Home Fires: how did British people stay safe during World War II air raids?

"Gimme shelter" the people and the ladies of PBS Masterpiece's Home Fires cried. "Build one!" Sir John Anderson and the UK authorities replied

77441

As World War II wages away on PBS Masterpiece’s Home Fires the women of Great Paxford are kept busy with the wartime salvage effort. However, when the fighting moves closer to home there’s something else to worry about: air raids.

Advertisement

Tales of The Blitz are still told to this day, as the people of Britain remember the arrival of the German bombers and the devastation these flying fiends caused.

Many lost their lives but others lived to tell the tale: how did they stay safe? Allow us to explain.

It all began with a man called Sir John Anderson…

He was Home Secretary and Minister of Home Security when war was declared in 1939 and he had already been working on a shelter policy, which led to the development of probably the most famous type of World War II air raid shelter, the Anderson Shelter.

So what were Anderson Shelters then?

Well, they were essentially little sheds that people could construct in their own back gardens. Poorer families were given the materials to build them for free, but men who earned more than £5 per week could buy an Anderson Shelter for £7. 

77439

Built from sheets of corrugated metal and half buried beneath a mound of earth or soil – which would help deflect the bomb blast – these curved little creations were supposed to allow families to quickly shelter in the event of an air raid.

Conditions were rather cramped – with little benches often doubling as beds – but by September 1939 around 1.5 million Anderson Shelters had been built in gardens across the country.

Was there an alternative for people who didn’t have gardens?

Yes, eventually. In 1941 the Morrison Shelter – named after the next Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison – was introduced and it allowed families to stay in their homes during an air raid if they needed to.

77423

It looked a bit like a cross between a dining table and a steel cage, but it was a warmer alternative to the Anderson Shelter as it could be kept indoors. It also allowed families to quickly duck for cover when an air raid siren sounded.

And it could even be used as a table when the coast was clear.

Were there any public shelters?

Of course, the government had to prepare for all eventualities and needed a plan that would allow people to find shelter when they weren’t at home.

It didn’t take the authorities long to realise that brick shelters above ground could be easily exposed to bomb blasts, so they began finding alternative spaces in caves and cliffs.

In Stockport, for example, you’ll still find the largest purpose-built civilian air raid shelters. A network of underground tunnels was carved into the natural sandstone cliffs, offering shelter to around 6,500 people.

But what about the tube stations? Didn’t people shelter in them too?

Believe it or not, Sir John Anderson initially ruled out the idea of allowing people to find shelter in underground stations. They weren’t seen as suitable places to stay safe because they didn’t have toilet facilities and there was a risk of people falling onto the tracks.

It wasn’t until September 1940 – when London was being intensively bombed and people were running underground for cover whether the government liked it or not – that the tube stations were officially opened to the public.

77438

At least 150,000 people slept on the platforms every night during the Blitz and some stations even developed libraries and classrooms for night classes. 

Burning the midnight oil on the home front? Sounds exactly like something the ladies of Great Paxford would do.

One last question, what was an ARP Warden and what did they do?

Keeping the air raid shelter policies running smoothly wasn’t an easy task but 1.4 million people signed up to do just that as ARP or Air Raid Precautions Wardens.

77424

They were the ones who handed out the materials to build the shelters, who patrolled the streets to make sure the lights were out, and who surveyed the damage before attempting to reunite families.

Did we mention that most of them had their own full time jobs to do too?

Advertisement

And it was thanks to their spirit and dedication that so many were able to keep the Home Fires burning when darkness descended.

Home Fires airs on PBS Masterpiece on Sunday nights at 9pm/8c


Meet the cast of Home Fires

How well do you know the Women’s Institute?

What was the wartime salvage effort?