skip navigation access key s Access Key Details | | Return to web site entry page

Links to other pages on this web site are at the bottom of this page.

Jump to:
Part 1: 1. Approach to the Battle || 2. The thing happens || 3. The Battle of the Flames | | 4. The fight for human life
Part 2: 5. That the City might live | | 6. The Man In the Street | | 7. The Londoner's Home
8: A Borough in the Blitz.| | 9: The Front Widens
Part 3: 10: The Attack on the Arms Towns | | 11. The attack on the ports.
Part 4: 12. The Countryman's Blitz. | | 13. Seaside Tip-and-Run | | 14. The Plan of Battle
Part 5: 15. The Front Line Troops. || 16. The Achievement of the Many.

Front Line 1940-41

The Official Story of the Civil Defence of Britain

(Note- published in 1942, before victory was certain, and aimed at the civilian population. Morale boosting (We can take it!) and a degree of propaganda. Read it and consider when it was written).

(Copyright Note)


The Countryman's Blitz

Away from the mountains of Scotland, Wales and the Lake Country, there are few villages, farms or homesteads on British ground but can tell of bombs fallen within a mile or two, at some time during the air raids. To the south eastern counties and Essex, the Battle of Britain brought continual heavy attack: and the night raids on London were accompanied all the time by the fall of bombs in the Home Counties. Just outside the wide ring of the anti-aircraft barrage there was always a belt of bomb craters, and on country estates in this part of Kent and Surrey men told of picking up burnt out incendiaries from the fields "by the cartload" after a heavy raid. Similarly, around every other target area, any spot in the countryside might find its fields the recipients of sticks of high explosive and showers of incendiaries. Sometimes a new hollow in field or ploughland was the only result. But the senseless tragedy of broken homes and slaughtered children seemed to reach its zenith of brutal idiocy when a bomb struck some cottage on a byway or some farm on a windy hill-top.

Here are three sidelights on rural air attack. The first is from the south eastern counties.

"During the Battle of Britain, on the afternoon of 16th August, 1940, about 180 bombs were dropped by the fleeing German bombers around the village of X near Tunbridge Wells, causing great hardship to a number of local farmers.

"Milking was nearly finished when a bomb exploded in the farmyard of Mr. A. The house was damaged, and Mr. and Mrs. A. were taken to hospital suffering from shock. The cowshed was demolished and Mr. A.'s two sons, who were in the building, were both killed. Mrs. A. never recovered from the shock and died a few months later. This was not the end of Mr. A.'s loss. The farm roof and walls were blown in, and other buildings were severely damaged. Sixteen cows were killed and four more had to be destroyed. Mr. A. carried on.

"The village had its fill of bad luck that afternoon, for fifty-three bombs were dropped on Fred B.'s farm. The barn was made unusable for three months, the house and cowsheds were damaged, and six bullocks in the field were killed, seven cows and a horse being wounded by shrapnel."

The second is the tale of a head shepherd on an estate in Somerset.

"On 3rd January, 1941, at about 6.30 in the evening when he was looking after his ewes that were lambing, an air raid alarm went. For the next seven hours this shepherd and his sheep and their lambs were in the thick of an air raid. Thousands of incendiary bombs were dropped. All round fields were blazing with light. Five incendiary bombs actually fell on the lambing pens which sheltered thirty-four ewes and their lambs.
The pens were highly inflammable, being made out of wattle hurdles and straw and in a few seconds were blazing from end to end. The shepherd was alone, no help was available, and he tried to put the fire out but had to give up when the fire reached one ewe and lamb. He dashed in, picked up the lamb and carried it to safety, the mother following close behind.,

He ran back six times, carrying out lambs. Then he tried to drive out the rest of the ewes but they were too frightened and the scheme was too much for his dog which ran off and didn't turn up for twenty-four hours.

"However, the shepherd stuck to the job and eventually got every sheep and every lamb through the flames and into the open field, while high explosives screamed and exploded all round the blazing pens. Many of the lambs that he saved were not twelve hours old. By this time some other farm men arrived and helped to save the hay and three wagons of straw but the pens were completely burnt out. frightened and the scheme was too much for his dog which ran off and didn't turn up for twenty-four hours.

