British propaganda on the Home Front – WW2 posters

When German forces swept across the Polish border at dawn on the 1st September, 1939, they ignited a conflagration which would involve over 90% of the countries in the world, in one way or another, over the next six years. The provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, with its crippling German reparations and almost ritualized humiliation of the German people (mostly at the insistence of French politicians) had laid the groundwork for the emergence of a strong nationalist regime in Germany. If it had not been Hitler who forced rearmament and the rush to war, then it would have been someone else – the second World War was almost inevitable.

Great Britain had quietly called up its Reservists (of all three Services) starting on 28th August, 1939. The startling Non-Agression Pact signed by Germany and Russia in August had thrown the interlocking balance of European alliances into disarray, making it almost certain that Germany would attack Poland as soon as she could (the fact that a secret protocol to the pact would allow Stalin to invade the eastern half of Poland and ‘sweep up’ the relatively new countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia on his way through was a great shock to the rest of Europe).

The British Expeditionary Force was thrown forward into Belgium and France, and in a few months the British Army would be re-fighting the battles of 1918 (mainly with the tactics and even the weapons of that war) against the German ‘Blitzkreig’ tactics and weapons of 1939 – the result was inevitable; a chaotic retreat to the Channel Ports, and a near-miraculous evacuation of more than 330,000 British and French troops (minus their equipment) across the beaches of Dunkirk to England.

Meanwhile, the the British Government had put into action several steps to guard its population against what it saw as imminent destruction. The bombing of Guernica (see the painting by Pablo Picasso) during the Spanish Civil War, by units of the German Luftwaffe fighting alongside the forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, had been a horrible example to other countries in Western Europe. This, along with the published theories on stategic bombing propounded by General Guilio Douhet (1869-1930), in his seminal work, ‘The Command of the Air’, (1921) correctly predicted that, in a future war, ‘ …the nations at war, and all of their citizens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy.’ Such theorizing lead to a British Prime Minister of the day, Stanley Baldwin, to glumly declare on the floor of the House of Commons that, ‘…the bomber will always get through’. Consequently, this led to the RAF concentrating on the production of bomber aircraft during the 1920’s and 30’s, at the expense of fighter development. It also gave rise to a false assessment of the possible effects (both in terms of material and psychological damage) of the initial attack on Britain from the air. So much so that the Government had made, and stored, close to 3 MILLION cardboard coffins and had made plans for millions of mental health casualties due to the anticipated awful bombing attacks.

On Friday, 1st September, the day Germany attacked Poland, the planned evacuation of vulnerable sections of the population of London – particularly children, and particularly in a westward direction – was initiated immediately, via a well-planned and executed scheme of railway movements. Some children were sent along with their schoolmates, but many were separated from those they knew, even their siblings. In four days, nearly 1.3 million evacuees were moved out of London to western counties such as Wiltshire and Devon on board nearly 5,000 special trains. Wealthy people often moved their children privately, into comfortable situations. Poor children from the East End didn’t fit into bucolic West Country life at all, and since the ‘Phoney War’ period saw almost no raids, by Christmas 1939 many mothers from London were traveling down to the West Country in order to bring their children back home. That is the subject of the Ministry of Information poster above showing a spectral Hitler urging a mother to ‘Take Them Back!’, whilst she is told, ‘DON’T do it, Mother – Leave The Children Where They Are’. This, of course, was intended to bolster the Government’s position regarding evacuation, but the drift back was so pronounced that when the Battle of Britain broke out in June, 1940, complete with its heavy bombing raids, the evacuation scheme had to be executed all over again! By the way, don’t assume that evacuation was exclusively for London children, or took place over long distances. Many children from Derby (where Rolls-Royce was busy building Merlin aero engines – a vital part of Britain’s defence, and a prime Luftwaffe target) were sent to Duffield, a sleepy little country town just 5 miles north of the city.

