The shortages were so severe that to assist their allies over the Atlantic, the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (CARE) programme was established to allow US citizens to dispatch food and basic supplies to relatives – and strangers – living amid the rubble of Europe.
The programme was designed not merely to distribute luxuries, but life-saving necessities. During the first two years of operations more than 6.6 million packages were posted from America, 400,000 of which arrived in England – including several sent to the Anstis family by an uncle living in New York. The recipients say they have never forgotten those who reached out during their time of desperate need.
Seventy years on, Europe finds itself in the grip of the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War and once more CARE is working to save lives amid the chaos. The programme has grown into the charity CARE International UK which is supported in this year’s Telegraph Christmas Appeal.
Since the Syria crisis started, CARE has been working to distribute emergency food and hygiene parcels to the millions of refugees who have been forced to flee their homes.They are the victims of a very modern conflict, of course, but those British recipients of 70 years ago say they see close parallels between the plight of today’s refugees and that of their own generation.
“The refugees today are equally desperate to those poor souls who crossed Europe at the end of the Second World War,” says Mr Anstis. “Our job today is to accommodate them in all sorts of ways.”
Anstis, a retired architect and lecturer, grew up in Greenford in the West London suburbs and was six-years-old when hostilities erupted in 1939. His father, Herbert, a teacher and veteran of the First World War, remained in Britain working on the Home Front, but still the family found themselves constantly uprooted. In total, Anstis attended 13 different schools throughout the war.
“Our family was repeatedly evacuated,” he recalls. “Not in that picturesque situation of poor little toddlers with their gasmasks at railway stations. People were moved around with such rapidity.”
It was during a stay in one such temporary abode in Banstead, Surrey, in April 1942 that a bomb was dropped on an adjoining house during a Luftwaffe raid. “I woke to find myself covered in plaster and glass,” he says. “All the doors were gone and tiles and windows and ceilings. The rest of that night was spent cowering.”
It was not just food and safe accommodation in short supply but every basic necessity, including fuel. “Every winter during the war was very cold. We became used to chilblains and having frozen feet. When we got into bed we would put every available blanket and coat over us to make a sort of warm tunnel.”
The family only ate chicken once a year, for Christmas dinner, and even then it was an old broiler deemed long past its use. It is no surprise that Mr Anstis can still taste that tinned turkey today.
But the contents alone were not what made the packages so exotic. Similar to the modern refugees dreaming of a new life in Europe, America appeared to war-weary British eyes as a land of unimaginable plenty.
“It was very exciting to have these travel-stained parcels that had come all the way from New York,” he says. “At that time America was a great place of glamour and promise that was unrealisable.”
Tim Thomas, a now 73-year-old who was evacuated from Swansea to Wiltshire during the Blitz, can also still remember the excitement of receiving the CARE food parcels which were sent by a stranger in Boston called F. Prescott Fay. For his family, the steak and kidney pie, coffee, tea, powdered milk, tinned vegetables and peaches that came through the post several times a year were the pinnacle of luxury compared to the tapioca and corned beef they ate during rationing.
“We were very poor and very skinny,” Thomas says. “If that whole period has left me with anything it’s that feeling that a total stranger held out his hand in generosity when we needed help.”
Nowadays, the CARE packages being distributed to the never-ending lines of refugees snaking through the Balkans are rather more regimented in their contents. Each adult emergency package boasts 2,240 calories worth of non-perishable food items and high-energy sweet and savoury biscuits, as well as sanitary towels and basic first aid; with baby food, nappies, wipes and disinfectant distributed to young families.
Special winter CARE packages containing emergency shelter material such as sleeping bags and plastic groundsheets, warm clothes and waterproofs are also now being handed out as the cold starts to bite.
“I despair at the current refugee crisis,” says 79-year-old Janet Stevenson, a mother-of-two and grandmother-of-five who clearly recalls her own CARE packages which arrived at the school near Reading she attended as a child.
“It needs tackling at source but how you do it I don’t know. I just think it’s so tragic. I just want to help.
As Mrs Stevenson knows, it is not just the provision of basic items which makes the packages so important. The CARE parcel received by Mrs Stevenson ended up beginning a 60-year-long friendship with the US schoolgirl Shirley Meissner who helped send it over. The pair even met face to face in Virginia in 1986, before Shirley died five years ago.
Even during the greatest time of need, Mrs Stevenson – who nowadays donates to CARE through a seperate entrepreneurship scheme the charity runs – was never starving. Her father, a Gallipoli veteran tended an allotment throughout the war and could even on occasion venture to the end of the garden and wring a chicken’s neck – something the battle-scarred soldier loathed doing.
But she says her memories of such straitened times still stay with her today. “Even now I hate waste; I don’t waste anything – certainly food. Those are the values you learnt and they never leave you.”
There are other values, too, which those who experienced the kindness of strangers 70 years ago hold dear to this day.
“You can’t do much to help other people,” Mrs Stevenson says. “But you do what you can.”
To make a credit/debit-card donation call 0151-284 1927; go to telegraph.co.uk/charity; or send cheques/postal orders to Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal, Charities Trust, Suite 20–22, Century Building, Tower Street, Liverpool L3 4BJ