Remembering Life in England during World War II

    August 2009            
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Nathan Woolf's stall on the historic market in Coventry, England which was bombed by the Luftwaffe as part of its blitzkrieg during the Second World War


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Making Do: Rationing in Britain during the Second World War

By Naidia Woolf

Despite having lived in the United States for half a century I still think of myself as English. Americans born since the Second World War sometimes ask me, "How was it in Britain during food rationing? How did you manage?" My usual answer is "We managed quite well!"

For people like me who were children during the war food rationing was the norm. We had never experienced, or were too young to remember, when food was not rationed; when, if you had enough money, you could "pop over" to the shops and buy everything you needed or desired: food, shoes, clothes — even sweets.

The Second World War brought the long, desperate years of the Great Depression to an end; many of the previously unemployed finally found jobs doing war work and began earning a steady income. For them food rationing, despite the restrictions, may have felt like a "leg up" after years of deprivation, having to make do on hand-outs or soup kitchens.

Prior to the beginning of the Second World War the UK "imported 55 million tons of foodstuffs per year (70%), including more than 50% of its meat, 70% of its cheese and sugar, nearly 80% of fruits and about 90% of cereals and fats.1 During the five long years of the war, food packages and supplies were shipped to military personnel serving overseas thereby contributing to the severe shortages at home.

Food rationing came into force in January 1940. To start with, rations (per person per week) included Butter or lard, four ounces (one stick); Sugar, 12 ounces; Raw bacon or Ham, four ounces, and eggs (two per person per week). Meat rationing started in March, two months later.2 Children five years and older had their own ration books. Other food items such tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, and canned fruit were also rationed. Bread, despite becoming increasingly expensive, was not rationed until July 1946 (almost two years after the war) when, "largely due to the necessity of feeding the population of European areas coming under British control, whose economies and been devastated by the fighting."3

Americans today, especially the more educated and health-conscious, tend to avoid white bread which it is high in carbohydrates and fillers (what are referred today as empty calories); by contrast, for British people white bread — traditionally considered tastier and more "upper class"—has always been preferred. (A recent correspondent of mine who visits England more often than I told me that English people are eating "peasant bread," presumably what people in the States call country bread.) During the war and immediate post-war period most Britons had to make do with brown bread, usually Hovis. Slogans such as "Make Hovis your Ration" and "Thin Slices make Hovis go Further" were used to promote this rather dry but healthful little loaf made of a patented wheat germ flour.4

It is ironic, but understandable, that Britons who were young during those years of food rationing were the healthiest generation on record: you only have to look at photographs of the children—lean but robust. There was little meat, butter or lard to clog their arteries and very little sugar or sweets of any kind to create cavities or rot their teeth. Consequently our diet was low in carbohydrates and saturated fat.

June Solntseff remembers the BBC's morning show, "On the Kitchen Front," which gave 'amazingly ingenious' recipes for nourishing meals."5

During butter rationing the food industry promoted margarine as a healthy as well as more available substitute. When it first appeared on my mother's kitchen counter it was a white slab of mysterious origins; in the centre was a bright yellow blob—an artificial coloring agent to be blended with the margarine so it would resemble butter. I remember staring open-mouthed at this unappealing food item and exclaiming: "What's that?!" Even this poor substitute (or supplement) for butter was rationed, at 2 oz. per person a week.

Mother had a Jewish cookbook that was a staple in Jewish homes: Florence Greenberg's Cookery Book. I still enjoy reading the quaint old recipes: for example, how to make a meatless meat pie, or a rhubarb pie (always a favourite of mine) by using only half of the sugar called for in pre-war recipes. First published in 1934 and updated and re-issued in 1947 while food rationing was still in force, Greenberg's cookery book was intended to "meet the requirements of today and tomorrow" and included alternative recipes requiring fewer ingredients for "elaborate sweet dishes that must await the return of a plentiful supply of cream and fresh eggs [when] food becomes more plentiful."6

In those days few English people had any refrigeration. (My parents did not have a fridge until after the war.) Greenberg's cookery book contained useful suggestions for the inexperienced homemaker on how to keep food fresh, such as placing the milk bottle on a window ledge where it would "catch the draft"; covering meat with a wire gauze frame "to be kept scrupulously clean to keep the flies out"; in hot weather keeping milk in a basin of cold water, "covered with muslin and standing it in a draught;" wrapping green vegetables in newspapers and salads in a damp cloth, and putting onions and shallots in a mesh bag and hanging it "where the air can get to them. …No food should ever be put away in the same dish in which it was served.7

As is well-known within the Jewish community, Jews who observed the dietary laws (kashrut) are only permitted to eat the flesh of domesticated animals. Ham, bacon, pork are traif (forbidden). My mother exchanged her bacon coupons for eggs or cheese coupons with a Christian neighbor down the street. Because of my strong early conditioning even thinking of eating bacon, for example, makes me queasy.

