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The Home Front
What was the Home Front?
Britain was called the “Home Front” because people felt that they were part of the war. The war effected everyone whether they were on the front line (in Europe) or on the home front back in Britain.
Not everyone went away to fight, but everyone helped in the “war effort” in some way or other. The working lives of most of the adult population changed with the outbreak of war. To fight the war, men aged between 18 and 41 were needed in the navy and army. This would take them away from their jobs in factories and farms. To fill the shortage, women were recruited for jobs previously done by men. Women worked in the factories, constructing weapons and many others joined the Land Army to work on farms.
Everyone in Britain was expected to do their bit for the war effort. Some professions were reserved, which meant that men were exempt from military services. The war had an effect on every area of civilian life.
In 1938 a Schedule of Reserved Occupations had been drawn up, exempting certain key skilled workers from conscription. These included railway and dockworkers, miners, farmers, agricultural workers, schoolteachers and doctors.
Some men in reserved occupations felt frustration at not being allowed to go and fight, while those in the armed forces envied them for not being conscripted. Many in reserved occupations joined civil defence units such as the Home Guard or the ARP, which created additional responsibilities on top of their work.
Their occupations were often far from a soft option. Hours were long and conditions often difficult, and some places of work, such as factories and dockyards, were prime targets for enemy bombing. In addition, if you were in a reserved occupation you could be transferred to another site in the UK if your skills were needed there. For example, dockworkers were moved from Southampton to Clydeside in Scotland.
The effect on family life
Family life was affected primarily by the absence of many husbands and fathers, and secondarily by the employment outside the home of many women, often in traditionally male occupations.
Women were now having to go out and work which was a new concept for both them and their children. Many children had to grow up quickly during wartime as they often had to learn to tend to themselves while their mothers were out working.
Although proud that the men were away fighting for their country, there was always the constant dread of families receiving a telegram announcing the injury, missing status or capture, or death of a husband, son, or father. If a soldier was a POW, the family at home would be in a constant state of wondering if he was being mistreated, sick or wounded and not receiving medical care, and if missing it was even worse as this would cause great stress due to not knowing what had happened.
Families would sit together around the radio listening to war reports for information on how the war was progressing. They would visit local cinemas to watch newsreels for further information.
As war broke out, the Emergency Services began to appeal for volunteers, their usual numbers depleted by military service. The Auxiliary Ambulance Service began recruiting, often recruiting members as young as 16.
Many police officers also were young men or reservists, so the government and the police authorities had to recruit volunteers to keep up the numbers. Reserve policemen, special constables and women officers were signed up. As well as normal law-keeping duties, they became responsible for checking on enemy aliens, pursuing Army deserters and assisting the rescue services during bombing raids.
The Auxiliary Fire Service (later the National Fire Service) was also created. Its members were usually too old or young for military service and most were unpaid part-timers. Initially perceived as ‘service-dodgers’, they became public heroes when the Blitz began.
The Fire Service
Outbreak of the Second World War
It became clear that in the event of a war the fire service would come under tremendous pressure. In anticipation of war an Act of Parliament was passed authorising the formation of a voluntary fire service to supplement the regular Fire Brigade. The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) formed in January 1938.
The AFS expected that they would need to recruit and train 28,000 firemen to supplement the London Fire Brigade, which only had 2,500 officers and firemen at the time. Since most young men had joined the army, the AFS had to rely on those too old or young for the army. For the first time, women were accepted into the Brigade.
Regular paid fire-fighters worked 48 hours on, 24 hours off, although during the Blitz, they sometimes worked for 40 hours or more. They were joined, mainly at night, by part-time members of the AFS. For many of these volunteers, it was their first experience of fire-fighting.
The AFS set up fire stations in buildings such as schools and garages. Members of the AFS were given basic uniforms and worked with pumping units, such as trailer pumps. These would be towed by a vehicle like a taxi and painted grey.
Sometimes London’s firemen would go to other areas of the country to provide assistance, but working alongside other fire brigades was not easy. There was confusion over who was in control, equipment used by different brigades was often incompatible and each brigade had different rules and regulations.
During the Blitz, in order to take some of the workload off the fire service small fires were dealt with by street fire parties. These were civilians who were given and taught to use stirrup pumps.
Massey Shaw fire boat
During the Second World War there were nine fire boat stations, three pre-war fire boats in service as well as extra emergency fire boats and barges. The boats held pumping equipment which could provide up to 14,000 gallons of water a minute.
