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Chapter 6: August 1939

Until September 1939, few people in Britain believed that a second world war was inevitable. There was still hope, springing perhaps from the need of human beings to go on, from day to day, thinking, reasoning and believing. There was, too, insensibility and inertness, sometimes caused by fear and sometimes resulting from a desire to lessen anxiety or avoid thought. There also deception: self deception, social deception. How much blindness there was, what produced it, and why it spread among so many peoples and invaded so many spheres of human activity, its no part of the task of the present writer to assess. Future historians will have to try to understand the hearts and minds of the generation between the two wars.

The point has been made, and deserves fresh emphasis here, that no one, in or out of Government, knew that another world war was inevitable. The record of the discussions, the plans, and the preparations, that has filled the early chapters of this book, needs to be read with this in mind. Unless it is so read the nature of the problem of preparing for a possible future war in the circumstances of the nineteen-thirties will be misunderstood. It was of course relatively easy to draw plans on paper. What was not so easy was to translate these plans into reality which, more often than not, meant requisitioning buildings, directing men and women to various duties and buying equipment. The task of expanding, in peacetime, the Armed Forces of the Crown was not intrinsically so difficult as that of switching a large section of the nation’s social institutions and social service on to a war footing before war had broken out. The Government had not, neither did it seek, the necessary powers of compulsion and direction. The absence of certain legal sanctions handicapped the preparation of the emergency services. The passage of the Civil Defence Act in July 1939 did indeed allow more progress to be made, but the testing time followed within a few weeks of this extension—itself severely limited—of the Government’s planning powers.

The Government’s plans were based on the widely held belief that the war would open with an immediate onslaught by the enemy’s air arm. The objective would be to attack civilian society and undermine the nation’s will to fight. It was expected that London, the nerve-centre of Government and the home of on-fifth of the people, would suffer first.

No longer would there be, as in past wars, an interval of time in which the nation, without hindrance from its enemies, could mobilise,

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build up its wartime services, gear up production of stores and equipment and switch its economy to a war basis. The bomber had abolished this period. Hospitals, ambulances, casualty trains, evacuation hostels, shelters, rest centres, mortuaries, relief offices, feeding centres, all fully equipped and manned, would be needed by civilians immediately the attack began.1

To provide all these new services, ready to go into action at once, would create in peacetime a great deal of disruption—even if the necessary powers of compulsion were granted by the nation. If both Government and people had accepted the inevitability of war and if they had known when it was due to start, the task would have been infinitely easier.

But this was not to be. Plans and preparations had to be built up in quite a different fashion. The preceding chapters on hospitals, rest centres and evacuation had illustrated some of the difficulties, and have shown how plans were developed in a piecemeal way, and why progress was often slow and faltering. These measures to help and protect civilian society against a new form of warfare were not directed by a ‘General Staff’. No Cabinet committee maintained a continuous watch over the social services. No research was conducted into the effects of bombing on the apparatus of civilian life. No comprehensive study was made of the social consequences that might flow from the kind of war that the Government expected. Inadequate factual knowledge and an inadequate endeavour to acquire it, a deep ignorance of social relationships and a shallow interest in social research—these things were later to handicap the work of Government Departments. By the middle of 1939 these departments were already committed to undertake, in the event of war, some novel tasks. Within eighteen months they were to enter many other provinces which, in peacetime, had been curtained off from any intrusion by the State.

The passing of the Civil Defence Act in July 1939 was the signal for greater progress to be made in the practical working out of plans. During August, many central departments were feverishly engaged in assembling the machinery of wartime administration. The Ministry of Health and Department of Health for Scotland, hitherto concerned with watching and supervising the work of local authorities, were now faced with the possibility of having to administer and operate a large range of emergency services. Moreover, in certain fields, such as evacuation, they would now have to exercise much closer control over the work of local bodies. A start was therefore

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made in selecting staff to strengthen existing regional offices, or to establish such branches in the defence regions as part of the Government’s arrangements for regional commissioners.2 The Ministry of Health had to set up a small replica of itself in each region, composed of administrators, doctors, architects, and specialists in housing, accountancy, water supplies and other matters. A large number of civil servants were now to be sent out of their offices and into the field to acquire personal experience of local conditions, to meet and talk to local government officers, and to see hospitals, maternity homes, welfare clinics and other social services in action.

