World War II: British Food Policies


Figure 1.--This World War II wire service photo was captioned, "London schoolboys get the harvest in: Somewhere in Britain--The boys load farm waggons with barley. Farm work has toughened the muscles of the boys from city schools." The photograph was dated October 1, 1942.

Food had played a key role in World War I and would do so again in World War II. It would become a terrible weapon of war. Industrialization meant that both Britain and Germany were no longer self sufficient. Here France was in a better position. The Allied Naval Embargo made it impossible for Germany to import food from abroad. The failure of the Central Powers to address this problem by maintaining farm labor levels and rationing undermined home front morale. Britain was able to maintain supplies until poor harvests and other problems reduced the supply. In response the British Government established the Ministry of Food. Germany hoped to cut off food and raw materials and unleashed unrestricted submarine warfare. The principal result, however, was to bring America into the War. The Woman's Land Army was created to help with the harvest. The Ministry of Food was wound down and disbanded after the War. When World War II broke out, Britain was again vulnerable because it imported 60 percent of its food. This time Hitler made sure that the German people would be well fed. He looted the economies of occupied countries, causing shortages and even famines. The Ministry of Food was reestablished (September 1939). The British set out to increase domestic food production, A key slogan was 'Dig for Victory'. They also introduced the rationing of available supplies to ensure that everyone's minimal needs were met. The success of U-boats at the onset, caused Hitler to order a major U-boat campaign to cut Britain off from America and the Dominions. William Morrison was the first Minister. The Ministry became the sole buyer and importer of food. They regulated prices, in part to guarantee farmers fair prices and markets for their produce. The Marketing Boards, except for milk and hops, were suspended. The Women's Land Army was reestablished (1940). Schoolboys also helped bring in the harvest. Lord Woolton succeeded Morrison as Minister for Food. The United States passed the Land-Lease act (1941). This was not only to provide Britain war material, but food, agricultural machinery, and equipment. The British did their best to reduce imports and increase domestic harvests of key food stuffs such as potatoes, carrots, onions, wheat, and rye. Lord Woolton proved to be an effective public relations man. He persuaded Britons to try new things and adopt new methods. Woolton helped Britain increase food production and make better use of items that were not in short supply, like carrots. The Ministry even providing recipes using items actually available in the shops. the British people thus learned new skills to alleviate the wartime shortages. The British diet was dull. Children growing up during the War did not know about items like bananas oranges and chocolate. As sugar was not produced domestically, candy, jam, and other sweets were in very short supply. One reason why British kids loved American GIs who had pockets full of gum and Hershey bars. One historian writes about the Ministry, "It fought on the Home Front, so played a part in winning the war. Also it kept children and adults healthy throughout the period.” [Patten, p. 9.]

World War I: Food and Rationing

Food had played a key role in World War I and would do so again in World War II. Industrialization meant that both Britain and Germany were no longer self sufficient. Here France was in a better position. The Allied Naval Embargo made it impossible for Germany to import food from abroad. The failure of the Central Powers to address this problem by maintaining farm labor levels and rationing undermined home front morale. Britain was able to maintain supplies until poor harvests and other problems reduced the supply. In response the British Government established the Ministry of Food. Germany hoped to cut off food and raw materials and unleashed unrestricted submarine warfare. The principal result, however, was to bring America into the War. The Woman's Land Army was created to help with the harvest. The Ministry of Food was wound down and disbanded after the War.

World War II (September 1939)

When Hitler invaded Poland and Britain declared war, the country was again vulnerable because it imported 60 percent of its food. Hitler was well away of the impact of the Royal Navy blockade on the German war effort during World War I. This time Hitler made sure that the German people would be well fed. The NAZI occupation authorities looted the economies of occupied countries, as a matter of policy causing shortages and even famines. The NAZI goal was not only to feed the German people, but to kill millions of unwanted people in occupied countries.

