The Home Front

Civil defence and rationing Powdered food, blackout precautions, wailing sirens, bombing and evacuation were realities known to millions of people in many different nations in World War II. The organisation of the home front transformed society. The mobilisation of women for industry, the rationing of food and clothing, the morale-boosting films and newsreels, the packing of parcels, the homecomings and the harrowing tragedies, all combined to make the global drama a uniquely powerful experience for all who lived through it.

The Countdown to Conflict

Shortly before 5am on Friday 1st September 1939, German forces stormed the Polish frontier. Tanks and motorised troops raced into the country over ground baked hard by a glorious summer. Later on that Friday morning Hitler spoke to the Reichstag in Berlin, informing them of recent events.

At 11am on 3rd September, British listeners tuned their radios to the BBC to hear an announcement to stand by for a speech from the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. All over the nation families gathered around their radios as Chamberlain came on air. His voice was tired and strained. Britain had called for an undertaking from Hitler to withdraw his troops from Poland. "I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently this country is at war with Germany."

There followed a nervous seven months known in Britain as the Bore War or Phoney War. Though nations were geared up for mass confrontations, nobody seemed in a hurry to start fighting on land.

This period ended with a terrible crescendo in the spring and summer of 1940, as first Denmark, and then Norway, the Low Countries and France all fell to a new wave of Nazi onslaughts. After the invasion of Norway the Norwegian merchant fleet headed for Allied ports and 3,000 men arrived in Britain. A group travelled to Dumfries, and in the following days hundreds more arrived from all corners of the globe and were billited in Troqueer Mills. Dumfries soon became the home of the Norwegian army in exile, with their headquarters at Norgus Hus, now the Edinburgh Woollen Mill shop opposite Burns Statue. For the next few years Norwegian soldiers were a familiar sight in the town, and many married local girls.

Mussolini's Italy entered the conflict on 10th June 1940, while the Germans surged towards Paris. Stalin's Russia had started the war as a partner of Germany, but shortly before dawn on 22nd June 1941, Hitler launched a surprise attack on his former friend. War came to the United States with similar suddenness as Japanese torpedo bombers screamed down on American warships in the naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, on the morning of Sunday 7th December 1941.

Britain Prepares

Preparations for mass bombing began long before the war broke out. In Dumfries the search for Air Raid Wardens began in March 1938, and the townspeople were being fitted with gas masks during January 1939. Over 38 million gas masks were given out to British families, but they were never needed. Yet these cumbersome items loomed large in everyday life during the early stages of the war. They were carried in square cardboard cartons under the arm, or slung in knapsacks over the shoulder. Fitted onto the head they made breathing difficult and smelt of rubber and disinfectant. Children discovered, to their delight, that they could blow rude noises by exhaling sharply into them so that their clammy side pieces vibrated against the cheeks.

The steel-built, tunnel-shaped Anderson shelters, erected in people's gardens, proved more valuable. In February 1939 the Home Office - the government department responsible for law and order and people's safety - announced plans to distribute shelters to thousands of homes in the areas most likely to be hit by German bombers. About 2 million shelters had been issued by September 1939. They were made from six curved sheets bolted together at the top, with steel plates at either end, and measured 6ft 6in by 4ft 6in (1.95m by 1.35m). The shelters could accommodate six people, or more if bunks were suitably arranged. A shelter could be built by two people and was half buried in the ground with earth heaped on top.

Leaflets about home defence were pushed through letter-boxes during the summer of 1939, advising on how a cellar or basement might be turned into a refuge room, and how sandbags might be stacked to protect against bomb blast. The first public air raid shelters in Dumfries were not built until September 1940. There was guidance on blackout restrictions that sent people scurrying out to buy thick curtains, blackout paint, cardboard, brown paper, glue and drawing pins - all to blot out the least glimmer of light from windows in case it should help enemy bombers.

The real blackout began on the night of 1st September 1939, when all street lights were turned off and cars crawled along roads with their headlights turned off. The results were worrying. Pedestrians tripped over kerbstones, twisted ankles, or crashed into one another on the pavement. The number of road accidents soared, and the total killed on the roads almost doubled.

The Evacuees

The government thought all sorts of people needed to be evacuated to relative safety outside big towns and cities. Children, above all, were thought to need protection. No one was forced to go, but the authorities offered plenty of encouragement and in September1939 the number of official evacuees was about one million.

