Protection and Air Raid Shelters


Shops, public buildings and some monumentssuddenly became hidden behind hordes of man made sandbags. This was oneof the first precautions that was undertaken in protecting buildings fromthe perils of a bomb blast. Many shopkeepers placed sandbags across theirstreet frontages, and also took steps to strengthen their basements, sothat in the event of an air raid customers would feel secure. It paid dividendsto the shopkeeper too, because shoppers gave preference to shops that hadthe necessary precautions, and many thought it a wonderful gesture on behalfof the shopkeeper. If there was an air raid, then customers would feelfar more secure in a shop that had precautions than being caught out ina shop that had none at all.
In some of the larger stores, especiallythose in such places as Piccadilly, Regent Street, Oxford Street and HighHolborn they converted underground store rooms into large air raid shelters,and even employed their own air raid wardens and security personnel. Storessuch as Selfridges and C & A's which normally had long glass frontwindow displays were completely boarded up with timber panels and sandbags.

Sand and soil was brought in from variousplaces in and around London, and one of the most popular excavation siteswas on Hampstead Heath, where large channels were dug by cranes and mechanicalexcavators. Other places that were a source of supply were the many sportsgrounds and parks and once sand and soil were excavated it was taken bylorry to various points around the city and men, women and even childrenvolunteered to undertake the filling.

Sandbag filling
Some of the methods used in the sandbagfilling and stacking was not always up to service standards, and sometimesin bad weather many walls of bags collapsed, in some cases doing damage,but however they were made, just having the sandbags there gave the communitya 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 thansitting at home doing nothing. Children loved it, and they regarded thewhole ordeal as a bit of fun and excitement, and for once, even the childrenwhere made to feel important.

But it made no difference as to where onewent, sandbags were everywhere. Even hospitals, and although these were more oftenthan 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 havetheir windows boarded up and taped to avoid any splinters of glass fromentering the wards should a blast penetrate the windows. any splintersof glass from entering the wards should a blast penetrate the windows.


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

It was the Home Secretary Sir John Andersonwho devised a plan that a simple shelter could be constructed with theuse of six curved corrugated steel panels with five flat corrugated panelsand that they could be assembled easily by the home handyman and that theycould be installed in the backyard of any home. First, a shallow squarehole had to be dug in the ground of the backyard, this usually measuredabout ten feet by four feet. Then you erected the six sides bolting themtogether, the curved ends formed the roof of the shelter. Then the rearsection was put into place followed by the front in similar fashion exceptthat provision was made for an entrance. Many families placed a raisedflooring system inside so that any water or seepage that got in would bebelow the floor. Usually two beds were placed on either side, these maybe 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 cupboardsand bookcases or bookshelves were close to the entryway. There was no hardand fast way in which the interior had to be designed, this was generallyup to each individual. But you had to take into consideration that beingas 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 canisterof 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 thatfamilies 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 potat the end of the bed for emergencies. The entrance was normally just apiece of sackcloth, although some handymen managed to make opening doorsto their wartime abode.

Some exteriors of these shelters alsocame in for a variety of designs. Many covered the top of the shelter withearth 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 halfmillion Anderson shelters had been distributed without cost to familieswhose income was less than 250 per year, and they could be erectedby either the home owner or the local council. When first erected, theybecame the pride of many families. High mounds of earth covered the shelterand all over the top was a brilliant display of colourful flowers, whilethe inside of the shelter was used to do some of the usual gardening choressuch as repotting and nursing new seedlings. When the bombing started andfamilies 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 asmall place with very little air circulation, often damp and waterloggedunderfoot. Quite often mum and dad took the wise precaution of sandbaggingone of the rooms in the house and took the chance on being bombed ratherthan catch pneumonia, and the Anderson shelter was left to the daughterand her boyfriend for a little privacy.

"Thelocal council came round and delivered the shelters to each of the householdsdown the street, they took them straight off the lorry, and dumped thelot onto the front lawn, I remember the old man being annoyed that theybroke 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 thingsin bits and pieces lying on the front lawn, so everyone decided to putthem up straight away.

I felt honoured, I was given the task of sorting out all the bits and piecesand putting them in some sort of order while dad and my big brother duga large square hole, looking like something like a huge grave. Bits ofsoil kept falling into the hole and worms kept wriggling about. It wasfun. We stopped and had tea breaks with our neighbours that were doingthe 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 normaldoor on as we had a spare one lying around, and placed two inch wide slatson the floor resting on bearers to keep our feet dry in case water seepedinto the hole.

When the council inspector came round to inspect the shelter, which was by nowdads pride and joy, he passed it with the exception that we had to takethe door off, and all that we were allowed to place over the doorway wasa sack or blanket. Dad was annoyed, but used a couple of panels from nextdoor as they had no family and made only a smaller shelter. With a coupleof hinges we had metal swinging doors. We placed sandbags down both sidesand filled in the top of the shelter with dirt and dad had another gardenbed.
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 alwaysmade, she made sure that there was a change of clothing in the clothescupboard and that there was a supply of books and games.

