Air Raid Precautions had begun life in 1924 as a Home Office subcommittee under the chairmanship of Sir John Anderson. It sprang from the British civilian experience of bombing in the First World War, during which Germany had mounted 103 raids (fifty-one by airships), mostly on London. A total of 300 tons of bombs had killed 1 413 people. The worst single bombing incident of the war occurred in London on 28 January 1918 when a 660 lb. bomb hit the Odhams print works in Long Acre, killing thirty-eight and injuring eighty-five.
Although the raids had no influence on the course of the war, their psychological effect lingered on long after 1918. In the 1930s a new generation of bombers cast a long shadow over Europe. Many military thinkers believed that in any major conflict of the future vast fleets of bombers, pounding the enemy's capital to rubble, would decide the issue in a matter of hours. In 1932 Stanley Baldwin, then a prominent member of the coalition government, gloomily told the House of Commons,
'I think it is well for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through. The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourself.'
At Munich six years later Adolf Hitler played on Neville Chamberlain's fears by ominously observing that he too was a humanitarian and hated ‘the thought of little babies being killed by gas bombs'.
In March 1935 Hitler proclaimed the existence of a new German air force, the Luftwaffe, boasting that it was already equal in size to the RAF. It was subsequently combat-tested during the Spanish Civil War, in which the destruction of the Basque town of Guernica by the bombers of the German Condor Legion provided a chilling image of the horrors of modern warfare. In the late 1930s British air planners anticipated that, if war came, the Luftwaffe might launch an overwhelming air attack on London, frequently referred to as the ‘knock-out blow'. It would be as swift, sudden and shocking as the terrifyingly staged air raid in Alexander Korda's film version of H. G. Wells's Things to Come, a nightmare vision of mass panic and toppling landmarks. Extrapolating from the destruction caused by bombing in the Spanish Civil War, particularly the raids by Italian aircraft on Barcelona, the Air Staff calculated that the Luftwaffe could deliver 700 tons of bombs a day on London, with a possible 3 500 tons in the first twenty-four hours, each ton causing at least fifty casualties. Their heads filled with these doom-laden figures, the Home Office calculated that in the first three months of such a war 60 000 000 square feet of coffin timber would be required to bury the dead. Revised costings resulted in the stockpiling of tens of thousands of collapsible papier-mâché and cardboard coffins.
Advised by leading experts, the government also planned for the psychological as well as the physical worst. The Ministry of Health joined the numbers game, estimating that it might have to deal with up to 4 000 000 mental cases in the first six months of war. In these circumstances it was assumed in government circles that civilian morale would crack almost instantly under air bombardment. Panic-stricken hordes of Londoners would pour out of the shattered capital into the countryside, where the government had laid contingency plans to turn them back, with machine-gun fire if necessary.
Experience during the General Strike of 1926 had demonstrated what might happen when Britain's principal channels of communication and distribution were paralysed. Power would have to be devolved to the regions, and in the 1930s twelve autonomous Civil Defence regions were established, with London counting as a single region. The chain of command ran down from the regional headquarters through the group headquarters to the borough. The borough HQ was often in the town hall, integrating the civil defence system with local government. In most towns council staff shared civil defence responsibilities with the small number of full-time civil defence personnel and the many local volunteers. Below the borough lay the district and then, at the bottom of the pyramid, the air-raid wardens' posts.
In theory each post, heavily sandbagged and clearly marked, was supposed to control an area containing approximately 500 people. In London there were about ten posts per square mile. In the Blitz the warden was to be the eyes and ears of the local Civil Defence Control Centre, patrolling the streets and controlling ‘incidents', the bureaucratic euphemism invented to describe every sort of disaster inflicted on the civilian population by an air raid. It was the warden's report of an ‘incident' that set the civil defence machine in motion, summoning stretcher parties, fire engines, heavy rescue units and mobile canteens - all the services required to care for the injured, comfort the survivors and dispose of the dead.
There were 1 500 000 civil defence personnel in 1939, over two thirds of them volunteers. Even at the height of the Blitz only 16 000 of London's 200 000 wardens were full-time, paid at the lowly rate of £3 a week. Initially, the air-raid warden was not a popular figure. The public's attitude towards him ranged from mild amusement at his flimsy blue overalls and tin helmet to the active hostility Britons tend to reserve for all those they see as interfering minions of the state. Before the bombs started to fall the warden was often regarded as a self- appointed (and possibly army-dodging) Peeping Tom, peering through people's blackout curtains; or as a strutting local gauleiter, harassing citizens about the buckets of water and sand in their offices - the model for the overbearing warden played by Bill Pertwee in ‘Dad's Army'.
The integration of the civil defence system with that of local government meant that each borough's ARP was only as efficient as the authority itself, a factor which would cause many problems in the Blitz. Moreover, in working-class areas it was hard to attract volunteers.
On 15 March 1939, Hitler installed himself in the Hradcany Palace in Prague, the capital of the now dismembered Czechoslovakia.
In Britain, public opinion hardened. Hitler was seen clearly as an aggressor. The next time he moved, he must be resisted. And now, with grim inevitability, the Fuhrer’s attention was shifting north, to Poland.
The Second World War was now almost here. On 23 August came the announcement of the non-aggression pact signed between Germany and the Soviet Union. The next day Parliament was recalled from its summer holiday and military reservists were called up.
On 25 August Britain signed a formal treaty of alliance with Poland, whose integrity against aggression Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had informally guaranteed on 31 March.
At 4.15 a.m. on 1 September German troops moved into Poland. Within two hours bombs were falling on Warsaw.
The British government, impaled on a pledge to Poland which it had no way of honouring militarily, flapped around feebly in search of a way out. By 2 September the majority of Members of Parliament and the nation were convinced that war was inevitable.
Still Neville Chamberlain vacillated. That night his Cabinet staged a sit-down strike, refusing to disperse until a decision had been made. After an agonising silence, Chamberlain said quietly,
‘Right gentlemen, this means war.'
Sunday dawned warm and sunny. At 9 a.m. the British ambassador in Berlin presented Hitler with an ultimatum demanding an answer within two hours. No answer was received. At 11.15 a.m. Neville Chamberlain lugubriously broadcast to the nation that we are now at war with Germany'.
Copyright © 2002 Peter N. Risbey.