On September 3rd 1939, Britain entered into a war with Germany. As the German army raced across Europe in what was called the ‘Blitzkrieg’ invading and capturing neighbouring countries, Britain braced itself for an attack. Children were evacuated from cities to the countryside for safety, and the British public waited. On reaching France, all that stood between the British and the invading Germans was the English Channel, a stretch of water just 21 miles wide, but in order to cross this, the Germans needed control of the skies to support an invasion. In May 1940 German aircraft sent wave after wave of fighters and bombers to attack airfields and cities, however the Royal Air Force and their fighter planes were ready. The ‘Battle of Britain’ as it became known was a fierce contest above the skies of the South East as Britain defended its shores from aerial attack. The county of Kent, especially around Dover, became known as ‘Hell Fire Corner’!
The Royal Air Force were successful at repelling the German air attacks, retained superiority over the skies across Britain, and therefore stopped the invasion by German forces onto mainland Britain. Britain’s new Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s famous quote after the Battle of Britain shows the appreciation of the bravery and skill of the RAF pilots and crews:
‘Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few!’
September 1940 saw a change in the German strategy to defeat Britain. Realising that land invasion was no longer possible, the German Air Force began to target British cities, ports and industrial areas. The first target was the capital city, London. Attacks on the city were made mostly at night and became a regular occurrence until May 1941. This period became known as ‘The Blitz’. On the first night 337 tons of bombs were dropped on the city destroying docks and much of the East End of London.
The German Air Force went on to attack cities across the country, including Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool and Coventry.
The Government set out guidelines of what to do in the event of an Air Raid. Sirens were setup in every major town and city across the country to warn people that an Air Raid was imminent and that they should ‘Take Cover’ to protect themselves. Chatham provided information for families describing the sirens and actions to take.
Larger cities and towns had public shelters. Both Ramsgate and Chislehurst in Kent had underground tunnels and caves that were used to shelter during the air raids. Londoners used the public Underground network to shelter from the bombing raids.
Sir John Anderson, a member of parliament was placed in charge of Air Raid Precautions (ARP) from the start of the war. Before the outbreak of war, he had worked with the engineers William Patterson and Oscar Carl Kerrison, to design a small and cheap shelter that could be erected in gardens. These became known as ‘Anderson Shelters’.
Within a few months nearly one and a half million of these Anderson Shelters were distributed to people living in areas expected to be bombed by the German Air Force. They were made from six curved sheets bolted together at the top, with steel plates at either end, measuring 1.95m by 1.35m These shelters were half buried in the ground, then earth was placed on top for extra protection. The entrance was protected by a steel shield and an earthen blast wall. The shelter could accommodate just six people.
Anderson shelters were given free to poor people. Men who earned more than £5 a week could buy one for £7. 150,000 shelters of this type were distributed from February 1939 to the outbreak of war. By the time of the Blitz in September 1940, this had risen to 2 ¼ million.
Listen in to Air Raid memories from a child of a Dockyard Worker.
Mrs Saxby Taylor was a child during the air raids. Both her mother and grandmother worked in the Ropery at Chatham Dockyard. Here she shares some of her memories of that time.
The interview took place at The Historic Dockyard on 19th July 2005
For those families without gardens, Morrison Shelters were made available. These were named after Herbert Morrison who was a politician and Minister for Home Security in 1940, following on from John Anderson. Morrison Shelters were steel cages with a solid metal top, designed to hold two people and could withstand a house collapsing around them while keeping the people safe inside. They were often disguised during the day as a table by having a tablecloth thrown over the top.
A Morrison shelter in use. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194913
For those people at work, like those working at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Chatham, shelters were provided for the workforce to share in the event of an air raid. These would have been across the site, and workers would have rushed to them in the event of the air raid siren going off. The Royal Naval Dockyards were considered a prime target at the beginning of the Second World War.
Bombs were indeed dropped on the Royal Naval Dockyard during German bombing raids causing damage to buildings and workshops. Here we see damage to No9. Compressor House following a bombing raid. The Dockyard had its own team of Air Raid Wardens and Rescue Crew.
Photo: Bomb damage to no.9 compressor house roof
Photo: Dockyard Air Raid Wardens and Rescue Crew.
The Air Raid Shelters across the Dockyard saved many lives.
One such Air Raid Shelter was positioned below the road outside Officers Terrace at the Dockyard, which is still accessible today. In fact, there are 11 Air Raid Shelters next to Officer’s Terrace alone.
Here is one of the hidden entrances.
Each Air Raid Shelter was designed with an entrance that had a 90 degree turn as you entered the shelter. This was to protect the occupants inside. If a bomb exploded nearby it would create a blast wave of air which was as dangerous as the bomb itself. These solid concrete walls would deflect the blast wave keeping those inside safe. On arrival the employee in charge of a shelter would write a register of those inside, place this inside a steel cannister, then throw it away from the entrance. This was a record of who was inside if the shelter suffered a direct hit.
Inside was dark and damp, but safe. Up to 50 Dockyard Workers could fit into this shelter. There was an emergency exit at the rear of the shelter in case the shelter entrance was blocked by debris.
Here is a recording of sounds they may have heard during an air raid while sheltering inside:
It is possible to visit the Air Raid Shelters as part of a Learning visit to The Historic Dockyard Chatham.
Contact the Learning Team for more details.