Facing Armageddon: British society and civil defense, 1939–45
School of Humanities, University of New England, Armidale, Australia
From the late 1930s through to 1945, the British state faced enormous challenges in preparing the people under its care for aerial bombardment. Large-scale programmes of air-raid precautions (ARP) focused on providing gas masks for all, shelters for those who could afford them, and evacuation for those families who wanted it. However, the reality of the Blitz on Britain’s cities by the Luftwaffe between September 1940 and May 1941 proved to be somewhat at odds with expectations, with more homeless due to bombing than were planned for, and more shelterers in the London Underground. Terrible tragedies were endured, such as the Coventry raid in November 1940 and the Bethnal Green tube disaster of March 1943; a final series of attacks by flying bombs and rockets in late 1944 and early 1945 produced more casualties and another wave of evacuees, but without damaging morale or affecting the war’s outcome.
By the late 1930s it was widely expected, drawing on the experience of German air raids on Britain in the First World War, that if and when the next war came it would mean that London and other areas would come under heavy aerial bombardment. Exactly what this would mean in practice, however, was difficult to say – except that it would be much worse than in the last war, since aeronautical technology had improved tremendously since the relatively primitive Zeppelins and Gothas of the 1914–18 period. Bombers were now much faster and able to carry much more, and seemed impossible to stop; hence the 1932 claim by Stanley Baldwin, a former prime minister, that “The bomber will always get through… The only defence is in offence, which means that you have got to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.” This formulation neatly captured the essence of the knockout blow from the air concept, in which a nation’s ability and will to fight could be destroyed within months or even weeks by intensive air raids on its major cities. The Royal Air Force would not be able to prevent high explosive, incendiaries, and poison gas from killing tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians, and the war would be lost as morale collapsed, people fled the cities for the countryside, and the government lost the will to fight on – long before the power of the Royal Navy and the resources of the British Empire could be brought to bear on the enemy (Holman 2016).
Despite the bleakness of this apocalyptic vision, it was the Government’s responsibility to protect the British people from air raids; failing to even try would make a collapse in morale even more likely. However, it initially did so secretly, to avoid creating alarm. A subcommittee was established in 1924 within the Committee of Imperial Defence, in order to consider the problem of air raid precautions (ARP); regional commissioners were appointed to coordinate local government schemes for air-raid shelters and emergency services (and, in wartime, to maintain law and order in the event of loss of communications with London). But only so much could be achieved in secrecy; not until 1935, when an ARP Department was formed within the Home Office, could the work of educating the public about what to do in the event of air raids make any real progress (Grayzel 2012). This required a delicate touch: too little information would fail to overcome complacency; too much risked creating panic. Should the emphasis be on the danger from high-explosive bombs, incendiaries, or poison gas? Should people be encouraged to build their own air-raid shelters, or to evacuate from the major cities? Policy inevitably had to be formulated on the basis of incomplete information; and, despite the publicity campaigns, the public often remained unsure about what they should do in the event of war. The near-hysteria at the height of the Munich Crisis in September 1938, when 150,000 people fled London fearing a knockout blow by the Luftwaffe, demonstrated the scale of the problem (Titmuss 1950, 31).
Potential solutions were not in short supply – for instance, the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham suggested linking infant welfare centers to farms or market gardens where mothers could stay with their children, with some self-sufficiency in the event of food supplies breaking down – but money and, increasingly, time were. The gas masks issued by the government to all members of the public were an effective and relatively inexpensive fix, but were never needed because, as it turned out, chemical weapons were never used against Britain (Moshenska 2010). Nevertheless, civil defense workers had to be prepared for the possibility of a gas attack until late into the war, as the 1942 training film Heavier than Air shows. Shelters presented much more difficulty. A national survey of ARP readiness prepared in July 1939 revealed many shortcomings: “a defeatist attitude amongst the local officials” in Gateshead, for example, and “a real risk of breakdown” at Stoke-on-Trent. Just after the outbreak of war in September, the Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson, ordered explanations for shortfalls in providing shelters; the Midland regional commissioner replied that until he was given authority to compel local authorities, all he could do was “go on cajoling and using all our present powers of moral suasion.” Still, overall a great deal had been done – including, grimly, the designation in many areas of temporary mortuaries to hold the expected mass casualties.