At midnight the shepherd went to the Home Farm to see how his other sheep were getting on. High explosive bombs were still coming down. He fed some of the lambs with bottles of milk and stayed with them till the All Clear sounded. Every sheep and every lamb was saved and came through that night apparently none the worse. frightened and the scheme was too much for his dog which ran off and didn't turn up for twenty-four hours.

After he had saved his sheep and his lambs he was almost completely exhausted, and made his way wearily back to his house. As he entered the back door with a sigh of relief at 4 o'clock in the morning, a bomb went off in his front garden and blasted the walls, windows and roof of the front of his house. frightened and the scheme was too much for his dog which ran off and didn't turn up for twenty-four hours.

"Apart from that, he said, he had a very successful season." frightened and the scheme was too much for his dog which ran off and didn't turn up for twenty-four hours.

The third comes from Wales. What may be the resemblance between the rocky crest of a Welsh mountain and an arms factory or dockyard the German pilots must explain. On a night in the Spring of 1941, the people of the mining village of Cwmparc, twenty miles from Cardiff, were making ready for bed. They heard the warning as usual, and, as usual, thought it nothing but the sign of planes on their way to more important objectives. Suddenly the hills above the village were ringed with hundreds of incendiary bombs blazing up brightly and setting light to the hillside grasses.

This was evidently enough to make a target for the planes which dropped a dozen large bombs upon it, filling the quiet little valley with such sounds as it had never heard. In a few minutes twenty-seven of the villagers had lost their lives (six of them children), one of its chapels was destroyed, and more than half its thousand houses had been damaged. But Cwmparc, if remote, was not unprepared. As soon as the incendiaries fell, in the words of an eye-witness :

" There came into action the fire-bomb-fighters: troops of them, a whole army of them, advancing along the main road, emerging from side streets and whooping some indistinguishable form of war cry as they swooped upon the incendiaries with a kind of suppressed fury and extinguished them with a precision and certainty born of months of preparation for just such an emergency."

The wardens and the rescue services got to work soon afterwards, among the tumbled heaps of slate and grey stone where their friends and relatives lay. The task was not long, for Rhondda buildings are not large, and its collier sons have little to learn about digging and tunnelling at speed.

When morning came the village was a wild and gloomy sight, but the work of recovery began at once. The family intimacy of village life- nowhere closer than in Wales -may make every death a personal bereavement to the whole population, but it also means that every bombed-out person is a friend and neighbour to be taken in as soon as seen. Cwmparc probably holds the national record for swift dealing with the homeless. It had them all billeted by mid-day.

East Anglia also had a full share of attack, no doubt because of its aerodromes. Here, as in most country districts, the casual nonchalance with which the inhabitants insisted on treating the fall of bombs was a trial to the civil defence services, who sometimes found their ministrations disregarded and themselves deprived of practice. When an isolated building was moderately damaged, the inmates and their neighbours patched it up and carried on.

Farmers were apt to plough over unexploded bombs in their fields without waiting for the disposal squads. One elderly farmer heard a bomb drop in the night outside his farm. In the morning he found the crater outside his cowshed, but the cows were all right, so he got on with the milking and did not trouble to report.

Another old man who was hit in the back by a machine gun bullet refused to go with the first aid party for treatment, insisting on staying home and looking after himself. Even the enemy missiles sometimes refused to take matters too seriously. Thatched roofs should be very bad fire risks, but in practice the incendiary bombs usually bounced or rolled off them.

This was perhaps a little disheartening for the civil defence services, who -apart from a few months in Kent and Sussex- performed interminably the peculiarly testing task of standing and waiting. Moreover, theirs was sometimes a difficult position to carry off with dignity.

You didn't want to make people laugh by pretending that your village or district was more important than it was, yet you must keep up enthusiasm and efficiency locally, and must represent your needs and conclusions firmly to higher authority. Besides, if invasion came, you knew that civil defence on the front doorstep, or in the aerodrome counties, would be very important indeed. Yet no one seemed to care very much about you, and they called up all your men and women, and " they never tell you anything," and your few vehicles were harder and harder to repair or replace. The rural civil defenders had a good deal to put up with, and they did their jobs with great good humour and good will.


