Fighting on the “Kitchen Front”

Bullets, mortars, potatoes? Victory in World War II required the help of every British citizen, and British food. Though the government tried to avoid becoming embroiled in another world war, the British Empire declared war on Germany in September 1939. With the men abroad once again, women re-entered the factories, took up plows and axes in the Women’s Land Army and Timber Corps, and a select few even went behind enemy lines as intelligence operatives. The number of women who fought on the “Kitchen Front” was even larger. British wartime food programs demonstrate wars are not won solely by soldiers in the field. Civilians, especially women, played an important role in continuing the fight. The British Empire went to war, and so did its food.

Napoleon Bonaparte famously said, “an army marches on its stomach,” but this also applies to civilians. One lasting lesson from the previous war was the importance of planning for the possible interruption of supply lines. With its Navy deployed to other fronts, Britain could easily be off from the rest of Europe, and access to food. Mindful of the bread queues that wound around the nation during WWI, the government reconstituted the Ministry of Food in 1940 and appointed Frederick Marquis, Lord Woolton as Minister of Food. Tasked with ensuring the soldiers at the front and those at home were fed, Woolton attacked the problem from several angles.

One of the Ministry’s most important programs involved food rationing. The government began planning a ration system in 1936, but it was not instituted until 1940. Each citizen received a ration book that allowed them to buy a certain amount of a rationed foods per month. The January rations limited bacon, sugar, and butter; meat was added to the list in March; and the list of rationed foods expanded to include cooking fat, cheese, jam, tea, and milk by July. Another system, the points system, was more flexible, giving each citizen a certain number of points to be used on any (and any amount) of points-rationed foods. The ration system ensured food was distributed equitably and meant everyone, from fishmonger to Royal Family, had the same access to food and paid the same prices.

The “Dig for Victory” campaign encouraged citizens to grow their own food to supplement their diet. “This is a food war,” said Woolton. “The battle on the kitchen front cannot be won without help from the kitchen garden.”[1] Home gardening became a patriotic duty, not just a pastime. Gardens cropped up in allotments throughout the country. Other campaigns encouraged eliminating as much food waste as possible and saving oils and fats so they could be used to manufacture explosives.

In addition to overseeing rationing programs and encouraging domestic efforts to grow food and eliminate food waste, the Ministry of Food offered guidance to help home cooks compensate for the dietary changes by promoting nutritious unrationed foods. Cartoon characters Potato Pete and Dr. Carrot were central to marketing this to children, appearing on posters and singing songs on the wireless. The tunes were catchy, and the lyrics were even catchier:

Potatoes new, potatoes old

Potato (in a salad) cold

Potatoes baked or mashed or fried

Potatoes whole, potatoes pied

Enjoy them all, including chips

Remembering spuds don’t come in ships![2]

Government-sponsored radio programs also targeted the children’s mothers. “The Kitchen Front” radio spot gave home cooks recipes and ideas for stretching their family’s rations. Carrot roly-poly, carrot marmalade, carrot candy, carrot sausage roll: the final products did not always match the recipes’ creativity; British home cooks’ ingenuity in rising to the challenge was also unmatched.

The “Kitchen Front” also helped spread one of the British government’s most pervasive and abiding propaganda campaigns. The German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, began an extensive aerial bombardment campaign to break the will of British citizens and force the government to sue for peace. The Ministry of Information began blitz of its own, spreading the half-truth that British pilots had exceptional night vision because of the amount of carrots they ate. The vitamins in carrots do support vision health, but a pilot would likely turn orange before he ate enough carrots for significant improvement. The intended message was British pilots would have no problem responding to German air raids, but the claims soon spread to the home front.

“My first three nights of ambulance driving…were fraught with anxiety that I should have to give up the job through not being able to see well enough,” said Margaret Grant in her February 28, 1941 broadcast. “I resorted to my food chart for guidance, and after taking a large glass of milled carrot and sliced tomato each day for a week, I drove with ease and comfort.”[3] Another host made similar remarks during her August 9, 1941 broadcast, calling carrots “good blackout food.”[4] There is no way to confirm how many Germans were actually fooled by the campaign, but carrots have been linked to better eyesight ever since.

Coping with food rationing and other social changes was difficult, but also helped bring communities together. The Ministry of Food affirmed the value of women’s contributions and the importance of every single citizen in war. Men left for the front lines, but the civilians at home manned the Kitchen Front.

[1] Lord Woolton quoted in K. Annabelle Smith, “A WWII Propaganda Campaign Popularized the Myth that Carrots Help You See in the Dark,” Smithsonian Magazine, August 13, 2013, accessed October 9, 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-wwii-propaganda-campaign-popularized-the-myth-that-carrots-help-you-see-in-the-dark-28812484/.

[2] Song lyrics quoted in “History Cookbook,” CookIt!, accessed October 4, 2018, http://cookit.e2bn.org/historycookbook/20-97 -world-war-2-Food-facts.html.

[3] Margaret Grant, “The Kitchen Front, 28th February 1941,” in “The Kitchen Front World War Two Recipes and Commentary,” from the UK National Archives and transcribed by the World Carrot Museum.

[4] Mrs. Hudson, “The Kitchen Front, 9 August 1941,” in “The Kitchen Front World War Two Recipes and Commentary,” from the UK National Archives and transcribed by the World Carrot Museum.

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Book Review: They Fought Alone

Glass, Charles. They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France. New York: Penguin Press, 2018.

