Subject Essay Abstracts

Editorial Board members have written essays that contextualize the primary source material and which highlight key themes, topics, and events discussed within and across the files. To view these essays in full, please sign up to a free trial


Facing Armageddon: British society and civil defense, 1939–45

Brett Holman, University of New England, Armidale, Australia

From the late 1930s through to 1945, the British state faced enormous challenges in preparing the people under its care for aerial bombardment. Large-scale programmes of air-raid precautions (ARP) focused on providing gas masks for all, shelters for those who could afford them, and evacuation for those families who wanted it. However, the reality of the Blitz on Britain’s cities by the Luftwaffe between September 1940 and May 1941 proved to be somewhat at odds with expectations, with more homeless due to bombing than were planned for, and more shelterers in the London Underground. Terrible tragedies were endured, such as the Coventry raid in November 1940 and the Bethnal Green tube disaster of March 1943; a final series of attacks by flying bombs and rockets in late 1944 and early 1945 produced more casualties and another wave of evacuees, but without damaging morale or affecting the war’s outcome.

The Evolution of the Ministry of Information and Home Front Propaganda, 1939 – 1942

David Clampin, Liverpool John Moores University

Amongst the pantheon of notable achievements and victories pertaining to Britain during the Second World War there is one government department that is conspicuous by its absence, the Ministry of Information (MoI). Both at the time and subsequently this body was derided for being out-of-touch if not altogether incompetent. However, a more careful examination of the files setting out internal, private discussions reveals a more sensitive and informed body than perhaps previously given credit for. This essay makes a case for a more sensitive and nuanced appraisal of the MoI which places their early efforts in broader perspective. What is revealed is a body that understood the limits of their power, striving to place faith in the good sense and fortitude of the British people.

They also serve: British women and the Second World War

Juliette Pattinson, University of Kent

This essay gives you an introductory view of the topic of war and social change on the British Home Front by using the changing position of women as a case study. It serves as a guide to the subject, and to the resources available here through the Taylor and Francis digitization of a large number of National Archive files. It is designed to introduce you to just some of the wonderful source material on offer in this collection, including film and radio transcripts, reports and magazines produced by women’s organizations, and official documents, to encourage you to explore the archive for yourselves. Hopefully this essay will help to guide your study using this rich collection.

‘Careless Talk’: Reading Britain’s Home Front Fiction

Karen Schaller, University of East Anglia

How can the Home Front archives help us to read World War II literature? This essay draws on newly digitised National Archive materials to explore how these materials might contribute to, or even challenge, how we read fiction from the period. Elizabeth Bowen’s war-time stories are some of the most important fictional writing about Britain during the Second World War. Yet students rarely study the period’s literature. This essay discusses an aspect of Bowen’s 1941 story ‘Careless Talk’ that students often struggle to interpret – her representation of food – in light of public relations records from the Ministry of Food. This allows us to see how food on the Home Front was a site of complex political and personal feeling, feeling that was, itself, being intensively scrutinised and administered by government. By showing how the archives can open up a seemingly trivial detail, the essay highlights the ways these materials can enhance students’ ability to both contextualise the period’s writing and to develop more insightful literary analysis. In this way the Home Front archives can offer a more complex sense of not only the period, but of the writers working in its historical moment, and of our own cultural memories around the Home Front.


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