Keep Calm and Carry On: How Britain Bought Up the Global Supply of Tea During WWII

Keep Calm and Carry On: How Britain Bought Up the Global Supply of Tea During WWII

Alexander Meddings - August 15, 2017

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few decades (in which case, my sincerest apologies) you will have at some point come across the iconic British poster slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Designed by the Ministry of Information in 1939, this quintessentially British piece of propaganda was never officially released to the public. This is because the eventuality for which it was designed—the German invasion of Britain—never came to pass. The fact that it was never made official, however, has done nothing to detract from its popularity.

“Keep Calm and Carry On” perfectly captures the stiff-upper-lip attitude of the British. It is as relevant to today’s generation—staring down Brexit’s barrel of economic isolationism—as it was to the wartime generation, who were trying to distance themselves from Europe for rather different reasons. It plays into a stereotype, of course. But like all stereotypes (particularly of the tea-drinking, monarchy-loving, sorry-saying Brits) it’s effective because it’s essentially rooted in truth. The same must be said for the tea-drinking aspect of the British stereotype. If it were a national sport, the British would excel.

Tea has long been at the heart of British culture. Initially the preserve of the upper classes, it soon infused its way into every social stratum as it was imported from the colonies in greater and greater quantities. Its consumption skyrocketed at home during the 1700s, partly because it was thought to have medicinal qualities and partly because the water was thought to be too dangerous to consume. It seems that, on both accounts, people thought right. With more people drinking tea there were less reported cases of dysentery and other bacterial infections. The next generation also reaped the rewards of tea consumption, its antiseptic properties passed on from mother to child through breast milk.

Keep Calm and Carry On: How Britain Bought Up the Global Supply of Tea During WWII
Designed in case the Nazis invaded Britain, this propaganda poster was never officially released to the public. Terra Meridiana

It wasn’t just at home where tea consumption thrived. For centuries British Army has had a strong relationship with tea; not all that surprising given the tea-producing territorial extent of the British Empire. On the morning of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, officers passed around tea to the men while they stood by waiting to be mercilessly musket and shelled by Napoleon’s forces. It was the same French emperor who is credited with saying that an army marches on its stomach. In the case of the British Army, you could argue that it marches only when it can convince its men they can stop at some point and put on a brew.

Napoleon isn’t the only oft-quoted military figure who favored foodstuffs over firepower. The former First Lord of the Admiralty, and Prime Minister through most of the war, Winston Churchill, once called tea “more important than ammunition” (though not during his famous “we will fight them on the beaches” speech, for obvious morale-related reasons). And the way it was prioritized during the Second World War reflects this feeling exactly. Just two days after the war’s outbreak in September 1939, the British Government took tea-related measures into its own hands. Rightly fearing the destructive potential of Nazi air raids over the capital, they decided to safeguard the country’s tea supply by relocating its vast reserves outside London.

Keep Calm and Carry On: How Britain Bought Up the Global Supply of Tea During WWII
An adult’s weekly tea ration. Yumchaa

In the grand scheme of things, relocating the country’s tea reserves was merely re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The real threat came from the lack of supply; not helped in the slightest by the German naval blockades and attritional U Boat campaigns in force from 1940 onwards. The Ministry of Food’s response was to ration tea to two ounces per week to anybody over the age of five. Such rationing would last for seven years, until after the war’s conclusion in 1952. And it prescribed a remarkably generous amount of tea: two ounces of could make around three cups a day—yet adults received just two ounces cheese and butter combined.

Outside Old Blighty, the situation was equally dire. After the BEF’s disastrous campaign on the European mainland, the British Army had been forced to retreat from the shores of Dunkirk with its tails between its legs between May and June 1940. So too in the colonies, the British were losing their grip, with Singapore—Britain’s stronghold otherwise known as the “Gibraltar of the East“—falling to the Japanese early in 1942. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and in an attempt to try and keep up morale, in 1942 the British Government decided to put tea at the top of their list of priorities.

The British Ministry of Food agreed to purchase all of the exportable surpluses from the governments of India and Ceylon for the year. This amounted to an estimated 698 million pounds of tea. More amazingly, it meant that for 1942 the commodities that Britain bought, ordered in terms of weight, were: bullets, tea, artillery shells, bombs and explosives. Imports of this scale continued throughout the wartime years. In fact, at any given time it is believed that there were at least 30 million tonnes in Britain.

