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How Sunderland Prepared for the Air Raids

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Chapter 1 - Preparing for Invasion: A case study of how Sunderland prepared for the air raids.

Helen Jones highlights that 'In the 1930s experts and the public believed that in a future war, enemy aircraft would drop bombs that would devastate civilian populations'.[1] Thus suggesting that the fear of aerial bombardment was not only on the mind of experts but the public as well, thus indicating they feared they could be killed from the destruction the bombs could cause. In 1939, Adolf Hitler's Luftwaffe took to the skies to terrorise the UK with the threat of dropping bombs. Hitler wanted to attack the United Kingdom in the dark of the night to ensure that the Luftwaffe attacks were not visible, thus creating a surprise attack on the civilians. The North-East of England was a prime target for Hitler as Sunderland in particular produced 25% of Britain's shipping tonnage during the war thus highlighting the significance the North-East played in support the national war effort.[2] Also, Sunderland had long been hailed as the largest shipbuilding town in the world thus highlighting the significant role Wearside played during the outbreak of Second World War. [3]

Britain in particular on a national scale wanted to ensure that there was a defensive strategy in place to protect its nation from European attacks to prevent such an incident occurring like that of The Great War and the Zeppelin attacks, Calder indicates that Britain during the First World War had been raided by zeppelins, major damage had been caused across the country and many people did not have protection due to shelters not being prepared for the invasion.[4] As Travis L. Crosby indicates '[i]n 1924, the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) created a sub-committee to review civil defence policy' alluding to the fact that the Government wanted a re-assessment and development of the current policy in order to strengthen the civil defence in case of the outbreak of another war.[5] Britain's approach to providing air raid protection was very low key, not until the late 1930s the Air Raid Protection (ARP) committee as Joseph S. Meisel asserts 'embraced a wide range of measures to protect both the civilian population and the infrastructure'.[6]

A National Service booklet which was distributed to local governments nationwide indicated that there is a need for both men and women to join their local Air Raid Precaution service.[7] To entice people to join the war effort the people of Sunderland and in other areas were offered 'free training' and if personnel had to relocate due to war demands then people were able to transfer from one local authority to another. Wearside needed protection from the German air threat so devised plans to train and ensure they had enough Air Raid Wardens (ARW) for the inhabitants of Sunderland and surrounding areas. The ARP wanted to have 5 to 6 wardens for every 400-500 inhabitants who have a thorough knowledge of their area. The Sunderland Borough Council ARP Committee highlight that one major responsibility of an ARW is to keep in touch and lease with inhabitants within their sector. [8] In 1937, 'British experts estimated that there was going to be a new war enemy', indicating that Hitler was going to try and recreate the carnage caused during the First World War by attacking Britain again by air. [9]

In order to ensure that every inhabitant of Sunderland had a chance to contribute towards the war effort and protection of their locality numerous jobs were made available for them such as Rescue and Demolition Parties, First Aid Parties, Ambulance Drivers and Attendants just to name a few. [10] Allowing the people of Sunderland to be involved with the war effort ensured somewhat that public morale was on a high, thus highlighting that the residents of Sunderland had a sense of purpose. Due to the ever growing threat of bombings being immanent the ARP had to quickly mobilize ensuring that there was enough shelters and protection in place for the civilians of Britain. By September 28th 1939, there was 3,329 men and 740 women were involved with the Sunderland ARP highlighting that the people of Wearside wanted to volunteer and help with the protection of their community when they come under the attack of the German air raids.[11]

However, initial recruitment to local ARPs was difficult, many people thought that it was a 'waste of money' and 'training was not worthwhile' which caused upset amongst the locals.[12] In 1932, only 500 people had volunteered to be members of the ARP. It was not until 1937 where there was a dramatic increase in locals joining the Wearside ARP, one may suggest that it was the ever growing media coverage of the political rise of Hitler and his plans to invade Poland which caused a spark in recruitment to the ARP. Considering that the Sunderland ARP had 740 women by 1939, highlights that women were a key asset in the ARP program in Sunderland, thus indicating that even though women in the 1930s faced criticism and prejudice the women of Sunderland were able to get involved and play a key role in the Wearside war effort. [13] It is reported that men felt that women should not be involved with the A.R.P as they felt they lacked ability to tackle fires.[14] Thus suggesting that the women of Sunderland proved to their male counterparts that they could be successfully involved with the local A.R.P programme.

