The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History

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SECOND WORLD WAR (1939-1945)


Updated:  06 July 2012 

The rationing of butter, ham, bacon and sugar started on Monday January 8th 1940, when ration books were also introduced  There was points rationing for tinned goods, dried fruit, cereals, syrup, treacle and biscuits.  At first each person was allowed 16 points per month to spend on whatever was available at the time.  This was later raised to 20 points per month.  Each person had to be registered with a specific local shop and could only use their points in that shop.  Milk, eggs, and their "dried" versions, as well as oranges, were strictly controlled to ensure that expectant mothers, babies and the elderly had sufficient supplies.  Fish and potatoes were never rationed although from time to time they became in very short supply.  [1]

Amounts changed over time but a typical weekly ration was  [2]:-

  • butter 2 ounces
  • margarine 4 ounces
  • milk 3 pints (sometimes it was only 2 pints)
  • cheese 2 ounces
  • 1 fresh egg
  • one packet of dried eggs every four weeks
  • bacon or ham 4 ounces
  • 1s 6d worth of other meat
  • tea 2 ounces
  • sugar 8 ounces
  • one pound of jam every two months
  • and 12 ounces of sweets every four weeks

HMS Ajax arrived in Plymouth Dockyard on Wednesday January 31st 1940 after its action in the "Battle of the River Plate" to be followed on Thursday February 15th by HMS Exeter.  [1]

On Friday February 16th 1940 the officers and men from HMS Ajax and HMS Exeter were given a civic reception in the Guildhall.  [1][3]

Monday March 11th 1940 saw beginning of meat rationing.  [1]

Plymouth's cinemas opened for the first time on a Sunday on March 17th.  [1]

On Friday May 10th Mr Neville Chamberlain resigned and was replaced as Prime Minister by Mr Winston Churchill.  A National Government was formed.  [1]

The formation of the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) was announced by Mr Anthony Eden on Tuesday May 14th 1940.  [1]

335,490 British, (French and Belgian) troops were evacuated from Dunkirk between Monday May 27th and Tuesday June 4th 1940.  [4]

On June 2nd 1940 600 French and other troops arrived at Turnchapel Station after evacuation from Dunkirk.  [5]

At 5.30pm on Tuesday June 18th 1940 the ex-Great Western Railway Channel Islands ferry, the "St Helier", under Captain R R Pitman, anchored in Plymouth Sound, having diverted while on passage from Southampton to La Pallice on the French coast.  She sailed again at 10.35pm to resume her mission but the Captain was amazed to pass French ships of all types making a mad dash for the English ports.  The situation on land was rapidly getting worse and it was not long before the "St Helier" was attacked by two enemy planes.  The crew replied with heavy fire from the ship's guns and scored hits on both planes, causing the bomb intended for the ship to fall short.  Realising that any attempt to embark troops was likely to end in disaster, the ship was ordered to sea, where she ran the gauntlet of an enemy submarine and a severe electrical storm that rendered the compass and degaussing cable useless.  The "St Helier" finally arrived back in the relative safety of Plymouth sound at 5.35pm on Friday June 21st.  [6]

Plymouth's first air raid alert took place at 12.45am on Sunday June 30th 1940 and lasted one hour.  [3]

Later that day (July 4th 1940) the Prime Minister announced in the House of Commons that the Government had seized French warships to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.  [1]

The first bombs to be dropped on Plymouth fell just before midday on Saturday July 6th 1940.  The three bombs hit a block of eight houses on the Corporation housing estate at Swilly Road, numbers 132 to 146.   Three houses were demolished, two were wrecked beyond repair, and three others were damaged.  Other properties nearby were damaged by the blast.  [3][8]

Mrs Blanch Margaret Ellnor, aged 33, of 140 Swilly Road, the wife of Mr F A Ellnor, became Plymouth's first air-raid victim, closely followed by Mr Harry Clarke Swinburne, aged 58, of 142 Swilly Road and thirteen-year-old Joseph Harold Nicolas, aged 13, of 138 Swilly Road, the son of CPO F Nicholas RN.   Joseph died on July 8th at the City Hospital, Greenbank.  Six other people were injured.  Apparently the raider, a Dornier, or "Black Pencil" as they were nicknamed, was challenged by gunfire from the anti-aircraft positions but got away without being hit.  [3][8][9]