During food rationing Jews and gentiles alike were allotted approximately 1 lb. 3 oz. of meat per person per week.8

June Solntseff (to whom I referred earlier) had three brothers in the RAF. As far as she can recall, Jews serving overseas in British-occupied zones were not affected by food shortages. June, who joined the ATS in 1944, was stationed on the Isle of Man and "always took home soap and cheese which were not rationed there [on the Isle of Man]."9

I read somewhere about a Jewish woman engaged in top-secret work at Bletchley Park who brought kosher sandwiches for lunch to work from her lodgings—also about other Jewish personnel at Bletchley Park who were given kosher food packages by neighboring Jewish families.

In the UK there was a thriving black market in food items, including kosher products. I have been told that rich Jews who could afford to purchase kosher goods at high prices suffered relatively few food shortages whereas poorer Jews had to queue daily for the meagre supplies in the shops. The situation was even more difficult during the Jewish Holidays [especially Pesach] when "special foods were needed for observances."10

In Britain many of the Jewish children who were evacuated to the countryside found themselves in villages or small towns where Jews were previously unknown and kosher food an alien concept. Coalville, the small mining town to which my sister and I were evacuated that first week-end in September 1939 (as part of the Government's mass evacuation of children from industrial areas to the countryside for safe keeping), had few if any Jews; there was, however, a sizeable Jewish population in Leicester (the county seat). When I was reunited with my foster parents' now elderly daughter, fifty years later, I was told that her mom did not know what to feed us Jewish children but did her best to accommodate our, to her, foreign eating habits: "No bacon at breakfast; no ham!" She also remembered we must have been in Coalville at least until around Easter in 1940 because my mother arrived from Birmingham around that time with a box of matzos which her mom was told was a special food for the Jewish Passover.

During the First World War there was a pikuach nefesh (special dispensation) from the rabbinate that allowed Jews serving in the armed services to eat "non-kosher" when no Jewish food was available; that deviation from halacha was allowed "in order to save a human life including your own."11 Harold Pollins, who has written numerous articles and books about British military history, consulted Rev Malcolm Weisman, Chaplain to the British Forces, regarding the Second World War. His response was that "the idea of the Chief Rabbi giving permission to men and women in the armed forces in the Second World War that they could eat treifa food is an old wives' tale. If a person, in order to save life, needed to eat treif, that was a personal decision … not a general dispensation given by the Chief Rabbi. ([Adding] and remember that the Chief Rabbi does not represent all Jews.)"12

Harold Pollins was in the army during the Second World War. "In certain circumstances (e.g., front-line service) it would have been impossible to get kosher food." One of his aunts sent kosher food to her two sons in the army.13 In today's British Army Jewish soldiers receive packages of kosher food items.

Raymond Hart, who was a youngster in England during the war, describes how one of his twin cousins (both stretcher-bearers) was a prisoner in Stalag XX B; how he attempted to escape three times and was recaptured, twice. Finally, in April 1945—after his third attempt to escape—he was liberated by the Americans. "When captured [Jewish soldiers] threw away their dog tags which had the Star of David on them. They never admitted to being Jewish whilst in captivity and therefore suffered no harassment. [Raymond's cousin] thinks however that the Germans respected the Geneva conventions as far as military prisoners of war were concerned. There was of course no question of kosher food for POW's. Their basic foods were soup and bread supplemented by Red Cross parcels."14

At the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp approximately 50,000 inmates, including Jews, died. The camp was liberated by the British in April 1945. "The British troops and medical staff tried several diets to feed the survivors in this order. Bully beef from Army ration: most of the prisoners' digestive systems were in too weak a state from long-term starvation to handle such food. Skimmed milk: the results were a bit better, but still far from acceptable. Bengal Famine Mixture .. a rice and sugar-based mixture which had achieved good results after the Bengal [Indian] famine of 1943 but proved less suitable to Europeans [because the ingredients were different from those to which they were accustomed]. Adding the common ingredient paprika to the mixture made it more palatable to these Europeans and recovery started."15

Sheila Toffell's father, who was a stretcher-bearer for the RMAC in Europe, was strictly kosher. "He had been told that while you were fighting for your country it was "more important to remain strong and healthy (and alive) … how it "choked him to eat non-kosher food but had to eat it."16 From what I can gather, as a stretcher-bearer (and member of the medical staff) he arrived at Bergen-Belsen a few days after it was liberated. He told his daughter about Jewish inmates who "despite their dire condition, refused to eat non-Kosher food when they were being liberated and how the British Army doctors gave survivors only basic gruel to start "to allow their systems to adjust [after long periods of near-starvation]. Jewish soldiers were told that if they did not want to go in [enter the camp] they did not have to. Of course, to a man they did."17

Reading about the selflessness and heroism of those Jewish soldiers makes me proud to be a Jew.

