Tag Archives: home front

Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45 by Stephen Bourne

Its hard to overstate just how important this book is in terms of the social history of wartime Britain. Personally, I have always been quite unhappy with what I call the ‘windrush assumption’ – that the first ever black people to live in Britain arrived in the 1950’s, no-one in Britain had ever seen a black person before, and that everyone was most unpleasant to them. One national museum even staged a major exhibition that subscribed to – and no doubt helped propagate – this myth.

Stephen Bourne, however, has shattered some misconceptions here. Black people WERE part of British society long before 1939. Black people DID play a part on the Home Front, and DID even serve in the armed forces. And it is very important that their contribution to the war effort is understood and recognised. Black people faced exactly the same risks as their white compatriots, and contributed to the war effort in much the same way – serving as ARP wardens, Firemen, Foresters, factory workers, and in many other roles.

Many different countries became part of the British Empire; the Empire on which the sun never set. Many different ethnic groups came under the imperial banner – African and Carribean among them. Inevitably, black people came to view Britain as the ‘mother country’ (something that goes against the grain of apologist imperial history), and many came to settle in Britain from the Nineteenth Century onwards. In some parts of Britain there were sizeable black communities – the east end of London and Bristol, for example.

Another interesting contribution of black people in wartime was in the field of entertainment. Performers such as Adelaide Hall and Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson played an important part in keeping up morale, both at home and overseas with the armed forces. Johnson was killed during the war when a bomb struck the theatre in which he and his band were performing. Not only were they contributing to morale, but they were also facing exactly the same risks as their white colleagues. The BBC also produced radio programmes aimed at black people in Britain, and also in the West Indies and Africa.

Sadly, it does seem that discrimination against black people reached a height when the US Army came to Britain after 1941. US servicemen came from what was still a deeply segregated society, particulary in the deep south. The US authorities imposed the same restrictions whilst on British soil (historians have described the situation as ‘when Jim Crow met John Bull‘)¬†which not only upset many British white people, but also had knock-on effects for British black citizens too. There were cases in my area of white GI’s attacking Black servicemen, and then being confronted by locals who were sympathetic to the Black GI’s.

Stephen Bourne has made a fine contribution to the historiography of the Home Front. Hopefully this book will shatter some myths and bring about a new understanding not only of wartime Britain, but also broader black history too.

Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45 is published by The History Press

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Filed under Empire History, social history, Uncategorized, World War Two

69 years ago: the Portsmouth Blitz (pt 1)

69 years ago tonight saw the largest air raid launched on Portsmouth by the Luftwaffe, during the Blitz.

The Luftwaffe had for a long time identified a number of key targets in Portsmouth: the Naval Dockyard, the Airport and Airspeed Works, Fratton Goods Yard, Vospers Shipbuilders, Naval and Army Barracks throughout the city and across the harbour in Gosport. There are numerous German target maps and aerial photographs in the Local Studies Collection at Portsmouth Central Library.

Until January 1941 Portsmouth has escaped relatively lightly and only received several railds from the Luftwaffe (although my Granddad can remember seeing a Heinkel Bomber flying so low that he could see the Pilot’s blonde hair). Whereas cities such as London and Coventry were bombed frequently in the autumn and winter of 1940 and 1941.

Portsmouth was prepared for the raid, however. Prior to war Air Raid Precuations had been established, and a range of shelters, from Morrison shelters in living rooms, Anderson shelters in back gardens, communal conrete shelters, to the large civic shelters carved out of Portsdown Hill. The Police and Fire Services were also well prepared, and blackout restrictions were in place as in the rest of Britain. There were a number of Anti-Aircrcraft positions, including on Southsea Common and on Portsdown Hill.

The Luftwaffe Bombers were flying from bases in Northern France, and were guided by the Knickebein Naviation system. They followed radio beams emitted from two points on mainland europe, set to intersect over the target. In this care, it was set over Southsea Common. Reportedly they also used the white chalkpits of Portsdown Hill as a Navigation aid. Portsmouth was a much easier target to find, given its location right on the coast, and required no inland navigation.

The Germans were aware of specific targets of value, but did not possess the accuracy to bomb pinpoint targets. By bombing a broader area they not only had a chance of damaging targets, but also causing civilian casualties and damage. This, it was hoped, would crack morale, as it had in bombing raids on Warsaw and Rotterdam earlier in the war.

Tomorrow: counting the cost of the 10-11 January 1941 air raid

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Filed under Local History, social history, World War Two

Land Girls and Their Impact – Ann Kramer

Land Girls and Their Impact

Land Girls and Their Impact

I must admit, I have always tended to shy away from Gender History. Or, in fact, any part of history that mentions the word ‘women’ too much. I guess its only natural, after one of my first year tutors at Uni tried to tell us that the most important effect of the first world war was that women started smoking and riding motorbikes. I guess the millions of men being killed didnt occur to her.

Having said that, I know that women have often played an important, and usually overlooked, role in times of War. All too often we can become too fixated on Planes, tanks, and Generals, when in fact total war means exactly that. This new book by Ann Kramer should go a long way to redressing the balance for one of the Women’s services that has been perhaps the most maligned of all – the Women’s Land Army.

Aware that once war started millions of men would be called up, the Government drew up plans to recruit women to replace male agricultural workers. Thousands volunteered, and served throughout the war in their distinctive slouch hats and green jerseys. Without their sterling work througout the country on farms, and also performing forestry work, they made a vital contribution to keeping Britain’s supplies of food stable. We only have to look at the fact that Britain is an island nation dependent on imports, and how close the U-boats came to starving the country, to see what might have been if the Land Girls had not played their part.

But it wasn’t all green fields and nice summer evenings. The work was a big shock to many of the girls, a fair proportion of whom came from towns and were unused to rural ways. Indeed, many countryfolk were very sceptical about the potential of women for working on the land, and the Land Army had to go a long way to prove their worth, and to overcome fairly entrenched social attitudes and snobbery. And then at the end of the war, they were given scant recognition for many years – a truly glaring ommission, like the country’s failure to recognise the service of the Bevin Boys.

The story of the Land Girls is at the epicentre of many of the important social development of the second world war – attitudes to gender, changing roles in society, class and the relations between rural and urban Britain. The needs of total war always seem to bring about a lot of social change in a very short change of time, and this case is no exception.

This is a very interesting book, and I am sure that it will contribute much to the history of women during wartime. Kramer makes interesting use of oral history interviews with surviving Land Girls, which in my opinion is absolutely crucial in a book like this. My only criticism might be that the way these accounts are presented, often in separate boxes, does break up the text a little. But this is a relatively minor point, I enjoyed reading this book immensely.

Land Girls and Their Impact is published by Remember When

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Filed under Book of the Week, social history, World War Two