The Impact of the Second World War on a London Borough: Bexley 1939-1945

Bexley is a small London borough near Kent. Throughout the war, the Germans carried out air raid attacks, and Bexley was under threat as was the rest of the UK. Therefore residents and the government decided to arrange some strict guidelines and precautions that were to be enforced. Gas masks were distributed to people of all ages and status’ long before the war broke out, as it was feared that Germany might have tried to attack Britain using gas. People carried their gas masks around with them everywhere, and kept them at an arms length.

Some young children had customised masks to make the appeal less threatening for the children. Black-out’ was another precaution taken, not only in Bexley, but also throughout the rest of the UK. Black Paper, or black curtains were fitted to the windows of every household. Car headlights were painted black, with a pinprick hole to allow some light out. This was done to prevent the aircraft bombers knowing where towns and cities were located. As the air strikes would be most likely to be carried out during the night, everything would appear to be black, and with the ‘Black-out’ precaution, the bombers would be unable to find the cities to bomb.

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People would be notified of bombing by air raid sirens that were placed on street corners. This protection measure set up the A. R. P’s, the Air Raid Precaution. These were people who would walk the streets during the bombing and look for any households that were in breach of the ‘Black-out’ rules. Not only was a ‘Black-out’ curtain placed at windows, but also some households decided to put tape on the windows in the shape of diamonds or netting, in the hope that it would withstand the force of the bombs exploding and shattering their windows. Shelters were also distributed.

There were three main types of shelters used in Bexley, these were Anderson Shelters; which were placed underground in the garden, Morrison Shelters; which were reinforced steel cages that would be able to fit about five people in and could be placed in any room in the house, and Public Shelters which were brick building built on the side of the road, to protect the innocent residents of Bexley and the UK, who were walking, and couldn’t get home due to bombing. First Aid Posts and Auxiliary ambulances were set up in Bexley as well as throughout the rest of the UK.

These were set up to aid Fire Watchers in their attempts to patrol the streets and ensure that fires did not get out of control. “We went over to help get casualties out of Woolworth’s. It had been set on fire. There were a lot killed” (an account made in the 1980’s, of the bombing of Bexleyheath Broadway, 15th October 1940 by Lord George Wallace of Costany. For a time he worked at the Central Meat Depot, Bexleyheath. ) Auxiliary Ambulances supported the ambulance service and helped them to attend to more casualties by having more ambulances patrolling. Evacuation was also a popular option.

All children teachers and pregnant women were evacuated to the countryside, where there was a less likely threat of bombing. Children would be placed in the care of the residents of the countryside, without knowing who they would actually be staying with, and when they would be able to go back home and be reunited with their parents and family. Barrage Balloons would be blown up and tied down, so that they could float in the air. This was done in attempts to prevent the aircrafts from declining in altitude too much and disabling them to acquire a better aim.

There were also Anti Aircraft Guns, and Searchlights, which were placed on the top of buildings during air raids. The searchlights would be turned on, and would try to track aircrafts, and then using the guns they would be shot out of the sky. Obviously not all attempts were successful, and not all precautions were necessary and actually worked. Many failed to operate as anticipated, but were continually used throughout the Second World War. The war began to change ‘Voluntary work’ to unpaid ‘War work’.

Everybody started to become part of the war effort. Young men signed up for the army, women and men began to involve themselves more and more in the war work. For example men joined L. D. V’s, Local Defence Volunteers or ‘Home guard’. These would be small forces that would sometimes aid the military in trivial work, but was still an essential part in the war effort. Some of the people in Bexley would have cooked for the American GI’s and the UK armed forces, which the British women found very attractive.

Many Britons found the black GI’s better mannered and more pleasant than the white ones “I would rather serve a regiment of coloured troops than a couple of whites. ” Some men and women in Bexley and the rest of the UK began to clear away rubble from buildings that may have been bombed. Other men became A. R. P. ‘s and patrolled the streets on the look out for people in breach of the guidelines. Auxiliary ambulances were also driven and directed by men and women to help in the war effort. Many women gave up their time to become fire watches and patrolled the streets looking for fires, and helping in general.

Women also donated their kitchen utensils such as steel pots and pans, as they were told that they could be melted down and sent to munitions factories, and used to make bullets, garden rails would also be cut down and donated. During this period women in Bexley and throughout the UK wore silk stockings, but as they were very expensive and hard to come by they chose a cheaper alternative, they painted on the stockings with gravy browning for 3D per leg, which is the equivalent of about 35 pence per leg. Children at an early age were also used in the war effort.

Boy Scouts were taught to strip, clean, and rebuild the gun. We were taught how to handle all kinds of guns… I learned more about weapons in the Boy Scouts than I ever did later in the Navy. Girl Guides were taught how to wisely use limited resources, and how to sew and knit sock, which would then be sent away to the men fighting in the army. The war also changed leisure, and leisure facilities. Many leisure facilities such as cinema and radio were fill with patriotic short films and stories. The cinema was a very popular place during the war; there were five cinemas alone in the Bexley area. Not only did it cost a fraction of what it does today, it entailed newsreels form the latest reporters.

Patriotic films such as Henry V, directed by Lawrence Olivier were screened to the whole of the UK in order to help them feel more comfortable with the war and tried to persuade people to join the war effort. Propaganda advertisements were also shown, they would include telling women to send their husbands to the army and to get involved themselves by joining one of many services that aid the war effort. The cinema was also a popular form of escapism for some of the residents of Bexley. It helped people escape form the real world, which was falling apart around them, and comforted many people at this time.

The radio was also used for propaganda, and encouraged patriotism. Short stories were broadcast on air to persuade men women and children to get involved with the war effort. The radio supported the war and all its efforts. News and Public Information was also broadcasted on air. For example, when a batch of army troops were flown back to England, each and every one of the arrivals names would be read out on air, and with the number of men flying to and from positions in the war, the lists could go on for hours. Singers and songwriters of that time would also try and lift the spirits of their listeners.

