Air Raid Precautions

In September 1935, the British prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, published a circular entitled Air Raid Precautions, 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.

In August 1938 Adolf Hitler began making speeches that suggested he was going to send the German Army into Czechoslovakia. The British government now began to fear a war with Nazi Germany and Neville Chamberlain ordered that Air Raid Precautions (ARP) volunteers to be mobilized. Cellars and basements were requisitioned for air raid shelters and trenches were dug in the parks of large towns. The government also ordered the flying of barrage balloons over London.

In November 1938, Chamberlain placed Sir John Anderson in charge of the 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 these 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.

The 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.

In March 1940 the government began to build communal shelters designed to protect around fifty people living in the same area. Made of brick and concrete they provided more protection than garden shelters. However, within a couple of months there was a severe shortage of cement and this slowed down the building of these shelters.

During the Blitz the deep trenches dug in parks in 1938 were lined and covered with concrete or steel. These trenches could normally hold some fifty people. They were impossible to keep waterproof and were very uncomfortable during air raids.

Some people left the city every night. Special trains were run from London every night to Chislehurst in Kent where people slept in the caves in the area. Some people set up home in the caves and others established shops to serve the growing number of people seeking safety in Chislehurst. Music concerts and church services were also held in the caves.

Another popular place to go in London during air raids was the Tilbury Arches in Stepney. The local council took over this collection of cellars and vaults and turned them into a large public shelter for 3,000 people. However it is estimated that on some nights there were over 16,000 people sheltering in the Tilbury Arches.

People in London also used tube stations during the Blitz. People would buy platform tickets for a penny halfpenny and camped on the platforms for the night. They were popular because they were dry, warm and quiet. The government, fearing that the overcrowded platforms would hamper troop movements, attempted to stop the public from using the tube stations as shelters. The people refused to give them up and the government was forced to back down. In some cases underground stations were closed down and given over to the public to use during air raids.

The tube stations were not as safe as people thought. High explosive bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe could penetrate up to fifty feet through solid ground. On 17th September 1940, a bomb killed twenty people sheltering in Marble Arch station. The worst incident took place at Balham in October 1940 when 600 people were killed or injured. The following year 111 people were killed while sheltering at the Bank underground station.

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 domestic 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.

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) Government circular, Underground stations must not be used as air raid shelters (1940)

The public are informed that in order to operate the Railways for essential movement, Underground Stations cannot be used as air raid shelters. In any event a number of stations would have to be cleared for safety in certain contingencies.

(4) 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.

(5) Leonard England, Mass Observation report on an air-raid on Southampton (4th December, 1940)

Throughout Monday there was apparently a large unofficial evacuation. Two people spontaneously compared the lines of people leaving the town with bedding and prams full of goods to the pictures they had seen of refugees in Holland and Poland. Some official evacuation took place on the Monday, but at the Avenue Hall rest centre a group of fifty waited all the afternoon for a bus to take them out; the warning went when there were still no buses, and all of them went out to shelters without waiting any longer.

On Monday evening from about 4.30 onwards a stream of people were leaving the town for the night. When Mr. Andrews left the train at the docks, he was impressed by the seeming deadness of the town; there were no cars, and hardly any people except those that had left the train with him. But farther out people were moving. The buses were full, men and women were walking with their baggage. Some were going to relations in outlying parts, some to shelters, preceded by their wives who had reserved them places, and some to sleep in the open. 'Anything so as not to spend another night in there.' Many were trying to hitch hike, calling out to every car that passed; very few stopped. This caused considerable annoyance, especially as many coaches completely empty went by.

Trains leaving were full of women and children; many had little baggage, as if they were coming back next day. The next day many returned after the night, but more were intent on getting out. In some neighbourhoods whole streets had evacuated, most people leaving a note on their doors giving their new address; one such notice read 'Home all day, away all night'. Men as well as women were leaving; one man was going to Northampton to his son's, regretfully, after 26 years in Southampton.

All day people were leaving the town with suitcases and baggage. All of these seemed to set out with a set purpose and aim but all the aims were different. Here and there, for instance, there were streams of people all with baggage. Following these streams, Mr. Andrews saw them split up, some going to bus stops, others to trains. Both trains and buses were leaving half empty, there was no great rush. People seemed puzzled by which stations were open, which buses were running, and were moving from one to the other.

The news that anybody could be evacuated by applying at the Central Hall seemed to be leaking out only slowly. One woman midday was telling everybody she met, but another at the same time was telling her friends to go out to Romsey, 'there was still room there'.

(6) British government circular Lighting Restrictions (July, 1939)

All windows, skylights, glazed doors or other openings which would show a light, will have to be screened in wartime with dark blinds or brown paper on the glass so that no light is visible from outside. You should now obtain any materials you may need for this purpose. Instructions will be issued about the dimming of lights on vehicles. No street lighting is allowed.

(7) Herbert Morrison, An Autobiography (1960)

Being Home Secretary and Minister of Home Security meant that I had in effect two jobs at one and the same time. There were two different organizations and two permanent secretaries. That was fundamentally right but there had to be some 'fitting in'. As there was one Minister that was not very difficult.

The police, for example, were under the Home Office; they had to be used by both departments. So nominally was the fire service but in fact it had to be treated as part of the Ministry of Home Security. One thing I did from the outset, and that was to go out and meet the people, to see things on the ground and talk to humble civil defence workers. I have always held the view that any head of a State department, no matter what it is, should know the public he serves and the work outside and not spend all his time behind a desk reading papers. I visited all the regions.

I also visited our active defences. The three Commands of the R.A.F., the Royal Observer Corps, which did such fine work and should have got more credit, and A-A Command. It was inspiring and useful.

Despite criticism, Sir John Anderson had organized an excellent system and the machine, as such, was in general running well. For example, the principle of Regional Commissioners was very good and the best method of securing co-ordination with and between the local authorities and maintaining civil government should invasion occur. Some newspapers unreasonably moaned about them because if the emergency reached a situation where the commissioners had to take over it was alleged that in effect the United Kingdom was run by twelve dictators if and when war occurred. In fact, the commissioners were co-operators and not dictators.