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How much time did people have to take shelter during the Blitz in 1940-41?

How much time did people have to take shelter during the Blitz in 1940-41?


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Birmingham: In a BBC History article, An Air Raid Incident from World War Two relating the experiences of a Birmingham teenager during the Birmingham Blitz, the writer says (my highlighting):

As soon as the siren sounded, Daddy would prepare to leave the house taking with him some cushions and the little lamp, plus a few odds and ends. Mother would then make a flask of tea or coffee and sometimes soup, some sandwiches and a biscuit tin full of cookies.

This family, at least, doesn't seem to have been in too much of a hurry to take shelter (even if the water was already boiling). Note also the use of the habitual 'would', implying predictability.

London: From what I've read about the London Blitz (7 September 1940 - 11 May 1941), there is little information on how much time people had to take shelter in London. Based on what my mother has told me - she was in London (near Lord's cricket ground) during part of the Blitz - the time between the siren going off and the first bombs falling was very inconsistent. However, my mother was only 8 or 9 at the time, it was a long time ago, and she wasn't in London for the whole duration of the Blitz so she doesn't know all the details.


Air raids (and thus sirens) could be on and off throughout the night and the warning systems were inefficient in London (though presumably they improved after a time), so it seems reasonable to conclude that predicting how much time one had to take shelter in London was difficult, at best. Also, there were apparently two warning sirens for "people doing important war work" so the 'rules' weren't the same for everyone.

In Birmingham, however, the only piece of evidence I've been able to dig up seems to imply that the time one had to take shelter was more predictable.

My questions:

1. Can anyone confirm that, in London during the Blitz (7 September 1940 - 11 May 1941), the time one had to take shelter once the air raid siren went off was unpredictable ?

2. In Birmingham, was this time more predictable? If so, is it possible to say approximately how much time people had?


Note: I would also be interested in warning times in Liverpool, Plymouth or Exeter if anyone has any information on these cities. The time period, though, should be 1940-41 and I'm not asking about the 1945 V-2 rocket as it is common knowledge that this gave no warning.


More of a guess than the actual answer…

One data point is the planes being used. The German bombers had a top flight speed ranging from around 300km/h to around 500km/h depending on the model. They were escorted by fighters and there could be dogfights before they reached their targets, so it's probably sane to think of that as a maximum approach speed.

Another data point is the extent of the radar coverage. If the map is anything to go by, and depending on the point in time, aircraft would get detected around 150km off the coast at best, and when it's nearly overland at worst.

Put another way, in the rosiest possible circumstances - that is, undetected until near UK soil, and flying full speed ahead with no RAF reception committee - a Luftwaffe bomber could theoretically be over London in a dozen minutes or so and over Birmingham in about an hour. In practice, radar would detect the aircraft a half hour earlier in both cases and the RAF would seek to intercept the Luftwaffe.

There also is a practical concern, which introduces another big unknown in this back of the envelope calculation. Namely, how long did it take for military staff to trigger the alarm systems in this or that location - after all, there's little point in having sirens run in more distant cities like Birmingham until it's established that they're a potential target.


How much time did people have to take shelter during the Blitz in 1940-41? - History

Anderson Shelters - History

In November 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain placed Sir John Anderson in charge of Air Raid Precautions. Sir John was a scientist turned politician who led the Ministry of Home Security whose responsibilities covered all central and regional civil defence organisations, such as air raid wardens, rescue squads, fire services, and the Women&rsquos Voluntary Service. It was also responsible for providing public shelters.

Anderson commissioned the engineer William Patterson to design a small and cheap shelter that could be erected in people's gardens. The first 'Anderson' shelter was erected in a garden in Islington, London on 25 February 1939 and, between then and the outbreak of the war in September, around 1.5 million shelters were distributed to people living in areas expected to be bombed by the Luftwaffe. During the war a further 2.1 million were erected.

Anderson shelters were issued free to all householders who earned less than £250 a year, and those with higher incomes were charged £7. (The equivalent figures would be around £17,000 and £470 in 2020.)

The photo on the right was taken in Islington, London in 1939. Click on it to see a larger and slightly different (and less posed?) version.

Made from six curved sheets bolted together at the top, with steel plates at either end, and measuring 1.95m by 1.35m, the shelter could accommodate four adults and two children. The shelters were half buried in the ground with earth heaped on top.

I understand - though I haven't seen the detail - that the shelters were issued free of charge to all householders later in the war. Before that, householders who had been issued with free shelters (and who didn't have big families) sometimes allowed their slightly better off neighbours to share them.

The shelters were very strong - especially against a compressive force such as from a nearby bomb - because of their corrugation. Click here for further information about their strength and durability. And their construction instructions are here.

Anderson shelters were effective only if half buried in the ground and covered in a thick layer of earth. They were therefore inherently cold, dark and damp. In low-lying areas the shelters tended to flood, and sleeping was difficult as the shelters did not keep out the sound of the bombings. Families had to build their own bunk beds, or buy them ready made. If there was a toilet at all, it took the form of a bucket in the corner.

Therefore, although some families slept in them every night, most people were reluctant to use them except after the air raid sirens had sounded - and often not even then. People were recommended to take important documents with them, such as birth and marriage certificates and Post Office Savings books. But it was difficult to remember what to do when you had just woken from a deep sleep, it was totally dark and the sirens were wailing.

Here is an aerial view of a terrace in London's Nine Elms towards the end of the war. Two shelters can be seen towards the bottom of the picture.

Another problem was that the majority of people living in industrial areas did not have gardens where they could erect their shelters. It is therefore not surprising that a November 1940 survey discovered that only 27% of Londoners used Anderson shelters, 9% slept in public shelters and 4% used underground railway stations. The rest of those interviewed were either on duty at night or slept in their own homes. The latter group felt that, if they were going to die, they would rather die in comfort.

Many families tried to brighten their shelters in various ways, and they often grew flowers and vegetables on the roof. One person wrote that "There is more danger of being hit by a vegetable marrow falling off the roof . than of being hit by a bomb!'

@UrbanFoxxxx discovered these two delicious photos, proving, as she said, that "An Englishman's Anderson shelter is his castle, and he will bloody well decorate it within an inch of its life if he so pleases". I particularly like the mock Tudor effect, so beloved of significant suburban dwellers. (You can click on both photos to enlarge them.)

