Anderson Shelters

In November 1938, Chamberlain placed Sir John Anderson in charge of Air Raid Precautions (ARP). He immediately commissioned the engineer, William Patterson, to design a small and cheap shelter that could be erected in people's gardens. Within a few months nearly one and a half million of what became known as Anderson shelters were distributed to people living in areas expected to be bombed by the Luftwaffe.

Made from six curved sheets bolted together at the top, with steel plates at either end, and measuring 6ft 6in by 4ft 6in (1.95m by 1.35m) the shelter could accommodate six people. These shelters were half buried in the ground with earth heaped on top. The entrance was protected by a steel shield and an earthen blast wall.

Anderson shelters were given free to poor people. Men who earned more than £5 a week could buy one for £7. Soon after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, over 2 million families had shelters in their garden. By the time of the Blitz this had risen to two and a quarter million.

When the Luftwaffe changed from daylight to night bombing raids, the government expected people to sleep in their Anderson shelters. Each night the wailing of the air raid sirens announced the approach of the German bombers and ensured that most people had time to take cover before the raid actually started.

Anderson shelters were dark and damp and people were reluctant to use them at night. In low-lying areas they tended to flood and sleeping was difficult as they did not keep out the sound of the bombings. Another problem was that the majority of people living in industrial areas did not have gardens where they could erect their shelters.

A census held in November 1940 discovered that the majority of people in London did not use specially created shelters. The survey revealed that of those interviewed, 27 per cent used Anderson shelters, 9 per cent slept in public shelters whereas 4 per cent used underground railway stations (4 per cent). The rest of those interviewed were either on duty at night or slept in their own homes.

In March 1941 the government began issuing Morrison Shelters. Named after the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, the shelters were made of very heavy steel and could be put in the living room and used as a table. One wire side lifted up for people to crawl underneath and get inside. Morrison shelters were fairly large and provided sleeping space for two or three people.

Woman: "Is it all right now, Henry?"Man: "Yes, not even scratched."Sidney Strube, Daily Express (November, 1940)
Woman: "Is it all right now, Henry?"
Man: "Yes, not even scratched."
Sidney Strube, Daily Express (November, 1940)

Primary Sources

(1) Muriel Simkin worked in a munitions factory in Dagenham during the Second World War. She was interviewed about her experiences for the book, Voices from the Past: The Blitz (1987).

First of all we had an Anderson shelter in the garden. You were supposed to go into your Anderson shelter every night. I used to take my knitting. I used to knit all night. I was too frightened to go to sleep. You got into the habit of not sleeping. I've never slept properly since. It was just a bunk bed. I did not bother to get undressed. It was cold and damp in the shelter. I was all on my own because my husband was in the army.

You would go nights and nights and nothing happened. On one occasion when my husband was on leave, I think it was a weekend, we decided we would spend the night in bed instead of in the shelter. I heard the noise and woke up and I could see the sky. They had dropped a basket of incendiary bombs and we had got the lot. Luckily not one went off. Next morning the bombs were standing up in the garden as if they had grown in the night.

Rosie, my mum's sister, had to go to hospital to have a baby. Her mother-in-law looked after her three-year-old son. There was a bombing raid and Rosie's son and mother-in-law rushed to Bethnal Green underground station. Going down the stairs somebody fell. People panicked and Rosie's son was trampled to death.

(2) Evelyn Rose, who was a child during the Second World War, was interviewed about her experiences of the Blitz in 1987.

If you were out and a bombing raid took place you would make for the nearest shelter. The tube stations were considered to be very safe. I did not like using them myself. The stench was unbearable. The smell was so bad I don’t know how people did not die from suffocation. So many bodies and no fresh air coming in. People would go to the tube stations long before it got dark because they wanted to make sure that they reserved their space. There were a lot of arguments amongst people over that.

We did not have an Anderson shelter so we used to hide under the stairs. You felt the next bang would be your lot and it was very frightening. My grandmother was a very religious person and when she was with us during the bombing raids she would gabble away saying her prayers. Strangely enough, when I was with her, I always felt safe.

(3) British government circular 'Air Raid Warnings' (1939)

When air raids are threatened, warning will be given in towns by sirens, or hooters which will be sounded in some places by short blasts and in others by a warbling note, changing every few seconds. The warnings may be given by the police or air-raid wardens blowing short blasts on whistles.