Two Police officers who were in the police box at the junction of Beacon Park Road and Wolseley Road attended the incident.  They were Police Sergeant Stephen Mansfield and Police Constable Reginald Hawkins.  A 13-year-old lad by the name of Jimmy Silcock, who lived at number 136 Swilly Road, later recalled that the rear of his family's home caved in as a result of the blast and his mother, who had remained in the house, got covered in debris and had to be dug out.  [3][8]

The following day, Sunday July 7th 1940, there was another attack from a bomber that flew low over the City from the direction of Laira.   The time was about 5.30pm.  It was so low, apparently, that a man on duty at the gasworks at Coxside opened fire on it with a shot-gun.  The bombs missed their supposed target, the gasworks, and landed on houses at the junction of South Milton Street and Home Sweet Home Terrace.  The local post office was destroyed.  [3]

Five people were killed in this raid: Mark and Mrs Ellen Keefe, aged 65 and 60 respectively, and Carroll Voysey, aged 55, all of 87 Cattedown Road; Samuel Hollinsworth Peek Tremain, aged 49, of 17 South Milton Street; and Police Constable Alfred Edwin Crosby, aged 48, husband of Mildred Crosby of 16 Lynwood Avenue, Marsh Mills, Plympton, and son of Hannah Crosby of 11 First Avenue, Bexleyheath in Kent.  He and an unnamed soldier were on duty in South Milton Street.  Four others were injured, including Mr Frank Reginald Jago, aged 68, of 39 Cattedown Road, who died in Greenbank Hospital on July 16th.  [9]

It was announced on Monday July 8th 1940 that tea was to be rationed to 2 ounces per head per week.  [1]

Also on July 8th, Devonport received an early morning raid when four bombs were dropped in the vicinity of Morice Square and Marlborough Street, killing Mr Sidney Walter Coombe Slee, aged 54, the butcher, whose shop in Marlborough Street received a direct hit.  His wife, Mary Truscott Slee, survived.   One of the bombs crashed right through the Royal Sailors' Club in Morice Square, exploding in the kitchen and wrecking the dining room above it, which had only a short time before been crowded with sailors having their breakfasts.  Three people were seriously injured in the raid, including a woman who was dug out of the debris of her house.  [3][9]

On Wednesday July 10th 1940 the German Luftwaffe began the Battle of Britain in the skies over the South East of England.  [5]

Mr Eden, the Minister of War, announced on Tuesday July 23rd 1940 that the Local Defence Volunteers were now to be known as the Home Guard.  [1]

On Thursday July 25th 1940 the Duke of Kent visited Plymouth.  [1]

247 Squadron, Royal Air Force, was reformed from the Sturmburgh Fighter Flight, based on the Shetland Isles, at RAF Roborough on August 1st 1940.  It flew Gloster Gladiators and the first arrived at Roborough on August 13th 1940.  [17] 

London had its first air raid on Friday August 16th 1940.  The first all-night bombing raid on London took place on Friday August 23rd.   This was the start of The Blitz, although Plymouth's own Blitz did not start until March 1941.  [1]

As from Sunday August 18th 1940 the visiting hours at Plymouth's City Hospital (otherwise known as Freedom Fields Hospital) were: to wards 1 to 8 inclusive, Tuesdays only, between 5.30 and 6.30pm; to ward 14 and the maternity and children's wards, Sundays only, between 2.30 and 3.30pm; to wards 15 and 16, Fridays only, between 5.30 and 6.30pm.  Only one visitor was allowed per patient in the Hospital at any one time.  [13]

It was business as usual for the motor coach tour companies.  On Saturday August 17th 1940 Plymothians could sample the delights of an all-day visit to Fowey, Polperro and Looe with Embankment Motors for 8s 6d; or Widecombe, Haytor and Torquay with the Co-operative Travel Service for the same price; or an afternoon mystery drive for three shillings from Western National Coach Tours.  Embankment Motors also operated a rather unusual tour, to Cheesering, on Bodmin Moor, departing from Princess Square at 2.30pm, price 6s 6d.  [14]

Three naval ratings, the victims of an unidentified air-raid in the South West, were buried on Friday August 16th 1940.  They were Mr William Harding, aged 39 years; Mr Allan brooks, 22; and Mr Rufus Barnes, also 22.  [15]