In best "Keep Calm and Carry On!" mode, a 1940 edition of Good Housekeeping magazine carried a recipe and decorating instructions for this Christmas cake.

But others were more nervous - and with good cause. After a parachute bomb hit a nearby school, one set of Bournemouth parents - the Heaths - decided to erect their shelter indoors, and cover it with sandbags. The lovely photo below was kindly sent to me by David Heath (top right) together with his brother and sister, all looking decidedly not at all scared!

The corrugated iron roofs of most of the shelters were collected by the authorities at the end of the war. Others were sold to the householders for £1 each. These were often dug up and re-erected above ground, fitted with proper wooden doors and used as workshops or garden sheds. Click here for more information and some photos.

John Summers & Sons

This steel making company had a large steel mill at Shotton in North Wales. Its official history records that

"Even before the official declaration of hostilities, the works had moved into the production of galvanised sheets for Anderson garden air raid shelters, producing them at the rate of 50,000 a week. Prototypes were tested in the General Office area where aerial bombs weighing 500lb were detonated within 25 feet of a group of shelters and 75 tons of pig iron was piled on a shelter roof. One brave volunteer went into a shelter while a heavy concrete ball, normally used for breaking up slag, was dropped on it! The shelter was virtually undamaged and the volunteer survived to tell the tale.

The Anderson air raid shelter, made of curved corrugated steel sheet, saved many lives during the Blitz of the major cities. Designed by the British Steelworks Association in early 1939, the structure was 6ft.6 in. long, 6 ft. high and 4 ft. 6 in. wide and was made of 14 gauge galvanised steel sheet. It was sunk into the ground to a depth of three feet."

The company even designed its own shelters, improving on the standard Anderson design by manufacturing semicircular sheets which did not need to be bolted at the top, and so could be constructed more easily. Here is a photo of one of them.

Notes

Those shelters which are still in their original position, and known to the author of this website, are listed in the 'Photos & Visits' box on the home page.

There are numerous wartime photos of Anderson shelters on the web, accessible, for instance, by using Google/Images.

"Despite Hitler's orders that he alone was to decide on terror bombing, 100 planes of the Luftwaffe, acting, it seems, under a loosely worded directive from Göring . had attacked London's East End on the night of 24 August 1940. As retaliation, the RAF carried out the first British bombing raids on Berlin the following night. Hitler regarded the bombing of Berlin as a disgrace. . his reaction was to threaten massive retaliation. . From 7 September the nightly bombing of London began." - Ian Kershaw 'Hitler' p570.

German strategic bombing of the UK between 1939 and 1945 killed around 50,000 people. London, Liverpool and Birmingham were the most bombed cities, in that order. Here, to the left, is a 1945 view of the area around St Paul's Cathedral in London. Click on the image to see a much larger version.

Similar attacks on German cities killed around 500,000 - ten times as many. Many of the later attacks were carried out by Britain's Bomber Command which itself lost 50,000 crew in the conflict. The single atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed between 90,000 and 140,000 Japanese.

The V2 rocket bomb killed around 2,700 in England and destroyed around 20,000 houses, damaging another 580,000 through their enormous shock-waves.

In total, during the war, around 220,000 UK dwellings were destroyed or so badly damaged that they had to be demolished. At least 3.5 million more suffered some form of damage. Around 30% of the country's pre-war housing stock was affected in some way.

For every civilian killed, 35 were forced out of their homes by the blitz.

There is now a strong body of opinion which believes that it was a mistake for the Government to provide Anderson shelters rather than building deep bomb-proof public shelters of the sort promoted by Ramon Perera, who had overseen the building of a large number of such shelters in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). British engineer Cyril Helsby helped Perera escape to Britain as Barcelona fell to Franco's troops in 1939, but neither could persuade the British establishment to invest in more substantial shelters which would have saved many lives.

It is possible that Ministers thought that factory, transport and other workers might opt to stay in truly safe shelters rather than return to work after bombs had stopped falling, even though there was no evidence that this had happened in Barcelona. The full story was told in a TV de Catalunya "30 Minuts" documentary, produced in collaboration with Justin Webster Productions and first shown on Spanish TV in 2006.

Reports about the 'Blitz Spirit' and all that need to be received cautiously. History is, after all, written by victors and survivors. People weren't 'heroic'. They had no choice but to do their best to survive in a terrible time. Some felt abandoned by the government, and some Londoners insisted on staying in Tube stations even though this was expressly forbidden at first. Others moaned about the blackout and other restrictions which led to increased deaths caused by falls and road accidents. But the government did what it could to provide helpful advice and information, such as these posters:

For more information I recommend Richard Overy's article The Dangers of the Blitz Spirit.

Here is an interesting double page spread from the Illustrated London News of 24 August 1940. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Last - but not least - here is Noel Coward's 'London Pride' written in the spring of 1941. According to his own account, Coward was sitting on a seat on a platform of a damaged railway station in London, and was "overwhelmed by a wave of sentimental pride". Click on this rectangle to hear it.

Because of other commitments, I can no longer add further material to this website unless it concerns a standard or near-standard Anderson shelter that is still in its original position. Please email me if you might be interested in editing this site.


What Life Was Like During the London Blitz

During WWII, 150,000+ people sought shelter in London’s Tube stations each night. Over time, the various stations developed their own mini-governments.

Nearly eighty years later and an ocean away, most Americans look back at the London Blitz as a time when civilians came together across social lines, kept their upper lips stiff, and refused to panic. The reality, historian Geoffrey Field explains, is a more complicated story.

To some extent, Fields writes, Londoners really did “keep calm and carry on” (a slogan, incidentally, that the public never saw during the war). Psychiatrists had anticipated large numbers of “bomb neuroses” cases, but, on average, only two people a week showed up at emergency rooms with severe psychological symptoms. On the other hand, there were many reports of anxiety attacks, tics, peptic ulcers, miscarriages, and cerebral hemorrhages.

