Protection and Air Raid Shelters


Shops, public buildings and some monuments suddenly became hidden behind hordes of man made sandbags. This was one of the first precautions that was undertaken in protecting buildings from the perils of a bomb blast. Many shopkeepers placed sandbags across their street frontages, and also took steps to strengthen their basements, so that in the event of an air raid customers would feel secure. It paid dividends to the shopkeeper too, because shoppers gave preference to shops that had the necessary precautions, and many thought it a wonderful gesture on behalf of the shopkeeper. If there was an air raid, then customers would feel far more secure in a shop that had precautions than being caught out in a shop that had none at all.
In some of the larger stores, especially those in such places as Piccadilly, Regent Street, Oxford Street and High Holborn they converted underground store rooms into large air raid shelters, and even employed their own air raid wardens and security personnel. Stores such as Selfridges and C & A's which normally had long glass front window displays were completely boarded up with timber panels and sandbags.

Sand and soil was brought in from various places in and around London, and one of the most popular excavation sites was on Hampstead Heath, where large channels were dug by cranes and mechanical excavators. Other places that were a source of supply were the many sports grounds and parks and once sand and soil were excavated it was taken by lorry to various points around the city and men, women and even children volunteered to undertake the filling.

Sandbag filling
Some of the methods used in the sandbag filling and stacking was not always up to service standards, and sometimes in bad weather many walls of bags collapsed, in some cases doing damage, but however they were made, just having the sandbags there gave the community a sense of security and well being.  When sandbagging was introduced, it was the start of the people of London pulling together for a good cause. Many treated it as quite a fun time, but it was far better doing this than sitting at home doing nothing. Children loved it, and they regarded the whole ordeal as a bit of fun and excitement, and for once, even the children where made to feel important.

But it made no difference as to where one went, sandbags were everywhere. Even hospitals, and although these were more often than not two or three stories high, tall columns of sandbags lay around the base almost as if they were propping the building up.

But the sandbags would only give protection to the lower floors, the upper floors, because of their height, could only have their windows boarded up and taped to avoid any splinters of glass from entering the wards should a blast penetrate the windows. any splinters of glass from entering the wards should a blast penetrate the windows.


With such a vast population, London had to have some form of shelter for its inhabitants. The building of communal shelters in various parts of the city was an action decided against because should such a shelter receive a direct hit, then a greater number of people would be killed than if there were a form of shelter that could be used for individual use. A number of communal brick and steel mesh shelters were constructed, and these were placed in various streets throughout the city as seen in the photo in the title. They were long, generally had entrances/exits at both ends, were about thirty to forty feet long and could accommodate up to a hundred people, although uncomfortably. Most of them were damp, cold and miserable, they had no windows and even the outside daylight was diffused because a security wall separated the entrance from the shelter.

It was the Home Secretary Sir John Anderson who devised a plan that a simple shelter could be constructed with the use of six curved corrugated steel panels with five flat corrugated panels and that they could be assembled easily by the home handyman and that they could be installed in the backyard of any home. First, a shallow square hole had to be dug in the ground of the backyard, this usually measured about ten feet by four feet. Then you erected the six sides bolting them together, the curved ends formed the roof of the shelter. Then the rear section was put into place followed by the front in similar fashion except that provision was made for an entrance. Many families placed a raised flooring system inside so that any water or seepage that got in would be below the floor. Usually two beds were placed on either side, these may be single or bunk beds depending on the number of children the family had, if any. A small table was generally placed between the beds and small cupboards and bookcases or bookshelves were close to the entryway. There was no hard and fast way in which the interior had to be designed, this was generally up to each individual. But you had to take into consideration that being as you was possibly going to spend just about every night down in the shelter, you had to somehow stock up with non-perishable foodstuffs, a canister of water, and if you had children there was always a supply of boxed games, books and other things to help pass the time.

It was recommended by the authorities that families do not construct toilets in the shelters because of health reasons, but there were not too many shelters that did not have a bucket or a pot at the end of the bed for emergencies. The entrance was normally just a piece of sackcloth, although some handymen managed to make opening doors to their wartime abode.

Some exteriors of these shelters also came in for a variety of designs. Many covered the top of the shelter with earth and made small gardens above the shelter where they grew a few vegetables, some were satisfied with just flower beds, while others just painted them.

