Long read

What To Do During An Air Raid

During the late 1930s, the British government began to prepare the civilian population for war. As well as the widely expected and feared bombing raids, it was also thought that poison gas might be used against civilians. Gas masks were issued in 1938 and over 44 million had been distributed by the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.

From 1 September 1939, 'Blackout' was enforced. Curtains, cardboard and paint were used to prevent light escaping from houses, offices, factories or shops, which might be used by enemy bombers to locate their targets.

The first air raid shelters were distributed in 1938. People without the outside space needed to put one up were encouraged to use communal shelters instead.

Public information films, leaflets and posters provided advice and guidance on how to cope in an air raid. These are some of the ways that the public could protect themselves – and others – during the Blitz.

  • Take care during the blackout

    Poster, <em>Wait! Count Fifteen Slowly Before Moving In the Blackout</em> (1939)
    Poster, Wait! Count Fifteen Slowly Before Moving In the Blackout (1939)
    Art.IWM PST 0096

    Blackout restrictions did not just cover the home. Street lighting and illuminated signs were extinguished and all vehicles had to put caps over their lights to dim them. In the early days of the war, people were forbidden even to carry around torches. The blackout caused a steady rise in accidents. A poll published in January 1940 found that since the previous September, one person in five had been injured in the blackout.

  • Carry a gas mask

    Poster, <em>Take Your Gas Mask Everywhere</em> (1939)
    Poster, Take Your Gas Mask Everywhere (1939)
    Art.IWM PST 3619

    The public were urged by the government to carry their gas masks at all times, although it was not a legal requirement to do so. Initially, there were instances where workplaces sent home any employees who did not have their masks and some places of entertainment refused to allow people to enter without them. During the Phoney War period – from 3 September 1939 to 10 May 1940 – many people stopped carrying their gas masks.

  • Take shelter at home

    An Anderson shelter stands intact amongst a scene of debris in Norwich, c.1941
    An Anderson shelter stands intact amongst a scene of debris in Norwich, c.1941
    HU 36196

    Anderson shelters – named after Sir John Anderson – consisted of two curved corrugated sheets of steel, bolted together at the top and sunk three feet into the ground, then covered with eighteen inches of earth. If constructed correctly, they could withstand the effects of a hundred-pound bomb falling six feet away. However, many Anderson shelters leaked, were cold, dark and cramped and amplified the noise of falling bombs.

  • If outside, find a communal shelter

    <em>The Tube, October 1940</em>, by Feliks Topolski (wash on paper)
    The Tube, October 1940, by Feliks Topolski (wash on paper)
    Art.IWM ART LD 672

    The government initially tried to prevent London Underground stations being used as air raid shelters, fearing the development of a 'deep shelter mentality' and the potential disruption of the capital's transport network. However, Londoners persisted in using the Tube and eventually the government had to reconsider. Aldwych station was closed and converted into a permanent shelter. Improvements such as bunks, better lighting, washing and toilet facilities were made at other stations.

  • Shelter at home (even if you don't have a garden)

    A Morrison shelter in a dining room, 1941
    A Morrison shelter in a dining room, 1941
    D 2053

    Morrison shelters – named after the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison – were produced from January 1941. They consisted of a rectangular steel and mesh cage which could accommodate two adults and two children. The Morrison was intended for use indoors so was suitable for those without gardens. Though more popular than Anderson shelters, they were less effective as they provided no lateral protection. They could also be used as a dining table during daytime.

  • Be prepared for a gas attack

    Air Raid Precautions (ARP) gas rattle
    Air Raid Precautions (ARP) gas rattle
    EPH 2537

    Air raid wardens were equipped with gas rattles and whistles to alert the public to a gas attack. Post boxes and lamp posts were painted with a substance which would reveal the presence of gas and identification and decontamination squads were set up. The public could attend lectures on the different types of gases that might be used and were advised to fill gaps in their windows and doors to prevent gas seeping in.

  • Volunteer for fire watching

    Clive W Black on fire-watching duties on the roof of the Royal Academy of Music, London, later in the war
    Clive W Black on fire-watching duties on the roof of the Royal Academy of Music, London, later in the war
    D 22296

    German bombers usually dropped a combination of high explosive and incendiary bombs. Incendiaries would quickly start fierce fires unless they were extinguished immediately. To combat incendiaries, people were encouraged to volunteer as fire watchers and to draw up rotas with their neighbours. Air raid wardens issued stirrup pumps and trained people how to use them. Factories and other work places also needed fire watchers and at the end of 1940, fire watching duty became compulsory.

  • Be alert for UXBs

    <em>Examining the Fuze of a Bomb</em>, 1940, by Edward Ardizzone (drawing on paper)
    Examining the Fuze of a Bomb, 1940, by Edward Ardizzone (drawing on paper)
    Art.IWM ART LD 868

    Unexploded bombs (UXBs) caused a great amount of disruption. Those living near to UXBs would be evacuated from their homes and UXBs frequently affected communications and the transport network. Army bomb disposal squads were set up to deal with UXBs, though the Admiralty dealt with parachute mines. Sometimes the bombs would suffer mechanical failure, but time-delay fuses were later introduced to cause maximum havoc. By the end of October 1940, there were over 3,000 UXBs still to be defused.

  • Support air raid victims by serving with the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS)

    A member of the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) hands out replacement clothes to a man who has been bombed out of his home, 1941
    A member of the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) hands out replacement clothes to a man who has been bombed out of his home, 1941
    D 3231

    The Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) was created in 1938. By the time war broke out on 3 September 1939, it had 165,000 members and by 1941, membership was 1 million. During the Blitz, the WVS provided a range of post-raid services including serving refreshments from mobile canteens and providing washing facilities. They also set up enquiry points at the scene and often had to break the news that a family member had been killed or injured.