What misery there was, was not equally shared. It had occurred to British leaders that poor areas like London’s East End, which was home to many Jews and foreigners, could become unstable in the face of a bombing campaign. And in fact, those were the very areas that ended up with too few shelters. Within the first six weeks of the bombing, big sections of low-quality, working-class housing had fallen, and a quarter of a million people were left temporarily homeless.

The government had initially tried to keep people from using London Tube stations as shelters during the nighttime bombings, but it was quickly forced to relent. Some families showed up at stations regularly, others only during times of heavy bombing. Between 100,000 and 150,000 people might be found in the stations on any given night.

Over time, the various stations developed their own mini-governments, organized by clergymen or air-raid wardens, or by the sheltering families themselves. People divided up areas for smoking, children’s play, and sleeping, took up collections to buy disinfectants, and organized committees to settle disputes or pressure the authorities for improvements. Station committees even organized conferences to share ideas.

The self-organizing worried some officials. Home Intelligence reported that “people sleeping in shelters are more and more tending to form committees among themselves, often communist in character, to look after their own interests and to arrange dances and entertainments.”

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In fact, Field writes, the Communist party was involved in some shelter committees including in the Stepney area, where the party had already been involved in local tenant groups. Shelter representatives attended the communist-organized People’s Convention in January 1941.

In some respects, though, the London shelters did promote interclass solidarity. Positive portrayals of the working class made their way out of the shelters to the nation’s upper and middle classes. In the work of many journalists and artists who covered wartime London, including George Orwell, pro-British and socialist themes merged together.

A year earlier, the historian R.C.K. Ensor had dismissed poor London mothers as “slatternly malodorous tatterdemalions trailing children to match.” Now, photographers, artists, and writers visiting the shelters and tube stations portrayed families from the slums with quiet dignity. Field writes, “Suddenly, like London itself, they stood for the nation.”

Editors’ Note: An earlier version of this piece erroneously mentioned Jack London’s wartime writing in fact he died in 1916, but his writing was an influence on WWII-era journalists.


The dangers of the Blitz spirit

In November 1940 novelist Vera Brittain and a friend took a taxi through the ruined areas of the East End of London. On the way an air-raid alarm sounded, and a policeman stopped the taxi and warned the driver and passengers to take shelter. The taxi-man glared at the policeman with “unutterable contempt” and carried on towards Bethnal Green, with the approval of his two charges.

He told them that he slept every night on the top floor of a block of flats, that had no shelter, listening to the bombs falling around him. “Unless it has me name on it, it won’t git me,” was his conclusion. Brittain thought this was typical of the fatalism expressed by Londoners in the Blitz, firm in the belief that “destiny remains unaffected by caution”. She too on occasion, at the end of a tiring day, chose to sleep in her bed oblivious to the thudding noise of the bombs and guns around her. Brittain survived, but thousands of Londoners who defied the rational impulse to shelter did not.

Bombing deaths in Britain during the nine-month German aerial Blitz on Britain were remarkably high compared with the casualties imposed by most bombing during the Second World War. Between September 1940 and May 1941, 41,480 people were killed, 16,755 of them women and 5,184 of them children. The peak month was September 1940, when 6,968 were killed the lowest number of deaths occurred in February 1941, with 859 dead, thanks to the poor flying weather.

German bombers dropped 58,000 tonnes of bombs in 1940 and 1941. British bombing of Germany in 1940 cost just 950 deaths and in 1941 a further 4,000, inflicted by 50,000 tonnes of bombs dropped by the RAF on European, principally German, targets. It took 10 tonnes of bombs to kill one German but only 1.3 tonnes to kill a Briton.

The popular explanation for this disparity relies on two surviving myths of the bombing war. First, that German bombing was deliberately terroristic, targeted at civilian populations to force British surrender second, that RAF bombers only hit military targets, including factories, and spared the civil population as far as possible. Neither of these arguments stands up to scrutiny.

The German air force targets were the docks with their associated storehouses and transport facilities, the aircraft engineering industry in the Midlands, and the administrative and financial centre of London. Adolf Hitler explicitly rejected the idea of terror-bombing for its own sake, partly from fear of retaliation on German cities, partly from the fact that it made greater strategic sense to bomb Britain’s ports and food stocks in order to force Britain to negotiate rather than suffer the damaging effects of blockade.

The RAF, on the other hand, gave up bombing only military-economic targets in 1940 and by July 1941 was formally directed to target working-class residential areas. British bombing, however, was so inaccurate that a high proportion of bombs fell on the countryside, not always harmlessly, but in districts that were sparsely populated.

Why did German bombing lead to such a heavy toll?

Why then did German bombing exact such a heavy toll? Part of the answer lies in simple facts of geography. German bombers on the coast of north-west Europe were close to British targets, most of which were at or near the coast and as a result much easier to find and hit because of the coastal or estuary outline. The main ports, including London, had easily identifiable dock areas where a high concentration of bombs was dropped.

Around the docks clustered poorly constructed working-class housing, crowded with the families of dockworkers and labourers, which were regularly hit because of their proximity to the chief targets. In the raids on Birmingham and Coventry, heavy damage was sustained by the engineering industries, but here too low-cost, crowded housing abutted the factories and suffered extensive damage, chiefly from fire. Bombing at night, even for the German air force, assisted by electronic navigation aids and high levels of training, inevitably hit the areas around the docks or factories. German airmen were not shy about killing workers and their families, but it was not their principal aim.

Jonathan Boff explains how ordinary people coped with the privations of World War II and considers what parallels can be drawn with the current Coronavirus crisis

Yet geography is only part of the explanation. The high level of casualty was a product of British circumstances more than German ‘frightfulness’. The only way to protect the vulnerable populations was to ensure that they had adequate shelter, and to insist on a high standard of shelter discipline. Neither was the case in Britain.

Shelter was most inadequate in precisely those areas where the bombing was at its heaviest. Shelter discipline, despite years of publicity on effective civil defence precautions and sensible air-raid behaviour, was surprisingly lax. Every night of the bombing thousands of people chose to defy the threat by remaining out in the open, or in bed, or in their front parlours, and every night a fraction of them were killed.

What were British air raid shelters like?

