Britain Can Take It


An extract from Norman Longmate: How we Lived Then - A history of everyday life during the Second World War (1971): published by Pimlico ISBN 0 09 908080 x

(used by permission of  The Random House Group Limited)





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Keeping going.  Sheltering – the Underground.  Public shelters.  Anderson shelters.  

Morrison shelters.  Other places to shelter.  Old people.  Children.  Casualties.  

Damage to property.  Aftermath.  Fire Guard scheme.  Incendiaries. 




Dear Rescue men,

Just a few lines thanking you for what you did for us on July I4th...How you helped to get my mother out, and to get my two brothers which was dead, how you help me to get to shelter when I hadn’t any shoes on my feet.

Letter from a Hull schoolgirl, 1943




During June and July and August 1940 the bombs had been creeping closer to London. In mid-August, on a sunny Thursday evening, there was a sharp attack on Croydon, where sixty-two people were killed in less than half an hour, and at last, on Saturday 7th September, a year after everyone had expected it, came the turn of the capital itself. It was, one warden later remembered, ‘one of those beautiful early autumn days which feel like spring and can make even London streets seem fresh and gay. There was hardly a wisp of cloud in the pale blue sky.’ When the sirens sounded that afternoon they marked, though no one then realised it, the start of the blitz. London was to know barely a single peaceful night until the All Clear on the morning of Sunday 11th May 1941 signalled the end of the last, and worst, major raid of the war. During the same period, and after it, most of the country’s major ports and industrial cities were to undergo even more concentrated attacks, though their ordeal usually lasted for only two or three nights at a time.


Early on Sunday morning, while all over the country the first Home Guards were going wearily home after the great invasion scare, the people of East London emerged from their shelters to find the streets thick with broken glass, and, in thousands of cases, a smoking heap of rubble where their home had stood. Thousands more discovered a shattered shell, with smashed windows, doors sagging from their frames, tiles stripped from the roof and everywhere soot, plaster and broken glass. Such experiences were to be the lot of millions of families, in London and other cities, during the next few months.


But one of the first results of the blitz was a widespread determination among those who worked in London not to let ‘that man’ interfere with their daily routine. On the Saturday night 410 people had been killed and 1,600 seriously injured and on Sunday 8th September the bombers came again, in a raid which put out of action every railway line into London from the south. Yet nearly everyone got to work somehow…. Temporary offices were set up in cafes and shops and a popular subject for discussion was whether it was worse sorting thousands of blast-scattered index cards back into order, or having the job of shaking out the glass and dust from between the pages of bombed files.

Keeping going

That winter absenteeism in most firms was actually less than normal, for one’s job was something to cling to in an uncertain world. Post Offices were still open, though often with candles stuck in bottles on the counter, and no windows. In bombed streets postmen could be seen conscientiously attempting to deliver the mail at one heap of ruins after another and telegraph boys provided one of the strange new sights of the blitz, carrying notices ‘Telegrams accepted’ and turning round to provide a ‘back’ against which the customer could write his message… The spirit of 1940 is illustrated by the ‘Special Instructions’ on a delivery note for a parcel of china and glass ordered by one customer in West London: ‘Ignore time-bomb, leave in hall if out.’


Before long most large stores, and many other firms, were closing at 4 p.m., for everyone’s life was becoming geared to the nightly siren. At first nearly everyone sought shelter after dark, but by early November an official census showed that only 40 per cent of the population slept in a shelter, 9 per cent using a public shelter, 4 per cent the tubes, and 27 per cent a domestic shelter. The public outcry about conditions in the largest public shelters, often without sanitation or even lighting, and the appalling inadequacy of the over-loaded and ill-equipped rest centres for the bombed-out led to immediate improvements, but cost Sir John Anderson his job. He became, in Churchill’s phrase, ‘the Home Front prime minister’, as Lord President of the Council. His successor as Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, the son of a Lambeth policeman, was a far more accomplished Parliamentarian than Anderson and far better able to understand what life under bombing really meant to the poor. He transformed the rest-centres and shelters and restored confidence in the government’s Civil Defence policy within a few weeks.


Once the night raids began, the public brushed aside the government ban on using the Underground to shelter, simply buying a 1½d. ticket to gain admission to the platforms and refusing to come up. By the 2?th September 177,000 men, women and children were using the tubes every night, and though they were at least dry and warm, at first even the ordinary station lavatories were closed. ‘The result was’, one man who used Swiss Cottage station remembers, ‘that every time anyone wanted "to spend a penny" it was necessary to board a train and travel to the next stop Finchley Road.’ Before long, however, temporary bucket lavatories were erected in the stations and 22,000 bunks had been installed on the platforms, usually in three tiers, the lowest one being usable as a seat during the evening. But many people still had to sleep on the ground and anyone arriving on a late train had to step over recumbent bodies to reach the exit. The L.C.C. and welfare organisations were soon providing drinking water, lending libraries and canteens and the tube became so popular that London Transport issued an appeal urging every male shelterer ‘to be a man and leave’ the available space ‘to women, children and the infirm’, though it produced little response.

Sheltering – the Underground

That winter thousands of families, particularly in the East End, enjoyed the fullest social life of their lives, with sing-songs, concert parties, informal dances and even darts competitions between one shelter and the next. The usual BBC ‘round the Empire’ feature was this year called Christmas under Fire and described shelters in which paper chains hung from the bare brick walls, wardens wore paper hats instead of steel helmets and the faithful W.V.S. distributed mince-pies in place of cheese rolls.


But most people recall life in a public shelter with a shudder and especially the misery of lying awake listening to other people’s snoring, which became a serious national problem, never solved. If one could not lie down it was almost impossible to sleep in any case. A Liverpool woman endured ‘sitting on a hard form in an unlighted, unheated street shelter. . . with my baby on my knee...cramped, cold and terribly frightened’. She told nursery stories to the children, but would stop suddenly and say, ‘Oh no, not that story’ when she reached the phrase, ‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down’. One Ipswich Civil Servant remembers a woman who talked and knitted all night. ‘We tried not answering or just grunting but it was no use. She was very hurt one night when one overwrought soul shouted, "Can’t you shut up, and stop clicking those damn needles as well."’

Public shelters

Domestic shelters at least offered a little privacy, but many people rapidly found that one could pay too high a price for safety. A Northolt woman remembers that one night in a shelter, with her neighbours, two babies, a dog and a candle, was enough for her. An Ipswich household decided, after sitting up half the night in the cellar, to stay in bed, as ‘if we were going to be blown up, we might as well be blown up in comfort’. A York woman would not use her Anderson because, she believed, ‘there was more harm done by waking children up out of their sleep and taking them out into the bitter cold giving them a chill than there was from the bombs’. Many adults felt the same.

Anderson shelters

Yet it was possible, having once decided to shelter, to make oneself reasonably comfortable. A Highbury woman had a brick shelter in her garden, with electric light, a ‘wicker chair, cushions, rugs, an oil stove in the centre and, of course, food and tea. A gate in the fence to the next door garden admitted neighbours who wanted to share with us’, she remembers, and ‘at 11 p.m., if all were quiet we had tea from the kettle boiling on the stove and usually biscuits, and then settled down and hoped for quiet the rest of the night’….


A government leaflet offered advice on how to make oneself comfortable in the shelter. ‘A home-made heater can be made with two large flower pots and a candle’, it suggested. ‘A Balaclava helmet, such as every soldier knows, will keep draughts off your head. Before you leave the house turn off all gas taps… switch off electricity at the main, leave buckets of water and earth on the front doorstep, put your stirrup pump...where it can easily be seen, draw back all your curtains and raise blinds...Dress yourself and your children warmly.’ This routine now became familiar in millions of homes all over the country. A Lanarkshire woman ‘would put out on a table a basket with a bottle of water, bottle of milk, biscuits, warm clothing for the children and ourselves... My husband of course carried his pocket book with our money, etc. Each night, too, he filled the bath with water in case of fire. We had a box of sand in the garden, so we could deal with incendiary bombs.’ One Surrey woman put a large notice on the back door, ‘Don’t forget, Handbag, Identity Card, Gas Mask, Ration Book’. In this family, as in many others, ‘We dressed rather than undressed to go to bed.’


The growing reluctance of many people to go out of doors led the new Home Secretary to look again at the need for an indoor shelter…  The result was the Morrison shelter, which resembled a large steel table, six feet six inches long, four feet wide and two feet nine inches high, with a steel mattress across the bottom and wire mesh at the sides. During the day it could be used as a table and at night it could, with a slight squeeze, accommodate two adults and two small children, lying down. The first were delivered in March 1941 and by the end of the war about 1,100,000 were in use, including a few two-tier models for larger families. Morrisons were supplied free to people earning up to £350 a year and were on sale at about £7 to people earning more. Though not as strong as the Anderson, the Morrison proved the most successful shelter of the war, particularly during the ‘hit and run’ and flying-bomb raids when a family had only a few seconds to get under cover. It was also a good deal easier to erect than an Anderson, and while most people remember their nights in the Anderson with horror, memories of the Morrison shelter are usually good-humoured. A Colchester woman, remembers it provided a lot of laughs’, like the night ‘a rather stout elderly lady was trying to crawl out of it and became stuck half in, and half out; she looked like a hippopotamus!’ A Sussex child played happily in the Morrison in the kitchen at being a lion tamer in a cage, the family cat playing the part of the lion. A Wimbledon woman also welcomed the cat into hers, and he found it so comfortable that ‘his purr sounded like a flying bomb sometimes’. A Teddington boy found the top ‘particularly good for re-fighting sea and land battles with toy ships and soldiers’, and a Staines girl, trained by her father on the top of the Morrison shelter, went on to become table-tennis champion of West Middlesex…  Most people would echo the verdict of a woman who after using a brick shelter in Brixton and an Anderson at New Cross, finally settled for her own Morrison at Catford, and found it the best of them all.

Morrison shelters

For those who had no Morrison the most popular place was under the stairs, which often survived even if the roof fell in, and the pantry was another popular choice. The lonely pantry evenings of a Ryde woman, whose husband was absent on Civil Defence duty, were cheered by the discovery of several long-forgotten bottles of blackberry wine. This once relatively innocuous brew had now turned into ‘a lovely, heart-warming, brandy-type drink. A glass of that and let those damned Germans cornel’

Other places to shelter

Strong, old-fashioned tables also returned, like cellars, to popularity in 1940. A government leaflet, Shelter at Home, pointed out that ‘people have often been rescued from demolished houses because they had taken shelter under an ordinary table... strong enough to bear the weight of the falling bedroom floor’. I frequently worked beneath the solid oak tables in the school library during ‘imminent danger periods’ and, particularly before the arrival of the Morrison, families became accomplished at squeezing beneath the dining table during interrupted meals. Beds were also useful as shelters and in hospitals patients were regularly settled on the floor beneath theirs. One Cambridgeshire family, having brought the beds downstairs, then raised them on blocks to make it easier to get underneath them suddenly.


Some people had to go out however heavy the raid. ‘Being the only doctor available for the hospital’, a Morpeth, Northumberland, medical man remembers, 1 had to leap out of bed every time the alarm went. I got so proficient that I was up, dressed and in my car before the last diminuendo faded out. When it got to dressing three times a night I went up at the first siren and got into bed in one of the side wards.’ A Southampton doctor actually welcomed night calls, since being out with a job to do was, he found, better than lying quaking in bed. Not everyone was as courageous. A Portsmouth woman remembers that, as she arrived with her mother at their front door one night during a heavy raid, ‘a short, wide, little figure burst up the front path, pushed between Mother and me and demanded, "Quick, quick! Where do you go? Which door? Where?" ‘ When her mother asked, ‘Haven’t you got the wrong house?’, she received the unexpected answer, ‘I don’t care a b_____ whose house it is! Where’s the bloody shelter?’


Many people had some private ritual which they persuaded themselves would keep them safe. One North London woman warden ‘used to mutter "Oh my God!" as a sort of talisman’ as she ran half a mile to her Post. She mentioned this to ‘a friend who had a mile to go to her Report Centre and she said, in all seriousness, "I say The-Lord-is-my-Shepherd-I-shall-not-want, the-Lord-is-my-Shepherd-I-shall-not-want"’….  Many people admit to praying, as they heard the bombers passing over, ‘God don’t let them stop here!’. A vicar, who pointed out to one of his parishioners, ‘It’s a bit rough on the other people if your prayer is granted’, was put firmly in his place. ‘I can’t help that,’ she told him, ‘they must say their prayers and push it off further.’


Old people on the whole stood up surprisingly well to life in bombed cities. A Sanderstead woman remembers the eighty-four-year-old neighbour, who had tottered across the garden to share their shelter, saying perkily to her husband, ‘Well, you never thought you would have me as a bed-mate!’ A Haslemere woman remembers the seventy-seven-year old neighbour who grumbled that because of the raids he could make few plans for the future. A woman from Old Coulsdon, Surrey, was amused by her elderly aunt’s precaution of always wearing her underclothes while bathing because she feared ‘she might have to be rescued by someone before she finished’.

Old people

Most children were also remarkably unaffected by raids. One Scots-woman recalls that after the heavy blitz on Clydebank ‘my son was thrilled to find bits of shrapnel in the garden and went round picking them up’. A Worcester Park, Surrey, woman found that when a stick of bombs fell on the nearby park, shattering their windows, her children’s only reaction was to ask if they could go and see if the swings were still all right. A woman living near Croydon remembers ‘distinctly counting the explosions and making a rhyme, "One two, button my shoe", of them to amuse Margaret [her fifteen-month-old daughter] who was watching me intently and would have been terror-stricken if I had shown the slightest sign of fear, but my voice was quivering’…. Yet while her children were out of the house no mother could feel secure…. One London woman recalls how a local school was hit one dinnertime and it was ‘my painful duty to help by picking up any article I saw unearthed as the men dug. I held aloft a small pink purse. No words were needed. The mother of the child to whom it belonged held out her hand, her face so anguished it was frightful to behold. She took it and was led wordlessly away.’


This dead child was one of 60,595 civilians killed by enemy action in Great Britain during the war. 86,182 were seriously injured and another 150,833 slightly injured. London, during the four months from 7th September to the end of 1940, accounted for the largest single group of these casualties: 13,339 dead, 17,937 seriously injured. Before the war it had been expected that each night’s bombing would produce 3,000 killed and 12,000 wounded. The worst night’s toll in London, on 10th/ 11th May 1941, was in fact 1,436 killed and 1,792 injured but over the blitz as a whole the pre-war estimate of fatal casualties per ton of bombs proved fourteen times too high. The youngest person killed was a baby eleven hours old; the oldest, a Chelsea Pensioner aged one hundred. 537 of the dead were never identified….


Although the casualties were mercifully far fewer than expected, the damage to property was far greater. From September 1940 to May 1941 in London alone 1,150,000 houses were damaged and at least one person in six made homeless for a day or more, excluding those displaced by unexploded bombs. In Hull – a perpetual target, its sufferings concealed at the time under the description ‘a North East Coast town’ – only 6,000 out of 93,000 houses escaped some destruction; in Plymouth, nearly one house in four was put out of action and many more made temporarily unusable. Over the country as a whole, out of 13,000,000 houses in 1939, 200,000 were totally destroyed, and about 3,750,000 damaged, many of them several times. What bombs had left the looters often got. One A.F.S. man wrote bluntly: ‘Everybody loots... The A.R.P. Wardens, Demolition Men...the Police.’ A Liverpool school-girl, bombed out for the second time, found that her roller skates had been stolen. A bombed-out Birmingham family, returning for linen, cutlery and a few pieces of unbroken china, found most of it had vanished. A Coventry woman resisted tears when bombed out until she discovered that her small son’s toys had been looted. ‘I could hate the Germans, but I did not want to hate my own countrymen’.

Damage to property

Any heavy raid meant for the housewives of the affected city a massive clearing-up operation. A Plymouth woman remembers ‘returning to a mere shell of a house.... No roof. No window panes. The door blasted open.... I’d have given my kingdom for a cuppa, but there was no electricity and no gas. I wasn’t to know then that we would be without gas for almost six months.’ Electricity, however, was usually restored in a few hours and piped water in three or four days. In the bombed cities millions of women adjusted themselves to the living conditions of their grandmothers’ day, fetching water by the bucketful from standpipes and army lorries, doing their daily cooking over open fires, often made of wood from bombed houses, and taking the Sunday joint to be cooked in the baker’s oven, if any local bakery survived unbombed. After their first experience of living without water, sensible housewives followed the official advice always to keep filled bottles in the house. One Bristol woman remembers making tea from the contents other hot water bottle. Another Bristol housewife still feels proud of her ability, acquired in 1940, to wash and rinse her husband’s shirt in a single quart. For many housewives the feel of those after-the-raid mornings is instantly brought back by the taste of burned food, for after an explosion soot from the chimney would settle insidiously on food and crockery. Sanitation was an even greater problem. People travelled long distances to find a usable lavatory or used buckets and buried the contents where they could; one conscientious East End doctor could be seen walking a mile every day, carrying a trowel, in search of a really hygienic and private spot.


