Food for thought – digging for victory in the Second World War

Spring will soon be with us and many people’s thought will be turning to their gardens. What will you plant this year? Some will plant flowers only, others vegetables, some a mixture of both. But during World War 2 your choices would have been very different.

U-boat attack

How to feed the population of Britain was one of the perennial questions during the Second World War. About 55 million tons of food was imported into the UK at the outbreak of war, but the German U-boats began to hunt the convoys which crossed the Atlantic, causing great losses in lives and supplies. Essential foodstuffs were rationed, and within a month of the outbreak of war the Ministry of Agriculture launched its ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign.

Everyone was encouraged to dig up their flower beds and lawns to create vegetable gardens. The idea was twofold – to provide much needed food for the local community whilst, at the same time, freeing up space in the merchant ships for military supplies. Gardens, sports grounds and parks were soon full of vegetables, even Buckingham Palace gardens and the lawns and moat at the Tower of London became large allotments.

Tower of London

poster-dig-victoryBy 1943 over one million tons of vegetables were being grown in the ‘Dig For Victory’ drive, all encouraged by Ministry of Agriculture ‘food flashes’, literature and poster displays. Two key cartoon characters who encouraged the gardeners were ‘Dr Carrot’ and ‘Potato Pete’ who often appeared on posters in railway and bus stations, and in leaflets. Over 10 million leaflets were distributed during the war. The government also provided innovative recipes, including curried carrot and carrotade (a drink made from carrots and swedes). When there was a glut of carrots Lord Woolton had a novel idea to encourage people to eat more. He said that RAF pilots were eating carrots to help them see better in the dark. Radar was still a secret so the general population had no idea what was behind the increasing success of the pilots. They knew that, like everyone else, pilots were eating a lot of carrots so Woolton’s propogandists got to work. Within no time at all everyone was eating carrots to improve their vision!

DrCarrot

potaot pete

People were also encouraged by Lord Wooton and others to try innovative recipes, and to scrub instead of peeling potatoes to avoid waste. As one poem put it:

Those who have the will to win,
Cook potatoes in their skin,
Knowing that the sight of peelings,
Deeply hurts Lord Woolton’s feelings.

As well as growing vegetables, people also kept their own chickens, rabbits, goats and pigs. About 6,000 pigs were raised; they were especially popular because they could be fed kitchen waste, and by the end of the war 900 ‘pig clubs’ had been set up to coordinate the collection of waste, and to purchase pigs for groups of families who couldn’t afford one of their own.

pig poster

Chickens were also popular. By 1943-44, people who kept hens in their gardens were producing around 25% of the country’s fresh eggs. By the end of the war there were over 250,000 members of the Domestic Poultry Keepers’ Council, raising in excess of twelve million birds.

In my novel Heronfield we get a clear feel for what life was like for civilians when Sarah’s mother turns her garden over to vegetable, bemoaning the loss of her beloved roses. But the importance of ‘Dig For Victory’ is then seen in the aftermath of the bombing of Coventry when people shared the supplies from their gardens in the first few desperate days before help arrived.

coventry-1940-595x498

As the war progressed it became clear to everyone that the ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign had been far more successful than could ever have been imagined. However, it was recognised that there would still be a need for home grown food for a long time to come. Civilians were encouraged to keep gardening, keep digging, long after the war was over.

Rationing continued for the British people long after the war was over, and with it the work of growing vegetables. It was a number of years before roses once again replaced radishes, carnations replaced cabbages, and what had been lettuce beds were once more lawns for families to enjoy.

PortlandRoseGarden

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