Britain in 1945: Life in the shadow of victory

Maggie Andrews chronicles the joy and trepidation that filled the hearts of Britons on the home front in the early months of 1945...

This article was first published in the January 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Huts in Lambeth built for bombed-out families, 1945. (Getty)
Huts in Lambeth built for bombed-out families, 1945. (Getty)
 

In January 1945 an advert appeared in a number of newspapers, which read: “Some of the sterner war-time duties are relaxing – Home guard, Fire Guard, Civil Defense. If this leaves you a little spare time, remember the job that’s still as important as ever – growing your own foodstuffs in garden and allotment. It’s a healthy job, and a war winner too!”

By the end of 1944, victory over Germany seemed certain. As the threat of invasion evaporated, mines and barbed wire were removed from the beaches and, on the final day of the year, the Home Guard – a now-iconic symbol of British defiance in the face of Nazi aggression – was stood down.

But though the Radio Times was moved to announce that “This Christmas after a year of momentous victories we chart The Journey Home,” it was to be more than eight months before the war finally ended. And, far from being swept aloft on a tide of euphoria, the British people peered into the future with as much trepidation as joy.

But why? Well, above all, the population was war-weary. Five years of rationing, of making-do and mending, had enveloped the nation in a certain dreary drabness. Severe food shortages, caused by naval blockades, had hardly lightened the mood – and had transformed home-grown produce from something that was merely desirable to an absolute necessity. Mr Middleton, whose reputation as a radio and TV gardener had been established before the war, urged the nation to “Dig for dear life” and to force rhubarb, plant potatoes and sow peas. His new book, Dig for Victory, was an all-year guide to domestic food production with adverts for Clay’s Fertilizer, which apparently would ensure: “Vim and Vigour on the Vegetable Front.”

Others had to rely upon their ingenuity, resilience and willingness to adapt their tastes. One such recalled: “Meat was rationed, butter was rationed, eggs, milk and so on and we accepted that rationing was just part of the facts of life. We found ways, like using lard and using dripping and that kind of thing to make the butter or the margarine go further…”

The tenacity of the civilian population was also severely tested by the unmanned V1 and V2 rockets, which had begun falling on the south of England in June 1944. Naomi Mitchinson noted in her diary in January 1945 that she was “getting increasingly frightened of going to London, which is silly”. Her morale was not irredeemably dented, however, and she resolved “just because I am frightened I must go”.

 

Black skies

Victory may have been within touching distance but there was no sense of things winding down – as the 150,000 men who entered the armed forces in the first half of 1945 would have attested. Those who lived near aerodromes in the Midlands saw American, Canadian and British bombers continuing their war work. “The sky was still black with planes each night they could fly,” recalled one woman. “They returned about dawn so we knew they were going much further.” On 13 and 14 February, such bombers headed for Dresden, killing more people in that one German town in 24 hours than had died in the whole of the London Blitz.

Despite the best efforts of British intelligence to confuse German navigation, London remained a target for the V2 rockets, as the following recollection from B Scarlett, whose father and five siblings were killed on 16 February, makes tragically clear. “At about 11.30pm I heard dad come home and asked mum, who had just gone to bed, if she wanted a cup of tea, as he was going to make one and have a sandwich. He then walked down to the kitchen at the back of the house.

“The next thing I knew, I was waking up, trying to turn over, I found I could not move. I remember thinking I must still be asleep and thought if I shouted I would wake myself up, so I did. As soon as I opened my mouth it filled up with dust and grit and I started coughing and spat it out.

On 27 March Ivy Millichamp of Orpington, south-east London became the last civilian to be killed in a V2 attack – and, by the end of the month, the all-too familiar wail of air-raid sirens would be heard over the capital no more. The devastation that the Luftwaffe had wrought would, however, take a long time to repair. Though an army of 130,000 men had repaired 800,000 London homes by the end of March, many families were still living in temporary and inadequate accommodation or huts. It’s hardly surprising, then, that in an interview with the magazine Picture Post in April, the philosopher Bertrand Russell intoned: “Making good the enormous destruction and deterioration of goods and industrial capital will be a stupendous task.”

But what sort of Britain would emerge from the rubble? Postwar planning had been much discussed across a wide range of groups in the country and the armed forces since the publication of the Beveridge Report (1942), which outlined plans for a new national insurance scheme and the foundations of the postwar state. The 1944 Butler Education Act had, meanwhile, guaranteed the introduction of secondary education for all children. As discussions of how to build the people’s peace became more heated, the foundations were laid to shake up the political landscape.

