EU Referendum

Media: The Shelter War (2)


DW 012-bgj.jpg

Exactly 72 years ago, the cartoon reproduced above (click on pic to enlarge) appeared in the Daily Worker. This was after tens of thousands of casualties had been suffered in the Blitz, in what the newspaper regarded as an avoidable disaster, brought upon by the indifference of the "millionaire bosses" and their "capitalist lackies" in the government.

It is easy to dismiss the lurid rhetoric of the day, but to understand the sense of outrage that was felt at the time, one must go back even further, whence one can only conclude that the paper's anger had been entirely justified. If nothing else, the disaster had been predictable, it had been predicted, and warnings had been ignored.

The story actually started in 1915, on 31 May to be precise. That had been the date of the first aerial attack on London. Then, there had been no public shelters. People had taken to the Underground stations and eighty were soon adapted for constant use. 

Gotha 043-qqw.jpg

The photograph (courtesy IWM), showing a familiar enough scene to the modern eye is a close-up view of damage to the pavement outside the Eaglet Public House on Seven Sisters Road, caused by a 50 kilo bomb during a raid on the night of 29 - 30 September 1917.

In nearby Finsbury Park Station, during one raid 12,000 people had gathered after police had displayed "take cover" signs, following which there there had been tremendous concerns about hygiene and spread of disease in such densely occupied areas. Thus, after the war, there were "strenuous efforts made" to ensure that stations would never again be put to such use.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the first major Gotha raid, however, there was reluctance to allow the Tube system to be used. On 14 June 1917, the then Home Secretary, Sir George Cave, had told the House of Commons:
Supposing we gave warnings by such means as loud-sounding hooters. I am advised that sudden warnings in this way of impending air raids would have the effect of producing overcrowding in the streets and trams, and people would suddenly crowd into the Tubes and other places, and this of itself might result in a serious loss of life.
As the debate progressed, a central figure became Sir John Anderson – a civil servant and former Indian governor-turned politician. He was to be the Home Secretary in the early part of the Second World War, and was to become the hate figure of the Left.

In January 1924, he had been chairman of the Air Raid Precautions Committee of Imperial Defence. It was he that had ruled out the Tube station shelter option. The excuses had changed, but the thinking had not.

In the shadow of Munich on 21 December 1938, when challenged in Parliament on the air-raid precautions, Anderson still dismissed out of hand any idea of providing these effective bombproof shelters.

Apart from the difficulties and delays involved in any extensive scheme for deep bombproof shelters, he said, I do not think we are prepared to adapt our whole civilisation so as to compel a large proportion of our people to live, and maintain their productive capacity, in a troglodyte existence deep underground.


By then, however, there had been the experience of the Spanish Civil War, and in particular the systematic bombing of Madrid in 1936 and Barcelona in 1938, where over 1,000 were killed in a series of raids.

In Madrid, underground shelters had been used (pictured below), and in Barcelona the Communist defenders had developed a network of over 1,400 deep – i.e., bombproof - shelters to protect the civilian population, the first ever such provision, proving many of Anderson's assertions to be false. 


Thus, in early 1939, there was considerable pressure in parliament, mainly from the Left, to improve what were known as Air Raid Precautions (ARP). Anderson - now Home Secretary - was forced to revisit his own decisions.

After complaining during a debate on 1 March 1939 of the "stir" about deep – i.e., bombproof – shelters, which was "creating something perilously near to a defeatist mentality", he appointed a conference of experts to look again at the issue. This was headed by Lord Hailey, a fellow Indian governor who had ruled over the Punjab until 1928 and the United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh) until 1934.

Predictably, the former Indian Government colleague and his experts supported Anderson’s original policy. They worked on the supposition that the bombing would be mostly short-lived raids in the daylight, the masses of bombers giving next to no warning of their arrival – as had been the case in the First World War.

They had not for the moment considered the possibility of prolonged night raids, in a campaign lasting months, or even of the development of radar. From their narrow perspective, a network of deep shelters – the only type that would give full protection – would not be feasible. They would be too far apart to allow quick access in the event of the expected surprise raids, and large numbers of people attempting to use stairs at the same time risked a large-scale accident.

