British propaganda posters of World War II tend to focus solely on providing information. They tell you what to do without mincing words. Whereas Soviet propaganda posters try to create an emotional feeling of hatred toward the enemy, and US propaganda posters rely on such Madison Avenue tricks as including only pretty women, British posters are much more prosaic.
|Hi, Darth. This is from World War II. Somebody in Hollywood back in the '70s was a student of history.|
"Shine your torch downwards when crossing the road," they will say, and you don't have to really guess what the intent of that particular poster is. They tend to be very neat, straightforward and strictly informational.
For some reason, the "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters such as the one at the top of this page are considered the ultimate World War II British propaganda message. Many old-timers may look at that and say to themselves, "Sure, I remember those posters, bloody hell what frightening times."
If so, they are completely mistaken. The "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters indeed have become iconic, but it isn't because of anything that happened during the war. In fact, those posters never even appeared during the war.
The story goes that in 1939, upon the outbreak of the war, the Ministry of Information decided to stockpile propaganda posters. They came up with three more or less catchy phrases:
- Freedom is in Peril; and
Where you would be mistaken in remembering having seen them back then, however, is that they never actually appeared in public. They were sent to government offices, police stations and the like. However, the government wished them to be displayed only in a time of true crisis. One can only wonder what crisis might have been sufficient to whip them out of the stock room and hang them up. Perhaps an invasion?
What that unhappy event might have been, it never actually occurred. At the end of the war, they were no longer needed and all were collected and sent to the shredder. They never appeared in public.
All were sent to the shredder, that is, save three. That is the number that have survived in one condition or another. The first to discover one was a bookseller, Stuart Marley, who found one in the bottom of a box of old books in 2000. It had lain there undisturbed apparently since the wartime days and thus had missed the shredder. Marley since has turned the poster into an iconic symbol by licensing its manufacture. They sell at a brisk pace.
Since then, two other copies have turned up. One was found at Princes Risborough police station, another in private hands (probably somebody's attic). Originals are now quite valuable.
There were a few other uses of the "Carry On" phrase in British wartime propaganda - it's a bit of a common expression. However, no other poster used the "Keep Calm and Carry On" formulation that everyone seems to remember.
Other British posters are either extremely prosaic or depictions of dramatic moments of combat.
The general thrust of most British propaganda posters generally lies in one of three directions:
- Telling people what to do;
- Encouraging people, especially women, to enlist (men being drafted anyway); or
- Encouraging them to work harder.
Generally, the third category on that list are most interesting.
After all, how interesting is a poster that tells you to keep your flashlight lowered so that you don't attract Nazi bombers? Though one must admit they are quite colorful. Note the use of pink in the poster below, as women would be guilty of shining their flashlights just as much as men.
The posters sometimes touched on very touchy subjects. With the poster above, people are encouraged to fight incendiary bombs before they start massive conflagrations. This was extremely important, because incendiaries were easy to put out if caught early, but once the fires started, they could rage out of control. The incendiary bomb is portrayed in a comical anthropomorphic way in order to make them seem less intimidating and forbidding.
Unlike Soviet and American posters, British propaganda posters tend not to make fun of Hitler.
Instead, Hitler is portrayed as an ominous, malevolent force who is looking for any vulnerabilities.
Shipping was never as vital in British life as it was during the war. Many posters focus on making the shipping process more efficient. The sooner you can unload a ship, the less vulnerable both the ship and the cargo are to air attack.
One area where there was a great need to recruit men was into the RAF. The mortality rate in the RAF skyrocketed during the Battle of Britain, especially among new pilots.
Coal production was a very sensitive issue during the war. The Coal miners were unionized, and they had a tendency not to let a little thing like a war get in the way of exercising their rights. Coal strikes were not in the national interest, so many posters focus on creating a sense of guilt amongst the workers to stay at their jobs.
Women were recruited as never before during the war. They are portrayed as ordinary women, not fantastically beautiful as in many American recruiting posters.
The overarching theme, though, was the importance of giving the men at the front what they required to fight.
As with all the other combatants, the British had posters of the "Loose lips sink ships" variety. As usual with British propaganda posters, they are not subtle.
Below are more posters along these general themes.