On 8 May 1945, the Allies accepted the unconditional surrender of the Nazis, and the date became known as Victory in Europe. VE Day meant an end to Britain’s involvement in the war, and the slow return of our Armed Forces. Despite the enormity of the occasion, the end of the war didn’t suddenly have a massive economic or social effect on Britain – in fact, it marked yet another dramatic change in our ancestors lives.
Domestic life continued to face disruption. Rationing had been introduced in early 1940. Initially, bacon, butter and sugar had been rationed, followed by other meats, tea, jam, biscuits, cereal, cheese, eggs, milk and canned fruit. Later, other foods, clothing and petrol were rationed.
The Ministry of Food took these measures to ensure Britons could last the War. After VE Day, imports were still restricted, and production slow due to the number of men still in Europe, so rationing went on, despite the Government pledging to end it as quickly as possible.
Families received ration stamps based on their income, the number of people in the house, and the ages of any children. Bread – which wasn’t rationed during the War – was limited from 1946 to 1948, and potatoes from 1947. Petrol rationing ended in July 1950; tea in 1952; sugar, eggs and sweets were restricted until 1953; and it wasn’t until bacon came off the list in July 1954 that the safeguard ended.
According to The National Archives, over 200,000 houses were destroyed during the War, and 500,000 damaged. Many towns and cities – most notably London and Coventry – had swathes of land where homes once stood. In order to re-house people quickly, prefabricated houses were built. They were easy-to-assemble concrete boxes, and provided efficient temporary housing.
After the general election of July 1945, when Labour came to power, town planning became a big issue. Labour started an ambitious plan to build several ‘new towns’ in England, Wales and Scotland, in order to house people away from overcrowded cities and provide permanent housing for those in prefabs. Harlow and Basildon in Essex, and Hatfield in Hertfordshire were two of the new towns built by 1950.
What most families wanted when the War ended, however, was their husbands and fathers back home, but this didn’t happen immediately. In September 1945, the Minister of Labour and National Service, George Isaacs, under pressure from the media and public, was forced to respond to complaints about the time it was taking to demobilise British forces. On 6 September, The Times wrote that Isaacs refuted allegations about the rate of demobilisation being slowed down by the employment situation or inadequate facilities at disposal centres. On the contrary, argued Isaacs, if the nation was to survive, “our export and civilian industries must be built up and re-established with all speed.”
Many men had been away for the duration of WWII. Children born just before, or during, the War now had largely unknown fathers return home. This had two main impacts: firstly, children and fathers had to get to know each other, the children sometimes feeling that there was a usurper in the house; and secondly, fathers were often unable to re-establish a relationship with their wife because of the children’s presence. In addition, when a father returned, he might have emotional or physical problems as a result of his experiences. The dynamic of such households had changed and in some cases, relationships didn’t survive.
The lives of many children changed after VE Day. Those who had been evacuated came home and had to get used to life in their hometown or city, with their families and old friends. Although some had only been evacuated for a few weeks, others had lived away from their families, in the countryside, for the full six years of the War. They might only have had vague memories of the lives they had before. These children were expected to settle back into their old lives, just as servicemen were. Many returned to find their old schools damaged or obliterated by bombs. In 1945, the Labour Government introduced education reforms, aiming to provide 70,000 new teachers and replace or repair damaged or destroyed schools. A 12-month crash course in teaching was introduced to quickly get teachers into classrooms.
In 1947, the school leaving age was raised from 15 to 16. The increase in pupils that followed meant that many schools ran out of space, and had to build temporary huts to accommodate the extra pupils. In addition, nearly 1,000 new primary schools were built between the end of the War and 1950.
While children had new schools or teachers to get to grips with, many of their fathers had to adjust to new jobs or incomes. Some men came home from war with their previous jobs kept open for them – however, the salaries were at their old level, too. For men who had married or had children during the War, these salaries were now insufficient and they had to look for new jobs anyway.
Those who found jobs after the War often found themselves under great pressure as a result of the demand for their products. The Armed Forces’ return led to shortages in the provision of tailoring and outfitting. In the second half of 1944, the Ministry of Supply aimed to reach a target of 35,000 suits made each week, but by October 1945, it admitted that the figure had rarely been reached, and the VE Day celebrations had actually led to a decline in the number of suits being made.
Moves by the Government to speed up demobilisation meant 75,000 suits needed to be produced over Christmas in 1945, and 65,000 a week during 1946. Sir Stafford Cripps, the President of the Board of Trade, commented on 11 October 1945: “The public pressed very hard for increased demobilisation: now they will have to sacrifice something for it by not expecting more men’s clothes for a while.” Cripps did thank the public, though, for being “extremely patient”.
Not everything was austere and grey. In 1948, the Olympics were held in London – although Germany and Japan weren’t invited to take part. Three years later, the Festival of Britain was held on London’s south bank. The latter was designed to promote and celebrate achievements, particularly in art, design and industry. It was also an opportunity for Britons to feel proud of themselves and lift their spirits. Slowly, but surely, life was returning to normal – and that was worth celebrating.