London Victory Garden WWII

Making The Best Of It: The 9 Weirdest WWII Re-Uses

With a campaign having been launched to save fences made from WWII stretchers that now adorn council estates in London, we take a look at a...

London Victory Garden WWII

A campaign launched to save fences made from Second World War stretchers that now adorn council houses hopes to save a piece of military history - but what else has the military used or re-used from civilian life in times of conflict?

The campaign to save the metal stretchers - which were used to carry the injured during the Blitz but are now used as fences on estates in London - was launched after it was announced they face demolition due to corrosion.

Here, we take a look at a few more unusual re-uses during wartime where the military has made use of the resources around the country in the fight for victory.

Germany attacked British-bound shipping from the start of the conflict to try to restrict industry and starve the country into submission, leaving rationing and shortages of material and food a way of life.

So how did people cope?

1. Weaponising Animals - Raining Bats And Dogs


Bat bomb WWII

Not even animals could escape conscription as war waged on.

The US conceived the idea of 'bat bombs' to start fires in Japanese cities, through small mammals flying to inaccessible places in the nation's largely wood and paper constructions.

Each bomb contained over a thousand Mexican free-tailed bats - carrying small, incendiary bombs.

All wasn't to go to plan though. Carlsbad Army Airfield Auxiliary Air Base was set on fire in 1943 (see above), when armed bats were accidentally released before incinerating the test range and roosting under a fuel tank.

More: Roswell & The Military: The Truth Really Is Out There

The program was ultimately cancelled when it became clear that it would probably not be combat ready until mid-1945 - by which time an estimated $2 million had been spent.

The man who came up with the idea, a Pennsylvania dentist named Lytle S. Adams and friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, maintained afterwards that they would have been effective without causing the devastating loss of life of the atomic bomb which was ultimately to end the war.

Similary, Soviet forces trained dogs to run under tanks before detonating a bomb that had been strapped to them.

Although these were used during the war - with their efficiency disputed to this day - problems included dogs running back to the trenches and killing Soviet soldiers, or running under the Soviet tanks they had been trained to recognise.

2. Railings Removed & Aircraft Made From Saucepans


Wrought iron railings St Pauls
Picture: Katie Chan

One thing that was always in short supply during the war was metal.

The government requisitioned all 'unnecessary' iron railings - that is anything not needed on safety grounds or on artistic or historic merit (those dating from before 1820).

Railings were usually cut off at the base, with many of the stubs still apparent outside buildings in London and elsewhere where they've never been replaced.

Aluminium, meanwhile, was needed to build aircraft and people were asked to donate any items like saucepans that they had which were made out of the metal.

3. 'Requisitioning' Children - Kids Put To Work


Canadian children collecting rubber WWII

With so much material needed, everyone left at home was asked to help with the war effort on the 'home front'. 

Huge numbers of adult men were away fighting - by the end of the Second World War over 3.5 million had served in the British Army alone.

Millions of women, meanwhile, worked in factories, on buses and trains, and in hospitals and schools, while others worked on farms in the Women's Land Army or served in the forces in non-combat roles.

And children did their bit too. They saved pennies, knitted woolly hats for soldiers and refugees, gathered food waste and collected scrap metal - see the Canadian children above collecting rubber.

BBC Children's Hour ran a scrap-collecting competition at one point - with the winners collecting nine tons for the war effort.

4. The Village That Got Conscripted


During the Second World War everyone had to make sacrifices.

Many thousands of people lost their homes to enemy action, but when the inhabitants of Imber in Wiltshire lost theirs it was not to the enemy - but to the British Army.

Not that the houses were destroyed; they weren't. They were just, conscripted.

The village was evacuated during the Second World War to allow troops to train for the D-Day landings.

It's now part of the Salisbury Plain training area. Click above to find out more...

5. From Mansion To Prison


Osterley Park house
Picture: Jim Linwood

While the Second World War has produced countless horrifying images of conditions endured by prisoners of war, they were not always treated so badly.

Italians and later, German, POWs were housed at Osterley Park (above) in Hounslow, West London.

Some were put to work producing cans at a local factory, which had seen many of its workers conscripted.

The Italians, in particular, seemed to make an impact on the area's populace, becoming known for their singing, friendly nature and interest in the local women.

Accounts from the time record tears on both sides when the war came to an end and it was time for the soldiers to return home.

6. Digging For Victory


London Victory Garden WWII

The 'digging for victory' movement developed in World War Two in response to the need to maximise food production.

It saw unusual land used to grow produce - from waste ground and railway edges to golf courses, sports fields, landscape gardens and even bomb craters (see above).

'Victory gardens' were planted everywhere from rooftops to Hyde Park in the heart of London, while allotments were used to grow onions underneath the Albert Memorial, a symbol of everybody chipping in for the war effort, regardless of status.

Sheep were used as lawnmowers, meanwhile, rather than wasting grass. By 1943, the number of allotments in the country had roughly doubled, to 1,400,000.

7. The 'Little Ships'


Firefly: The Smallest Survivor From Dunkirk

One of the most famous instances of people using what they had at their disposal during the war came in the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Nearly 340,000 troops were rescued during Operation Dynamo in 1940 as they retreated from Nazi forces. 

Around 850 small vessels, known as the 'Little Ships', were used to help in the evacuation - see above the smallest surviving boat, 'Firefly', celebrating the operation's 75th anniversary two years ago.

Speedboats, Thames vessels, car ferries, pleasure craft, and many other types of small craft were pressed into action, some without the owner's knowledge or consent, while many crossed the Channel with civilian crews.

Unique and historically significant film footage of the rescue was discovered at The University of Manchester Library two years ago, while Christopher Nolan's blockbuster based on the events is currently taking cinemas by storm.

8. 'Pig Bins'



In the drive to make use of everything at people's disposal, humble kitchen waste was no exception.

It was used to feed pigs, with civilians encouraged to collect kitchen scraps and place them in 'pig bins' so they could be converted into food for the animals.

Posters encouraged people to do so, saying 'We Want Your Kitchen Waste'.

9. What To Do About Zoos?


Humboldt penguins Chester Zoo

Life had to go on in the face of adversity, even in the industries commonly associated with more happy times.

Zoos faced real hardship during the Second World War, having to deal with limited food resources, air raid and fire damage to enclosures and not being able to travel to abroad to collect or exchange animals.

Attractions like those in London and Belfast also made the sad decision to put down their larger or more poisonous animals, to avoid havoc in case of an escape during an air raid.

One innovative solution to a building shortage, however, came at Chester Zoo (pictured above in more recent times).

Its founder George Mottershead bought wartime surplus pillboxes and tank traps in 1944 to help house the animals there.

A married couple in Warsaw, meanwhile, saved hundreds of Jews from the Nazis by hiding them in the city's zoo during the war - a story that's been made into a feature film currently in cinemas: Niki Caro's The Zookeeper's Wife.

More: The British Army's Menagerie Of Mascots