Oxford in Wartime 1939-1945

The country in 1939

Poster: Britain Declares War. 1939. Oxford. Britain declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939 when Hitler, having failed to keep his promise not to attack Poland, invaded that country at the beginning of September.

Immediately there were many preparations for war, but for seven months there was no actual fighting. A special force was sent to France to help on the French eastern frontier in May 1940, but the campaign was a disaster; the British forces had to retreat to Dunkirk, where they were rescued by large and small boats and taken back to England. Air battles over Britain began in July 1940, between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe. Thereafter, many cities were bombed, especially but not exclusively, in southern England. Bombing of cities continued throughout the war, but the country was never invaded although Hitler had plans for an invasion from 1940, once the rest of Europe was under his control.

Oxford in 1939.

Historically, Oxford was a typical small market town in southern England which had two unusual developments. In about 1150, a university was founded in Oxford, which meant that many fine large buildings were erected in the next 800 years to provide accommodation for students and their teachers. Then in 1912, a local young man, Billy Morris, decided to build a motor car factory at Cowley on the outskirts of Oxford, thereby turning the eastern part of the town into an industrial area. In 1939, the Oxford population of about 96 000 worked in the university and publishing, in the car factories, and in all the small industries, shops, and local government jobs which are typical for a town surrounded by country villages. Oxford had excellent road and rail connections to the big cities of London, Birmingham and Bristol.

Because of these special conditions, the War Government decided to make use of Oxford in many significant ways.

Cowley Factories in Wartime

Tanks at Cowley (the Morris Motor Company) The photo has been provided by Science Photo Library. The car factories (Morris Motors, Pressed Steel and Radiators) all turned to the production of armaments including tanks and fighter planes. Morris Motors at Cowley became the HQ of the national Civilian Repair Organisation, which managed the repair and return to service of 80,000 aircraft. Crashed planes which were beyond repair were brought to Cowley from all over the country by road, and staff at the No 50 Maintenance Unit stripped them down for spare parts and for metal - 25,000 tons of aluminium were reclaimed from crashed aircraft in this way. A famous painting by Paul Nash of these ‘dead planes’ hangs in the Tate Britain Gallery in London.

Oxford Colleges in Wartime

Evacuated children from London in the quadrangle of University College. Copyright 'Oxfordshire History Centre' The buildings of the university are scattered around the very small centre of Oxford. In 1939 many students volunteered for or were conscripted into military service, and the remaining students were moved into two colleges, leaving the other colleges free for new purposes. With central London under constant threat of bombing, many government departments moved into Oxford. For example, military officers undergoing special training courses occupied Brasenose College, while Balliol College became host to the Royal Institute of International Affairs and St John’s College to the Director of Fish Supplies! Government departments required many female clerks who were transferred en masse to ancient college accommodation which had been previously occupied exclusively by men. The four women’s colleges had modern buildings which were suitable for medical purposes, so in St Hugh’s, a specialist hospital was set up for soldiers with serious head wounds. Between 1939 and 1945 some 13,000 patients were treated at St. Hugh’s.

Meanwhile, Blenheim Palace, outside Oxford, was taken over by the Security Service, now known as MI5. This crucial department also needed many women as secretaries and clerks. They were not housed in the Palace, but in Keble College, where the Warden’s wife had to find ways of looking after all these young women and girls. Presumably they cycled the 12 kilometres back and forth each day. At least one of the girls became bored with filing papers for MI5 so she volunteered to learn Morse Code and become a Morse operator for Special Operations (SOE), in contact with air pilots and spies behind enemy lines. It was top secret for years, but eventually she was able to talk about her extraordinary war work in England, North Africa and Italy, which all started in a re-purposed Oxford college.

Warfare and Military activities in Oxford

In 1940 and 1941 Britain was heavily bombed; London, many coastal towns and important manufacturing provincial cities suffered serious damage. But Oxford was not bombed, even though it was producing armaments and repairing planes. Nobody knows why the Luftwaffe did not bomb Oxford, since they certainly considered the Oxford factories to be a useful target. In fact, one stray bomb hit a house on the edge of Oxford, presumably released by a German pilot anxious to get home without his load.

Distribution map of bombing in Oxfordshire. Bombing here was much lighter than in other parts of the country. Copyright 'Oxfordshire History Centre' In 1939 Oxford citizens did not know the future, and many local Civil Defence groups were set up to deal with possible invasions from Germany. In different parts of the city volunteers were trained in handling victims of potential air raids, in firefighting and in dealing with gas attacks. Gas had been a devastating weapon in the First World War, so the government was very anxious to protect citizens by ensuring that all of them had a gas mask, even small children. In the event, there were no gas attacks.

As the bombing raids over London grew ever fiercer in 1940, Oxford was on the alert. Fire-watching on the roofs of buildings in the city became a nightly task; men and women had their compulsory rotas. An Oxford child remembers: No bombs exploded over Oxford but we regularly heard the British and German planes flying overhead and I learned to distinguish them from each other.