Perhaps the most impressive achievement was organizing the evacuation of mothers and young children from the cities to less vulnerable areas, in smaller towns or the countryside. The Home Office put this scheme into operation just before the start of the war, and soon almost 1.5 million people had been moved from the cities to safer areas (Overy 2013, 136). But such a huge scheme inevitably created problems of its own. There were demands for compensation from households where distressed or unruly evacuees damaged property; conversely,  Parents were expected to make some contribution to the maintenance of their children, and no financial assistance was available if private arrangements were made with friends or family, with harassed civil servants being deluged with requests for special consideration.
The air raids which had been expected at the outbreak of war failed to materialize, allowing a valuable respite over the winter of 1939–40 in which some of the shortcomings in civil defense could be rectified. Evidence from civilian behavior in air raids in Finland, Poland, and the recent civil war in Spain reassuringly (and correctly) suggested “that once the initial shock is passed that raids unless very severe and incessant tend to stiffen public morale.” But in the meantime, the lack of immediate danger bred complacency and criticism. Many evacuees drifted back to the cities to be among familiar faces and places. The main achievement of the blackout, instituted in September 1939 to make it harder for the Luftwaffe to find its targets, seemed to consist of an increase in crime and the road toll. A Stourbridge alderman called an official at the Home Office a “nit-wit” for blocking a proposed shelter carved into the rock behind King Edward’s School, on the basis that it was “undesirable” for adults to shelter with children. Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining an ARP organization which had little to do but practice and police blackout violations began to chafe on some ratepayers.
Most of this criticism became subdued after the German offensive in Western Europe overran the Netherlands, Belgium, and then France. In the subsequent Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe’s attention was initially directed against military and industrial targets, but inevitably civilians began to suffer more and more from bombing (Overy 2013). On September 4, 1940, a police report from the East End recorded “no sign of panic and very little confusion before, during or after air raids,” few casualties, and only about 130 people made homeless by bombing, all of whom had been rehoused by the local council. Conditions in the large shelters, however, were much less satisfactory, with a general lack of bedding and ventilation.
Such problems became even more pressing when London became the target of much heavier and prolonged bombing from September 7, the start of the Blitz proper, especially since the need to shelter so many people overnight had not been anticipated. On September 21, there was enough public shelter space for approximately 1.3 million people, with capacity for 65,000 more added by October 18, and another 100,000 to 120,000 in Tube stations. But there were not enough beds and a rush program to build timber bunk beds for 1.5 million people was only just coming into effect. An order to provide adequate sanitation was only issued to councils as late as September 27, nearly three weeks after the start of the Blitz. ARP was stepped up outside London, too. In Edinburgh, much wasted effort had gone into turning closes into inadequate shelters, while the possibility of building deep shelters was still being pressed by the Edinburgh Trades Council as late as January 1941. From Northern Ireland came urgent but belated demands for domestic shelters, which began to arrive only in July, after the end of intensive bombing.
Looking after the bombed-out proved to be even more difficult than the shelter problem. The initial emphasis on preventing and treating air-raid casualties meant that post-raid welfare was relatively neglected. A range of local government and voluntary organizations – in particular the Women’s Voluntary Service – were in place before the Blitz, but at times were unable to cope with demand. A complaint received from Chiswick, for example, claimed that there was little help available for the salvage of furniture from ruined houses, while the local authorities were overwhelmed with requests for new accommodation – with the result that “the Communists scored with propaganda as to the war being waged to destroy the working classes.” These particular charges were investigated by the Home Office and refuted, but civilian morale remained a key concern for officials as an index of victory or defeat on the Home Front. At Coventry, subjected to some of the most intense bombing of the Blitz on the night of November 14, it was reported the following day by Home Security that “The morale of the population as far as can be judged was good,” while Warwickshire police reports remarked on the “high morale” of evacuees from the city.
Coventry’s resilience was reassuring – another Home Security appreciation concluded that the city had “successfully withstood the fiercest test of war” – but there was little room for complacency. Home Security’s Research and Experiments Department undertook a detailed investigation of the effects of bombing on society as a whole, using Birmingham as a case study. It requested facts and figures from local authorities, businesses, and other organizations on a wide variety of topics: from morale as a whole, to the damage caused to houses, the impact on industrial workers, the responses of civilians, even the effect on youth organizations. Close attention was paid to the possibility of “trekking,” an unofficial nightly evacuation into rural areas seen during the air raids of the First World War. The Midland Red Bus Co. provided passenger numbers on its bus routes out of the city in order to determine how much they rose during and after heavy raids. Interviews were carried out with publicans and billeting officers along the main routes: an ARP warden at a cafe in Knowle, about 20 km from the center of Birmingham, reported “a continual stream of cars, buses and lorries” in the hour after the start of the blackout and all spare rooms being booked out each night through to March or April 1941; there were no instances of people sleeping rough in the fields, however, and the working-class trekkers tended to return to the city in the morning – unlike the middle-class ones.
