Making do in WWII

I have just made–even if I say so myself–a spectacular dinner: roast pork with scallions and fennel, and buttered cabbage. A simple luscious meal for a cold autumn evening. I didn’t have to queue for an hour at the butcher to choose between gristly mutton, or . . . gristly mutton (or scrag end as my granny used to call it). I didn’t have to worry about whether I had brought a ration book for every member of my family with me, and there was more than enough for everyone at our dinner table. It was the abundance of everything we could possibly want, or imagine we want, as I shopped at my local supermarket that made me think of WWII and the terrible food shortages in Britain.

So what was it like to make do in Britain in WWII? What was it like not to have enough butter, sugar or meat–for five years? Food wasn’t the only staple that was scarce either. Coal and petrol were heavily rationed. Imagine trying to buy new shoes for the kids when there aren’t any. Hand-me-downs were no longer family affairs but organized events within villages and towns! My grandmother told me that rationing was bearable because  everyone was in the same boat. You shared recipes with your neighbors, swapped a jar of honey for eggs, and if you lived near a river you sent your middle-schoolers off to fish. Making half a pound of mutton for a family of four stretch for a week was a huge challenge, so you had to be creative, and if you were cold you just put on another sweater!

With a civilian population of 50 million the tiny island of Britain imported most of its food before the war. It became the principal strategy of the German war department to attack shipping bound for Britain, restricting British industry and potentially starving the nation into submission.

Petrol use was restricted as soon as Britain went to war. A few months later bacon, butter and sugar were rationed, and by August 1942 almost all foods were rationed except for vegetables and bread. Milk was available for children and it was thin and watery. By the time the war ended in Europe there were children who had never eaten a banana and who thought of an orange as a rare treat.

Ration books were issued for each member of the population, and shopkeepers cancelled food tokens with a rubber stamp. It was impossible to buy any controlled foods without producing a ration book, so if you went to stay with your friends or family you took your ration book with you.

The Dig for Victory campaign encouraged people with gardens to turn them over to growing their own fruit and vegetables, and people who lived in the country could shoot game for the dining room table, and go fishing. As the war progressed even wild caught rabbit grew scarce.

Restaurants were prevented from serving more than three courses for dinner, which was considered restrictive when a celebratory evening out in a restaurant before the war consisted of at least five courses: hors d’oeuvre; soup; fish; game or meat; and pudding. Restaurants could only charge a maximum price of five-shillings for the meal itself, except for luxury hotels and clubs who were quick to add on all sorts of extras, especially if they offered a cabaret, or a band for dancing, not to mention a hefty price tag for a bottle of wine.

Coupons were required for even the simplest needs: clothing, fuel, and soap were in short supply even if people saved their coupons. The paper shortage referred to in Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders, when Poppy’s book is accepted by a publisher but could not be printed due to the restrictions on paper use is a perfect example of how scarce paper had become! Radio broadcast news became popular with the drop in newspaper production and continues on to this day.

As for beer, it was considered essential to the morale of both troops and civilians, so it was Sharing a beernever rationed—and the government actively encouraged women to drink beer to help them cope with life on the Home Front as they juggled feeding their families, working for the war effort, and learning to “Mend and Make Do!”


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The Indomitable Air Raid Warden

The Blackout and the Dark of Night

A bomber’s moon

To make it difficult for the German Luftwaffe (air force) to locate built up areas, the British government imposed a complete blackout during the years of WWII. The occupants of all buildings had to ensure they did not leak light that would give clues to German pilots that they were flying over inhabited areas. Even the flare of a lit match or the glow of a cigarette could be spotted from above.

Black out curtains and boards to stop broken glass flying into the room

Thick black curtains or blackout paint were used to keep windows dark at night. Shopkeepers, hoteliers, restaurant owners and publicans had to black out their windows and provide a means for customers to leave and enter their premises without letting light escape—they risked a formidable fine and even the loss of their license if they were not in compliance.

“Oh Good heavens. I simply didn’t see you there!”

