Britain at War 1940-51

Total war WW2, and how society changed because of it.

  • Created by: Samantha
  • Created on: 14-01-13 11:45

Questions to Answer about Britain at War:

How did Churchill emerge as leader of the wartime coalition government in May 1940 + What were the personalities and policies of this governmment during the war?

What effect did the WW2 government policies have on the British people and what impact did 'total war' have on them?

What was the extent of social change in Britain by 1945?

1 of 17

Introduction + Overview:

Britain's war was split into 3 distinct phases;

1. Britain standing virtually alone 1940-1

2. Britain key member of Grand Alliance 1941-3

3. Germany + Japan defeated + Britain planning for post-war world 1943-5

Britain was incredibly proud to have 'won' the war, but in fact...

Britain's true success was in keeping the war going for long enough for it to be won by the Americans + Russians.

The war produced a strong sense of unity + purpose amongst the public, and despite coming out of it badly battered and in debt, most felt it had been worth it.

The two main questions to explore throughout this topic are;

  • How the British gvnt coped with the crisis + managed the national war effort.
  • How far the impact of the war changed the lives + attitudes of the British people.
2 of 17

Formation of the Wartime Coalition Government:

May 1940 - Britain faced the threat of invasion + seemed to stand alone in fight against Nazism. Faced 2 crises - one military - rapid advances of German forces through France, other political - public + politicians had lost faith in Chamberlain.

When scale of crisis became clear Chamberlain was criticised for...

  • Appeasement 
  • Failing to form alliances with Russia to prevent Germans + underestimating Hitler
  • Also for being underprepared in terms of military + economy
  • His own Labour party demanded he resigned + he recieved no support from other parties. He then resigned.

Replacing Chamberlain in wartime coalition = 2 Conservatives, Halifax or Churchill. Halifax first seemed like more obvious choice but wasn't confident in abilities + was too closely associated with Appeasement.

From May 1940 until his defeat in the 1945 election Churchill was PM of a truly national gvnt. This coalition proved both durable + effective in Military + domestic affairs.

3 of 17

Churchill as a Wartime Leader:

By the end of May 1940 France was collapsing + the British + French armies were retreating to Dunkirk. Yet Russia + America offered no help. Hurried plans had to be made to evacuate more than 300,000 men by seaMany members of the cabinet, including Halifax, thought negotiation with Hitler was the way forward, but...         Churchill convinced his cabinet + the public that war was the way forward if Britain was    not to become a slave country

  • From there Churchill put everything into orgainsing military effort against Germany. 
  • Summer 1940 Germany made preparations to invade British skies. 'Battle of Britain' - A few hundred RAF pilots were the key to Britain's survival.
  • By late Sep Hitler's Luftwaffe had failed + his attention switched to invading Russia. 
  • Churchill named this the 'Finest Hour' in which Britain would stand alone + ensure that the war continued long enough for others to become involved.

Churchill became legend of the war, but did have numerous faults:

  • Was impulsive + dictatorial, interfering with gvnt departments he was not involved in + ignored finance, economics + agriculture. He loved + focused on war
  • Was fortunate in his Deputy, Clement Atlee - Extremely effective in organisation.
4 of 17

Churchill's Wartime Coalition Government:

Churchill's first task as PM was to form a National/Coalition gvnt of unity, given the desperate situation across the waters... His 1940 wartime cabinet consisted of:

  • Atlee (Labour)
  • Greenwood (Labour)
  • Chamberlain (Conservative)
  • Halifax (Conservative)
  • On top of Conservatives - 2 Liberals + 14 Labour politicians were appointed at various levels of gvnt as were key individuals such as William Beveridge (Beveridge report).

Gvnt did not split Conservatives in Lloyd-George fashion + was effectiveChurchill also realised importance of Labour + Trade Union involvement for political reasons + war effort.   (Labour's strength increased as war went on; experience of gvnt + public eye were to be key factors in victory in 1945 - Was seen to have made huge contribution to success of war effort)

Policies of Wartime Coalition Gvnt:

  • Organising economy for war.
  • Paying for war.
  • Planning for post-war Britain.
5 of 17

Policy 1: Organising Wartime Economy:

As soon as war broke out Emergency Powers Act was introduced - Gvnt could make regulations covering any aspect of life. Hundreds were enforced + ministries were set up                                                                                                                           Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour, oversaw allocation of Labour:

  • Given enormous powers over Britain's workforce. Had to oversee allocation of men + women's power among demands of armed forces, industry, agriculture + war work.
  • Introduced industrial conscription - could direct anyone to work anywhere.
  • Demands of war productions soon mopped up unemployment. 
  • Forced factories to improve conditions, Eg. improving wages + maintaining workers' morale through lunchtime entertainment of BBC radio + personal speeches from him.
  • His contributions convinced people that Labour politicians could be trusted with power.

