The Home Front in Britain Then and Now – Reviewed

 
 
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Christmas is coming, etc, so if you are looking for a potential stocking filler for the history buff in your life you would do well to consider the latest outing from the ATB team at Hobbs Cross.

This time round Gail and Winston Ramsey offer up a broad but stimulating history of the Home Front in Britain during World War II.

While this subject is hardly virgin territory to the world of publishing, least of all After the Battle, the book forms a compendium of facets and details which fit together really well in a single volume.

This is a standalone book in every sense, but it draws the reader to the many other volumes in the ATB stable which include elements of the conflict on the Home Front, particularly during the Blitz and the Battle of Britain and later when the Nazis’ V weapons began to fall on the UK.

But there is still so much more to the Home Front and Gail and Winston manage to fit it all in.

The book has something of a magazine feel to it and I remain a big fan of this approach because it means I can sample the book in sittings rather than process the whole thing from front to back in one go.

I do like to browse through books during quiet moments (such as they are) with a bit of peace and quiet adding to the effect. The format of the book is ideal for this.

A group of Home Guard are trained in the use of a Northover Projector near the factory at which they work, somewhere in England, 1941.
A group of Home Guard are trained in the use of a Northover Projector near the factory at which they work, somewhere in England, 1941.

The book ranges through plenty of things we would expect from air raid precautions, the Home Guard and rationing to the blackout and the impact of German air raids.

We see plenty of images of bomb damage and the individual tragedies that ensued. The authors also touch on the unseemly side of things by looking at criminality and the underworld controlling the inevitable black market.

While the home fires were kept burning there were plenty of people who saw an opportunity to cream off some profit for themselves.

We see how the authorities faced up to all this and how complicated things got once the country began filling up with American and other Allied service personnel.

The book touches on issues such as race and the disparity between British and American attitudes. The reality is that however cheery an image of Home Front life the propagandists felt bound to present, the true situations were always much more nuanced.

Home Guard soldiers advance warily during an exercise near Exeter, 10 August 1941.
Home Guard soldiers advance warily during an exercise near Exeter, 10 August 1941.

The ‘then and now’ elements of the book are as cleverly managed, as always, and the use of archive photography remains as intelligent as ever.

Since colour process arrived in these books I have been pleased to see the use of annotated censor prints and the reverse of images showing captions and censor’s stamps etc.

They add a forgotten dimension to the story of wartime media photography. One photo that really hit the spot for me shows one of my real snapper heroes, The Times photographer Bill Warhurst, enjoying a smoke in March 1945.

It is used to show how censorship was managed where even a bland shot at that stage of the war could excite someone to require a Bren gun to be blurred out. This is the first time I have seen this censor’s print of the frame.

Other elements are quite stunning. We see the contents of London’s major art galleries stored in a Welsh quarry and a fair number of fixtures that have been lost to post war “progress”. You cannot fail to find this stuff fascinating.

King George VI talking to a member of the Home Guard during an inspection in Kent, 10 August 1940.
King George VI talking to a member of the Home Guard during an inspection in Kent, 10 August 1940.

I am old enough to remember bomb sites in London and the location of other interesting places kids of my generation loved to explore.

I would learn stories of the Blitz from my parents and knew places changed forever by it. The town hall where I grew up still has the tell-tale signs of where railings were cut down for recycling and there used to be strong signs of camouflage paint on the façade of the building, long since faded.

Actual war stuff was treasure and finding things was exciting. I still have a MkII pattern steel helmet I found on a railway embankment in around 1972.

These echoes of the war are made permanent thanks to books like this one. Much of what we see here is for the casual visitor rather than the diehards but there is more than enough to please everyone.

I wouldn’t wish the joy of staggering down chimneys with piles of heavy books on the man in the red suit; but this book really is ideal Christmas gift material and its merits will endure a lot long after the associated credit card bills have been paid.

This is another solid piece of work from the After the Battle team.

Book cover
Book cover

THE HOME FRONT IN BRITAIN THEN AND NOW
By Gail and Winston Ramsey
After the Battle
ISBN 978 18700 67973

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Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.

 
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