Industry in the Second World War

Industry in the Second World War was very similar to the first war because the same things were needed to win: weapons, soldiers and food. Increased demand meant that in essential industries employment swelled, not only in large ones such as coal and steel, but also smaller, more skilled areas like medicine and fire-fighting: in 1928 there were 2 580 doctors, which rose to 7 198 by 1944; there were 82 female dentists pre-war and 549 at the end. To keep the workers happy wages increased: the average weekly wage pre-war was £1.10s a week, compared with £3 in 1944. This meant that families had more money to spend on leisure and their standard of living increased.


Again, women were temporarily drafted into men’s jobs because by 1944, 52% of all British men between the ages of 19 and 40 had been enlisted into the army, 4.5 million of whom were fighting overseas. The National Service Number 2 Act even conscripted women between the ages of 20 and 20 into military service.


The number of women in employment rose by 1 500 000 (from 6 250 000 pre-war to 7 750 000 by 1943. The Essential Work Order meant that employers had to take on female workers by law (when enough women were in work the Act was cancelled, and there was a corresponding decrease of 1 750 000 women in employment.) Young women who were required by law to move to whichever factory needed them, even if that mean leaving home and living with other girls in a boarding house. Most factories were in rural, isolated locations because they needed a lot of space, and also it meant that they were harder to locate by the German Luftwaffe, who bombed factories in order to halt Allied production. The Government classification for these young women was ‘mobile woman’ – someone with no dependents. This was unpopular because it was a cultural norm that girls lived with their parents until they went to live with their husbands, but changing opinions was part of the massive cultural upheaval that adapting to wartime conditions necessitated.

It was crucial that everyone in the country played a part because the second war was unlike any war that had gone before it: it was absolute total war.


Factories (Munitions and Steel)


Whereas munitions factories had been the most glamorous and desired jobs in the first war, it was not the same in 1940-45. Now the new, progressive women’s auxiliary forces were the place to be (such as the ATS – Auxiliary Territorial Service – which was attached to the regular Army.) However the factories were still essential to the war effort and therefore there were massive propaganda efforts to persuade people to volunteer for factory posts.


Steel, for example, remained essential for ships, planes and tanks, mostly coming from industrial cities such as Sheffield. As in the first war, production was split up so that unskilled workers could be drafted in quickly. There was so much demand for artillery and equipment that some places re-opened to add to the war effort; the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet closed in 1933 but began producing again during the war. (Its unused buildings also housed people whose homes had been destroyed in the Blitz.) Technological advancements in weaponry depended on the industry functioning smoothly. For the first 18 months of war, the only place that was capable of forging the crankshafts for new, streamlined Spitfire fighter planes were at Vickers Works, in Sheffield. 18-inch armour piercing shells were built at Hadfield’s Steelworks, but no-where else in the UK.


War calls for innovation, for development, to keep one step ahead of the enemy. Technologically the Allies and the Germans made great advancements during the war, including radar systems, the Spitfire planes and in medical knowledge. One such development in engineering was the concrete Mulberry harbours, designed for D-Day so that the ships could quickly unload their cargo on the five Normandy beaches selected for landing. There was 144 000 tons of concrete, 85 000 tons of ballast and 105 000 tons of steel in a harbour (there were two types – Mulberry A or B), and these were pre-constructed and then towed across the English Channel with the invasion force. Building the mulberries meant that three hundred British firms were contracted, with a workforce of 40 000 to 45 000 people; it is therefore clear to see how beneficial these wartime developments were for the employment rate, and therefore people’s standards of living!


However working conditions remained loud, uncomfortable and often dangerous. The Daily Telegraph reported a disaster at a Royal Ordinance Factory (munitions) in Lancashire, 1944, where an anti-tank mine fuse explosion, killing 2 and injuring a further 17 women working on it. Similarly, there was a return of the ‘Canary Girls’ from the first war, women whose skin and hair had been turned yellow by the toxic chemicals they handled every day.  




Coal heated homes, and powered railways and shipping. It was one essential part of keeping the country running. The loss of French and Belgian coalfields meant that the combined Allied forces were increasingly reliant on British supplies. However there was a shortage of workers as nearly 36 000 employees had been allowed into the army and no one wanted to volunteer to go down the pits and this became critical by 1943. There had been little change to the working environment since the first war and the men were still enduring long shifts in dark, cramped and dangerous conditions with low rates of pay (but still higher wages than those in industries such as textiles.) The solution was ‘the Bevin Boys,’ named after Minister of Labour and National Service in the wartime coalition, who send nearly 48 000 new military conscripts straight into the mines, instead of the forces. Considering conditions down the mine, and the distance from the Front, this was understandably unpopular.


The Bevin Boys wore no uniform, and worked with the Conscientious Objectors sent down the pits to do their pit. Therefore, there was often a misconception outside of the pit that they were avoiding conscription or were CO’s themselves, and thus were cowards. After the war they received no medals or recognition because they not considered military combatants and were not even officially recognised as contributors until a speech by Queen Elizabeth II in 1995. In June 2007 the Prime Minister Tony Blair awarded them with a Veterans Badge, the first of which were awarded in 2008 by the next PM Gordon Brown. In May 2013 a memorial was unveiled by the Countess of Wessex at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.





On 10 July 1940 the Government had introduced the Defence Regulation 58AA Act, which allowed the Minister of Labour to ban strikes and lockouts in order to keep production moving smoothly during the war. However, the poor pay and working conditions meant that a lot of strikes were held anyway, even though most were unofficial and illegal (not sanctioned by the Trade Union.) In South Wales there were 514 stoppages between 1939 and 1944. On 9 January 1942 the miners at Betteshanger Colliery (Kent) struck over pay for working on the most dangerous coal seams. The Ministry of Labour tried to prosecute 1 500 of the miners’ involved but, when other pits came out in support, the prison sentences were dropped and most of the fines were never paid. Strikes were this powerful because of the wartime reliance on coal. Just before the D-Day invasion of occupied France in 1944, the miners went on strike because employers refused to raise piece rates. They were successful, and by the end of the war had moved from 81st (in 1938) to 14th in a ranking of average earnings in the UK.




Like the first war, women were drafted into the Land Army and the Government launched rationing programmes and propaganda campaigns in order to preserve the island’s rations, especially with the enhanced German U-Boat threat and the Battle of the Atlantic. This was considered the least attractive job to do during the war, because it was physical labour and unskilled. However, it was essential.


A fertiliser named National Growmore was introduced to assist the Growmore Campaign, trying to produce larger and better quality crops. Similarly ‘Dig for Victory’ posters encouraged families to grow their own vegetables in their gardens, and allotments were created in the dug-up flower beds of public parks.


It took a long time for industries to return to normal after the war. Some industries, such as those making engines, could go straight back to pre-war production. However, industries that had changed goods or processes in order to accommodate wartime needs were slower to adapt. Some lost customers, or had to wait until rationing controls were lifted, others were reliant upon consumer culture and spending to return to normal, which was hampered by the huge amount of women that lost their jobs (again) and the economic downturn that followed a country ravaged by five years of intense warfare.

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