The Unemployment Assistance Board (later renamed the Assistance Board) was also busy during August in planning the movement of staff. In the event of war, many of the Board’s local offices would require strengthening, while plans had to be made for the opening of 605 new offices in various parts of Britain. Arrangements were made for about 2,400 of the Board’s staff to be transferred to new stations to cope with emergency work. The responsibility for administering a national scheme of cash aid for certain classes of the war distressed had been placed on the Board, which was also charged with investigating and paying claims for personal injuries due to air raids.3 A rush of work under both schemes was expected on the outbreak of war.

Similar problems of creating a wartime administrative machine were also affecting those two departments which were to become known, on the outbreak of war, as the Ministries of Food and Home Security. Ration books for 45,000.000 people had already been printed and, during August, iron rations for 4,000,000 evacuees were being distributed. At the end of the month the machinery of food control was ready, but no decisions had by then been taken by the Cabinet on what was to be rationed, and how soon control was to operate after the outbreak of war. It was, however, fully expected within the departments and by the general public that rationing on an extensive scale would operate immediately hostilities began.

August was a month of intense activity for the local authorities. Their heaviest tasks were plans for sending or receiving mothers and children and organising civil defence. By the 2nd, 1,000,000 steel shelters had been distributed. By the 8th, the strength of the civil defence organisation had reached 1,493,000, though, by the Government’s calculations it was still short of over 430,000 volunteers. The biggest deficiency, however, lay in quality. The training and equipment of this army of volunteers was still far from adequate, while the casualty services, particularly the first aid parties, were reported to be ‘the weakest link in the whole chain’.

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In contrast to September 1938 there was, however, more public confidence in the state of Government’s preparations on the home front. When, for instance, the last peacetime debate on the civil defence and emergency services took place in the House of Commons on the 2nd August 1939, relatively little criticism was heard.4 The vital question of equipment was not generally raised. No one wanted to know anything about the Government’s plan for helping those who might be bombed out of their homes. The press, too, was much less critical than it had been for many months. At the end of August, The Times, in a special article, wrote enthusiastically of a vast civil defence organisation, standing ready, equipped and trained. The evacuation and hospital schemes were also, it was said, fully planned and prepared.5

On 10th August a trial blackout was held in London and South-East 1.30 a.m. there were ‘almost rush-hour conditions’ in Piccadilly Circus.6 Vast throngs of cars and sightseers turned out to experience, and partly ruin, the trial. The following day The Times, which also carried a report on the opening of the Nazi’s war of nerves on Poland, remarked that London was ‘unruffled’.7

Neither The Times nor the sightseers in Piccadilly accurately reflected the mood of the nation. The fear of war, and especially the kind of war that had for so long been foreshadowed, manifested itself in many ways, though it affected some people more than others. The attitude of 2,000,000 to 3,000,000 people, struggling along from hand-to-mouth on public relief or unemployment pay,8 and living—as most of them were—away from the dangers to which Londoners felt they were exposed, was probably very different from that of men and women with a definite and more respected place in society. But there was no panic rush from London. A steady stream of people left by road and rail, many of them presumably to take up the accommodation they had reserved months before.9 By 1st September, when Scotland Yard obligingly issued a list of routes out of London for people leaving by car, the stream was considerable. From Southampton, it was reported that 5,000 people had left within forty-eight hours for America.10

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Despite the exodus of private persons and business firms, there was great activity in London. The work of sandbagging, shuttering and blacking-out was being energetically pushed forward. In the North, the textile trade was experiencing its greatest boom since the First World War. The Government had suddenly ordered millions of blankets.

One social phenomenon which passed unnoticed at the time was the rush into marriage. Perhaps fear precipitated many of these marriages; if so, it was quite a different kind of fear from that caused by economic hardship during the early nineteen-thirties when marriages were postponed and even avoided. The months of August and September 1939 saw the greatest flood of marriages ever counted in British statistics. No comparable rise had occurred in 1914; it was not until the end of 1915 that the highest rate of the First World War was recorded—22.5 marriages per 1000 population. For July, August and September 1939, the astonishingly high rate of 29.3 was reached.11

Did these differences reflect the ordinary man’s feeling that the margin of safety by which civilisation survives was wearing thing? Or did they only mean that family separation was destined to become a more potent cause of mental distress than the enemy’s bombs.