The shelter programme began well before the onset of the Blitz but it was a patchy achievement, made worse by the wide differences dictated by the British class system. Middle-class householders were much more likely to have a house with a cellar or basement to convert into a makeshift bunker, or a garden where one of the metal Anderson shelters, made available in their millions during 1940, could be dug into the earth. Better-off residents found it easier to move to the country, staying in hotels or lodgings or with friends, and in many cases already lived in the suburban outskirts rather than the crowded city centres. In poorer districts the local residents who had no access to a secure public shelter, and no cellar, crowded where they could – under bridges, in tunnels, warehouse basements or caves. In London, thousands of them sheltered in the Underground system, though even at the peak the stations housed only a tiny fraction of the Londoners threatened each night by the bombs.

The local authorities responded to the prospect of bombing by building a large number of the cheapest and most easily constructed shelters. These consisted of trenches and pavement shelters made of brick and concrete. The trenches were often waterlogged and in many cases without the internal construction necessary to prevent the sides from collapsing or to avoid the effects of bomb blast, which in simple trenches could kill all the occupants huddled inside. The pavement shelters, jerry-built in their thousands all over Britain, gave no protection from a direct hit or from a bomb falling nearby or from the collapse of a nearby building. Some had thick concrete roofs which collapsed and crushed the occupants when the weaker brick walls gave way. In some boroughs there was no proper cement for low-priority building and poor-quality mortar had to be used. The result was the collapse of some of the shelters after just a heavy shower of rain.

The trench and brick shelters soon had a reputation for tragedy and the local population avoided them. By spring 1941 a survey found that during raids only seven per cent of the places in trenches and eight per cent in brick shelters were actually occupied. In a survey carried out by the government scientist Solly Zuckerman it was found that 51 per cent of families that stayed in cities during the Blitz either did not or could not take shelter.

Were there enough shelters?

Both the national and local authorities knew they should try to protect the population, and millions were assisted through formal evacuation schemes, though millions chose not to leave, since it was not compulsory. There were public shelter spaces for just one tenth of the vulnerable populations, domestic shelters (which could be anything from a broom cupboard under the stairs to a well-proportioned basement) for another 40 per cent. In the districts where shelter was most likely to be needed, however, the effort to get the population to comply with basic protection was often difficult. In Hull, for example, officials found a poor response to the offer of Anderson or brick surface shelters. In one street of 26 properties, five agreed to have a shelter, nine refused, seven failed to respond, three had nowhere to put one and two were shops. Following the city-wide survey of Hull, 1,279 households cancelled their request for a shelter. This was regarded as a free choice, but those who refused found it difficult to get a shelter when they changed their mind.

Citizens were not always free to choose whether to have a shelter or not, nor were they always free to choose to shelter if there was nowhere safe for them to go. The shelter system was rough-and-ready, though it improved substantially in the year following the Blitz. There were nevertheless many people who actively chose not to shelter since it was not compulsory (as it was in Germany). To a modern audience this seems a crazy decision to make. People could also fluctuate in their sheltering habits, choosing to shelter for a few days or a week and then deciding to run the risk of sleeping in their own beds. Solly Zuckerman was so puzzled by this phenomenon that he set up an investigation in 1941 based on interviews with civil defence personnel to discover whether the bombed population was unnaturally fatalistic or else “apathetic or careless of life”, but he could find no answer that satisfied him.

How did people adapt to the bombings?

Fatalism was certainly one of the explanations. The popular slogan that the bomb that killed you ‘had your name on it’ is not just a Blitz myth, but is recorded in wartime diaries and eyewitness accounts. After a flurry of sheltering in the first weeks of the Blitz in September 1940, Londoners developed a growing insouciance. A government survey found that by the end of the month the number claiming to get no sleep had fallen from 31 per cent to just three per cent, suggesting that many now chose to spend their nights in bed rather than propped up in shelters where there were still no proper bunks. Among civil defence recollections published during the Blitz, or shortly after, there are numerous stories of bodies dug out of the rubble of their bedrooms, or of pedestrians out on the streets after the sirens had sounded, or onlookers watching a distant raid until suddenly caught out by a random bomb.

One journalist returning to her block of flats during a raid found the caretaker and his wife sitting calmly eating their supper as bombs fell outside. When she asked them why they were not afraid, the wife replied: “If we were, what good would it do us?” They carried on eating and the journalist went upstairs to bed, determined to risk the bombs as well, if the caretaker’s wife could do it.

But alongside the fatalism could be found examples of exhilaration, bravado and deliberate risk-taking. The writer Vera Brittain observed London’s wealthy bright young things “Playing No Man’s Land”, dodging the bombs during a raid to go from party to party. Others confessed that they were fascinated by the spectacle, and stood and watched from unsafe roofs and balconies rather than seek shelter. There was even a patriotic refusal to shelter, on the (certainly questionable) grounds that Hitler would have won if everyone were forced underground when the bombs started falling. One woman near Coventry decorated her home with Union Jacks and sat under them during a raid, defiantly British. Many stories of the Blitz have highlighted the bloody-mindedness of the population, so much so that British stoicism and defiance have become embedded in popular memory of the bombing. This was not a myth. British civilians died not just because of poor housing and shelter, but because they took the risk of defying the bombs rather than kowtow to Hitler.

There was no single or simple explanation, either material or psychological, for why so many chose not to shelter automatically when the sirens sounded. An illuminating example of the variety of responses can be found in the story of another London-based journalist, the New York Times reporter Raymond Daniell. After the first raids in September 1940, he found that the office boys gave up sheltering after a night or so because they lost too much money playing cards with others escaping the bombing. Daniell and his colleagues stayed above ground during raids, impervious to the request of the local air-raid warden to go down to the shelter. “Go home you German pig!” could be heard every now and again shouted out by one of the office staff.

Daniell stayed in his apartment during air raids, reading and drinking. He had a driver and car at his disposal, but during raids the driver refused to shelter and instead slept in the car in case someone should try to steal the tyres. After a few weeks of sleeping uncomfortably, Daniell had made the decision to abandon safety altogether: “It occurred to me that instead of being marked for destruction I enjoyed a special immunity from bombs. From that time on I gambled on my luck and never darkened the door of a shelter again.”

