Saturday, 12 February 2011

Air Raid Precautions and a Cartoon from Interwar Britain

[ARP for Londoners. A Pamphlet produced by the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1938, advocating a deep tunnel and shelter scheme]

The study of government ARP (Air Raid Precautions) in pre-war Britain has been a major subject of study for the Idle Historian. Public policy and framing of the issue reflected the government's emphasis on individualism and "self-help." To critics, this simply indicated a refusal to construct mass shelters or to make adequate provision for the protection of civilians, especially in the densely crowded and poorer areas of London. A broad coalition of left-wing critics attempted to build mass shelters, a measure resisted by the Home Office due to the fear that such provisions would create a "shelter mentality" and break morale in a future war.


[A leftist cartoon, lampooning the government's advice to homeowners, and highlighting the class-based critique of private shelters for the wealthy and well-connected. A rather stereotypical tycoon, complete with top hat.]

The Home Office issued circulars for homeowners on the subject of ARP from 1935 onwards, the first of which concentrated on protection against poison gas (ridiculed by some as "paste and paper" advice). Closer to the Second World War, it became clear that high explosive and incendiary bombs would prove the greatest danger, and householders were advised to have items such as shovels and buckets of sand at the ready in order to extinguish fires (as referred to in the cartoon above).

British leftists continued their deep shelter campaign into the Second World War, to little avail, although the government was forced to concede to the use of Underground stations as deep shelters. We are all familiar with the many images of Londoners bedding down on platforms or even escalators to escape nighttime air raids. Prior to the war, the government insisted that citizens would not be allowed to shelter in the stations as they would be utilized for wartime transport. When the Blitz began, however, there was little stopping desperate citizens from sheltering there.*

*Although only a small percentage of Londoners took refuge in Underground stations. Many used backyard shelters, no shelters at all, or dangerous cellars and shallow underground structures -- known for good reason as "death-traps." On the whole, however, the Home Office was not entirely wrong in assuming that British people preferred to shelter in their own homes if possible. Wartime surveys demonstrated that backyard shelters such as the Anderson and Morrison Shelters were popular with homeowners.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

2 comments:

Hels said...

Great story, even now. I wonder what happened to the hopes for building mass shelters, once it became obvious that bombing hit all the suburbs equally, leafy and slummy. The Home Office might have rejected the pre-war plans due to the fear that such provisions would create a shelter mentality, but that was always ridiculous and unworkable.

Did they truly believe that self help would protect ordinary families from bombs? Of course not.

IdleHistorian said...

It is quite true -- home shelters were only meant to protect against falling debris or the secondary effects of a blast. There was no protection at all from a direct hit.

Some community shelters were built early in the war, but they were surface brick shelters and people disliked them. Those who did want to shelter (deep) underground took to the Tube.

A few deeper shelters were reluctantly constructed but were not opened until 1944, at which point they were little-used. So I suppose that the "self-help" involved was that of citizens refusing to leave Tube stations and other underground refuge areas! The government just took it as a matter of course that there would be casualties, and furthermore were rather hung up on this idea of "dispersal" -- they were most concerned that mass casualties in one location would have a more detrimental effect on civilian morale than the same number of casualties dispersed throughout the capital. Which, I suppose, is the nature of press coverage and rumor.

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