British Rations and the Submarine War

The typescript for this broadcast states that it was written ‘by E. Blair’ and read by I. B. Sarin, Programmes Assistant in the Eastern Service. The script carries a rectangular censor’s stamp. Unlike the later triangular rubber stamps for Security and for Policy, this one bears only the words ‘CENSORED DATE . . . signature . . . BBC Censorship Department.’ The censor on this occasion was Norman Collins, then Empire Talks Director. There is a certain irony that the censor, however much a formality his task here, should have been a man Orwell regarded as an adversary from his days with Gollancz, the publishers. At the top of the first page of the script Orwell has written ‘As broadcast. 10 mins 10 secs,’ the precise timing, for a scheduled 12-minute time-slot. In the BBC’s Programmes as Broadcast (PasB) the title is given as ‘Britain’s Rations and the Submarine War.’

The second sentence in paragraph five is curious at first sight. Orwell was in England during World War I (1914—18) and could speak from his own experience. He has obviously written here bearing in mind that I. B. Sarin, a Hindustani, would be reading his script. The final sentence of the paragraph would seem to be written from Orwell’s heart.

Passages crossed out in the typescript are reproduced within square brackets. It should not be assumed that such passages were censored. Additions and substitutions are in italic. What was originally written or typed is noted.

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Broadcast on the BBC’s Through Eastern Eyes programme on 22 January 1942:
British ration book from WW2 (interior)

British ration book (WW2)

Probably you have read in the newspaper or heard on the radio the news that food rations in Britain have been reduced. Everyone was expecting this. The rations of certain foods had been raised in November in order to cover the worst period of the winter, but the public were warned that they would be cut down again later, [when war broke out in the Pacific, because of the increased need for shipping.] The fat ration has been cut down from 10 ounces to 8 ounces a week, and the sugar ration from 12 ounces to 8 ounces. Other foodstuffs are not affected, though naturally there is a shortage in winter of certain unrationed foodstuffs, such as fish and fruit.

There is a great deal of evidence that food rationing has not so far done any harm to public health in Britain—rather the contrary, if anything. English people before the war usually ate too much sugar and drank too much tea and were too inclined to look on meat as their staple food. The war has brought home to a lot of people the value of vegetables, especially raw vegetables. There have been no epidemics of any importance in Britain since the war—not even in the worst period of the air raids, when something of the kind might have been expected—and the figures for all infectious diseases are lower now than they were at this time last year. But to get a true idea of the significance of food rationing in Britain, one has got to make two comparisons. One is with the corresponding rations in Germany, and the other is with the conditions that existed in England in the war of 1914-1918.

If you go through the published lists of British and German rations, you will notice that the only foodstuff in which the German ration is even claimed1 as being higher is fat. According to the official figures, the German citizen gets a weekly ration of 9 ounces of fat, whereas the British citizen now gets only 8 ounces. But this is misleading, because every British citizen also gets a ration of 4 ounces of bacon; any bacon the German gets is included in his fat ration. In every other rationed foodstuff the British and German allowances are either equal, or the British allowance is higher. Moreover, many substances are rationed in Germany which can be freely bought in any quantity in England. Bread is one example, cocoa is another, and coffee is another. Certain things, tea for example, are literally unobtainable in Germany. An even more important fact is that in Britain you do not have to surrender any of your food coupons if you eat a meal away from home, in a restaurant or a factory canteen, for example. The rationing applies only to foodstuffs which are bought raw and taken home. In Germany this is not the case. And since owing to the conditions of war, in which nearly everyone goes out to work, more and more people eat at least one meal a day away from home, this distinction is a very important one.

To see the significance of this, one has to remember that the Germans are masters of Europe from Norway to the Black Sea. All the food that Europe can supply is at their disposal, and we can be quite sure that they are not sacrificing their own population for the sake of the other Europeans. Indeed, they hardly even pretend to be doing so. It is openly admitted that everywhere in continental Europe food conditions are worse than in Germany, and in some countries, such as Greece, they amount almost to famine. The Germans are looting all Europe to feed themselves, and in spite of that they get less to eat, and less varied food, than we get in Britain.

