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Growing Up In The Second World War

The Second World War was a time of major upheaval for children in Britain. Over a million were evacuated from towns and cities and had to adjust to separation from family and friends. Many of those who stayed, endured bombing raids and were injured or made homeless. All had to deal with the threat of gas attack, air raid precautions (ARP), rationing, changes at school and in their daily life.

Disruption and shortages continued after the war and the post-war period saw changes that would have a lasting impact on children's lives.

Here are 11 ways children were affected by the Second World War.

  • 1. The threat of war

    Basque refugee children being cared for at Bray Court near Maidenhead, England. © The rightsholder (IWM HU 33135).
    Basque refugee children being cared for at Bray Court near Maidenhead, England. © The rightsholder (IWM HU 33135).
    HU 33135

    In the 1930s the rise of Nazism was a growing threat to peace in Europe. Britain began to prepare for the possibility of another war. It was feared that air raids and gas attacks would be launched against civilians, and detailed plans for Air Raid Precautions (ARP) were drawn up. During the Munich Crisis in 1938, war seemed imminent and some precautions were quickly put into action. Air raid shelters were distributed to householders, a night-time blackout was planned and 38 million gas masks issued. Arrangements were also put in place for the mass evacuation of children from cities. At this time Britain also became home to 4,000 'Ninos', children caught up in the fight against fascism in Spain. From December 1938, nearly 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia were sent by their parents to Britain on the 'Kindertransport', to escape Nazi persecution.

  • 2. Evacuation

    An image of a policeman helping some young evacuees at a London station.
    An image of a policeman helping some young evacuees at a London station.
    LN 6194

    On 1 September 1939, two days before war was declared, the British government began evacuating children from towns and cities. It was the largest movement of people ever seen in Britain. Most traveled by train with their schools and went to live with foster parents. Evacuation was an adventure for some who had never seen the countryside, but others were homesick and unhappy. Foster parents were often shocked by the lack of hygiene and poor diets of inner city children. Equally, some town children found themselves staying in isolated, primitive farming communities with no electricity or running water. During this early period, known as the 'Phoney War', the expected air raids didn't happen and many evacuees went home. But the invasion of France and the start of air attacks on Britain, led to a second wave of evacuation, including thousands of children who were sent overseas to North America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

  • 3. The Spitfire Summer

    An image of two schoolgirls sitting on part of a Nazi bomber which crashed near crashed near their home, August 1940.
    An image of two schoolgirls sitting on part of a Nazi bomber which crashed near crashed near their home, August 1940.
    HU 106837

    After the fall of France in the summer of 1940, there was a real fear that Britain would be invaded. The Channel Islands were occupied in early July and the islanders found themselves living under Nazi rule. Shortly afterwards, the Germans began a series of air attacks against Britain. Families in southern and eastern England were felt to be on the front line. More children were evacuated, often from areas where they had previously been sent for safety. Many of those who remained witnessed the dramatic aerial dogfights between British fighter aircraft and German bombers during the Battle of Britain. Boys aged 17 and over joined the Home Guard to help defend towns and villages against the anticipated enemy invasion.

    Children of Austrian or German descent now risked internment. Over 14,000 Austrians and Germans living in the UK, including 500 children, were interned on the Isle of Man as 'enemy aliens'.

  • 4. Air raids

    Children searching for books among the ruins of their school in Coventry after a night raid, 10 April 1941.
    Children searching for books among the ruins of their school in Coventry after a night raid, 10 April 1941.
    PL 4511A
    From September 1940 the German air force began night bombing of cities throughout Britain. At the start of the Blitz, London was attacked on 57 successive nights and later there were heavy raids on other major cities and ports. During the Blitz 7,736 children were killed and 7,622 seriously wounded. Many children were orphaned or lost brothers and sisters. As well as being victims of the raids, children were involved in relief efforts. Those over 16, including Girl Guides and Boy Scouts, helped with Air Raid Precautions (ARP) services, (later known as Civil Defence) during air raids, acting as messengers, fire watchers, or working with the voluntary services. The work could be highly dangerous and many were killed while on duty. Bombing continued throughout the war, and in 1944 new weapons, the V1 flying bomb and the V2 rocket, caused more devastation and casualties.
     
  • 5. Wartime homes

    A family sit down for a meal in a 'prefab' house.
    A family sit down for a meal in a 'prefab' house.
    D 24227

    Standards of wartime housing in Britain ranged from dilapidated tenement slums to stately homes. A high proportion of families still had outside lavatories and no bathroom. Children often shared beds with brothers and sisters or parents. During the war, over 200,000 houses were totally destroyed by enemy bombing. Many children had to re-locate several times, often into prefabricated, emergency homes like the one shown in this photograph. In all, 34 million changes of address took place during the war.