Daniell’s account, written in 1941 as the bombing was going on, reveals a variety of motives for running risks, not least the widespread distrust of the clearly inadequate shelter provision. The risks were considerable, though statistically supportable. In the end only 0.23 per cent of the London population was killed. Ordinary people, of course, did not make this arithmetical calculation but they nevertheless had a sense that the gamble was not entirely irrational. Raymond Daniell recalled that “the odds on a miss were strongly in our favour”. In areas with smaller populations and limited urban amenities, the damage was proportionally greater, and the response in places such as Plymouth, Hull or Southampton was a mass exodus into the surrounding countryside that continued in some cases for months after the bombing was ended. Here the chance of death was higher.

The high number of dead and seriously injured during the Blitz resulted from a combination of factors – the accuracy and high concentration of German bombing, the poor level of shelter provision in the dense residential areas around docks and factories, and the poor level of shelter discipline. Choosing not to shelter had many possible causes, whether from defiance, or fatalism, or ignorance, or daring.

One of the costs of the stubborn and phlegmatic British character at the heart of the Blitz story, even if it is now considered to be exaggerated or romanticised, was a higher register of dead than there would have been if the state had been more alive to the social realities facing the threatened population by providing a better shelter system or insisting on evacuation, and if the people themselves had been more willing to do what they were told.

Richard Overy is professor of history at the University of Exeter and author of The Bombing War: Europe 1939–1945 (Allen Lane)


How well did Britain ‘take it’ during the Blitz?

According to the historian Mark Connelly, the Blitz is seen as “vital to the British national identity”. It was a time where its people not only stood alone against Nazism but endured the wrath of war for over eight months in the form of an intense bombing campaign against its major cities. The Blitz began around 4.40pm on the 7 th September with a large 300 strong German bomber raid on the East End of London. In under ninety minutes, much of the docklands area of the Thames had become engulfed in a firestorm created by hundreds of incendiary canisters and high explosive bombs. The bombers would continue to return throughout the night hitting the same areas until the early hours of the following morning and it was only then that the true extent of destruction could be seen. In just twelve hours, more than 430 had been killed and over 1600 injured. Fires were still raging, communications were down and in many areas there was no gas, electric or water. Such scenes had never seen before by Londoners or by any British civilian for that matter, however they would begin to become the norm. Major raids on London continued for fifty seven consecutive nights and on the 14 th of November major raids spread to provincial cities such as Birmingham, Glasgow and Coventry. It was only on the 10 th of May 1941 that large scale attacks ended with an immense raid on London, as Hitler shifted his attention to his planned Operation Barbarossa. In only eight months over 40000 civilians were killed and a further 800000 made homeless, but it is believed that regardless of these statistics, Britain took it and took it well. The latter suggestion is subject to debate amongst many historians.

If one looks at crime statistics it is questionable as to whether Britain did ‘take it’ well during the Blitz. During late 1940 and early 1941, there was a marked rise in the cases of looting in Britain. In London alone in September 1940 there were only 539 cases of looting but within a month this figure had risen to 1662. At first glance this may appear to simply be a coincidence but the majority of these cases were directly influenced by air raids. Looting crimes mainly took place in bombed out areas where houses were unattended as owners were seeking cover in shelters or where houses were bombed out. One such example of this is in February 1941 when a London gas company inspector stated in court “that there had been more than three thousand cases of thefts from (coin-operated) gas meters, mainly in bombed houses”. Similar scenes were also seen in the provincial cities such as Sheffield, where a judge described “a perfect outburst of looting” after raids in December 1940. Cases became so frequent that an Anti-Loot Squad was established by Scotland Yard. Therefore the rise in looting may suggest that Britain did not “take it” well during the Blitz given that some seem to have resorted to low-level crime. Indeed over 14% of those convicted in the London area were only schoolchildren who had little better to do given that schools were often closed. However, a rather shocking, 42% were those in a position of trust such as firemen and Air Raid Precautions wardens, which hardly suggests a sense of community spirit or “business as usual” attitude. Also the fact that 90% had no previous convictions further demonstrates that the Blitz may have led to desperation amongst some of the population in attempt to survive. 11 Such statistics hardly suggest that Britain was taking it well with some of its citizens resorting to low level crime.

The morale of the British people during this turbulent period also provides some evidence as to whether Britain, as a whole, coped with the Blitz. As Connelly highlights, the Blitz was a time where civilians stood “shoulder to shoulder, regardless of class or creed, and withstood ‘full terror, might and fury of the enemy’. Not only this, they did it with it solidarity, dignity and, in London, with positive cockney spirit without gripe. To many historians this is seen as a myth, created simply for boosting and maintaining morale, used by the government during the war years. Public morale did not break as government had previously expected therefore the myth was cultivated and has continued to be promulgated ever since. Some such as Malcolm Smith regard it as a positive myth used to ensure Britain and its population survived, others such as Clive Poynting see it as being used to mislead the public. Regardless whether it is a positive or negative myth, it is still a myth in that morale was not always so good in both London and the provincial cities. Mass Observation reported that the so-called positive fun East End spirit that was being reported in the press in the first few days of Blitz were “gross exaggerations” and “on no previous investigation has so little humour, laughter or whistling been recorded”. A month later, an intelligence report stated “there is less of ‘we can take it’ and an inclination to say ‘this must stop at all costs’” therefore clearly suggesting the bombing of the East End was affecting morale quite rapidly. Some may argue that these examples of morale cracking are from official sources generalising the emotions of the people but there are individual cases, also, of morale breaking. One construction worker from London felt the bombings were “getting more than flesh and blood can stand, it just can’t be endured, night after night like this” and that his wife “was getting like a mad woman”. Nevertheless this was only a small minority such breakdowns did not occur on a wide scale and those few who could not cope simply left the cities.