'Plymouth Hits Back' was the slogan of the Plymouth Spitfire Fund in its attempt to raise £5,000 towards an aircraft for the war effort.  As at August 16th 1940 £150 had been donated.  Although the fund was divided into units of £1, these could be made up of smaller amounts from those who could not afford to give that sum of money.  The treasurer of the fund was Mr H L Jeffery.  [16]   

There was a bad air-raid on Tuesday August 27th 1940 which killed the following inmates and staff of Ford House in Wolseley Road  [3][9]:

Beatrice Allen, aged 62;
Mary Bendle, aged 66;
Ivy Alexandra Bennett, aged 38, daughter of Mr J A Bennett;
Frances Mildred Annie Coombe, aged 58, daughter of the late William and Frances Coombe;
Mary Ellen Dawe, aged 36, of 5 Woolster Street, Plymouth, daughter of the late William and Alice Daw;
Lily Edgcumbe, aged 55;
Mary Ann Pring Griffin, aged 64;
Annie Louisa Harris, aged 59;
Jessie Elizabeth Hill, aged 57;
Elsie Elizabeth Ley, aged 39, daughter of Henry and Bertha Ley of 132 King Street;
Winifred Irene Roberts, aged 40; and
Clara Rosina Skinner, aged 44;

The Great Western Railway tender, the "Sir John Hawkins", was damaged in that raid after she had been repaired she was taken over by the Admiralty and given a Naval crew.  [6]

On Saturday September 21st 1940 the Great Western Railway suspended running the overnight Travelling Post Office train to Plymouth and Penzance and also the Plymouth to Bristol TPO.  [10]

Lieutenant R Davies of Plymouth led the squad which removed a time bomb that threatened St Paul's Cathedral in London on Sunday September 15th 1940.  [1]

On September 24th 1940 HM the King created the George Cross for civilian bravery.  [1]

The first of a fleet of over-age American destroyers arrived in England on September 30th 1940.  [1]

Air raid shelters were erected at Hooe on Saturday October 5th 1940.  [5]

A second contingent of American destroyers arrived at Plymouth on Friday October 11th 1940.  [11]

On Monday October 21st 1940 purchase tax came into operation.  [11]

The extension of British Summer Time to throughout the winter was announced by the Home Secretary, Mr W S Morrison, on Thursday October 24th 1940.  [11]

A special football match between the Royal Navy and the Army took place at Home Park on Saturday November 16th 1940 in aid of the Earl Haig Poppy Fund.  Over 6,000 spectators paid £157 16s at the gate and over 2,000 additional were sold.  The kick-off was performed by Mrs Davies, the wife of Captain R Davies, the hero of Saint Paul's Cathedral.  [11a]

One of the most serious incidents in the War occurred during the night of Wednesday November 27th 1940.  At about 7.30pm an enemy aircraft dropped four flares over the Turnchapel/Mount Batten district.  Almost immediately one of the hangars at RAF Mount Batten was set alight by a high explosive bomb.   A Sunderland Flying Boat caught fire and was burned out, and ten people were killed at Oreston alone, where four houses were demolished.  Within a short while another bomber, while aiming for the Air Station, managed to get a direct hit on one of the oil tanks in the nearby Admiralty Oil Fuel Depot, which was adjacent to Turnchapel Railway Station.  [3][5]

However, the fire spread from one tank to another until the flames so illuminated the night sky that people on the Barbican and Hoe could easily read their watches and newspapers.  The blaze around the tanks continued the next day, when two Auxiliary Fire Service personnel lost their lives (Mr Thomas J Callicot, aged 30, and Mr Robert W Widger, aged 33, both of Plymouth) and four others were injured.  The fire spread from tank to tank but there was only one explosion, which showered blazing oil on the railway station setting alight to the buildings and also set light to Hooe Lake.  The people of Plymouth lived in fear of further attacks as Plymouth was now such a brightly lit target.  The people of Turnchapel were all evacuated to Plympton.  The fires lasted for four nights and everyone was greatly relieved when they were finally put out on Sunday December 1st.  [3]

On December 8th 1940 gangs of men were to be seen relaying railway track and repairing the station and bridge at Turnchapel.   Trains started to run again on December 16th 1940.  [5]

During an air raid on Sunday December 15th 1940 the Great Western Railway tender "Sir Walter Raleigh", was damaged and eight members of the crew were injured.  [6]

