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 and quickly made plans for the evacuation of children from Britain's large cities.
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. There were also accidents that persuaded people not to use these shelters. On one occasion all the occupants of a purpose-built shelter in London drowned when it was "filled to the brim" by a burst water main.
The government passed legislation that attempted to control people's behaviour in air raid shelters. If someone was found to "wilfully disturb other persons in the proper use of an air raid shelter" he could be sent to prison. In December 1941, fifty-three-year-old George Hall was sent to prison under this legislation. In fact, he was guilty of snoring in a shelter. He had been warned by the shelter marshal but continued to snore and was eventually arrested by the police for the offence. When the judge sentenced him to 14 days in prison he replied "I can't help what I do when I'm asleep".
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. One night 178 people suffocated at Bethnal Green station after a panic stampede.
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.
Eventually the government decided to build eight shelters, far below ground, in central London. Each one of these shelters could house 8,000 people. Although these shelters provided excellent protection, they fulfilled no practical purpose as they were not finished until the Blitz was over.
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.
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.
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".
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.
Most of the tube stations were taken over as shelters, as there weren't enough big public shelters that people could get to. Russell Square Station was one of these. I remember on several occasions coming back from the theatre by tube, and when I got out at Russell Square they had put bunks all along the platform, and you'd see "women putting on their face- cream, doing up their curlers and getting right for the night. Of course you'd politely not stare at them because they were in their bedrooms. I remember there was a little bit of snobbery about stations. I heard one woman say, 'Oh, us and our family go to Regent's Park now, it's nicer people.' And the children used to go for rides on the tube. At least their mothers knew where they were, and it was much safer than the street.
The bomb had struck the church at an angle through a window in a most extraordinary way and had penetrated the floor and burst among the shelterers, mostly women and small children. Here George Thorpe, whom we knew as 'Bert', lost his life with those women and children whom he had visited to reassure them - as he always did, although he was not the shelter warden. He knew that they were apt to become nervous and needed moral support in the heavy raids and he used to drop in there to boost up their courage and cheer them up. He had just dispatched Jo Oakman on duty and gone there when the bomb fell. The bomb exploded right amongst the shelterers. A woman who was in the shelter told me about it when I visited her afterwards in St Luke's Hospital. She was badly injured and said that the scene resembled a massacre - in fact she compared it to an engraving she had seen of the massacre of the women and children of Cawnpore in the Indian Mutiny, with bodies, limbs, blood, and flesh mingled with little hats, coats, and shoes and all the small necessities which people took to the shelters with them. She said that people were literally blown to pieces and the mess was appalling. She herself was behind a pillar or buttress which protected her somewhat; and there was a pile of bodies between her and the explosion for it was still daylight - no one had gone to their bunks.
JO and Len Lansdell were quickly at the scene, followed by all the ARP Services. They could not get into the crypt at first because the body of a very heavy woman barred the only entrance. The explosion had set fire to the great heaps of coke stored there for heating the church and the smoke from it made it difficult to see. JO and Len Lansdell immediately set to work with stirrup pumps to try to extinguish it before the whole place became a crematorium. The body of Bert lay there face downwards. JO, who had spoken to him only a few minutes before the bomb fell, turned him over. She said afterwards that she wished so much that she hadn't, so that she could have remembered him as he had been when he had sent her on duty. His equipment, which was taken back to his post, was described to me as being bright red with blood - as was everything which had been in that crypt.
The work of the ARP Services that night was magnificent - by nine o'clock in the evening the casualties were all extricated and were laid in the grounds of the church with the Home Guard in charge, and wonderful work was done by Dr. Castillo and Father Fali, of Tarapore. In our First Aid Post we had numbers of casualties again, including some rare and interesting fractures which DR Graham Kerr commented on for the instruction of us VADs. To watch her at work, deft, neat, cheerful, and competent, was a lesson in itself.
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.
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.
The migration to the Caves has brought to our doors a splendid chance of service, for nearly 5,000 South Londoners are there... Helpers are wanted in the kitchen at the Rest House from 10 to 2 each day, where we serve anything from 80 to 200 hot dinners... Helpers are wanted for the canteen, where about 1,000 cups of tea are made each night. Call at the canteen in the Caves . . . round about 6 o'clock, taking with you two or three rugs (for a night in a deck-chair) and being prepared to share the morning duty at 5 a.m. Gifts of old clothing for men and women are wanted.
