The balloon goes up

It's seventy years today since Britain and France declared war on Germany. At 11.15am on Sunday 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke to the nation via the BBC. At 11.28am, less than a quarter of an hour later, air raid sirens went off in London and (at differing times) across much of the country. This was in fact only a false alarm, caused by an unscheduled civilian flight from France. But as far as civilians were concerned, this looked like precisely what they had been told to expect when the knock-out blow came: mass air raids simultaneous with the outbreak of war. So their reactions to the alarms give us a little insight into their fear of bombing at the end of the scaremongering 1930s.

Mass-Observation recorded some of these reactions. One of the most vivid is from a London lawyer who later held a top war-related job in Whitehall. He hadn't in fact heard Chamberlain's broadcast, as he had been spending the morning blacking-out the windows of his house. So while he was obviously aware that war was imminent, the sirens were the first confirmation that it had actually come:

Turned on the wireless, and I was on the point of sitting down for a well-earned rest, when pandemonium suddenly broke out -- the wailing of hundreds of sirens like souls in torment. I was filled with an ecstasy of thrilling and exquisite panic -- it was war then, or war and an air raid to coincide with it, or even an air raid forestalling a declaration of war.1

His analysis of the possibilities here shows an awareness of the knock-out blow scenario, though the word 'even' suggests that (contrary to many pre-war predictions) he hadn't considered a surprise attack to be very likely. Or perhaps it serves to underline that this would be the most dramatic possibility, which would enhance the thrillingness of his panic? He continues:

I rushed frantically up and down the house, throwing hard-boiled eggs and pyjamas into a suitcase, dashed down to the garage, leapt into the car, and drove it out with such abandon that I buckled a wing and had to go forward again before I could extricate it -- all to the accompaniment of the terrifying siren blasts. I shouted to wardens who were rushing past to enquire what it signified, thinking it might be the way of signifying war, but was told 'it's an air-raid', and immediately had visions of the wave upon wave of German bombers which we had been told to expect ushering in their idea of the 'lightning war'. Meanwhile I careered madly up to Holland Park Avenue till a warden forcibly directed me into Ladbroke Grove and made me take cover, which I did in a garage with a skylight and open front!2

Again, he's got a clear idea of what war is supposed to be like and it's clearly shaping his reactions. (His reference to 'lightning war' might date the setting down on paper of this account to some weeks later, after the press had popularised the word 'blitzkrieg'. But not necessarily.) He's not the only one, the air raid warden who makes him take cover presumably thought the streets were no place to be during an air raid. But the lawyer had somewhere to get to:

After some minutes I thought I heard the all clear, so got into the car and dashed on to the Convent. When I had almost arrived there, I was again stopped by a warden and told to take cover. I and party of civilians accordingly knocked at the door of one house but the good woman refused us admission. Whereupon the warden rushed up in an absolute frenzy of rage and nearly pulverized her, and she promptly collapsed and led us all down to a most evil-smelly basement, where we waited for quarter-hour or so before the all-clear was given.3

Here we can see some of the shifts in normal relationships caused by the threat of bombing. There had been some concerns voiced before the war, particularly by the left, that air-raid wardens would become busybodies or worse, bullies, especially in working-class areas. And on this lawyer's account, not only are wardens stopping people from driving on the roads and telling them to take cover, but they are apparently free to physically threaten householders and force them to let groups of strangers into their homes. An Englishwoman's home is now everyone's castle, it would seem. There's also a little whiff of panicky-mob here (and a prefiguring of a classic Twilight Zone episode), which again is the sort of thing the knock-out blow experts had warned would happen.

On arriving at the station I found everyone standing to their stretchers, fully equipped in anti-gas clothing, and not only ready but expecting to be sent out at any moment. I was told to rush and get a steel helmet and service respirator, then that there was no spare equipment, so a helmet was snatched off the first man we came to and crammed on my head, I was told to take my civilian respirator and as I had in my car topboots and mackintosh I was soon more or less suitably arrayed for the fray, and 'stood by' in my car with engine periodically ticking over, ready to dash a stretcher party to the scene of action when the call came.4

We now see the reason for all his rushing about: he is evidently an ARP volunteer, and as he owns a car (not quite a luxury item for the middle classes by 1939, but not something everyone has either) it would have been his job to ferry first-aiders and casualties around. So he had an important (exciting, dangerous) job to do. Also, note the emphasis on gas protection. While there's not enough anti-gas gear to go around, it's clearly felt that it was important to be prepared for gas attack, as per the standard knock-out blow scenario. So our lawyer improvises gas protection with a civilian gas mask, a raincoat and riding boots!

Actually nothing happened and by 1 o'clock the alarm was quite over. I then learnt for the first time that German had been given a real ultimatum expiring at 11 o'clock that morning.5

He had spent an hour and a half in a state of panic and he didn't really know why -- expect that the sirens had gone off and a warden told him an air raid was on it's way. Here's one person who had internalised the knock-out blow narrative.

But it must be emphasised that, while the above experience was no doubt not unique, it was not all that typical either. Most people probably felt some degree of nervousness in the minutes after the first alarm, but not necessarily so as anyone else would notice. Or if they did panic, it was only momentary. And routine kept some people on a steady course, no matter what they felt. As a contrast to the lawyer's escapades, I'll note just one other person's reaction, that of a civil servant in Croydon. After the sirens, she felt 'funky for a while', but continued helping her mother to do the washing, while their neighbours piled into an Anderson shelter.6 Now that's some stiff upper lip!

Sound sources: Chamberlain's speech is from Wikipedia; unfortunately I've forgotten where I got the sirens from!


  1. Quoted in Tom Harrisson, Living Through the Blitz (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), 50. Emphasis in Harrisson. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid., 50-1. 

  5. Ibid., 51. 

  6. Ibid., 46. 

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4 thoughts on “The balloon goes up

  1. Post author

    Yes, it’s a well-attested (if not well-known) event — here’s another account, from George Orwell this time:

    Air-raid practice this morning immediately after the proclamation of state of war. Seems to have gone off satisfactorily though believed by many people to be real raid.

    Not sure why he thought it was a practice, perhaps just because no bombs did fall.

    I really must see Hope and Glory one day …

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