Seaside Tip-and-Run

OTHER TARGETS had bouts of bombing and spells of peace and quiet. Many of the coastal towns were (and are) bombed all the time. For this there are a number of reasons, some operating at one period , some at another.

To begin with, a knowledge of the coast and what is happening there is important to the enemy on several grounds; so that he reconnoitred it continually.

Reconnaissance planes carry bombs.

Secondly, minelaying is a dull and boring job, and the German crews carried a bomb or two for launching as a treat, or to relieve their feelings : the coastal towns were (and are) the victims.

Thirdly, planes on the hunt for shipping treated the smaller seaside towns as alternative targets.

Lastly, not all these places were heavily defended : any irresolutc crew could bomb them in comparative safety and then go home to report Fierce Fires and Great Explosions.

Indeed, in the later months of 1941 it seemed evident that Goebbels had replaced Goring as the directing mind behind the Luftwaffe’s air offensive on Britain : targets were selected largely for the propaganda value of being able to report raids to the German public without risking comparatively heavy losses to the slender bomber-force left in the West. All this lay (and lies) behind the frequent communiques announcing "a solitary aircraft dropped bombs last night (or in daylight to-day) at some points on the coast of England (or Scotland)."

The outcome may be seen in the following table, which shows coastal bombing and shelling to November, 1941, in round figures:

Houses    Civilians  Number    Town:
Damaged:  Killed     of raids  
11,500....110........72........Great Yarmouth
Other towns bombed and shelled included Aberdeen (68 civilians killed), Bexhill (74 civilians killed), Bournemouth (77 civilians killed), Bridlington, Brighton and Hove (127 civilians killed), Clacton, Deal, Eastbourne, Falmouth, Fraserburgh, Grimsby, Peterhead, Scarborough, Weymouth, Worthing.

The total damage in these 22 towns, in 772 raids was 1135 civilians killed and damage to 98,500 houses.

This is by no means a full picture of the "drip-bombing" to which the coast is subject. The intermittent raids on Tyneside killed nearly 400 people between July, 1940, and December, 1941, in Newcastle, Wallsend, Tynemouth, South Shields and Jarrow.

Many a small place is omitted from the list, in the East, South, and indeed in the South West too, for a number of the small Cornish ports and fishing villages came to be regular targets, and very steadfast they were under this trying form of attack.

To be subjected to a series of tip-and-run raids is more than a test of nerve. The smallness of the casualty figures in the table should not obscure the actual weight of the onslaught in relation to the size of the target.

There are towns in this list whose death-rate from bombing is as great as that of inner London at the end of all its long ordeal. Yet it almost goes without saying that the life of every one of them has been steadily maintained and their spirit has been exemplary.

A comment from Fraserburgh might apply equally well all round the coast : "Aye, we can stick it. 'Fit else is there tae dee ?"

There is one town in the list which has a special burden of its own to bear-- Dover, the target of the enemy's shells as well as his bombs. Dover is the front doorstep of the free world, in very truth. From the cliffs you may see German Europe and often, as you look, you will see a flash on the distant coastline. It comes from the muzzle of one of the guns on Gris-Nez and means that in a minute or so a shell will burst on Dover, or thereabouts. Day in, day out, the civil defence services of Dover probably have a busier time than most outside the great target areas. This has been true since a time before Britain was seriously bombed at all.

In the weeks after Dunkirk the fire, rescue and casualty services used to go down to work on the battered smoking ships that had met the enemy's onslaughts in the Channel before the day of convoys, and put in to Dover's little harbour for refuge. Since then they have had over 50 raids, and very few homes are free from personal or material loss.

There are still many thousands of people in Dover. They cling to their windswept cliffs and their battered houses. They walk past the peeling, windowless terraces overlooking their harbour and glance out across the Channel to where Calais lies-- Dover’s twin : the bond and the free.


The Plan of Battle

THE CIVILIAN FIGHT against the Luftwaffe was a soldier's battle if ever history saw one : but it was fought to a plan, and the members of the civil defence services were indispensable to its conduct. Long before Munich brought the threat of air attack right home to the whole nation, men were at work analysing and estimating its terrors and making the blue-prints of resistance. They had little enough to go upon.

