World War II is the bloodiest onslaught in human history and the largest military conflict ever, a distinction it will presumably retain indefinitely. Hundreds of millions of people were touched by the conflict, with 60-80 million dying before it ended. Famine, industrial-scale mortality, genocide, and the first-ever use of atomic weapons were all part of WWII’s hardships.
Never before or since has such a substantial amount of human resources, industry, and scientific research been committed to making war, with practically every major power and a slew of minor ones entrenched in a state of total conflict. It’s worth repeating: the vast majority of humankind’s material and intellectual capability was devoted to war, and that endeavor left an indelible impression.
The manufacture and consumption of alcohol during the war is one of the less-studied aspects of the battle. Unlike the previous “Great War,” World War I, there is little written on the role of alcohol in this period. This is regrettable because the scant data depicts beer as a vibrant microcosm of the struggle.
Alcohol’s involvement in some battlefields paralleled the larger conflict; in others, it provided insight into the psychology of a society’s war effort. Of course, any industry would yield similar insights under a state of all-out war, but alcohol is unique in that it has a national or regional flavor.
These were the most popular beers during World War II.
A Patriotic Drink Good for American Health
Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, made alcoholic beverages, including beer, illegal in the United States. Following the repeal of Prohibition, the American beer industry resumed full production. The fact that American beer was based after German lager is not without irony.
Big brewers like Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company and Anheuser Busch dominated American beer production in the 1940s. Immigrants from Germany founded both companies.
Popular beer companies such as Schlitz and Anheuser Busch’s Budweiser were among the most patriotic advertisements when the United States went into the war following Pearl Harbor. However, the beer industry’s impact extended far beyond individual product promotion.
The Brewery Industry Foundation (BIF) began a great public relations effort to link beer to patriotism. To the general public, beer was an integral component of the national identity, as American as apple pie. Furthermore, the BIF persuaded the general public and even US government authorities that beer was a nutritious food.
The seemingly absurd health claim claimed that brewers’ yeast, a byproduct of brewing, could boost workers’ productivity at home and strengthen warriors’ immune systems since the yeast was a cheap and high supply of vitamin B complex. The bogus argument persuaded consumers and helped breweries achieve crucial wartime industry status.
Because of this, during World War II, the federal government could not have been a better ally for American beer than the federal government, which commanded that 15% of all beer produced in the United States be distributed to the armed services. Beer was also easy to carry, as the canned beer had only recently entered the market in 1935. Since the government took over whiskey factories to manufacture industrial alcohol, beer gained an undeniable advantage as the preferred alcoholic beverage.
In terms of patriotism, the BIF ran a series of periodical ads implying that beer was an essential foundation of the American dream and vital to the morale of both civilians and soldiers. “MORALE IS A LOT OF LITTLE THINGS,” said the title of the ad series. Each advertisement portrayed a distinct setting, either at home or in the field of battle.
One advertisement, for example, featured an illustration of a worker in a field bunkhouse. He’s happy and leaning on his bed, reading a letter.
Men and women in uniform appreciated having access to a pleasant and affordable alcoholic beverage, and consumers believed the link between beer and the American war effort was genuine. The brand’s image has held up: many Americans still see beer as a patriotic beverage, thanks to its role in the American military effort during World War II.
Beer in the United Kingdom
Barley and sugar were forbidden from being imported for brewing in the United Kingdom to save shipping capacity. Even while domestic barley supply rose, beer strength declined substantially, and considerable effort was put into developing unique flavors with less substance. Other materials were tried, and some brewers could make a good brew using oats as a partial substitute for barley, but potatoes were useless.
Beer was not rationed on a per-person basis, but there were limits on how much could be produced, which were set at pre-war levels and subsequently rose. Prices soared, owing primarily to higher taxes, but demand remained strong.
During the war, nearly all of the beer brewed in the United Kingdom was hopped ale. Milds, bitters, and stouts would have been among the options. Lagers were not popular in the United Kingdom until after World War II.
Beer Runs During WWII
If you chat to a veteran about their service for long enough, the question of alcohol will almost always come up. In the military, getting it, drinking it, or surviving its absence are near-universal obsessions, especially during conflict.
Because, unlike Germany, the United States did not supply liquor with military rations, American personnel in World War II had to work hard to find beer. Prohibition was still fresh in people’s minds, and the US military was frequently at odds with temperance activists who wanted to prohibit all alcohol from military bases. On the other hand, the British kept their sailors and soldiers well stocked.
The supply routes to Normandy were congested with all kinds of essentials in the weeks following D-Day: food, ammo, clothing, and replacement troops. American and British troops seized as much cider, wine, and Calvados (apple or pear brandy) as possible, but British men craved their traditional pub ales the most.
Pilots from the Royal Air Force took it upon themselves to bring British beer to ground workers in France. Two British breweries provided the beer, and airmen transported it across the Channel using the Spitfire’s two spare 45-gallon fuel tanks.
They poured the beer into the metal tanks after they had been washed. The British press published the inventiveness, which dubbed the fuel-to-beer conversion Modification XXX.
There were two issues with this adjustment. The obvious smell of gasoline persisted in the suds of the first tanks. The petrol scent faded after a few refills, replaced with the metallic taste of the tank interior.
The challenge was solved by modifying the underwing pylons to carry the beer barrels themselves. The beer had been chilled at altitude and was now fresh and ready to drink, with no fuel tank residue.
In the fall of 1944, British customs agents stopped the Spitfire beer runs. Breweries that donated beer to overseas troops were discovered to owe an export tax. However, supply lines had improved at that time, and British soldiers were receiving their beer more consistently.
Even the Americans eventually let up on the pressure. As the war progressed, US breweries began delivering more canned beer to troops overseas, based partly on the claim that brewer’s yeast was an excellent source of vitamin B for combatants. The fact that alcohol negated the effects of B-complex vitamins was happily overlooked.
Want to know more about beers? Learn about the history of corona beer, one of the top-selling beers worldwide.