On 3 September 1939, after months of tense diplomatic dialogue and a futile attempt at appeasement, Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Nazi Germany.
Hitler had invaded Poland, areas of which had once been part of Germany, two days before and blatantly ignored their ultimatum for an immediate withdrawal. As Britain and France had pledged themselves to the defence of Poland, war was inevitable.
The world was plunged into a catastrophic conflict that lasted until the formal surrender of Germany’s ally, Japan on 2 September 1945 (though victory over Japan had been celebrated some weeks before the formal documents were signed). Germany had surrendered on 7 May. In those six years, military deaths on all sides were estimated at 15 million and civilian deaths at 34 million.
On Britain’s Home Front, the population was on a war footing: subject to death and destruction from the air, as well as fear of gas attacks and enemy invasion. Civilians across the land suffered from rationing, blackouts, mass evacuation of their children, restriction of movement, shortages of goods and services, and nightly refuge in air raid shelters.
Today, evidence of the impact of the Second World War on urban, suburban and rural England is hidden in plain sight.
The following examples still bear enduring witness to the conflict. They are easy to pass by without realising their true history and significance.
Air Raid Precautions
The outbreak of the Second World War was followed by a period of stalemate and little military activity – the ‘Phoney War.’ But from September 1940 to May 1941 the Luftwaffe (German air force) carried out sustained bombing raids on British towns and cities – the ‘Blitz.’ Over 43,500 civilians died.
In 1938 the Air Raid Precautions Act together with the following year’s Civil Defence Act, legally obliged government, local authorities and places of work to formulate plans to protect civilians from enemy attack. These included provisions for evacuation, air raid warning sirens, food depots, fire watchers’ posts, mortuaries, gas decontamination centres, first aid posts, emergency water supplies, and air raid shelters.
The pictured shelters, often mistaken for outhouses, were built by York City Council under the direction of the Home Office. They were small and allowed for sitting only, with no room for bunks. This became problematic once the Luftwaffe switched to night bombing in September 1940 when raids often lasted several hours.
Like many other cities, London suffered intense bombing during the Blitz. Despite this, the government appealed to the public not to use underground stations as air raid shelters, citing lack of toilets and the spread of disease. However, thousands of Londoners sought safety from nightly air raids in the tube. Confronted with such mass disobedience the government reversed its policy. Nearly 80 stations were supplied with bunks, toilets and first aid, and over 100 canteens were established across the tube network.
The government also constructed deep level shelters underneath London underground stations from 1940. Each could accommodate around 8,000 people and were equipped with bunks, medical facilities, kitchens and toilets.
In late 1942, part of the Goodge Street shelter became the headquarters of the American general and future president, Dwight D Eisenhower.
Other Civil Defence Structures
This Control Centre, part of the Civil Defence network of similar centres across the country, coordinated information on bombing raids for the whole Gosport area and deployed teams for emergency rescue and repair work.
Pictured is a rare surviving example of a one-man look-out post. Such structures were designed to resist damage from falling masonry and bomb fragments. It may have been fabricated at one of the local shipyards.
In 1939, Park Works was a factory supplying the nearby Hawker Aircraft Works. Such ‘key point’ factories were crucial to wartime production and were expected to operate during air raids. The look-out post was used to alert staff when it was too dangerous to continue working.
Preparation for Gas Attacks
The government feared that German air attacks might include the use of poison gas, while the public were full of dread, remembering its use in the First World War. 38 million gas masks were issued to every adult and child, including babies.
The government constructed specialised buildings where gas poisoning casualties could receive immediate expert treatment and antidotes.
In the event, there were no gas attacks on Britain during the Second World War.
Hitler, in anticipation of total German air superiority over Britain and emboldened by the surrender of Belgian, the Netherlands and France, planned an invasion of Britain under the name ‘Operation Sealion’.
Extensive anti-invasion fortifications were built in defence. England’s east and south coasts were considered especially vulnerable, but much of the country was also prepared for battle: gun emplacements and pill boxes were constructed, beaches were blocked with barbed wire, piers were dismantled or destroyed, bridges, such as the one pictured above, were armed with explosives for demolition at short notice.
The invading enemy would need obstructing at every point: airfields were blocked by obstacles and anti-tank defences were constructed. These were long lines of reinforced concrete blocks, such as those pictured above, and hundreds of miles of wide deep trenches. Land was allowed to flood making it too soft for heavy armoured vehicles. Signposts, milestones and railway station signs were removed.
Strategic roads and rail routes were defended with removable concrete blocks. ‘Hairpins’, made of bent steel girders or railway tracks, helped block roads and natural obstacles, such as stretches of water, were defended with wooden or concrete posts.
However, Hitler cancelled Operation Sealion. The Luftwaffe had lost the Battle of Britain (July-October 1940) failing to destroy the nation’s air defences, and Britain also still retained her naval supremacy. As the invasion threat receded, the construction of fortifications in Britain was reduced.
Other Wartime Measures
The Cabinet War Rooms in Whitehall, central London were the site where Churchill ran the Second World War, and so were highly vulnerable to air attack.
A secret alternative bomb-proof bunker, 40 foot below the ground, was built in the far reaches of suburban London as an emergency standby for the War Cabinet should the Battle of Britain be lost.
After Britain achieved air supremacy, the bunker was not required. Churchill visited once and it hosted only two meetings.
U-Boat blockades and heavy bombing highlighted the need to stockpile food and raw materials. These were stored in anonymous emergency ‘buffer depots’, built at a safe distance from civilian populations and military targets, with good road and rail links, and often served by the canal system.
Painted and metal signs were commonplace during the war, showing the locations of air raid shelters and emergency rendezvous points amongst others. Surviving examples are very rare.
Demonstration of a stretcher on a collapsible steel frame, which could convert into a bed. Courtesy of the Museum of the Order of St John.
600,000 of these easy-to-clean mass produced stretchers were manufactured by 1939, indicating the level of casualties expected in London from air raids.
After the war, there was a huge unused stockpile and some were used to replace the railings that had been removed from housing estates to help the war effort.
Header Image: Entrance to deep level air raid shelter, Stockwell, London, painted with a modern memorial mural. To the left is the tower of Stockwell war memorial, listed Grade II © Jerry Young
Written by Nicky Hughes.