Dumfries was considered a relatively safe town and in April 1939 all households were surveyed and a list drawn up of spare rooms which could be used for evacuated children. On the first morning of the exodus, there was a strange quietness in the big cities as vast armies of youngsters passed by, labelled and clutching their gas masks, heading for the buses that would carry them to the main-line stations. After their train journey they arrived at an often unknown destination tired, hungry and uncertain whether they would ever see their families again. Several hundreds of Glasgow evacuees, including some parents, arrived at Dumfries Railway Station. From here they walked to the British Legion Hall in Irish Street where there was a 'pick-your-evacuee' session, where hosts haggled over the most presentable children while the sicklier and grubbier ones were left until last.

Evacuees were billeted on people - if you had a spare room you had to take them in. Complaints of thieving, swearing, bed-wetting and general smelliness were made against the 'townie' children who frequently came from the slums and backstreets of Britain's big cities. Genteel spinsters and quiet bachelors were expected to cope with streetwise urchins suffering, perhaps, from scabies or impetigo. Small wonder that there was friction, with hosts paid only a meagre sum for a child's board and lodging. The city-bred children were often homesick and disorientated. Many had never seen green fields or cows before. Knives and forks were a novelty.

Later some remembered their experience with fondness, recalling kindly hosts, the pleasures of bramble-picking expeditions, stealing apples from orchards and other country delights. When schoolchildren were evacuated from city to countryside their teachers went too, and classes were sometimes held out of doors. It was all new to town children. "They call this spring, Mum, and they have one down here every year", one evacuee is said to have written.

But the episode was generally a failure. When no bombs fell to justify the exodus, the evacuated children slowly trickled back to the towns.

The Home Guard

For months after the outbreak of war, the expected swarms of German bombers failed to appear over British cities. This strange, edgy period known as the Phoney War lasted well into 1940, but the evacuation of the British army from the Channel port of Dunkirk and the fall of France prompted real fears of invasion.

In May 1940, War Minister Anthony Eden called for a new defence force to be set up. It was originally known as the LDV or Local Defence Volunteers. Recruits were supposed to be between 17 and 65 years of age and the only fitness requirement was that they should be "capable of free movement". The response was huge. A quarter of a million men joined within a week and the numbers had doubled by July when, at Churchill's suggestion, the force was renamed the Home Guard.

The volunteers were not paid and, in the early days, few were equipped with rifles. One gun had to serve for ten men on average. Whiskery old veterans of World War I and earlier, paraded alongside beardless boys, drilling with sporting guns, walking sticks, golf clubs, broom handles - whatever was available. The Home Guard's task was to keep watch on coasts, public buildings, roads, railways and so on for signs of enemy invaders, who might come by parachute as well as in seaborne landings. Home Guard members also did important work in bringing in enemy airmen who had been forced to bale out of wrecked aircraft.

Air Raid Wardens supervised air raid procedures in the streets and in shelters, issued gas masks and checked the blackout. One in every six was a woman. From 1941 the Fire Guard supervised street fire fighting.

After many false alarms Dumfries had its first air raid at midnight on 4th October 1940. The Air Raid Protection log records "large number of incendiary bombs fell apparently on level ground to south of Lockerbie Road at foot of Torthorwald Brae. Enemy planes circled town several times". Bombs were dropped on Kirkconnel in the same month in March of the following year Sanquhar was bombed. A few days before Christmas the town received its first red alert, and the siren was used for the first time. This meant that there was imminent danger of a raid. The log records, "No reports of panic, although some excitement. Centre of town people generally refused to take shelter." On 9th January a second red alert was sounded during the early afternoon. The log records sternly "Children from the Academy wandering round streets aimlessly. Reported to Chief Warden".


Rationing was a complicated system involving a lot of paperwork. Everybody was given a certain number of coupons which they needed to hand over when they bought certain scarce foods. But despite official misgivings, it was popular with most people because of its fairness. The rich were hit as much as the poor. In the better-off houses a weekend guest might arrive with his own little parcel of butter to give to the butler who took his suitcase!

