitant isolationism, and the French ally toppled, Britain now stood alone against Nazi Germany. Yet as Hitler turned his attention to the British Isles in the summer of 1940, directing a force of over 1,350 bombers and 1,200 fighters first against shipping, airfields, and finally against towns, it became apparent that the Luftwaffe had the odds stacked against it.
The Luftwaffe’s first disadvantage was that it was neither trained nor equipped for the long-range operations, which became part of the battle. Its tactics were based upon the concept of close air support for ground forces; they were therefore ill suited to the circumstances of the new campaign. The technical differences between the fighter aircraft employed by two sides were negligible: the RAF’s main fighter planes were the Spitfire and the Hurricane, whilst the Germans relied primarily on Messcherschmitt fighters and Junkers dive-bombers. Yet to swing the odds in Britain’s favour, the tactical advantage that German fighters had developed in earlier conflicts was negated once fighter aircraft were ordered to provide close escort to the German bomber formations. These formations had discovered to their own extreme cost that they were unable to defend themselves.
During the battle, the RAF enjoyed the advantage of defending against attacks launched from widely separated airfields, thus profiting from what strategists call ‘interior lines’. This advantage was optimized by Britain’s system of radar tracking and guidance. Furthermore, the added comfort of fighting over friendly territory meant that pilots who crash-landed or parachuted out of their aircrafts could return to battle. British fortunes were also helped by the fact that the Luftwaffe had never subscribed to a concept of strategic bombing. British anti-aircraft and civil defense preparations were inadequate in the summer of 1940, yet the Luftwaffe was unable to wreak the devastating effects feared by many.
The climax of the battle came on 15 September, a day in which the Luftwaffe lost 56 planes and the RAF 28. During the twelve-week battle, 1,733 German aircraft had been destroyed, compared with 915 British fighters. On 17 September, Hitler recognized the growing futility of the campaign and postponed indefinitely the invasion of Britain. Yet this did not mean an end to the bombing terror. German tactics were changed again and the Luftwaffe resorted to indiscriminate bombing of larger cities, including London, Plymouth and Coventry.
When Italy entered World War II in June 1940, the war quickly spread to North Africa, where her colony of Libya bordered the vital British protectorate of Egypt. On 7 September 1940, Marshall Graziani’s troops began a land offensive. Their numerical supremacy won them initial success. They captured the port of Sidi el-Barrini and established a chain of fortified camps. The British counterattack, launched in December 1940 and led by General Wavell, quickly flattened the Italians. As British armaments grew daily, Italian supplies dwindled. Italian forces retreated in chaos, and the human tide of surrendering soldiers impeded the Allied advance, making movement of tanks difficult. With Italian positions crumbling, Hitler, shocked by the Italian failure, dispatched the German Africa Corps – commanded by the brilliant General Erwin Rommel.
The ‘Desert Fox’ rapidly adapted his formations and tactics to a Desert War fought in the open, with few natural obstacles and a small civilian population. Rommel launched his first blow against the Allies in February 1941, taking the British by surprise and carrying out an audacious triple attack on the Sollum-Halfaya line on the Egyptian border. The Germans captured the key port of Benghazi, moving on to besiege the other major port of Cyrenaica, Tobruk.
In June 1941, Operation Battleaxe, the British attempt to liberate Tobruk, was stopped in its tracks by well-prepared defenses. In November, with General Auchinleck having replaced Wavell, the Allies launched Operation Crusader, catching Rommel’s forces by surprise. Although German 88mm guns wreaked havoc among the British ranks, Axis forces – under the pressure of huge losses and dwindling supplies – were forced to retreat to El Agheila - their starting-point in March. At the end of 1941, Tobruk was liberated and Benghazi returned to British hands.
Supplies were a crucial element of the war in North Africa. While the British received material from depots in nearby Alexandria, German supplies had to arrive from Tripoli. Furthermore the island of Malta, Britain’s ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’, allowed attacks to be made on Axis convoys crossing the Mediterranean. At the beginning of 1942, British supply lines were now overextended, and Rommel counter attacked, forcing the British to retreat to the defensive positions known as the Gazala Line. The Battle of Gazala - one of the fiercest of the Desert War – resulted in the retreat of Auchinleck’s men to Alam Halfa. Tobruk, cut-off once again, this time fell rapidly to Axis forces.
A disconsolate Churchill reshuffled the military command, placing Montgomery at the head of the Eighth Army. The battle-hardened general, conscious that the mobile tank battle was Rommel’s forte, unleashed the Battle of El Alamein as a battle of attrition, using his huge advantages in artillery, infantry and supplies. After two weeks of intense fighting, Commonwealth forces had reduced the German tank force to 35, pressuring the remnants of Axis forces into retreat.
For the Axis, the nail in the coffin came in November 1942 with Operation Torch - the American-led landings in Algiers, Oran and Casablanca. After sporadic fighting against Vichy French forces, the Allies took possession of the Moroccan and Algerian coasts. The beleaguered Axis forces were now encircled, and in May 1943, more than 230,000 troops surrendered to the Allies in Tunisia, marking the end of the campaign.