– by Julie Summers, author of Jambusters/Home Fires
The final episode of this first series of Home Fires is set against an anxious time in the spring of 1940. Britain had been involved in what became known as the Phoney War. There were battles taking place on the European continent but no bombs had fallen on the British mainland nor had the British Expeditionary Force come under attack as it guarded the Maginot Line in France and Belgium. Yet there were dark portents on many fronts and a ‘strange and unnatural calm’ was about to be rudely shattered. It is easy from a British perspective to imagine that the early months of the Second World War were endured by Britons alone. This was far from the case. Canada had declared war a week after Britain, on 10 September 1939, and the offer of military support was made a few days later. Canada had sent over 425,000 men to fight in the First World War and the presence of Canadian troops in this new conflict was warmly welcomed by the British Government. By late December 1939 the 1st Canadian Division had begun to arrive in Britain for training near Aldershot in Hampshire.
In April 1940 the Germans invaded Denmark and Norway. A month later, on 10 May, Hitler launched the Blitzkrieg against the Netherlands, France and Belgium. Allied troops found themselves fighting against overwhelming odds against an implacable foe. As they retreated to the harbour and beaches of Dunkirk, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered an evacuation of as many troops as possible. The British expected to evacuate about 30,000 but in the event over 330,000 Allied troops were rescued in one of the most famous operations of the war. Four Royal Canadian Navy destroyers joined hundreds of assorted sailing boats, naval vessels and Thames barges that helped to bring troops back to Britain and to safety. Canadian troops and pilots were about to enter a crucial period in the war with the British but that is all in the future as far as this drama is concerned.
Episode Six of Home Fires takes place in spring 1940 at this period of great danger and uncertainty. The threat to Britain and her Allies was evident and nervousness pervaded every aspect of life at home as well as among the Forces stationed around the country. All over the country people were preparing for what they felt certain would be a Nazi invasion.
The most visually obvious change was the removal of all signposts and place names, the idea being to confuse the invaders and stop them from finding their way around. In the event it caused considerable confusion: one lane in Cheshire looks remarkably like another, with its high hedges and proliferation of T-junctions. Locals, who knew their way around with their eyes closed, did not have to struggle but others coming into the villages from the towns and cities found it highly confusing.
Village inhabitants made efforts to thwart invaders by home-made road blocks that could be wheeled out at short notice, while farmers littered their fields with farm machinery in the hope that it would stop aircraft from using them as landing strips. Meanwhile, women prepared as best they could. My grandmother carried a pistol in her handbag and told my father she would have had no compunction about using it in self-defence. Frances Barden’s lessons from Steph in Home Fires’ final episode are far from unusual as women made every effort to defend their homes and properties.
As the threat of invasion grew, so people made up their minds how they would cope. Some, like Joyce Cameron’s husband, decided to move away from our fictional Great Paxford which lay in what could be considered a danger area likely to come under attack, and move far away. Other people, who lived in high-risk zones such as the south coast of England or the southeastern counties around London, were ordered to move further inland. Those who remained, for reasons of work perhaps, were given permission to use the evacuated gardens and orchards to grow fruit and vegetables. One of the most extraordinary stories to illustrate this was a WI group at Hawkinge in Kent. Pre-war they had a membership of over 100 but as a result of the evacuation just seven women remained. Yet those women were determined to do their bit: they picked fruit from all their members’ gardens and made jam. Even during an air raid they could be found stirring the jam in the village hall. By the end of the season they had produced the third largest quantity in the county. In the Home Fires season finalé Joyce Cameron’s gesture towards Great Paxford WI beautifully reflects this spirit of determination to carry on, whatever might come.
For thousands of families in Britain, however, the fear of invasion was too great. Many decided to send their children abroad for the duration rather than let them grow up under Nazi rule. Canada was a favourite choice of destination for the British government’s scheme to evacuate nearly 250,000 school children whose parents could not afford to send them away to safety. In the event on 2,600 children were sent on the official scheme, named CORB (Children’s Overseas Reception Board) as a German submarine torpedoed a ship carrying children to Canada in September 1940 killing 77. This put an immediate stop to the evacuation. Nevertheless, hundreds of children did make it to Canada and were warmly welcomed by schools and host families. Some of their stories are described in When the Children Came Home which I published in 2011.
As you watch the last episode in this first series of Home Fires you will get a sense of how each of our main characters is squaring up to face the uncertain future that is about to dawn over the village of Great Paxford. The war has already caused great change in the village and yet the country has not seen action. The last scene, which I confess brought tears to my eyes when I first saw it, is a powerful hint of what is to come.
Enter for your chance to win a prize package of three of Julie Summers’ books, autographed by the author. Contest closes March 30, 2016.
Writer, Broadcaster and Historian Julie Summers is the author of Jambusters,
the true story of the wartime Women’s Institute which inspired the hit ITV series, Home Fires, premiering on VisionTV Wednesdays at 9pm ET/6pm PT through March 9, 2016. Julie is also the author of When the Children Came Home, stories of wartime evacuees.
Read more from Julie here and visit her official website here. Home Fires, the book, is available for purchase here and Fashion on the Ration here. Watch for more fascinating Home Fires backgrounders from Julie each Tuesday through March 8.
Need to catch up on episodes of Home Fires online? Each episode will be available to watch here for 30 days from the day after its premiere broadcast.