With the signing of the German-Soviet pact of non-aggression on 23rd August, the sense of an impending disaster spread rapidly. Behind the confident assurances of preparedness by Government spokesmen there were anxieties in Whitehall and Edinburgh about the emergency services. One particular anxiety of the Health Departments was the state of the arrangements for receiving evacuated mothers and children. Plans for sending them out of the target areas were, by mid-August, nearly complete. But local authorities had not been allowed to spend any money on services to receive them. These authorities had been asking, from early in 1939, for sanction to extend accommodation in infectious diseases hospitals, to adapt premises as maternity homes, and to buy such equipment, as furniture, crockery and bedding. The resources available in the reception areas to provide certain welfare services for nearly 4,000,000 refugees were quite inadequate.

The Ministry of Health had applied, at the beginning of 1939, for permission to approve expenditure on various items. These items, which it was thought essential to provide in advance, such as the adaptation of premises for use as hostels and maternity homes, were estimated to cost £405,000. But the Treasury questioned the need for much of this expenditure. The provision of temporary sanitary conveniences at rural railway stations and dispersal points was considered ‘a waste of money’. ‘It is impossible to maintain all the decencies of

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life under war conditions.’ The supply of clothing and equipment for necessitous children was thought to be unnecessary. There was, continued the Treasury, ‘little justification’ for the extension of hospital accommodation for cases of infectious disease in the reception areas. The argument went on until the middle of August. By the 17th, when only £22,500 had been sanctioned, the Ministry of Health was thoroughly alarmed and demanded from the Treasury freedom to work out the evacuation scheme which had been authorised by the Cabinet. The dispute was not referred to the Cabinet by the Minister of Health. Assent was given to another instalment of expenditure on 23rd August.

The Health Departments then authorised local authorities to incur ‘such reasonable expenditure as is necessary for the reception of evacuated persons’.12 Regional medical officers were told to approve such expenditure as the cost of adapting premises as maternity homes, and local authorities were informed that they could but without approval such articles as crockery and cutlery. Authorities who were responsible for evacuating children were authorised to make purchases locally of boots, clothing and knapsacks up to £1 for every 200 children, on the understanding that no publicity was given to such assistance.13 All this information was conveyed in circulars which did not reach most of the local authorities until 28th August—six days before the outbreak of war.

At the same time local authorities were asked to set up casualty bureaux for the purposes of the hospital scheme, and four days later hospital authorities were told to buy locally certain items of equipment.14 On 2nd September a large number of local authorities were asked to establish emergency feeding stations, and to consider the desirability of ‘improvising temporary shelter of some kind’ for homeless people.15 This circular did not, however, reach the authorities concerned until after the outbreak of war.

One result of this abrupt removal of the ban on expenditure as it affected evacuation, the hospital scheme and other services, was an immense buying rush during the last week of peace. The staff of local authorities all over Britain hunted feverishly for crockery, furniture, children’s boots, clothing, bedding and hundreds of items. In addition, large orders were placed at the last minute by the Health Departments, some instances of which had already been given in the chapter on the hospital scheme.16 A particular example of the general equipment problem which arose at the end of August 1939 was the purchase of blankets and other items of bedding.

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When the billeting survey for the evacuation scheme was carried out early in 1939 the offers of accommodation that were made were conditional on the Government supplying to householders 4,200,000 blankets and 1,470,000 mattresses or beds.17 In addition, 1,000,000–2,000,000 blankets were needed for the hospital scheme,18 first aid posts, ambulances, casualty trains and stretchers,19 while the Army required 4,500,000–6,000,000. These figures, big as they were, did not represent the total probable demand. No authority was given, before the war, for the provision of blankets for homeless people in rest centres and shelters, or for warden’s posts.

