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1941. Right now, not very far from here, the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe. Country after country, falling like dominoes. Nothing can stop it, nothing. Until one tiny, damp little island says "No. No, not here." A mouse in front of a lion. You're amazing, the lot of you.
—The Doctor, Doctor Who, "The Empty Child"

Britain during the Second World War. WW 2 had such a massive impact on British history, it's usually referred to simply as "the war".

Whale Meat Again- Rationing

In January 1940, Britain introduced rationing, since 70% of its foodstuffs were imported and the Germans wanted to starve the UK into submission. It was not the only country to do, by any means (Nazi-occupied Europe did too - even neutral Sweden, Switzerland and Ireland did, albeit under better conditions).

Rationing continued after the war. In 1946 bread was actually rationed because of the need to feed starving Europeans (specifically Germans). It was not until 1954 that the last item (bananas) stopped being rationed.

You would be given a ration book, with coupons for different products- you still had to pay for them. It wasn't much, but it actually improved many diets.

Certain items:

  • Petrol (gas) was needed for the military and farming. The farming petrol was dyed red to stop people selling it on the black market. This didn't work since the dye came out if you ran it through a gas mask respirator (note that "red diesel" still exists today, with a much better dye).
  • Fish was not rationed, but very hard to get hold of. New types of fish were introduced, but generally unpalatable.
  • Beer was not rationed (bad for morale), but was frequently watered down, otherwise limited, or just plain unavailable. With France occupied by and Italy allied with Those Wacky Nazis and every part of the supply line from California filled up with high-priority war materiel, wine was Unobtainium .
-Publican; "Looks like rain..."
Customer; "Aye, it sure ain't beer."
  • Eggs were scarce. People who had the space often kept hens: you were allowed to replace your official egg ration with an official hen food ration.
  • Only Slough could get Mars Bars.
  • Rubber (for tyres) was largely unavailable (the Japanese controlled the rubber producing countries).
  • You had to take your own food wrapping and sometimes your own glass to the pub.
  • Sausages were not rationed but were very very hard to get. They often had a lot of bread and suet in them, so much so The Times got a reasonably famous letter to the effect of "we don't know whether to put mustard or marmalade on them."
    • A joke of the period ran (in a thick mock-german accent):

 "The English make the best bread in the world!"

"Jah, but why do they call it sausage?"

Restaurants were not subject to rationing, but limits on meals were put in.

Naturally, this led to black marketeering.

Apple crumble and carrot cake were two recipes popularized due to the necessities of rationing.

The Battle of Britain

"...the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin...if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'"
—Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, 18 June 1940[1]]
"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
—Prime Minister Winston Churchill to House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, 20 August 1940

Our Crowning Moment of Awesome.

Once France fell the eyes of the Nazi war machine turned to Great Britain. After Dunkirk the British army was in tatters, although if it had failed to evacuate as many troops from France things would have been even worse. During the first year of the battle of Britain the only fully equipped battalion in Britain was Canadian, the British forces having abandoned their equipment in the retreat. A galling consequence, noted by many observers in the years following, was that the lorries and motor vehicles, as well as some tanks abandoned in France, were refurbished and used to equip new German formations and many got as far as Stalingrad under their new drivers. Captured British tanks were thought sub-standard for front line use but were used by the Germans for training and rear-area police work. (Some were used in 1945 as desperation issue against the Russians).

If Germany had taken the British Isles then an Allied invasion of Europe would have been almost impossible. Luckily, the prospects of Germany successfully being able to invade and subjugate Britain were completely non-existent, not that this was known by the people of Britain at the time.

Achtung, "Spuckfeuer"! The RAF

Germany decided that in order to invade it needed Total Air Superiority, to prevent the RAF and the Royal Navy from sending their invasion fleet down to the bottom of the English Channel. And so the campaign against the RAF began.

(This was, by the way, a completely impossible objective. Britain could replace planes and pilots faster than Germany could, with the added bonus that an RAF pilot who baled out could be returned to the fray, whereas a Luftwaffe one was permanently lost to the Germans. Even if the Luftwaffe had gained aerial superiority, it would be a fleeting victory at best and its capacity for attacking the Royal Navy with any good measure of success was totally abysmal. Add that to the weakness of the German Kriegsmarine and the total lack of suitable landing craft and the conditions for a successful German invasion are impossible to achieve.)

