5 Things You Didn’t Know About Oxford and the Second World War

Many British cities tell the same story from the years 1939 to 1945.

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Particularly for ports and industrial centres, the story of the Second World War is about nightly bombing, air raid sirens, blackout curtains, and children evacuated away to the countryside, to return either having had a great adventure, or traumatised from neglect. It’s about historic sites and buildings blasted into rubble, and – in the years following the war – ruins replaced by badly-designed buildings thrown together to plug the housing shortage with no concern for beauty, or left unrepaired for years on end. It’s about American soldiers with nylons and chewing gum wooing the local women. It’s about people sticking together and struggling on, despite bombing, despite rationing, despite the fear that they or their loved ones would not survive.

Nightly air raids took their toll on many British families.
Nightly air raids took their toll on many British families.

Much of this story is also true of Oxford, of course. But there are some aspects of the way the Second World War affected the city that are quite unlike anywhere else in the country. In this article, we look at a few of them.

1. The historic city centre of Oxford escaped bombing entirely

One of the reasons why so many people love to visit Oxford is because its historic city centre, with beautiful buildings that are hundreds of years old, is so remarkably well preserved – better-preserved, in fact, than almost any other city in Britain. Partly this is because many medieval college buildings were lovingly restored during Victorian times, but mostly this is because the city centre of Oxford escaped being bombed altogether.
Why this was the case is a bit of a mystery. The usual story is that Hitler planned to use Oxford as his capital following his invasion of England, so wanted the city kept intact. It’s a good story, and the fact that Hitler chose Berchtesgaden as his preferred holiday destination suggests that he did have a good eye for a tourist spot. Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence for it, except the discovery of plans to use Oxford as stationing point for troops, which is not the same thing as using the city as a capital – despite the way it’s usually been reported.

Were Oxford's dreaming spires deliberately spared?
Were Oxford’s dreaming spires deliberately spared?

An alternative theory states that a deal was struck between Britain and Germany that Germany would not bomb Oxford and Cambridge in exchange for two German university cities being similarly spared; Heidelberg is usually one of the ones mentioned. It’s a nice idea that even at the height of war, the two sides would have enough respect for academia and history to avoid bombing what would otherwise be tempting targets (though not enough respect for human life to avoid bombing altogether), but also doesn’t seem to have much basis in evidence. Cambridge was bombed, though it got off relatively lightly, and the Baedeker raids, in which historic British cities such as York, Canterbury and Bath were deliberately targeted in revenge for attacks on historic German cities such as Lübeck, shows that awareness of a city’s historic and beautiful nature could cut both ways in wartime.
It’ll probably remain a mystery why Oxford city centre was spared. It may be a combination of factors – including the desire by some to preserve a beautiful city, perhaps the knowledge that Hitler was fond of it, and perhaps something more prosaic, like the fact that to get there you’d fly over a better strategic target like London, as well as all of London’s defences. It’s also been suggested that it was preserved to serve as a centre of communications in the event of invasion. Whatever the reason, let’s just be grateful when we admire Oxford’s dreaming spires that it worked out the way it did.

2. Government departments moved into colleges – which meant they were filled with women

The University of Oxford in 1939 was a very unequal place. Women’s colleges had existed for over sixty years since the foundation of Lady Margaret Hall in 1878, but women had only been awarded degrees on an equal basis with men since 1920 (in Cambridge, it would take until 1948 for this right to be granted). In universities across the country, less than a quarter of undergraduate students were women.

With food in short supply, staff and students were encouraged to "dig for victory".
With food in short supply, staff and students were encouraged to “dig for victory”.

But the outbreak of war changed the demographics of the university, and by extension the city of Oxford, quite considerably. Both academics and students volunteered or were conscripted into various forms of war work. For some, this meant that careers were entirely put on hold while they went to fight or to work for the government (more on this later). For others, this meant instead that they had much less spare time; activities that were usually carried out by servants, such as cooking and cleaning, fell to the students in order to make up for the shortage of labour. Some degrees were also cut from three years to two so that students could be out in the working world quicker. Student Anne Lowe describes here how she was required to scrub floors and prepare food, while other students helped out with gardening; with rationing in place, any land that could be put to use in growing something edible was valuable, but this also required the students to contribute their efforts.
Women and men were both asked to contribute to the war effort, but men more so, and so the colleges and halls of Oxford began to empty of their male inhabitants. With central London under constant threat of bombing, many government departments moved into Oxford again. It’s a fun example of history repeating itself; three hundred years earlier, Charles I’s court had been held in Oxford’s Divinity Schools when he had fled London under attack from the Parliamentarians. As this article notes, “Balliol became host to the Royal Institute of International Affairs and St John’s to the Director of Fish Supplies (causing Oxford to be dubbed the centre of the fishing industry)” – it’s worth noting that Oxford is more than 80 miles from the sea. So, while male students left, the female clerks who staffed these government offices moved in en masse, giving the colleges quite a different character.