Action to make provision for the demand came in driblets. By the end of April 1939 contracts had been signed for 300,000 blankets for hospitals and 165,000 for first aid posts and ambulances. The first order for the evacuation scheme (for 500,000) was not placed until May. Because of the delay in ordering, and the congestion in the trade which resulted from the failure to coordinate demands, only 29,000 blankets for the evacuation scheme had been received by 21st August. The position with regard to mattresses and mackintosh overlays was very similar, while the first order for camp beds for the evacuation scheme was not placed until 15th August. Later in August, when Government departments became very anxious about the equipment situation generally, large additional orders were placed by the Ministry of Health for beds, mattresses and pillows, and the first contracts were signed for many items, including 260,000 nightshirts for hospital patients. On the 25th the Ministry, in desperation, asked local authorities to but blankets locally.20 Orders were also given for 100,000 blankets to be cut from stocks of men’s overcoating. On 29th August, Lord Woolton broadcast a national appeal for the loan of 3,500,000 blankets. By begging, borrowing and buying, local authorities obtained about 789,000 blankets and 20,000 camp beds for the evacuation scheme.

The alarm that impelled these last minute attempts to bring the emergency services to a state of readiness affected many agencies of Government. Large numbers of shrouds and papier maché coffins were ordered by local authorities, who were also busy requisitioning car and about 6,000 trade vehicles as ambulances, and furniture vans for the removal of dead bodies. Tents were hired by the Ministry of Health to provide cover for 10,000 extra beds for air raid casualties, as none of the hutted hospital units were ready. A circular on the setting up of these tents was rushed out on 1st September 1939, and the tents were hurriedly distributed round

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the country. By November 1939 many of them had been blown down. Those still standing were soon removed, however, because their startling whiteness was said to have made the local inhabitants ‘panic-stricken’.

Buildings of all kinds were in great demand. Many schools, for instance, were seized by the Army and the civil defence authorities. The story of August 1914 was repeated. Then, large numbers of schools had been invaded by voluntary organisations, school equipment turned out, and the buildings converted into auxiliary hospitals long before the military authorities required them.21 In August and September 1939 the need was different, the victim the same. This was particularly true of the evacuation areas where many schools were suddenly requisitioned to serve as first aid posts and for other civil defence purposes. For the invasion in 1939 there was, however, more excuse, as it had been assumed by the Education Departments that all schools in these areas would remain closed for the duration of the war.

The policy of dividing the country into evacuation, neutral and reception areas, and the decision that shelter protection was not required for schools in the evacuation areas22 (since the children would have been shifted to the country) led naturally to a wholesale requisitioning of school buildings in these areas. The demand, indeed, was so great, and the number of requisitioning authorities so many, that a system of earmarking buildings on a central register maintained by the War Office virtually broke down. Even in the neutral areas, where local education authorities had been advised that shelter protection, generally in the form of covered trenches, should be provided, there was a considerable amount of commandeering of schools by the military and other authorities.

In the evacuation and neutral areas of England and Wales some 2,000 elementary and secondary schools were wholly or partly occupied by various authorities. Civil defence accounted for 1,692, the military for 213, and the remainder were requisitioned for a variety of other reasons. In addition, a number of schools were seized in reception areas.23 This question of the use of school buildings for defence purposes was part of the wider problem of a nation, endeavouring by any and ever means, to protect the civilian population against a new form of warfare. It involved, throughout the period of hostilities, an increasing diversion of social equipment to

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meet the growing demands of war, both in its defensive and aggressive phases. Some of the social consequences, which often inflicted more lasting damage than reduction in civilian consumption of domestic goods, form the background to later chapters.

While the requisitioning of schools and other buildings went on apace at the end of August 1939, the enrolment and allocation of staff for the emergency services was speeded up. On the 24th, school teachers were asked to return from holiday and report for duty, part of the staff of the Education Departments were earmarked for transfer to other ministries, and doctors and nurses were enrolled in the emergency medical service.

