Civil defence, British pluck, and the Gotha shock

[Edited version of an oral summary of 'Mutual aid in an air-raid? Community civil defence in Britain, 1914-18’, International Society for First World War Studies Virtual Conference 2021: Technology, online, 16-18 September 2021.]

The first thing to note is that the German air raids on Britain of the First World War were much smaller in scale than those of the Second World War: they killed 1100 people compared with 43000. They are significant, however, precisely because they were the British people’s first war from the air, and so informed expectations, and preparations, for the next one. And in terms of civil defence, nearly every major aspect of the air raids on Britain in the Second World War was first encountered in the First World War.

But the air raids of the First World War are also important because of their emotional effects, the way that people responded to the entirely novel experiences, and spectacles, of air raids: fear, terror, even panic, but also anger, calm, excitement, boredom, curiosity, complacency. Again these emotions informed behaviour in air raids. These emotional responses could themselves, it was thought, be dangerous. Panic could be contagious. Curiosity might lead people to endanger themselves. Anger might result in the diversion of military resources from the front or even endanger the government politically. So these air raid emotions had to be managed.

Graphic, 5 February 1916, 8

It was largely left up to the press and other moral actors to define 'corrrect' emotional behaviour during air raids. An emotional regime centred on the idea of ‘British pluck’ or stoicism valorised the mastery of emotions during air raids as a particularly British trait. This prefiguring of the 'Blitz spirit' was opposed, of course, to the Germans, who were thought to be cowardly, both as bombers and bombed. Fear and panic, when it did occur in Britain, was at first excused, but increasingly as the war went on, excised from 'Britishness' altogether, through transference onto the Jewish or 'alien' minority.

Now, civil defence was part of this emotional regime. It helped to reinforce British pluck, controlling dangerous emotions by providing a sense of security before and during air raids. But, perhaps surprisingly, there was very little official policy around protecting the public from air raids or even informing them that they were occurring, until quite late in the war, 1917 and 1918. The reason was partly that the initial Zeppelin attacks in 1915 and 1916 were scattered and unfocused in space and time, and ultimately not very punishing. And maintaining war production was given priority over protecting the public. Factories might be warned of an impending raid, but not their workers, in case they decided not to show up for work.

Anyway, by late 1916 the Zeppelins were effectively defeated. It was only with the second phase of the German bombing campaign, by Gotha aeroplanes in 1917 and 1918, that things changed, with a brief but relatively intense campaign – what I call the 'Gotha shock'. The Gotha shock was much more concentrated than the Zeppelin raids in time and space, covering a span of just under a year, from spring 1917 through to the end of winter, and focused on the London and the very southeast of England. At one point in the Harvest Moon period at the end of September, London suffered five raids in eight nights, which pushed a wave of anxious shelterers down into the Tubes and even refugees out into small towns in the Home Counties. The Gotha shock was also much heavier than the Zeppelin raids. In two raids alone, for example, in June and July 1917, the Gothas killed 216 people, nearly a fifth of all deaths due to air raids in the war, including, in one particularly tragic incident, 14 very young schoolchildren in a school in Poplar in the East End.

The impact of the Gotha shock is actually well known in the historiography, but really only in terms of air defence. In civil defence its significance is only beginning to become clear. (But see Michael Reeve's PhD thesis and Susan Grayzel's At Home and Under Fire.) After the Gotha shock, the government did introduce raid warnings for the public: in London, in July 1917 for daylight warnings and December for night-time warnings, though only before 11pm. Only in March 1918 were warnings at any time of the day or night introduced, by which time the bombing campaign was nearly over.

It was also in response to the Gotha shock that some form of air raid shelter policy was developed. At first this was limited to some police stations and local buildings, but in October 1917 an Order-in-Council allowed any premises to be requisitioned as a shelter by local authorities, which then set about surveying their districts for suitable buildings and bearing nearly all the costs of making these buildings suitable as air raid shelters. In terms of non-government shelters, the Gotha shock was also important in spurring development of these private or local initiatives.

In organisational terms, I identify three types of air raid shelter: private, civic, and communal.

1. Private air raid shelters

Hither Green, October 1917

The obvious place for people to shelter was in their own homes. But this immediately suggests the class dimension of air raid shelters. Poor people had much less access to cellars or even stairs, and their houses were generally poorly built and maintained to begin with. And in London it was the East End slums near the docks which bore the brunt of air raids. Only those with some means, middle-class professionals or the upper classes, could afford purpose-built shelters like this one erected in Hither Green in South London in 1917, the owner of which worked in the City of London as a merchant. So, there seem to have been very few private shelters.

2. Civic air raid shelters

Chas. A.F. Austen, Ramsgate Raid Records: A War History of England’s Most Bombed Town (n.d)

At the other end of the scale in terms of official sanction and organisation were civic shelters, organised by local councils or other community-based groups such as churches or schools. These began to appear in mid-1917 as a response to the Gotha raids, meaning they were largely confined to London and the south-east of England, especially Kent. Ramsgate, for example, was certainly the best-provided with civic shelters, with a council-supported mixed system of adapted and newly-built shelters, both private and public, throughout the town, along with pre-existing chalk caves.

3. Communal air raid shelters

Walter Bayes, The Underworld: Taking Cover in a Tube Station During a London Air Raid (1918)

I see communal shelters as being somewhere between and in fact overlapping with private and civic shelters, with private citizens banding together to unofficially organise shelter collectively. So tube shelters fall into this category, as to begin with these were simply occupied by shelterers. So too would some of the Ramsgate shelters. And air raid patrols, which first appeared in 1915 and were originally largely private, subscription-based air raid warning schemes set up within a very local area, could turn into shelter schemes too, but again it seems only after the Gotha shock.

Raid Shelter Corps, 1917

The Stepney Raid Shelter Corps, for example, flourished in the East End in October and November 1917. Rather than simply warning people that a raid was imminent, its members helped direct people into the nearest shelters. The Stepney Corps is unusual in two other ways: it was a quite formal organisation, with a central committee of local influential men: mayors, MPs, bishops and so on. And while that organisation was ecumenical it was, at least originally, proposed and championed by prominent members of the Jewish community. As I noted earlier, Jews were coming to be excluded from British pluck for their supposedly cowardly responses to air raids, and I wonder if the Stepney Raid Shelter Corps was a defensive measure meant to ward off criticism. But I don't yet know.

Image sources: Graphic (London), 5 February 1916, 182; Chas. A. F. Austen, Ramsgate Raid Records: A War History of England’s Most Bombed Town (Ramsgate: Addington Publicity Bureau, n.d [1919?]); Getty Images (Topical Press Agency/Stringer 3133858); Walter Bayes, The Underworld: Taking Cover in a Tube Station During a London Air Raid, 1918 (Art.IWM ART 935); Getty Images (Topical Press Agency/Stringer 3231206).

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