It can be suggested that, initially, morale was worse in the provincial cities where bombing raids were more infrequent but seem to be more effective in breaking the spirit of the people. Although they were few and far between, they were shorter and more intense. More importantly these cities were smaller with denser population, therefore there was a greater feeling that everyone was being targeted unlike in London where bombing raids usually focused on the East End rather than the whole of London itself. In Coventry, where one of the most severe raids occurred, over one hundred acres of the city centre were destroyed and around 1400 were killed or injured. The city was completely ravaged with most of its shops, communications, water, electric and gas services not in operation. The BBC reported that in the centre of city “ it was impossible to see where the central streets had been” and quite understandably such death and destruction had a knock on effect on morale. Home Intelligence reported that the “shock effect was greater in Coventry than in the East End or any other area” and that there was a “great depression”, resulting in many leaving the city fearing it was “dead”. Some regard the situation in Liverpool as being just as bad or even worse where one particular civilian commented that “the people of Liverpool would have surrendered overnight if they could have” to the point that some began to demonstrate on the streets calling for peace with Germany.” Mass Observation also stated that there had been anger and discontent in many other cities but it was only in Liverpool that it really came from all different social classes and local political parties. In Swansea, the so called “Blitz myth” being pushed by the government in fact had a negative effect on the city’s population. After a journalist spoke on local radio about bombed residents walking around carrying out their day to day business quite happily, many citizens began to feel demoralised “feeling they had fallen short of some ideal standard” according to Mass Observation. Therefore it would seem that it was not only the effects of the bombing raids that were leading to poor morale but the supposed “morale preservation” propaganda of the government also. However it is important to not take this all out of context, it is quite true that morale in many cities all over Britain broke at some point during the Blitz but it did not always stay so. In Coventry, it is suggested, that morale actually improved relatively quickly and despite almost total destruction, production had returned to normal within six weeks of the raid. James Kelbrick, a civilian in Liverpool, states that even in Liverpool morale improved over time and “there was much togetherness and sharing”. In some cases civilians took pride in how they could “take it” just as well as Londoners almost creating inter-city rivalry, an idea heavily pushed by local presses. For manyit appears that the Blitz just became a way of life and it is this ability to adapt or somehow cope with such death and devastation which suggests that Britain really did “take it” quite well.

It is agreed by many historians that the official response to the Blitz was rather poor and unorganised, although British governments had discussed civil defence in the face of aerial bombardment throughout the 1930s. It was not until after the Blitz had finished that the government and local authorities had an efficient civil defence, emergency services and shelter policy. Britain lacked any form of centralised fire service which made fighting fires created by incendiary bombs extremely difficult. In 1940, Britain had around over 16000 individual fire brigades, all with varying types of equipment of which most were not interoperable. This reduced the fighting capacity of fire brigades brought into areas where local fire-fighters could not cope. Nevertheless these men fought on regardless of the inefficiency of their equipment, battling even water shortages in cities like Portsmouth and it was not until May 1941 that a uniform national fire service was established, by which time the worst was over. There was also no effective form of anti-aircraft defence, mainly due to the lack of radar technology in intercepting bombers at night or hitting them with anti-aircraft guns on the ground. Anti-aircraft guns were often simply emplaced for maintaining morale not necessarily because they fulfilled a purpose. There was also no firm policy on sheltering put forward by the government only that they, in particular Churchill, deeply disliked deep shelters or communal shelters due to the belief that they would have negative effects on morale or lead to “deep shelter syndrome” meaning people would stay below the surface and never see the light of day. Instead they focused on public basements and Anderson shelters in gardens. It appears that it was the people themselves that took matters into their own hands, particularly in London. As soon as the Blitz began, Londoners began to take in shelter in Underground stations although government did attempt to stop them. On the first day of the Blitz, London citizens in their thousands pushed their way into Liverpool Street tube station refusing to be pushed back. Eventually the gates were opened and they were allowed in before they were crushed to death. Soon enough, the government were forced to give in and allow such practice to take place. Here it can be suggested that the people themselves were more understanding in how they should “take it” than the government themselves. Had the government done everything in its capacity to ban deep shelters then Britain may not have “taken” the Blitz so well. The fact that people were taken matters into their own hands does imply that Britain was coping with the bombing raids well as they seem to have understood what made them feel safe. During heavy bombing over two hundred thousand sheltered in Underground stations, with others seeking refuge in caves, railway arches and even church halls. In the Chislehurst caves, citizens established homes and even a community with church services and entertainment. This shows an outstanding ability to adapt to the situation that was being faced and continue with day to day business. Even more so it is the willingness of nearly fifteen thousand Londoners returning every night to the ‘Tilbury Shelter’ warehouse which only had two water sources and no toilets whatsoever which shows the determination of the British people to “take it” and ride it out regardless of comfort and cleanliness. Those who could not take the Blitz directly simply left, a process that came to be known as “trekking”. For example in Liverpool over 50000 citizens left the city each night and in Portsmouth the number neared 90000. To some this may seem that some British citizens could not stand the effects of the Blitz but it can be suggested this was one way of adapting to it, as many only left at night returning the following day. It is also important to note that although these figures seem high they actually form a small percentage of the total population. In London, over 50% of its population stayed in their own homes to shelter either through lack of choice or because they simply did not want to leave. This fully demonstrates that Britain managed to deal with the effects of the Blitz very well despite lack of sheltering, civil defence and emergency facilities.

In conclusion, it would appear that Britain did “take it” very well duringthe Blitz. For many people, bombing raids became the norm and endured simply because they had very little option to do anything else. There were, of course, occasions where morale cracked but this however does not necessarily seem to be the result of the Blitz itself but of the incompetence of local authorities to act sufficiently. Both the authorities and the government seem to be slow in solving the problems of civil defence, sheltering and re-housing all of which were important to uphold national morale. It can be suggested that government were too cautious and had little confidence in the strength of the British public to pull through such tough times. This is evident through their reluctance to allow deep sheltering, which in most circumstances were the only effective means of protection from incendiaries and high explosives. It was not until November 1940 that the government gave in and begun the construction of deep shelters for around 100000 people and even then they were not completed until the Blitz was in its closing stages. In provincial cities they were even more lacking in deep shelters, but nevertheless people continued tolerating the death and destruction that the Blitz had brought upon them. Therefore Britain did “take it”, took it as well as it could given the circumstances and more importantly took it alone.


London is devastated by German air raid

On the evening of December 29, 1940, London suffers its most devastating air raid when Germans firebomb the city. Hundreds of fires caused by the exploding bombs engulfed areas of London, but firefighters showed a valiant indifference to the bombs falling around them and saved much of the city from destruction. The next day, a newspaper photo of St. Paul’s Cathedral standing undamaged amid the smoke and flames seemed to symbolize the capital’s unconquerable spirit during the Battle of Britain.

