2000s in The United Kingdom - World War II

World War II

Main articles: Home front during World War II#Britain, Timeline of the United Kingdom home front during World War II, and Military history of the United Kingdom during World War II

Britain, along with the dominions and the rest of the Empire, declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939, after the German invasion of Poland. After a quiet period of "phoney war", the French and British armies collapsed under German onslaught in spring 1940. The British with the thinnest of margins rescued its main army from Dunkirk (as well as many French soldiers), leaving all their equipment and war supplies behind. Winston Churchill came to power, promising to fight the Germans to the very end. The Germans threatened an invasion—which the Royal Navy was prepared to repel. First the Germans tried to achieve air supremacy but were defeated by the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain in late summer 1940. Japan declared war in December 1941, and quickly seized Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, and Burma, and threatened Australia and India. Britain formed close bonds with the Soviet Union (starting in 1941) and the United States (starting in 1940), with the US giving $40 billion in munitions through Lend Lease; Canada also gave aid. (The American and British aid did not have to be repaid, but there were also loans that were repaid.)

The war years saw great improvements in working conditions and welfare provisions, which arguably paved the way for the postwar welfare state. Infant, child, and maternity services were expanded, while the Official Food Policy Committee (chaired by the deputy PM and Labour leader Clement Attlee) approved grants of fuel and subsidised milk to mothers and to children under the age of five in June 1940. A month later, the Board of Education decided that free school meals should become more widely available. By February 1945, 73% of children received milk in school, compared with 50% in July 1940. Free vaccination against diphtheria was also provided for children at school. In addition, the Town and Country Planning Act 1944 gave consideration to those areas damaged in bombing raids and enabled local authorities to clear slums, while the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act passed that same year made £150 million available for the construction of temporary dwellings.

To improve conditions for elderly persons, supplementary pensions were introduced in 1940, and in 1943, there were further improvements in rates and conditions for those in receipt of supplementary pensions and unemployment assistance. Food prices were stabilised in December 1939, initially as temporary measure, but made permanent in August 1940, while both milk and meals were provided at subsidised prices, or free in those cases of real need.

In July 1940, increased Treasury grants led to an improvement in the supply of milks and meals in schools, with the number of meals taken doubled within a year and increased school milk by 50%. By 1945, roughly 33% of all children ate at school compared with one in thirty in 1940, while those taking milk increased from about 50% to roughly 75%. In 1940, a national milk scheme was launched which provided a pint of milk at about half price for all children under the age of five, and for expectant or nursing mothers. The take up rate was such that by 1944 95% of those eligible participated in the scheme. The government’s general food policy that priority groups like young children and mothers were not just entitled to essentials like milk, but actually received supplies as well. Evacuation during the course of the war also revealed to more prosperous Britons the extent of deprivation in society. As noted by one historian, evacuation became “the most important subject in the social history of the war because it revealed to the whole people the black spots in its social life.”

An Emergency Medical Service was introduced which provided free treatment to casualties (a definition which included war evacuees), while rationing led to significant improvements in the diets of poor families. As noted by Richard Titmuss,

"The families in that third of the population of Britain who in 1938 were chronically undernourished had their first adequate diet in 1940 and 1941 ... the incidence of deficiency diseases, and notably infant mortality, dropped dramatically."

The media called it a "people's war"—a term that caught on and signified the popular demand for planning and an expanded welfare state. The Royal family played major symbolic roles in the war. They refused to leave London during the Blitz and were indefatigable in visiting troops, munition factories, dockyards, and hospitals all over the country. Princess Elizabeth joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS—a part of the army) and repaired trucks and jeeps. All social classes appreciated how the royals shared the hopes, fears and hardships of the people.

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