British people have always been big on sweets. Due in part to the lack of essential ingredients (milk, sugar, chocolate, and cocoa powder) sweets became increasingly expensive during the early years of the war. Rationing was imposed in July 1942: "The general ration book contained two pages of personal points to be used solely for obtaining sweets."18 (According to one of my sources sweets allotment was restricted to 3 oz.—eight grams—per person per week.) For a special after-dinner treat my mother would open a small package of chocolate, break it into pieces and give everyone a single piece. I always longed for another piece but did not dare ask.

Writing about food rationing reminds me of what were commonly known as children's iron rations. These were not issued by the government so were not part of official rations. Iron rations were originally introduced as "trench rations" during the First World War because they were distributed to troops in the trenches. During the Second World War, iron rations intended for children included a small number of nutritional food products such as iron-rich tablets and could be purchased at the chemist's. The only item I remember was Horlocks malted milk tablets. As the name suggests, the key ingredient, apart from milk, is malted barley. Whenever I savor their distinctive taste I am reminded of the war years. A man from Preston (who, like me, was a child at that time) remembers other tablets we took to stay healthy: "Among these was "Iron Ox", little pink pills which were for iron, "Seven Seas Cod liver oil … and "Elasto"19, which dissolved quickly on your tongue. I never knew what purpose they served. But if Mother said you had to take them, then believe me, take them you jolly well did!"20

The milkman, who each day delivered a fresh bottle of milk to our door, also supplied families with small children with an extra (small) bottle. Milk was pasteurized, not homogenized, as it usually is today. After hearing the clunk of milk bottles on our front step my sister and I would rush to the door, hoping to be the first to open the milk bottle so we could pour the fresh cream floating on the top over our morning cereal. Families like ours were also issued with a small bottle of fresh orange juice delivered daily along with the milk.

With all the food shortages Britons were grateful for the extra food shipped across the Atlantic in the American merchant navy. Tinned goods included powdered milk, tinned fruit and "dried" (reconstituted) eggs—also Spam, long an American staple, which for obvious reasons English Jews who adhered to sanctions against eating pork and pork by-products would not eat. "One of the principal strategies of the Axis [was] to attack shipping bound for the UK, restricting British industry and potentially starving the nation into submission. … in about two years Britain had just six weeks' food left"21 so had no recourse but to impose food rationing. Many of those merchant ships were torpedoed by German submarines and never reached our shores.

My father's motto about eating in a non-Jewish restaurant was "If you don't know what it is, don't eat it!" During those years of meat rationing a rumour circulated among the British public that horse meat was been substituted for beef, and rabbit for chicken. If the meat was tough it might be horse meat; if the chicken was suspiciously pink it was probably rabbit. My good friend Ena Jacobs, who was evacuated during the London Blitz, remembers being served rabbit by her foster parents: "I was told it tastes just like chicken … it was awful."22 Fortunately restaurants per se were not on food rationing so more affluent British people (including less-observant Jews) tended to eat out a lot; after a while, however, certain restrictions were imposed to prevent the more affluent from taking unfair advantage: "no meal was to cost more than five shillings [or] consist of more than three courses [and] meat and fish could not be served at the same sitting."23 Although fish and chips were not rationed fish became increasingly expensive and beyond the means of the poor.

At non-Jewish functions I still tend to scrutinize the contents of casserole dishes; if they "look fishy" (pun not intended!) I give them a miss.

Historically, Jewish people (Ashkenazim, at least) were big meat eaters: one particular favourite was wurst. (For those not familiar with it wurst is a savory Jewish beef sausage of vaguely German origin.) Rather than boil or grill it whole, my mother used to slice it crossways then fry it in kosher fat or margarine until it was crisp. Two personal favourites were rissoles (breaded meat pasties) and minced meat (ground beef mixed with a beaten egg and chopped onion then fried). Jews also maintained a diet with a high fat content. My mother (like many Jewish mothers) would render the chicken fat (make schmaltz), and after it had solidified, spread it on bread and serve with a liberal shaking of salt. Today when I tell non-Jews about this much-loved "comfort food" they roll their eyes.