Bevin showed that a free society can be mobolised for a war effort, however there were limitations to what could be achieved;

  • Old coal mines dangerous + ineffecient = Relying on imports = V. vulnerable.
  • German U-boat attacks = Low imports = Rationing + Dig for Victory
  • Non-essential factories run down so machinery could be diverted to war work.
6 of 17

Policy 2: Paying for the War:

The war cut earnings from exports and from overseas investments which had to be sold off. Although Britain did have gold reserves these were spent by 1941. The economy was heavily dependent on American loans.

The coalition tried to pay for the war though;

  • Numerous taxes
  • Neglecting new investment in any area other than war production
  • Relying on overseas aid from Empire + USA

Canada sent a gift of $1,000 million + interest-free loans, other Empire countries also sent materials in return for IOUs to be paid after the war.

Overall: Britain payed for WW2 much like WW1:

  • Partially through higher taxations
  • But mainly through lots of borrowing.

This means that Britain was very reliant of the loans and in 1945 faced massive debts.

7 of 17

Policy 3: Planning Post-war Britain:

The war continued to go badly for Britain in 1942, despite the immediate threat of invasion being over. German U-boats threatened Britain's supply line to N. America. Luck only turned for the better in 1942, even so, plans for post-war Britain began as early as 1941. Once it was clear victory was in the horizen political + public attitudes towards planning changed.

  • Fear of mass bombing led to the Emergency Hospital Scheme + free treatment for victims.
  • Common danger encouraged a more generous attitude towards welfare, Eg. Means test was abandoned. 
  • 1944 Education Act - Free compulsory 2ndry schooling - R.A Butler.
  • White paper 'A National Health Service' introduced: everyone irrespective of their means should have access to free medical services which should cover all treatments.
  • Weekly benefits of sorts - All of these formed what would come to be known as the 'Welfare State'.
  • Beveridge report - Five giants (want, sickness, education, housing + unemployment)

A lot of these plans were brought into being in Attlee's Labour gvnt after the war.

8 of 17

Wartime Coalition + and -s:

The wartime coalition did not succeed in everything, Eg...

  • There were many humiliating military disasters
  • + were often disputes between parties + even in parties themselves about most issues. On the outside the gvnt was a picture of unity, but inside there were intense disagreements - Especially about social reforms post-war.
  • There were also disputes over how far state control should go.
  • Criticisms of Churchill + his leadership within the gvnt at times.

As the head of the gvnt, he failed to give a clear lead in domestic politics + was not always encouraging to the reformers. His lack of committment to domestic issues + his reluctance to promise too much to British public cost him many votes in the 1945 election.

9 of 17

Social Revolutions? Total War + Social Upheaval:

Social Questions we will be answering throughout this:

  • What effect did the wartime gvnt's policies have on British society?
  • What was the impact of 'total war' on the civilian population on the Home Front?
  • What was the overall extent of social change in Britian by 1945?
10 of 17

The Impact of Total War on Society - Class:

The impact of the war was felt across the whole of society, one of these aspects was social mobility. Breaking down class barriers:

  • War took people out of their localities + scattered them across Britain + even the world.
  • Military Conscription in 1940 made all men liable to being called up + mixing.
  • Took people who'd never dreamed of travelling over to other countries.
  • Races + Cultures mixed - Soldiers + Refugees all came to Britain. Eg. Black Americans found more racial equality in Britain. Also classes within Britain were working together, people met + married who'd never have heard of each other before....
  • By 1944 there were 1.5 million overseas troops stationed in Britain.
  • Women who'd never dream of working were called into Women's Auxilary Corps or industries.

The social consequences of these were sometimes positive but some more painful:

  • + Widening people's social horizens + leading them towards a better life.
  • - Petty crime, bereavements, broken marriages + ethnic violence from Americans in 1943.
11 of 17

The Impact of Total War on Society - Class:

The Working Class benefitted greatly from the war's impact on society:

  • Unemployment was virtually wiped out by the end of the war, and avaliable in places that were desolate in the 1930s
  • People were being placed in more equal jobs + earning more, women also earning
  • They were also better of in terms of rationing = More food than they initially had
  • Housing being bombed = Housing schemes placing them in places
  • Evacuation - Children from inner cities were often better looked after and healthier due to this

However there were also limitations/negatives to the social boundaries being disrupted:

  • War work involved 10 or 11 hour shifts, overtime + nights = Tiredness = Increase in work-related accidents while operating machinery - A 1000 a year were proving fatal
  • Resentment about middle classes who could drive from ruined houses to safety
  • Not everyone enjoyed being directed into sometimes noisy + dirty jobs Eg. 20,000 men directed into mining
  • Housing boom of 1930s halted + many lost
  • Wives + families of serving men lost out - Low pay for men + no overtime
  • Middle + Upper classes hit with heavy taxes
12 of 17

The Impact of Total War on Society - Gvnt Regulati

By 1941 many items of food + drink were rationed, only obtainable via coupons.

  • Eggs were in short supply, with priority for children + pregnant women, leaving everyone else with little. 
  • Meat was replaced with Spam, barely counted as meat + often the subject of jokes.
  • From 1941, clothes were also rationed as shops sold out of clothes. 'Make do + Mend' method, also restrictions on fashion - Amount of folds, buttons etc.
  • Wasting food became a law, one woman was convicted for throwing buttered bread into her garden. Families were expected to stretch food as far as possible due to blockades.

Shopping for women was very difficult, not having supermarkets they'd have to queue for hours outside a shop only to find that the supplies had disappeared anyway. Although many restritcions were lifted in 1945, rationing continued for years after the war.

  • As well as a ration book, everyone also had to carry an identity card + foriegners living in Britain were put into camps, including Mosley + his followers - Anyone considered capable of treachery were arrested without trial.
  • Censorship + Propaganda massive in influencing society's attitudes + thinking.
  • Blackouts also crucial to stop giving cues to German bombers.
13 of 17

The Impact of Total War on Society - Women:

For many women WW2 was a liberating experience, but for others it was exhausting. It did, however, pave the way for the revolution of the 60s.

In WW2 women's role was:

  • Coping with houses damaged by bombs, + keeping families together.
  • Working in factories + Auxilary corps (Older women expected to volunteer) 
  • Also maintain role of housewife + mother
  • Working aircraft + hospitals, massive range
  • Married women also worked unlike the 1930s
  • War gave them a greater status, independence + pay...

 However, not everything was equal or lasting:

  • Women still made a lot less money than men
  • Women quickly returned to life average for the 1930s - although some reluctantly

BUT WW2 still relaxed social attitudes towards women + they were allowed to have + given more responsibilities following the war. Moral constraints were also loosened during the war sexually - Paving way for 60s sexual revolution to emerge.

14 of 17

Myth/Reality? Propaganda images of WW2:

Boosting morale was v important in the war, this involved propaganda + censorship in many forms: Everything within the gvnt's power was used to portray the image that WW2 was a united, patriotic + free of class war...

  • Newsreels always disguised the fact that bombed houses were looted and that the Blackout was perfect for many people to disguise beginning a life of crime
  • It also censored worst injuries + damage + any occasions of panic were not reported.
  • The public was subjected to a never-ending stream of propaganda; campaigns designed to keep attention focused on the war effort:
  • People were warned not to talk about any war work they might be involved in or any info they may have obtained regarding shipping, airfields or the deployment of armed forces.
  • Various ministries were giving out propaganda messages throughout the war; Eg.       'Dig for Victory' + 'Careless talk costs lives'
  • Alongside official propaganda was the influence of mass culture + entertainment...
  • Despite working hours, the Blackout + bombing entertainment boomed in the war.
  • BBC made the mistake of only reporting war at the beginning but then shared comedy and music, which was also shared in culture alongside dances + cinema.
  • Americans also greatly influenced popular culture...
15 of 17

American Influences in British Wartime:

American influences on the British were not new, but the sudden influx of American culture affected Britain greatly during the war - Where there were close contacts between American troops + local people, leading to lasting friendships + 60,000 GI British brides who moved to America with their new husbands.

  • These mixing of American troops with the local girls (even the ones taken with husbands away fighting) + their higher pay, smarter uniforms + privalidges that the locals had no access to caused a lot of jealously amongst the British men.
  • Music, dance, food + language became Americanised, even through words such as 'OK'.
  • The Jive styles of dance and 'big band' styles of music took over British dance halls.
  • Some people resented the Americans for not only the way they lived and interacted with British girls, but also for the way they used colour discrimination in their army - Also trying to implement these strategies in British clubs + pubs where American soldiers situated - Often resulting in racial violence.

On the whole though - American culture and the Americans themselves had a favourable image + these images filtered in the post-war era too.

16 of 17

Summing up the Impact on British Attitudes by 1945

Extent to which WW2 broke down class barriers + increased equality in Britain overall:

  • +ly: Fundamental shift in attitudes, demanding fairness in society + this was lasting. 
  • 'Post-war consensus' after 1945 that influenced policies of main parties towards classless society + were big changes in attitudes towards gvnt + politics. 
  • Monarchy recovered from abidication and transformed image to become focal point for national unity. 
  • War strengthened imperial relations between Britain + Commonwealth. 
  • Attitudes towards Labour party + leaders changed after Attlee + Bevin's work.
  • Labour politicians proved themselves to be trusted with political power + they were associated with a popular range of domestic policies.
  • -ly: Equality only dented class barriers in long run + any ideas soon faded. 
  • Many people had their lives changed by war, but many didn't. Many people wanted changes brought by war to last but did not + it was difficult to distinguish myth from reality because of what they'd been led to believe in. 

Conclusion: British people weren't brainwashed, because propaganda could never have that kind of effect unless was truth. War did cause major shift in class attitudes and but was mainly temporary. However left ideas brewing to come into world in 1960s revolution.

17 of 17


No comments have yet been made

Similar History resources:

See all History resources »See all Modern Britain - 19th century onwards resources »