Thomas Erath on British Propaganda in WWII

Images to Action: British Propaganda in WW II and its Influence

            After the conclusion of WW I it was inconceivable to believe that Europe would make the same mistake twice in one century. All of Europe lay in ruins, especially Germany , which was subjected to Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles which blamed them fully for the war and forced them to pay five billion dollars per year to the allies along with disallowing any militarization (Professor Roberts Lecture 23, 10/29/12). Nevertheless, Hitler rose to power and by September 1, 1939 the world was once again at war. While industry and manpower are seemingly the items needed to prevail in a war, these are not achieved without help and that aid was found in Britain’s use of propaganda. Therefore Britain, and more specifically London was a center for propaganda and its images provided the motivation for Britain to prevail in WW II.

Fougasse (Cyril Kenneth Bird), "Carless Talk Costs Lives." Christie's. Web.

Fig. 1. Fougasse (Cyril Kenneth Bird), “Carless Talk Costs Lives,” circa 1940. Christie’s. Web.

Prior to the war beginning in London, propaganda helped lift the spirits of the British and this gave them the confidence they needed when the war came. Posters that were prevalent throughout London were the “Careless Talk Costs Lives” Campaign [Figure 1]. These posters were formatted in cartoons, making them easy to understand even for uneducated people. Their message was serious in that they strove for Londoners “to give nothing away that they knew or might have overheard in casual gossip” (Grant and Maddren 26). The British Government did not want its people to be spreading rumors about Germany’s advance and only further disheartening its people. Having confidence prior to entering into a war is of the utmost importance and the goal of these posters was for Londoners to continue on with their lives as if a war was not raging on in their backyard. The government’s goal was achieved because “An opinion poll, taken a few days after the news of the fall of France had reached Britain, found that 97 percent of the people questioned believed that Britain was going to win the war” (Grant and Maddren 28). While the cynics might regard this as the hubris of Britain, this confidence was aided by this campaign of propaganda. Even though one of Britain’s allies had fallen, their lack of internal communication allowed them to still have confidence that they brought with them into the heart of battle and allowed them to defeat their familiar foe and Germany in WW II.

"Grow Your Own Food," circa 1940. Web.

Fig. 2. “Grow Your Own Food,” circa 1940. Web.

Rationing and self-sustainment were important in the British war effort and it was spread throughout Britain with images of propaganda. Posters throughout Britain were used to spread the message to grow one’s own food [Figure 2]. This  is a clever image in that it places a table on top of a field connected by a hoe and a pitchfork. This image made it very easy for Londoners to understand what they had to do in regards to the war effort, which was to sustain themselves. The logic behind growing their own food was that the importation of foods would be impossible with Germany’s conquest of Europe. Many problems arose from this lack of food including “Queues [that] lasted for hours and often stretched for hundreds of yards” (Grant and Maddren 59). These queues were not only a burden to wait in, but also demoralizing because people knew this was their only means of sustenance. Everyone in London was subjected to this rationing, but alleviation of these conditions were sought through the ‘Dig for Victory Campaign’ [Figure 3].

Fig. 3. "Grounds of the Tower of London Used as Allotments, London, WWII" circa 1939-45. The National Archives/Heritage Images. Web.

Fig. 3. “Grounds of the Tower of London Used as Allotments, London, WWII” circa 1939-45. The National Archives/Heritage Images. Web.

Any land that people owned was encouraged to be cultivated and this did not stop at homes, but continued to historic landmarks like the Tower of London. As one can see in the image there are workers cultivating the land and there seems to be a child present as well showing how WW II involved all generations, translating to total war. The initial propaganda image motivated the Londoners to become involved in the ‘Dig for Victory Campaign’ which is evident through the farming of vegetables in the Tower of London. This growing of crops allowed Britain to send more food to their soldiers, enabling them to continue fighting the opposition and eventually be victorious in WW II.

With most men off in the battlefields of Europe, the women of Britain joined the factories of London to aid in industry due to the propaganda images that celebrated women workers. Once again images of propaganda motivated them to become involved in the fight against the sadistic power housed in Berlin. Women were needed in the factories and posters made strides to make them into workers [Figure 4]. This

Fig. 4. Zec, "Women of Britain Come into the Factories," 1941. Victoria & Albert Museum. Web.

Fig. 4. Zec, “Women of Britain Come into the Factories,” 1941. Victoria & Albert Museum. Web.

depiction of a women factory worker glorifies her by portraying a glow coming off her body. She also looks like a goddess controlling the planes behind her. She is idealized and in truth the women of London and the rest of England were an intricate piece to the puzzle that was winning WW II. Prior to WW II very few women worked in industry but by the middle of the war, “the proportion of women working in some industries was as high as 90 percent. A considerable number of them had left domestic service to go into industry” (Grant and Maddren 84). Women were sick of the domestic life they had been subjected to for their entire lives and they were ready to become involved in affairs that were formally a male only field. They were the workforce employed in the factories during WW II and without them Britain would not have been able to keep sending planes out on bombing raids in Germany. Factories did not have to be built above ground and some factories existed in Underground tunnels [Figure 5]. In them, the women of London would work tirelessly, building various items essential to the war effort. What started as an image of a woman on top of the world, led to women leaving the domestic life that had enslaved them and going into the life of labor in factories. Without their presence in these London factories, like the ones in the Underground, the war would have most certainly continued on for many more years and many more would have perished.

"The Plessey war time factory in the Central Line tunnels." This is Local London. Web.

Fig. 5. “The Plessey war time factory in the Central Line tunnels.” This is Local London. Web.

Three propaganda images, while seemingly simple on the surface, were able to motivate a nation and more specifically the global city of London. The propaganda images were effective in motivating its intended group and in a total war like WW II no group was left untouched. These images promoted confidence, self-sustainment, and women into the workforce. All of these ever important parts helped Britain win the war and without one of them there is no question that the war would have continued on much past its time. Propaganda did not stop at the termination of WW II though, it become even more important in the years that followed due to the Cold War. While these images did not involve Britain, its images in WW II set a precedent that defined the twentieth century.


Grant, Ian, and Nicholas Maddren. The City at War. London: Jupiter, 1975. Print.


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