By September 1939, nearly one and a half million Anderson shelters had been distributed without cost to families whose income was less than 250 per year, and they could be erected by either the home owner or the local council. When first erected, they became the pride of many families. High mounds of earth covered the shelter and all over the top was a brilliant display of colourful flowers, while the inside of the shelter was used to do some of the usual gardening chores such as repotting and nursing new seedlings. When the bombing started and families had to use the shelters for the purpose for which they were designed, they took an instant dislike to having to spend all night confined in a small place with very little air circulation, often damp and waterlogged underfoot. Quite often mum and dad took the wise precaution of sandbagging one of the rooms in the house and took the chance on being bombed rather than catch pneumonia, and the Anderson shelter was left to the daughter and her boyfriend for a little privacy.

"The local council came round and delivered the shelters to each of the households down the street, they took them straight off the lorry, and dumped the lot onto the front lawn, I remember the old man being annoyed that they broke some of his best Dahlias, but the workers didn't care. We had fun, in a funny sort of way putting them up. No one wanted these hideous things in bits and pieces lying on the front lawn, so everyone decided to put them up straight away.

I felt honoured, I was given the task of sorting out all the bits and pieces and putting them in some sort of order while dad and my big brother dug a large square hole, looking like something like a huge grave. Bits of soil kept falling into the hole and worms kept wriggling about. It was fun. We stopped and had tea breaks with our neighbours that were doing the same thing. With the hole three feet deep as per councils requirements, we then placed the steel corrugated sheets in place. Didn't take long really, now we were going to finish it off. Dad drilled holes and put a normal door on as we had a spare one lying around, and placed two inch wide slats on the floor resting on bearers to keep our feet dry in case water seeped into the hole.

When the council inspector came round to inspect the shelter, which was by now dads pride and joy, he passed it with the exception that we had to take the door off, and all that we were allowed to place over the doorway was a sack or blanket. Dad was annoyed, but used a couple of panels from next door as they had no family and made only a smaller shelter. With a couple of hinges we had metal swinging doors. We placed sandbags down both sides and filled in the top of the shelter with dirt and dad had another garden bed.
When the war came, mum always made sure that everything was ready in the shelter, just in case. Oil was put into the hurricane lamp, the beds were always made, she made sure that there was a change of clothing in the clothes cupboard and that there was a supply of books and games.

When the siren went off, we would be ushered down into the garden, sometimes in the dark to the shelter, everyone would take their usual place and we would be prepared to stay even for the night. We listened, and huddled together as the air raid took place outside, sometime clouds of dust came through the cracks in the doorway '...boy that was a close one' and the ground shook, the cups and bunks also vibrating. This sometimes went on for two, three or even four hours. As the bombing died down and all seemed to be silent again except for the bells of ambulances or fire engines, you waited for the 'all clear' siren to go, sometimes it seemed a long time coming, but you would not venture out until it had sounded. When it did, you went out into the darkness, and the first thing you did was to look for your own house, and it was always a relief to see it still standing there."

Ida Greenwood Surrey, England.
I am indebted to Mrs Greenwood who sent this experience via her son to me by e-mail. This related to Ida's experience when she lived in Bethnal Green which is a suburb in London.
In London, one of the most popular methods of sheltering from an impending air raid was down one of the many deep underground stations. The one advantage was that there was one station for just about every suburb or borough in London itself. One of the advantages of using the underground station as a shelter was companionship. Here, unlike the concrete street shelter, or the backyard Anderson Shelter, the London Underground gave, not only a great sense of security, but toilets, lighting, friends, and usually room to move. In all, it is estimated that 170,000 people used the Underground as their means of shelter, which although it does sound like a great number of people, it was really only a small percentage of the total population of London itself.

At first, the government did not approve of the Underground being used for shelters. Trains on most lines were still running and there was always the possibility of someone falling under one of the fast moving electric trains. As well as this, the London Underground system worked on the "third rail system" which meant that besides the normal two rails that the wheels

Underground Stations made good shelter areas
ran on there was this centre rail that was a live rail that supplied electricity to the trains. If anybody fell onto this rail they would be electrocuted, should they also place part of their body on one of the other rails which would earth them.