Other Jewish delicacies included soused herring (smoked fatty herring marinated in brine and brown sugar), herring in wine sauce, and latkes (which I don't think need any explanation for the Jewish reader!). Although I do not remember my mother kvetching about meat rationing she, like other Jewish housewives, may have found it difficult satisfying her family's individual preferences.

In those days the patriarch of the family, if not away on military service, was the sole or principal breadwinner. At dinner time my father was always served the largest portion of meat and the most potatoes (usually boiled). I have always loved potatoes, in any form: seated on my father's left at the table I would fix my hungry eyes on his potatoes: after a moment's hesitation he would smile and fork one or two onto my plate.

With the scarcity of meat, many English housewives (Jews and gentiles alike) often resorted to beans as a good, alternative source of protein. Once or twice a week (for lunch or a light supper) Mother would heat a can of Heinz baked beans with a generous dollop of margarine, then serve them piping hot over toast. Beans on toast soon became my favourite meal. Variations on "something on toast" included spaghetti (again out of a Heinz tin) on toast, grilled tomatoes on toast, even roe on toast—my sister's favorite (not mine).

At breakfast-time Mother usually served me a boiled egg—even during egg rationing. My boiled egg was accompanied by a piece of toast with marmalade, a small glass of orange juice, and as I grew a little older, a weak cup of tea. She liked to tell people how the one time I refused to eat my egg she rushed me to the doctor's, convinced I was ill. (I was diagnosed with German measles.) Most likely "the daily egg" was thanks to my mother. Parents often relinquished some of their food rations to their children to keep them healthy and strong.

As a big egg lover my stomach would rebel against eating "dried" eggs. Regardless of what you did to them they were still tasteless.

The first time I remember eating a banana was shortly after the war—the day I talked a reluctant cousin into sharing his! All we had during food rationing were apples and pears: no bananas, oranges, or grapes which, before the war, were imported into the UK. Up till then my only association with bananas was the banners of tropical fruit outside shops. The Imperial War Museum website has a section that describes WWII rationing in Britain: this includes the photograph of a sign outside a greengrocer's that reads, "Yes, we have no bananas!" [Exclamation mark included]24 All at once the popular jingle, "Yes, we have no bananas/we have no bananas, today!" rang in my ears: although written in the 1920s by American songwriters (presumably during hard times), this is a perfect example of British irony and understatement.

Writing about bananas (or the lack thereof) reminds me of what Sheila Toffell told me about "British make-do ingenuity" during the food shortages; how because her mother [and presumably other Jewish housewives] could not get bananas "they would cook up parsnips and mash them up with banana flavoring. [They would also] keep a kettle of water going with some kind of stand over a [lighted] Jahrzheit glass so they would always have hot tea."25

Mothers gave their children cod liver oil so they would not suffer from a vitamin D deficiency. After backing me up against the wall, my mother would force a tablespoon of favor-tasting cod liver oil between my teeth; I would try not to gag as this "body-building" liquid slithered down my throat. Presumably this was the "Seven Seas" tonic mentioned elsewhere in this article.

Clothes rationing was another big problem. For women in particular it represented a real hardship. Having a father like mine who sold men's clothing was, of course, no solution for my mother, sister and me.

Nathan Woolf's stall on the historic market in Coventry, England which was bombed by the Luftwaffe as part of its blitzkrieg during the Second World War

Women with daughters became adept at shortening or lengthening hems, and so on, sometimes with unforeseen results. As a pre-pubescent girl my bathing costume was perfectly adequate; however after I reached my teens and my body began to mature my mother tried to make it a better fit by adding extra strips of fabric. Unfortunately the bodice was merely a wide piece of non-elasticized material that gaped at the sides, so to avoid possible embarrassment I always kept my arms crossed or close to my sides which naturally did not help when I was trying to swim at the local pool. Clothes were rationed until March 1949.

Photographs and stills of Britons during those years of clothes rationing show us in obviously much-worn, shabby clothes. (Unlike the clothes worn by actors in today's glamorized versions!) The photograph below shows my father, sister and me walking along a seaside front during the war.

