Sunday 13 April 2014

A - Z of The Blitz (A)

ARP Warden's badge (author's photo)
Today, we start what is intended to be an occasional and by no means exhaustive series looking at the Blitz and Battle of Britain on an alphabetical basis. Today, we look at the letter 'A' to see what we can find.

A is for ARP, or Air Raid Precautions. Today, when we think of ARP, we think perhaps of the eponymous Wardens personified in comedy by Chief Warden Hodges from Dad's Army, played by Bill Pertwee but in reality, ARP was a generic term initiated at the time of the Munich Crisis of 1938, when the possibility of war was first brought home to the majority of the British public.

The 1938 Munich Crisis saw a huge expansion of this country's Civil Defence services and saw the establishment of the ARP Wardens' service, who under local municipal control had responsibility for enforcing the blackout and acting as 'first responders' whilst on patrol during even the heaviest air raids. With the approval of the Government, there was even an Air Raid Precautions set of cigarette cards issued by the Imperial Tobacco Company which detailed such ARP related functions as creating a gas-proofed room within a house, protecting windows against blast, dealing with incendiary bombs, wearing gas masks and the balloon barrage. The card depicting a member of the public dealing with an incendiary bomb using just a garden rake and a dustpan beggars belief!

ARP Cigarette Card book (author's photo)

How to deal with an incendiary bomb (author's photo)
The public perception of the ARP Warden changed almost overnight once the Luftwaffe switched their attentions to bombing British cities. Before the war and during the so-called 'Phoney War' period, the wardens had been seen in much the same way as we see Mr Hodges today, in other words as self-important 'jobsworth' characters whose main function in life was to shout at people to "Put that light out!" or "Cover that window!"

Once the air raids started in earnest however, the view changed and the wardens were widely respected for their courage in patrolling in all conditions and for their selfless attitude. Wardens, both male and female were almost all volunteers and many could be described as being 'of a certain age. An inspection of the accompanying photograph of a group of Lewisham Wardens reveals many of the male wardens to be wearing Great War medal ribbons. 
Members of Lewisham Post G108 (author's collection)
A also stands for Anti-Aircraft.  In London, as in most major British towns and cities, anti-aircraft guns were placed on just about every large piece of parkland or other suitable open space. Therefore, in the capital guns sprouted on places such as Blackheath, Woolwich Common, Southwark Park, Wanstead Flats and even Hyde Park. As with most war materials in Britain, anti-aircraft guns were in desperately short supply at the outset of the war and the situation was hardly improved by the British Expeditionary Force having to leave nearly all of it's anti-aircraft guns behind when they hurriedly evacuated from France in May and June 1940. The respite afforded to British cities by the Battle of Britain allowed stocks to be built up again and by the beginning of the Blitz, a measure of protection could be provided.
3.7" Anti-aircraft guns in Hyde Park (author's collection)
At first, the guns mainly provided a morale booster for the civilians huddled in the shelters. With the Luftwaffe switching to night area bombing and without radar control for the guns, accuracy was poor and the most that could be hoped for, apart from the occasional hit, was to force the German bombers to fly higher. On the basis of 'What goes up, must come down', there was at least as much chance of being hit by shrapnel from spent anti-aircraft shells as by a German bomb but recognising the importance of being seen by the British public to be firing back at the bombers, Churchill ordered General Sir Frederick Pile, commanding Anti Aircraft Command, to "Keep on Blazing Away."

Anti-aircraft rockets on Blackheath (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

The mainstay of Anti Aircraft Command was the excellent 3.7 inch gun, although both heavier and lighter weapons were used, as well as a brief flirtation with rocket projectiles which was not a success. As the war developed, radar control for the guns was developed and improved upon, as was the new proximity shell that detonated within a short distance of it's aerial target without actually having to impact  it. These new developments greatly improved the effectiveness of the anti aircraft guns. These developments, coupled with the Airborne Intercept (AI) Radar equipped night fighter force, demonstrated to the Luftwaffe upon their return to London in 1943/44 how things had changed since the dark days of the Blitz of 1940/41.

Next time, we shall take a look at the letter 'B' to include Barrage Balloons, Bomb Disposal, the Blackout, the BBC and 'Black Saturday.'

Published Sources:

Air Raid Precautions: An Album to contain a series of Cigarette Cards of National Importance - WD & HO Wills, 1938
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press, 2001

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