1940s Victory Poster

The dawn of 1940 for Great Britain was blighted from the outset by the ominous, uncertain shadows of anxiety and frustration caused by the so-called 'Phoney War', which had held sway since the declaration of hostilities against Germany in 1939.

The great cold wave, which struck Europe in January 1940, caused the river Thames itself to freeze over for the first time since 1888. This was to prove symbolic of the desperate determination with which the nation would collectively face up to the omnipresent threat that would come perilously close to eclipsing the fragile light that illuminated the dangerous road, which ultimately lead to their finest hour.

With the elevation of Winston Churchill to Prime Minister in May 1940, the country found itself lead by a man whose intelligence, wit, stubborn courage and intense natural pride in his heritage transformed him overnight into an almost Arthurian incarnation of everything which the people themselves believed made Britain great. Under his eloquent, charismatic command the people faced up to the privations and terrible carnage of the first half of the new decade with all the single-minded, stoically accepting and mordantly humorous determination that would confound Nazi expectations, and set a world-wide precedence for unrelenting resistance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Through the material hardships of rationing and the unremitting destruction caused to cities throughout the nation by the bombs of the Blitz and the later advanced technological threat posed by the deadly "V" rockets, ordinary people consistently yet understatedly faced the extraordinary, armed with little save resolve, courage and the fortifying sentimental promise of eventually being able to meet again, while bluebirds flew over the white cliffs of Dover, as popularised by the nostalgically reassuring songs of such favourites as Vera Lynn and Anne Shelton, whilst maintaining a typically British sense of humour as epitomised by the radio antics of the Crazy Gang and the irrepressible ITMA crew.

Then, just when it seemed almost as if war was destined to be the natural way of things, the country suddenly found itself swept up in the euphoric release embodied by the tumultuous celebrations that marked V.E. Day on the 8th May, 1945, swiftly followed by V.J. Day in August of that year. The war had been won, but the price in human lives was unspeakably high. Fifty-five million had forfeit their lives worldwide.

Just as war had changed the physical landscape of the country, so had it subtly shifted other, more fundamental social attitudes. Even as 1946 dawned with the first civilian test flights to embark from London's new Heathrow airport site, the country was discovering that changes forced upon it by the needs of conflict, such as the role of women in the workforce, had allowed genies out of bottles that would prove impossible to put back.

From 1946 to the end of the decade the seeds of what was to become the whirlwind, rapid, sometimes surprisingly stark, social change of the 1950's were sown. Ranging from Churchill's failure to gain re-election, through the nationalisation of key industries such as the coal mines to the fashion sensation caused by designer Christian Dior's sleek and radical 'hour glass' designs for women; the signs were there. London's austere hosting of the first Olympic Games held since 1933, helped lighten the initial post war mood, while the birth of Prince Charles and television's tentative taking over of the primary entertainment mantle from an ailing British film industry were all portents of what was to follow.

Ultimately, the nineteen forties were a time of unprecedented change on a multitude of levels. From war to the first small stirrings of massive social change, they can now be seen with hindsight as 'the' crucial period in the development of the Great Britain that exists today.

1940s Icons

Icons of the 1940s

20 icons that perfectly represent 1960s Britain.

1940s Movies

British films of the 1940s

Taken from the BFI's Top 100 British Films of the 20th century - we present '15 must-see' movies from the 1940s.

National Service

Billy's Bag: Doing My National Service

Bill Hawksford shares his own experience of 'National Service' and how he discovered why his father had warned him that in the army they played a lot of 'Silly Buggers '.