All the while, the war in Europe hurtled towards its inevitable conclusion. At the end of April, news arrived that Mussolini had been shot, that the German armies in Italy had surrendered, and then, on the 30th of the month, that Adolf Hitler had committed suicide.

With the führer dead, Britons huddled around their radios, wondering when victory would come. Naomi Mitchinson recorded in her diary on 5 May: “Again not V Day, dull and cold.” On the 7th she wrote: “Everyone waiting for the announcement that the war had ended and in the evening the newsreader announced, tomorrow would be VE [Victory in Europe] Day and Churchill would speak at 3pm.”

While some towns and villages had carefully laid plans to celebrate the end of hostilities, for others VE day was a more impromptu affair. Joyce Dennys’ diary of her life in a Devonshire village described the events that unfurled as the evening progressed: “In the street where I have spent so many unhappy shopping hours, a ‘Proper ole Caper’ as we say, was indeed in progress, and conveniently adjacent to the pub. Some large-hearted resident had allowed his piano to be dragged out onto the pavement and before I knew where I was I was seated before it playing Annie Lurie on as many notes as it felt like sounding…"

Britons celebrated victory just as they had endured war – with their friends and family, but also by expressing their emotions in public places. Frank Mees in Stockton-on-Tees recalled that: “Came tea time and everything stopped for tea, even celebrations. Mum had dug out a large tin of Del Monte Peaches with a hidden tin of Carnation Milk possibly saved from our last box from New Zealand. It was a rare and marvellous treat to us after years of saving food in case…

“I went off to a dance and it was riotous –flags draped around the hall and lights full on, every one kissing every one else. I drew the line at hairy faced sailors and stuck to the girls, making sure I went round several times. We sang we danced and we joined hands singing all the Songs we could think of.


A V1 flying bomb over London, 1945. (Getty)
 

“Finally tipped out of there we walked home in groups feeling as if a huge cloud had lifted off our shoulders and I must admit I never once thought of the war in the far east still going on as we sang and danced in the streets.”

 

Bankrupt Britain

Two days later Frances Partridge, a pacifist, wrote in her diary: “I feel happier and more conscious of peace than ever I expected. I am very much aware this morning that something has gone – a background to our daily existence.

For all the euphoria, Britain was virtually bankrupt – massively in debt to the United States. It’s one of the great ironies of the home front in 1945 that austerity actually deepened  after VE Day, with the government reducing bacon and lard rations three weeks later, and introducing bread rations in 1946.

Events were evolving apace at Westminster too. Churchill, the Conservative leader of the wartime coalition government, dissolved parliament on 15 June, and then embarked on a poorly conceived election campaign, characterised by attacks on his former coalition colleagues in the Labour party. For many people, Churchill was too strongly identified with fighting the war while Labour was more widely associated with domestic policies. In cinemas, the cheering that had greeted images of the prime minister on newsreels in wartime was suddenly replaced by booing.

The Labour party, meanwhile, was in high spirits at its Blackpool conference in early June. Parliamentary candidate Major Healey’s passionate speech suggested a new mood in the country. “The upper classes,” he announced “in every country are selfish, depraved, dissolute and decadent.” Polling day was on 5 July but the results had to wait for postal votes from soldiers serving abroad to be counted.

After VE Day the process of reuniting families and communities began in earnest. Over 3 million children, some accompanied by their mothers, had been evacuated to places of safety during the war. Once the bombing was over, many gleefully returned home, leaving only 55,000 evacuees to travel under the official systems via coach and train. One recalled: “When the coach arrived to take us to the station and home I did not even wait to say goodbye, but just ran and jumped onto the coach.”

Some children chose to remain with their foster parents and were adopted. Others had no choice – the authorities were unable to trace the families of more than 5,000 children. Reginald Walsh remembers being lined up with 26 other evacuees in his school in Staffordshire and the teacher saying: “‘You’re all going back apart from the Walshes’ – that was me and my sister.” His father had jumped ship and the authorities could not find his mother, who had thought he would be better cared for in the countryside, without her.

 

Crushing victory

By 26 July it was clear that the Labour party had won a landslide victory in the general election (it would secure a majority of 146) and that Clement Attlee would be Britain’s next prime minister.

But not everyone was jubilant on learning of this political earthquake. “We got a real shock when we heard our Conservative member had been beaten by 12,000 – we simply could not believe it,” said Nella Last of the Women’s Voluntary Service Centre in Barrow-on-Furness. “Someone wondered if we would get the road across Morecambe Bay now, as Labour ‘doesn’t care about spending money or consider whether it is practical’.” Meanwhile, Naomi Mitchinson remarked that she was “afraid this isn’t exactly socialism in our time”.

