The Home Front

In preparation for war

As preparations for war commenced no less than a year before the outbreak of the Second World War, it was clear that the Government expected a war that would not just involve soldiers but a war that would threaten and disturb the lives of civilians left at home. All the possible dangers and difficulties the Home Front would face were required to be taken into consideration. The cooperation of the general public and thus the preservation of morale among the civilian population were perceived as vital for victory.

The Blackout

The blackout was the most immediate transformation of daily life that war brought. Its imposition on 1 September 1939 was in ways as expressive as the evacuation of children and the call-up of the ARP on the same day, in anticipation of immediate bombing raids on the civilian population. The regulations imposed by the lighting restrictions insisted that no chink of light must be visible from flats, houses, offices, factories and shops. Illuminated signs and advertisements were to be turned off for the duration of the war; street lighting would be switched off and cars, trains, buses, trams and trolley buses were required to mask their headlights and to screen their interior lights.

Photo:Extract from Protection of Your Home Against Air Raids(1938), advising on 'Darkening the house at night'

Extract from Protection of Your Home Against Air Raids(1938), advising on 'Darkening the house at night'

Introduced to prevent enemy aircraft from identifying targets, the blackout came to cause numerous casualties through road accidents before German air raids had commenced. Pedestrians were known to walk along the white line at the centre of suburban and country roads to get their bearings and the shielded headlights of cars and other vehicles often proved fatal. In the first four months of the war a total of 4,133 were killed on the roads, and 2,657 of these were pedestrians. The number of road fatalities increased by 100 per cent compared to the corresponding months the previous year. These figures exclude others who walked into canals, fell down steps, plunged through glass roofs and fell from railway platforms. Numerous other people suffered minor injuries when attempting to find their way in the dark.

‘We used to laugh because people used to bump into things and it was strange to see the number of black eyes. In fact if you had a black eye, it was quite funny really, because you were in the fashion you know. But they were long nights to cope with really.’ Len Perry

Protection against aerial attacks

‘My dad and brother dug an underground shelter in the back garden, very efficient it looked too, with just one drawback, it filled with water every day, so unless you were prepared to have a swim whilst using it, not good.’

While the blackout proved the most pervasive aspect of the war in the early months, gas masks soon proved the most irrelevant. In preparation for war almost all in Britain had been issued with a gas mask, which they had been encouraged to carry on all journeys. A genuine fear that the Germans would use gas existed in Britain and the gas mask was seen as a ‘vital article of personal defence equipment’. In addition to the gas mask, in protection of air raids, shelters had also been received by the public. Even though 1.5 million free Anderson shelters had been distributed by the outbreak of war and 50,000 were being turned out every week, this was still a third short of target. Once erected the shelters were often dark and damp and tended to flood. Ron Briggs recalls an attempt to construct a shelter in the back garden, before the family had received an Anderson shelter.

‘My dad and brother dug an underground shelter in the back garden, very efficient it looked too, with just one drawback, it filled with water every day, so unless you were prepared to have a swim whilst using it, not good.’

Once the Anderson shelter arrived it was erected but as the family soon realised it shared the same shortcomings as the first shelter. Joyce Wilderman had a similar experience.

'Although we had an Anderson shelter it was unusable because it got waterlogged. So, we got a Morrison shelter instead. We lost the roof off the house a couple of times and the side of the kitchen got knocked out.'

Whereas the shortcomings of the air raid shelters were to cause numerous complaints in the coming years of the war, the quality of the gas masks and the training provided were never to be tested. Numerous work places as well as schools held frequent practices to familiarise employees and pupils with the respirators, as they were officially called. People were advised to wear their gas masks for fifteen minutes a day to get used to them. Various Government issued leaflets offered advice on how to use the mask, official instructions issued by the Ministry of Home Security advised ‘to test for fit, hold a piece of paper to end of mask and breathe in. The paper should stick’. Although there were plenty of false alarms from people who had smelt floor polish, mustard, musty hay, bleaching powder, horseradish, geraniums, peardrops or any other of the tell-tale odours, as the months came to pass many citizens were observed not carrying their gas masks and in December 1939 the War cabinet reported ‘signs that the public is becoming lax in such matters as the carrying of gas mask and the observance of lighting restrictions.’

The ARP

It was never illegal not to carry a gas mask but much pressure was put on the citizen to do so. The Government instituted a monthly inspection of masks by air raid wardens whereby the citizen would be charged for the replacement or repair of the masks which had been allowed to deteriorate. This innovation came to reinforce the bad reputation that had been attached to the ARP. The machinery of civil defence would remain alert all over the country until almost the end of war but before air raids started, the ARP wardens had two main tasks and both could make them appear to interfere with the privacy of the British householder. Apart from ensuring that the householders’ blackout was up to standard, everyone living in the sector patrolled by the ARP warden had to be registered and details of shelter arrangements had to be noted. Although only 400,000 of the one and a half million women and men in the Civil Defence services were paid full-time and the rest part-time volunteers, the service received charges from press and public alike of being parasites, slackers and over-paid army dodgers. Once the air raids started the perception of the ARP and its wardens came to change as their preparations and training was put into practise.

Recalling his experience in the ARP, Edward Aylward emphasises the lack of personal protection and rather poor standard of some of the equipment used.

Literally when I was in the ARP all I had was a tin helmet and a whistle and that was my safeguard.’

‘The old road I lived in, in one of the gardens was an old sort of outhouse and to be perfectly honest if someone would have said ‘dang’ it would have collapsed. That’s how old it was. And we kept our stirrup pumps and sand in this place, ready to hand.’

This page was added by Malin Lundin on 04/11/2011.

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