Nevertheless, the claim made by the American war correspondent Quentin Reynolds in the 1940 propaganda film London Can Take It, that “There is nothing but determination, confidence and high courage among the people of Churchill’s island,” needs to treated with some skepticism. It was largely made for the benefit of audiences in the still-neutral United States; with more allowance for regional sensitivities, the film was retitled Britain Can Take It for British audiences. German propaganda often exaggerated the effects of air raids, falsely claiming, for example, that “a mass evacuation of the civilian population” took place after an exceptionally heavy raid on Plymouth on March 20, 1941. The reality was bad enough: an otherwise dispassionate analysis in May declared that:
The fatalities up to date are unknown. It is, in fact, unlikely that they will ever be known. Records have been destroyed. Wardens who might have been able to give some idea of the numbers of people in houses have themselves been killed. Whole families have been wiped out leaving no one to identify the dead.
While there was some evidence of shock, despondency, and even, to a limited extent, panic, it is clear that the morale of British civilians overall did not break: there was no knockout blow from the air (Süss 2014).
However, even after the end of the Blitz in May 1941, dangers remained. A sudden resumption of raids was always possible, as with the so-called “Little Blitz” on the Home Counties in early 1944, in response to the increasingly heavy British and American raids on German cities. Indeed, “A particularly strong apprehension of drastic reprisals” after a recent raid on Berlin may have been one factor in the horrifying tragedy at Bethnal Green tube station on the night of March 3, 1943, when 173 people lost their lives, crushed on the stairs as they hurried to shelter during an alert. Rumors that a panic had been caused by Jews spread as far away as Bristol; the official inquiry showed that these were baseless, but it was not made public until after the war.
Other contributing factors at Bethnal Green were “newspaper accounts of the effects of new types of bombs.” In fact, such new weapons did eventually arrive, in the form of Hitler’s “revenge weapons,” the V-1 flying bomb from June 1944 and the V-2 ballistic missile from September. The sudden nature of these attacks posed new challenges to a population now more confident of victory, but also increasingly war-weary, and the government feared that London – again the primary target, even more so than in 1940–41 – might no longer be able to take it. Anxiety was caused by the sounds from British and American aircraft, or even from motorcyclists changing gears, being mistaken for the distinctive sound of V-1 engines. Before official confirmation was forthcoming, rumors abounded: rockets were widely and correctly identified as the cause of the random explosions characteristic of the V-2 attacks, for example, but other theories included German “parachutists dropped on London,” sabotaged munitions factories, or even tests of street lights. A new wave of evacuees spread exaggerated stories of their experiences: one woman on a bus to Swansea told her fellow passengers that the V-1s were arriving “in clusters – as many as 500 at a time” and that the damage was “beyond belief,” with the Strand “flattened” and Buckingham Palace and Big Ben both “damaged.”
The last V-2 attack took place in March 1945, the very last, small-scale, bomber attacks in April. Even as the 60,000 civilians killed by German aerial bombardment during the war were being mourned, attention began to turn towards reconstruction. The devastated city of Coventry featured in the film A City Reborn, scripted by the poet Dylan Thomas for the Ministry of Information. Thomas placed great emphasis on the virtues of prefabricated housing and predicted that “Coventry is going to be a place to live in where people can believe how pleasant human life can be.” Britain had withstood the worst that the Luftwaffe could do to it, but it would be the work of decades to completely overcome the devastation that had been wrought.
Grayzel, Susan R. 2012. At Home and Under Fire: Air Raids and Culture in Britain from the Great War to the Blitz. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Holman, Brett. 2016. The Next War in the Air: Britain’s Fear of the Bomber, 1908–1941. Abingdon: Routledge.
Moshenska, Gabriel. 2010. “Government Gas Vans and School Gas Chambers: Preparedness and Paranoia in Britain, 1936–1941.” Medicine, Conflict and Survival 26 (3): 223–234.
Overy, Richard. 2013. The Bombing War: Europe 1939–1945. London: Allen Lane.
Süss, Dietmar. 2014. Death from the Skies: How the British and Germans Survived Bombing in World War II. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Titmuss, Richard M. 1950. Problems of Social Policy. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office.
 HC Deb, November 10, 1932, vol. 270, col. 632.