The Home Front propaganda battle of the Second World War
PUBLISHED: 11:29 03 November 2014 | UPDATED: 16:38 06 November 2014
Through patriotic posters, leaflets, radio and the cinema there was a Home Front propaganda battle in the Second World War. John Leete tells us more
From the mid to late 1930s, developments in central Europe led even the doubters to recognise that war was inevitable, so the British government albeit reluctantly started to prepare for dealing with issues arising from another conflict.
Leaflets were being written and produced from 1937 and within two years the public had received a raft of ‘essential’ information about Civil Defence including ‘Some things you should know if War should come’. That generation was readily compliant and deferential and rarely questioned government dictates, so as the information was rolled out, so too the public’s trust in what was being instructed solidified. Despite that, however, another war would bring horrors, far beyond what could be imagined.
King George V1 broadcasting in September 1939 acknowledged that ‘There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield’. This then was the first clear indication that a world conflict was was going to be fought on the home front as well as overseas. In the circumstances, controlling the morale of the people was paramount. They were going to have to deal with the departure of their nearest and dearest, men called up for service overseas and children sent away to safety. They were also going to have to contend with air raids, bomb damage, injury, loss and death. The spirit of the people had to remain intact if the country was to achieve victory.
Getting the message across
Propaganda became a powerful force in winning the hearts and minds of every citizen across the country. This form of communication has the sole purpose of influencing the attitude of a population and steering it towards a specific cause or position. It’s not impartial and it’s used specifically to influence an audience and to promote an agenda. Loaded messages as they are called are created to produce an emotional rather than a rational response. It was carefully planned and controlled, and it was necessary. The direct benefits of keeping the British public ‘on-side’ through some of the darkest days of our nation’s history were to become obvious.
The Ministry of Information created in 1939 was responsible for news and press censorship, publicity and propaganda. Within three years its annual budget was £4 million (that would be closer to £200 million today) of which a little less than 5% was spent on posters. The MOI addressed five key issues dealing with Production and Salvage, The Fighting Forces, Allied Unity, Personalities and the Home Front.
Every message from the need for thrift and how to put on a gas mask to evacuation of children and joining the forces and doing your bit was put on a poster. Jennifer Block remembers her mother telling her that in Aylesbury “We could walk along the street and just see instruction and advice everywhere on colourful hoardings. We didn’t have to think for ourselves, it was done for us.”
The wireless was still a fairly new mass market medium and programmes were controlled. They relied heavily on ‘a buoyant mix of music and song and comedy’ after the onerous early days when the BBC remained stoic, but sombre in its approach to what was good for the listener.
A night at the flicks
Cinemas, like the wireless, were key in the success of the propaganda campaign. Initially closed on government instructions at the outbreak of war, they were soon reopened with a whole genre of films presented to boost morale and lift spirits. ‘In Which we Serve’ (1942), filmed at Denham Studios, and ‘A Canterbury Tale’ (1944) remain amongst the greatest flag waving films ever made. No doubt ‘Mrs Miniver’ (1942) tugged on some local heartstrings as this story centred around the war time trials and tribulations of a middle class family in an imaginary village on the Thames near London.
David Doe remembers that although the cinema was well attended and films were good for morale, the bombing of Reading in February 1943 certainly negatively impacted upon many who had minutes before being happy and laughing.
He recalls: “Dumbo was showing at the Central when an air raid was announced by a slide on the screen. Most people stayed where they were, but when they emerged all about was a scene of devastation and destruction. A single enemy bomber had wrought so much death and destruction. There were about 40 people killed and over 150 injured on that terrible day.”
Most films, the main features, were shown with a series of public information newsreels. For example, the cinema-goer could hear about and see was those who had been bombed out of house and home, but who with the typical grit and determination of the time would say, in cheerful tone how they would not be beaten by the enemy. This type of propaganda had a tremendous effect.
Marion Spicer formerly of Princes Risborough recalls: “My mother was taken aback when she saw her sister in law being interviewed in a London street after her home had been destroyed. She was amazed at how confident she appeared on film at a time when many people would have shied away from the cameras, not least because people were self- conscious in those days.”
‘We’re all in this together’
It was not just the moving image that helped to spread the propaganda word. The photograph became a very powerful force too in reaching the masses. For example, the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) in both Buckinghamshire and Berkshire, made full use of the power of the photographic image to promote its work in the community and to show that everyone was working hard for the common cause of victory. Activities such as the collection of scrap and the setting up of information centres were catalogued on film and then used to reinforce the messages of ‘everyone’s doing their bit’, ‘we are all in this together’ and ‘helping to win the war on the Home Front’.
Powerful moving and still images, wireless programmes of comedy and music, easily accessible and simple information posters were underpinned by the constant reminder of the very tangible community spirit that existed. The people of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, like everyone else across the country, answered the call, pulled together, put differences aside and helped to win the war on the Home Front.