The Second World War


The Second World War officially started for the UK when Britain declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939, after Germany invaded Poland. Britain’s initial allies were her colonial territories (Canada, India, Australia etc.) and France, Belgium, Holland and Poland, but as the latter countries came under German control, the British Empire fought almost alone until, in 1942, America joined the Allied powers.  The opposition, referred to as the Axis powers, comprised Germany, Austria, Italy and Japan (who threatened Britain’s colonial possessions). Under the leadership of Stalin, communist Russia initially signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler, until Hitler reneged on this in 1941, after which Russia joined the Allies.
In the UK, conscription (a law which obliged men to join the armed forces) had already been introduced five months prior to September 3rd. By the end of 1940, some two million men had been recruited. Men in reserved occupations (jobs which were vital to the war effort) were excused, such as coal miners and farm workers.


Children being evacuated during WWIIFrom 1933 onwards, Germany had been building a strong air force under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. The British government expected air raids on industrial cities, so children, disabled people and pregnant women were moved to the countryside. Between 1st and 3rd September 1939, over one million people were evacuated from the cities.


On 2nd November 1939, the Ministry of Food announced that some food was going to be rationed. At first, it was just butter, bacon, sugar and meat, but eventually all food except bread, cereals and potatoes came under the scheme. Other goods, such as clothes and petrol, were also rationed. The government encouraged people to grow food on allotments and ‘make, do and mend’ clothing and equipment.


Britain had experienced some limited bomb damage during the First World War. But in the Second World War, the scale of destruction was much higher.

The first blitz

The Germans began bombing London in September 1940 and soon most major cities were being targeted as well. On 15th November 1940, one single raid destroyed much of the city of Coventry. By the end of 1940, some 22,000 British civilians had been killed in German air raids.

The second blitz

The bombing of cities continued as the war progressed. But there was a second major blitz in 1944, when the Germans launched two secret weapons:
  • The V1 - A pilotless aircraft which carried one tonne of high explosives. Starting in June 1944, hundreds of them were launched over England. The engine was programmed to cut out, so that the V1 would plunge to the ground and explode.
  • The V2 - A rocket which could carry one tonne of high explosives. Germany started to use them in September 1944. They could travel from their launch sites in Holland to London in just three minutes.


Just as in the First World War, women were needed to do jobs formerly done by the men now serving in the armed forces. Some 800,000 women worked in factories, on farms, in local government and in shipping. Women aged 18-30 who were not doing war work were called up to join one of four organisations:
  • The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS)
  • The Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF)
  • The Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS)
  • The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA)
By 1944, there were around 400,000 women in uniform.


Damage and shortages

Because of the German bombing campaign, some three million homes were damaged or destroyed. Factories, ports and railways were also wrecked. Derelict bomb sites remained a feature of Britain's towns and cities until the 1960s. In addition, Britain faced huge shortages of food, fuel and housing. Food and clothing continued to be rationed until 1954.
The huge costs of re-building shattered cities and economies were funded primarily by America, under a loan scheme known as the Marshall Plan. This scheme was also applied to devastated European counties, including the Axis powers, so as to avoid the economic problems and consequent rise of Fascism which had developed after the First World War.

Political and social change

During most of the war, Britain had a coalition government led by the Conservative Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. At the end of the war, a Labour government was elected. The social intermingling of the huge numbers involved in the war effort, as well as the sense of communal sacrifice, led to greater social cohesion after the war. The Labour Government sought to deal with Britain's social problems by setting up a welfare state, paid for by National Insurance contributions across all strata of society. This greatly increased people’s access to free or affordable:
  • Healthcare
  • Education
  • Social housing
  • Unemployment and sickness benefits.
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