The British government began preparing the country for the possibility of air raids in the late 1930s. The Air Raid Wardens Service was established in 1937 and over 44 million gas masks had been distributed by the outbreak of war in 1939. As the war progressed, further provisions were made to try to protect civilians from air attack. 


Take care during the blackout

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

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

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

The interior of Leicester Square underground station with figures lying asleep on the floor of the station platform. There is a large man sitting smoking a pipe in the foreground, and several ARP wardens wearing helmets standing further down the platform.
© Art.IWM ART LD 672
‘The Tube: October 1940’, by Feliks Topolski.

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)

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 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

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

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.


Voluntary Service (WVS)

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.

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