"For the first time in many hundreds of years," Mass Observation pointed out, "civilized families conducted the whole of their leisure and domestic lives in full view of each other. Most of these people were not merely sheltering in the Tubes; they were living there."
Queues began to form outside the stations as early as six in the morning. Children or servicemen on leave would be sent to establish priority for their families - 'The constant worry', writes Bernard Kops, 'was whether we would find a space for that night. We lived only for four o'clock when they let us down.' Spivs joined in, to reserve places on the platform for which they would charge half a crown or more when the raid 'hotted up'. Rain, wind, and even daylight bombing did not shift the queues.
Two white lines had been painted on the platforms. Until seven thirty in the evening, shelterers must keep within the one drawn eight feet from the edge, leaving the rest for passengers. From eight until ten thirty, they might encroach as far as the second line four feet from the edge. Then the Tubes stopped running; the light was dimmed; the current was cut off in the rail. People would sling hammocks over the rails, and would walk a little way down the dark tunnel to relieve themselves. In the early days, the platforms were packed tight, and people slept on the escalators or even on the bannisters between them. The snoring rose and fell like a loud wind.
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.
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.
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.
I remember that if the siren went at home before midnight, you had to be at school at quarter to nine, but if it went after midnight you didn't have to be there until dinner time. The school shelters were on the playing fields in two lines, the first marked Mixed Infants, the second marked Juniors. I can remember that very vividly. It was very dark during the lessons we had in the shelters; I can still smell the horrid smell, very musty and damp. You sat in lines, and as soon as the siren went you lined off, 'Tallest at the back, shortest at the front, hands on head, single lines, no talking, lead off - that sort of thing. The teacher went first into the shelter with a torch', and then once you were in you numbered off. As it was dark, lessons consisted of tables, and spelling was a great one. Also the teacher used to read by torchlight, she used to read stories and ask us questions about them. We also worked with bean-bags, passing them round, feeling them and estimating the number of beans. And you couldn't come out until the clock monitor had counted up to three hundred - that was five minutes.
One small Salvation Army canteen hands out penny cups of tea (the queue may be a hundred long). One water-tap serves all these thousands. And the sanitation? A handful of lavatory buckets in the dark, behind a canvas screen. And all this while good shelters are shut to the people big business buildings, vast pyramids of steel and concrete, deep below which is a labyrinth of rooms and passages which could shelter thousands, are locked to the public at night, and great notices are posted outside, saying, 'This is not a Public Shelter'.
All was not gloom and doom at this time especially as a young girl who perhaps was sheltered to a certain extent, not realising the full extent of what was happening. When the air raids got extremely bad we had to go to the air raid shelters, that's where I learned to dance and do the Jitterbug to the sounds of the bombs falling around us. We all made a point of enjoying our lives to the full because we were all aware that each day could be our last. It was really strange on reflection as facing the reality of death at any time no one seemed to moan or complain too much unlike nowadays when such problems are a thing of the past for us in this society.
I had a dog, a Selium named Bob, and I walked him daily and I do recall on one particular day when there was a bad air raid shrapnel was falling all around us. An Air Raid Warden shouted at me to take cover but they would not let me take my dog in the shelter and I was not prepared to abandon him so I ran all the way home, we were very lucky to get home safely.
Quite often the German Bombers would off load their deadly cargo over Chingford if they could not penetrate the Barrage protecting London. One evening my father, mother and myself were just opening the back door to go to the air raid shelter in the garden when there was a terrible explosion and an enormous whooshing sound! The next thing I recall was that we were all blown back through the house to the hall and landed in a heap. We soon learnt that the Bombers had dropped their bombs into the fields at the back of our house it was a miracle that no damage was sustained.
When the sirens sounded, it was works policy to leave the factory and file quickly into the shelters. One day, a bomb made a direct hit on one of the shelters at the Filton Aerodrome works, killing all the people inside. Later that day, all the other employees at Filton had been sent home because of the tragedy. They had arrived home white and shaken, none of them being able coherently to tell the story, and wondering how their friends and workmates could ever be properly buried. The shelters at Filton were never re-opened, but were sealed over and became a tomb.
