Hidden in Plain Sight: Evidence of the Second World War

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.

Londoners sought overnight refuge from bombing raids in underground stations © IWM HU94168

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

Second World War shrapnel damage, Tate Britain, Atterbury Street entrance, London © Jerry Young

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.

Entrance to air raid shelter, St Leonard’s Court, Richmond-on-Thames, built 1934-1938 by a local builder to serve the residents. It was designed to hold forty-eight people. Listed Grade II © Robert Smith.

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 flat-roofed brick shape of a small domestic air raid shelter, York © Roger JC Thomas

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.

Civilians sheltering in the Elephant & Castle underground during an air raid, November 1940 © IWM D1568

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 entrance to Goodge Street deep level air raid shelter on Chenies Street, London. Also known as the Eisenhower Centre and now used for archival storage, it was one of eight deep-level tube shelters in north London: Goodge Street, Camden Town, Belsize Park and Chancery Lane. Meanwhile in south London Stockwell, Clapham North, Clapham South, Clapham Common. Image: Philfrenzy

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

Gosport’s Civil Defence Control Centre, Gosport, Hampshire, built 1940-1941. The town, a short distance from Portsmouth dockyard, was a supply base for naval armaments and fuel, and a prime target for enemy bombers. Listed Grade II © Wayne Cocroft

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.

Steel fire watcher/air raid warden post still in position at the Grade II former Newcastle Breweries’ offices, Newcastle-upon-Tyne © Roger JC Thomas

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.

Firewatcher’s post (the small square structure on the top of the building) Park Works, Kingston-upon-Thames, Greater London. Listed Grade II © Historic England

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

Civilian gas Decontamination Centre, Horbury, West Yorkshire. Listed Grade II © Sebastian Fry

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.

Military Gas Decontamination Centre, RAF Duxford, Cambridgeshire. Listed Grade II © Wayne Cocroft

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.

Anti-Invasion Measures

Demolition chambers – now sealed, Mausel Lock, Bridgwater-Taunton Canal, Somerset © Gaius Cornelius

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.

Anti-tank ‘dragon’s teeth’ obstacles, Cuckmere Haven, Sussex © Nicky Hughes

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.

Rare anti-tank ‘hairpin’ obstacles, Narborough, Leicestershire © Gaius Cornelius

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.

The wooden stumps of anti-tank/anti-boat defences, Salthouse Marshes Nature Reserve, Norfolk © Evelyn Simak

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 anonymous and graffiti-covered entrance – overlaid with modern brickwork – to Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s deep level alternative Cabinet War Rooms (codenamed Paddock), Dollis Hill, London and completed in 1940 © Jerry Young

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.

The decaying subterranean interior, largely untouched since the war, and open twice a year to the public © Historic England Archive DP134659

After Britain achieved air supremacy, the bunker was not required.  Churchill visited once and it hosted only two meetings.

Historic England © DP134673
Quainton Road Buffer Depot, Buckinghamshire Railway Centre, built in standardised single storey brick form © Roger JC Thomas

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.

National Fire Service sign, Carlisle, Cumbria, pointing to the location of an emergency water supply (EWS) that would have been housed nearby in a static tank © Roger JC Thomas

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.

Former Second World War steel and wire mesh stretchers re-purposed as railings after the war, Southwark, London © Nicky Hughes.

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

Further Reading

6 responses to Hidden in Plain Sight: Evidence of the Second World War

  1. The B236 road in Ladywell, south-east London, has a hand painted sign still visible saying “shelter for 700” on the north side of the bridge across the railway line, in the middle beside some steps leading down. It’s can be seen on Google Streetview.

  2. ThingsHelenLoves says:

    What a brilliant post. How interesting that things many people see everyday have such an interesting history.

  3. The Stretcher Railing Society (on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/stretchersoc?lang=en) are doing fantastic work raising awareness of stretcher railings around London. There are some really interesting features in Thanet too – I recommend exploring Sarre and Pegwell Bay – also along the East Yorkshire coast. The Defence of Britain Project database is a good place to find out what features have previously been recorded – along with the NHLE – https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/dob/

  4. Andrew C. More says:

    There is an EWS (‘Emergency water supply’) sign (now very faded) on the brick wall of the now disused basin/dock on London’s Albert Embankment opposite its junction with Salamanca Street. This is visible on Google Street View. There is shrapnel damage to the Exhibition Road face of the V&A Museum.

  5. Crispin Edwards says:

    Some great examples here. Some ‘spigot mortar’ mounting blocks can still be seen – characteristic concrete ‘thimbles’ around 1m in diameter and 1.2m tall, with a stainless-steel pin of about 5cm diameter fixed in the top. The pin was the mounting point for a ‘Blacker Bombard’, a type of mortar which has a protruding spigot over which the hollow tail of the projectile is slid, instead of the bomb being slid into a tube. These were Britain’s main anti-tank weapon at the time of her greatest weakness. 840 anti-tank guns were left behind at Dunkirk in 1940, and only 167 were available, whilst ammunition was so scarce not even one live round could be fired for training purposes. Churchill saw the practical and psychological advantages of giving both the regular army and the home guard a new weapon, and against military advice ordered 16,000 to be made. The thimbles provided ready-made ambush firing points (sometimes in firing pits with ammunition lockers and approach trenches) so the weapon’s heavy metal legs could be dispensed with.

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