Architecture, by Tribune culture editor Owen Hatherley
The second world war had seismic effects on architecture, with reconstruction aimed not just at repairing war damage, but at creating a new society that would never let anything like fascism and world war happen again. As we get more distant from the events and actual memory, the war is increasingly remembered in terms of nostalgic kitsch
Royal Victoria Hospital Tearooms, Southampton, 1940
This wooden tearoom was built for the massive increase in staff and patients the war brought. As a small reminder that Britain didn’t exactly “stand alone” in 1940, the timber for the building came from 100 different locations across the global empire.
Tin Town, Manchester, 1946
Many wartime factories were converted to build emergency prefabricated houses for those made homeless in the bombing. Some became permanent estates, including one in Wythenshawe in south Manchester, with its brightly painted modular metal houses.
Templewood School, Welwyn Garden City, 1950
Mass-producing new schools was a speciality of Hertfordshire county council. Templewood is one of the best, a lightweight structure in a miniature wood, with a mural of Russian folk tales inside, a remnant from when the Soviets were our allies. The architect, A Cleeve-Barr, was a communist.
Memorial Gardens, Walsall, 1952
On a hill above the Black Country town, this is one of the subtlest of war memorials – a formal garden, which opens out to an axial circus of council houses, coordinated as part of the same project by the architect Geoffrey Jellicoe; the sacrifice and the reward.
Coventry Cathedral, 1962
The centrepiece of what was once a globally praised exemplar of postwar reconstruction, Coventry Cathedral, built around the ruins of the medieval cathedral destroyed in 1940, is both a war memorial of astonishing forgiveness and generosity, and an unrivalled showcase of mid-century British art, with its Graham Sutherland tapestry, John Piper stained glass and Jacob Epstein sculptures.
Bomber Command memorial, London, 2012
Various new war memorials were built in the 2000s, all of them with a sentimentality and aesthetic conservatism that clearly wasn’t shared by the wartime generation. One in Green Park, generously funded by Lord Ashcroft – as it tells you in big letters – is in a class of its own of retrograde imperial kitsch; ironically, just the sort of badly scaled neoclassicism that Hitler so fervently admired. It won the award given out by the late Gavin Stamp, Private Eye’s “Piloti”, for worst new building in 2012.
Broadcast, by Observer arts and media correspondent Vanessa Thorpe
Although television services were shut down for the duration, lessons learned from wartime radio still shape output today. The BBC was the power in the land and by 1944 George Orwell, a former BBC propagandist, noted that the phrase “I heard it on the BBC” had come to mean “I know it must be true”.
Radio Hamburg’s ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, 1939 to 1945
Enemy propaganda broadcasts in English from Anglo-Irish defector William Joyce were heard by 6 million listeners, as were those of his Japanese female equivalents, known collectively as Tokyo Rose. These dripping taps of “fake news” attempted to deflate Allied morale.
Charles de Gaulle’s ‘Appeal of 18 June’ 1940
The exiled French general’s appeal to Free French forces, transmitted from London’s Broadcasting House, is thought to be the origin of the French resistance movement. The influence of his speeches cemented the future role of the foreign language output of the BBC World Service as an unofficial diplomatic boon.
Wynford Vaughan-Thomas’s live report from a bombing raid on Berlin, 1943
Four years into the war the RAF offered the BBC the chance to send a radio crew on a bombing raid. On 3 September Vaughan-Thomas took to the sky in a Lancaster bomber headed for Berlin. His live account opened up the idea of broadcasts that were not just a sombre list of military positions and casualties.
Holocaust: 1979, US TV series
Twenty million people, a third of West Germany’s population, watched at least part of this series starring Meryl Streep when it was shown on WDR and 86% of its German audience went on to discuss the issues with friends or family. Many who telephoned the broadcaster afterwards to express their shock were in tears.
Dad’s Army, by Jimmy Perry and David Croft, broadcast on the BBC from 1968 to 1977
Half-affectionate and half-parodic, this sitcom about a chaotic Home Guard troop of volunteers serving in Sussex, under imminent threat of German invasion, has proved one of the most enduring narratives of wartime life. It’s still so popular that lost episodes are being reshot with a new cast.
