Helping from Home - Watford in World War II
May 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of VE Day, celebrating the end of the Second World War. In this exhibition we are looking back at this time and how the community in Watford banded together during Britain's greatest crisis. Whether it was time, money or even scrap metal, everyone had a contribution to make.
After the horrors and hardships of the First World War, Europe was reluctant to fight again. Nevertheless, tensions in Europe had risen again and, by September 1939, war had begun.
Conscription began straight away, calling up all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 41 with exceptions for those in occupations essential to the war effort. Many people not conscripted served in other ways such as volunteering for the Red Cross or the Home Guard. From the very beginning, everyone had a part to play.
Tightening our belts/Making Do
The outbreak of war created a number of new challenges at home. Britain was dependant on imports for many supplies which were now being blocked by German U-boats. Petrol was rationed from the outset and many rations were imposed on food from 1940 onwards. Rationing was not just about using less food, but also distributing it evenly. The system was intended to make sure everyone had enough while preventing shoppers from stockpiling essential items. The public was also encouraged to grow their own food through campaigns like ‘Dig For Victory’ and to raise easy to keep animals like chickens. In an effort to increase food production, land at Cassiobury Park, Harwoods Recreation Ground and Leggatts Farm were repurposed for use as allotments.
Using less would not be enough to cover the costs of war. Many fundraising campaigns were run throughout the war, giving the public another way to contribute to the war effort. Some campaign weeks like ‘Spitfire For Victory’ appealed to towns to raise money collectively to sponsor specific planes or ships. Together, Watford was able to raise the £5000 goal to sponsor a Spitfire W3456 which was in action for much of the war until it crashed in 1944. The army was not just short of funds but also other resources. There were very successful appeals for everyday items like pots and pans for scrap metal and even for pet dogs to be trained for various roles.
One way that everyone at home could contribute was through their work. Many jobs were essential to keep life running as normal and to support the war effort but with so many able-bodied men called up to serve, there was a serious shortage of workers. As with the First World War, it was women who stepped up to fill the gap. Many took jobs in factories making munitions, weaponry, and even tanks and planes. The Women’s Land Army (WLA) was formed to fill the shortage of agricultural workers. While some of these women were used to life in the country, the long hours and poor conditions came as a shock to those who had come from the city.
Watford’s Welcome House
As Jewish persecution in Europe increased, many Jewish families were desperate to find safety. Towards the end of 1938, the British government began to arrange for transport of Jewish children into Britain from Nazi occupied areas in a programme known as the Kindertransport. The programme was ended by the declaration of war in September 1939 but in this short time a total of 10,000 Jewish children arrived in Britain.
In Watford, Mrs Kathleen Freeman welcomed a number of these child refugees into her home. The ‘Welcome Family’ gave these children a sense of safety in confusing and frightening times, integrating them into the local community through school and church and creating family ties that would last a lifetime. This was especially important as many of these children would later learn that their families had not survived the holocaust. After the war, Kathleen Freeman continued to devote herself to child welfare worldwide and was awarded an O.B.E. for her charitable work in 1964.
Preparing for the worst
Even before the war began, the threat of invasion – on land or in the air - loomed overhead. Preparations for a German attack began as early as 1935 when the first Air Raid Precaution (ARP) committees were set up. As the war drew closer, more and more people volunteered to act as ARP wardens in their area. Not always well liked, these wardens were responsible for enforcing air raid and blackout regulations. The fear of air raids also called for an Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) of volunteers to quickly put out fires from incendiary bombs which could provide light for enemy bombers. Men who had not been too old or too young to enlist also volunteered for the Local Defence Volunteers scheme, later known as the Home Guard, who trained to defend Watford in the event of invasion. One such volunteer, 16 year old Jimmy Perry, would go on to draw on his experiences in the Watford Home Guard when co-writing TV hit, Dad’s Army.
Preparing for the worst also meant some serious changes to the landscape. Due to its proximity to the capital, Watford was part of the rings of defence set up around London. The defensive measures made use of natural features like the River Colne as well as newly installed machine gun posts, concrete tank traps and pill boxes, some of which still stand today.
Victory at Last!
By the summer of 1945, it was clear that the war was coming to an end and on the 8th of May Germany finally issued its unconditional surrender. After 5 years of seemingly endless sacrifice and loss, the war in Europe was over. The outburst of celebration was immediate and uncontrolled. Spontaneous bonfires and street parties sprung up all over Watford and more than 10,000 people found themselves joining the celebrations at Cassiobury Park. However, the war was not over for everyone as fighting with Japan continued until their surrender on the 2nd of September. Even then, it would take over a year for all of Britain’s surviving soldiers to come home.
Even though the fighting had ended, the effects of the war would carry on. Daily life was still disrupted by war time shortages and rationing would continue into the fifties. The war had also caused a severe housing crisis through a combination of returning soldiers, people moving out of the cities and wartime bombing. Some developments changed life for the better, such as the introduction of free healthcare through the NHS, which became permanent features of life in Britain.
It would take many years for Britain to recover and for many, the physical and psychological toil of the war, both at home and on the front, would last a lifetime.