In May and June 1940, Holland, Belgium, Norway, and France fell one by one to the German Wehrmacht, leaving Great Britain alone in its resistance against Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s plans for world domination. The British Expeditionary Force escaped the continent with an impromptu evacuation from Dunkirk, but they left behind the tanks and artillery needed to defend their homeland against invasion. With British air and land forces outnumbered by their German counterparts, and U.S. aid not yet begun, it seemed certain that Britain would soon follow the fate of France. However, Winston Churchill, the new British prime minister, promised his nation and the world that Britain would “never surrender,” and the British people mobilized behind their defiant leader.

On June 5, the Luftwaffe began attacks on English Channel ports and convoys, and on June 30 Germany seized control of the undefended Channel Islands. On July 10–the first day of the Battle of Britain according to the RAF—the Luftwaffe intensified its bombing of British ports. Six days later, Hitler ordered the German army and navy to prepare for Operation Sea Lion. On July 19, the German leader made a speech in Berlin in which he offered a conditional peace to the British government: Britain would keep its empire and be spared from invasion if its leaders accepted the German domination of the European continent. A simple radio message from Lord Halifax swept the proposal away.

Germany needed to master the skies over Britain if it was to transport safely its superior land forces across the 21-mile English Channel. On August 8, the Luftwaffe intensified its raids against the ports in an attempt to draw the British air fleet out into the open. Simultaneously, the Germans began bombing Britain’s sophisticated radar defense system and RAF-fighter airfields. During August, as many as 1,500 German aircraft crossed the Channel daily, often blotting out the sun as they flew against their British targets. Despite the odds against them, the outnumbered RAF fliers successfully resisted the massive German air invasion, relying on radar technology, more maneuverable aircraft, and exceptional bravery. For every British plane shot down, two Luftwaffe warplanes were destroyed.

At the end of August, the RAF launched a retaliatory air raid against Berlin. Hitler was enraged and ordered the Luftwaffe to shift its attacks from RAF installations to London and other British cities. On September 7, the Blitz against London began, and after a week of almost ceaseless attacks several areas of London were in flames and the royal palace, churches, and hospitals had all been hit. However, the concentration on London allowed the RAF to recuperate elsewhere, and on September 15 the RAF launched a vigorous counterattack, downing 56 German aircraft in two dogfights that lasted less than an hour.

The costly raid convinced the German high command that the Luftwaffe could not achieve air supremacy over Britain, and the next day daylight attacks were replaced with nighttime sorties as a concession of defeat. On September 19, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler postponed indefinitely “Operation Sea Lion”–the amphibious invasion of Britain. The Battle of Britain, however, continued.

In October, Hitler ordered a massive bombing campaign against London and other cities to crush British morale and force an armistice. Despite significant loss of life and tremendous material damage to Britain’s cities, the country’s resolve remained unbroken. The ability of Londoners to maintain their composure had much to do with Britain’s survival during this trying period. As American journalist Edward R. Murrow reported, “Not once have I heard a man, woman, or child suggest that Britain should throw her hand.” In May 1941, the air raids essentially ceased as German forces massed near the border of the USSR.

By denying the Germans a quick victory, depriving them of forces to be used in their invasion of the USSR, and proving to America that increased arms support for Britain was not in vain, the outcome of the Battle of Britain greatly changed the course of World War II. As Churchill said of the RAF fliers during the Battle of Britain, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”


Facts about Anderson Shelters 9: the shortcoming

During the winter months, people could catch cold when they were inside the shelter. Get facts about air raid shelter here.

Facts about Anderson Shelters 10: the Anderson shelters today

Today, there are many survived Anderson shelters. Even though they are not used anymore, people use it as a garden shed.

Facts about Anderson Shelters

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During the Blitz, how long did an air raid last for?

I'm curious as to how long a single air raid would have lasted for on average. Preferably, any information/sources on the length of air raids in London (specifically in 1941) would be great.

How long did it take from the air raid siren sounding to the bombing actually beginning?

Also, was there a specific time that air raids began at (or a time that was more common)?

At home I've got the start and end times of all the raids on Liverpool, they vary considerably depending on the time of year along with other factors I presume such as the size of the force involved and weather. The enormous majority were night raids that if memory serves usually began a few hours before midnight and often lasted at least an hour or two, longer for the bigger raids.

Edit: I appreciate it was London you were after, but if it would be of interest I could dig up the data for you. Liverpool's raids began in July 1940 and ended in January 1942, with particularly heavy attacks in December 1940, March and May 1941.


Primary Sources

(1) East Grinstead Observer (23rd November, 1940)

A shocking triple shooting occurred in East Grinstead early Tuesday morning when the bodies of Phyllis Martin, aged 40, Alice Martin, her 12 year old daughter, and John Bankhurst, aged 29, their lodger, were found in their house at 20 Sackville Gardens, East Grinstead. The tragedy was witnessed by 7 year old, David George Martin.

David Leslie Martin, the father of David George Martin, told the coroner that John Bankhurst had been lodging with him for 16 months. He was a single man and was employed locally as a nurseryman. Some months ago Bankhurst started to kiss Alice Martin. David Leslie Martin took Bankhurst on one side and told him in a friendly way that he must stop it. Bankhurst broke down and said it would never happen again.

One day, a few weeks later, the witness saw Bankhurst coming out of Alice's bedroom. On Tuesday, 14th November, Alice again complained of Bankhurst's behaviour and David Leslie Martin told him he must go.

The next witness was the boy David George Martin. He said he slept with his sister, Alice. "On Tuesday morning, John Bankhurst came into the bedroom and tried to whisper to Alice, as he always did." Alice and David were still in bed. When David's mother entered the room, Bankhurst left.

"After a few moments" continued the boy: "He came back into the room with the gun he always kept in his bedroom. My mother screamed, but he did not say anything, but lifted his gun and fired. Mummy fell down. Alice screamed and tried to hide under the bed clothes and I jumped out of bed. I saw Alice pull the bed clothes over her head. I could see her hands holding the bed clothes over her head. Bankhurst raised the gun to his shoulder and fired at Alice. He turned to me and I said 'Don't shoot me John.' He just looked at me and went out of the room, upstairs to his bedroom. I waited and listened. I heard him shut the door and then heard a shot. I put some clothes on and ran off to find daddy."

