Life during the blackout – What was life like in Britain during the wartime blackout, when the smallest light could bring down German bombs? By Felicity Goodall The Observer, Sunday 1 November 2009 3 – 5 keywords Fear Co-operation Women painting curbs for the war effort Women in a civil defence unit paint white squares along the kerb to facilitate night- time driving in London. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images “l stood on the footway of Hungerford bridge across the Thames watching the lights of London go out.
The whole great town was lit up like a fairyland, in a dazzle that eached into the sky, and then one by one, as a switch was pulled, each area went dark, the dazzle becoming a patchwork of lights being snuffed out here and there until a last one remained, and it too went out. What was left us was more than Just wartime blackout, it was a fearful portent of what war was to be. We had not thought that we would have to fght in darkness, or that light would be our enemy. ” Daily Herald Journalist Mea Allan wrote those words in 1939 as she witnessed the introduction of universal blackout. From Thurso to Truro, from Hastings to Holyhead,
Britain was plunged into darkness at sunset on 1 September, two days before war was declared. Street lights were switched off at the mains, vehicle headlights were masked to show only a crack of light, and stations were lit by candles. The nation endured this enforced darkness until 23 April 1945, 10 days after the liberation of Belsen, when the allied armies were advancing rapidly towards Berlin in a final pincer movement. This was not Britain’s first brush with the blackout: a limited version had been introduced in 191 5 during the first world war, when German zeppelins began to drop bombs on their enemy.
But then the lights were subdued or dimmed rather than dowsed, and only when a zeppelin was known to be en route. This time there were no half-measures. Preparations had begun as far back as 1937, as Hitler looked increasingly threatening and a war from the air was predicted. The Germans had held their first blackout exercise in Berlin in March 1935, an event comprehensively reported in the British press. To police the new blackout, in March 1937 the Home Office appealed for 300,000 “citizen volunteers” to be trained as air raid precautions (ARP) wardens, rather householders to “put out that light”.
Blackout rehearsals became routine from early 1938. Householders were urged to check for light leaks at ground level, while RAF bombers flew overhead to check from above. During an exercise in Suffolk in April 1938, the illuminated clock at Ipswich town hall stood out like a beacon as no one could discover how to switch it off. These experiments, monitored by the RAF, showed that traffic was the main problem – even cars driven on sidelights glittered like a string of beads from the air, revealing street patterns below. This was the real significance of the blackout – it masked points of reference on the ground.
Luftwaffe pilots identified targets using pre-war maps coupled with up-to- date reconnaissance photographs, but they needed to correlate these with landmarks on the ground. Tests by the RAF revealed the extent to which lack of lights on the ground confused even British pilots attempting to find landmarks. Blackout was not the only defensive measure employed on the home front, however. Pilots’ vision was impaired by smokescreens, created by burning barrels of tar near strategic targets such as reservoirs, while enormous barrage balloons filled with hydrogen formed visual and physical barriers to bombers.
The Luftwaffe also had to deal with the vagaries of the weather, as well as searchlights and anti-aircraft guns. In the months leading up to the declaration of war, women made and hung blackout curtains and blinds, and sealed any gaps round the edges with brown paper. Not only did houses no longer leak light; they no longer let in air. The Times carried adverts for “ARP curtaining”, available not only in black but in brown, green and dark blue. When London’s Gaiety theatre closed, its brown velvet curtains bagged a high price at auction to be converted into superior blackout curtains.