Our own experience of bombing in the last war bore little relation to the new scale of possibilities. There were only about 300 tons of bombs on Britain from 1914 to 1918, and they killed but 1,400 people. However, by 1937 we came to know that the Germans visualised air attacks in daylight by bomber formations with fighter escorts : these would be low-level attacks making possible not only a better aim, but a plunging, forward fall of bombs in which one missile could wreck a street. We saw the technique in operation at Guernica, the little village in northern Spain whose name became a synonym for the new savagery of the air.

The whole scale of air operations in Spain was of course small. At its height at the end of 1938 there were 250 aircraft of all sorts on the Government side, 660 with General Franco. In 1938, Barcelona was raided about 180 times by an average of from five to ten aircraft, and at the peak in March, with twenty raids in three days, only forty- four tons of bombs were dropped- much less than sometimes fell in a night on British towns of half the size. But this was enough to cause 3,000 casualties, and to disorganise the whole life of the city. Such evidence, along with estimates of the number of squadrons the Germans could send over Britain, led to apprehensions about the way civilians would react and to enormous forecasts of the probable number of casualties.

The conclusion made known by the strategists to the planners of civilian defence was that squadrons of bombers might attack one after another, devastating areas a quarter of a mile square each time, launching hundreds of tons of bombs a day. Happily for the people of Britain this was an over-estimate of the enemy's powers and a great under-estimate of the defensive strength of our own fighter squadrons and A.A. defences.

Much less was in fact dropped on London in daylight in a year of bombing than had been estimated as a daily bombardment: the heaviest night raid, in all its hours, did not reach much more than half the tonnage originally allotted to a day of air assault.

The assumption of daylight attack on people in the streets led also to an estimate of the killing power of steel and high explosive which was far beyond its actual effect on a population under cover at night. The raid on Coventry produced only a fraction of the casualties per ton of bombs estimated before the war.

These figures are not quoted as historical curiosities, but to show what difficulties confronted the planners of civil defence- and also to remind ourselves of the extent of that deliverance which the Royal Air Force brought its country in winning the Battle of Britain. For had systematic daylight bombing in formation been possible, as the Germans had hoped and expected, the rare experiences we had of it suggested that the pre-war calculations might have been more nearly borne out by the event.

One valuable lesson pre-war experience did teach- -the power of anti-aircraft gunfire. The Germans in Spain attacked at first from two or three thousand feet, but were forced up to 6,000 or 8,000. (The Italians did not come below 12,000 feet.) Poland showed the same truth in reverse: when the Polish planes and guns were put out of action, the Luftwaffe came down from 7,000 feet and attacked from sixty to one hundred feet, hedge- and roof-hopping. The victim's weakness led inevitably to greater brutality by the bully.

The Nazi pilots, freed from fear for their own skins, took to machine- gunning civilians, even solitary workers in the fields, and sometimes amused themselves by slaughtering cattle with their machine- gun bullets. Or rather, it is an injustice to the Nazis to suggest that they were merely amusing themselves. What they did was according to the rules laid down in Die Luftkriegsfuhrung (The Conduct of Air Warfare). That, given the chance, they would do the same in Britain was a foregone conclusion.

Such was the limited basis of factual knowledge and assumption available in advance to those who planned and directed British civil defence. Evidently they had need of foresight-- indeed of second sight-- to make good the deficiencies in information. They made their forecast of the nature of enemy attack and laid their plans to meet it. By the time the need arose, the spadework had been done.

The attack must be conceived as taking place always upon two fronts at once, the moral and the material, or if it be preferred, the social and the physical. Again, the results were felt in two phases-- the immediate impact of bombs with their direct effects, and the subsequent call for restorative effort. Thus the pattern of operational civil defence took shape.