National conscription began in September 1939 immediately after war was declared. As the months passed, more and more men were called up, and also women between the ages of 20 and 30. The women were directed into work which had previously been undertaken by the men who were now in the army. Oxford was used as a military base during the war, first in the expectation of a German invasion, and then in the build-up to the invasion of France in June 1944. Local men joined the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Regiment unless they were directed to specialist units or other branches of the military – the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. The ‘Oxon and Bucks’ regiment served in the army sent to France in 1939-40 which then retreated and returned to England, in campaigns in North Africa and Italy in 1941-1944, and then in the invasion of France and battles across France and into Germany in 1944-5. Some units served in the Far East and suffered imprisonment by the Japanese until the end of the war.

When America entered the war, Oxford soon had many American soldiers passing through on their way to camps and airfields across the county. Children in particular enjoyed encounters with these expansive and rich foreigners who didn’t know about rationing. Military exercises took place on Port Meadow, the large open area to the west of the town and across many new airfields in Oxfordshire.

The development of penicillin in Oxford

A scientist at Oxford working on the separation of penicillin during the war. Howard Florey came to Oxford in 1935 as Professor of Pathology. By the early war years he had built up an expert team who devoted their time to researching and then making penicillin. In May 1940 the team carried out a crucial experiment: eight mice were infected with lethal doses of streptococci bacteria. Four of the mice were then given injections of penicillin. In the morning, the untreated mice were dead while those that had received penicillin survived for days to weeks.

The problem was in producing adequate supplies of penicillin. Norman Heatley realised that the most effective vessel for this purpose was something like the bedpans in use at the Oxford hospital. These were in short supply because of the War, so Heatley designed a modified version. The Oxford laboratory became the first penicillin ‘factory’, with six young women helping the laboratory team to produce it. Even so, it was very difficult to provide enough for sustained treatment.

In February 1941 a 43-year-old policeman in the Oxford Hospital (the Radcliffe Infirmary) was dying of septicaemia. He was injected with penicillin, the first human being to be given the new drug. Within 24 hours, his temperature had dropped and the infection had begun to subside. However, owing to the instability of penicillin and the wartime restrictions placed on Florey's laboratory, only a small quantity was available, Florey’s team ran out of penicillin too quickly, and the policeman died. Thereafter they only treated sick children who did not need so much of the drug, until it was possible to set up a proper factory in America.


Plan showing places where food is obtainable in event of serious air raids. City of Oxford. Copyright 'Oxfordshire History Centre' The Government expected serious bombing of the capital, so at the very beginning of the war plans were made to evacuate children to safer parts of the country. Rather strangely, Oxford, only 85 kilometres from London was considered to be a suitable destination (as in fact it turned out to be). A few days after war was declared, the first official evacuees from London arrived and were taken into homes both large and small. With 96000 inhabitants, Oxford accepted about 13000 children in September 1939. The school population went up by 58%. Later, as that population fluctuated, many more families with children arrived, bombed out of their homes in other towns. Sometimes entire schools were evacuated to Oxford: for example, the pupils and teachers of a boys’ school in east London, which had been completely destroyed, arrived one weekend in Oxford and were billeted on local families. They shared the premises of a school in north Oxford; the London boys had lessons in the morning, the Oxford children in the afternoon. Since the school timetable required pupils to be at school from about 8.30 to 15.30 the teachers had to find other ways of occupying the children in their charge for half a day, often by taking them for long walks or setting them to work on allotments.

Many Oxfordians became very fond of the evacuees who arrived to live with them, but sometimes the arrangement broke down. In general, the London children were wilder – and poorer – than the Oxford children, and many of them longed to be back home. It took some weeks, even months for the evacuees to get used to different conditions, different schools, different friends. It also took time for their hosts, both adults and children to get used to them. One of the biggest and most exciting difference for the evacuees from London and other big cities was being so close to the countryside. Oxford is surrounded by small farms and small villages. Walking in the fields, watching farm animals, rabbits, squirrels, climbing trees and just being in the fresh open air was an unusual experience and a happy memory. Stories of evacuee experiences are always mixed, but the government’s aim was to keep them safe and happy; and this project was mostly successful.

Daily life during the war

For nearly six years daily life in Britain was dominated by the consequences of being at war. The State imposed restrictions and made laws which affected everyone; in Britain people do not talk about ‘veterans’ because everybody was a ‘veteran’, no matter their age or sex, wealth or poverty.

Here are some examples


The population of Britain in 1939 was 41 million in 24,000 square kilometres. (The population of the USSR in 1941 was less than 200 million in an area of 22,000,000 square kilometres.)

Britain was very densely populated and unable to feed its own population from farms and other producers. Rationing was imposed from January 1940: everyone including children and babies was given a ration book. Nonetheless, food had to be imported, mostly from America, and the big convoys of ships crossing the Atlantic were at the mercy of German submarines. Many lives (and ships) were lost during these Atlantic battles. Food had to be rationed, from the first days of the war, and rationing continued after the war as it was recognised as the fairest way of getting limited supplies to the population. The last restrictions were not lifted until 1954 – the latest in Europe.