To ensure that everyone was adequately nourished, what were called British Restaurants were set up, where workers could get a meal at little cost. Minced beef with carrots and parsnips was a typical dish. In October 1942 Dumfries' British Restaurant was set up in a Nissan hut where the Ewart Library car park is now. To boost the vitamin intake, the Ministry of Health made sure that every child received daily milk, cod liver oil and orange juice. The Ministry also filled newspapers with information intended to keep the nation healthy, and to make the best of unrestricted foods, particularly vegetables. Open any magazine and there was 'Good News About Carrots!'

Pigs' brains and cows' udders were eaten. Customers could have a modest-priced meal without coupons, but they had to be careful. Sometimes, having finished a juicy steak, the restaurant-goer might see a notice saying, 'Horse is Provided Here'.

Bread was never rationed in Britain during the war years, and despite its unappetising greyness the long, coarse 'National Loaf' had its admirers. Children often had it cooked, mashed with parsnips, a little sugar and some essence of banana, to make what passed for 'mashed bananas'.

'Dig for Victory' was one of the great wartime slogans, first launched in a broadcast of October 1939. It called for every able-bodied man and woman to dig an allotment in their spare time. Lawns and flowerbeds were turned into vegetable gardens. Office workers cultivated plots in town parks. The aim was to make Britain as self-sufficient in food as possible. Chickens, rabbits and even pigs were reared in town gardens.

Although cigarettes and alcohol were never officially rationed, they were often in short supply. Many shopkeepers made a point of allocating their own limited stocks of small necessities to their favourite customers. Housewives often finished shopping by asking the shopkeeper "AUC?" meaning "Anything Under the Counter?"

Make Do and Mend

'Make Do and Mend' was, above all, the order of the day. There were huge salvage and recycling drives in which scrap materials from rags to waste paper were collected and carted away to be reprocessed. In January 1942 over 100 tons of paper salvage was collected by the people of Dumfries, and in April 1944, 58,000 books were collected in another salvage drive. Animal bones were salvaged to make glue for aircraft. In the great drive for scrap metals, householders' aluminium pots were collected to make Spitfire fighter planes, and parks, gardens and town houses were stripped of their ornamental iron railings. In October 1942 garden railings in Dumfries began to be removed, sacrificed to make ships and tanks.

In much the same spirit, ordinary people adapted service materials from army blankets to parachute silk to meet their fashion needs. Clothing was rationed from June 1941 on a points system. In principle, it allowed people to buy one complete new outfit a year.

Meanwhile, new 'Utility' clothing was introduced. To save fabric, men's trousers were made without turnups while women's skirts were short and straight, with no trimmings.

The women's magazines were packed with handy tips on how, for example, old lace curtains might be cut up to make a "dashing little bolero". Stockings were in short supply so girls coloured their legs with shoe polish or gravy browning. A line down the back of the legs with eyebrow pencil made the seam.This worked well until it rained!

Aileen Martin, who was a child in Dumfries during the Second World War, recalls, "my sister complained that she never got any new clothes as mine were altered for her, but many people swapped clothes which were in good condition for other things like butter or eggs. My mother was very proud of a summer dress she made out of dusters which at that time were not on coupons. She also collected all her discarded silk stockings which had 'laddered' and darned all the ladders and shared the stockings with a neighbour who had none. Our neighbour had painted her legs with leg tan to make it look as if she was wearing stockings."

Even the design of tables and chairs was influenced by wartime shortages. The wood used and the amount of decoration was limited by government specifications. 'Utility furniture' was the name given to the resulting articles, which were plain but serviceable.

Bombing raids, petrol shortages and blacked-out streets meant that ordinary people spent a lot of evenings at home. The radio served as a lifeline, and families, friends and neighbours crowded round the set to listen to the nine o'clock news on the BBC Home Service.

It was over the radio that people heard Churchill's stirring broadcasts to the nation. On weekdays, at 8.15am, Kitchen Front broadcasts were made, giving information on food prices and availability.

Children's Hour did much to reassure the young with the soothing voice of 'Uncle Mac' (Derek McCulloch) and the humour of characters such as Larry the Lamb and Dennis the Dachshund. For adults, the great comedy hit was Tommy Handley's ITMA (It's That Man Again) - a true phenomenon of wartime broadcasting.