Britain’s streets were not lit at night and motor vehicle headlights, bicycle lamps and flashlights were fitted with blinkers so that their light was cast downward.

The Air Raid Precautions (ARP) was run entirely with the aid of civilian volunteers. Their primary task was to protect civilians from the very possible danger of air raids.

It is important to take your job seriously.

As the war  years dragged on, there were some areas that saw little or no bombing raids, and local air raid wardens took on the distinctly irritating presence that we often feel toward traffic wardens today when they give us a parking ticket.

My mother’s family lived in rural Buckinghamshire, surrounded by the dark  acres of her father’s farm. Their local air raid warden was an officious woman who biked around the village issuing warnings and writing tickets for the slightest offence.

The center of streets, the curbstones and large animals were painted with luminous paint.

One night there was a tremendous crash outside of their house. The family discovered the ARP warden, Mrs. Crombie, lying tangled up in her bike at the bottom of a ditch. She had run into a large and very frightened cow that had wandered into the lane at the bottom of their drive. My grandfather helped Mrs. Crombie to her feet; my uncle fixed her puncture and my grandmother made her a cup of tea, as Mrs. Crombie wrote them a ticket for endangering the roadways of Buckinghamshire with an ‘unmarked’ cow.

Londoners sleeping in the underground during an air raid

ARP wardens patrolled the streets during the blackout to make sure that no light was visible. They also helped firemen and ambulance workers search for people buried in the rubble of bombed buildings; reported on the extent of bomb damage to their local authority and issued gas masks and pre-fabricated air-raid ‘Anderson’ shelters from their command post.

When the air raid warning siren sounded ARP wardens were responsible for helping civilians to the nearest shelter—the London the Underground was often the nearest and safest place to spend the night during the Blitz. During the war years there were 1.4 million Air Raid Precautions warden volunteers working part-time in Britain.

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Little Buffenden’s American Army Air Force Base

The fictional village of Little Buffenden is home not only to Poppy Redfern and her grandparents, but the American Army Air Force in their new airfield built for them on Poppy’s grandfather’s farm Reaches.

American Eighty Army Air Force

When America ‘joined the war’ after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941 the British War Office requisitioned land to build airfields for their new allies. In Little Buffenden what was known as the Friendly Invasion was greeted with mixed reviews.

In reality East Anglia was where most of the American bases were built and the arrival of the Yanks was greeted with enthusiasm. A population of women struggling with making do was treated to popcorn, hot dogs, the jitterbug and of course lipstick and nylons.

American Army Air Force Bases in WW2

My mother was a middle-school girl when war broke out, and and eighteen when it ended. There were no Americans in her life: her father’s farm was close to Bletchley Park which is where she met my father.

The War Office did requisition some of her father’s land–two fields to be exact, and the British Army was bivouacked there off and on throughout the war. Rows of tents and a couple of Nissen huts housed about two-hundred and fifty soldiers at a time.

British Army Training Camp WW2


My grandfather was a sociable man and enjoyed chatting to the young men, but throughout the war years he had one pet peeve: the soldiers would squeeze through the thick hedge that separated their camp from his orchard when the apples were ripe and help themselves.



Soldiers Picking Apples

“What’s a few apples when those boys might never come back?” I can hear my grandmother saying. But to my granddad it was the principal of the thing. Scrumping as it is called in England is just a kind name for stealing.

His solution was a simple one. He moved his large and very aggressive gander, Bill, into the orchard. I seem to remember that Bill was an impressive goose: large, robust with a five foot wing span, and a nasty temper.

He ate a few windfalls, browsed on rich grass and seed heads and kept a baleful eye out for the first scrumper to squeeze through his hedge. Sometimes my grandfather would lean over the orchard gate with his pipe and keep Bill company as they waited together.

A Terrifying Gander on the Attack

A gander is a territorial creature. Give him exclusive domain over any area and he will make it his with a vengeance. The sight of Bill racing along the grass, his powerful beak wide open to show its serrated edges and his wings spread wide was a terrifying sight–and the sound of his hiss was louder and more intimidating than a King Cobra.

