A personal account of air raids during WWII
Anderson shelters were of corrugated galvanised steel construction, about 6ft wide and 6ft high with a semi-circular arched roof. They were normally sunk about 3ft into the ground with the remaining exposed 3ft covered with the extracted earth. Made up from 2ft sections, the length of the shelter was determined by the number of likely occupants. Ours was 12ft long. Outside the entrance (about a 2.5ft square in one end) my father and grandfather had constructed an entrance hall at ground level built of corrugated sheets covered externally with sandbags, we had electric lights and a small paraffin stove. From the start of the Blitz in early September 1940 there we spent every night, snug as bugs in rugs, apart that is, from the condensation streaming down the corrugated iron walls. Short of a direct hit by an HE bomb we felt safe enough and were quite unconcerned at what the Luftwaffe might try to do, although, since our house in South London was only just over two miles from the Centre of the City, we were in an area of fairly concentrated bombing.
So we adjusted to a new way of life. During the day we would sometimes go to the Anderson during an air raid, but these daylight raids were normally not very intense and we would often try to watch the air battles that occasionally came within our view. We would slip out for shopping when we could. At night we would retire to the Anderson as soon as the siren sounded, usually around ten o'clock. There was no question of going to school, even if we had dared there were no schools open to go to. All went well until one night in late September when our district was showered with incendiary bombs. Our shelter was alongside our garden wall, which, in turn formed the back wall of a row of disused stables. One incendiary bomb crashed through the roof of the stables and ignited the piles of tinder dry straw. In no time at all the building was an inferno. For a time we thought so what, nothing very combustible about an earth covered Anderson, but we had not appreciated just how hot it can get just three feet away from a furnace. Despite the covering of earth the steel walls began to get very hot, the conditions inside became unbearable and eventually we were forced to abandon our refuge.
My grandmother was about seventy at that time, large circumferentially and a formidable character, getting her up from the shelter into the Ground level hallway was accompanied with much huffing and puffing and a few very unkind words about Mr. Hitler. Once outside it was necessary to move quickly away from the intense heat which burnt one's face and was such that there seemed a very real risk that one's clothing might ignite. I led the escaping party through the house. As I neared the front door someone started banging furiously at it and I could see a helmeted figure silhouetted against the frosted glass. I could see that it was not your regular British tin hat and rather irrationally I hesitated and said to those behind me I think there's a German at the door. Right! I've a thing or two to say to him says grandma as she bustled past me to open the door. I watched with anticipation and some apprehension at the prospect of the coming confrontation, but it turned out to be a fireman wearing a regular fireman's helmet, wanting to bring his hose through the house. A warden then appeared telling us that there was room in a public shelter along the road.
Outside it was chaotic and spectacular, several buildings nearby were ablaze and one could see others burning in the near distance. Anti-aircraft guns were banging away, their noise was greater than that of the bombs ( I can't remember them ever managing to bring down a plane at that time), the engines of the trailer pumps were racing trying to meet the demands of the hoses which crossed the road in a mixed up pattern, men were shouting instructions, trying to make themselves heard, and there was the occasional pinging sound as pieces of hot shrapnel from the anti-aircraft shells hit the ground close by. In the middle distance there was they sound of lazy fire engine bells mingled with the occasional more frantic bells of ambulances or police cars. Despite the blackout the scene was well lit, the light coming partly from the fires and partly from the pall of smoke above us that emitted a strange glow as it was illuminated by a bright moon invisible above it. The smell of smoke was all pervading.
We crossed the road as a family group, my sister and brother in the lead with the warden trying to hurry our reluctant grandmother. Suddenly there was the now familiar whistle of a falling bomb, audible above all the other noises. A Get down commanded the warden, we youngsters needed no second telling and lay flat in the road, hands over heads, but grandma couldn't make it. The warden, determined to protect his charges pushed her down onto her knees with a more commanding Get down mother! And she bent her face towards the road leaving her posterior pointing skywards. As he himself fell to the ground the gallant warden removed his steel helmet and attempted to cover her exposed part.
The bomb fell two streets away. As always there was that sense of relief that the bomb had missed us and that, combined with the sight of grandma in that position with the inadequate tin hat perched on her rear end, was enough to have us laughing despite our fear. Grandma herself was quick to see the humour of the situation and chuckled whilst simultaneously complaining as she struggled back to her feet.
We did not stop to enjoy the joke, although I never heard of anyone being seriously injured by falling shrapnel, the pieces that we youngsters used to collect after a raid looked fearsome and capable of inflicting a rather nasty wound, so we felt vulnerable without a tin hat. We were aware also that fires provided a target area for the bombers yet to unload, so we hurried to the shelter. The shelter was in the cellar of a large Victorian house. There had been some attempt to improve the safety aspect by introducing some additional steel stanchions to help support the ceiling, the walls had been whitewashed and bench seats provided. The place was crowded with around sixty people and the air was thick and heavy with the smell of people and cigarette smoke. People were quick to make room and were generally good-humoured, some were rendered boisterous by a few drinks but all were very friendly. Nevertheless the prospect of being trapped in that cellar if the house should collapse or catch fire was not attractive and it was decided that it was no place to stay.
Many English towns suffered bombing raids by the Germans during the war, especially in the early years, the infamous raid on Coventry destroyed much of that city and killed 600 people, injuring many more. Plymouth suffered what was probably the most intensive bombing of any English town and over 1000 were killed there. It is sometimes forgotten, however, that London experienced raids nightly for months. Hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed and 22,000 Londoners perished during the blitz, many times that number were seriously injured. Later the V1 and V2 onslaughts destroyed almost as many houses and killed a further 7,000. Of course, German cities suffered much worse later in the war at the hands of the RAF, many voices have been raised since then criticising these merciless attacks on the German civilian population, perhaps justifiably, but in the mood of that time most people were pleased to see the retaliation. May we never ever see war on such a scale again.