Fish and Chips Boosted the British Public’s Morale During World War II

Photo Credit: Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

To defeat Germany during World War II, the British public had to give up many staple items, and, for the most part, they did so without much objection. They were prepared to have their gas, bacon, sugar and butter rationed, without much impact on their morale, but fish and chips? That went one step too far.  This classic British dish continued to be consumed without interruption for the duration of the conflict.

As its name suggests, this humble meal contains fried fish in a crispy batter, served with a portion of chips (fries, to Americans). Just where, exactly, the pairing originated isn’t known, but it was extremely popular by the late 1800s. By 1910, 25,000 fish and chip shops were operating in Britain.

Along with tea, the meal has become a symbol of British culture, even though, ironically, its two main components come from different cultures. During both World Wars, fish and chips were two staple foods that continued to be readily available, and it, understandably, was feared that morale would suffer if the public was denied the meal.

Rationing during World War I and II

Six members of the Women's Land Army (WLA) covering a pile of potatoes with straw
Women’s Land Army (WLA) stacking and protecting potatoes from frost with layers of straw, September 1939. (Photo Credit: Maeers / Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

During the World Wars, military production and disruption in the supply chains meant many foods and other staples of everyday items became less available or completely impossible to source. To ensure everyone had a fair share of these small necessities, the British government introduced rationing.

At first, this impacted fuel, but it later came to include items like eggs, sugar and jam. Meat also became rationed, although game meat wasn’t affected. That’s not to say, however, that items that weren’t rationed were easily come by. For example, during both conflicts, fruits and vegetables became a treat, given their scarcity. The Ministry of Food issued everyone in Britain a ration book, which was used to purchase food from designated shops that received an allocated amount for sale.

Rationing became a source of morale-boosting campaigns, like “Dig for Victory.” Government officials also received ration books, which helped the population feel they weren’t being unfairly treated. Even then-Princess Elizabeth saved up her clothing coupons to purchase enough material to make her wedding dress.

Boosting morale with fish and chips

Women and children standing in line with baskets outside of a shop
Shoppers queuing for fish in Eltham, a district in southeast London, 1943. (Photo Credit: Fox Photos / Getty Images)

The British government ensured that there was a continuous supply of fish and potatoes during the First and Second World Wars. This was important, as the supply chain for the meal – particularly, the fish – was heavily disrupted. Many fishing vessels had been requisitioned by the Royal Navy, and those still in use were subject to regular attacks from German U-boats.

The price of fish rose considerably, but the government managed to maintain a steady supply. Reportedly, the quality of the meal suffered, as Britons lacked decent fat for frying.

Not only was fish and chips an enjoyable meal that kept morale up on the homefront, but it also saved lives on the front. British troops used the name of the popular dish to identify friendly soldiers: one would shout “fish” and the other would reply, “Chips.”

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As well, during World War I, fish and chips were fed to soldiers in the trenches, thanks to the efforts of Belgian caterers.

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE