10 Iconic British World War II posters

BRITISH WORLD WAR II POSTERS: Propaganda posters offer a fascinating first-hand glimpse into the mood of wartime Britain.  These often simple, sometimes scary messages had a raft of aims. They built morale and encouraged austerity. They tried to stop servicemen blabbing about military operations. They encouraged women into work in the factories and the auxiliary forces.
Thanks to conscription, general recruitment posters weren’t needed in the Second World War like they were in the First, but as we'll see below there were plenty of other subjects to cover.
Here are 10 examples of iconic British World War II posters.

1. “Keep mum – she’s not so dumb” (1942)

keep-mum-shes-not-so-dumb10 iconic British World War II posters

Enemies weren’t just seated in Messerschmitts among the clouds, they were also (as this poster suggests) at work on the home front.  The bond-esque glamourpuss in this poster is drawing looks from men of the army, air force and navy. It was intended to remind servicemen of the dangers of loose talk, as women were thought to be at best incapable of keeping secrets and at worst Nazi spies.
The poster was lauded by some for introducing “sex-appeal” and criticized by others for its inherent chauvinism.  For one thing, though, it was a breath of fresh air compared with some of the earlier Ministry of Information posters which featured slogans such as “Do not discuss anything which might be of national importance. The consequence of any such indiscretion may be the loss of many lives.”
The poster appeared especially in officers’ messes. Artist Harold Foster had previously designed covers for Black Magic chocolate boxes which also portrayed beautiful women.

2. “Spot at Sight Chart No.1 – Enemy Uniforms” (1941)

spot-at-sight-chart-no1-enemy-uniforms-poster10 iconic British World War II posters

The very real threat of an invasion is palpable in this poster identifying the uniforms of a German parachutist and solider.  We have to conclude the poster was intended to reinforce this threat and the urgency of the war, since if you were actually faced with a German soldier you probably wouldn’t need to examine his uniform to identify him.
Many British, including Prime Minister Winston Churchill, thought that an invasion would start with the bombing and seizure of airfields by German paratroopers so that the enemy could send in reinforcements by landing planes as well as sending landing boats across the English Channel. Becasue of this airfields were surrounded by trenches and pillboxes, not facing outwards, but inwards towards the runway.

3. “Women of Britain – Come into the factories” (1941)

women-of-britain-come-into-the-factories-poster10 iconic British World War II posters

Female empowerment was the focus of this Philip Zec poster encouraging women into war industry for the good of the nation.  A Jewish socialist, Zec’s work has been compared to early Soviet propaganda putting a grand and heroic face on manual labor. Posters like this aimed to show a direct link between civilian workers at home and the fighting men on front, here symbolized by the line of fighter planes ‘leaving’ the factory.
In the same year that this poster was produced the National Services Act decreed that unmarried women from 20 to 30 had to go into war industry or serve in women’s auxiliary forces.

4. “Never Was So Much Owed by So Many to So Few” (1940)

never-was-so-much-owed-by-so-many-to-so-few-poster10 iconic British World War II posters

This poster is a tip of the hat to the Royal Air Force crews who successfully defended the home country in the Battle of Britain. The five airmen looking into the distance are a bomber crew and not fighter pilots as you might expect.
The slogan is from a famous wartime speech made by Winston Churchill on 20 August, 1940, although the actual line was “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”  The contest for control of Britain’s skies was still raging, but things didn’t seem as grim as they had done a few months prior. Although “the Few” later became a nickname for the pilots of Fighter Command, Churchill’s speech also focused on the RAF’s bomber crews. You can read a longer excerpt from this speech at the bottom of this page.

5. “Together” (1941)

together-poster10 iconic British World War II posters

At a time when Britain seemed to stand alone against Axis-occupied Europe its citizens must have felt cut off and isolated.  Posters such as “Together” were distributed to reassure people that they had allies around the world in the British Empire and Commonwealth.  Pictured marching alongside the Union Jack are fighting men from Canada, Australia, India, South Africa and more.  Later versions of the poster included Soviet and American soldiers as they joined the Allies.

6. “Keep Calm and Carry On” (1939)

keep-calm-and-carry-on-poster10 iconic British World War II posters

Though this poster was hardly seen during the war it has since become one of Britain’s most famous cultural icons. “Keep Calm and Carry On” was the third in a series of three posters the Ministry of Information produced at the start of the war to strengthen morale in the face of the expected German invasion. The previous two posters “Freedom Is In Peril. Defend It With All Your Might” and “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory” failed to resonate with the public, and so only a few of the quarter million “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters printed were ever distributed.
A copy of the poster was rediscovered by the owners of a second-hand bookshop in Alnwick in northern England in 2000. Having passed into the public domain they were able to reprint the poster and the slogan spread like wildfire, with entrepreneurs affixing it to coffee mugs, baby clothes, t-shirts, pillows and smart phone casings.
What’s all the fuss?  The slogan reflects a uniquely British outlook which one commentator said  “taps directly into the country's mythic image of itself: unshowily brave and just a little stiff, brewing tea as the bombs fall.”

7. “She’s in the Ranks too!” (date unknown)

shes-in-the-ranks-too-poster10 iconic British World War II posters

This Ministry of Health poster shows a friendly country mother, arms outstretched to welcome the children of a big city family. It aimed to encourage country families to accept children, and to convince urban families of the need to send their children away. This version of the poster never saw distribution (note the strikethrough X and the ‘not this’ note) probably because the urban mother and child didn’t look happy about the situation.
In just the first four days of September 1939 almost three million people, mostly schoolchildren, were transported away from the threat of bombing raids in Britain’s cities and into the countryside. 

8. British World War II poster in Persian (date unknown)

british-world-war-II-poster-in-persian10 iconic British World War II posters

The British Ministry of Information produced dozens of propaganda posters in other languages, including Persian, as we see here. The bottom script reads “The Downfall of the dictators is assured. British tanks on the attack in the African desert. Dictators shall be defeated”. The poster was distributed in Iran. 
Iran was occupied by British and Soviet troops in 1941 to secure the country’s oil supply, even though the king, Rezā Shāh Pahlavi, wanted to remain neutral. He was forced to abdicate and was replaced by his son after the Allied invasion.

9. “Walk Short Distances” (1944)

walk-short-distances-poster10 iconic British World War II posters

This whimsical poster design shows a pony wearing a massive shoe, and not a green cape as some people thought.  It encouraged walking where possible to ease the strain on packed out trains and busses.  Public transport usage soared during the war due to low car ownership and petrol rationing.
The poster’s Polish designers Jan le Witt and George Him were known for this kind of light, surrealistic design.  It’s a play on an old British idiom: if you go somewhere by Shank’s pony, you walk there.

10. “Colonel Schultz” (date unknown)

colonel-schultz-poster10 iconic British World War II posters

The menacing Colonel Schultz is another of the “careless talk” series warning British fighting men against giving military details to friends.  The risk was real – spies could collate overheard scraps of gossip into usable information.
The monocle is an interesting touch.  The one-piece corrective eyewear was actually popular among German officers throughout the two world wars. Some notable monocle wearers were Luftwaffe field marshal Hugo Sperrle, Wehrmacht general Werner von Fritsch and Stalag 13 commandant Colonel Wilhelm Klink.

The few

Excerpt from “The Few” speech by Winston Churchill, delivered on 20 August 1940 to the British House of Commons:             

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day, but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate, careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power.
On no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily than on the daylight bombers who will play an invaluable part in the case of invasion and whose unflinching zeal it has been necessary in the meanwhile on numerous occasions to restrain…”

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Written by C. Anderson, 2011. Last updated 2011.

References for 10 Iconic British World War 2 posters

• British Posters of the Second World War, Richard Slocombe, 2010







• “Keep calm” quote from the Bagehot column of the Economist, 9 October 2010. www.economist.com






Photo sources for 10 Iconic British World War 2 posters

• “Keep mum – she’s not so dumb” - www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

• “Women of Britain – Come into the factories” - en.wikipedia.org

• “Spot at Sight Chart No.1 – Enemy Uniforms” - www.vads.ac.uk

• “Never Was So Much Owed by So Many to So Few” - en.wikipedia.org

• “Together” - www.miscman.com

• “Keep Calm and Carry On” - www.tumblr.com

• “She’s in the Ranks too!” - www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

• British World War II poster in Persian - shahrefarang.com

• “Walk Short Distances” - www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

• “Colonel Schultz” - www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Unless otherwise stated, all photos used on the page 10 Iconic British World War 2 posters are, to our knowledge, in the public domain. If you think otherwise, please let us know. 1