Black Out, Barrage, Rationing and Shelters

Everyday life during the War

Information on this page sourced with permission from North East Diary 1939-1945 by Brian Pears and Roy Ripley


Black Out

black outFrom the beginning of the war, precautions were taken to ‘black-out’ all lights. This was essential as it soon became clear that most bombing raids would take place at night. It was thought that a light even from one house would be used as a target, by an enemy plane on which to drop its bombs. Each night everyone had to make sure that not one chink of light escaped from the windows and doors of their homes. Heavy curtains or blinds could be effective but some windows were simply painted over or covered with cardboard or thick paper for the duration of the war.

Going out of their home at night, people had to remember to switch off the light before opening an outside door. Once outside, there were no street lights and what few cars, buses and lorries there were, were fitted with special headlamps that gave out very little light. Lampposts and kerb edges were painted white or with luminous paint, but this did not prevent a number of deaths caused by people walking into solid objects or under the wheels of the few vehicles still running.

Night work in open air, on farms or at railway sidings had to be done with no light and in factories, nearly all with sealed windows, workers had to operate with no ventilation and only artificial lighting. The black-out was partially lifted on September 17th 1944 (coastal regions were still affected) and replaced by a ‘dim-out’, in reality this was only a less stringent form of black-out, but it was welcomed at the time.

There were laws against allowing light to escape from buildings and by the time the black-out ended, nearly one million people had been prosecuted for breaking the black-out regulations. Most people were only fined but one man was sentenced in February 1940 to one months hard labour for allowing light to be seen from his house. Opinion polls conducted during the war, nearly always had the black-out at the top of their most disliked inconvenience list.

The black-out occasionally came in handy as an excuse for ‘wrong-doers’, when a father and his son were summoned to court in Northumberland for being persistently late for work without reasonable excuse, the father stated that he had knocked a woman down in the black-out on the way to work (in January) and he didn’t want the same thing to happen again, so he started out later, the son’s excuse was not given in the account. The story was not accepted and the magistrates found both men guilty and fined them £2 each. They were taken to court by the Ministry of Labour and National Service.

image by Pat Keely [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Barrage Balloons

Barrage BalloonThe Barrage Balloon destroyed 24 piloted enemy aircraft and 278 (231 confirmed) non piloted enemy ‘missiles’. 91 of our own aircraft also collided with balloon cables, causing 38 of them to crash, the latter figure does not appear to be true, researchers have found the actual figure to be much higher, however, they say that the deterrent value of the balloon barrage was incalculable, they certainly represent a symbolic part of World War II to many people and were a comforting sight to many more.

One of the most remarkable escapes from a balloon ‘strike’ happened on Monday July 22nd 1940 over Plymouth and was made by Hauptmann Hajo Hermann, Staffelkapitan of 7/KG30 who, in trying to avoid a balloon, actually stalled on top of it, but with unbelievable luck was able to gain control of his Junkers Ju 88 again after falling off the balloon upside down.

Training in balloon handling was given at Cardington where No 1 Balloon Training Unit was formed on January 9th 1937 – Balloon Command was formed on November 1st 1938 under the auspices of Fighter Command – The Balloon Training Unit when it closed down in 1943 had trained some 10,000 RAF and WAAF operators and 12,000 operator drivers – In September 1944 Balloon Squadrons began to disband and Balloon Command as a whole stood down in February 1945.

Balloons when inflated measured 66 feet long, 30 feet high and needed 20,000 cubic feet of hydrogen per fill, the gas inlet valve was situated at the rear of the upper left stabilising fin. The three stabilising fins were inflated by air flowing in through scoops on the fins. A large valve on left side of the balloon released hydrogen automatically as it expanded in the rarefied air and a rip-line pulled out a panel at the top rear of the balloon if it became unmanageable on the ground. Manageability in the air was a different matter, at the end of September 1939 a storm tore loose many of the balloons and some 60 of them got as far as Sweden.
image by Palmer, Alfred T. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


food rationingRation allowances during the war varied from month to month, according to supplies, so the changes to the rations were numerous, these are noted in the diary if the information was readily to hand. To give an overall picture, here is a list of the least allowed and the most allowed per week:- Meat 1/- (5p) to 2/1 (10½p) worth, Bacon 4oz to 8oz, Cheese 1oz to 8oz, Fats 1oz to 8oz, Eggs ½ to 2, Tea 2oz to 4oz, Sugar 8oz to 1lb plus 2lbs for making jam, Sweets 3oz to 4oz (including chocolate), Dried Milk ¼ tin (1 tin every month), Dried Egg one eighth of a of a packet (1 packet every 2 months).

Delicacies such as offal, liver, calves and pigs feet, sausages, hash, calves head, melts and skirt were not rationed, but became very hard to obtain.

The ‘points’ system covered items like tinned fish, tinned fruit, beans, macaroni, dried fruit etc., and the price of rationed goods was controlled but not everyone could afford to take up their full rations until things got better around 1943 when full employment meant that most people were able to do so. Subsidised, and in some cases free school milk, cod liver oil and orange or rose hip syrup, ensured that wartime children were able to flourish despite the shortage of food.