After the last soldier had raced across the orchard with Bill’s beak pecking at his bum granddad would wipe tears of laughter out of his eyes and tell the kids to gather a basket-full of apples and take them over to the commanding officer of the camp next door.


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Stories my Father Told Me About the War

A Supermarine Spitfire and a Luftwaffe Messerschmidt

We were raised on stories of the Blitz in London: my father was given a thrashing when he and his cousin sat up on the roof of their house in Greenwich one lunch time to eat their Spam sandwiches and watch a dogfight between Messerschmidts and Spitfires over the London docks. He was sixteen years old during the Blitz-too young to join up-but he was an enthusiastic Royal Air Force cadet. When his school day finished, he and his cousin would catch a bus to their local airfield and polish the noses of Spitfire fighter aircraft so they would fly faster.

My favorite story was that the War Office created dummy airfields with canvas and plywood fighter and bomber planes to fool the Luftwaffe. They were not taken in at all and dropped wooden bombs as they flew on to blast the living daylights out of the real thing.

Biggles flourished from the Great War until the late 1950s

I suspect most of my father’s more lurid, and entertaining yarns came straight out of the Boys’ Own Paper: a sort of illustrated magazine full of tales of derring-do for pre-teens. From 1941 until well into the 1950s Boy’s Own featured the fictional fighter pilot Biggles by W.E. Jones in no less than sixty issues. Long before WWII my father was fan of ripping adventures and Biggles-speak dominated his vocabulary to the frustration of his family: Oh, I say! Jolly good show! and Thanks awfully! were phrases most often adopted and he yearned for the day when he could grow a mustache.

Bletchley Park

Born too late to fly a “real live Spit” was a frustration he endured even when he was recruited at age eighteen and sent to Bletchley Park to work on crypt-analysis as part of Alan Turing’s team. Bletchley was of course really hush-hush so any discussion about what they were doing was out of the question. It wasn’t until after the war when he was recruited by the British Foreign Office and sent on his first posting to Moscow with the allied forces, that he discovered that Bletchley had broken the Enigma Code that turned the tide of Hitler’s invasion. He would still have preferred to fly a Spitfire.

John Cleese and the Ministry of Funny Walks

Most of the men of my father’s generation were embarrassingly patriotic–especially to daughters who wore miniskirts, were frantic about the Beatles (I was in love with George my sister with Paul) and revered Monty Python. To my father being English was something to be frightfully proud of, and, as Biggles would have probably agreed, to this generation there was no doubt that God was still an Englishman. But despite his irritating flag-waving and standing to rigid attention when anyone mentioned our monarch there was an endearing naivete to my father.

the Bridge on the River Kawi

Even if we thought him an old fogey then, we enjoyed nothing more than gathering around the telly on Boxing Day to watch the outrageously pompous Bridge on the River Kwai for the umpteenth time. My father would nudge us during the boring bits, of which there were many, and say under his breath, “Pass the bulls eyes,” a prelude to remembering the rhapsodic delights of his favorite childhood sweets, the deprivations of food rationing, and how we simply didn’t know how good we had it now.

Bulls Eyes. Favorite sweets of Biggles and my father

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A Blog on Blighty

I have just finished the copyedit for DEATH OF AN UNSUNG HERO – Lady Montfort and Edith Jackson’s fourth adventure together which takes place at home in Blighty in 1916 as the Battle of the Somme raged on for most of that year.

