Rosie in the Empire: Gender in British and Australian Film Propaganda during the Second World War

The British Experience of the War

On September 1, 1939, the German armed forces thundered into Poland, making their way east, marking the beginning of the Second World War in Europe. But after the initial upheaval of the Nazi invasion of Poland, there was relatively little activity on the western front for the next several months. It was as if the world was holding its breath, waiting. In the spring of 1940, the waiting ended abruptly, as the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. It was not until July that the dangers of the war came home to Britain in perhaps the most celebrated air battle in British history: The Battle of Britain. Hitler intended to invade Britain, but in order for the invasion to take place, he first needed control of the skies over the English Channel. As the Luftwaffe, the German air force, dropped bombs over southern England, targeting Royal Air Force (RAF) airfields, the RAF fought to stop them. Over the Channel and southern England, the British Spitfires and German Messerschmitts collided in showers of sparks and volleys of gunfire, each trying to gain the upper hand.

Once it became clear that Germany could not defeat the RAF and achieve air superiority, Hitler tried another tactic. On September 7, 1940, the Luftwaffe launched its first nighttime attack on London. The wail of the air raid sounded across the city, warning Londoners of the danger and driving them to take shelter. Planes darkened the skies above London and bombs exploded in the streets. The Blitz, the German bombing of London and other major British cities between September 1940 and May 1941, had begun. Though the Germans soon abandoned plans for an invasion of Britain due to an RAF victory in the Battle of Britain and the approaching winter, they did aim to disrupt manufacturing, transportation, and administration systems in London, while also striving to break civilian morale and to encourage the British government to seek peace terms. In London alone, the bombing killed tens of thousands of civilians and destroyed more than two million homes.

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