Britain had a few tricks up its sleeve. One of these was RADAR (RAdio Detection And Ranging). Whilst the Luftwaffe tried to surgically attack the British air bases the RAF did not have to try and patrol all of their skies all of the time, burning up fuel reserves and stopping the pilots from sleeping, but rather wait for the little bleeping lights. Of course, loose lips sink aircraft, and Britain didn't want the Germans knowing about RADAR, so they claimed that the pilots had very good eyesight from eating carrots. Carrots suddenly became very popular in Britain.

Although the Chain Home stations were rather low tech, this also meant they could be built rapidly, allowing them to be finished before The Battle of Britain and reducing the number of things that could go wrong. The Germans were, in fact, aware of them. However, they decided that the towers were too hard to destroy with bombing, and that the stations would not affect the war that much. In fact, the Chain Home stations (later joined by Chain Home Low and Chain Home Extra Low, mobile units intended to lower the minimum detection height of the RADAR) became vital, and their operators became capable of interpreting more in the data than the stations were designed to give them. They could not only tell where the enemy was but their speed, height, direction of flight and even the number of enemy planes. The creation of this system was driven by Hugh Caswall Tremenheere "Stuffy" Dowding, the head of Fighter Command, who tied the wide network of Radar, spotting stations, and airfields together by telephone and radio, enabling fighters to be launched at the optimum time for interception; as with the Bletchley Park codebreakers, Fighter Command was a triumph of technological innovation, forward thinking, and applied intelligence.

Of course the best way to avoid death and costly losses is to have the Germans drop their bombs in the wrong places. A special command in Bomber command was set up, with the aid of stage magicians to make decoy aircraft and buildings. 297 decoy sites, including several entire airfields, were built. About 1 in 20 German bombs landed on a British decoy, and these skills were going to prove vital in concealing the D-Day landings.

The pride of the Royal Air Force was the Supermarine Spitfire, indisputably the best British fighter of the war, and more than a match for the German Messerschmitt 109. While media both at the time and since focused on the Spitfire, the more numerous fighter was the Hawker Hurricane - not as fast and agile as the Spitfire, but rugged, dependable and just as loved by its pilots. In a case of Boring Yet Practical, the Hurricane's stability in flight, which made it less suited for dogfighting, made it far more capable when it came to the business of taking on German bombers; the Spitfires drew the glory, but the Hurricanes almost certainly saved more lives on the ground.

The Germans found the RAF to be a more effective opposing force than any they had encountered previously, nevertheless much damage was done and some believe that if the Germans had continued to press their anti-RAF bombings, rather than switching to the Blitz, they may have broken through.

It wasn't just British pilots, of course. People from Occupied Europe fought with the RAF (the Poles were especially good and remarkably numerous given the long journey through occupied Europe they had had to undertake), along with Commonwealth forces and American volunteers.

15 September 1940, although by no means the day with most fighting, had an air of "the deciding moment about" is often believed to be the point where Hitler effectively gave up and it has become Battle of Britain Day. Winston Churchill's account of that day in The Second World War is well worth reading- the RAF launched pretty much everything they had and were fortunate that the Germans ran out of fuel just as their planes had to land.

The Blitz

 "Phoenix Resurectum"

- Written on a slate placed over a bombed out church in Plymouth.

In addition to bombing RAF airstrips and factories, the Germans also bombed industrial targets. During a raid on Thames Haven, on 24 August 1940, some German aircraft strayed over London and dropped bombs in the city. This prompted the British to mount a retaliatory raid on Berlin the next night causing 50 deaths. After several more similar attacks by Britain, Hitler was said to be furious, and on 5 September 1940, at the urging of the Luftwaffe high command, he issued a directive "... for disruptive attacks on the population and air defences of major British cities, including London, by day and night". The Luftwaffe began day and night attacks on British cities, concentrating on London. This relieved the pressure on the RAF's airfields but increased the civilians death tolls drastically. This was the beginning of the period known as The Blitz.

The idea was to flatten the cities, wreck the infrastructure and demoralise the people. Despite creating plot fodder for a generation of childrens' books, it didn't really work. True, every night the people of major cities on the South coast (and elsewhere) were bombed, but rather than demoralising them, it generally galvanised them. "We are all in this together" was the attitude: if your shop-front was blown in you swept up the glass and hung a "more open than usual" sign on the door frame, if half your factory was flattened you put up tarpaulins and carried on working in the other half.

This reaction was by no means universal, of course. Many slept far from their homes before going into work each day.