A Little Bit of British ‘Hewmah’ from the Front in 1915

My copy editor (who struggles to Americanize me) queried my use of the word ‘Blighty,’ a term I use quite naturally since I am English, but one that she thought American readers would not understand. I dutifully added context so that readers would understand that when we Brits say Blighty that this is our affectionate term for England.  And when we refer to’ a Blighty one ‘(which we now only do as a historical reference) we are talking about a combat wound bad enough for the sufferer to be sent back to England. Soldiers fighting in the trenches of France in WW1 sometimes shot themselves, usually in the foot, so that they could be sent home. Which gives you some idea of how desperate the poor devils must have been. Continue reading

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The Redoubtable Edwardian raises a glass . . . or two

It is a well-known fact that the Edwardian lady did not drink whiskey –or, for some strange reason, other dark colored alcoholic drinks like port, brandy, beer or stout. It was considered unfeminine and ‘low’. Working class women drank gin –poor desparte things. Sloe gin was a cheap and effective way to deaden the drudgery and desperation of poverty, long before the 1900s. Understandably gin was often referred to as mother’s ruin. Continue reading

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An Edwardian Christmas at Iyntwood

In 1901 when Clementine, Lady Montfort was a young mother with three young children in the nursery it snowed that Christmas Eve as the Talbot family and their servants walked down St. Bartholomew’s church in the village for the evening carol service. Continue reading

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British Tea and the Proper Wielding of Teapots.

I want to try to clarify some of the rules bout the ritual of tea time as it is probably one of the most misrepresented of British traditions.  

Continue reading

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Winston Churchill in Death Sits Down to Dinner

Churchil 1885 in Hussars uniform

Churchill in 1885 in his Hussar’s uniform

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” ~ Winston S. Churchill

Winston Spencer Churchill was the son of Lord Randolph Churchill, the third son of John Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough and Lady Randolph Churchill  (née Jennie Jerome) daughter of an American millionaire. As a third grandson of a duke, Winston would inherit no title and very little money. Continue reading

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Sir Thomas Beecham and the Importance of Starting, and Finishing, Together


April 29, 1879 – March 8, 1961

There are two golden rules for an orchestra: start together and finish together. The public doesn’t give a damn what goes on in between. Sir Thomas Beecham


Sir Thomas Beecham by Emu in 1919

Beecham’s grandfather, also Thomas Beecham, was the rich industrialist who owned Beecham’s Powders, a laxative and cure-all for headache and stiffness of the joints.


In 1899, Hans Richter, due to conduct the Hallé Orchestra in a concert in St Helen’s, fell ill; Thomas’s father, Joseph Beecham, who was the mayor of St Helen’s, declared that his prodigiously talented 20-year-old son should step in. From there, the young conductor – entirely self-taught – moved on in leaps and bounds.


Thomas Beecham in 1910

Sir Thomas, who was extraordinarily handsome and possessed of a stupendous ego, bankrolled his Beecham Symphony Orchestra in 1909 and the Beecham Opera Company in 1915. He was also the impresario of His Majesty’s Theatre and the director of the Royal Opera House.


Thomas Beecham with Maud, Lady Cunard, the fundraising Britannia of Covent Garden and his mistress

Musically gifted though he was, he was perhaps more famous for his rapier wit. Once he described the sound of the harpsichord as “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof”; on another occasion he declared that “the British may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes”. His pointed goatee beard, his proud and portly stature and, most of all, that dry, acerbic wit have passed into musical mythology.

Thomas Beecham

Sir Thomas Beecham in middle age –giving it his all.

But Sir Thomas demanded the very highest standards from his players. He once noticed that his leading cellist was not striving for the perfection required of her. He brought the music to a halt and said to her, in front of the entire orchestra, “Now, madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of bringing pleasure to thousands and all you can do is scratch it!”

Brass bands are all very well in their place – outdoors and several miles away.

Sir Thomas, Lady Cunard’s lover for many years, was often unfaithful to her as he was so irresistible to women. When his wife died after many years into their marriage Lady Cunard confidently expected Sir Thomas to marry her, but he abandoned her in favor of a much younger woman.

Death Sits Down to Dinner

Although “Sir Thom” as he is referred to by Lord and Montfort in DEATH SITS DOWN TO DINNER only has a walk on part –with no lines — they enjoy telling stories about some of his more eccentric adventures with Lady Cunard.

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