In Oxford, as everywhere else, most food was rationed: meat, eggs, milk, butter, tea, sugar, tinned goods, cereals, baked food. Fruit and vegetables were not rationed but depended on supplies, which was why everyone was expected to dig up their small personal gardens and grow vegetables. Parks and public land were also allotted to families to grow as much as they could, and everyone was expected to dig and plant. (There is no space in England for dachas.)

One member of the Oxford Perm Association remembers:Like the rest of the country, we were affected by the rationing of clothes and food. My mother made all my clothes - shirts from old trousers or her clothes, pretty dresses from old lace curtains and old silk parachutes. ‘Make do and mend’ was the slogan of the time. We also received clothing and food parcels from Canada; I particularly remember amazing dresses, tinned ham and evaporated milk and my father wore the Canadian bearskin coat he was sent for many winters! We were given a plot of land in the University Parks and were able to grow our own fruit and vegetables there. My mother was a very good cook and able to make delicious meals out of anything. I clearly remember how significant the rationing was. I was allowed to buy 4oz (100 grams) of sweets a week which was my special treat - and I could make them last for a long time!

As can be seen from this memory, clothes and fabrics were also rationed.

Blackout and Home Protection

One kind of material was absolutely essential: ‘blackout’ for all windows in every house. No window was allowed to show even a chink of light, because that would attract the attention of bomber planes flying overhead. The police regularly checked and fined people whose windows allowed a glimmer of light to shine through. «The other thing which affected our lives was the blackout (it was a very serious offence to let any lights be seen) and the cold. Only one room would be kept warm in the house, windows would be frozen on the inside in Winter and we had to wear several layers of clothes.»

Meanwhile, the people of Oxford had been preparing their homes against bombing raids. The government issued two kinds of shelter. One, the ‘Anderson Shelter’ was made of corrugated steel sheets, placed in a pit in the family garden and covered with earth. Inside was space for four people sleeping on bunks. The second, the ‘Morrison Shelter’, was a heavy steel table for indoors. «We had an ‘Morrison shelter’ in the house and I used to play in there with my home -made dolls and animals. This shelter was like a large cage with a mattress on the floor and very strong roof to protect us from the bombs (not sure it would!). I also had to practise wearing my Micky Mouse gas mask which I did not like!»

War work and Salvage

Tractor driven by Women’s Land Army volunteer in the Bartons. Copyright 'Oxfordshire History Centre'. The State had control over how people worked. Men in ‘reserved occupations’ were allowed to keep their jobs as a matter of national security. (For example, firemen, police, miners and some farmers.) Most men were conscripted into the army, but some were sent to be miners. Women without children were directed to national essential work: in Oxford many of the women worked on assembly lines for armaments in the Cowley factories, while others were sent as ‘Land Girls’ to work as farm labourers. Even so, older volunteers were always needed because of the shortage of labour. Of course, many of these women had been at work in other jobs before the war; now the State decided on priorities, and, crucially, made no distinction between rich and poor. Britain became a much more equal society.

The country needed more metal for armaments. A campaign for scrap metal in the city led to college and church railings being removed – but that was not enough. So residents were sked to forfeit the railings in front of their houses.


In Oxford people relied on the BBC Wireless (radio) for both information and entertainment. Families gathered to listen to the News at 6 o’clock, and they enjoyed comic programmes, dramas, music, and ‘Any Questions’ where experts answered questions sent in by the audience. Despite the blackout and the difficulty of travelling on slow overcrowded buses in the blackout where almost nothing could be seen, people continued to enjoy evening entertainments in Oxford. «They seem to have had a lot of fun, despite the privations. I came across a diary of my mother’s and learned that she and her friends went to the cinema (the Regal or the Curzon) two or three times a week. There were dances, too, at the Cadena and other dance halls. (Though sometimes there was a shortage of men until the Americans arrived.)»

As for the children, life in the war years was normal, it was not strange. One elderly man reflected on ‘Then’ and ‘Now’. We would hear German bombers flying overhead and go down to the cellar. "It was cold and damp there and, unless we had a candle, there was no light. Apart from such interruptions to their sleep, life was delightful. Me and my friends used to go swimming in the River Cherwell, at the end of the street, and then sneak across to play in the grounds of Magdalen College (which was strictly forbidden). In our road there were patches of wasteland where there are now houses. We played football there. You know, we had nothing, and yet we had everything.  Nowadays, my granddaughter is in tears because she doesn't have the latest version of the iPhone..."


About the genesis of Oxfam in 1942: opposing the doctrine of ‘Total War’ you can read the link.

VE (Victory in Europe) Street Party in Glanville Road. Copyright 'Oxfordshire History Centre' Victory in Europe (VE Day) Celebrations

In Oxford there were many spontaneous street parties. Around Carfax in the middle of the town there several big bonfires and much drunken celebration. Although the war would not finally end until the surrender of Japan in August 1945, Oxford had much to celebrate.

Credits: Oxfordshire History Centre, the Imperial War Museum.


How did we win together?

Conscription, Volunteers.

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Hospitals and Medical Staff.

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Factories in the Rear.

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Outreach Activities.

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Everyday Life.

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