For example, Vera Lyn sang ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ which was the first thing that many soldiers saw on the arrival back to the U. K. and ‘We’ll meet again’ Many humours songs about the war was made up, some became extremely well known. Local dances and other events were arranged to support the war effort, and there was things like war week, where every household would have to donate something to the war, and the soldiers fighting the war. People also had to create their own entertainment games like ‘Charades’ become more popular as the war continued. People’s reactions to the war would differ greatly.

Many people in Bexley and throughout the UK became part of the war effort, the young men would go and sign up to join the army, you would have to be eighteen years old to join the army so many young lads lied about their age. Some of the women, and the less capable men may have taken part in some of the essential war work. For example many of the men in the older generation would join L. D. V’s, which were Local Defence Volunteers. These were groups of men in Bexley and all the rest of the boroughs in the UK. They would, like the men in the well known television programme “Dads Army” try to help the war effort in as many ways as they could.

The women also tried to help by becoming fire watchers which were groups of people who would patrol the streets looking for fires and making sure they do not get out of hand. Some people may have got married and begin to write their Will, and seize the moment, as they may have felt that they did not have much time left due to the bombing and the war. The marriage rate rose, but later on so would the divorce rate. Some people began to accept their fate, and believed that if it were their time to go, God would take them, no matter where they are. “…

My philosophy was, if I’m going to get hit, I’m going to get hit. If I’m in the shelter, and it’s meant for me, I’m still going to get hit… ” (An Erith resident writing in 1883 describes why he did not use an air raid shelter during the war. ) The war may also have brought people from all classes together, but at the same time may have made people more selfish. “During the war he [milkman] came into the house with half a dozen eggs which he gave to me. The lady living opposite to us came to the door ‘Do you think I could have some eggs? ‘ my reply was ‘What you must be mistaken! ” (Kent At War. )

This is an example of the selfishness that went on during the war but this was not the case all the time as many people shared their goods and resources. This war also may have taught people to be more resourceful and careful about how they treat things. Rationing was also brought into play during the war, which meant that people would not waste as much food as they had done as people in Bexley and the rest of the UK may have had to queue for hours to receive their goods. “… I queued for two hours for tomatoes and didn’t get any.

This shows that people had no choice but to except that this was the way they had to live until the war was over. The war lead to some permanent changes in the way people lived. Obviously some of the most noticeable permanent changes were the bombing of buildings in and around the Bexley area, and across the rest of the UK. 879 buildings were destroyed completely and 60,363 properties were damaged in the air raid attacks. Railings also disappeared as many people donated their railings to the munitions factories to be made into bullets. The extensive loss of family life was also devastating to many UK and Bexley residents.

Many men had been lost in the war, fathers, brothers, uncles, nephews and sons. Injuries prevented many people from continuing with their work. The war also dissolved many family relationships, as the divorce rate rose to the highest, to date, just after the war. In 1945 the divorce rate had gone up to five in every hundred marriages where as years before in 1939 only one in every hundred marriages ended in divorce. This wasn’t the only way family relationships were ruined, the war had changed people in Bexley and the UK “when my husband came home we discovered we were two different people so much had happened in those years apart. Children of five years old found their fathers and brothers joining the army and six years later returning home when the children were eleven years old. Growing up in absence of a father and/or brother would have made them very wary of these new men in their lives. Women gained a sense of independence. They began to work more, and men came round to the idea that women can work, as they kept the country running during the war. Although women’s war work was only a temporary factor, their independence developed and men sought them as more reliable and capable.

The war cleared highlighted that women could up hold skilled and unskilled jobs and could work just as hard as men. Some men in Bexley and the UK were unenthusiastic about the independent roll for women. 58 per cent of women believed that married women should no longer go out to work, although in 1931 10 per cent of married women were working and by 1951 22 per cent of married women were working. Women grew more confident about themselves and their ability’s and enjoyed the independence and the newfound freedom that the war had given them.

Since the wartime rationing, the people at that time developed a better diet and health. Rationing meant that chocolate and sweeties were not as available to children as they used to be, and the government were less lenient about rationing fatty foods. Fresh fruit and vegetables, potatoes, fish and bread was not rationed, as they could be grown or made. Sir William Beveridge wrote a report on conditions in Britain in 1942. The report suggested that the government introduced Welfare State. “A cradle to grave” system should be introduced to protect people regardless of age, ethnicity and religion.

People would contribute a small fee via taxes and in return there would be benefits for the sick, unemployed, widows, orphans and pension schemes for the elderly. The National Health Service was to be established in order to provide free health care for everyone. This service included hospital treatment and dentists and doctors. Free education would also be introduced for all. After the war the election in 1995 saw the Labour government come into power and introduce these changes. People voted for Labour in 1945, which showed that they were in need of Beveridge’s ideas to be introduced.

On the other hand there were many factors of the war that were only temporary. For example there was no need to evacuate children, teachers, and pregnant women, as there was not a threat of air raid attacks any more as the Germans surrendered. This meant that there was no longer any need for such groups like the Local Defence Volunteers and the Air Raid Precautions squads. Rationing stopped soon after the war as imports and exports began to redeem their trade, which had suffered tremendously throughout the war time period.

There was not longer a need for Boy Scouts to handle weapons and girl guides to sew and knit socks for the army recruits. Morrison, Anderson and Public Shelters began to be dismantled due to the fact that there was no more bombing, although some of the Anderson Shelters were kept in the garden and used as gardening sheds. The social cohesion between different classes suddenly collapsed after it was announced that the war was over, and people who pulled together no longer spoke.