On 6 August 1945, the debate over which party was most fit to lead Britain in the postwar world momentarily took a back seat as news filtered through that American forces had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This world-changing event elicited the entire gamut of responses from Britons: some were awed, some frightened; some felt it was justified, others were appalled.

Nella Last, then on holiday in the Cumbrian village of Spark Bridge, recorded how a neighbour ‘Old Joe’ had brandished the Daily Mail and shouted: ‘“Look at this,’ – and it was the article about the atomic bombs. I’ve rarely seen him so excited – or upset. He said: ‘Read it – why, this will change all t’world. Ee I wish I were 30 years younger and could see it aw.’” Nella’s diary, however, notes that she “felt sick”.

How would the Japanese react to the prospect of more of these new and terrifying weapons being dropped over their homeland? The next few days were rife with speculation. Finally, on 14 August, President Harry Truman announced that Tokyo had surrendered and that, for Britons, the long, tortuous journey to victory was finally at an end.

The following day, 15 August 1945, will go down in history as VJ (Victory over Japan) Day. Yet in Britain, it marked another august occasion: the state opening of parliament. And so an ancient custom became something of a victory parade, as the king and queen drove down the Mall in an open carriage to the acclaim of the nation.


Sitting pretty: A sailor gives his girlfriend a better view of London’s VE Day celebrations, 8 May. “I feel happier and more conscious of peace than I ever expected,” said one woman of the news of victory in Europe. (Getty)
 

Once again, there were fireworks, singing and dancing. But as an entry in Naomi Mitchinson’s diary reveals, even at the moment of triumph, the celebrations were tinged with anxiety. “I know we are going to have hell trying to work the peace – trying to give people a worthwhile-ness in their peace time lives comparable with the worthwhile-ness of working together during the war.”

 

Strange meats and jitterbugs

From dancing the night away to turning dried eggs into Yorkshire pudding, how Britons lived their lives in 1945…

 

What we were listening to:

The radio became a national obsession in wartime. As one woman recalled: “We didn’t do anything else except listen to the wireless and knitting.” After D-Day the audience tuned-in for news of the Allied armies’ progress in Europe. The Forces Service played light music for audiences at home, in the forces and the factories.

Popular request programmes linked those on the home front with their loved ones who were away. The most popular comedy programme was ITMA – It’s That Man Again, which starred Tommy Handley and reputedly had an audience of 18 million.

 

What we were watching:

The cinema was the mass entertainment of wartime, particularly for women who enjoyed Hollywood escapism. Many British films in 1945 used the war as a backdrop. Great Day paid tribute to Women’s Institutes’ war efforts and followed a village institute preparing for a visit from Mrs Roosevelt, wife of the American president, Franklin.

The melodrama Love Story was a romance between a dying concert pianist and an RAF pilot going blind. The Essex Newsman assured its readers: “You will enjoy it, and you will be fascinated by the haunting Cornish rhapsody.”

 

What we were eating:

With rationing exerting an ever-tightening grip on the nation’s food supplies, only the most ingenious cooks thrived. In this spirit, newspapers carried advice on how to turn dried eggs imported from America into omelettes, scotch eggs and Yorkshire puddings.

And, as one person recalled, such creativity extended to the weekly supply of meat: “My mother used to get funny cuts of meat… we didn’t so much go in for the whale meat, but we did eat some rather strange meat, notably it was rabbit, and you could get that in the butchers without compromising your weekly meat ration.”

 

What we were dancing to:

The nearly 2 million American troops stationed in Britain prior to D-Day had popularised energetic and athletic dances such as the jitterbug. Swing bands enabled crowds, whether in the dance halls or work canteens in their lunch hour, to forget their troubles and enjoy themselves.

On 16 January 1945 The Gloucestershire Citizen announced “The commencement of the Jitterbug Contest at ‘Dancing at the Baths Tonight’,” and that “Cpt Thomas of the US army will present One Pound to the winning couple in addition to the Prize.”

 

What we were reading:

While, in the darkest days of the war, newspapers and magazines had sought to educate the public and bolster morale, by 1945 they were articulating their anxieties about what life would be like once victory was accomplished. The People wondered what would happen when “browned off-warriors – lauded to the skies in war – returned home if jobs and support were not provided”.

The News of the World ran regular stories of the violence that would ensue if men discovered that their wives had been unfaithful. The News Chronicle helpfully suggested: “The unfaithful wife of a serviceman is an outlaw… she may be murdered with impunity.”

Maggie Andrews is a professor of cultural history at the University of Worcester. She is a historical consultant for the BBC Radio 4 drama series Home Front.

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