It was during this period that King George VI and his queen, Elizabeth (no, not that one), won the enduring devotion of their people; the King vowed to remain in London "for the duration," and, despite his stutter, made a series of wartime broadcasts that helped keep morale up even as bombs rained over southern England. Buckingham Palace was bombed at the height of the Blitz, and the Queen Mother cemented her place in the hearts of the British people forever with the quote, "Finally. Now I can look the [heavily bombed] East End in the face." She also said, when asked why the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were not sent to the relative safety of the Commonwealth, that "The girls cannot go without me; I cannot go without the King; and the King will never leave his country." Elizabeth and Margaret would remain in Buckingham Palace or nearby Windsor Castle throughout the war, and HRH Elizabeth joined up with the Women's Auxiliaries as a driver and auto mechanic during the final months of the war. She remains the only female member in the history of the British Crown to hold a military title in her own right; she rose to the rank of Junior Commander.

Despite all the destruction casualties were not as high as expected, mostly because pre-war projections for this kind of attack bordered on the insanely fatalistic. Most families with a garden had an Anderson shelter, a mostly underground bomb shelter. In London, despite instructions to the contrary, people used The Tube as a shelter, and seeing as you could buy a platform ticket and stay as long as you liked anyway, no one could do anything about it. People without bomb shelters were told to crouch under the table.

Plymouth was bombed so thoroughly that it was said that if Sir Francis Drake (the guy who fought the Spanish Armada) had sailed into harbour and was told that the city was destroyed he would look over the remnants and say "look like it is all here to me." The above quote means "From the ashes, we will rise." And they did.

One of the most famous raids was on the industrial city Coventry on 14 November 1940, which killed at least 568 people and devastated much of the city, including destroying the ancient cathedral. The common theory is that ULTRA decrypts identified Coventry as a target, but the city could not be warned without alerting the Germans that the British were reading their messages, so the bombing was allowed to occur. RV Jones, a wartime scientist, however, says that the relevant message was not decrypted in time.

Quite a few of the German bombs didn't go off, leading to a lot of work (and casualties) for people who defused the things. German bombs are still being found in London today, one recently causing major traffic disruption in the Bow area for four days.

  • Kent police dispatchers have an informal script for dealing with the phone calls from worried gardeners whose spades have just hit something suspiciously round and metal. Apparently a major component is 'Did you touch it? Don't touch it.'

The Blitz effectively ended around 16 May 1941, when Hitler transferred most of his bombers in France to the Eastern Front in preparation for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the USSR. He anticipated that he would defeat the Soviets quickly and then resume the Blitz. Of course, history took a different course, almost entirely because invading Russia successfully is only slightly more difficult than walking to Pluto - or, as the world found out, achieving total air superiority over Great Britain.

There was some further bombing by German aircraft in 1942 (the "Baedeker Blitz", which just targeted tourist cities without any military reason) and the largely ineffective raids of 1943/4.

Where are we again? Signs, or the lack thereof

In order to make any German invasion harder, road signs were removed in the South of England. This meant that you really had to know the area well in order to travel there.

Church bells were silenced for most of the war, with the aim only to ring them as an invasion alarm (this occurred once during the Battle of Britain). Often all but one of the bells would be melted down for the war effort anyway, leaving just a single, lonely, bell in the tower after the war.

After the victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein in Nov. 1942, Churchill ordered the bells to be rung for the first time in years to celebrate.

Turn Out That Light! The Blackout

In order so that their cities were not advertised to any German bomber that happened to be in the vicinity, the British employed a strict blackout policy. Tube carriages had blackout netting attached to their windows, which stayed on so well that the 1938 trains found on the Isle of Wight's Island Line today still have bits of it attached.

One woman was arrested and imprisoned for ironing in the dark one night, rather than putting her blackouts up. The ARP warden could see the iron's pilot light from the street.

Lighting up cigarettes in the street was banned too and car headlights had to be mostly taped off- not that many people had cars anyway (a lot of people learned to drive during the war, thus creating a car boom post-war and major railway closures).

The blackout affected German strategy- particularly with the use of incendiary bombs. They aimed to cause fires to guide the conventional bombers.

Are You My Mummy? Gas Masks

The Germans had a known chemical weapons capacity (they first weaponized sarin) and Italy had used gas in Abyssinia. The British government were afraid of the impact German gas attacks might cause (they'd all seen the effects in World War One).

Everyone in the country was issued with gas masks, required to be carried at all times. There were "Mickey Mouse" red masks for children and gas mask drills at schools. The latter weren't taken too seriously- you could make rude noises by blowing through the rubber.

Postboxes were painted so they would change colour if gas was present.

They were never needed - Germany feared retaliation.