Flare Path, Terence Rattigan, 1941
Written while Rattigan was serving in the RAF: he salvaged a draft of the script when jettisoning stuff from a damaged Sunderland. A group of bomber pilots and their wives are followed over a weekend: in detail, tenderly, with a keen eye for fraudulence and a sharp ear for slang. Tickety boo.
Operation Mincemeat, SpitLip, 2019
This spring the new company Spitlip staged a gloriously inventive response to the second world war. Inspired by a singularly preposterous intelligence operation, they created a frisky high-speed musical with a finely varied score and some of the most inventive lyrics of the last 20 years.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Bertolt Brecht, 1941
The “parable” plots the career of an imaginary Chicago mobster, who deal in cauliflowers. An allegory of the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi party, the play embodied some new directions for the theatre: less drawing-room, more political forum; a busting out of the proscenium arch.
Bent, Martin Sherman, 1979
A revelatory study of the Nazis’ treatment of homosexuals follows a gay man from hedonism in Weimar to hell in Dachau. The play has been performed in more than 60 countries – and filmed in 1997, with Mick Jagger appearing as a drag queen.
South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1949
The Broadway hit features an American nurse stationed on a South Pacific island. Some of the action (such as the courtship of a young Tonkinese girl by a much older serviceman) looks queasy now. But the songs – which include Some Enchanted Evening – linger on.
Kindertransport, Diane Samuels, 1993
Samuels drew on the historical experiences of Kindertransport children to imagine the life of a Jewish girl sent from Nazi Germany to be fostered in Manchester. Her study of displacement has since been performed in Japan, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Canada and South Africa.
Copenhagen, Michael Frayn, 1998
Set in the occupied Danish capital in 1941, Frayn’s play features human uncertainty and the atomic physics of the period, rewinding its scenes as if to cast doubt on its subject. Michael Blakemore’s crystalline production ushered in a new era of science plays.
Soldiers, Rolf Hochhuth, 1967
The play, that found fervent advocates in Kenneth Tynan – and David Irving, debated the saturation bombing of German cities and alleged that Churchill was involved in the murder of the Polish prime minister General Sikorski. Hochhuth was successfully sued for libel by a Polish pilot.
Cabaret, Kander and Ebb, 1966
Based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin, and set in the glitzy grime of the Kit Kat Club, the musical charted the rise of Nazism and at different times starred Judi Dench and Jane Horrocks as Sally Bowles.
An Inspector Calls, JB Priestley, 1945
This drawing-room thriller was first staged in the former Soviet Union. In 1992 a ground-breaking (and design-cracking) production by Stephen Daldry, suggested it should be seen not only as reflecting the post-war move to Labour but as prophesying Thatcherism. Chosen by Susannah Clapp
“Keep up the morale of the Home Front by preserving a neat appearance,” ran a 1940 Board of Trade slogan in 1940, a reminder that the war infiltrated every aspect of daily life, and that fashion and beauty were part of the battleground. Many trends that proliferate today can be traced back to the 1940s, from workwear to vintage, though personal maintenance is no longer a national duty
Britain as a fashion capital
The Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (IncSoc) was established in 1942. It promoted British style and established London as a fashion centre. IncSoc designed luxury export garments to raise money for the war effort and, with the couturier scheme, also created clothing for mass manufacture in what we would now call a high street/high fashion collaboration.
The current trend for boilersuits and jumpsuits owes much to the siren suit – an all-in-one (often with hood) that was functional yet stylish and developed to be worn during an air raid. Even Churchill wore them.
Secondhand clothing was not rationed, so the rag trade thrived. Not yet called “vintage”, pre-owned clothes helped people negotiate wartime restrictions (in place from 1941 to 1949). This is where the slogan “Make Do and Mend” came from, a phrase firmly back in fashion today.
Mayfair-based company Jacqmar created silk scarves emblazoned with propaganda prints, ranging from “Salvage your rubber” to “Free French” (a reference to General de Gaulle’s rallying speech and the Free French army).