Ordinary blackout curtains could not be washed, as this was apt to make them let through light. The government, therefore, issued a leaflet telling people to “hoover, shake, brush then iron” – the latter to make them more light-proof. By the time war broke out, blackout at street level was more complete than from above, as Londoner Phylllis Warner described in her diary: “For the first minute going out of doors one is completely bewildered, then it is a matter of groping forward with nerves as well as hands outstretched. Even after four years of war, fitter’s mate Frank Forster found it easy to become isorientated walking round his hometown of Chester, as he wrote in his diary in1943: “Every Journey one makes across the city during the blackout, especially on a very dark night, is a great adventure – although one is aware of certain landmarks, many of them are no use whatever, unless one is possessed of a good torch. One never knows what is in front of one beyond a distance of about three feet. By the end of the first month of war there had been 1,130 road deaths attributed to handkerchief to make them more visible. A coroner in Birmingham told old people to eep off the streets after dark, suggesting routine visits to the pub in the evening had to be relinquished for the war effort, as so many were killed when they stepped from pub into darkened street. White paint was the main safety measure, and stripes were painted on kerbs, street refuges and round the doors of tube trains.
Even with a 20mph speed limit, car crashes were frequent. A Lancastrian man painted his car white, and found other motorists gave him a wide berth. An Essex farmer even painted white stripes on his cattle so that they wouldn’t be run over. Ghostly policemen controlled traffic with histles, their capes and tunics dipped in luminous paint, and traffic lights were reduced to tiny crosses of red, amber and green. Sales of walking sticks, torches and batteries rocketed, as collisions even between pedestrians were common.
Rail travel, too, was made more difficult by the blackout. In darkened railway goods yards, porters struggled to read labels on freight travelling by train at night, which led to increasing delays for passengers. When they did travel, people had to sit in carriages shrouded by blinds, lit by cold blue lights, and patrolled by new lighting ttendants whose Job was to check the blackout. Thousands struggled to work on gloomy winter mornings on buses whose numbers were now unlit, and therefore of uncertain destination unless announced by a conductor.
Seventeen-year-old Monica McMurray worked at a Sheffield engineering factory and recorded in her diary for 1941: “This eternal smell of oil combined with next to no ventilation and artificial light at work is suffocating, I think I shall have to try to get on the land. ” Ernie Britton, an office worker, expressed similar feelings to his sister Florrie, who lived in the United States. In the factories it’s not so healthy never to see a bit of daylight except perhaps a snatch at midday break.
During the past few weeks we’ve had fluorescent lighting (daylight) in our office and it makes a world of difference. ” Elsewhere, stevedores drowned, knocked into harbours by cranes filling and emptying cargo holds. They were encouraged to wear white gloves to make themselves stand out. Even making a telephone call from a phonebox was no simple task, because it was so difficult to see the numbers on the dial. Burglary and mugging increased, and looters took advantage of deep blackout and bombed-out houses. Did the blackout have any beneficial effects?
Shops did at least allow staff to leave early so they could travel home safely, while the BBC Home Service urged people to look on the bright side, broadcasting talks to encourage them to look at the stars, which were “all the better for the blackout”. Home-based hobbies such as indoor photography grew in popularity, and people made music rather than venturing out in the evening to hear it played. experience throughout the world. Three months after the outbreak of war, British newspapers reported that the Germans had developed luminous blackout paint in he colours of the rainbow to highlight kerbstones and pillars at railway stations.
Neutral Switzerland had introduced blackout in November 1940, but debated its efficacy throughout the war. Unlit Swiss cities could be bombed in error, while blazing urban lights would act as a beacon to pinpoint targets across the border. There were protests in neutral Ireland, where compulsory blackout was considered to breach neutrality. When blackout was lifted in April 1945, Scottish schoolboy Donald Gulliver wrote to his father who was away serving in the forces: “The light is on at the corner, and I as playing under it last night, and the night before. In 1941 doctors had diagnosed a new condition among factory workers on the home front: blackout anaemia. Just as seasonal affective disorder is recognised today as being linked to a lack of natural light in winter, so depression was a recognised consequence of the blackout during the second world war. No wonder the Vera Lynn song When the Lights Go On Again All Over the World had such resonance on the home front. Felicity Goodall is author of The People’s War, published by Reader’s Digest http://www. theguardian. com/lifeandstyle/2009/nov/01 [blackout-britain-wartime