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For most Britons the Second World War ended on VE Day

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Tuesday, 31 July 2012

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This edited article about the Home Front originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 757 published on 17th July 1976.

German surrender, picture, image, illustration

General-Admiral von Friedburg signed the document of surrender which sealed the fate of the Third Reich and brought the war in Europe to an end by John Keay

Britain will win! No one had any doubt about it. In every single week of the Second World War, the message was pumped out until the truth of it was ingrained in every Briton.

So it was that if you spoke to your next-door-neighbour in even the most terrible months of the war, about the bombings, the sleepless nights, the rationing and the shortages, you did not commiserate with each other about the short amount of time you might have left to live. You simply both agreed that it would all come right in the end and that Britain would win.

This attitude stemmed from the fact that when the war began, Britain was still a major world power and, in the eyes of the British, the major world power. The hard truth, that the nation was no longer the rich power it had been, had still not come home to roost, so that when war was declared, Britain was seen as the land of fair play and decency standing up to the German bully.

It was this intense patriotism, inspired by an absolute belief in themselves, that helped the British to win the Second World War.

Remarkably, it was a patriotism fed with propaganda which was not specially ordered by Government, but which was passed on by one person to another. At a meeting of trade unionists, for instance, one of the men’s leaders declared: “Wages do not matter, food and clothes do not matter, the individual’s time does not matter – what matters is the ultimate triumph of justice and freedom for all men.”

Even when the exhortation to win did come from the Government the same frantically patriotic language was accepted with the same fervent enthusiasm. An advertisement praising savings workers and issued by the National Savings Committee intoned:

“Patient, untiring, unpaid – they work, shepherding the Groups, gleaning small sums, coaxing the slow, reminding the forgetful, doing the rounds among their workmates, their neighbours . . . Organising the women, inspiring the children . . . keeping up the great Savings Movement behind our fighting troops . . . Keep it up, neighbours. Pitch it higher, neighbours. Hit harder, save harder, WE’RE WINNING.”

Posters all over the country appealed to gardeners to keep digging to grow more vegetables. By growing more vegetables, Britain would need to import less food. So “Dig for Victory” was every gardener’s and allotment holder’s slogan.

You saved for victory, and you dug for victory in the Second World War because you felt you could not get on with anything else of any importance until the war was over. It was as if everyone had been given an unpleasant task to perform and told that they could do their own thing as soon as they had completed the unpleasant task. The will to win, not surprisingly, was uppermost in everyone, and because will-power is an important ally in adversity, it helped to turn the tide.

So it was that those who had awakened in terror in 1940 and 1941, as the endless droning of German bombers overhead signalled the start of another night of death on the Home Front, were now kept awake by the same steady sounds in the sky – but this time it was in reverse. The bombers up there now were ours and they were going to Germany to prove that the days when Britons had to look cheerful in the face of slogans like “Britain can take it!” were now over, and Britain was about to show that she could give it as well.

Curiously, the air war on Germany was a feature of the fighting in which the people on the Home Front felt very much involved. Part of the reason for this was that Britain was the base for the bombers – each great raid of between 500 and 1,000 bombers began and ended in the Home Front. The evidence of the air strike against Germany was all about you – you knew the air crews when they were off duty and you offered up a safe prayer for their return when you heard the planes returning overhead.

Another reason why the Home Front felt close to the aerial attack on Germany was the sheer numbers of people who were involved in mounting the attacks. To operate an 800 bomber raid it was computed that 100,000 people had to be directly or indirectly involved. Since the actual flying crews numbered between five and six thousand men, there was a lot of work for a lot of people toiling behind the scenes.

These vast armadas that took off continuously from Britain were soon bombing Germany on such a colossal scale that even Dr. Josef Goebbels, the infamous Nazi Minister of Propaganda, had to admit that “it can hardly be borne”. In the week ended February 12, 1945, for instance, 16,000 tons of bombs were dropped by the Allied Air Forces. This rose to 23,000 tons the next week, and to 41,000 the week after that.

What was the feeling of the tens of thousands of British factory workers busily making these weapons for what Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Secretary of State for Air, described as “this swelling crescendo of destruction”? There was no remorse, no twinges of conscience. It was felt universally that “they” who had started it all, should rightly now be given a taste of their own medicine.

When, on June 6, 1944, the Allied invasion of the Continent of Europe began, everyone knew that it was only a question of time before it would be all over. Some of the more irksome restrictions had already become needless – such as carrying a gas-mask and fixing the “black-out” every night. “Could it be finished by Christmas?” everyone asked. But this was not to be, for Hitler was determined to drag Germany down into the ruins before committing suicide. But finally Germany gave up the battle.

The day (May 8, 1945) was celebrated as VE Day (Victory in Europe Day) and in almost every street in Britain a party was held in the open air and, in the evening, a bonfire was lit in the road. They were symbolic, these fires, for they were the flames of peace rising in the very streets where once the angry flames of war had destroyed and killed.

Then there was the toll to reckon, as there has been after battles and wars since time began. The number of Britons who would never come home again fell just short of a quarter of a million. Another 277,000 had been wounded and 53,000 were missing; most of these, were, it was later to be established, dead.

In Britain 3,300,000 properties had been damaged. More than three million of these were houses, a staggering number when one is reminded that in 1939 there were 11,200,000 houses in England and Wales. However, in more than a million cases of damaged homes, the claims did not exceed £25.

Properties which were written off as a total loss numbered nearly 200,000 and by the war’s end the War Damage Commission had already paid out £271 million. This did not even include damage to public utilities, such as railways, docks, electricity, gas and water undertakings – all special objects of attack.

One of the sad things about the end of the Second World War was the slowness which things took to get back to normal. For those who expected a sudden, bright new world of plenty, there was an awful anticlimax in store. The rest of the nineteen-forties were in some respects not much better than the war years. Austerity took over from Victory as Britain’s new watchword, and rationing was to last until 1952 – longer in peacetime than it had lasted in wartime. By then the war was becoming a distant memory, an age had passed and a new generation had grown up.

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