“Make up is cherished, a last desperately defended luxury,” wrote Vogue in 1942. Beauty became part of the call to arms as women were encouraged to keep morale high on the home front through a neat appearance. Helena Rubinstein created a lipstick shade called Regimental Red.
Despite nostalgic rhetoric that suggests Britons merrily coped with 14 years of rationing, the reality was grim. The war had a long-lasting and, arguably, devastating impact on British food. Restaurants and hotels stopped training chefs, the variety of food was severely limited and, for good reason, quantity was prioritised over quality. The population became so fed up with the situation that one of the contributing factors for Labour losing the 1951 election was people’s frustration with continuing food shortages. Overall the war transformed food production and had a huge impact on the nation’s diet, changing tastes and attitudes as well as introducing a number of new foods still familiar today.
From the Boer war to the first world war “bully” beef was the meat enjoyed or, more likely, endured by soldiers. But during the second world war another tinned meat took centre stage. Invented in Minnesota in 1937 by Jay C Hormel, Spam was easy to transport, long-lasting and cheap. Introduced to Britain in 1941, it was widely adopted by the forces and civilians alike. By the 1950s Spam fritters and Spam, eggs and chips had become British staples.
American soldiers were paid more than five times as much. They arrived in the UK with chewing gum, stockings, cash and the ultimate sign of American culture, Coca-Cola. When America joined the war in 1941, company president Robert Woodruff ordered that “every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents, wherever he is…” By the end of the war, Britain had gained a taste for coke – and the glamour it symbolised.
In 1901 a Japanese chemist in Chicago invented instant coffee and first world war American military personnel were downing on average 36lb of the stuff a year. US soldiers stationed in the UK introduced tea-drinking Brits to instant coffee during the second world war. By the end of the 1940s tea was still the national drink but instant coffee was coming up on the inside.
Margarine was invented in 1869 thanks to a competition set by French emperor Napoleon III to invent a butter replacement. It was seen as a solution to food shortages. It was cheap to produce and longer lasting than butter – the ultimate industrial food product. During the war it was included in rations and so became a kitchen staple. Despite its widespread adoption, however, it was always associated with poverty and culinary compromise. Only in the 1970s and 1980s, with dubious health claims made about its benefits for weight loss, did its reputation rise.
The story of the war and cheese is one of regional culinary traditions being all but destroyed. In the first decade of the 20th century the UK had more than 3,500 farmhouse cheese-makers. By the end of the second world war there were around 100. The Ministry of Food policy during the war stipulated that only one type of cheese could be made – by all accounts a bland cheddar mass produced in factories. For decades decent cheese in the UK was all but limited to French imports but in the 1990s, thanks to collapsing milk prices, a new generation of dairy farmers revived regional cheese production.
Science, by Observer science editor Robin McKie
Winston Churchill was a keen reader of scientific works, including books by Darwin and HG Wells. He liaised closely with scientists as wartime leader – mainly through his contact with Frederick Lindermann, his chief scientific adviser. Churchill was also fervently pro-American and constantly tried to get US industry to support British scientific ideas, a task that became much easier after Pearl Harbor.
The first practical radar system was produced in 1935 by the British physicist Sir Robert Watson-Watt. By 1939 the UK had established a chain of radar stations along its coasts to detect incoming bomber planes. The system played a key role in the Battle of Britain. Two scientists, Tony Hewish and Martin Ryle, both worked on developing radar and used the technology to pioneer the field of radio astronomy, opening up a new way to investigate the heavens.
The world’s first antibiotic was discovered by British researcher Alexander Fleming in 1928. Attempts to mass produce penicillin failed until the outbreak of war when efforts began in earnest. Patients were first treated with the drug in 1942. By the end of the war more than 600 billion units were manufactured each year. The pharmaceutical industry remains one of Britain’s key revenue earners.
In 1940 scientists Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch at Birmingham University realised a critical mass of uranium-235 would explode with the power of thousands of tons of dynamite, prompting Britain to create an atomic bomb project, known as Tube Alloys. After the US entered the war, the UK decided to shelve this and participate in the American programme, the Manhattan project. After the war, Britain established the world’s first civil nuclear programme. The UK now has 15 reactors generating about 21% of its electricity, although almost half of this capacity is to be retired by 2025.
