America WW2 Ration Book Credit: Shutterstock
Food

Rationing Across The Nations In World War 2

Cannibalism, eggs for cash and a lack of tea- which countries suffered from food shortages in WW2?

America WW2 Ration Book Credit: Shutterstock

Rationing and price control prevented against hoarding and ensured equal distribution of food and goods to both rich and poor. By limiting the production of goods and ‘luxury items’, governments were able to ensure enough resources could be used towards the war effort and there was enough food available for the armed forces.

To mark the 80th anniversary since rationing started in Great Britain we look back at the hardships that citizens suffered with food shortages in the Second World War when many countries suffered shortages of sugar but elsewhere millions of people died from starvation and disease.

 

 

British Government became heavily involved in the health and food intake of the nation. Credit: Shutterstock
British Government became heavily involved in the health and food intake of the nation. Credit: Shutterstock

Great Britain

In 1939 only 30% of food was produced in the UK and relied heavily on imported goods. Merchant ships became requisitioned for the war effort and many ships destined for Britain carrying supplies were sunk by German U-boats.

The Government became heavily involved in the nation’s health and food intake during the Second World War. Over 200 ‘Food Flash short films were shown in cinemas, the BBC broadcast ‘The Kitchen Front’ and ‘Food Facts’ were printed in newspapers.

The ‘Ministry of Food’ introduced rationing in Britain on 8th January 1940.

The resulting campaigns such as ‘Dig for Victory’ ensured and ‘Make Do and Mend’ were hugely successful. Public spaces and private land across the country was used to grow food and keep animals and by 1943 there were over 1.4 million allotments producing over a million tonnes of vegetables and material was salvaged for blankets and uniforms for the Armed Forces.

 

 

Queen Elizabeth (then Princess Elizabeth) used clothing coupons for her wedding dress.

The 'Dig for Victory' campaign was set up by the British Ministry of Agriculture during WW2. Credit: Shutterstock
The 'Dig for Victory' campaign was set up by the British Ministry of Agriculture during WW2. Credit: Shutterstock

Men, women and children were all issued ration books to allow them to buy their weekly individual allowance of meat, sugar, tea, clothing, milk, eggs and fats from their registered greengrocers, tailors and butchers although people were encouraged to buy fats less often to reduce packaging waste. A points system was introduced for tinned goods, cereals, dried fruits etc which could be bought anywhere, and value was dictated according to demand and availability.

Bread wasn't rationed until the end of the war where it stayed in place for two years.

Milk and egg rations were larger for priority groups and the vulnerable (pregnant women and children) which led to free milk in schools in 1946. Children were given extra vitamins and orange juice and railway workers extra tea rations. Factories and schools began feeding their workers and students and British Restaurants provided cheap meals which relieved some of the pressures of rationing in the home kitchen.

Petrol rationing didn't end until 1950. 

 

American woman is issued her sugar ration card in Washington, May 1942. Credit: Shutterstock
American woman is issued her sugar ration card in Washington, May 1942. Credit: Shutterstock

United States of America

Despite America being producer and distributor of much of the rationed goods during the Second World War, it too had rationing implemented after the attack on Pearl Harbour.

Tyres, previously imported from Asia, were the first item to be rationed in January 1942 and food rationing began in May. Sugar was the first item to be restricted and the list began to grow with coffee, meat, tinned goods and vegetable oil and fats. Fuel was rationed to those who could prove a need and food items had different coloured coupons which each household received.

Sugar was one of the first foods to be rationed during the war.

Factories were converted from domestic production to items for the war effort and scrap metal drives were held so that recycled metals could be melted down for weapons and vehicles. Nylon and wool were needed for uniforms and parachutes. There was a huge increase in agriculture production as the US needed to feed its troops, citizens and allies and a new Act was passed that dramatically increased the number of Americans who then had to pay income tax.

The Soviet Union

Rationing had been in place throughout the USSR several times over the years but the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany in 1941 saw areas besieged and surrounded without any possibility of food reinforcements. Millions of people starved both during and after the Second World War, people survived by any means they could - with even reports of cannibalism.

