How safe were air raid shelters for the poor in Britain's cities?
One reason why I like this activity, devised and researched by Ian Luff, is that it’s clear that Ian really cares about the topic – as he explains below, he was born near the focus of the activity, the Latham Street Shelter, and he identifies with the people who had taken shelter there. It’s a great reminder that an essential part of teaching is caring – not just about the people you teach but about the people you are teaching about. Your interest in those people will communicate itself to your students and help them care too.
Ian’s activity has two parts – a physical activity that clearly shows the limitations of shelters, leading into a documentary activity centred around two letters exchanged at the time between the head of Poplar Council and the Chief of the Metropolitan Police Force. You can use it in its own right or to support the exercise on pages 82-83 of the SHP History Year 9 book.
Also, feedback on this activity is additionally welcome, particularly the documentary part, because Ian plans to include it in a War Enquiry book.
So, over to Ian to describe this activity.
My interest in these shelters really sprang from reading about rumours that circulated in WW2 concerning the safety of the street shelters provided for the urban tenement dwellers and the controversial method of their construction: relatively weak bricks holding up an immensely heavy roof. The mental image this conjured up of helpless, frightened people clinging onto an illusion of relative safety whilst sheltering in government-provided possible death traps was a chilling one and merited further investigation.
The Latham Street incident of July 1941 did not cause great loss of life compared to the results of other raids. Only eight people died - but this represented the entire population of that shelter on that night and the manner of death typified the very allegations about these shelters - when a parachute mine exploded nearby the walls were swept away and the concrete roof crushed those within. If the shelter had been full 50 people would almost certainly have died. As my parents lived in such a Poplar tenement (about half a mile from Latham Street) when I was born in the late 1950s my interest was immediately aroused from a personal angle; from a curiosity to find out the truth about the street shelters; and from an angle of simple justice: were the shelters to which people were trusting their lives actually sub-standard in design and, if so, were the authorities aware that this was the case?
In my research I uncovered this exchange of letters between Gowers - head of Poplar Borough Council - and Game - Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police - which fascinated me in the issues raised and in its tone. Was the Latham Street incident merely a one-off 'freak' caused by the near simultaneous explosion of two large devices or was it symptomatic of the dangers of the street shelters? Over to you!'
Background information – the types of shelter
Essentially there were four types of publicly supplied or approved shelters in use in Britain in the Second World War:
The Anderson Shelter – effectively a corrugated iron shed bolted together, partially sunken into the soil and covered with earth.
The Morrison Shelter – a steel super-strong, table-like cage. This would be erected in a ground floor room of a house and was capable of protecting occupants from falling masonry if the house was hit.
Tube Stations – at first the use of these stations was heavily discouraged on the grounds that some were insufficiently deep to prevent bomb penetration. The public simply ignored such advice and thousands sheltered within. The government bowed to the power of public feeling and tolerated their use for the rest of the war.
Street Communal Shelters - These were constructed of solid walls of bricks about 8 inches (20cm) thick, with a ceiling constructed of 6 inches (15cm) of reinforced concrete. These were designed principally for people living in tenement blocks. Such blocks were without gardens for Anderson shelters and were unsuitable for Morrison shelters as the majority of flats would be on upper floors. In areas such as Poplar near the London Docks most people depended on these communal shelters. There wasn’t even a tube station nearby to provide any sort of alternative. Quickly such shelters developed a bad reputation. A nearby blast of the biggest German bombs – 1000 kg parachute mines - could sweep away the brick sides: leaving occupants to be crushed by the falling concrete roof. Just such an incident occurred in Poplar in July 1941.
Two standard-size exercise books – to act as the shelter roof
Four sheets of A4 printer paper – to be the shelter walls
A ball of blu-tack or plasticine.
The very high density and weight of reinforced concrete compared to brick is reasonably accurately conveyed by using two exercise books as described for the shelter roof and four thicknesses of paper for the shelter sides. The actual thicknesses however are not to scale. The brick sides and concrete roof were almost equal in thickness at 8 and 6 inches respectively.
1. Place two sheets of A4 paper one on top of the other.
2. Fold lengthways once then crossways once. Open crossways fold to 90 degrees
3. Staple together for added strength.
4. Repeat with two more sheets. These are the shelter walls. Place as the diagram, with fold uppermost.
5. Place the walls on a desk in the middle of the room.
6. Place up to 50 blu tac cylinders within. These should be no more than 3cm high – the scale height of a sitting person in the shelter. Pupils could actually make one each and place their cylinder within the walls. Ask pupils what these cylinders represent – if they haven’t guessed already they’re the people in the shelter.
7. Place the exercise books on top of the walls. Explain to pupils that the paper represents sides of brick and the books represent the concrete roof. Ask pupils if they can see any weakness in the design.
8. Shout ‘bang’, representing the blast of a parachute mine which was designed to burst above the ground. Then sweep the paper walls away with the side of one hand, right through the end or side of the shelter. This will do some damage the figures within. This will make the walls collapse and will bring the roof down on the blu tac cylinders within. These two stages of destruction are a good simulation of the shock wave of a 1000kg parachute mine exploding a few feet off the ground. The explosion swept away the brick walls creating horror within, compounded as the intact and vastly heavy roof fell on any occupants who may have survived.
How many have been damaged? Work out a percentage casualty rate. This could be done twice: once with the shelter empty to allow the ‘thwack’ to be heard as the roof hits the top of the desk; then once with the figures inside as above.
9. Now ask pupils to hold this image in their minds whilst examining the documents in the second part of this activity. They are letters written about the collapse of just such a shelter as a result of a parachute mine explosion in Poplar in 1940.
The Latham Street Shelter – a freak occurrence or evidence of a flawed design?
In the summer of 1941 at Latham Street, Poplar, a brick-built shelter’s walls collapsed in a raid allowing the concrete roof to collapse, killing the 8 people sheltering within. This incident led to an investigation by the Government’s Home Office.
The file from which these extracts are taken was closed to public access during the war and in fact stayed closed until 1972.
You are working for the Home Office. Read the letters and other evidence concerning the disaster given in the Sources Document. The mini tasks at the end of each letter will help you identify the key points of each.
Once you have read and understood the letters your task is to make a recommendation to councils all over the country.
Remember: Many lives in the poorer areas of the cities will depend on your decision.
1. Replace their brick built shelters completely?
2. Reinforce them with either an outer skin or with steel struts inside (specify which if you choose this option)?
3. Do nothing to the brick built shelters?
In your report you will need to say why you are making your chosen recommendation and also why you are rejecting the other two options.