P.C. Adams stated that at eight that morning he arrived at 20 Sackville Gardens. He found the body of Bankhurst in an upstairs room. The top of his head was blown away. P.C. Adams said Bankhurst had apparently knelt in front of a chest of drawers on which was a mirror so he could see what he was doing.

Sidney Herbert Thayre of 47 Buckhurst Way, East Grinstead, told the coroner that Bankhurst was his brother-in-law and that he kept the gun for rabbit shooting. "He had a bad temper. He was the sort of man who would brood over any imaginary grievance." Thayre also told the coroner that Bankhurst was expecting to be called up for military service and the prospect did not seem to please him.

(2) Justice Charles, Leeds Assizes (5th March, 1941)

More than two whole days have been occupied in dealing with cases of looting which have occurred in one city (Sheffield). When a great city is attacked by bombs on a heavy scale, numbers of houses and their contents are left exposed and deprived of their natural defences. Necessarily these are the homes of comparatively poor people, since they are by far the most numerous.

In many cases these looters have operated on a wholesale scale. There were actually two-men who had abandoned well-paid positions, one of them earning £7 (£280) to £9 (£360) a week, and work of public importance, and who abandoned it to take up the obviously more remunerative occupation of looting. The task of guarding shattered houses from prowling thieves, especially during the blackout, is obviously beyond the capacity of any police force. In view of the fact and having regard to the cowardly, abominable nature of the crime the perpetrators of which are preying upon the property of poor folk rendered homeless and often killed, the Legislature has provided that those found guilty of looting from premises damaged or vacated by reason of attacks by the enemy are on conviction liable to suffer death or penal servitude for life. Thus the law puts looters into the category of murderers, and the day may well be approaching when they will be treated as such.

(3) Justice Charles, Lewes Assizes (1st December, 1941)

Even in the midst of war one has to do something to keep law and order in the country. With the exception of about five cases, every one in this calendar is a soldier - bigamy, housebreaking, rape - and I shall be told in every case that he is an excellent soldier and that the Army cannot afford to lose him. That doesn't affect my mind in the least.

(4) Chief Inspector Percy Datlen, Dover CID (17th April, 1942)

In cases where there are several houses bombed out in one street, the looters have systematically gone through the lot. Carpets have been stripped from the floors, stair carpets have been removed: they have even taken away heavy mangles, bedsteads and complete suites of furniture. We believe it is the greatest organized looting that has yet taken place and many front line citizens who have returned to their homes to carry on their essential jobs there are facing severe financial difficulties as a result of the work of the gang.

(5) Archbishop William Temple, Evening Standard (10th July, 1943)

I commend the endurance, mutual helpfulness, and constancy, which during the "blitz" reached heroic proportions but people are not conscious of injuring the war effort by dishonesty or by sexual indulgence. There is a danger that we may win the war and be unfit to use the victory.

(6) East Grinstead Observer (10th July, 1943)

Marjorie Helen Brooker (20) of 7 West View Gardens, East Grinstead, was charged with the death of her newly born female child by wilfully neglect. The girl's sister, Mrs. Virginia Evans (22) and Corporal George Palmer (23), a Canadian soldier, was charged with endeavouring to conceal the birth of the child by the secret disposition of the body in some rushes at Worsted Farm, East Grinstead. Marjorie Brooker pleaded guilty to the concealment of the birth and the plea was accepted by the prosecution. At the birth of the of the child she thought she must have fainted, and when she recovered, the child was dead. She placed the body in a suitcase under the bed. The following Saturday she took the suitcase downstairs and gave it to her sister. Marjorie Brooker told Detective Constable Miller that Corporal George Palmer was asked by Mrs. Virginia Evans to get rid of the child's body which was in the suitcase. Palmer said he did not like doing so but he would do it as a favour to her. Palmer returned with the suitcase empty.

(7) MP for Grantham, House of Commons (25th May, 1944)

It is unfit for a woman to walk unescorted through the town at night or in the daytime, due to the ineffectiveness of the American military authorities to deal with the improper behaviour of the American forces and the complete failure to prevent unconcealed immorality and give proper protection to women.

(8) Edgar Lustgarten, The Murder and the Trail (1960)

The brash American, physically strapping but of stunted mental growth, consigned by army order to an unfamiliar land, sought to impress the natives with his own superiority by aping the habits of a gunman or a thug. The poverty-stricken adolescent refugee from Neath, frail alike in body and in mind, vaguely aspiring but completely talentless, sought a pitiable escape in fantasies inspired by the spurious appeal of gangster films. A world convulsion brought this pair together, at a moment when life was cheap and violence sanctified under such conditions the union was deadly. It was like holding a lighted match to dynamite, having first ensured that the latter was exposed.

(9) Keith Simpson, Forty Years of Murder (1978)

On 17th July 1942, a workman helping to demolish a bombed Baptist church premises in Vauxhall Road, South London, drove his pick under a heavy stone slab set on the floor of a cellar under the vestry and prised it up. Underneath lay a skeleton with a few tags of flesh clinging to it, which he assumed to be the remains of another victim of the Blitz. He put his shovel under the skeleton and lifted it out. The head stayed on the ground.

Detective Inspectors Hatton and Keeling, who were called in to investigate, wrapped the bones in a brown paper parcel and took them to the public mortuary at Southwark, where I inspected them the next morning. The sight of a dried-up womb tucked down in the remains of the trunk established the sex. There was a yellowish deposit on the head and neck. Fire had blackened parts of the skull, the hip, and the knees.

Could she have been the victim of a bomb explosion? Hardly likely, considering she had been lying neatly buried under a slab of stone, neatly set in the floor of a cellar this was no bomb crater. The detectives told me there had been an ancient cemetery on the site: could the body have been there fifty years? I shook my head. Soft tissues do not last so long. I thought the body was only about twelve to eighteen months dead. The church had been blitzed in August 1940, almost two years before.


Watch the video: Word Blitz Solver (May 2022).