After that, we were not so inclined to use the shelters at our works but would get right away from the place and run into the fields instead. Some of the men would make a bee-line for the pubs if they were open, but I enjoyed fresh air and the break from the dusty atmosphere of the machine shop. It cleared my head so that I was more alert when I returned.
There was a shelter just underground with about 18 inches of concrete roof. The whole thing was blown to bits. He was superintending the digging out of the bodies. 'I don't want to be on another job like that again. There were heads and arms and legs and feet lying about. The only way you could tell the girls from the men was because of their hair. Their faces were all blown away. There were a lot never identified.' I say it must affect the men who are digging them out badly. He says it doesn't affect you at the time but afterwards. 'It's not the sight of the bodies. I tell you what it is - it's the smell. The smell of human flesh and the blood. It gets you afterwards. Two or three days after that I felt myself heaving.' We talk over the question of shelters again. I remark on the surface shelter with the crater just where it was and blown to bits at Victoria, which I saw from a bus. He says that was only done a few days ago. 'And yet they go on putting them up.' I ask how far underground a shelter ought to be to be safe. He says it depends on all sorts of things, the way it is constructed, and so on. He tells me of an experiment that was made on a shelter somewhere. It was underground and covered over by 24 feet square of concrete. They dropped an aerial torpedo on that to see if it would hold but it went straight through the concrete and blew it all up. '24 feet mind, that's a lot.' I ask him what he thinks about the Haldane type of shelter. He says he has never heard of it. I describe as well as I can from my untechnical mind what it is like, and why it is called by that name. He says it sounds like the tubes with circular steel girders, and says that's as safe as anything could possibly be. In fact absolutely safe. I say I will try and get a pamphlet about it for him, and tell him about the deputation to the Home Office (which I heard of from Abe Lazarus speaking at a very well attended and enthusiastic open air meeting at Bristol). I expect you know the story - but in case not. A deputation of 40 people, representatives of various T.U.s, C.P. and other organisations, went to Sir John Anderson at the Home Office. They were received by a secretary there. Their demand was for underground shelters of the Haldane type to be built in all dangerous areas where there was no adequate protection. Whilst they were talking an air-raid alarm went. They were told they would have to go out in the street and find a public shelter as the shelter at the Home Office could not accommodate 40 extra people. They refused to go and insisted on going down to the Home Office shelter. When they got down there, they found the Home Office had a perfect Haldane shelter of the exact type that they were asking for for the people.
There was a terrific flurry of building shelters in early 1940. There were two kinds. One, you built in the garden. This was called an Anderson shelter. A local builder dug a deep hole and shored up the walls with boards. Then he'd put a piece of corrugated iron over the top and fill it in with earth. It was comfortable for four, just enough for a family. There was no room for neighbors.
Being in the shelter was like having a little den. You'd go down there and have secret meetings and take candy and chocolates. You'd pretend you were hiding from something. It was fun.
If there wasn't time to run outside when the air raid sounded, there was a shelter built inside the house. This was called a Morrison shelter. It was built with beams and struts in the middle of the living room. You could get under this thing and if the house fell down around you, it would bear all the weight. It was like getting under a very, very strong table.
There were two kinds of sirens. The alert itself was an up-and-down howling sound. It went on for about three minutes. At this, you were supposed to take cover. The all-clear was a long single note, without any wails. It was like living in a boy's adventure story. We really wished something would happen. When the siren went off and nothing happened, we were disappointed. When the all-clear was heard, we were doubly disappointed.
The town munitions factory - the British Manufacturing and Research Company - which came to the town in 1938, was an obvious target, as was the junction of the Great North Road and the Northern Railway Line - the latter within a few hundred yards of our house. My father was frequently out in the evenings on air raid duty. During air raids we would crawl under the table for shelter - we had no outside shelter for we had no garden - until the 'all clear' sounded. On one occasion, coming back from school with my friends, carrying our gas masks, we made a dive for the shelter of a large tree as someone called out that the aircraft overhead was German.