Saturday, 9 April 2016

Life on the Home Front: The Declaration of War 1939

While Chamberlain tried to avoid war at all costs, it was not to be. On the 3rd September 1939 at 1115 hours, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain broadcast to the nation that the deadline for the withdrawal of German troops from Poland had passed and as such, Britain was now at war with Germany. People all around the country, sat at home listening to their radios, silently pondering the consequences. Afterwards, young men all eager to 'do their bit' and to have some excitement, rushed out to join up.

War had been expected for some time, although Chamberlain and his government had taken action to avoid it. In the meantime, Andersen shelters had been distributed to some 1.5 million homes to people living in areas which the government thought would be targeted by the Luftwaffe. The first shelter was erected in a garden in Islington, London on the 25th February 1939 and thereafter the shelters were rolled out up until the declaration of war.

Within minutes of Chamberlain's broadcast, the air raid sirens wailed out across London and people ran for the shelters to await the all-clear. On this occasion, it was a false alarm. Following the announcement, the blackout began and the lights all across Great Britain were snuffed out, one by one when darkness fell. The fleet was mobilised, placing the Royal Navy immediately in the action and Winston Churchill was given the post of First Lord of the Admiralty - the same post he'd held during the Great War.
File:Hitler Will Send No Warning Art.IWMPST13861.jpg
By Unknown (artist), J Weiner Ltd, 71/5 New Oxford Street, London WC1 (printer), Her Majesty's Stationery Office (publisher/sponsor), Ministry of Home Security (publisher/sponsor) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Gas masks had been ordered and mass produced and issued to every man, woman, and child. These were kept in a small, brown cardboard box with a piece of string attached so you could carry it over your shoulder, like a bag. Later in the war, after the threat of poisonous gas bombs had alleviated, many young women used theirs as a bag, having removed their gas mask, something that was strictly forbidden, and in its place was the ever important lipstick and a compact.

This period would be known as the Phoney War because there were no immediate attacks from the Luftwaffe. It was quiet on the Home Front. But across the Channel, Hitler's forces were quite ruthlessly storming across Europe, bringing death and destruction to hundreds of thousands of people.

During this time, Britain prepared for war. Meanwhile, on the 11th September, the British Expeditionary Force of around 158000 men, with 25000 vehicles, left for France. The French were relying on their fortified Maginot Line, a stretch of concrete fortifications that ran the length of the French-German border.
File:Barrage balloons over London during World War II.jpg|Barrage balloons over London during World War II via Wikimedia Commons.
In Britain, signposts were removed in case of enemy invasion. Coastal defences were put in place and mines laid on some beaches. Barrage balloons were deployed and would force any invading Luftwaffe to fly even higher. Millions of sandbags were made up and distributed, being piled high at the entrances to public buildings, shops and hospitals and utilised at airfields. Many couples in love decided to get married before their men were called up and so this led to a wedding boom.

Millions of women were now readying for war. They were gearing themselves up for a fight right here, on the Home Front. Plans for the evacuation of children had already been drawn up in 1938. Following the declaration of war, 1.25 million children and mothers were evacuated to rural areas over a three day period. The newly formed WVS arranged transport and many were billeted with members of the Women's Institute.

Lady Denman was appointed Director of the Women's Land Army, and as the first President of the WI, she informed her members just how they were going to be involved in helping to provide more food for their nation. As much as two-thirds of Britain's food was currently imported and the government realised they would have to take measures to grow more of their own. Again, during the course of 1938, some preparations had been made. The Ministry of Agriculture had given a grant to the WI which enabled it to provide instruction to all its groups around the country on the methods of jam making, bottling and canning.
A fruit bottling demonstration at a WI meeting in Clapham, London. Image courtesy of Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis.
The Women's Institute was the largest voluntary organisation in Britain that was non-military and had more than three hundred thousand members before war declared. With national coverage, they were very well placed to offer unwavering support to their country in wartime, which they all did. Being a pacifist organisation, they helped in a non-military way by means of providing food, knitting, sewing, establishing and running markets and helping with evacuees.

In 1937, the Air Raid Warden's Service was created and by mid-1938, there were around 200000 people involved. By the time war was declared, there were 1.5 million volunteers in the ARP - Air Raid Precautions. In the early months of the war, each ARP warden had to visit every household in his locality and register the names of each person within each home, and his duties involved enforcing the blackout.

The next installment: 1940 arrives and food rationing begins. The Phoney War is over when Germany invades Norway and Denmark in April.

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