And now one sees the significance of that other comparison I made—the comparison with conditions in this country in 1914-18. Of course, I was not in England then and I am not pretending to speak out of my own experience. But all English people over 35, or even over 30, have vivid memories of that other war, and I have discussed it with very many people. Without exception they say that food conditions then, at any rate in the second half of 1917 and in 1918, were far worse than they are now. Indeed, people who were children during the other war have told me that their chief memory of the war is a memory of being hungry.

The chief difference, and the reason why we are better off now than people were then, is that the danger of food shortage was foreseen. When the war of 1914 started no one realised that the German submarine warfare would be as successful as it turned out to be, and the food shortage became severe quite suddenly. All of a sudden, it was discovered that there were only a few weeks’ food in stock—and you must remember that England is a very small island which probably could not feed itself entirely, even if every inch of it were under cultivation. No arrangements for rationing had been made beforehand, and methods of storing food were nowhere near so efficient as they are now. Nor had the science of food values been studied at that time, as it has during the past twenty years. And meanwhile there was a period about the end of 1917 when the German submarines were sinking twenty or thirty British ships every week. As a result, butter almost ceased to exist in England for about a year, sugar and jam were rarities, and the bread, which in any case was not plentiful, was a dirty grey colour, having been adulterated with potato flour. Meat had to be rationed much more strictly than it is now, for even if you had a meal in a restaurant or a canteen you still had to give up meat coupons. Also, food was not distributed so skilfully as it is now, and one result was enormous queues of women outside the food shops, who sometimes had to wait there for hours before being served. My English friends have often told me that those long queues are one of their principal war memories. I cannot say that you never see food queues now, but at any rate you don’t see them very frequently.

This time much has been changed because the Government took the necessary step of rationing essential foodstuffs from the start, and because the submarine menace has been much more effectively dealt with. To realise the difference one has got to remember that in the last war the British navy had the French, Italian and Japanese navies to help it, and towards the end the American as well, whereas during more than a year of this war it had to operate alone, with the Italians as well as the Germans against it. There is no doubt that from the beginning the Germans placed great hopes on the chance of starving Britain into surrender. If you listen in to the German wireless you will hear every week enormous figures of the tonnage of British shipping supposed to have been sunk by German submarines. Some people, who have taken the trouble to keep a note of these figures from the beginning, have found that the Germans claim by now to have sunk far more shipping than Britain ever possessed. [And when Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, fled to England, he disclosed that Hitler’s main war-plan was to starve England out.] Even if the German submarines could not cause actual starvation in Britain, they might hope to sink so many ships that the import of war materials would have to stop, and all the available shipping would have to concentrate on carrying food. But nothing of the kind has happened. The flow of goods across the Atlantic—tanks and fighter planes, as well as wheat and beef—has never slackened, and during the last year the number of British ships sunk every month has decreased enormously. And this is in spite of the fact that German submarines can now operate from ports all the way from Norway to Spain, and not only from German and Belgian ports, as in the last war. The methods of detecting and destroying submarines have vastly improved, and with every German submarine that goes to the bottom. Germany’s2 difficulty of finding trained men for this dangerous work becomes harder. In addition, part of Britain’s food problem is being solved by the expansion of British agriculture. Two million extra acres were ploughed up during 1940, and another large area was ploughed up during 1941. The more food Britain can grow for herself, the less shipping she need use to import it. The extra labour for the land is being supplied partly by women volunteers, and partly by Italian prisoners. You can see from all this why our food situation in Britain—though I don’t want to pretend to you that it is perfect—is far better than what English people had to put up with during the last war, and far better than it is in Germany, even though Germany is systematically robbing all Europe in order to feed herself.

1.  ‘claimed’ is heavily underlined in the typescript, perhaps by the speaker.
2.  Germany’s ]

Source: CW13-932

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