An Extremely Exciting Time”: children’s positive experiences in Second World War Britain
When discussing British children’s lives during the Second World War, people’s minds usually jump to negative experiences, which are generally characterised by rationing and evacuation. Although the war inevitably caused disruption and suffering in many children’s lives, total war on the British Home Front also brought about a period of fun, excitement and opportunity.
This is why when I was trying to develop a topic for my undergraduate dissertation, I decided to explore how, and why, certain British children were able to find enjoyment amidst total war. To this day, the pleasure culture of war has not been abandoned by British children of the Second World War, who continue to share their positive memories to this day.
I can vouch for this, because I interviewed several people who were children during the conflict, and their memories were overwhelmingly positive. For the sake of anonymity, I will only use their initials when quoting from the interviews. War-related play formed a major part of many children’s daily wartime lives, and according to RB, ‘all our games and recreation were based around the war’. British militarism from the wars of the nineteenth century had been romanticized in the works of authors such as Henty, who’s adventure novels fuelled the desire to engage in war-based play, particularly for the boys.
Plane spotting and observation was a popular wartime activity for children like AB, who would ‘stand and watch the dogfights’ over the skies of Kent, but he would also ‘swat up on these [plane] silhouettes’ in the long, dark, boring evenings of the blackout. Aircraft recognition was extremely popular amongst British children, and was facilitated by a wealth of books such as Aircraft Spotter and The Spotter’s Handbook.
Shrapnel collection also formed an important part of many children’s wartime lives, as they searched for the rarest and most aesthetically pleasing pieces, which would be traded in the lively economic market of their school playground. A search for shrapnel became a ritual for AB directly after an air raid, as he, like many other children, hoped to find the rarest and freshest debris.
The presence of foreign servicemen – friend and supposed foe – gave children another new source of enjoyment during the war. A large number of American GIs were stationed in Britain for almost two years prior to D-Day in June 1944, as well as numerous Italian Prisoners of War (POWs) who were captured as the Allies overran North Africa and Italy itself. Whilst GIs were a source of rare sweets and gum, POWs would make children little gifts to compensate for missing their own families. At the tender age of six, RB couldn’t quite believe the Italians were the enemy after one made him a wooden airplane, and ‘they were so nice!’
Other aspects of the war provided some children with enjoyment too, such as following the war’s progress. This was mainly an interest amongst boys such as RS, who took a great deal of interest what was going on abroad, and still managed to recall vivid memories of Operation Dynamo’s reception in Britain, some eighty years later! As well as this, MB said that going out to the air raid shelter felt like an adventure as it had an element of ‘camping out’, and MF enjoyed making ‘rude noises’ with his gas mask.
These examples show how six years of total war on the British Home Front did not simply bring about destruction, devastation and misery, but also new sources of enjoyment for the children. If it were not for the war, these children would not have had access to the opportunities for fun outlined above. However, several factors determined which of these sources of enjoyment were available to which children.
Firstly, the perceived gender roles of the 1930s and 1940s dictated how a child experienced the war emotionally, but also their recreation. Whilst boys found excitement in the progress of war and the fighting, girls tended to take a more pessimistic attitude towards war events, as they were generally concerned with how the war affected them personally. Boys felt like they could not show fear, and would explain why they tended to ‘play war’ more than the girls.
Secondly, children who remained with at least one parent throughout the war were less likely to suffer separation anxiety or the short-term ‘external shock’ caused by evacuation; consequently, their wartime experiences were more likely to be positive. By staying with at least one parent, the challenges which resulted from evacuation were negated, and with it the effects of total warfare on their lives.
Finally, and most importantly, a child’s location influenced how they experienced the Second World War in Britain. For example, JM moved to Yorkshire shortly before the war because of his dad’s job, and his rural location meant that the war didn’t affect him greatly because he did not live in a targeted area. Similarly, RB’s rural location influenced his wartime experience as in rural Lincolnshire, he was able to form bonds with the Italian POWs, which was an opportunity not granted to children living in urban areas.
Although it would not have been the case universally, certain British children were able to derive enjoyment from the conditions brought about by total warfare. The dominant British public memory of Second World War childhood is that of negativity and fear, but some of the changes brought about in children’s lives because of the war were not comprehensively negative. For some British children, the war was an extremely exciting time.
By Miles Clayton
Miles is our resident blogger here at History Indoors. He is an a Final Year student studying Modern History at the University of Essex and researches the positive experiences of British children on the Home Front during the Second World War, with oral histories sitting at the heart of the research. If there are any questions you have on this topic that you would like to see answered, please post them in the comments section below and we will be happy to answer them!