  • 6. Rationing

    Schoolboys harvesting sprouts which they have grown in their school garden, Worcestershire, 1943.
    Schoolboys harvesting sprouts which they have grown in their school garden, Worcestershire, 1943.
    D 17504

    Everyone living on the home front in Britain during the war had to cope with shortages of food and clothing. Imported food could no longer reach Britain in such large quantities and food rationing was introduced in January 1940. Meat, sugar, butter, cheese, and eggs were all rationed, and people were encouraged to grow and eat their own vegetables and to try new recipes. Children joined in, growing vegetables at school and at home. Child health and welfare was a priority, so babies, children and expectant mothers had special allocations of milk and were given vitamins in the form of orange juice and cod liver oil.  From June 1941, clothing was also rationed. This was a particular problem for parents of growing children and in 1942 the scheme was adapted so that children were allocated extra clothing coupons. Clothing exchanges were also set up and run by the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) where parents could exchange clothes and shoes that their children had outgrown for larger items. However, children's shoes remained in short supply throughout the war.

  • 7. School

    A lesson taking place in a school basement during in 1941. The teacher and pupils are all wearing their gas masks.
    A lesson taking place in a school basement during in 1941. The teacher and pupils are all wearing their gas masks.
    D 3151

    The war disrupted the education of many children. The mass evacuation of 1939 upset the school system for months and over 2,000 school buildings were requisitioned for war use. One in five schools was damaged by bombing, and air raids frequently stopped lessons for hours, leading to a decline in attendance. Although many schools were evacuated during the war, others chose to stay open and 'make the best of it', converting cellars and basements, as shown in this photograph, into makeshift classrooms. Teachers, books, paper and equipment were all in short supply. When the war began in 1939, most children left school at 14. The 1944 Education Act changed this, introducing free secondary education for all children and a leaving age of 15, but it didn't take effect until after the war.

  • 8. Work

    Fifteen year old Rose Brown of Walworth, south London, on her milk round. She took over when the milkman was called up.
    Fifteen year old Rose Brown of Walworth, south London, on her milk round. She took over when the milkman was called up.
    PL 4059B

    During the war, many children between the ages of 14 and 17 were in full-time employment. They worked in agriculture, in offices and the major industries such as engineering, aircraft production, shipbuilding and vehicle manufacture. From 1941 all those aged between 16 and 18 were required to register for some form of national service, even if they had a full-time job. Boys received their call-up papers for the armed forces when they turned 18 and girls were also conscripted, either joining one of the women's auxiliary services or taking on other essential war work. Younger children were expected to do their bit by salvaging scrap metal, paper, glass and waste food for recycling. They also raised money for munitions, knitted 'comforts' for the troops, and were encouraged to 'Dig for Victory' in gardens and allotments.

  • 9. Play

    Children play in a village street after being evacuated from London .
    Children play in a village street after being evacuated from London .
    ZZZ 14079

    Despite wartime conditions, children still had time for games and entertainment. Cinemas were popular with both teenagers and younger children. Bomb sites made tempting play areas and hunting grounds for shrapnel souvenirs, and toys and games with a wartime theme were very popular, usually homemade because of the wartime shortages. Comics and books, such as the Captain W E Johns's novels about 'Biggles' and 'Worrals of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force' (WAAF), also focused on heroic exploits and wartime adventures. The arrival of large numbers of American soldiers (known as GIs) and airmen in 1942 was an exciting development and brought American culture to British children in person for the first time. American servicemen were generous with their off-ration chocolate and chewing gum, and organised children’s parties and dances at their bases.

  • 10. The end of war

    Celebrations in Acton, west London on the evening of VE Day, 8 May 1945 .
    Celebrations in Acton, west London on the evening of VE Day, 8 May 1945 .
    EA 65881

    The Second World War ended in 1945, after the surrender of Germany and then Japan. Victory in Europe (VE Day) was celebrated on 8 May, and victory over Japan on 15 August. On VE Day there were thousands of street parties, fancy dress parades and bonfires held across the country. Although food was still rationed, great efforts were made to provide treats for children. Similar events took place on a smaller scale after the Japanese surrender.

    After the war ended, family life remained disrupted for many months, and sometimes longer. Evacuees who had stayed in the country now rejoined their families after years of separation. Fathers returning from the forces or from prisoner of war (POW) camps, seemed like strangers to children who had never known them.  And for children who had lost parents or loved ones, or had been made homeless by the war, life would never be the same again.

  • 11. Peacetime

    A mother and baby meeting a health visitor, March 1953.
    A mother and baby meeting a health visitor, March 1953.
    (MOW) L 44931

    The Labour landslide victory in the General Election of 1945 paved the way for new reforms to improve the health, welfare and education of children. Based on the proposals in the 1942 Beveridge Report, the National Health Service was introduced in 1948, giving free healthcare to all. The Family Allowance was established and secondary schools were available for all children over 11.

    However, there was still great austerity. Shortages of food rationing and fuel continued and rationing didn't end until 1954. Although several 'New Towns' were planned around the country and bomb-damaged housing was gradually rebuilt, many families still lived in emergency 'prefab' homes. But despite the shortages and difficulties, the new welfare state and growing economic opportunities meant there was hope for a brighter and more prosperous future for children in post-war Britain.

This article was edited by Gemma Lawrence. Other IWM staff members contributed to writing an older version of this piece.