British codebreakers deciphered many of Germany’s messages from the start of the second world war. However, this work was boosted by the development in 1943 of Colossus, the world’s first programmable, electronic, digital computer. These machines – installed at Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes – played a crucial role in unravelling the plans of German generals after the Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944. All information on the Colossus was kept classified and the machines were destroyed. It was only relatively recently that the scientists involved have been mentioned publicly. This secrecy proved a key factor in Britain’s failure to develop computers commercially.
Michael Tippett (UK), A Child of Our Time, 1939-41
Begun on 4 September 1939, the day after the declaration of war, Tippett wrote this grand choral work initially as a reaction to the violence of Kristallnacht in 1938, when German Nazis attacked Jewish people and their properties. It was premiered at the Adelphi Theatre, London on 19 March 1944.
Olivier Messiaen (France), Quatuor pour la fin du temps, 1940
Messiaen wrote his Quartet for the End of Time while held prisoner in a German war camp, Stalag VIII-A. For piano, cello, clarinet and violin, it was first performed by the composer and fellow prisoners, outdoors in the cold to guards and inmates, on 15 January 1941.
Dmitri Shostakovich (Russia), Leningrad Symphony, 1941
Shostakovich’s epic was officially written in response to Germany’s invasion of Russia but he said the symphony “is not about Leningrad under siege. It’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.” Played by a depleted orchestra of sick and starving musicians, it was performed in Leningrad in August 1942 when the city was still under siege.
Aaron Copland (USA), Fanfare for the Common Man, 1942
Inspired by President Henry A Wallace’s 1942 speech heralding the “century of the common man”, Copland composed the Fanfare as a response to American entering World War Two. He and other composers were commissioned to write stirring fanfares in honour of servicemen and women, as a contribution to the war effort.
Richard Strauss (Germany), Metamorphosen, 1945
Composed in the final months of war, Richard Strauss’s elegy for 23 solo strings is thought – the composer did not specify – to commemorate the bombing of the three cities he most loved, Munich, Dresden and Berlin, and specifically the destruction of their opera houses, where so many of his own works had been premiered.
Maurice Duruflé (France), Requiem, 1941-47
During the pro-Nazi Vichy government (1940-44), artists benefited from official commissions, part of a propaganda programme to highlight French culture. Durufle accepted one in 1941, eventually submitting the invoice in 1948. He was a slow worker, but may also have felt compromised by the political stigma of Vichy. The much-loved Requiem became a mainstay of Armistice Day services in France.
Zoltan Kodaly (Hungary), Missa Brevis, 1945
Subtitled “tempore belli” (time of war), this work for organ and mixed choir was born of difficult times: in the siege of Budapest in the winter of 1944/45, Kodály had to take refuge in the cellars of the Budapest Opera House. The first performance, in February 1945 with gunfire in the street, was given in a cloakroom in the Opera House. It’s official premiere was at the Three Choirs Festival, Worcester, in 1948.
Erich Korngold (Austria), Violin Concerto, 1945
The Viennese-born Korngold, a prominent composer in the golden age of Hollywood, left Europe in 1934 with the rise of the Nazi regime, abandoning concert work in favour of film scores. He maintained he would not return to writing concert music until Hitler was defeated. This lush, lyrical concerto in effect marked that event.
Arnold Schoenberg (Austria-US), A Survivor from Warsaw, 1947
By now an emigre living in Los Angeles, and close to the end of his life, Schoenberg wrote A Survivor from Warsaw, for narrator, men’s chorus and orchestra, as a commemoration of Holocaust victims. It tells the story, faithful more in psychology and spirit than in factual accuracy, of a survivor from the Warsaw ghetto.