The Ministry of Information had a short existence during WW1, but was quickly abolished when peace came. However, this vitally important Ministry, which dealt with propaganda for neutral and allied and enemy countries alike, (although obviously tailoring the message in form and content to match the ‘needs’ of each country) was quickly re-activated in the run up to what was to become WW2. Also, the MoI took over a public relations role, including the dissemination of information for other Government Ministries (much to their disgust) on the ‘home front’. Planning for this had been quietly going on since 1935, and the MoI sprang into action on Sunday, 3rd September, 1939.

There were major mis-steps; for example, a poster was issued that said ‘Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, Will Bring Us Victory’. This caused many working class folk to grumble that ‘the toffs want US to do it all, again!’. A procession of Ministers came and went, before Brendan Bracken, the Irish publisher and Churchill’s confidante, made the Ministry his own. It was a difficult task to balance the external propaganda needs of the country, with the vital internal public relations goals of the other Ministries, such as the Ministry of Food and the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and Ministry of Transport. Well-known artists such as Terence Cuneo, and my favorite cartoonist, Carl Giles, were contracted to produce works which could form the basis for propaganda posters. Oh, and the ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’ poster – which is now so popular, in many forms – was planned, printed, but never issued!

The poster you can see, ‘Go By Shanks’ Pony – Walk Shorter Distances And Leave Room For Those With Longer Journeys’, is urging people to free up spaces on ‘buses and trams. Naturally, there was neither enough public transport, nor drivers, to cope with the demand during the war. Rubber was like gold, since the Japanese had soon over-ran the rubber plantations of Malaya, and it was needed for aircraft, tank and motor transport production, as well as many other wartime uses. However, this poster created another problem. Britain had imported many hides from abroad to support both its shoe and other leather trades. Now, there was hardly the shipping space available to bring in food and munitions from America, let alone leather, yet it was in incredible demand for uniform belts, leather holsters, tank driver gauntlets and much more. The general population only had 66 ‘personal points’ to devote towards clothing per year, and a pair of men’s shoes would cost you 9 points! There was a shortage of skilled leather workers, too, as many had either gone into the Services or war production, so getting your old shoes mended was very difficult. Women were urged to make their own summer espadrilles, or cork-soled shoes (patterns were published), and there was even a resurgence of that working class staple, the wooden clog!

Textile production was prioritized, in all the Allied wartime economies, towards turning out millions upon millions of yards of cloth for uniforms, along with the fabric used in warplanes, and much more, besides. The meager ‘points’ ration for individuals was slightly boosted when a couple got married to enable them to buy bed linen (IF they could find it), and also if a woman became pregnant, so that baby would have SOME clothes and diapers, to start with. However, it became necessary for the Board of Trade to ask the MoI to run a publicity scheme to eke out the minute amount of cloth available to the civilian population – hence the rag doll ‘Mrs Sew and Sew’ who appeared in all the major newspapers and family magazines, giving endless tips on how to split worn sheets and sew them edge to edge, how to turn an old coat into a waistcoat and a children’s romper suit, and how to unravel and re-fashion worn knitted garments. The blank panel is intended to announce a public meeting or lecture on how to ‘make do and mend’ clothes, to make them go as far as possible. One of the huge bonuses for both men and women was the ‘acquisition’ of silk from a parachute. This was turned into wedding dresses, men’s shirts, bedding and women blouses and underwear!

The civilian population was educated towards a ‘high vegetable, low sugar, low meat’ diet. By the end of the war this was found to have initiated profound changes in the nation’s health. Less dental caries, of course, less pulmonary diseases (tobacco was strictly rationed for civilians), and substantial decreases in pediatric diseases (compulsory provision of milk, concentrated orange juice and concentrated cod liver oil for children helped a great deal). A ‘Dig For Victory’ campaigned, backed by ‘Adam the Gardner’ and other experts, along with the cultivation of public parks and other spaces changed the face of Britain. The lack of protein (priority for the Forces, once again) gave rise to use of pulses and the home production of chickens and pigs. My family lived in the country and we kept chickens and raised Wessex Saddleback pigs – we sold them to Poynter’s, a large chain of butcher’s shops in Nottingham (and kept doing so after the war was won).

‘Pig Clubs’ were everywhere. Groups of families were encouraged to raise a pig (they had to give up their meager bacon ration – 4 ounces a WEEK, on average) although they could buy a certain amount of concentrated pig food if they wanted; this was a favourite ‘hobby’ of firemen, as they had a fair amount of time on their hands when not out on a call! When the pig (or pigs) were slaughtered – under licence – the family or group shared the meat, although some was sold to the Government at a fixed price.

If you did not feel up to keep and fattening a pig, the last poster encouraged you to place your kitchen scraps (minus metal, glass, etc) in roadside bins where they would be collected by the local Council to aid pig production. Coming from a family used to raising pigs, I can tell you that the populace should have been warned NOT to place rhubarb, coffee grounds, tea leaves, and any roots or seeds of the Brassica family in that ‘pig bin’ (these will all cause digestive problems). By the way, the likelihood of you actually HAVING any kitchen scraps was very small, in a country where it was illegal to throw away a crust of bread!

I do so hope that this has given you a little insight into the work of the Ministry of Information during WW2. I shall leave you with an example of an average wartime ration (remember that bread was freely available – although rationed AFTER the war). Fruits and vegetables in season were also freely available, IF you could find them locally.

Meat circa 1 lb 3oz
Sugar 8oz
Cheese 1oz
Butter 2oz
Margarine 4oz
Tea 2oz
Lard 2oz
Candy 2oz
Preserves (includes jams, jellies) 2oz
Egg (if available) – one, or dried egg equivalent
Milk (if available) 3 pints, plus 1 pint dried equivalent

Plus six ‘personal points’ towards canned/dried foods

This ration was laid out on a table for Winston Churchill to inspect. He said that it seemed quite adequate for a day….a civil servant gently reminded him that this was for a WEEK! Apparently, Winnie was visibly shaken.

I – and my family – are eternally grateful to an elderly couple in South Dakota who sent a constant stream of care packages to my Mother (my brother was a babe in arms during the Battle of Britain). Both she and Pops were firmly convinced that they would not have made it, otherwise. So, thank you America!!

Oh, and the photograph of the facsimile poster was taken at the Midland Railway, Butterley.


5 comments on “British propaganda on the Home Front – WW2 posters”

  1. Bringing history to life and placing the reader into the moment, Ross, you have outdone yourself with this post. How did the South Dakota family know of yours, if you know? The rations so seem spare, very much so. Thanks again for giving the insight — well done!


    • It so happened that a church in Miller, South Dakota asked for volunteers amongst its members who would be willing to send parcels to families connected with a randomly chosen church in the U.K. My brother was less than 3 months old at the time, and the parcels contained baby clothes, toys, canned goods and more. When I arrived, there was a service in South Dakota at the same time as my baptismal service in Derbyshire, and I found myself with American godparents! I still have a copy of a book my godmother wrote, and a lace handkerchief in the shape of the state of South Dakota!


  2. Excellent post, Ross! Although we were not bombed as heavily as London and the Midlands, industrial centres in North-East England came under attack early in the War. We spent many nights in our back garden Anderson air raid shelter, but Teesside and Tyneside children were not evacuated to the rural areas. I still have my last Ration Book, issued in 1954!


  3. I remember Pops telling me of going firewatching, and seeing Sheffield (to the north of us) being bombed heavily; that’s one thing you can’t do, shut down a blast furnace when the air raid siren goes – that makes them grand targets! There was a searchlight sited on some high ground to the north of the village, and one night in 1940, a Heinkel III dove down the beam and machine gunned the crew. PoW Camp No. 13, at Swanwick Hayes (about 3 miles away) where my Uncle Eric was part of the Army detachment, was the one that Oberleutnant Franz Von Werra (‘The One That Got Away’) escaped from.


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