A global conflict like no other: remembering peace in Europe

The day the Second World War ended in Europe was one of unbridled celebration in Britain. But have you forgotten what you learned at school about the war? Former primary school teacher Becky Cranham of PlanBee Teaching Resources refreshes your memory and provides some simple activities you can do at home with your children

On 8 May 1945, Winston Churchill announced that the war was over in Europe. It became known as VE Day (Victory in Europe Day). However, the war didn’t officially end around the world until 2 September that year.

Short rations on toilet paper and 9 other fascinating facts about the War

1. British soldiers’ toilet paper ration was three sheets a day.

2. To avoid using the German-sounding word ‘hamburger’ during the War, Americans called a hamburger a liberty steak.

3. Eight out of 10 soldiers captured and held in Russian prisoner of war camps died there.

4. Over half of those who died during the War were civilians.

5. Britain built 132,500 aircraft during the War.

6. Britain had less rationing than any county in mainland Europe.

7. Spain, Sweden and Switzerland were among the countries that chose to remain ‘neutral’ during the War.

8. The number of people killed during the War was more than the entire population of Great Britain today.

9. Calvin Graham was only 12 years old when he enlisted in the US Navy, and is thought to be the youngest person to fight in the War. He won Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals before the Navy discovered his age.

10. Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler’s deputy, was captured by the British in May 1941 and incarcerated in the Tower of London, the last person to be imprisoned there.

The Drift to War

In the First War (1914-1918), Germany was defeated. After this military humiliation,

Hitler and the Nazis wanted Germany to be a powerful country once again. When it invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. Before long, there was barely a country in the world which wasn’t involved.

State of the nations: Allies v. the Axis

The Axis countries (fighting against Britain) included:

• Germany

• Italy

• Japan

• Hungary

• Romania

• Slovakia

• Bulgaria

The Allied countries included:

• Great Britain

• France

• United States

• Greece

• Australia

• Canada

• Belgium

• India

• Poland

• …and many more

Britain in the War: surviving the Blitz
In 1940, the German air force (‘Luftwaffe’) began dropping bombs on Britain in air raids.

The first bombing took place on 7 September, with around 350 bombers flying across London. For 11 weeks, Britain was bombed almost every day. The Luftwaffe targeted docks, factories and railways so that Britain would be brought to a standstill.

Did you know…

The word ‘Blitz’ comes from the German word ‘Blitzkrieg’ which means ‘Lightning War’.

Civilians take cover
• Shelters: Civilians were told to build shelters in their homes and gardens so they could protect themselves during air raids. One of the most popular was the Anderson shelter, made from corrugated iron sheets and dug halfway into the ground.

• The Underground: In London, hundreds of families would squeeze onto the platforms to keep safe from the bombings overhead.

• The Blackout: During the Blitz, everyone had to block out any light from their windows and doors using heavy blackout curtains, cardboard or anything else that would block the light and make it harder for the Luftwaffe to hit its targets.

• Evacuation: Children were sent from the cities to live with other families – host families – in the countryside to keep them safe from the bombs. The host families were given some money each week to care for evacuees. Caring for evacuees was considered a national service – you could be fined if you refused to take in evacuees with no good reason.

One third of London was destroyed during the Blitz. By the end, 60,000 people had died, 87,000 people had been injured and 2 million homes had been completely destroyed.

Building an army
When the war started, lots of men willingly joined the army. But in 1940, 2 million more men were conscripted (ordered to sign up).

Those in certain professions didn’t have to sign up – jobs like being a farmer, a railway driver or a miner were considered crucial jobs that Britain could not do without. Those who were too old, weak or young to fight, as well as those in important professions, became members of the Home Guard, which protected Britain’s coastline from attack

A soldier’s life
All men called up to be soldiers were sent to train before they went to the battlefield. Once trained, they could be sent anywhere around the world. A soldier’s experience in the war depended on what rank of the armed forces he was in, and where he was posted.

For most soldiers, life was very difficult. They had food rations, but supplies were not always able to get through to their base. If they weren’t at an army base, they usually lived in tents or in holes dug in the ground. Many didn’t have access to heating, hot water or other home comforts.

Women join the war effort
With so many men away at war, women had to step in and do the jobs men had left behind. They also had to carry on running their households, looking after children, growing food, and much more.

From 1941, women were called up for war work, such as working in weapons factories, driving buses or being air raid wardens.

There were also more than 640,000 women in the armed forces. Their roles included driving ambulances in war zones, nursing at army hospitals and flying aircraft.

Jews face extermination
Hitler and the Nazis believed that people with blond hair and blue eyes (‘Aryans’) were a ‘master’ race and that anyone else was ‘lesser’. He wanted Germany to be a pure Aryan race; he particularly wanted to ‘cleanse’ Germany of all Jews.

As soon as he came to power, Hitler started making life difficult for Jews. Germans were encouraged to avoid anyone or anything associated with Jews, including Jewish businesses. Many Jews had to leave Germany and German-occupied lands to find safety overseas. Many came to Britain.

More than six million Jews died in the concentration camps built by the Nazis.

The War draws to a close

During the course of the War, the Axis troops had occupied much of Europe, including France and Poland. But by 1944, many of these were being freed by the Allies. Italy also changed sides in 1943 and declared war on Germany. Then, on 30th April 1945, Hitler committed suicide. A week later, Germany surrendered.

Remembering the War
It is thought that between 75-80 million people died during the War.

Remembrance Day on 11 November has been observed since the end of the First World War to remember members of the armed forces who lost their lives protecting their country.

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