All of these issues were precisely those which had been tested and resolved in Barcelona, and the Left would not allow matters to rest. The issue was raised in parliament on 5 April 1939, where we saw the intervention of Megan Lloyd George, daughter of the former prime minister. Her statement was extraordinarily prescient:
There are certainly areas in this country where the risk of air raids is so great that shallow shelters cannot reduce it to tolerable dimensions. I think that that is a view which is very generally held. Whether it is the view of the Government we do not know, because they have not yet expressed any specific opinion on the matter, but there are certain parts of the East End of London, certain parts of the City of London, certain parts even of Greater London where the industrial concentration is very great, and where it would be of enormous advantage to an enemy if damage were done and great dislocation of the industrial life of the country were created. That is the case also in cities like Coventry, which are almost completely target areas.
Nevertheless, on 14 April 1939, Anderson’s policy committee recommended "the rejection for technical and general reasons of any attempt to provide deep "bomb proof" shelters on a widespread scale for the protection of the civil population".

With something close to breathtaking arrogance, and a direct snub to the Left, the committee acknowledged that their scheme "may fall short in some respects of the anticipation entertained in some quarters as to the character of the protection which the Government should undertake to provide".

This opened the way for Anderson to announce to the House on 20 April his idea of a definitive shelter policy. Not only did he exclude the use of the Underground, he also rejected the idea of building a network of deep shelters.

Referring to what was termed "deep shelter mentality", he had decided that if shelters were too safe (and comfortable) workers would retreat to them and not re-emerge. War production would suffer. Shelters would be proof only "against blast, splinter and the fall of debris". 

DW 012-bwo.jpg

Rather than allow people to congregate in large shelters – where they could possibly challenge authority – they were to be kept dispersed, in manageable packets. Instead of proper protection, they were given the prefabricated, corrugated steel structures which could be erected in gardens, which came to be called Anderson shelters. The Daily Worker cartoon (above) tells its own story.

The name was perhaps appropriate – like their progenitor, they were cold, dark, damp and lonely. They were incredibly noisy through the raids, amplifying the sounds of the bombs and guns, and therefore frightening. They were widely detested and many people chose not to use them.

But with these and a ramshackle network of so-called surface shelters, and diverse other protection which included trenches built in public parks, the people were being forced to go to war. 

DW 073-nme.jpg

The reaction of the Daily Worker was predictable (above) – and justified. Its expert, Professor Haldane – responsible for his own design of bombproof shelter, named after him as the "Haldane Shelter" – was incandescent, declaring: "You have received your death sentence".

To their credit, many MPs and others, not least the Daily Worker, continued to agitate. But, with less than three months to go before the East End was to be so heavily bombed, Anderson contemptuously brushed them aside.

On 12 June 1940, he told the House: "I am devoutly thankful that we did not adopt a general policy of providing deep and strongly protected shelters". In this war, he said, "we must avoid at all costs what I may call the deep-shelter mentality". 


That position remained when the Nazi bombers headed towards London, with devastating results in the congested slums of the East End (pictured above). This left a furious Daily Worker on 11 September 1940 to headline: "Over 3,000 dead and wounded in two days" (below - click any pic to enlarge it). 

All over London, and in many other bombed areas of Britain, it reported, angry and determined working people are vigorously on the job of forcing unwilling and mean authorities, employers and property owners to face up to the ARP needs of the people. 

DW 067-bws.jpg

At a big East London clothing factory yesterday, the paper continued, workers on arrival at the place of work set up a spontaneous demand for the provision of deep bombproof shelters. They called for a petition to be sent to the Government. And In a few minutes over 120 of them had signed it, and it is being despatched to Downing Street.

In the meantime, the paper said, their demand is that the tube stations should be made available as shelters. That marked the start of a battle which, in my view, was the real turning point of the war, one to which the Daily Worker gave blow-by-blow coverage while the rest of the media largely ignored the growing tragedy - then and now. 

Part 1 of "The Shelter War" here.
Part 3 of "The Shelter War" here. 
Part 4 of "The Shelter War" here
Part 5 of "The Shelter War" here
Part 6 of "The Shelter War" here