When the siren went off, we would be ushered down into the garden, sometimesin the dark to the shelter, everyone would take their usual place and wewould be prepared to stay even for the night. We listened, and huddledtogether as the air raid took place outside, sometime clouds of dust camethrough the cracks in the doorway '...boy that was a close one' and theground shook, the cups and bunks also vibrating. This sometimes went onfor two, three or even four hours. As the bombing died down and all seemedto 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 longtime coming, but you would not venture out until it had sounded. When itdid, you went out into the darkness, and the first thing you did was tolook for your own house, and it was always a relief to see it still standingthere."

IdaGreenwood Surrey, England.
I am indebtedto Mrs Greenwood who sent this experience via her son to me by e-mail. Thisrelated to Ida's experience when she lived in Bethnal Green which is asuburb in London.
In London, one of the most popular methodsof sheltering from an impending air raid was down one of the many deepunderground stations. The one advantage was that there was one stationfor just about every suburb or borough in London itself. One of the advantagesof using the underground station as a shelter was companionship. Here,unlike the concrete street shelter, or the backyard Anderson Shelter, theLondon Underground gave, not only a great sense of security, but toilets,lighting, friends, and usually room to move. In all, it is estimated that170,000 people used the Underground as their means of shelter, which althoughit does sound like a great number of people, it was really only a smallpercentage of the total population of London itself.

At first, the governmentdid not approve of the Underground being used for shelters. Trains on mostlines were still running and there was always the possibility of someonefalling under one of the fast moving electric trains. As well as this,the London Underground system worked on the "third rail system" which meantthat 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 suppliedelectricity to the trains. If anybody fell onto this rail they would beelectrocuted, should they also place part of their body on one of the otherrails which would earth them.

The government also thought about the possibilityof 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 possibilityof a catastrophe hundreds of feet below the surface where thousands maybe 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 getonto one of the platforms. In the end, London Transport was powerless tostop the thousands that flocked to the stations for cover and protectionand a sense of security. What could the officials do....throw the peopleout into a dangerous air raid, and be forced into the open as bombs camewhistling 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 southof 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 explodedthe shops fell into the area were the stations underground booking officewas. The water mains were ruptured as well as the sewer mains, and gallonsof water and raw sewerage poured into the station gushing down escalatorstairways, down tunneled walkways until finally pouring out onto the stationplatforms where thousand were camped for the night. In all there were 600casualties that night, the worst underground disaster so far. In anotherdirect hit, Bank underground station in the city proper was another sceneof 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 afternoonknowing that full well that "Jerry" would be back again that night. Theycame with rolls of blankets, pillows and cartons of sandwiches and drinkthat would see them through the night. They would queue outside the stationuntil they were let in and it was almost like the January sales as theypushed and shoved their way down towards the platforms to find a few squarefeet of space that they would declare as their own for the next twelvehours.
Very soon, bunks were being constructedalong 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 stationsthat became the night time hub of sheltering people. Near many of the marshallingyards near to London, and especially in the east end, there were smalltunnels and long underground bridges that, although they were being usedby rail traffic during the day, at night they became home to thousandswho wanted security over their heads.

"Withmy home being in Shoreditch, I had many duties in the area around Bishopsgateand Liverpool Street Station. The underground station at Liverpool Streetwas a mecca for thousands who sought shelter, mainly because of the mainrailway terminus from the east coast, and many buses terminated closeby.Often I found people almost sleeping on top of each other, there was justnot a spare bit of space anywhere else on the platform. But it was thosepeople who sought shelter at the goods yards of Bishopsgate that I feltsorry 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 themand with little ventilation the tunnel stank of oil, and seemed to smartthe eyes.

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

Wereally 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 startedto drop and Stratford had a huge railway depot and sidings. Something musthave got hit as we went down West Ham Lane, barricades had been put upand we had to drive through the back streets. Down a side road just beforewe approached the main road that was to take us through Bow, Mile End andWhitechapel, we had to stop and take refuge in a tunnel that was on theStratford - North Woolwich line.

I do not know how many people were down there, it was cold, the ground waswet 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 lastwash, men were urinating against the walls of the tunnel, and everywherethere were signs of human excrement everywhere. Where was the pride ofthese people, how could they live like this, I felt ashamed that thesepeople were Londoners the same as I was."

GeorgeMartin, ARP Warden Shoreditch London.
Whichever way you lookat it, the underground was to most people a way of life, a ritual, andsomething that they became accustomed to during the nights of continuousbombing of London. Later, and during the night when some of the trainshad stopped, many bands came down into the stations and turned undergroundstations into music halls with music, songs and entertainment. What a wayto enjoy the war. While other just listened to the radio.

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

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