Primary History

World War 2: Air raids - the Blitz

  • What was an air raid?

    An air raid was an attack by enemy planes dropping bombs. Warning of enemy planes was given by sirens. When people heard the sirens' wailing sound, they went into air raid shelters.

    Big bombs exploded with a loud bang and blew buildings apart. Small bombs called 'incendiaries' started fires. Firefighters worked bravely to put out the flames. Rescue teams pulled people from fallen buildings. Ambulances took the injured to hospital. When the planes had gone, the sirens sounded the 'All Clear'.

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  • The Blitz

    Air raids on London began in September 1940. This was the start of the Blitz. Lots of other places were bombed, including industrial cities and ports such as Birmingham, Coventry, Southampton, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Hull and Glasgow. There were air raids on seaside towns, such as Eastbourne, and on cathedral cities such as Canterbury.

    In 1944, Britain faced attacks from new weapons. First came the V-1, a robot 'flying bomb'. Then there was the V-2, a rocket which flew so fast no-one could see or hear it coming. London was the main target for V-1 and V-2 attacks.

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  • Where did people shelter?

    Many people had their own air raid shelter. Called an Anderson Shelter, it could be built in a small garden. It was made of steel panels. The panels were 'corrugated' (made wavy), which made the shelter strong, especially with soil spread over the top. There was an entrance at one end. Inside was a bench-seat, which could become a bed at night.

    Public shelters were made of brick and concrete. No-one liked them much. They were dark, smelly and not as strong as they looked. In London, more than 150,000 people went into Underground stations every night for shelter. They slept on the platforms.

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  • A shelter at home

    To put up an Anderson shelter, you had to have a garden. From 1941, people could have an indoor shelter, called a Morrison shelter. It looked like a steel table with wire mesh around the sides. You could play table tennis on top, and crawl inside to play. People slept inside too, though it was a bit squashed and you felt like monkeys in a cage!

    The Morrison shelter was very strong. People inside were usually safe even if the ceiling of the room fell down on top of them.

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  • Civil Defence

    Civil Defence was like a civilian army of volunteers. 'Observers' watched for enemy planes, and sounded the air raid alarm with sirens. Fire-watchers on high buildings looked for fire-bombs. They put out small fires using stirrup pumps and buckets of sand. Air Raid Precautions (ARP) wardens hurried along the streets, checking the blackout. It was important not to show lights at night, in case enemy planes used the lights as guides to their targets.

    ARP wardens organized rescue efforts. It was very dangerous for firefighters, ambulance crews and rescuers, with bombs, fires and buildings collapsing. Sometimes after a raid, unexploded bombs lay around, and had to be made safe.

    After an air raid, everyone was tired. Rescuers and helpers were glad of a cup of tea made in mobile canteens by the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS).

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Fun Facts
  • Anderson shelters were covered with soil. People grew flowers and vegetables on top.

  • Inside their shelter, many families kept games, books, biscuits and bottled drink.

  • Some people had small cookers and electric toasters in their shelters.

  • Fire-watchers were supposed to carry a dustbin lid. They used it as a heat-shield when putting out a fire-bomb.

  • An ARP warden had to carry 3 electric torches, 3 whistles, 2 hand rattles and a bell.

  • People made up funny lists of 'bomb-fighting kit', such as 'a belt with 10 hooks, to carry 6 sandbags and 4 buckets of water'. Imagine trying to walk with all that!

  • Lots of people sheltered under the stairs at home. This was the safest place in many houses.

  • Fake 'factories', plywood huts with small lights showing, were built well away from cities. The idea was to trick enemy pilots so they dropped bombs in the wrong places.

  • 1 in 5 schools was either destroyed or damaged by bombs.

  • One wartime magazine suggested that reading Enid Blyton stories was a good way to stop children getting scared during air raids.

  • 'Flying Food Convoys' of trucks rushed food to bombed areas after air raids.

  • Children played a Blackout card game. Each picture card had a different name such as 'Sand Buckets' and 'Fire Alarm'.

  • There were children's stories about barrage balloons with names such as Bulgy Balloon, Blossom and Boo-Boo.

  • Shops sold 'window protection' paint. You painted it on the glass, and it was supposed to stop the glass splintering.

  • The Mickey Mouse gas mask for small children was withdrawn because it cost too much to make.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

air raid
An attack by planes dropping bombs.
air raid drill
Practice for what to do in air raid, such as going to the shelter.
air raid shelter
A building to protect people from bombs.
Allies
Countries (including Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the USA) who joined forces to fight the Axis Powers.
allotment
Small plot of land for growing vegetables.
atomic bomb
Weapon first used in 1945 when two bombs were dropped on Japan, killing more than 100,000 people.
Axis Powers
Germany, Japan, Italy and other countries that were allies in World War 2.
blackout
Wartime ban on street lights and other lights at night.
Blitz
German air raids, from a German word 'blitzkrieg' which means 'lightning war'.
British Empire
Countries ruled by Britain.
censorship
Controlling what people say or write.
civilians
People not in the armed forces.
Civil Defence
A network of civilian volunteers who assisted in the war effort by helping in air raids and rescuing people from bombed buildings.
Commonwealth
Group of friendly countries almost all of which were once part of the British Empire.
concentration camp
Prison where Jews and other prisoners were kept by the Nazis.
coupons
Slip of paper marked or torn out of a ration book.
D-Day
6 June 1944, the date Allied forces landed in Normandy, France.
department store
Large shop selling different things in different departments.

E to G

evacuee
Someone who was evacuated, moved from a danger area to a safer place.
factories
Places where things are made.
Forces
The Army, Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and other services.
Frank,Anne (1929-1945)
A German Jewish girl who spent two years hiding from the Nazis in a house in Holland. Her wartime diary was published after the war.
gas mask
Face mask to protect people against poison gas.
general election
Vote to choose Members of Parliament, and a new government.
gramophone
Machine for playing music records.

H to L

Hitler,Adolf (1929-1945)
Leader of Nazi Germany.
Holocaust
Mass murder of Jews and other people by the Nazis.
host family
People who took in evacuees to live with them.
invaded
Attacked and taken over by an enemy.
Jews
People who follow the religion of Judaism.
liberate
To free from an enemy's control.

M to O

military uniform
Clothing worn by soldiers, sailors and airmen.
To do with the navy or warships.
A fight between ships at sea.
Nazi
Short for National Socialist Party (in Germany), a follower of Hitler was also called a Nazi.
occupied
Taken over by enemy forces.

P to S

prime minister
Leader of the government of Britain.
prisoners of war
Soldiers captured by the other side.
propoganda
Controlling news media (such as radio) to show your side in the best way.
rationing
Controlling the supply of food, clothes, petrol and other things.
refugee
A person forced to leave their home, often by war.
register
A list of names. In WW2 people had to register with shops before they could use their ration books there.
Resistance
Fighting back in an occupied country, for example by refusing to help the enemy.
scrap metal
Waste metal such as old cooking pans.
siren
Machine that made a wailing noise as a warning when enemy planes were seen.
slogan
A catchy phrase or saying.
Soviet Union
Country made up of Russia and other states that are now independent.
steam train
A train pulled by a locomotive burning coal.
stirrup pump
Small hand pump for squirting water to put out fires.

T to Z

telegram
A short message sent by phone, then printed out and delivered.
Underground
London's Tube rail system.
United Nations
Organization set up in 1945 by the Allies to work for world peace.
Vegetarians
People who don't eat meat.
war crime
Mass murder or cruel treatment of people during a war.
washboard
Wooden board with ridges, for scrubbing dirty clothes on.