Bomb shelters – or ‘air-raid’ shelters as they were often known – were built in the lead-up to and first years of World War Two in order to provide protection for the civilians in Great Britain. Many communal ones were built, but these were met with limited enthusiasm, and so shelters that could be built within the home were developed. A combination of threats existed that the shelters needed to address: bomb attacks, it was believed, might be survived easier below-ground, whereas in case of gas attack it was better to be above-ground. By the start of 1939 the British government believed war with Germany might be unavoidable, and so determined it necessary to implement as many bomb shelters as possible. Over the course of the war, pre-existing structures were also used as protection, such as basements and London Underground stations.
It was quite typical for continental countries such as Germany to have been built with cellars, which provided a ready-made shelter. However, these proved somewhat problematic, since each householder had to ensure that all the inhabitants could fit into the shelter. Furthermore, in the case of fire, burning buildings could collapse downward onto the cellar, trapping people inside and leaving no room for escape. A series of above-ground shelters were built in Germany to tackle this issue.
There were not so many cellars in houses around Great Britain. As such, communal shelters were built in the streets from 1940. At the sound of an air-raid siren, people were ushered towards the nearest shelter by a warden. The shelters could be easily identified, even in a blackout, by the black signs marked with ‘shelter’ and an even bigger ‘S’ in thick white letters. The rapid building of these created an almost impossible demand on the concrete and brick supplies in Britain, and they were not even particularly useful. They were cold, damp, and hugely uncomfortable, and a series of unsuccessful and dangerous usages led to intense public distrust. As the war progressed, more and more people opted instead for the indoor and garden alternatives: Morrison and Anderson Shelters.
The Anderson Shelter was designed in 1938 and named after the then Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal: Sir John Anderson. Built with connected panels of corrugated steel, these were assembled in the garden, dug into the soil, and covered over to become almost a feature of the natural landscape. A concrete door was exposed for easy access, but the rest was covered in soil. These shelters were provided free of charge for any house which earned less than £5 a week. Households who earned more were charged £7. A rough estimate of 3.6 million shelters were built in Great Britain before 1945. They were very robust – many have survived the war and were later used for garden storage. They performed well under pressure but were far too cold and damp in winter, often collecting rainwater on the floor. These flaws in the Anderson Shelters led to the development of the Morrison Shelter in 1941. This comprised of a table-like structure with a cage construction built into the bottom. These, too were free for poorer households. They arrived in houses in what one could call a flat-pack assembly kit. They were very strong, and thus hugely popular – a large proportion of people were able to survive attacks unscathed within a Morrison Shelter .
For people who were simply unable to build such shelters in their homes, or too far from home to seek refuge in one, railway arches were often used for protection. Similarly, basements in schools, warehouses, and factories were often crammed with people once the sirens sounded. This was considered dangerous, since the government worried that heavy equipment would cause the ceiling to collapse. This concern was not unfounded; disaster struck in a Lemonade Factory in North Shields in May 1941, when 107 people taking shelter died because machinery fell through ceiling.
In the early years of the war, people were forbidden from using London Underground stations as shelters. There were fears of overcrowding, disruption, and that people would inhabit them all day long. The government also suspected that people with shelters at home would come to the Underground stations, believing them to be safer, and take up space when other people without shelters at home were in need. In response to this hard-line policy, there was a public display of disregard for the government’s attitude. On the 19th and 20th of September, 1940, a huge wave of Londoners – fed up with feeling helpless during the constant Blitz strikes – arrived at the Underground stations equipped with bedding and food, and refused to leave. The government realised they were fighting a losing battle, and so the policy changed: parts of Piccadilly line in and around Aldwych closed and the tracks were concreted to make extra sleeping space. Facilities were vastly improved, including the building of new toilets and canteens to provide more comfort. It is estimated that some 170,000 people took refuge in the London Underground stations during war. This system was not perfect, however. There were some instances of disaster over the course of the war. A bomb near Balham Underground station caused severe damage to the water mains in October 1940, leading to flooding in which 68 people died. Furthermore, 173 people died at Bethnal Green Underground station in March 1943, when an atmosphere of panic led to a tumble on the stairs, and the domino effect resulted in people being crushed as they fell.
Former mining tunnels were converted to shelters in the lead-up to war. The Victoria Tunnels in Newcastle could accommodate up to 9,000 people, and the Chislehurst Caves in London were used by locals as protection during air-raids. From 1938 to 1939, a series of underground tunnels were built in Stockport, which could house between 2,000 and 6,500 people each.
In their many different forms, the air-raid shelters built in Great Britain during World War Two saved the lives of thousands of citizens living in the major cities.
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- Axelrod, A., 2007, Encyclopaedia of World War II. New York: Facts on File, Inc.
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- Stansky, P., 2007, The First Day of the Blitz: September 7, 1940. Connecticut: Yale University Press.
- Wade, S., 2011, Air Raid Shelters of World War II: Family Stories of Survival in the Blitz. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
- Westley, M., 2013, Living on the Home Front. Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing.
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