This pattern was not fully realised in all parts at the start of the air attack, and it was some time before its various sections were developed to an equal standard. For reasons already apparent there was over-estimation of the risk of casualties. Again, there turned out to be some horribly expensive lessons to learn in the technique of defence against the most intense kinds of fire-raising attack. (Nevertheless it remains true that over two and a half years before the war many of the essential features of the coming fire raids had been grasped and guarded against in plans, duly realised, for a more than tenfold increase in men, stations and pumps. It is believed that Great Britain entered the war with a fire-fighting machine very much closer to the scale of modern fire attack than any other country, including Germany.) Lastly, the social results of material damage were not fully foreseen, so that the plans for immediate after-care of a bombed public, for emergency feeding, and for rehousing the homeless, at first fell short of needs.

The A.R.P. Services proved to be soundly conceived. In this respect the British, who have been said to begin each war in a state of some preparation for the one before it, had succeeded in correctly appreciating the fundamentals of a form of warfare never before practised, and in making provision against it. As an illustration of the feat of insight involved, here is a definition of the work of the Warden, the special functionary who gave British civil defence its peculiar character and was greatly instrumental in its success.

"Street wardens will be required to act as guide and helper to the general public in the area to which they are allotted. It is particularly important that they should help to allay panic and give assistance to any families and persons in their districts, e.g., those who may have been driven out of' their houses, etc. They should help to direct people in the streets to the nearest shelter. They should report to the Police or the local intelligence centre the fall of bombs, dangerous fires, presence of gas, blocking of roads, damaged mains, and any other infor mation that may be required to enable a particular situation to be dealt with. They must be trained to give accurate reports and to assess the situation."

These words, though dated many months after the idea of the Wardens' Service was actually born, were written before any city in the world had been attacked from the air in the modern manner : before the Spanish war broke out : about the time when the British people, busy with other matters, let Germany march unchallenged into the Rhineland. In fact, in February, 1936.

Civil defence is an affair of streets and neighbourhoods, mostly on a small scale of movement. The rescue, care and treatment of bombed people must be provided from close at hand. In Britain it was one of the essential ideas of the Service that help should come from neighbour to neighbour, and be largely rendered by volunteer workers in their spare time. A heavy attack at a point would for a time require reinforcement from elsewhere, but this could be secured without cutting at the local roots of organisation.

The units of operation therefore became the Local Authorities (who were also in charge of some of the most important tasks of post-raid welfare work, notably immediate after-care in the Rest Centres and the rehousing of the homeless). The Town Clerk, or some other Chief Officer, became the A.R.P. Controller. His senior officials became the heads of the services. He and they worked, when the time for action came (and when they were not themselves out in the field) from a Control Centre, a protected place linked by telephone to the wardens' posts, ambulance stations, rescue depots, first aid posts, and the rest. In big cities and the counties there were sub-control centres each_ in charge of its own area, and responsible to the Controller.

In the control room there were maps on which each bomb-scar upon the face of the land was marked by a coloured pin. The officers in charge could read off the weight of attack on different parts of the area and the kinds of incidents at a glance. There were tally-boards, showing how many parties of each service were in action, how many immediately available, how many in reserve.

As the reports came in from the wardens on the field, the telephone clerks passed their contents to the officers.

On the first bare news of an incident (the express message-- what a newspaper man would call_the "flash", one first aid and one rescue party were ordered on the scene.

When the fuller report arrived, the group of officials at the control tables could judge how many wardens, rescue first aid parties, and ambulances should be sent. Orders went by telephone to the depots, and the parties were set on the move. If the telephone broke down the Control Centre had messengers- despatch riders, cyclists, or runners- to take its place. If there were not enough parties for the needs of the night, the Controller asked for outside reinforcements. He did not go direct to another Controller but reported to Regional Control. This was linked with all local Controls Centres, and ordered additional parties in from other centres to the hard-pressed area.

The civil defence services, about the time when the big raids ended, totalled about a million and a half. About four fifths of these were voluntary part-time members. Nearly a quarter were women.

Continue to Part Five

Return front index for Front Line
Move back to previous section

Go to entry page for whole web site

Access Key Details

Copyright Note: This set of articles is Crown Copyright and carries a publication date of 1942. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (c. 48) applies as follows: (3) Crown copyright in a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work continues to subsist - if the work is published commercially before the end of the period of 75 years from the end of the calendar year in which it was made, until the end of the period of 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which it was first so published. Therefore the copyright is this material appears to have been spent.