Benjamin Britten (UK), War Requiem, 1962
Britten’s Requiem mass setting, interspersed with war poems by Wilfred Owen, was written for the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral, after bombing destroyed the original 14th-century structure. Britten intended the premiere to include a German and Russian soloist. The Soviets would not comply, but the War Requiem is valued worldwide as a work of European reconciliation. Chosen by Fiona Maddocks
Dates are period of composition, not of premieres
Film, by Observer critic Wendy Ide
Army of Shadows, 1969
Jean-Pierre Melville, a former member of the French Resistance, brings his muscular approach to this superb portrait of the ordinary men and women who fought covertly against the Nazi occupation. No empty heroics here, just a bone deep melancholy and impossible choices.
Saving Private Ryan, 1998
There is arguably no greater piece of combat cinema than the first 24 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s drama. The audience is plunged into the visceral terror Normandy landings through hand-held camera and immersive sound design.
Come And See, 1985
Set in Belarus in 1943, this child’s eye view of the evils of the occupying Nazis is a portrait of innocence destroyed but spirit unbroken. A devastatingly powerful indictment of war.
Son of Saul, 2015
The daring drama set in a concentration camp follows an inmate’s desperate quest to secure a Jewish burial for his dead child. The immersive approach is tough going, but breathlessly tense.
The film that spawned a thousand Hitler memes is an uncompromising, superbly acted account of the final days of the Third Reich. Claustrophobic and unflinching in its gaze, the film forces the acknowledgement that it was ordinary people rather than monsters who perpetrated Nazi war crimes.
Bridge On the River Kwai, 1957
David Lean’s stirring drama, set in a Japanese internment camp, explores the complexities of war and of the characters of the men caught in the cross hairs. Alec Guinness plays the British colonel who turns forced labour into a morale building exercise for his men.
Grave of the Fireflies, 1988
This achingly sad animation from Studio Ghibli follows two Japanese children struggling to survive at the tail end of the war. Strikingly beautiful and profoundly affecting, it’s a landmark both in animation and in war film.
Schindler’s List, 1993
Liam Neeson plays the opportunistic industrialist who gradually awakens to the plight of his Jewish work force. Steven Spielberg’s humanist approach to the horror of the holocaust, and the themes of redemption and courage, make this one of the more accessible second world war movies.
Romance set against the backdrop of war has rarely been as photogenic as it is in this classic picture which captures the restless tension of being displaced by war, the sense of normal life somehow suspended.
It’s more than nine hours in length, But there’s not a minute in Claude Lanzmann’s monumental documentary which isn’t essential. This haunting film is perhaps the most important account of the war ever made.
Children’s books, by critic Fiona Noble
Carrie’s War, Nina Bawden, 1973
The reality of war for many British children was life far from their families as evacuees, beautifully captured in this evocative but unsentimental adventure.
Letters From the Lighthouse, Emma Carrol, 2017
A gripping mystery is combined with a well-observed tale of evacuee life. Themes of prejudice and refugees resonate strongly with current events.
Once, Morris Gleitzman, 2005
The horror of the Holocaust unfolds through the eyes of child narrator Felix, in the first of a powerful sequence of novels which stretch from 1942 to the present day.
The Lion and the Unicorn, Shirley Hughes, 1998
The emotional impact of a child’s wartime experiences, from fear and loneliness to bravery and courage, are explored in Hughes’s classic picture book.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Judith Kerr, 1971
This semi-autobiographical novel is the first in a trilogy following Anna and her middle-class Jewish family as they flee Nazi Germany and become refugees.
Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian, 1981
Willie Beech is evacuated to the country where he forms a close bond with the lonely, embittered man who reluctantly takes him in.
Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys, 2016
Four young people trek across Germany, bound together by their desperation to reach the ship that means salvation. Winner of the Carnegie Medal.
Our Castle by the Sea, Lucy Strange, 2019
From their Kent lighthouse home, Pet’s family face dark days as war looms across the Channel. There’s mythology, espionage and betrayal in this elegant, atmospheric novel.
Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein, 2012
An unforgettable story of female friendship following the fate of two young British women, one a pilot and one a spy.
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, 2005
It is 1939 and our narrator, Death, has never been busier. An ambitious, devastating portrait of life under the Nazis, for teenage readers and beyond.