Tension in Britain during wait for ‘Second Front’

Churchill Mk IV tanks in storage on the Winchester by-pass in Hampshire, in readiness for the invasion of Europe, 16 May 1944.

Churchill Mk IV tanks in storage on the Winchester by-pass in Hampshire, in readiness for the invasion of Europe, 16 May 1944.

Three young children who are playing in a layer of sand on top of their air raid shelter, pause in their games to watch aircraft pass overhead during 1944.

Three young children who are playing in a layer of sand on top of their air raid shelter, pause in their games to watch aircraft pass overhead during 1944.

Almost everyone in Europe knew that the ‘Second Front’ was coming. Across occupied Europe the Nazis were extolling the strength of their ‘Atlantic Wall”. In Britain the signs had been mounting over the past few months, as the numbers of U.S troops in Britain doubled and the frequency and extent of military exercises increased.

Over 600,000 people living close to the coast had had their movements curtailed under wartime regulations. Near to the embarkation ports on the south coast there were piles of military equipment and munitions beside the roads. Everyone knew it was coming, the only questions that remained were ‘When?’ and ‘Where?’.

Once again New Yorker columnist Mollie Panter Downes had captured the mood:

Living on this little island just now uncomfortably resembles living on a vast combination of an aircraft carrier, a floating dock jammed with men, and a warehouse stacked to the ceiling with material labelled “Europe.”

It’s not at all difficult for one to imagine that England’s coastline can actually be seen bulging and trembling like the walls of a Silly Symphony house in which a terrific fight is going on. The fight everybody is waiting for hasn’t started yet, but all over England, from the big cities to the tiniest hamlet, the people, at least in spirit, seem already to have begun it.

There is a curious new something in their expressions which recalls the way people looked when the blitz was on. It’s an air of responsibility, as though they had shouldered the job of being back in the civilian front line once again. It’s evident in the faces of women looking up thoughtfully from their gardens at the gliders passing overhead, in the unguarded faces of businessmen wearily catnapping on trains on their way home to all-night Home Guard duty, in the faces of everybody except the young fighting men themselves.

The troops look unfailingly cheerful and lighthearted, as though they didn’t know that anything unusual was afoot, and it is obvious that they are in wonderful physical shape. Life is reminiscent of the blitz in other ways, too, for now, as then, people are keyed up to withstand something which they have often imagined but never experienced, and there is the same element of uncertainty about what is coming.

The ordinary civilian seems far less worried, however, about possible bombs, long-distance shelling, or gas attacks than about such problems as how the dickens he is going to get to and from work if transport is seriously curtailed. It has already been announced that trains may be suddenly cancelled without warning, but there is a vague promise that motor-buses for essential workers will take their place wherever possible.

Stay-at-home Britons seem resigned to the probability that their second front will consist mainly of humdrum hardships, including more inconvenience, fatigue, and doing without. The idea that London, during the invasion, will come in for heavy air attacks seems to have faded away, oddly, and there is even less worrying over any secret weapon that may be up the German sleeve for D Day.

It is plausible to lots of English that the Germans may stage a token inva- sion or series of parachute raids. This would mean that, since the Army’s attention would be engaged elsewhere, the Home Guard would be expected to take charge of the situa- tion. Already, in the country, the milk and the mail arrive late, delivered by a somewhat bleary-eyed milkman or postman who explains that he has just finished standing his watch with the all-night guard, which once more has been established.

The shadow of the second front falls across day-to-day happenings in even the smallest community. One country-dwelling lady who recently decided that she must have some urgent plumbing repairs done in her home was warned by the contractor that he and his plumber’s mates were all Home Guards. He pointed out that if anything happened (there isn’t a village in England which doesn’t proudly imag- ine that it’s all-important to the Nazis), the boys would just drop her new water tank smack on the lawn and she would be left bathless until the fighting was over.

It is often in just such a ridiculous way that English families begin to realize what it may be like to have the battle of Europe right on their doorsteps, involving not only big and historic issues but also small and homely ones like baths, trains, the morning paper, and the day’s milk.

See Molly Panter Downes: London War Notes.

Preparations for Operation Overlord (the Normandy Landings): tanks being inspected, 'somewhere in England'.

Preparations for Operation Overlord (the Normandy Landings): tanks being inspected, ‘somewhere in England’.

Pontoons which will be used for building pontoon bridges in Europe, await issue to engineering units at a supply depot in England.

Pontoons which will be used for building pontoon bridges in Europe, await issue to engineering units at a supply depot in England.

Thunderbolt fighters lined up in storage.

Thunderbolt fighters lined up in storage.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

ccg May 22, 2014 at 6:21 pm

I greatly enjoy your 70th blog and can only look forward to a 75th. If you say it will be improved, that’s makes it even better although I think you current efforts are grreat!

Editor May 21, 2014 at 6:47 pm

It is hard to imagine facing a world like this, so much has changed, yet this was the experience within the space of a lifetime ago.

There is much I can do to improve WWII Today and I shall start with the 75th anniversary updates.

ccg May 21, 2014 at 5:42 pm

I too am impressed by these posts. It is hard to imagine the pain, suffering and hardships that people had to endure. My guess is we are no longer able to even approach the effort needed to defeat the Nazi’s. Thank you for these posts.

Are you planning to start these over again when we reach the 75th aniversery?

Tim May 21, 2014 at 9:43 am

I’m unashamed to say that I was moved to tears by that article by Molly Painter Downs. Today, seventy years on, one can still feel the sense of hardship, weariness, duty, courage and just plain cheerfulness in the face of terrible adversity faced by those people.
With hindsight we know the huge sufferings of the terrible events that took place during the second world war, inflicted on normal human beings just trying to live a normal life.

Reading these daily posts as I do, I am struck by the fact the it was ordinary people, no different from us, who did all the fighting and bore all the tragic consequences of war.

We, and generations not yet born, owe them a great debt. We must never forget them.

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