The County Borough of Sunderland Council clearly indicated that they had to ensure that ARP provisions were in place in order to gain trust from the Wearside community. On the 20th of October 1938, the council ensured that school rooms across the borough would be used to conduct ARP meetings and to consult to the locals who had any issues or questions.[15] A key issue which was discussed was the locations of the communal air raid shelters. With many people in Sunderland being situated in the working class sphere, not all had the available funds to purchase and design suitable shelters. Craig Armstrong indicates that 'local Police and fire service were to locate premises that could be converted into use shelters', the council needed to find areas which had a large surface area so they could protect plenty of its residents, this situation was the same for the emergency services in Sunderland.[16] Roker Park, was one location used to protect civilians from the air attacks, being able to house around 1,000 people, thus the council committee made the building of this shelter priority as it was one of the largest to construct. [17]

The people of Sunderland were gaining a trust in their local council. They were seeing signs that provisions were being taken from such an early stage during the Second World War. With many of the inhabitants of Sunderland having somewhere to go in the event of an air raid, indicates that the local authorities wanted to ensure that the people of Sunderland were safe. One may suggest that the inhabitants of Sunderland had a new found confidence within their local authority as they were protecting and showing care towards their community. Again as Armstrong suggests 'the local authority was duty-bound to offer free shelter to those who could not provide it for themselves', due to the introduction of the Civil Defence Act of 1939, all local communities had to ensure that there was enough free shelters for those unable to afford protection.[18] The government wanted to ensure that Britain was protected and offered support to all local authorities who required it, thus being able to 'pay nine-tenths of the costs' which would alleviate the pressure for local councils to locate funding and provide adequate protection.[19]

For those within Sunderland who had a disposable income there was an option to build your own bomb shelter that would only cost £5, which is not a bad investment for their safety. Average wages during 1930s were around 75.s (shillings a week) which is equivalent to around 300.s a month, which equates to £36 a month.[20] One may suggest that the poorer population within the community may have struggled to save 14% of the monthly household income to purchase air raid protection. The local authority built public shelters so people had protection if they could not afford it. Local authorities ensured that there was plenty of information given to their communities. The Sunderland ARP issued a step by step guide on how to build the best air raid shelter, which was approved by the Home Office.[21] This guide highlighted the best materials and locations to build a shelter. Inhabitants of Sunderland had a lot to consider with the preparations they need to do for the war, with having to ensure they had ample protection from the bombs, ensuring that homes were 'blacked-out' to limit targeting from the German Luftwaffe, rationing and food shortages, thus resulting in people facing a lot of pressure from local authorities to ensure that the community as a whole can cope during, what would be known as the Second World War. Helen Jones suggests, 'most people did not go to public shelters, or even ones in their own homes some took cover in a cupboard or under their stairs' thus highlighting that civilians found shelter where ever they could when they heard the sound of the air raid sirens.[22] Women, in particular were urged by the media to ensure that places such as cupboards and under the stairs had supplies and provisions in case they could not make it to their outdoor or public shelter.

The County Borough of Sunderland Council conducted meetings throughout 1939 ensuring that final provisions were in place to ensure that Wearside was sufficiently protected in the event of an air raid. From a meeting conducted in February 1939, the Sunderland Council discussed the 'provision of steel shelters' which was top of the meeting agenda, thus highlighting that the local government wanted to ensure that most people in Wearside had access to shelters which were reinforced with steel which would offer added protection.[23] Every meeting which was conducted the council were continually opening and closing cases regarding air raid protection. Many of the meetings ensured that emergency supplies were discussed and constant records were recorded to ensure that the local council could keep track of supplies. The air raid wardens in Wearside had access to '2,000 whistles' which were growing in supply as the council wanted to ensure that they had enough in case any 'got damaged during air attacks'. [24] Also '2,300 first aid kits' were supplied by the government to ensure that public shelters had access to medical supplies if they were needed. As well as first aid parties and ambulance drivers they were also supplied with first aid kits to ensure that they could provide emergency first aid if required during and after the destructive air attacks.[25] Whilst preparing for the possible German air invasion, there was an ever growing supply of equipment needed to support the ARP, such as blankets, whistles, first aid kits and clothing. With limited storage space available, due to the local government utilising large storage spaces converting them into public air raid shelters. To resolve the storage problem, the County Borough of Sunderland suggested that local primary and secondary schools in and around the Wearside area should be used to 'secure equipment in connection with the ARP'.[26]