The Plymouth Chief Constable, Mr G S Lowe, announced that Mr W H Mead, formerly a superintendent with the City of Plymouth Fire Brigade and likewise in the Plymouth Police Force, had been appointed as Commandant of the Plymouth Auxiliary Fire Service at a salary of £375 per annum.  Two Second Officers in the Fire Brigade, Messrs D E Burge and R M Easton, had also been appointed as Divisional Officers at salaries of £325 per year.  The Plymouth Emergency Committee approved the erection of communal air-raid shelters in Central Park, Station Road at Millbay, and Grenville Road.  These would accommodate 72 people, presumably each although the report does not make that clear.  A further shelter to take 100 people was to be placed at the Torpoint Ferry.  A part of a park shelter near the children's play area at the Milehouse end of Central Park was to be adapted as a shelter.  [11b]

Plymouth Corporation Transport Department converted two of its single-deck buses into mobile canteens for use in air-raid emergencies.  They were inspected in Guildhall Square by the members of the Emergency Committee on Monday December 23rd 1940.  Running water was obtained from a tank on the roof and there were a gas cooker to provide hot meals and three large gas-heated urns which could be used to hold soup or tea.  It was fully equipped with plates, cups and stainless steel cutlery.  Upwards of 1220 cups of hot drinks could be served at a time.  The two ladies representing the Women's Voluntary Service, Lady Hollely and Mrs Wordley, 'were loud in their praise of the very practical organization of the canteen'.  [11c]

At the end of December 1940 Mrs Gwen Howarth, of 16 Leigham Terrace, Plymouth, won the "Venus" Competition at the New Palace Theatre.  [12]

At some pint during 1940 the City Council began collecting kitchen waste for processing into pig food, as part of the war effort.  Communal collection bins were placed in the streets.  The scheme continued until October 1959 (SEE Second World War - 1945 and after).  [18] 


[1]  Doidge’s Western Counties Illustrated Annual, 1941, Western Morning News Co Ltd, Plymouth, 1941.

[2]  Answer from Mr Bob Cubitt, Northampton, to a question in a national newspaper about rationing, circa 1980s.

[3]  Twyford, H P, "It Came to Our Door", Messrs Underhill, Plymouth, 1946.

[4]  Pear’s Cyclopaedia.

[5]  Clamp, Arthur L, “Hooe and Turnchapel Remembered”, A L Clamp, Elburton, Plymstock, Devon, 1981, quoting from Mr Henry J Hurrell’s diary.

[6]  Brown, Ashley, “Dunkirk and The Great Western”, Great Western Railway Company, London, not dated.

[7]  NOT USED.

[8]  “That Swilly bomb story stirred your memories”, Western Evening Herald, Plymouth, December 3rd 1980.

[9]  Imperial War Graves Commission, Civilian War Dead list.

[10]  Hosegood, J G, “Great Western Railway Travelling Post Offices”, Wild Swan Publications Ltd, Upper Bucklesbury, Berkshire, 1983, ISBN 0-906867-16-9.

[11]  Doidge’s Western Counties Illustrated Annual, 1942, Western Morning News Co Ltd, Plymouth, 1942.

[11a]  "Westcountry News in Brief", Western Evening Herald, Plymouth, November 18th 1940.

[11b]  "City AFS Chief: Ex-Superindtendent W H Mead Appointed", Western Morning News, Plymouth, December 19th 1940.

[11c]  "Now a Travelling Canteen: 'Bus Converted into Canteen", Western Morning News, Plymouth, December 24th 1940.

[12]  "Plymouth 'Venus'", Western Independent, Plymouth, January 5th 1941.

[13]  Notices: "City General Hospital, Plymouth", Western Evening Herald, Plymouth, August 16th 1940.

[14]  Adverts, Embankment Motor Coach Tours; Co-operative Travel Service; and Western National Coach Tours, Western Evening Herald, Plymouth, August 16th 1940.

[15]  "Raid Victims Buried", Western Evening Herald, Plymouth, August 16th 1940.

[16]  "Plymouth Hits Back: £150 Already Subscribed to Spitfire Fund", Western Evening Herald, Plymouth, August 16th 1940.

[17]  From research done at the National Archives by Mr David Penberthy, Isle of Wight, 2010.

[18]  "Plymouth Ends Kitchen Waste Collection Soon: Close-down within two months", Western Morning News, Plymouth, September 18th 1959. 

©  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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