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Reading and the Second World War

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A gas mask drill at McIlroy's Department Store.

The rise of totalitarian dictatorships across Europe during the 1920s and 1930s had left Britain vulnerable to attack and the Second World War (1939-1945) ultimately involved many nations around the world, affecting millions of individual people. Reading played its part - by 1937 the town was already preparing itself for war.

Measures were drawn up to ensure the safety of as many civilians as possible. The Borough introduced an Air Raid Precaution scheme - training for civilians included how to use gas masks, how to provide swift emergency medical treatment and how to carry out rescue missions - and in May 1938 Lady Reading formed the Women’s Voluntary Service for Civil Defence. Children were evacuated from cities and Reading, being so close to London, received a huge influx of evacuees who arrived by train from Paddington Station (inspiring local man Michael Bond to create the character of Paddington Bear). The first group of children from London arrived in Reading on 1 September 1939 and by October 1941 the town was accommodating 25,000 evacuees. Meanwhile Reading industries mobilised for the war effort, making essential war supplies such as shells.

The Royal Berkshire Regiment and the Berkshire Yeomanry saw action throughout the war and thousands of Reading men were called up to perform military service. Those exempt either due to age or for medical reasons formed the Reading Home Guard, a secondary defence force in case of land invasion. The Home Guard, also known as 'Dad’s Army' which was popularised by the BBC comedy series, had branches all over the country and consisted largely of surviving First World War soldiers. Women filled roles previously carried out by men and made significant contributions on the Home Front.

British cities were bombed by the German air force in the hopes of reducing civilian numbers and morale as well as damaging infrastructure and industry. To prevent towns being identified as targets, all street lights were turned off and lit windows covered with blinds. Blackout lines were drawn around the streets to help people find their way in the dark and shelters were created in private houses and public spaces. Air-raid sirens sounded across Reading on 256 occasions during the war. Most were false alarms but on 10 February 1943 a bombing raid hit the People’s Pantry restaurant, killing 41 people and leaving many more seriously injured.

Food shortages led to rationing being introduced in Britain early in 1940, and the government ran campaigns such as ‘Dig for Victory’, in which the public were encouraged to turn spare land into allotments in order to grow their own food and become less reliant on imports. Local parks, gardens, school playing fields and university grounds were dug up and planted for food.

The first US troops arrived in England in January 1942. On their arrival there was a certain amount of resentment towards the well-fed, wealthy Americans from British soldiers and civilians who had endured a hard war since 1939. In Reading, events aiming to narrow the divide and unite the allies included a boxing match featuring American boxer Joe Louis as well as parades and processions. The 401st Glider Infantry Regiment of 101st Airborne Division, stationed at Brock Barracks, Oxford Road, were the first Americans to land in Normandy on D-Day, in June 1944.

The BBC's Radio Monitoring Station at Caversham Park in Reading provided information for news bulletins by translating broadcasts from around the world. It was here that news of the German surrender in May 1945 was first received. Berkshire men and others across the country slowly returned home where they were welcomed and presented with medals of bravery. Street parties were held to celebrate victory and the end of the war, as well as to pay homage to the fallen and welcome home returning soldiers.

The USA had ended the war in the east by dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war other countries developed their own nuclear weapons. The Atomic Weapons Research Establishment near Aldermaston, only a few miles from Reading, was engaged in developing Britain's 'nuclear deterrent' from 1950, and in the late 1950s and 1960s Reading became a staging post for peace protests by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Protest marches between Aldermaston and London were reported by the Berkshire Chronicle as they passed through the town.

See related objects

See related topic: Women in the Second World War

See related topic: Air Raid

See related topic: Digging for Victory