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Whitstable at War - World War II

Shelters - An Overview
by Brian Smith


The Government Stand


Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, published a circular entitled 'Air Raid Precautions' inviting local authorities to make plans to protect residents in the event of war.  Some towns responded by building public air raid shelters of brick with roofs of reinforced concrete.  Readers may be surprised to learn this was in September 1935.

The Government feared war with Nazi Germany when in August 1938 Adolf Hitler’s speeches suggested the German Army would be sent into Czechoslovakia.  Neville Chamberlain ordered that Air Raid Precautions (ARP) volunteers be mobilized, cellars and basements were requisitioned for air raid shelters, trench shelters were dug in the parks of large towns.

By March 1940, 6 months after the outbreak of war, the urgency for public shelters was realised.  Government surveyors supervised the building of shelters, carried out by private builders, using Government supplied materials.  Public shelters, to accommodate about fifty people, consisted of 14in thick brick walls and 12” thick reinforced concrete roofs.  The shelters were divided into various sections each normally furnished with six bunks, openings connecting the different sections. 

Local Councils quickly tried to accommodate as many of the population in their area as possible - the sudden excessive demand causing the resources of concrete and bricks to run out in some areas.  Due to the Government's poorly worded construction specification an instruction was misinterpreted resulting in a sand and lime mix without cement being used in the construction.

Those shelters were cold, damp, and dark with poor ventilation quickly becoming squalid and unsanitary - the stench often added to by the chemical toilets overflowing.

When the bombs did begin to fall, shelters simply crumbled and people sheltering in them died.  Rumours of accidents, such as drowning through flooding, started to circulate rendering these shelters even more unpopular. Shortly afterwards, householders were encouraged to build Anderson garden or Morrison indoor shelters.


Alternative Shelters


The Anderson and Morrison shelters were fine for those who had the room to build them.  But what of those in the cities and towns without them who still had to go about their daily lives? The public shelters would not be able to cope with the masses who would need to use them. One alternative pioneered in Finsbury was to build a system of deep shelters far beneath the surface under its garden squares to house many hundreds of people.  The Government rejected this idea as they feared it would create a 'deep shelter mentality' with people moving into them never wanting to leave the safety of such a shelter. This would render the people useless to the war effort and thus hamper war production.

Some towns and cities did build underground shelters large enough to protect dozens of people from bombing raids. They were made by digging large trenches, the walls and roof lined with reinforced concrete, the excess earth placed on top for added protection.

Despite the various schemes, many people were still forced to shelter wherever they could; under railway bridges and in warehouses and cellars of large buildings.  Nearly 10,000 people occupied a huge railway warehouse in Whitechapel known as 'Tilbury shelter' - an eight storey warehouse off Commercial Road.  As the blitz intensified a virtual pilgrimage of people along Commercial Road, carrying bedding etc, began to use the make shift centre.  Daily, women and children would be waiting for the doors to open when the work of the warehouse had finished.  Conditions were initially unsanitary, thousands of people lying head to toe with only 4 screened off earth toilets available.  Conditions did eventually improve - Londoners choosing large buildings like those in preference to smaller, stronger buildings.

Some left the city nightly to get away from the onslaught of the Luftwaffe.  Special trains ran from London’s Cannon Street Station to Chislehurst in Kent where people slept in caves.  Some set up home in them and shops were established to serve the people seeking safety.  First Aid facilities became available.  Even music concerts and church services were held there.  Notices would be put up in the station when the caves were full.  Eventually, the Government took over running the caves and levied a charge of 1d a night or, if paid in advance, 6d per week. Children were admitted free.


School Shelters


Most of the shelters provided for schools were very basic due to the need for speed of construction and lack of funds, some being no more than reinforced rooms, corridors or a basement against the Board of Education's April 1939 circular "Air Raid Precautions in Schools." - "School buildings were planned and constructed as not to lend themselves to effective precautions of this kind" - "in times of danger children should not be assembled in groups of more than fifty in any one protected room or compartment."

The board recommended that shelters be separated from, but within easy reach of, school buildings and be constructed in the form of trenches with secure roofs giving them "immunity from splinters, anti-aircraft shell fragments and machine gun fire."  No consideration was given to a direct bomb hit!

Many schools dug trenches in playing fields but, many inner-city schools, not having any playing fields, couldn’t do that.  Some erected free-standing shelters, trench-like in shape, on playgrounds. Some walls were made from brick, but mostly walls were of soil and sandbags.

