In 1942, a library official in Portsmouth, UK appealed to the city’s inhabitants to ‘read for victory’, believing that they had a duty to use their reading time productively as part of their wartime activities. This article argues that long-standing desires among the country’s political and civic elites to encourage the nation’s readers to spend their leisure time prudently intensified during the Second World War. The public library service was utilized by civic leaders, library officials and publishing trade personnel to aid the country’s war effort. The article argues that negative attitudes regarding mass reading tastes remained largely static, despite recognition that the conflict drew people to the written word for relaxation and escapism. Using the naval city of Portsmouth as a case-study, this article charts the activities of the city’s public library authorities and the borrowing habits of its readers to reveal that while many people borrowed books in order to distract themselves from the conflict, the city’s strategic importance ensured that many citizens also read in order to facilitate their preparedness for war service, whether that be on the home front or overseas. The article argues that while, in common with national trends, many of Portsmouth’s citizens used libraries to obtain books to help distract them from the war, many remained eager to make use of the service for educational purposes, unlike the majority of the nation’s library users, whose interest in this aspect of library provision rapidly waned as the war progressed. The article concludes that the public library service was viewed as a central plank in the war effort and that library officials worked continuously to ensure that it remained so.