Air Raid Wardens

In September 1935, the British prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, published a circular entitled Air Raid Precautions (ARP) inviting local authorities to make plans to protect their people in event of a war. Some towns responded by arranging the building of public air raid shelters. These shelters were built of brick with roofs of reinforced concrete. However, some local authorities ignored the circular and in April 1937 the government decided to create an Air Raid Wardens' Service and during the next year recruited around 200,000 volunteers.

Wardens were responsible for arranged for the sounding of air raid sirens. People were now expected to immediately take cover before the raid actually started. Another siren was played to announce that it was safe to leave the air raid shelters.

The Air Raid Precautions (ARP) had the problem of dealing with unexploded bombs. It is estimated that one in ten of the bombs dropped on Britain did not explode. Wardens would arrange for all premises to be evacuated and all roads within a 600 yard radius of the unexploded bomb.

At the beginning of the war these bombs were not too difficult to deal with. The A.R.P. would inform the Bomb Disposal Unit (BDU) and skilled men would be sent to remove the fuse of the bomb. However, in 1940 the German manufacturers began to build in anti-handling devices. The bomb was now designed to explode if anyone attempted to remove the fuse. Members of the BDU therefore had the more difficult task of cutting a hole in the casting and removing the explosive contents.

The British government believed that some form of poison gas would be used on the civilian population during the war. It was therefore decided to issue a gas masks to everyone living in Britain. By 1940 the government had issued 38 million gas masks.

The government threatened to punish people not carrying gas masks. However, a study at the beginning of the war suggested that only about 75 per cent of people in London were obeying this rule. By the beginning of 1940 almost no one bothered to carry their gas mask with them. The government now announced that Air Raid Wardens would be carrying out monthly inspections of gas masks. If a person was found to have lost the gas mask they were forced to pay for its replacement.

This cartoon of a public shelter was published in Britain in February, 1941.
This cartoon of a public shelter was published in Britain in February, 1941.

Primary Sources

(1) 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".

(2) Winston Churchill, letter to Neville Chamberlain (1st October, 1939)

The A. R. P. (Air Raid Precautions) defences and expense are founded upon a wholly fallacious view of the degree of danger to each part of the country which they cover. Schedules should be made of the target areas and of the paths of flight by which they may be approached. In these areas there must be a large proportion of whole-time employees. London is of course the chief target, and others will readily occur. In these target areas the street-lighting should be made so that it can be controlled by the Air Wardens on the alarm signal being given; and while shelters should be hurried on with and strengthened, night and day, the people's spirits should be kept up by theatres and cinemas until the actual attack begins. Over a great part of the countryside, modified lighting should be at once allowed, and places of entertainment opened. No paid A. R. P. personnel should be allowed in these areas. All should be on a voluntary basis, the Government contenting itself with giving advice, and leaving the rest to local effort. In these areas, which comprise at least seven-eighths of the United Kingdom, gas-masks should be kept at home and only carried in the target areas as scheduled. There is really no reason why orders to this effect should not be given during the coming week.

(3) In 1945, T. P. Peters, an Air Raid Warden in East Grinstead, wrote about his experiences during the Second World War in his book, Reminiscences (1945).

When the Prime Minister announced the Declaration of War on Germany on Sunday morning, 3rd September, 1939, the country was well prepared with its ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Organization. We had received a good training from Colonel Eaton, the Chief Warden.

Gas Masks were issued to the public. I remember one poor old gentleman asked me: "Well, Sir, how am I to eat my dinner with this thing on?" We concentrated on improving our first aid skills. Every week we would have an exercise. Mr. J. Woodrow would be the patient. Mrs. L Bennett typed us a booklet containing all names, addresses and where people planned to shelter during air raids.

On 10 p.m. on Saturday, 26th October, 1940, Stanney in Holtye Road, was demolished. We could hear cries coming from what was left of the house. The most extraordinary thing about this incident was the luck of the three ladies, who were trapped and escaped with minor injuries, but a nurse from Queen Victoria Hospital, who was having a bath at the time, was blown right out with the roof of the house and with the shattered bath. We found her lying on her back, terribly injured, and quite nude.