Silk stockings were a luxury (or only available on the black market). School girls like me wore either cotton or, in the cooler months, lisle (a twisted form of cotton thread). Mother and I would spend hours darning holes in our stockings and hoping the runs would not show below our skirts. For some unknown reason women's hats were still plentiful; for many women sporting a smart new hat was their sole fashion note. I remember my father's youngest sister, who worked in a munitions factory, poring over the photos of fashion models in the glossy American magazines provided by her G.I. boy friend.

Office supplies and paper goods were also scarce: the few books, stationery, and other materials issued during the war were printed on cheap, inferior stock. Today my mother's old Jewish Cookery book (mentioned earlier)—a treasured artifact—sits on my bookcase at home, its pages turned brittle and brown. I always handle it with care, worried that it might disintegrate in my hands.

Utility rates were expensive and remained so well into the post-war years. On the inside cover of Greenberg's cookery book is the illustration of a glamorous blonde who resembles Betty Grable (the Hollywood film star known as "America's favorite pin-up girl" by American troops overseas) ladling soup into her mouth from a soup tureen. Below is The British Gas Council's cheery slogan, "Handsome is and handsome does – that's the Gas idea!" promoting gas cookers that "not only give you a clean, smart, and tidy kitchen [but] also ensure successful, trouble-free and economical cooking always!"26

The Imperial War Museum's website features the picture of a man drawing a line inside the bath with a paint trowel: this was part of the government's drive to encourage the population to ration their use of hot water and conserve "precious fuel supplies."27 The working man's traditional once-a-week bathing ritual entailed either washing in a few inches of water in the bath or, for older houses that did not have a bathroom (or kept coal in the bath!), in a tin tub in front of the fire. Many women and girls had chilblains on their feet and ankles from the cold and damp and developed scorch-marks on the back of their legs from sitting or standing too close to a gas or electric heater. English winters were more severe then than they are today. My sister used to go to bed wearing woolly socks and a jumper over her flannel pajamas. In 1951 as a young actress in London between theatre jobs I had to feed coins into the meters installed over the kitchen sink, bathtub, and gas fire. One chilly winter evening I ran out of coins and found myself sitting in the darkness and cold, staring glumly at a silent wireless.

Petrol was heavily rationed with persons engaged in war work given first priority. Most car manufacturers had converted their facilities to munitions factories. I remember my father cranking up his old, pre-war Morris Minor with a manual starter. After the war, and petrol de-rationing, he was finally able to purchase a new car.

Early on, we were all issued gas masks and required to carry them with us at all times, in case we were attacked with mustard gas. During the First World War, "the war to end all wars", mustard gas (a chemical compound used as a poison gas) was introduced by the Germans in warfare against the British in Belgium in 1917 and took a heavy toll of casualties. Thousands of British soldiers returned from the front, disfigured and permanently blinded. Fortunately for us during "our war" we never had to use our gas masks.

1 1 "Rationing in the United Kingdom," as reported in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

2 2 BBC – h2g2 – "World War Two Rationing in Britain"

3 3 "Rationing in the United Kingdom": Wikipedia

4 4 "120 years of Hovis history"

5 5 Email from June Solntseff, dated May 2, 2009

6 6 Florence Greenberg's Cookery Book: pub. The Jewish Chronicle, London, 1947

7 7 Ibid

8 8 Data regarding the exact ration vary according to sources referenced; it is not clear whether this meat ration included bacon and ham in addition to red meat: beef, mutton, and lamb.

9 9 Solntseff

10 10 Email from Ena Jacobs, dated April 28, 2009

11 11 Email from Howard Cuckle, Emeritus Professor, University of Leeds, dated April 28, 2009

12 12 As reported by Harold Pollins in JewishGen's daily digest on May 4, 2009

13 13 Email from Harold Pollins, dated April 27, 2009

14 15 Email from Raymond Hart, dated May 2, 2009

15 16 "The Relief of Belsen," Channel 4, October 15, 2007 as referenced in Wikipedia, "Bergen-Belsen concentration camp

16 17 Email from Sheila Toffell, dated May 2, 2009

17 18 Ibid

18 19 Rationing in Britain during the Second World War: "War Shapes Lives": Imperial War Museum

19 19 Salt tissue pills that are beneficial to the blood system

20 20 BBC – WW2 People's War – "A secret, mythical place" in wartime Preston, Lancashire

21 21 "Rationing in the United Kingdom": Wikipedia

22 22 Ena Jacobs

23 23 "Rationing in the United Kingdom": Wikipedia

24 24 "War Shapes Lives": Imperial War Museum

25 25 Email from Sheila Toffell, dated May 5, 2009

26 26 Greenberg

27 27 "Second World War hot water ration": Imperial War Museum


from the August 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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