Food as a Weapon

The British had used food as a weapon in World War I, using the Royal Navy to blockade the Central Powers, especially Germany, and to starve it into submission. Britain would use the Royal Navy again in World War II to blockade Germany, but German military successes made it more difficult. The Axis also used food as a weapon. The Germans would again attempt a commerce war, primarily with U-boats, to starve Britain into submission. Fortunately for Britain, the Dominions and the United States could supply the needed food, if the sea lanes to Britain could be kept open. But the Germans in their areas of occupation would use food or the denial of food as a terrible weapon--unleashing the Hunger Plan which would kills millions and designed to kill many more. The NAZI Hunger Plan had two purposes. First to make sure that available food went to Germans and second to kill unwanted people in the occupied countries. The Japanese in Asia would also starve millions, but more out incompetence and poorly designed policies than actual plans to murder.

Ministry of Food

The British at the outbreak of the War reestablished the Ministry of Food immediately after the outbreak of the War (September 1939). William Morrison was the first Minister. The Ministry became the sole buyer and importer of food. They regulated prices, in part to guarantee farmers fair prices and markets for their produce. The Marketing Boards, except for milk and hops, were suspended. Lord Woolton succeeded Morrison as Minister for Food.

Increasing Production

The British set out to increase domestic food production, A key slogan was “Dig for Victory”. Housewives were encouraged to plant home gardens. The more adventuresome kept chickens and rabbits. The British did their best to reduce imports and increase domestic harvests of key food stuffs such as potatoes, carrots, onions, wheat, and rye.

Rationing

The Government also introduced the rationing of available supplies to ensure that everyone's minimal needs were met. Food which had to be imported in large quantities was rationed. The cost of the War and the U-boat campaign in the North Atlantic resulted in increasingly strict rationing of both food and clothing. Clothing was in short supply. It was rationed in June 1941. Often clothes did not fit children properly or clothes had gone from one child to another as the garment was out grown. Eventually extra clothing coupons were given to children to help them get the shoes and clothes they needed. Food was rationed and candy, chocolate and fresh fruit were difficult to obtain. Bananas were not again seen in Britain until well into the 1950s. Children had a weekly sweet ration of 57g. This was one small packet of sweets. The government encouraged the growing of food. Digging for victory became a popular slogan in growing vegetables. This was an activity that children did as well as adults. Children had supplementary rations of milk and orange juice. Cod liver oil was given to children but it was not well liked and taken under sufferance.

U-boat Campaign

Britain could increase food production and more effiently used the food it produced. But these policies could never make Britain selkfsufficent in food production. British agriculture could never feed the country's large urban population. Britain would need food from Amnerica and Canada to survive. This meant that the Battle of the Atlantic would be one of the critical battles of the war. The success of U-boats at the onset, caused Hitler to order a massive building campaign to expand the U-boat fleet. This led to a major U-boat campaign to cut Britain off from America and the Dominions. Without food and raw materials, Britain could not continue the War. The German used naval ships, raiders (Q-boats), and U-boats. It was the U-boats that proved to be the real danger to the surprise of the British Admiralty which had thought that World War I Asdac (Sonar) had rendered the submarine obsolete. Prime-Minister Churchill wrote after the War that it was the U-boat campaign in the North Atlantic that he was most concerned about.

Women's Land Army

The Women's Land Army (WLA) was such a success in World War I that it was reformed in World War II when agricultural labor was again needed. Even before the War finally broke out, preoarations began for a anither WLA (June 1939). The WLA was firmally reestablished (1940). Again it began as a voluntary effort. Most of the teenagers and young women called Land Girls who joined were already lived in the rural areas, but about a third of thhe volunteers came from London and the industrial cities of the north. The WLA was administered by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. The honorary head was Lady Gertrude Denman. As the Warprogressed, the Government began a conscription program. At its peak the WLA had more than 80,000 Land Girls. Britain voted to go socialist at the end of the War (1945). As a result, war-time shortages persisted after the War. The WLA thus cointinued to function until disbandment (1949). The WLA filled the gap in agricultural labor created by conscripting young men in rural areas. The Germans turned to pillaging occupied countries and slave labor to support their war economy. Britin and America turnd to women to support both agricultural and industril production. For ideological reasons, the NAZIS were more reluctant to do this. Land girl programs were, however, formed inAllied countries, including america, Australia, and New Zealand.