Although it was high explosive, through blast, splinters or falling masonry which caused almost all the casualties in air raids, and interrupted public services, it was fire which did most of the damage, but the government were remarkably slow in taking effective measures either to prevent fire or to fight it. In raid after raid pumps sent to help some burning city had to stand idle as the connections would not fit the local hydrants, but it was not until August 1941, on Herbert Morrison’s insistence, that the existing 1,666 fire authorities in England and Wales were merged into the National Fire Service. At the same time energetic steps were at last taken to provide a proper emergency water supply, with six-inch steel mains running along the gutters – they presented a new hazard in the blackout – and ‘E.W.S’ – for ‘Emergency Water Supply’ – tanks appearing everywhere, on open spaces, on the roadsides, and in the basements of bombed buildings. Some resorts objected to static water tanks, as they were commonly known, as ‘unsightly’, but the sun sparkling on the surface often lent a new charm to the drab urban scene. The tanks also provided mothers with a new worry, for children were for ever floating home-made rafts of bomb-damaged timber on them, leading to at least one death from drowning every month.


Even more important, immediately after the City had been devastated by fire on the night of 29th December 1940, largely because whole office blocks had been left locked and unattended, the government launched the Fire Guard scheme, which made it compulsory in ‘prescribed’ areas, considered liable to attack, to have someone on duty in every building at all times, ready to extinguish any incendiaries that fell on it, or to summon help if the fire grew out of control. Since not all firms had sufficient staff to protect them properly, fire-watching, either in one’s own street or wherever else one was directed to serve, was made compulsory in any place considered to be at risk, which eventually included most urban areas. Under the first scheme, in January 1941, men aged sixteen to sixty were made liable to serve; in August 1942 the liability was extended to women aged from twenty to forty-five, and in September 1943 to men up to sixty-three. Men aged up to seventy and women from eighteen to sixty were encouraged to add to the numbers available by volunteering and in practice no one under eighteen was forced to serve. These measures produced in theory an army of six million fire-watchers, which only began to be stood down, area by area, from 13th September 1944; the last fire-watchers being disbanded on 2nd May 1945.

Fire Guard scheme

On business premises the maximum anyone could be required to fire-watch was forty-eight hours a month, usually served a whole night at a time. In residential areas, people usually worked a rota, under which each person on duty in a street did two hours on duty and then knocked up the next watcher…. A then nineteen-year-old Somerset girl admits mildly, ‘I never relished the two hours’ fire-watching when they fell from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m.’ – she had to be up at 4.30 a.m. for the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. early shift at her war factory. It was not surprising that, as the years wore on, people grew more and more reluctant to turn out at night.…


The uniform of the Fire Guard, the name which replaced the former ‘Street Fire Party’ in August 1941, was an armlet and a steel helmet, shaped, for some unknown reason, like a high-crowned pudding basin, and without a chin strap, so it readily fell off. To one Cambridge Fire Guard it recalled ‘a Victorian sun-bonnet’; others made cruder comparisons. The Fire Guard’s weapon was the stirrup pump, an admirably simple piece of equipment, consisting of a small upright pump which went into a bucket, a metal bracket with a foot rest or ‘stirrup’, and a long hose with a nozzle readily converted from ‘jet’ to ‘spray’. By 1943 there was at least one in every road, provided free or by a whip-round among the neighbours, and signs reading ‘Stirrup Pump Here’, Tire Guard Assembly Point’ or ‘Water’ could be seen on gateposts everywhere. The new arrangements soon proved their value. In the Baedeker raid on Canterbury when 6,000 incendiaries were dropped, the fire-watchers saved the cathedral and in the Little Blitz on London in 1944 75 per cent of the fires started were put out without help from the N.F.S.  The truth was that, if tackled at once, incendiary bombs – unless of the rare, explosive kind – were not dangerous.


Usually they fell in a cluster, often from ‘Molotov breadbaskets’, which split open in the air, scattering a hundred or more bombs over a single street. Commander Firebrace described the noise of incendiaries hitting the ground as ‘a curious plop-plopping sound’. Others compared them to leaves drifting along a road, and to one Liverpool housewife they resembled ‘peas being dropped on a dish’. This noise was enough in most roads to bring an eager crowd out of their houses ready to do battle with them. In the West End women in evening dresses on their way to a dance were seen contemptuously kicking spluttering bombs into the gutter. In Chelsea one group of indignant elderly people and children complained to the wardens because the residents of another road had moved in and put out ‘their’ bombs. The wife of an R.A.F. pilot remembers seeing little boys in Bristol running about with dustbin lids "bagging incendiaries"’. Also in Bristol one twelve-year-old girl modestly announced on arrival at a New Year’s Eve party that she had put out nine fire bombs on the way…. In Lambeth, when incendiaries fell opposite a pub, the landlord’s wife carried out a bucket of ‘swipes’ – beer-spillings – mistaking them for water, and plunged in her stirrup pump and doused the bomb in beer. One man, covered in beer foam, inevitably joked, ‘What a glorious death.’….