The government also thought about the possibility of a station receiving a direct hit. London was full of gas and water mains, and should any of these be ruptured, then there would be the possibility of a catastrophe hundreds of feet below the surface where thousands may be either gassed or drowned.
But it was not until after the "blitz" started in September 1940 that thousands would flock into the stations, many of them paying for a single ticket to the next station, just to get onto one of the platforms. In the end, London Transport was powerless to stop the thousands that flocked to the stations for cover and protection and a sense of security. What could the officials do....throw the people out into a dangerous air raid, and be forced into the open as bombs came whistling down. The Underground became a way of life.

But what the government was afraid of, happened during a dreadful raid on the city. Balham station in the south of London was almost to capacity when the station received a direct hit. Another bomb fell on a row of shops above the station and as it exploded the shops fell into the area were the stations underground booking office was. The water mains were ruptured as well as the sewer mains, and gallons of water and raw sewerage poured into the station gushing down escalator stairways, down tunnelled walkways until finally pouring out onto the station platforms where thousand were camped for the night. In all there were 600 casualties that night, the worst underground disaster so far. In another direct hit, Bank underground station in the city proper was another scene of utter devastation, over 100 people died that night.

But still the people thronged to the Underground, to many it became an institution. They would leave home at mid afternoon knowing that full well that "Jerry" would be back again that night. They came with rolls of blankets, pillows and cartons of sandwiches and drink that would see them through the night. They would queue outside the station until they were let in and it was almost like the January sales as they pushed and shoved their way down towards the platforms to find a few square feet of space that they would declare as their own for the next twelve hours.
Very soon, bunks were being constructed along the walls of the station and with enough food to see them through, radios. gramophones, and sometimes a 'live' comedian, night time down the "tube" was to become a ritual.

But it was not always the underground stations that became the night time hub of sheltering people. Near many of the marshalling yards near to London, and especially in the east end, there were small tunnels and long underground bridges that, although they were being used by rail traffic during the day, at night they became home to thousands who wanted security over their heads.

"With my home being in Shoreditch, I had many duties in the area around Bishopsgate and Liverpool Street Station. The underground station at Liverpool Street was a mecca for thousands who sought shelter, mainly because of the main railway terminus from the east coast, and many buses terminated close by. Often I found people almost sleeping on top of each other, there was just not a spare bit of space anywhere else on the platform. But it was those people who sought shelter at the goods yards of Bishopsgate that I felt sorry for. The camped in dark and dingy tunnels that were damp and cold. Their only illumination was from the lamps brought by about half of them and with little ventilation the tunnel stank of oil, and seemed to smart the eyes.

But the worst sight that I saw was when a relative of mine who lived in Canning Town was bombed out and we went over to help them and to bring them back to our home until they could make other arrangements.

We really stayed too late, and as we made our way back towards Shoreditch, we got caught up in an air raid as we approached Stratford. The bombs started to drop and Stratford had a huge railway depot and sidings. Something must have got hit as we went down West Ham Lane, barricades had been put up and we had to drive through the back streets. Down a side road just before we approached the main road that was to take us through Bow, Mile End and Whitechapel, we had to stop and take refuge in a tunnel that was on the Stratford - North Woolwich line.

I do not know how many people were down there, it was cold, the ground was wet with water and it was dark. I used my torch to find my way through, and I could see people huddled together, they seemed like tramps or gypsies to me. They were unclean, and stank. I almost felt sick, and my stomach turned over. When did these people last wash, men were urinating against the walls of the tunnel, and everywhere there were signs of human excrement everywhere. Where was the pride of these people, how could they live like this, I felt ashamed that these people were Londoners the same as I was."

George Martin, ARP Warden Shoreditch London.
Whichever way you look at it, the underground was to most people a way of life, a ritual, and something that they became accustomed to during the nights of continuous bombing of London. Later, and during the night when some of the trains had stopped, many bands came down into the stations and turned underground stations into music halls with music, songs and entertainment. What a way to enjoy the war. While other just listened to the radio.

     Stewart Ross Home Front 1960
     Marion Yass The Home Front Wayland Ltd 1971
     Gordon Bromley - London Goes to War 1939. Michael Joseph 1974

The Battle of Britain - 1940 website Battle of Britain Historical Society 2007