Touring the British Homefront (1942)
In the fall of 1942, less than a year after the United States entered World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt, at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth, traveled to Great Britain to study the British home front effort and visit US troops stationed there. Accompanied by her secretary, Malvina "Tommy" Thompson, and by Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby, head of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, she spent almost a month inspecting factories, shipyards, hospitals, schools, bomb shelters, distribution centers, Red Cross clubs, evacuee centers and military installations in England, Scotland and Ireland.
By October 1942, Great Britain had been at war for more than three years. Many of the necessities of life including food, water and fuel were rationed, and people spent hours in line waiting for supplies and transportation. The streets went dark half an hour after sunset due to blackout restrictions and barrage balloons hung low in the sky to trap unwary Nazi planes. Sirens continued to sound nightly even though the number of air raids had lessened and search lights cut through the clouds looking for enemy bombers.
Despite the hardships, ER found the people determined to carry on. Their spirit, she wrote FDR on October 25, "is something to bow down to." This letter and the other documents in this mini-edition demonstrate the wide array of people and projects ER visited and the strong impression British mobilization made on her. As she told reporters after her return, "In a country where you are fighting a war, there is one purpose and one only in everything you do.
In her travels around the British Isles, ER paid particular attention to the war work women were doing. She was especially interested in the efforts of the Women’s Voluntary Services, a civilian group organized by her friend Lady Stella Reading who "performed innumerable duties"—everything from providing food and other necessary services to bombed out communities to finding housing for relocated war workers. She also took note of the way the British had organized working conditions for female war workers providing them with on-site child care and factory canteens to help the women combine work and family responsibilities.
Although the days were long (ER’s schedule usually began around 8 am and seldom ended before midnight), she continued to write her daily column, "My Day." She filled these columns with concrete details designed to give her American audience a picture of daily life on the British home front. Food, for example, was a constant problem. "Everyone is encouraged to eat potatoes so potatoes usually appear in two forms at every meal," she wrote. After eating a traditional dish usually made with meat, she noted that the wartime version now featured "mushrooms and any little scraps of meat [the British] can obtain."
While she emphasized the positive aspects of the British home front effort, ER did not minimize the damage the war had wrought. After visiting a bombed out neighborhood in London, she wrote, "Here a crowded population lived over small shops and in rows of two-story houses. Today there is only one-third of the old population left and each empty building speaks of a personal tragedy." Touring a bomb shelter that had once housed as many as 12,000 people she noted, "As I walked through the brick compartments of that shelter…I learned something about fear, and the resistance to total destruction which exists in all human beings."
Of her own ability to withstand long hours and grueling conditions she said nothing. However Chalmers Roberts, a young employee of the Office of War Information assigned to her trip noted that ER "literally wore us down, both officials and the press." Whether touring the bombed out East End of London or inspecting a group of female ferry pilots in a driving rain, "she never spared herself." On tours of Red Cross clubs and military hospitals, she routinely collected the names and addresses of Americans she met so she could contact their families when she returned home.
She also advocated for American GIs stationed in Great Britain. After hearing complaints from GIs about late paychecks and the lack of mail from home, she wrote FDR that "someone ought to get on top of the situation." When Red Cross workers told her that the men were developing blisters on their feet from wearing cotton socks, ER wrote General Dwight Eisenhower immediately asking that they be issued socks made of wool.
By the time she left Great Britain in November, the impact of her visit was already apparent. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent her a handwritten note that read, "You certainly have left golden footprints behind you" while Chalmers Roberts told his boss that "Mrs. Roosevelt has done more to bring real understanding of the spirit of the United States to the people of Great Britain than any other single American who has ever visited these islands."
Maurine H. Beasley, ed. White House Press Conferences of Eleanor Roosevelt (New York: Garland, 1983); Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971); Chalmers M. Roberts, First Rough Draft: A Journalist’s Journal of Our Times (New York: Praeger, 1973);Eleanor Roosevelt. The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (New York: Harper & Row, 1961); My Day, October 27, and November 11, 1942.