Spies and spy craft have long captured the imagination. Agent 007. Emma Peel and John Steed. Even Maxwell Smart and Agent 99. Espionage is intriguing, especially when we are privy to the tricks of the trade. It is entertaining, especially when we know our heroes and heroines will be saved from a dastardly fate at the very last second and live to spy another day. Real life is not like the movies. James Bond actor Roger Moore once explained the difference saying, “You can’t be a real spy and have everybody in the world know who you are and what your drink is.” Transparency is a luxury that gets spies killed.

In They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France, Charles Glass tells the story of two brothers who gathered intelligence for the British during WWII. Adolf Hitler’s September 1939 invasions of Poland and Czechoslovakia prompted Britain’s declaration of war, but that declaration was not an impediment to his march across Europe. Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands were the next to fall. Planning to “set Europe ablaze” by bolstering local resistance movements and gather the intelligence needed to win the war against Nazi Germany, the British created the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in July 1940. Taking his title from Colonel Maurice Buckmaster’s memoir, Glass’s book highlights the experiences and contributions of two SOE spies: George and John Starr. “Theirs would be a lonely struggle, cut off from the wives and children they loved, deprived of the comradeship of a regular military unit, and on their own behind enemy lines,” writes Glass.

If male spies “fought alone,” where did that leave their female counterparts? According to Glass, George Starr disliked female SOE agent Odette Sansom from the beginning, also complaining he was “put in charge of three bloody women” for his first overseas assignment. Starr later complains Sansom made unwelcome sexual advances, implying her espionage was more horizontal than on the up and up. The British and French governments reached different opinions regarding Sansom, however, awarding her the George Cross and making her a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.

Sansom survived torture and imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. She fought the enemy, but also the prejudices and biases of her own side. Some female spies did use sex appeal to their advantage in gathering intelligence about enemy troop movements and plans, but we cannot say all female spies employed “sexpionage” because of shortcomings in character and moral standing. Sex can be a tool, just like encryption machines and short-wave radios, and the spy who does not use all the tools at her disposal is not that effective a spy at all.

A biography tells the truth about history as it was perceived by that person. Glass is correct to include Starr’s biases against Sansom in his book because it was a true part of Starr’s experience in the SOE. They Fought Alone should be read in conjunction with other histories of the SOE, including some of the recent works that focus on the women who served. This will give the most balanced view of the men and women who fought alone during WWII. The Allies fought against the tyranny of the Axis powers but held onto their own prejudices. The only thing more dangerous than being a spy at war was being a female spy at war. The enemy inherently distrusted because you were an enemy; your own side inherently distrusted you because you were a woman.

KMS, 22 August 2018

 

Book Review: Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II by Jane Dinsmoore

Dinsmoore, Jane. Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group, 2018.

The only thing we commoners like better than a royal wedding is a royal scandal. The magazines and newspapers who ooh-ed and aah-ed over the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle saw no irony in publishing snarky articles about supposed rows with her new family members a week later. The British royal family lives in a gilded cage, and for all the riches, pomp, and splendor, we would do well to remember they are also people. In Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II, author Jane Dinsmoore allows us to see the world’s longest-reigning monarch as just that: a regular person born into unbelievable and sometimes overwhelming responsibility.

Born Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor to the Duke and Duchess of York in 1926, Princess Elizabeth was known as Lillibet by close family members. She was third in line for the throne, but this could all change if her uncle David finally married and produced an heir. She loved horses, participating in Girl Guards activities (the British version of America’s Girl Scouts), and putting up with the theatrics of her little sister, Margaret. She lived a charmed life as the apple of her parent’s eye, and if she begrudged sharing them with their royal duties, she said little. Ten years later, everything changed. With King Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne, Lillibet’s father became king and she became the heir presumptive. The princess began learning statecraft at one of the most difficult points of British history: the abdication threatened the monarchy as an institution while the coming war with Germany would test the monarchy’s place in governing the country.

Pulling from interviews, memoirs, and other writings, Dinsmoore’s writing sometimes resembles a day planner more than a narrative, but her attention to detail is phenomenal. Elizabeth II’s childhood and adulthood could be seen as a type of school for scandal, perhaps preparing her for the issues that would crop up with her children’s and grandchildren’s marriages. George VI’s handling of the continued machinations of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson (made Duke and Duchess of Windsor after his abdication) and discovery of Mountbatten designs on the monarchy (introduced with Elizabeth’s relationship with Prince Phillip of Greece) no doubt impacted how Queen Elizabeth would deal with her children’s affairs, failed marriages, divorces, and remarriages.

“When I was a little boy I read about a fairy princess, and there she is,” wrote American President Harry Truman, but there is so much more to Elizabeth Windsor’s story. The Queen Elizabeth seen during the Trooping of the Colour, royal weddings, celebrations, and memorial ceremonies is also the woman who battled insecurity and loved fiercely. She was once a young girl, a young wife, a young mother. The beautiful grounds of Buckingham Palace and Balmoral Castle were once torn apart by Luftwaffe airstrikes, their lights dimmed and dining tables bare as the royal family stayed true to the austerity measures they asked of their people. When we go looking for fairy stories, we will find them. The truth is harder to locate and often harder to take. Dinsmoore’s Princess Elizabeth is a girl hoping to meet the expectations of her family and nation while also wanting to make her own mark on it all. Perhaps she was not that different from any young woman on the cusp of taking the world by storm.

KMS