A quick note on the Doctor Who example referenced - the gas masks in "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" are historically inaccurate, as civilian masks had only a single visor in the adult version. These were made for the show - masks for the period have asbestos in.

"The White Cliffs of Dover"- Entertainment

"Vera, what has become of you?"
Pink Floyd, "Vera" (about Vera Lynn)

Television switched off as soon as the war began and did not come back on until after it had finished. The BBC kept going in the form of radio. Note that at this time not many people had television sets in the first place, so this was less of an inconvenience than it would be now. There was one network for the British audience, the BBC Home Service, which today is now BBC Radio 4. The BBC overseas broadcasting was of valuable help to La Résistance (who got coded messages telling them that D-Day was imminent through it) and for propaganda purposes, as it also broadcast in German.

The troops were entertained by the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). While there were quite a few talented people in that organisation, they were spread thin and the entertainment was generally sub-standard. People joked that ENSA stood for "Every Night Something Awful".

However, the semi-official "soldiers' shows" which evolved on an ad-hoc basis as local entertainment for the troops, in which talented servicemen performed to entertain their mates and keep morale up, spawned an entire generation of talent who after demob became the mainstays of British entertainment until superceded in the 1960's and 1970's by the Monty Python generation. Artistes who honed their craft on their mates included Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Tommy Cooper, Norman Vaughan, and many others. The Goon Show, cited as a seminal influence on later British comedy, had its origins in WW 2 as a satirical reaction to the petty indignities and Colonel-Blimp-like leadership imposed by the armed forces

Theatres and cinemas were initially closed, but reopened to keep up morale. A number of fairly well-known wartime propaganda movies were made including:

  • Henry V, the Olivier version.
  • Went the Day Well?
  • In Which We Serve

Music wise, the era is remembered for the Glamorous Wartime Singer Vera Lynn, aka "The Forces' Sweetheart", who is still alive today, although long retired from singing. "We'll Meet Again" or "The White Cliffs of Dover" is a Standard Snippet for a British war movie. The period was also enriched by the more proletarian Gracie Fields, a northern chanteuse who could be described as the Hurricane to Dame Vera's Spitfire. Buck-toothed comedian and ukelele-accompanied singer George Formby is also remembered with great affection.

The Home Guard

Problem 1: The only fully equipped battalion in Great Britain is Canadian.

Problem 2: There are many British citizens who could in theory fight, if trained, but for one reason or another cannot join the armed forces (too young, too old, reserved occupation such as farming).

Problem 3: Morale.

Answer: The Local Defence Volunteers, later re-named The Home Guard. Unpaid and, at least to start with, badly trained and equipped, these units were given army surplus and hand-me-downs. They were often the butt of jokes and many did not take them seriously[2]. Hitler himself thought they were a cover for something else, and was partly right. But they did valuable work, such as fire-watching, emergency work and assisting in training exercises. Their primary function was to act as an anti-paratrooper force.

There were a more than a few embarrassing instances when they where deployed as opponents in training exercises against the regular army. They had a lot of old soldiers in their ranks and a very good understanding of local terrain, leading to a nasty habit of winning.

Accidents and blunders were a common occurrence. They ranged from the daft to the downright tragic. One man ended up killing his wife while cleaning his rifle in the kitchen. Another, very young soldier accidentally killed a boy his own age on while supervising a factory. He rode up on his bicycle and the soldier told him to stop, believing he was a spy. It turned he was just there because he liked to watch them work inside the factory, and that he didn't stop because he was deaf and that he didn't hear the private's orders. The worst part of it was that he had aimed for the bicycle wheel because he had no intention of killing him, but the bullet riccocheted up from the ground and hit the boy in the back.

We will never know how effective they would have been, but one thing is for sure, they were keen and inventive. As one army officer running an explosives training course was heard to say, dangerously keen and terrifyingly inventive. Most famous these days as the setting for the comedy Dads Army. The show depicts a lot of elements quite faithfully.

Vengeance Weapon

Vergeltungswaffe in German. After the battle of Britain was won as a resounding victory for the British and the war had turned against Germany, Hitler decided he needed a miracle weapon to win. In that at least, he was right. There are three things that were called Vergeltungswaffe.


The forerunner of the cruise missile, between June 1944 and 29 March 1945, around 8,000 V1s were fired at targets in southeastern England (mostly London) and Belgium (mostly Antwerp). It had a distinct pulsing sound to the engine hence the nickname "buzz bomb" or "doodlebug". When the engine stopped, that was when you took cover.

They could be intercepted, with one Spitfire pilot flipping one over with his wings.