3. Some colleges were entirely occupied by the military

Colleges that kept going in some manner were the luckier ones; others were effectively shut down as their buildings were requisitioned by the military. One such college was Brasenose. During the First World War, the college had been used as military billets, but the students who had not left to fight stayed in the college alongside the soldiers. In the Second World War, however, the college buildings were requisitioned just 10 days after war was declared. Undergraduates were moved to Christ Church, and were even instructed to attend church services there, with Brasenose Chapel closed to students for the duration of the war.
Meanwhile, the college was used as various Schools for military staff and officers, and then later in the war given over the medical corps. A skeleton staff, including a handful of fellows and the college bursar, stayed in residence. Furniture was sent off to other colleges, particularly women’s colleges, which didn’t suffer quite such a depletion of their student populations. Brasenose had been ready for war: college officials took out insurance against bombing (which had taken them a year after war had been declared in the First World War) and the cellars were cleared and strengthened to use as bomb shelters; after all, there was no reason to believe that Oxford would end up being so notably spared in air raids.

Brasenose's military guests were notoriously light-fingered when it came to college silverware.
Brasenose’s military guests were notoriously light-fingered when it came to college silverware.

It wasn’t plain sailing. Records show signs of tricky disputes: for instance, Brasenose attempted to feed its military guests for the first 6 weeks after they moved in, but then gave up and required them to get their own food from army funds. Similarly, the chapel was opened up the military for one Sunday each month, but they had to pay for heating themselves. Soldiers removed furniture, kept dogs and – egregiously – walked on the grass of the quads. And they pinched the spoons, with the Bursar writing to one Adjutant: “I enclose an account for the cutlery, crockery etc. which have not been returned, and have presumably been lost or broken. It presents a very sorry picture, and not what I expected when the College loaned the chattels.” But for the most part, the tensions weren’t too significant – and however churned up the quads, however scratched the furniture, and however depleted the silverware, the people of Brasenose must surely have been glad that those strengthened cellars never saw use.

4. The war may have been won just as much by Oxford and Cambridge academics as by the military

About an hour’s drive from Oxford is Bletchley Park, where arguably the Second World War was won just as much as it was by troops on the ground or planes in the sky. It was the home of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), and will forever be famous as the place where the “unbreakable” enigma code was finally cracked, considerably thanks to the genius of Alan Turing. Breaking the enigma code meant that the communications that the Germans thought were secret could in fact be read by their enemies. Eisenhower described cracking the enigma code as “decisive” to Allied victory; others have estimated that it hastened the end of the war by months or even years, saving countless lives.

Cracking the enigma code: a "decisive" contribution to Allied victory.
Cracking the enigma code: a “decisive” contribution to Allied victory.

Turing was a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and was among many academics who were called up to work for GC&CS. Many people’s work in military intelligence, and especially at Bletchley Park, was a secret they took to the grave. Files about Bletchley Park were only declassified in the mid-1970s, which has the interesting side-effect that Winston Churchill’s Nobel prize-winning memoirs of the Second World War are more-or-less fiction, as they were published 1948-1953 when this crucial part of the way the war was won was still a state secret.

5. At the height of the war, Oxford residents clubbed together to save Europe from famine

Britain struggled hugely during wartime. Disruptions to food supplies were such that rationing only ended in 1954. During the war, adults were allowed only one egg per week; other foodstuffs, like bread and game, weren’t rationed but were often hard to come by all the same. But no one starved, and in many cases people were healthier, as they had to replace meat and cheese in their diets with vegetables, which weren’t rationed.
The situation in mainland Europe was significantly worse. In the autumn of 1941, famine struck Greece, with 1,500 people dying each day at its height. It was a situation created by both sides: Greece was occupied by Germany, which plundered its resources to feed its own citizens and armies, while the Allied blockade prevented more food from reaching the country. A similar situation arose in Belgium. In response to public pressure to lift the blockade, Churchill argued that hunger might prompt the Greeks to rise up against the Nazi occupation.
Into this came the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, founded in 1942, which raised funds in order to send food to occupied countries, particularly Greece. By 1943, the city had raised £10,700 – equivalent to £440,000 in today’s money and a remarkable feat in wartime – which was given to a representative of the Greek Red Cross. In 1945, as soon as the war was over, the committee launched a ‘Save Europe Now’ campaign, which lobbied the British government to allow its citizens to send food parcels into Germany; a remarkable campaign so soon after the end of such a devastating war. The work of this committee and others around the country contributed significantly to the consensus that emerged after the war: deliberately starving civilians was not acceptable as a wartime tactic. This ultimately helped form the basis of the Fourth Geneva Convention. And the unwieldy name ‘Oxford Committee for Famine Relief’ was shortened to Oxfam, now one of the largest charities in the world.
Image credits: college buildings; radcliffe camera; oxford skyline; vegetables; cutlery; cipher machine; bombed-out family