The Brigade’s most famed boat is the Massey Shaw, which was named after the first chief officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. The boat, built in 1935, played an important role in the evacuation of Dunkirk.
The duties of fire watchers were not to ‘watch fires’ but to look out for
incendiaries and extinguish them before a fire could take hold. A law in September 1940 required factories and businesses to appoint employees to watch for incendiary bombs outside of working hours. Incendiary bombs were quite small. They were dropped, hundreds at a time. On impact they ignited and burned.
Fire Watchers were issued with a bucket of sand, a bucket of water and a stirrup pump to enable them to put such fires out.
The Royal Observers Corps
The Royal Observer Corps were a uniformed volunteer corps affiliated to the RAF, who watched for enemy aircraft and relayed this information to military and civil defence groups.
The Observer Corps was established in 1925 to mnitor aircraft movements as the threat to cities by aerial bombardment became increasingly recognised. Initially only the south of England was covered, but in following years the organisation grew. By the beginning of World War II (1939 – 1945), the Corps had a large body of some
32,000 trained volunteers. It was organised on a country-wide basis and from their 1400 Observer posts, they were able to maintain watch over the whole of Britain.
In 1941 their work was rewarded with the title of Royal Observer Corps. During the war the ROC worked in close conjunction with the RAF, reporting the direction, height, and strength of enemy formations so that they could be plotted and intercepted. In spite of the increasing efficiency of radar, human observers were still essential to recognise aircraft types and count numbers.
The Observer Corps was called out on 24 August 1939 at the start of war between Britain and Germany. From the beginning new recruits were needed. They came from all walks of life, and included women from September 1941.
Duties of the Observers
The main task of observers was to monitor the skies around the clock, spotting and tracking aircraft by sight or sound and reporting to control centres. Control centres then gathered the information and passed it on to Fighter Command. This important work was recognised during the Battle of Britain and the corps received its ‘Royal’ title in April 1941. Post observers also guided friendly but lost aircraft to safety and some volunteered to join the Seaborne Scheme which placed observers on ships during the D-Day landings.
Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs)
The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement started over 135 years ago, inspired by a Swiss businessman, Henry Dunant. He proposed the creation of national relief societies, made up of volunteers, trained in peacetime to provide neutral and impartial help to relieve the suffering in times of war.
Following the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 the British Red Cross Society in co-operation with the Order of St John formed the Joint War Committee to pool their resources and to work together.
Members of the British Red Cross and the Order of St John were organised into Voluntary Aid Detachments (the term VAD later came to be used for an individual member as well as a detachment). All members were trained in first aid and others undertook training in nursing, cookery and hygiene and sanitation.
When war was declared in September 1939 the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John joined forces, as they had done in for the First World War, and formed the Joint War Organisation to ensure activities were carried out efficiently and under the protection of the Red Cross emblem. The Society carried out extensive services for the sick and wounded, for prisoners of war and for civilians needing relief as a result of enemy action, at home and abroad.
British Red Cross members worked in hospitals and convalescent homes, nurseries, ambulance units, rest stations and supply depots providing welfare and nursing support.
Doctors were enrolled under the Ministry’s emergency medical service for the treatment of casualties and were asked to report automatically for whole-time duty at a specified hospital at the outset of an emergency.
Workers in munitions factories made weapons (guns) and ammunition (bullets, hand grenades and bombs) needed by the armed forces. This was a dangerous job because of the risk of explosions so nobody was allowed to take anything that could cause a spark into the workshops. This meant no matches, coins, hairpins, rings or anything metallic. Despite these precautions, accidents did sometimes happen and workers were killed or seriously injured in the explosions.
As the war progressed more and more men were going off to fight, therefore women were expected to take over their jobs until they returned.
Mining was a reserved occupation and miners were exempt from military service. Some miners did join the war effort and some conscripts were sent to the mines rather than joining the army. The National Union of Miners, to highlight the important role of coal in the war effort, produced this leaflet.
Coal-mining suffered a severe shortage of manpower. In December 1943 the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, decided to select men of call-up age for the mines by a ballot. One in ten men aged between 18 and 25 were to be selected – only those who were on a list of highly skilled occupations or who had been accepted for aircrew or submarine service were exempt. These conscript miners were known as Bevin Boys’. They came from all backgrounds and worked alongside experienced miners, doing the less skilled tasks such as unloading coal from the tubs.
Some 21,800 young men became Bevin Boys, alongside 16,000 who opted for coalmining in preference to the forces, when they were called up. The scheme lasted until 1948.