Milk was in short supply because of the shift from arable land to crops, but there were people with special needs, taking their varying incomes into account, milk for pregnant women and the under-fives was provided free if the family earnings were below £2 per week, otherwise it was 2d per pint (less than 1p). Expectant mothers were allowed the extra pint of milk a day, previously mentioned, first choice of any supplies of oranges or bananas and the right to jump the queue. Aside from the last privilege, children up to five received the same rations, while the fives to sixteens had a ½ a pint of milk a day and extra fruit. Agricultural, manual workers and vegetarians were allowed extra cheese. Invalids and religious sects had modified rations according to their needs.

Rationing ended on the following dates:- Clothes – February 1949, Tea – October 1952, Sugar – 1953, Butter, Margarine and Cheese – 1954. Sweets and chocolate came off the ration temporarily from April to August 1949, but began again and ended completely on 4th February 1953.

image by United States Office of War Information, Overseas Picture Division [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Anderson Shelters

Anderson ShelterThe Anderson Shelter was named after its designer Dr David A Anderson but it is often wrongly linked to the Home Secretary who announced the distribution scheme in the autumn of 1938 – John Anderson. The shelter consisted of 14 pieces of corrugated galvanized sheet steel and when the six curved sections were bolted together they formed an arch shaped shelter 6′ high, 4’6″ wide and 6’6″ long. Then came the end pieces, one of which contained an entrance about 3’6″ high and 2′ wide, the other end had a quick release panel that served as an emergency exit. Buried to depth of 4′ and covered with at least 15″ of soil, it could accommodate six people.

The shelter was issued free to those thought to be at risk and earning less than £250 per year, others were charged £7. Distribution started before the war and by September 1940 it was estimated that a quarter of the population had one. An MOD deadline for the erection of delivered shelters issued in June 1940, ordered a covering of 1’3″ of earth on the top and 2’6″ at the sides. Later, basic forms of bunk-beds were added, but comfort depended on the talents of the occupiers to a large degree. The shelters had some disadvantages, a lot of city dwellers did not have a garden, so an ‘Anderson’ to them would be useless, in the winter they were cold, damp and prone to flooding, heating them without the danger of asphyxiation was almost impossible and any shelterer, but old people particularly, had difficulty getting in and out of the tiny opening. Taking to the shelter at the bottom of the garden on a cold winters morning, just out of a warm and comfortable bed was not looked upon as a very good idea, but that little trip saved many, many lives. Altogether 2,250,000 were erected.

image: Anderson Shelter by Frosted Peppercorn 2007 – (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Morrison Shelters

morrison shelterIntroduced in February 1941, the shelters were supplied for people who were considered to be at risk and had not been provided with an Anderson Shelter. It was an steel indoor shelter bed, 6’6″ long, 4′ wide and about 3’6″ high in the form of a table with removable wire mesh sides. The greatest advantage over the Anderson Shelter was that they were to be erected indoors, usually on the lower floor of the house, and were warm and dry, therefore could be slept in, in comparative comfort whilst air raids were threatened. They were said to be able to shelter easily, two average sized adults and a child, who would be lying on the floor of the cage which was sprung, and able to take a mattress (not supplied). When not in use as a shelter, the sides could be removed and the steel top used as a table. They were given free to those households whose income did not exceed £350 a year. To others, the cost was £8.


image: by Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Surface Air Raid Shelters

surface air raid shelterMany houses, particularly in towns and cities, had no gardens and in these cases the answer was the Communal Shelter. These were built on the surface, sometimes in the middle of streets, sometimes on waste ground. Although they varied in size to accommodate between twelve and forty-eight people, they were generally about thirty feet long by six feet high and six feet wide. They had solid walls of brick about fourteen inches thick and had 1 foot thick roofs of reinforced concrete.

Then there were the Public Shelters which were often, at least away from the cities, of very similar design to the Communal Shelters, except that they sometimes had toilet facilities. They had a capacity of about fifty people and were built near main roads, particularly bus routes, and were meant for people away from home during raids. The main difference seems to have been financial; Communal Shelters were paid for by the Government whereas Public Shelters were only grant-aided.

A Government regulation meant to conserve stocks of cement and demands on transport, decreed that the mortar mix to be used in construction was to be one part of cement to two parts of lime. In April 1940 an ambiguous instruction was misinterpreted to mean that a lime-sand mix was permissible. Before the mistake was realised in July, thousands of shelters were built with a fatally dangerous fault. After some very tragic incidents brought the error to light, steps to rectify the situation were set in motion in December 1940.

In contrast to the above, it was discovered after the war, that the authorities in Hamm, home of the famous railway centre in Germany had built nine bomb-proof shelters with walls six to nine feet thick and divided into hundreds of rooms inside, each shelter was capable of accommodating 5,000 to 6,000 people. Although the town had 2,500 tons of HE and 10,000 IBs dropped on it, the casualty figure of 1,000 killed was considered to be small and as such can mainly be credited to the excellence of the shelters and the discipline maintained within. The same reason was given for the Krupp Works at Essen who lost a total of 170 employees out of a total roll call of 160,000.

* Nothing like this was ever provided for the people in the much battered south of England, indeed the citizens of London were begrudged the use of the Underground until the people themselves forced the issue. *
image: Jim Champion [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons