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Why were air raid shelters needed in the Second World War?

Join IWM expert Ngaire aboard her cosy houseboat on the River Thames as she tells real life stories of how people passed the time—whether they sheltered in their back garden or in underground tunnels. What would you have taken inside to keep yourself and your family entertained?

Hear stories about John, whose father built an Anderson shelter that they grew vegetables on top of in their garden, and Kitty, who spent nights in a communal bomb shelter in Camberwell with her family.

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The World's Best Den

Part of the Adventures in History series created during the UK lockdown in Spring 2020.

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Ahoy! Welcome on board! Come on in! Normally I would be welcoming you to the Imperial War Museum where I work. And if we were there, well, we'd have aeroplanes hanging from the ceiling above us, to our left would be a mini submarine, wooden boats, torpedoes, helmets, paintings, photographs and film. All the things that the museum had collected over the years to help us tell some really difficult stories about war and conflict, and how that has affected real people's lives. Now at the moment, we’re going through some pretty difficult circumstances ourselves. Which is why you're at home, and I'm at home, and my home is a boat. And so, I'm really glad that you've joined me here today because my boat is pretty old and if she could tell you her stories, she could talk to you about the Second World War which is when she was built. However, she can't speak but I can tell you some stories and that's my job at the museum.  

My name is Ngaire, and I work there to share fascinating stories about real people's lives and how they've coped with some really difficult situations. Luckily, I've got lots of friends that help me to tell these stories. They are all quite elderly now in their 80s and 90s, but when they were about your age, they lived through the Second World War. And some of them were what's called Evacuees and some of them weren't evacuated, but I want to share some of their stories with you today. 

Because we're going to think about shelters, taking shelter, a bit like a den, making yourself feel safe and protected. In 1939, when the Second World War broke out, unlike previous wars when you'd send your Army or your Navy or your Air Force to go and fight far away. Because bombing had been invented suddenly the battlefield was people's homes, was your living room. Because the threat of bombing meant that everywhere was a potential target for the enemy. Now, if you lived in a big city like Liverpool with its important docks, or Plymouth or Edinburgh where they were building ships for the Navy then you were in particular risk because it was those targets that were particularly hit by the enemy bombers. My boat is in London, on the river Thames, and so the bombers would often target this part of the city because there were some really big industries here, lots of docks, lots of cargo and goods coming into the city. So, every city across the UK was affected and potentially vulnerable to bombing. So, people had to be made to feel safe in their homes and so there were several ways you could do that.  

My friend Kitty, she lived in London as well, in a place called Camberwell which is pretty near where the Imperial War Museum is today. She lived in a block of flats. Now, in a block of flats you don't have a garden to put your shelter or your den, so the council built a communal shelter. So, I'd like you to imagine in the middle of the block of flats there's a grassy space and the council dug down and lined a shelter, a bomb shelter, down there. Pretty amazing, however conditions were quite difficult. Up to 100 people sharing this space, only one toilet so you can start to imagine the smells. People had to think of ways to help pass the time, Kitty was being told to stand up and sing songs to amuse people and help pass the time. And when the siren sounded and people had to rush to the shelter maybe they grabbed a few things to help them, a favourite teddy bear perhaps just to bring you a little bit of extra comfort while you were inside the shelter in somewhere quite difficult to be in with all the sounds of the bombing outside.  

Some people did have their own homes, they had a garden. And if that was the case then you could build a shelter in your garden called an Anderson Shelter. There's a lovely gentleman who used to come to the museum very often and his name is John Allpress. John was just 10 when the Second World War broke out and he remembers one day the street all received a delivery of lots of corrugated iron and his Mum and Dad had to dig a big hole in the garden and put the corrugated iron as an arc and this became their Anderson Shelter. And the other thing you could do to make it extra safe is put lots and lots of soil on top and some people even grew vegetables in the soil that went over the top of their Anderson Shelter. 

Another person who remembers having a shelter is my friend Brenda. Now, Brenda was quite a stubborn little girl so when her school was offered the chance to be evacuated, she refused to go. Sometimes children were sent away from the cities because it was just so dangerous, and their shelters became the countryside. They went to stay with people in the country where it was a lot safer, and they were known as evacuees. Well, Brenda refused to be an evacuee, she said she was 'unevacuateable' and she managed to persuade Mum and Dad to let her stay at home. One of the reasons that she was able to stay was because her mum was deaf, and so couldn’t hear the sirens. Sirens were really loud, everyone could hear them, and they were the signal that a bombing raid was expected and to get into your place of safety. Because Brenda’s mum was deaf, she couldn’t hear the sirens, so Brenda actually did a really useful job for her mum, by letting her know that the siren was going and that they had to go into the garden and down into their Anderson shelter. Now in order to make their Anderson shelter a little bit more comfortable, Brenda’s dad had rigged up some electricity cable so that it had power, which meant she could sit and read. And it also meant that they had a little way of cooking a pot of soup, so Brenda’s mum would often have a giant cooking pot and she’d have soup in there so if they had to rush to the shelter, she’d carry the pot and was then she was able to light this little stove and heat up the soup, so at least they had some food while they were in there. And that helped keep them warm as well. 

Remember, these shelters were in people’s gardens so they were pretty cold, and they could get quite damp as well, they were dug down remember into the ground to make them safe and so often water would seep in from beneath. So, they were not the most comfortable of places, but they certainly were safe. If a bomb landed nearby and there were bits of shrapnel flying about the metal of the shelter would protect those people inside. And by shrapnel, I mean sort of things like this. This is a very sharp so I’m handling it quite carefully, jagged piece of metal and this was a splinter. And normally when I say splinter you might think of a little piece of wood that gets stuck into your finger. That’s what I mean by a shell splinter. And it’s incredibly sharp you can probably see the jagged edges there. And when bombs landed and exploded not only was there fire and the last of the explosion, but these shards of twisted hot jagged metal would fly through the air and of course cause some really terrible injuries. So, if you’re in your shelter, so if you’re Kitty inside the shelter in the flats, or if you’re Brenda inside your Anderson shelter in your garden, the metal of the shelter and the fact that you’ve dug down, is going to protect you from things like this. So, they were really good ways of making people feel safe and protected.  

Not everyone had a garden. So, what did you do then? Well, Graham, who lived in Birmingham remembers that they had a room that was big enough for what was called a ‘Morrison Shelter’. Now a Morrison Shelter, well, if you imagine a rabbit hutch, so, a grid of metal squares, interlocking squares – very, very, sturdy, with strong metal supports - and a giant rabbit hutch, big enough to fit in about three or four human beings. So, a large metal box. And Graham remembers having one of these in his house, and inside there, Mum, Dad and Graham could shelter, could feel safe. Graham’s Dad worked on the railways, so again one of these really important jobs that had to be done. So, if he was home when the sirens came, it meant three of them squishing into the Morrison Shelter. 

Another person who I know at the museum is a lovely lady called Jill. And Jill remembers also having one of these Morrison Shelters, and because it was quite large – remember it’s large enough to have a long human being in it, then it took up a lot of space and it kind of took over the front room, where Jill’s family lived. And so, Jill’s Dad made a wooden top for the Morrison shelter, and then it became their dining table, so you lay a tablecloth over it, and you could have your meals sitting at it, and try and pretend it was something a little bit more normal than having a shelter in your room all of the time. Morrison Shelters were life savers. If your house was hit by a bomb, then the shelter was strong enough to protect you inside. So, Gill remembers when the sirens sounded, her, Mum, and her baby brother, and sometimes Dad as well, would get inside the shelter. 

We do have pictures in the Imperial War Museum of homes that were hit in these bombing raids, and there’s rubble and complete destruction, yet the Morrison Shelter is there, keeping the people safe inside. Often the emergency services were encouraged to find out where people had their shelters in their home, so if your house was hit, and it had collapsed, they would know roughly whereabouts to start looking. So was it near the back of the house or was it in the front room of your house. So, they were vital lifesavers and made people feel very safe and secure.  

Not everyone had a garden, or a house with a room large enough to put a shelter in. My friend Moya, who was ten years old when the Second World War started, remembers going into the coal cellar with Grandma, and they would sit with umbrellas up. So, if you imagine, people didn’t have lots of electricity in those days, you still had a coal fire. So, your cellar would contain all the coal that was delivered each week. So, it was pretty dirty and dusty. And Moya remembers that the umbrella above their head stopped all the coal dust shaking down on them and turning them sooty while they were inside the coal Cellar. So, her and Grandma, just imagine, sat underneath umbrellas, and she remembered that Grandma would often tell her lots of stories to help pass the time and to reassure Moya that they were going to be ok. Imagine how noisy and terrifying it would be down in a cellar, quite a cold, damp space and you can hear the planes flying over your city. You can hear the bombs, you can feel them landing, you can feel the shuddering. But inside your cellar, your Anderson shelter, your communal shelter for the block of flats like the one where Kitty lived, at least you knew that you were protected, and you were with your family, family members as well, to help make you feel safe and reassured.  