When you hear the warning take cover at once. Remember that most of the injuries in an air raid are caused not by direct hits by bombs but by flying fragments of debris or by bits of shells. Stay under cover until you hear the sirens sounding continuously for two minutes on the same note which is the signal "Raiders Passed".

(4) Kingsley Martin was the editor of the New Statesman during the Second World War. He wrote about his experiences in his autobiography, Editor, in 1968.

We had always slept in our beds during the earlier raids and later we were never bothered by the lethal danger of V-2s. If one dropped near you, you would never know and so it wasn't worth bothering about, but buzz-bombs, with a lateral blast, were a confounded nuisance because it was your own fault if you, or your friends near you, were cut to bits by flying splinters of glass. If you were sensible, you led the way to a shelter. Night after night we would both go to bed, and then be woken by a familiar noise in the sky. I preferred the nights I spent fire-watching. The bomb would cut out and I would turn over in bed and mutter, when I heard the bang, 'Oh, that's Mrs Smith and not us', but after two or three times I would realize my folly, get up and find Dorothy, also in two minds, sitting on her bed near a window. We would dress and go down to a shelter, which we shared with Olga Katzin, and wait for the morning.

In the day I would work in the kneehole under my desk to avoid the danger of shattered glass from the windows. I remember that children in one of the great hospitals had their faces so penetrated by glass splinters that the doctors questioned whether their lives would be worth saving. Glass, unlike metal, will not respond to magnets and there was no alternative but to cut away their faces.

(5) Barbara Castle, Fighting All The Way (1993)

What we also lacked was an adequate shelter policy, and I had been agitating together with our left-wing group on the Council for the deep shelters which Professor J. B. S. Haldane had been advocating. Haldane, a communist sympathizer and eminent scientist, had studied at first hand the effects of air raids on the civilian population during the Spanish Civil War and had reached conclusions on the best way to protect them, which he had embodied in a book ARP published in 1938. In it he argued that high explosive, not gas, would be the main threat. He pointed out that modern high explosives often had a delayed-action fuse and might penetrate several floors of a building before bursting and that therefore basements could be the worst place to shelter in. He stressed the deep psychological need of humans caught in bombardment to go underground and urged the building of a network of deep tunnels under London to meet this need and give real protection.

The government did not want to know. In 1939 Sir John Anderson, dismissing deep shelters as impractical, insisted that

blast and splinter-proof protection was all that was needed and promised a vast extension of the steel shelters which took his name. These consisted of enlarged holes in the ground covered by a vault of thin steel. They had, of course, no lighting, no heating and no lavatories. People had to survive a winter night's bombardment in them as best they could. In fact, when the Blitz came, the people of London created their own deep shelters: the London Underground. Night after night, just before the sirens sounded, thousands trooped down in orderly fashion into the nearest Underground station, taking their bedding with them, flasks of hot tea, snacks, radios, packs of cards and magazines. People soon got their regular places and set up little troglodyte communities where they could relax. I joined them one night to see what it was

like. It was not a way of life I wanted for myself but I could see what an important safety-valve it was. Without it, London life could not have carried on in the way it did.

(6) Herbert Morrison, An Autobiography (1960)

There was also much argument about the advantages and defects of indoor versus outdoor shelters. The outdoor Anderson shelter was very good and provided almost complete safety except from a direct hit. However, the fact that it would have to be sunk into the ground meant that in many urban areas it could not be put up because of the lack of any garden and in other districts the shelter was liable to flood during the winter months.

The wide desire for an indoor shelter which provided some degree of comfort and also assisted people to get a night's rest in warmth and dryness did not take into account the fact that there was some fire risk involved. I decided that the risk was worth taking. Experience proved me justified. Next the experts began to argue about the best design.

The experts - engineers and scientists - would have argued for weeks. However, I told them that I intended to lock them up in a room until they agreed, promising to arrange to send food into them. I reported to Churchill that I had taken this attitude and he was delighted, saying that he would back me to the limit. The experts had their designs agreed upon and completed within twenty-four hours. So was born what became known as the Morrison table shelter.