Schools were not just institutions used for additional storage of ARP equipment, they were a priority for the Sunderland Council for building air raid shelters. The aim of the local authorities was to ensure that teachers and children had protection in case the air raids occurred during school hours. A total of £300 was spent on air raid shelters in schools which could house around 50 school children; schools of particular interest were St Anthony's Girls' Catholic school and St Mary's Grammar school which educated a majority of the children in Wearside.[27] These plans were discussed in August which made it a committee priority as they soon suspected that the air raids would start shortly, it was not until 1st of September 1939 when children throughout England would be evacuated. Final preparations were taking place in Sunderland during August where '300 air raid warning sirens were erected' and 'carrying blackout exercises during the weekend' which would result in practice drills which would simulate actual conditions which the people would face during an actual air raid.[28]

Wearside Women during World War Two

Women played a pivotal role in aiding the preparations for German air raids. Due to the importance of the shipyards and their role in supplying materials for the war effort the people of Sunderland lived under the constant threat of being under attack of German bombing. [29] With the majority of men being conscripted to join the war, women were expected to replace the jobs which men had vacated. As Penny Summerfield indicates 'the great bulk of wartime domestic work was thrown back to the private sphere of a woman's own resources', thus suggesting working women had to fit their domestic duties in with that of their working life.[30] The Wearside shipyards became an area which women were employed '[i]n order to keep the yards running at maximum capacity, women were called in to help'. As discussed earlier in the chapter, the shipyards were vital to the war effort, so in order to meet the needs of war, women were the only people on the home front who continue production.

Working civilians in Sunderland had to prepare for the hardships of war and that of the shipyards being under threat and targeted by German bombers. Morale was not at a high when women went to work, they were 'slower to recover from the shock of the news than men' thus highlighting that the constant media reporting of possible German invasion affected the work ethic of female workers. [31] In the wake of these attacks, attempts were made by those in authority to revive the morale of those living under the constant threat of death. In order to increase morale the people of Sunderland welcomed a visit from King George VI where he visited munitions factories and the shipyards which were a key assets towards the war effort. The Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette reported that 'the King showed gratitude towards the hard work and loyalty of the people of Sunderland' highlighting that the royal visit attempted to restore morale, by praising the people of Sunderland and ensuring that their hard work was recognised.[32]

Women of Sunderland were encouraged by the local media to ensure that their homes were well equipped in case of an air raid. The Chronicle reported that 'Home Office advice is to continue and intensify our air raid precautions' and 'it is therefore up to every single woman to making some corner of their home into refuge'.[33] This suggests that women had a key role in ensuring that every home within Wearside was protected. Women were encouraged to have a 'refuge room' in their home to use in the event of an emergency. The Chronicle listed resources which could be used to protect the home 'collect thick curtains, blankets, carpets and thick sheets' in order to cover windows and doors to stop any light being visible during the blackouts.[34] Items such as matches and candles were essential in case electricity or gas supply fails. Women were advised to get together the listed items such as 'scissors, old newspapers, candles and matches' in a box or drawer in the refuge room so that they have everything they need in the event of an emergency.[35]

With women being the forefront of the household during the lead up to the Second World War, they faced disruption to their lives due to state intervention which introduced measures such as rationing. With naval fleets being used in the preparations for the war, the state limited the amount of food imports into the country. Wearside women had were urged to ensure that their homes were equipped in emergency situations, had to work in shipyards on top if having to worry about feeding themselves and family on basic rations. Food such as 'eggs, bacon, butter and meat' were in very short supply, which were 'replaced by dried or tinned substitutes such as dried egg powder, corned beef and even whale'. [36] Kennils highlights that the local government would try all they could to give people good food, but due to shortages substitutes had to be found, in this instance whale meat was provided. With rations, the people of Sunderland had to cope with having basic food supply in their kitchen cupboards, one may suggest that morale was effected due to this. With the reduction of luxury foods and not gaining the correct nutrients in a balanced diet would cause people to get restless. It was not just food that was rationed. Coal rich areas such as Sunderland, even had one of its major exports on ration. Coal was needed for fuel during the war effort, so people within Sunderland were limited to what they could use to fuel their homes.