You might also have taken some things into the shelter with you to help with that reassurance. This is my copy of a big book called Grimm's Fairy Tales. Now Moya was given this book by her mother. Moya didn't stay in London. Remember we were thinking about the cities being quite unsafe and some children were evacuated to safer parts of the country. Well Moya was evacuated, and mum bought her, her very own copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales, because inside here there are lots and lots of stories. And Moya was a very avid reader, and so mum felt that by buying her this book would give her lots and lots of reading material to help pass the time while she was an evacuee and often when she was in a shelter, waiting for the danger to pass and the ‘all clear’ to sound.  

I wonder what you would take if you were Kitty or Moya or Graham or Brenda? Going into your shelter, would you think about taking some food as Brenda's mum did with the pot of soup? I think for me, I would make sure I had my teapot full of tea ready to take into the shelter and maybe something to pass the time. Maybe some games, maybe jigsaw puzzles. Things that could take a little bit of time to help pass the hours to make you feel reassured and take your mind off what was going on. But remember shelters were quite small, quite cramped, so you couldn't take lots of things and you couldn't take very big things.  

So maybe my challenge to you is to think about three things that you consider vital resources to take with you to make you feel safe and secure and reassured when it got really scary or maybe to pass the time with. And who else would be in your shelter? Maybe you could build your own den? You could make it the world's best den. A space that's for you that feels safe and where you could learn to play chess or write postcards from your den to another member of your family? Maybe you'd invite another member of your family to help you create your den and to come and play Chess or read stories together inside your den. Why not send us a picture at the Imperial War Museum of the den that you create? And tell us about what you chose to take in there with you? That's my challenge to you. Also, if you've got any questions about Kitty or Moya or Brenda or Graham or any of the stories that we tell at the Imperial War Museum get in touch and let us know. You can use the comments that will appear under this film, and I'll try and answer some of those questions. Because I've got lots of stories to share with you from lots of those people who remember the challenging circumstances of the Second World War.  

So next week I think maybe we'll talk about food and how carrots can be used to make cakes. That you very much for joining me on board my boat today! Stay safe! See you next time! 

CURRICULUM LIMKS AND LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  • Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day: WWII (Key Stage 3 &4).     
  • Warfare and British society 1250-Present (GCSE).    
  • London and the Second World War, 1939–45 (GCSE).
  • To understand what the Blitz was and why it was important for people to take shelter to stay safe.                                              

Letters from Home

Hello, my name is Ngaire, I work for the Imperial War Museum but today I'm speaking to you from home which is a boat. While most of us across the world are self-isolating unable to see loved ones many of us are fortunate enough to stay in touch via instant messaging or video calls. Sadly, that was not the case for the Hill family from Guernsey during the Second World War.  

William and Florence were separated from two of their children when they decided to send their two eldest sons away from Guernsey. As the war in Europe got ever closer, half the islands population left but William and Florence stayed with their youngest son and William’s elderly parents. From the 30th of June 1940 they lived under German occupation cut off from the mainland; however, they found there was one way to hear news about their children and other family members who had left Guernsey. They relied on a messaging service from the Red Cross. The only catch was it could take many months for messages to arrive, and they were limited to a maximum of 25 words.  

So, while the museum doors are shut, we want you to keep in touch with us. Your mission this week is to write us a message in only 25 words or less. You can tell us anything you want to share. How are you doing? What you're up to in isolation? Who you're isolating with? Or anything you'd like to know from us. You can post your message in the comments thread below or if it's a handwritten letter take a photo and post that. We really look forward to hearing from you and if you want to know more about the Hill family just click on the link in this post. Thank you, see you again! 

What would it be like if your only means of communicating with your family was a 25 word message that would take months to arrive?

Discover how the Hill family from Guernsey managed to stay in touch when war separated them by writing very short letters with the most important information they wanted to share - then have a go at writing your own.

Watch the mission briefing

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