Warden Burnett remarked afterwards: "When I shone my torch on her I thought it was a statue blown over in the garden." We covered her with a coat and she actually asked me what had happened. We got her into the Larches Nursing Home, where Dr. Somerville and his staff did their best, but she died the next day.

(4) Air Raid Wardens were also involved in helping the victims of German air attacks. On 16th July 1943 the East Grinstead Observer reported on the bombing of East Grinstead.

Late on Friday afternoon a small number of enemy aircraft crossed the Southeast Coast. Bombs were dropped at different places. Two enemy bombers were brought down - one near Caterham and one near Sittingbourne - and both exploded, the crews being killed. A county town in the Southeast area was attacked, and a cinema was hit, causing a large number of casualties, including many children.

Suddenly the roar of a plane approaching the town from the north was heard. It swooped down out of the low-lying clouds and it was then that shoppers and other people realised that the twin-engined bomber was a German. It roared over the town, circled twice and then dropped several bombs. One made a direct hit on a cinema, another on an ironmonger's shop higher up the road, another on a builder's and ladies' outfitters and one fell near a factory.

In the cinema was an audience of 184 - the majority being children - who were trapped when the bomb fell. Following the

news came a cowboy film, during which the usual notice of an air raid being in progress was displayed, so that anybody who wished to leave might do so. Few people left, but among them was one schoolboy.

Suddenly there was a terrific crash, and to use the words of one survivor, the whole building seemed to collapse like a pack of cards, trapping most of the audience.

Molly Stiller, daughter of an officer in the Home Guard, was the only member of the cinema staff to be killed. She worked in the cinema as an usherette. Mr. Herbert Brackpool was busy in his bakehouse making jam tarts. Suddenly the roof split open and through the opening fell the bodies of four women. All four were dead. Mr. Brackpool, knowing that his son was at the cinema rushed to join the rescue workers. Presently one of Mr. Brackpool's colleagues came across the boy's dead body.

A little further up the road from the cinema, a large ironmonger's shop received a direct hit and a fire spread rapidly. The company secretary had a miraculous escape. He was near the top of the building which was four stories high when he suddenly felt himself falling. He went through two floors before coming to a rest. He was able to cling to a ledge - behind him another room was blazing - until rescued by ladders.

The fire spread rapidly to the adjoining premises on the south-side, a cycle shop and the jeweller's, which, like the ironmonger's was gutted by nightfall. Further destruction was wrought in another street where some old buildings stood. A small millinery shop received a direct hit and collapsed killing the manageress. A builder's premises next door was burnt to the ground and a ladies' gown shop was wrecked. A number of members of staff were killed or injured.

Another bomb dropped to the rear of a stationer's shop - one of the oldest buildings in the town. The proprietor and his wife have since died from their injuries.

The work of all branches of the Civil Defence was magnificent. Shortly after the bombs fell the N.F.S. were on the scene pumping water on the burning buildings. They managed to save a public house and a warehouse from total demolition and by nightfall they had the fires under control. Rescue squads, assisted by soldiers, members of the Home Guard, Special Police, and many ordinary citizens went straight to their task and worked grimly throughout the night. Mr. Frederick Whales, a railwayman who is also an air raid warden, unearthed the body of his niece, Molly Stiller.

E.G. Outsell, a sergeant of the special police, reported for duty despite the fact that he suffered injury by a machine-gun bullet. He was outside his shop when the plane machine-gunned the town and received a graze across his stomach from a bullet. After treatment he went on duty. Special Constable Golding was in a train that was machine-gunned and on his arrival home he found that his daughter had gone to the cinema for the first time for many months. Despite his great anxiety he reported for duty and later was relieved to hear that his daughter, except for cuts and bruises, was safe. Special Constable Prodger was on duty throughout the night knowing, too, that his daughter was in the cinema. She was among the killed.

Eric Parsons escaped from this ordeal because of his interest in rabbits. "I go to the cinema every Friday evening" he said. "This was the first Friday I have missed for months. Instead of spending my money on the pictures I saved it in order to enter my two rabbits in our school rabbit show."