To conclude, this chapter has outlined the state preparation and measures put in place in order to protect the country from the German air raids. The County Borough of Sunderland Council ensured that they recruited heavily to the ARP which would aid in the protection of Wearside civilians. This chapter has explored the different shelters and locations of public shelters which were made available for citizens of Sunderland. Finally, this chapter has explored the significant role that women played during the preparations leading to the outbreak of the Second World War. Women had to ensure that their homes were a safe refuge for their family, whilst having to work in shipyards which were vacated due to men being conscripted to war. This chapter has set the scene of how Sunderland prepared for the war. Chapter two will discuss the impact that the bombings had on the area of Sunderland and how morale was affected.


[1] Helen Jones, British Civilians in the Front Line: Air Raids, Productivity and Wartime Culture 1939-1945 (Manchester: University Press, 2006), p.58.

[2] Winifred Haley, Evacuated from Sunderland Shipyards to Coxhoe, County Durham, (BBC WW2 Peoples War Archive), http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/36/a3781136.shtml. [Date Accessed: 03/11/16]

[3] Gillian Cookson, Sunderland: Building a City (London: Philimore, 2010), p. 147.

[4] Angus Calder, The People's War: Britain 1939-1945 (London: Trinity Press, 1969), p.21.

[5] Travis Crosby, The Impact of Civilian Evacuation in the Second World War (London: Croom Helm, 1986), p.13.

[6] Joseph S. Meisel,"Air Raid Shelter Policy and it's Critics in Britain before the Second World War", Twentieth Century British History, vol. 5 issue 03, 1994, pp. 300-319, p.300.

[7] Tyne and Wear Archive Service: DX967/7, National Service Booklet, 1939, p.13.

[8] ibid

[9] Calder, The Peoples War, p.21.

[10] TWAS, DX967/7, p.13.

[11] TWAS, 209/111, Air Raid Precautions Council Minutes, 28th September 1938.

[12] Jones, British Civilians in the Frontline, p.60-61.

[13] Ibid, p.61.

[14] Harold L. Smith, Britain in the Second World War: A Social History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996), p.64-65.

[15] TWAS, 209/106, County Borough of Sunderland ARP Precautions.

[16] Craig Armstrong, Tyneside in the Second World War (West Sussex: Phillimore & Co Ltd, 2007), p.42.

[17] TWAS, 209/106, County Borough of Sunderland ARP Precautions

[18] Armstrong, Tyneside in the Second World War, p.42.

[19] Jones, British Civilians in the Frontline, p.60.

[20] Margaret H. Schoenfeld and Anice L. Whitney, 'Wartime Methods of Dealing with Labour in Great Britain and the Dominions', Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Summer, 1942), p. 530.

[21] TWAS, DX 967/7, Your Home as An Air Raid Shelter, Ministry of Home Security, Home Office London,1939.

[22] Jones, British Civilians, p.158.

[23] TWAS, 209/111, Air Raid Precautions.

[24] TWAS, 209/111, Air Raid Precautions Council Minutes, 28th July 1939.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] TWAS, 209/111, Air Raid Precautions Council Minutes, 17th August 1939.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Sunderland's Shipyards during WW2, BBC Legacies.

[30] Penny Summerfield, Women Workers in The Second World War: Production and Patriarchy in Conflict (London: Routledge, 1989), p.186.

[31] Dorothy Sheridan, (ed), Wartime Women: A Mass- Observation Anthology (London: Heinemann, 1990), p.112.

[32] 'Royal Visit to Wearside', Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette, 22 February 1939.

[33] 'Women Collect These', News Chronicle, 28August 1939.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] K. Kennils, A War Baby: In Sunderland, (BBC WW2 Peoples War Archive), http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/49/a2038349.shtml. [Date Accessed: 03/11/16]


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