  • This is referenced in The Unit, when Bob tries it on a plane carrying a chemical weapon. It doesn't work.


The V-2 was the first ballistic missile and first man-made object launched into space, the progenitor of all modern rockets. Over 3,000 V-2s were launched by the German Wehrmacht against Allied targets in World War II.

More people died making it (slave labour was used) than were killed by it.

After the war, the US and USSR grabbed all the scientists and documentation they could, using it for their programs.


The V-3 cannon was not a single cannon but an underground complex of 25 guns, designed to lob shells at London from its site at Mimoyecques, France. The "London gun" consisted of five shafts each containing five 500-foot-long barrels, side by side.

Stubborn old Winston had it destroyed before it ever entered service, there was no way he was having THAT aimed at the UK.

The V-1 was capable of being intercepted and was inaccurate. The V-2 was too scarce, too small and / or too inaccurate. The V-3 was never used.

They did however suck resources and money away from the army. Well done, Vergeltungswaffe.

The Enigma Variations- Intelligence Operations

Britain did quite a lot of intelligence work during the war, much of it warranting the title of Crowning Moment of Awesome.

(Nimrod, Variation Number 9 of Elgar's Variations, is always played on Remembrance Sunday)

Of particular note are:

  • Station X, the codename for Bletchley Park. Assembling crossword puzzle fanatics, mathematicians (famously, Alan Turing), electronics engineers, and assorted others, Station X succeeding in industrialising the business of signals intelligence. Intelligence derived from the breaking of the Wermacht's three-rotor Enigma machine was codenamed ULTRA; Turing helped design the machines, known as bombes, that applied the principles discovered by Czech and Polish cypher experts on an unprecedented scale, to the extent that it was suspected that the British had sometimes read secret messages before the Germans had. They also broke several other systems during the war; The Kreigsmarine had a four-rotor Enigma, used by the German U-boat fleet, the breaking of which ultimately won the battle of the Atlantic and secured supply lines from America. There was also a ten-rotor system based on teletype codes that was used for extremely high-level German government traffic; that was broken by a machine named Colossus, which fell only slightly short of being the first stored-program electronic computer. The intelligence services also organised the fabrication of cover stories to hide the fact that we were breaking the German codes; a large part of that consisted of locating German agents inside Britain based on ULTRA decrypts, and promptly turning them into double-agents.
  • Double Cross System- the use of captured German agents for deception purposes, including convincing the Germans D-Day would be at Calais to the extent that some of the agents involved got the Iron Cross from the Germans and Operation Crossbow, where the Germans were made, by false intelligence reports, to alter the aiming settings of the V-1 and V-2 so they would land further from London. The people in charge of the operation were called Section 20, as 20 in Roman Numerals is XX.
  • Another operation (Called Operation Mincemeat) involving disguising a dead tramp as a British soldier; the corpse was set to wash up on a Spanish beach with papers that suggested the Allies were not going to attack Sicily (the obvious target) but were actually only going to use Sicily as a distraction for a two-pronged assault, Sardinia on one side, the Grecian islands and the Balkans on the other. The deception was so successful that Sicily was taken with minimal Allied casualties.
  • The Cabinet War Rooms, built in London under the instruction of Neville Chamberlain (but most famously used by Winston Churchill), were a state of the art bunker (although it was 1943 before it was bombproof and Churchill had a habit of going up on the roof during the Blitz to watch the planes in any case) and intelligence hub that had the UK's first florescent lighting for its war maps and a transatlantic phone link to the White House. The scrambling equipment for the phone was so big that the actual line ended in Westminster and an extension was set up and concealed by the simple expedient of putting a toilet door lock on it, everyone assumed that Churchill had a private loo. Apparently Churchill infuriated the White House staff by ringing whenever he had a question or idea, regardless of whether it was 3 AM or not.
  • The Special Operations Executive, created by Churchill and part set up by Chamberlain while he was in the war cabinet, with the mandate to "Set Europe Ablaze" with every last act of sabotage and dirty trickery that the trainers could think of. Trained and dropped spies over Europe to help the resistance groups, ordinary men and women risking life and limb sending secrets back the British Government. They were also responsible for Operation ANTHROPOID, training and inserting the two Czechoslovakian nationals who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SS and major architect of the Holocaust.


  1. Parliamentary debates weren't broadcast at that time, so Churchill made his speeches in the Commons then redid them on radio
  2. One story goes that the reason that the Local Defense Volunteers were renamed as The Home Guard was because the initals "LDV" could also be read as "Look, Duck, and Vanish."
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