Parliament re-assembled on 24th August and at once enacted the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, 1939.24 This empowered the King, by Order in Council, to make such Defence Regulations as appeared to him to be necessary or expedient for securing the public safety, the defence of the realm, the maintenance of public order and the efficient prosecution of the war, and for maintaining supplies and services essential to the life of the community. This Act was followed, within the next nine days, by an unprecedented volume of emergency legislation, all of which had been carefully drafted and prepared by the Government many months earlier. These measures were concerned with a variety of wartime problems such as the repair of war damage, the restriction of rents and mortgage interest, liability for war damage, compensation for air raid injuries, the relief of distress and the working of the courts.25

These Acts and the Regulations and Orders that issued from them provided the authority for the early development of many of the wartime social services. The State was assuming new, and in many respects wide responsibilities for the well-being of individual members of society. From its initial preoccupation with the cruder manifestations of total war, expressed in such defensive policies as removing the injured to hospital, the frightened to safety, and the dead to mortuaries, the Government was to turn, under the pressure of circumstances and the stimulus of a broader conception of social justice, to new fields of constructive welfare policies.

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But while much was to be gained before the war came to an end, much of value was to be interrupted or lost. There were to be fewer homes in Britain. About 3,500,000 dwellings were to be damaged by enemy action, 222,000 were to be completely destroyed or damaged beyond repair,26 house building was to slow down and stop, and the 2,000,000 new houses which might have come into existence but for the war were still, six years later, items in a plan. The raising of the school-leaving age to fifteen years, first provided for in 1918, had eventually been timed to take effect on 1st September 1939, but th war was to mean postponement for another eight years. The 2,000,000 children in classes exceeding forty in elementary schools in England and Wales were to find themselves, by 1946, further squeezed for space and attention, despite a decline in the child population, and a reduction in the elementary school population by over 420,000.27 The provision of a cancer service was to be deferred for nine years, the Criminal Justice Bill of 1938 was to be pigeon-holed for longer, while the building of welfare clinics, sanatoria, maternity homes, schools and other institutions was to come to an end for the best part of a decade. Meanwhile, a mass of social equipment in the shape of hospitals, schools, village institutes and halls, swimming baths, playing fields and public transport was to be diverted from civilian use. The claims of the war machine, in an armed operation base like Britain, made large inroads upon the services, institutions and equipment originally provided for the civilian population.28 But all these subtractions and losses, though serious in their cumulative effects on physical and moral standards, were to be judged of little account when measured against the lists of disorganised and separated families.

These separations began at the end of August 1939 as the movement from London of private evacuees steadily increased, the first preparatory measures were ordered to bring the emergency services into action. The Government decided that the machinery for evacuation, and for putting the hospitals in a position to receive air raid casualties should begin to operate. On 26th August, hospitals were told to set up the additional beds they had received and to restrict the admission of patients to acute cases. On the following day, billeting and requisitioning powers were delegated to the clerks of local authorities, along with power to appoint billeting officers.29 Evacuation rehearsals were held at the schools on the 28th, and, on the same

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day a start was made in clearing patients from some of the hospitals included in the emergency scheme.

On the 30th, the day when the evacuation of children from Paris began, stand-by orders were issued in London. The next morning, the Cabinet decided that the exodus from all evacuation areas in Britain should start. The Government’s order was received at the London County Council’s headquarters at 11.7 a.m.; the transport authorities confirmed that they were ready, and from 11.19 a.m. onwards signals and instructions were sent out to executive officers. For the rest of the day the press and the wireless were flooded with pre-arranged notices and announcements. ‘All those in the priority classes may go even if they have not registered.’ Do nothing to impede the working of the Government’s plans.’ ‘If you have work to do remain at your post.’ ‘Women and children first.’

On Friday, 1st September, 1939, the transport arrangements to evacuate nearly 4,000,000 mothers and children from the vulnerable areas of Britain began to operate. The next prepared stage in the hospital plan was also put in motion; some tens of thousands of patients were turned out and sent home, others were removed by rail and ambulance to hospitals in safer areas. Simultaneously, thousands of converted coaches, cars and other vehicles took up their ambulance stations; thirty civilian casualty trains were staffed and sent to their berths; some 2,200 doctors and 15,000 nurses were called up and posted to casualty hospitals, and the civil defence organisation was mobilised. At sunset, the country was blacked out. Nearly six year were to pass before the evening lights were again to stream unchecked from British homes.