Thursday, 8 July 2010

Put that light out!

This was one of the catchphrases used by Chief Warden Hodges as played by Bill Pertwee in the TV comedy 'Dad's Army.' Although a comedic portrayal, Mr Hodges was shown as being a pompous, self important character who would perhaps nowadays be best described as a 'Jobsworth.' Perhaps what is not widely known today is that in 1939, this is exactly how the ARP Wardens were viewed by the majority of the British public.

In 1935, the then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin published a circular called Air Raid Precautions which invited local authorities to make plans to protect their citizens against air attack in the event of a war. Some of the more responsible authorities responded by constructing public air raid shelters, whilst others ignored the advice hoping that by doing so, the problem would go away.

Faced with this attitude from some councils, in 1937 the government decided to create an Air Raid Wardens' service and over the following year, recruited some 200,000 volunteers. In addition to the wardens, the government extended the provision of public air raid shelters by digging trench shelters in public parks and issuing corrugated steel shelters to households for installation in gardens. These were known as Anderson Shelters after Sir John Anderson, whom Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had placed in charge of Air Raid Precautions in 1938. At first, it was decided not to use the London Underground for sheltering purposes but this was quickly countermanded as soon as the Blitz started.

However, we are moving ahead too quickly. After the declaration of war in September 1939, there then followed, for the civilian population at least, a period of inertia known as 'The Phoney War.' It was during this period when members of the public began to look at those who had joined the Civil Defence organisations such as the Wardens Service and the Auxiliary Fire Service with some disdain. Members of the AFS were accused of being paid £ 3 a week to play darts, whilst some felt that ARP stood not for Air Raid Precautions but for 'Anging Round Pubs. Wardens in particular were seen as being little Hitlers, using their newly given powers to report people for minor violations of the blackout and also to check that gas masks were kept in good order.

Around 10 per cent of the eventual 1.4 million ARP Wardens in Britain were full time professionals, whilst the remainder both men and women were part timers, either 'of a certain age' who had served during the Great War in some capacity or assumed their warden's duties after putting in a days work in a 'normal' job. This latter category which included some younger men, suffered a high turnover during the war due to the call up into the fighting services.

Once the Blitz started, the public's attitude towards the Civil Defence workers changed almost overnight. Whilst it was inevitable that there would be some cowards amongst their numbers whose thought was only for their own safety, the vast majority of wardens were brave men and women who thought nothing of patrolling during a raid. These people were the first link in the chain of communications; during quieter times they would patrol looking out for infringements in the black out and the call of 'Put that light out!' could indeed be heard. During raids though, they would still be on patrol, reporting incidents back to their respective Warden's Posts, acting as the link between the Post and the various emergency services and helping where they could, extinguishing incendiary bombs and helping with rescue work for example.

Being in the front line as it were, it was inevitable that many wardens would be killed and these were amongst the total of 2,379 Civil Defence workers including 231 women lost their lives during the conflict.

Published Sources:

London at War, Philip Ziegler - Sinclair Stevenson 1995
Backs to the Wall, Leonard Mosley - Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1971
Blitz, M J Gaskin - Faber & Faber 2005
The City that Wouldn't Die, Richard Collier - Collins 1959
Carry on London, Ritchie Calder - English Universities Press 1941

Unpublished Sources:

Authors Family Reminiscences

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