Youth Farm Labor

Students playd an important role in brining in the harvest. Other aspects of farming could be manananged with a fairly small workforce. The harvest was a different matter. Here you need a lot of willing hands. And it had to be done over a short time frame. Food was a major issue for Britain during the War. The country was not self sufficint in food production. Britain would have starved had the U-boats prevailed in the Atlantic. Food shipments from America and Canada werre vital. But Britain needed to make the most of its agricultural potential. And with so much of Britain's farm labor in the service, bringing in the harvet was a major issue. Camps were set up for school groups to help bring in the harvest. Most of the child harvesters slept in bell tents made for eight. Some camps were located in schools as there were quite a number of small private schools, often prep schools in rural areas. The participation of scondary age students, boys and girls, was especially important. Many schools participated in this effort. What is impressive about British kids reflecting the general attitude of the population was their willingness to 'pith in' voluntarily and positive attitude about the effort. It was seen at the time and after as ‘doing ones bit’ on the land. One author who has collected informaion on the students and andparticipated in broadcasts their effort writes, "Although a small minority of respondents hated the whole business, for the overwhelming majority the experience of working on the land and, more especially of attending harvest camps, was a very positive one. People referred to the pleasures of tent life, camp food, fireside sing-songs, the camaraderie with the older farm workers and, in particular, the fact that campers ‘... found a new freedom and gained a sense of independence denied to many at the time’." Here we see boys harvesting barley (figure 1).

American Lend Lease

Prime-minister Churchill wrote President Roosevelt that Britain was going bankrupt and might not be able to continue the War (December 1940). President Roosevelt's answer was Lend Lease. The United States would essentially provide war material and food and worry about payment after the War. The United States passed the Land-Lease act which still officially neutral (March 1941). While America was neutral, Lend Lease was a decidedly un-neutral act. Lend Lease not only provided Britain war material, but food, agricultural machinery, and equipment was also very important. Without Lend Lease, Britain would have had great difficulty continuing the war. Food produced in America and Canada made sure that the British had food throughout the War. Here winning the Battle of the Atlantic was essential to ensure the continued flow of war material and food. As a result, President Roosevelt deployed the U.S. Navy in the North Atlantic to wage an undeclared naval war beginning months before America officially entered the War. Hitler was furious, but ordered U-boat commander Admiral Dönitz to avoid combat until the Wehrmacht had completed the conquest of the Soviet Union.

Food Flying Squad

The Home Secretary requested the formation of the The Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) as Hitler began to the Sudeten campaign (June 1938) that would lead to the tragic Munich Conference and lay the ground work for World War II. The idea was to utilize women in the defense preparations. The War did not begin in 1938, but women began preparing for it. The WVS was soon working in all civil defense services, helping evacuees, bombed-out civilians, and others who were made needy by the War. One of the many services were a meals-on-wheels service -- The Food Flying Squad. They distributed food which was usually more wholesome and palatable than many meals produced from rations. The WVS ladies were discriminating about what they served. And they often had access to American Lend Lease food for their mobile canteens. The program was run by the Ministry of Food. Providing hot meals for the bombed out and other victims of the War was an important morale booster. With the Luftwaffe Blitz, the WVS ladies began a massive communal feeding program, delivering emergency food supplies in their trailers. The WVS meals-on-wheels was one of the most admired WVS efforts. They were ready and able to rush hot meals to anyone in Britain by disaster. The program was so successful, that it survived the War to become a permanent British fixture in disaster relief.

Consumer Behavior

Lord Woolton proved to be an effective public relations man. He persuaded Britons to try new things and adopt new methods. Woolton helped Britain increase food production and make better use of items that were not in short supply, like carrots. The Ministry even providing recipes using items actually available in the shops. the British people thus learned new skills to alleviate the wartime shortages. The British diet was dull, but people were well nourished throughout the War, even in the midst of the U-boat campaign.

Children's Diet

British children growing up during the War were not hungry, but their diet was restricted. Many did not know about items like bananas oranges and chocolate. As sugar was not produced domestically, candy, jam, and other sweets were in very short supply. One reason why British kids loved American GIs who had pockets full of gum and Hershey bars.

Assessment

One historian writes about the Ministry of Food, "It fought on the Home Front, so played a part in winning the war. Also it kept children and adults healthy throughout the period.” [Patten, p. 9.]

Sources

Patten, Marguerite. The Ministry of Food: Thrifty Wartime Ways to Feed Your Family (Hodder & Stoughton, 2010).







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Created: 6:36 AM 10/4/2010
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Last updated: 10:42 PM 5/17/2015