For continual music and variety, millions tuned in to the Forces Programme which started broadcasting in February 1940 with 12 hours of light entertainment a day, from 11am to 11pm. Created for troops crowding canteens and billets, the programme also attracted a huge civilian audience. To escape the claustrophobic atmosphere of home, people went to the cinema. They were prepared to queue for hours to get in, and 25-30 million tickets were sold each week. The big picture houses with romantic names like Majestic, Palace, and Alhambra, created dream worlds where for a few pence the dark streets and the bombs could be forgotten.

The most popular movies were adventure films, comedies, westerns and musicals from the United States. Most successful of all was Gone with the Wind (1939), which played in London's West End non-stop from the spring of 1940 to the spring of 1944.

In the home, people played songs on 78rpm records which scratchily reproduced the sound through steel needles and wind up gramophones.

People made their own entertainment, and community singing and poetry became popular. They also went to art exhibitions and classical concerts. In the Autumn of 1940 top of the bill in Dumfries was a concert by a Polish choir at the Lyceum Theatre in aid of the Spitfire Fund, and an exhibition on Norwegian life at Norgus Hus near Burns Statue.

Britain at Work

In March 1942 Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour, announced the call-up of British women to help in the war effort.

One vital need was for women to work in munition factories, filling shells with explosives. There was a wealth of other options and, as more and more women were conscripted, they found work in tank and aircraft factories, civil defence, nursing, transport and other key occupations, so releasing men for the armed forces.

Women manned anti-aircraft batteries, drove trains and tractors, operated cranes and became proficient spot-welders. Fancy clothing was out. The working woman often wore trousers or dungarees with a scarf tied around her head.

Many women, including waitresses, hairdressers and typists, joined the Women's Land Army, hoping to become farm hands. Kitted up in green jerseys, brown breeches, brown felt slouch hats and cotton blouses, Land Girls had to work hard.

A working week of 50 hours was compulsory, and they were allowed one week's paid holiday a year. Milking, ploughing, weeding, hoeing, muck spreading and harvesting were among the tasks, but there were more specialised jobs such as rat catching. It was all back breaking work, and many a recruit, enticed by cheery posters of Land Girls cradling lambs, found herself bitterly disillusioned.

By 1943 about 90% of single women and 80% of married women were engaged in some kind of war work. Many women enjoyed their transformed lives, with the chance to earn wages, and the new challenges and new freedoms. But they did not get equal pay with men, nor did they get real opportunities for promotion.

The Children's War

War changed every aspect of life. Its themes entered boys' comics like the Adventure, the Rover, the Wizard and the Skipper, where German spies, secret codes and invisible ink were staple fare. Germany's leaders were usually turned into figures of fun. The much-loved comic Beano had Hitler and Goering portrayed as Addie and Hermy - the Nasty Nazis. "Himmel! Der pig-dog British are saving all their waste paper!" they would cry in alarm as they scanned the embattled island through their magic telescopes.

The Beano's favourite figure of fun was Musso da Wop, Mussolini, the Italian leader. His bungling generals were capable of every kind of stupidity, even supplying their troops with spaghetti for bootlaces. The Beano also put a few riddles before its readers. "Why does Musso never change his socks?" asked one. "Because he smells defeat". Fearing that readers might fail to spot the joke, the editors took the precaution of adding "de feet" in brackets.

The war was not always presented to children in such frivolous terms. Publications for the young also contained uplifting encouragement to "Do Your Bit", along with surveys of "Our Wonderful Fighting Forces" and morale-boosting articles with titles such as "Why We Cannot Lose". And there were plenty of contributors, too, who simply carried on regardless, penning their usual escapist fare about assorted footballing heroes, schoolgirl detectives, jungle explorers and prairie queens as if there was no war at all.

Aileen Martin recalls her wartime childhood in Dumfries, "in my class at school we had evacuees from England and Glasgow. At our sewing class we knitted balaclava helmets, mitts, scarves, gloves and socks for the troops, and sewed our names inside with a message of good luck. As it was so dark at night with all the houses blacked out with special black out curtains and no street lamps, we did not go out a great deal but listened to the radio. Children's hour at 5pm was a great favourite. We also read lots of books. All the children knew how to use the stirrup pump and we used to have good fun in the summer when it was hot, squirting water at each other. I was given a small part of the garden to grow my own vegetables because everyone was encouraged to 'Dig for Victory'. I grew peas, turnips and potatoes but I hated weeding."

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