Life During the Blitz
(photographs and captions and article courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)
“A fire-watcher on duty at a factory in Upper Norwood, South London, 1944. German bombers usually dropped a combination of high explosive and incendiary bombs. Incendiaries would quickly start fierce fires unless they were extinguished immediately. To combat incendiaries, people were encouraged to volunteer as fire-watchers and to draw up rotas with their neighbours. Air raid wardens issued stirrup pumps and trained people how to use them. Factories and other work places also needed fire-watchers, and at the end of 1940, fire-watching duty became compulsory. D 17934.”
How Britain Prepared for Air Raids
During the late 1930s, the British government began to prepare the civilian population for war.
As well as the widely expected and feared bombing raids, it was also thought that poison gas might be used against civilians. Gas masks were issued in 1938, and over 44 million had been distributed by the outbreak of war in September 1939.
“Air raid wardens were issued with steel helmets. These helmets were similar to the steel helmets issued to soldiers in the First World War and protected the wearer from falling shrapnel or debris. Steel helmets were also issued to firefighters, police officers and other members of civil defence services, and soon became a recognisable symbol of authority.” (caption and photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
The Air Raid Wardens Service was set up in 1937. Wardens were responsible for reporting incidents, reassuring the public and providing Air Raid Precautions (ARP) advice. They were also expected to extinguish small fires, administer first aid and investigate reports of unexploded bombs. The Women’s Voluntary Service was set up in 1938 to involve women in ARP.
The first air raid shelters were distributed in 1938. People without the outside space needed to put one up were encouraged to use communal shelters instead. The government was initially reluctant to allow London Underground stations to be used as shelters, although they were later forced to back down.
From 1938, in response to fears that air attacks on Britain might include the use of poison gas, the entire British population was issued with gas masks. Most people received the standard civilian pattern respirator. Air raid wardens, by contrast, received a higher grade of respirator. This is a civilian duty respirator. Unlike the standard civilian model, it features separate glass eye pieces, an exhalation valve and could be adapted to accept a microphone. Although poison gas was never used against Britain during the Second World War, masks like this became another common symbol of wartime life. Though masks were potentially lifesaving pieces of equipment, they tended to make their wearers appear terrifyingly alien and dehumanised. (Photo and caption courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)
From 1 September 1939, ‘Blackout’ was enforced. Curtains, cardboard and paint were used to prevent light escaping from houses, offices, factories or shops, which might be used by enemy bombers to locate their targets. Householders could be fined if they did not comply.
Messengers, ambulance drivers, Heavy Rescue teams and firefighters all proved essential to ARP – from 1941 officially termed Civil Defence – especially during the height of the Blitz.
Almost 7,000 Civil Defence workers were killed during the war.”
This is a stirrup pump and hose, used to put out small fires. It would be used by two people – one working the pump, which stands in a bucket of water, and a second holding the hose and nozzle, to point a jet of water onto the fire. During the Blitz incendiary (fire-starting) bombs were used in large numbers. A warden might be the first person to respond to an incendiary attack and would use a pump like this to fight the fire. Wardens would also train others in the use of stirrup pumps like these. (photo and caption courtesy Imperial War Museum)