The siege of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) was one of the longest and most destructive in history. The blockade started on 8th September 1941 when the German army cut off the last road leading into the city, and lasted for 872 days. Thousands of people starved to death, an estimated 800,000 civilians were killed - nearly as many as all the World War II deaths of the United States and the United Kingdom combined. Some historians classify the blockade as genocide. 

According to historian Lisa A. Kirschenbaum given the "unimaginable circumstances" of mass starvation, cannibalism was relatively rare. Given the scope of mass starvation, cannibalism was reported but this was not thought to be any more widespread than a few rare incidents.

More common was murder for ration cards. In 1942, the city witnessed 1216 such murders at a time when 100,000 people a month were perishing from starvation, many of them children. 

Elsewhere in non-occupied areas there was a complicated system of rationing in place with the government and economy focused on war production. Rationing included bread, flour, meat, eggs, sugar and fish with those working in important industries crucial to the war effort receiving the largest amounts (and were also kept warm) but those lower rates were left unable to access food staples including meat and fish. Soldiers had more rations than civilians and would trade food with them for clothing.

Soviet soldiers became adept at foraging and using nettles and pine needles for stew.

Eventually, US shipments of food were able to get through as part of the 'Lend-Lease' bill but the impact of such food shortages and the destruction of farms, factories and industry had long lasting repercussions for the people of the Soviet Union. Official rationing was in place between 1941-47 but some remote areas still suffered under rationing for some years afterwards. A subsequent currency reform after the war also had far-reaching consequences for its citizens.

Eggs were rationed in Great Britain but not in Ireland. Credit: BFBS
Eggs were rationed in Great Britain but not in Ireland. Credit: BFBS

Ireland

At the start of the Second World War Southern Ireland held a neutral stance and an ‘Official State of Emergency’ was declared on 2nd Sept 1939 giving extra powers and control of censorship for papers and correspondence.

The war was referred to as ‘The Emergency’ and many foodstuffs and supplies were rationed including fuel which had a severe impact on the productivity of factories and heating of homes. (Fires were banned and electricity restrictions put in place). Ireland relied heavily on coal imports from Britain and Britain relied heavily on agricultural produce including eggs, livestock and milk from Ireland.

 

Citizens of many countries at war began to grown their own vegetables. Credit: BFBS
Citizens of many countries at war began to grown their own vegetables. Credit: BFBS

Tea, sugar, tobacco, soap, petrol, flour, butter and clothing were heavily rationed and marches and protests took place across Ireland as draperies, tailors and factories reacted angrily to the drastic cuts to the drapery trade. Additionally, a harsh winter destroyed much of the wheat harvest which resulted in severe shortages and bread rationing in 1942.

Meat and eggs weren’t rationed although it was much harder for those living in cities to get hold of them (eggs became a valuable trading commodity) and there was much reliance of locally produced goods. There was a surge in the use of bicycles and the horse and trap and trains began using turf as an alternative fuel supply and despite the backwards step in farming methods, Ireland's agricultural production soared.

Imported fruits weren't rationed but they were rarely seen until the end of the war. Credit: BFBS
Imported fruits weren't rationed but they were rarely seen until the end of the war. Credit: BFBS

Germany

Rationing was brought into Germany at the start of the war and covered meat, eggs, sugar, fruit, dairy, leather and clothes but were considered generous portions. Hitler tried hard to minimise the impact of rationing on its citizens and heavily plundered countries it invaded and sent supplies back to Germany and as such there was a thriving ‘black market’ and barter business.

He ensured the agriculture and farming industries were kept going by enforced labour, refugees and POWs and German citizens grew their own produce and kept animals like pigs and rabbits. Clothing was in short supply because of the disruption of cotton imports and there were coal shortages, particularly in the winter of 1939 which led to restrictions of heating for homes.

Industry and building materials were difficult to acquire because they were used for the war effort and imported goods including whipped cream, coffee, chocolate and certain types of fruit became widely unavailable but it was only in the later stages of the war when large scale bombing and destruction disrupted road and rail networks that German civilians became badly affected by food shortages when ration cards could no longer be honoured, bombing had cut off power supplies and there was no more wood or coal available.