The Brits’ reliance on tea wasn’t lost on the Germans. During their blitz campaigns over London, the Luftwaffe made Mincing Lane one of their main targets. Known otherwise as “The Street of Tea”, Mincing Lane had been the world trade center for tea (as well as opium and, to a lesser degree, slaves during its long and not-remotely illustrious history). The Luftwaffe failed to cripple the tea industry though. Even during the mid-1950s, Mincing Lane was still the place where one-third of the world’s tea was brought up.

Of course, when it came to how much the British valued their tea, the Germans didn’t have to go far for their intelligence. In one night, the Royal Air Force carried out a supply drop of 75,000 tea bombs over the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. Contained within each were one-ounce bags of tea from the Dutch East Indies along with a message: “The Netherlands will rise again, chins up.” Likewise, when the Red Cross sent supplies to Allied POWs, each supply box would contain a pack of Twinings.

Keep Calm and Carry On: How Britain Bought Up the Global Supply of Tea During WWII
British soldiers queue for tea outside the Brandenburg Gate, July 1945.

There was a simple reason why tea drinking was popular among the soldiers. Because most of the water was transported to the frontlines in old oilcans, it tended to taste terrible. But there was also a more practical reason why tea was an institutional favorite of the British Army, and this concerned its fighting ability. Historically, tea drinking may have given the British the sober edge over other European powers; while they tanked themselves up on alcohol, the British opted for a caffeinated drink that simultaneously stimulated and relaxed.

Tea drinking in the British Army also unexpectedly revolutionized tank warfare. Before the invention of the BV (a boiler kettle wired up to a tank’s electrics), British tank crews had to disembark when they wanted to brew up and use petrol burners from empty fuel cans. Being out in the open exposed them to opportunistic enemies, but disaster never struck. At least not until June 13, 1944. In the days following the Normandy landings, the 22nd Armoured Brigade was ambushed by the Germans at Villers-Bocage while their crew were sitting outside their tanks making a brew.

The British lost fourteen tanks in just as many minutes at the Battle of Villers-Bocage, embarrassingly outplayed and outmaneuvered by a numerically inferior German force. It was clear to the British command that their troops being sitting ducks outside their tanks while they were taking their tea breaks were unacceptable, and that something needed to change. And then, in the immediate aftermath of the war, came the invention of the BV, which enabled water to be boiled safely inside the vehicle. Its legacy has endured quite remarkably: not only has its design remained pretty much unchanged but it is still compulsory for British armored vehicles to be fitted with one.

Tea has a phenomenal ability to bring the British together. Even today, after a long day at work, after a tough ordeal, or—for the military—even while out on the campaign, the British are still able to take comfort in boiling a kettle, brewing some breakfast tea and taking a few moments. It’s so much a part of our culture that in 1946 the celebrated author George Orwell even published an essay about it in the London Evening Standard. Entitled “A Nice Cup of Tea“, the essay outlines eleven precise tea-making methods guaranteed to produce a cup that’s neither too weak, too strong, too watery, or too milky. The result is a charming relic of British eccentricity, and to give you a flavor here’s Orwell’s tenth rule:

“Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”


Sources For Further Reading:

The Vintage News – During WWII, The British Government Bought the World’s Entire Supply of Tea

Tea Box – The Year Britain Bought Up All the Tea in The World

Wavell Room – How the “Gibraltar of the East” fell: A Historical Analysis of the Singapore Strategy up to WWII

New England Historical Society – U-Boat Attacks of World War II: 6 Months of Secret Terror in the Atlantic

History Collection – 19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941

Medium – The British Perfected the Art of Brewing Tea Inside an Armored Vehicle

Warfare History Network – Villers-Bocage: Wittmann’s Tigers, the Desert Rats, and Allied Disaster

The Orwell Foundation – A Nice Cup of Tea

International War Museum – What You Need to Know About Rationing in The Second World War

BBC – 1952: Tea Rationing to End

Historic UK – Rationing in World War Two