WWII Britain – how close to starvation?

In the current series with a couple trying various British diets through the ages, they tried an alleged WWII diet. People scouring the hedgerows for grubs and edible foliage, quotes of Britain close to starvation, U-boats responsible for sinking vital imports etc.

I know these are popular quotes, and we might as well throw in the other chestnut of Churchill saying it was the only time he though we might lose, but, was Britain really on the verge of starvation?

I’m differentiating here between not having everything you want to eat, and not having anything to eat. When Germany raped Holland, some ate Tulip bulbs because any food was that scarce, and if the Germans found you with some they were likely to take it off you. I don’t see how that can be equated to say, having no bananas?

The members of my family who remained in Britain during the war, (mostly women in London), saw availability restricted but never resorted to, had to or considered eating grubs or foraging for ‘witches brew’ ingredients? When my old man was demobbed in ’46, he went to work on a farm and found the country folk didn’t exactly have it ‘hard’ during the war, and of course made sure his family were OK in post war austerity.

Re the blockade, I would say it was industrial and war materiel that Britain was desperate for?

Was your family in Britain ‘close to starvation’ during the war???

Shortages encouraged people to be inventive with their food. Beef, pork and lamb were all on ration but very difficult to get hold of, but other sources of meat were not. Rabbit and chicken for instance were not rationed.

Neither were horses.
O yes even horse meat could be made into a very tasty meal.
However some of the more unscrupulous traders used this niche in the law whereby horsemeat which was not rationed was passed off as beef which meant that sometimes diseased and unfit meat found its way on to the market

Some people who lived near the sea even tried catching the odd Seagull or two to add to the cooking pot.

Offal was never included in the meat ration although Liver became a rare treat. But there was always the old favourites to fall back on for a tasty meal.
Such as Pig's feet in Jelly, Stuffed pigs ears or even Calve's feet Pie!

Interestingly you could argue that rationing had health benefits to the popultion

As far as food rationing went, people just had to make do the best they could.
'Making ends meet' became very much a way of life.
However, by the end of the war it was found that the average food intake for the country was much higher than it had been before the war began.
In part this was mostly due to many of the poor people that made up the majority of city folk were already too poor to feed themselves and their families properly. This led to the nation as a whole being generally healthier.
People ate less fat, less meat and much more in the way of vegetables.The average calorie intake fell from 3,000 to 2,800 per day.

Peoples diet was better, they were thinner but a lot more healthier. With special food, drink and vitamin supplements for babies and pregnant mothers, infant mortality fell from 51to 46 per thousand live births during the war.

http://www.worldwar2exraf.co.uk/Online Museum/Museum Docs/foodration.html
Murphy_Slaw said:

Interestingly you could argue that rationing had health benefits to the popultion
Interesting a lot of research was done into Coeliac Disease (an auto-immune response to wheat, barley and rye) following the war as it was noticed that a lot of children in occupied Holland who didn't have any bread to eat were much healthier than expected.
No.9 said:
Was your family in Britain ‘close to starvation’ during the war???
The short answer is no. My father worked at Canadian Military
Headquarters during the war and my mother worked
at a Hospital in London so they were not that typical.

The only time a member of my family has been near starvation
that I know of was during the siege of the British Legation in
Peking in 1900.
I don't think UK even came close to serious food shortages, let alone the type of starvation witnessed in Leningrad or Holland. Apart from feeding the civpop, UK was quite successfully rationing 4-5 million service personnel.
Ischaemic heart disease fell dramatically during WW2 due to the (enforced) healthier diet. I also remember reading somewhere that in the US of A a patient dying of a heart attack was so unusual in the farming States that Doctors used to get in touch with each other to come and see the dearly departed.

What changed it - Coca Cola and other fizzy sh1t providing easy, sugar and fat based energy which didn't have to be physically earned.
An interesting question. Whether we would have been able to replace almost three-quarters of our food requirements if the blockade had been total is a matter of conjecture; I think not. We must have been able to import a considerable amount of wheat or grow it ourselves, otherwise the consumption of bread and flour wouldn't have increased.

From World War Two Campaigns and Posters:

...Before the Second World War Britain imported approximately 55 million tonnes, or 3/4 of the country's food by ship each year. When the Second World War started in September 1939 shipping was attacked by enemy submarines and warships. Cargo ships were also used for war materials rather than food transportation. This resulted in food shortages.

In October 1939 the Government launched 'The Dig for Victory' campaign. People were urged to use gardens and every spare piece of land, such as parks, golf clubs and tennis courts, to grow vegetables. Even the moat at the Tower of London was used to grow vegetables.
From the post-war HMSO Booklet How Britain was Fed in Wartime:

It's a good site on rationing Murphy, but again it concentrates on things that were hard or impossible to get. A misconception that could arise, (and from some media quotes arises quite easily), is that this was all people had to eat?

As well as the merchant fleet, who did a magnificent job, was our intrepid fishing fleets who continued to sail and fish whenever they could. Fish, including fish'n'chips, wasn't rationed - if you could get it of course. And, I don’t believe bread was rationed until after the war? – again as you could get it.

walt – ”Liberty ships full of spam and other commodities stopped us from starving in WW2 “
Just the type of soundbite I had in mind – i.e. sounds dramatic but not true. If it were it would portray a situation where hordes were clustered around a dock, expiring as they waited for the next ship to arrive. Never happened.

Dunservin – ”Before the Second World War Britain imported approximately 55 million tonnes, or 3/4 of the country's food by ship each year”
Useful statistics, but, it’s surely only part of the full picture. I can’t see pre-war was that different to today in respect of some produce cannot be grown (or viably grown in sufficient quantity) in Britain, some is cheaper to import, and probably a small amount brought in at a premium because of a niche market for it. The difference being what we want and what we need, if, we have to feed ourselves.