The Board of Education laid down strict requirements for shelter interiors. Shelter floors should slope, with a sump at one end with a pump or bailing out facility.  Flooring should be of wooden duckboards, cinders or ballast.  28 inches of seating on wooden benches was to be allowed for each child, arranged so that they sat along one or both shelter walls.  Walkways to be a minimum of 24 inches between a double row of seating and 18 inches for a single row.  The height of the shelter was to be at least 72 inches.  Each shelter was to possess a gas curtain over its entrance making the interiors "reasonably gas proof" although the carrying of gas masks by all was still required.

Some schools had the opportunity for perhaps a little more innovation when establishing their air raid shelters.  Simon Langton Grammar School in Canterbury took advantage of the old Whitefriars Hospital site it was built on. A number of underground passageways and galleries below the playground and buildings were converted to air raid shelters.  One side of a typical shelter would be sectioned off and fitted with slatted seats, bunks, or toilets. 

The  Underground Rail Network  


Long before war broke out, Government policy had not allowed London's Underground stations to be considered as public air raid shelters. Herbert Morrison, Minister for Home Security, was afraid children might fall on the tracks and be killed.  There were, of course, other reasons. The Underground was never designed to accommodate large numbers of people.  Diseases could spread quickly when people crowded together.  Many stations did not have adequate toilets or other amenities for large numbers of people.

Morrison was afraid people would stay there all day as well as night so everyday working life would cease and morale would be affected. Londoners on the other hand had different ideas. When the time came, they used the Underground.

‘The time came’ for London’s 9 million people when, on the 7th September 1940, Air-Marshal Goering directed the Luftwaffe to destroy London.  This was the start of ‘The Blitz'.

The following night, with many Public shelters overcrowded and nowhere else to shelter, huge crowds of East Enders gathered outside Liverpool Street Underground station, determined they were going to shelter in the safety of the Tube station below.  At first, the authorities refused to let them in but, as the crowds refused to leave, the gates were eventually opened.

Morrison's first fears were unfounded. Even when families found themselves bombed out of their own homes they made a new home on the Underground and daily life continued as usual. The vast majority of people determined that life should go on.  It was, perhaps, their way of helping Britain win the war.

After September the 8th 1940 the Government decided to make the Tube a better shelter.  On September 21st the Aldwych branch of the Piccadilly line was closed to trains, the tracks covered in concrete, sleeping places and toilets provided.  Many of the tube tunnels were reinforced to withstand bomb blasts.  Floodgates were fitted to prevent the Thames from flooding any tunnel that might be damaged.  79 stations were fitted with bunks, first aid clinics, and chemical toilets.
On November 25th 1940, deep Tube stations at Lambeth North received the first of 22,000 triple-bunk beds.  From 29th October there were 124 canteens installed throughout the Underground system with food delivered by special trains.  On 2nd November 1940 season tickets were introduced for people to reserve their place in the Underground.


Deep Level Shelter Tunnels

In 1940, when the Underground became overcrowded as shelters, work began on building ‘deep level shelters’.

Eight Underground shelters were built by London Transport for 64,000 people, planned to be convertible into new Underground lines after the war.  The new shelters took around 18 months to complete but, eventually, the Government gave up on the idea of using them as public shelters fearing they would be too expensive to maintain. For most of the war, they were used for military purposes but five of the new shelters were re-opened to the public  when the V1 flying bomb attacks started.


1 in 6 stay at home.


Despite the Government’s efforts to shelter the public many people still preferred to shelter in their own homes without adequate cover.
In November 1940 the Government took a Census of central London to see where people were sheltering.....



  • 4% were sheltering in the Underground system.

  • 9% in public shelters.

  • 27% in domestic shelters, such as Anderson or Morrison shelters.

  •  60% of Londoners still preferred to stay in their own homes, sheltering in cupboards, underneath stairs, beds or wherever else they felt safe



It would be interesting to know where locals residents sheltered.  It was once said that, statistically, the safest place in Whitstable was .……………..on the beach! 


Response to Brian's Question....


We are not sure of all the nooks and crannies used as shelters but we do know the place of safety for the Fallon family on one occasion....


During one night-time air raid, my parents and I sat in the living room. On hearing a screaming bomb descending, we all dived under the heavy oak dining table.  The funny thing was only our heads and shoulders to waist level were protected - the rest of our bodies all "hung out" to take whatever might come!!!

Mollie Fallon
London - Formerly Whitstable


The end was in sight!


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