Civilian Defense

Previous page: The Battle of Britain: July – October 1940

London was difficult to defend from air attack. Politicians and officials imagined grim scenes of social breakdown, floods of refugees, and hospitals overrun. Speaking to Parliament in November 1934, Churchill warned: "We must expect that, under the pressure of continuous attack upon London, at least three or four million people would be driven out into the open country around the metropolis". These apocalyptic notions were a sign of the fear both politicians and civilian authorities had of air bombardment.

Civil defence preparations favoured family shelters, constructed by householders in their backyards. The planning for enemy raids anticipated that they would be of short duration, intense, and during daylight hours. Few people, if any, predicted the nightly assaults that would force Londoners to sleep and spend long periods in shelters.

The most important communal shelters were those in the stations of the London Underground. The government initially rejected their use as shelters in 1939, arguing that unhindered movement of commuters and troops had to be guaranteed and that people might refuse to leave the shelters. The regularity of the raids, however, soon had increasing numbers of people coming to the Tube and remaining there.

By the second week of heavy bombing, the authorities had yielded to popular pressure and orderly queues of people outside the stations became a familiar sight, waiting until they were allowed onto the platforms. In mid-September 1940 about 150,000 a night slept there, reaching a peak of £170,000 on 27 September. In the deepest stations the sound of explosions and gunfire was muffled and it was easier to sleep than above ground; but heavy loss of life resulted from direct hits on several stations such as Marble Arch, Balham, Bank and Liverpool Street.

By the end of 1940, significant improvements had been made in the Underground mass shelters. Local authorities distributed heating stoves, washing and sanitary facilities were upgraded and food services were greatly improved. Eventually, thousands of tiered bunks were installed in the larger shelters and tickets issued to regulate the numbers of people queuing.

In November 1940, the Cabinet authorised the construction in the London Underground of deep bomb-proof tunnels capable of accommodating about 80,000 people. But by the time they were completed the period of heavy raids had stopped and they were never used.

Next page: Civilian Mobilisation