Population circa 1940 was around 50M, plus ‘guest’ foreigners and military, perhaps less troops overseas evaluated between food supplied to them from Britain v food directed to them from elsewhere/acquired locally. As Britain is not a barren rock where people live off fish and collected rainwater, it had/has plenty of capacity to feed itself. Again a difference between what you need and what you want. This of course has to be galvanised and administered and all the logistics from source to mouth developed. And it all has to be paid for.

Then, if a government wants to make the National resources go as far as possible – (A) so it lasts for as long as possible and (B) it saves money – then it makes sense to tell the populous there are shortages and they need to conserve and to push what there is a relative lot of – and probably cheap. The HMSO leaflet referred to does state ”the enforced transfer to a duller diet”. Clearly quite right, but from that and other references where is there any evidence of actual ‘starvation’ in Britain? I don’t see there is any and agree with 4(T) in that we didn’t really come close.

soDark6 – ”The only time a member of my family has been near starvation that I know of was during the siege of the British Legation in Peking in 1900.”
I think in my old man’s case it was when someone nicked his irons on a Troop ship. 8O :D

There's some interesting reading about this in the various books about the code breakers at Bletchley Park. Much of their efforts were directed at the U Boat ciphers in order to break the blockade during the battle of the Atlantic. Things were desperate with the country short of everything, ships being sunk faster than new ones could be built and the merchant navy suffering a higher casualty rate than any of the armed forces.

Andrew Marr presents a fairly interesting historical documentary show on the BBC. Last week he covered the period immediately after the second world war. According to Marr, the food situation was much more serious than during the war.

There had been a hard winter affecting crop yields. Many of the farm labourers who would be needed for the harvest were still conscripted (no combine harvesters in those days). The 'land girls' had been demobed. The country was bankrupt and, worst of all, the Americans had turned off the aid tap at the end of the war.

This all led to real fears of famine - in the UK - in the 20th century. Some bizzare proposals were forthcoming. One involved closing all the schools in the autumn and getting the kids to help with the harvest.

Marr's show is worth a look. It'd be a lot better if he dropped the class war cr@p though. I lost count of the number of times he said 'Old Etonian' in last week's show.
Am watching Marr’s rerun A_M, and enjoy it just as much as before. Indeed he points out many things were actually worse after the war than during it – no one trying to blow you and half your street up of course. :roll:

A bit odd about your social take, recently a ‘young’ female teacher moaned it was too right wing? I agree, now in this post septic mortgage age, Marr delivers a few truths not or seldom spoke of before - namely Uncle Spam sh1t all over us and kicked us when we were down, and only ‘gave’ us money to provide themselves with a market to buy their stuff – but latter day sensitive issues still appear ‘sensitive’?

e.g. He does quote a reference to Wilson as a ‘gangster’, but goes nowhere near who was driving the Unions from outside Britain??? Comrade Scargill lives in France these days I understand? :wink:

My feeling is that there may have been shortages and a dull (albeit healthy) diet, but never anything approaching starvation. My family, on both sides, were farmers .... there were things they couldn't get, but they never starved or came near it - and I would guess the same was true of anybody living relatively close to the land. Those most at risk of 'starving' were probably the urban poor - and even then it was still a time when many more folk kept chickens, rabbits, etc in the backyard. It may be what rationing achieved was actually an equitable distribution of the opportunity to buy scare commodities, rather than preventing outright starvation.

As for the Battle of the Atlantic - how much of what crossed the Atlantic was food and how much oil, 'warlike stores' and US personnel? I don't know, but an informed answer might make it clear what was actually at stake.

On the subject of Bletchley and the Atlantic, there's been some interesting writing about the real impact of reading Enigma. I recently read Gardner, W.J.R. Decoding History: The Battle of the Atlantic and Ultra. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000. This is hard going but it does set Sigint in the contxt of other factors bearing on the outcome.


"The price of petrol has been increased by one penny. Official"

Philip Zec, Daily Mirror, 5th March, 1942[/align]
There was a Point in 1942, when National food stocks in the United Kingdom fell to just under two months.
So although no one in the UK actually faced starvation, due to enemy action, in WWII, there was the POSSIBILITY.

This was possible, as since the late 19th century, the British Isles had been an active importer of food stuff.
To reduce the gap, there were great efforts to bring as much agricultural land as possible in to production. Additionally, the famous "Dig for Victory" campaign, was a an attempt to get city dwellers etc to contribute towards their own food needs.

So the potential of the Atlantic seal anes being cut, was serious enough for Churchill to state it was the one campaign that seriously frightened him during the war.
My Mother was evacuated from London as a baby. They were relocated in Royston near Bassingbourne. I only found out in 1998 when driving through Royston with my Nan. Out of nowhere she says, "You're Mum was evacutaed to here in the war". Amazing. And I found the family ration books when sorting through my Nans belongings after she died. Not sure if they were short of food but it makes me appreciate what I have today.
Weren't there some very real, if localised, cases of near-starvation towards the end of WW1 when the Hun started unrestricted U-boat warfare?
If that's true, the measures put into place in WW2 were a 'lesson learned' and preparation for what could have happened again had the Battle of the Atlantic gone the other way. Rationing essentially gave the urban poor a safety-net that they hadn't had in 1917-1918. Thinking about it, evacuation may have been as much about moving useless mouths to better feeding grounds in the countryside as it was moving children away from the urban bomb-magnets?
I remember my grandmother serving up giblet stew. This was on a fairly regular basis in her household. I can still remember the smell of it, it was like boiled socks.

The Americans came out of WW2 twice as rich, we came out skint six times over.
Giblet stew....pppppppphlui...having said that I remember tripe stew done in something that resembled meat sauce but wasnt.....whatever happened to beet sugar?

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