explosion sign
World War 2 - by Bill Whalley
gas mask
by Bill Whalley

     The younger generation may not be aware that the entire coastline of the UK was protected against the possibility of invasion by German forces. Except for inaccessible cliff areas, the shoreline was defended by extended barbed wire fences and in those areas suitable for landings, minefields. This meant that the population was denied beach access for six years and inevitably many youngsters lost their lives by ignoring the warning signs and trespassing in the out of bound areas.

     Bombing raids fell into two categories. There was blanket bombing, directed at heavily populated areas, that was intended to sap the morale and determination of British citizens, and the bombing of strategic targets such as ports, vital communications centres and heavy industry. Although these bombing raids were generally carried out by large groups of aircraft, occasionally single aircraft made lone raids. I witnessed one such raid in 1943, when a single German bomber made a daylight low level attack on the steelworks in Redcar, North Yorkshire. The plane weaved in and out of blast furnaces and cooling towers with such skill that it was generally assumed the pilot had special knowledge of the site (some Germans had worked with the firm pre-war).

     The war was constantly with every one irrespective of their age and role. Apart from dominating the news media, all families had many relations serving in the armed forces or merchant navy. Those who were in protected key jobs or were too old or unfit for active service helped to form Home Guard units or took on roles as Air Raid Wardens and Observers. Many of those serving in the Forces did not see their families for years on end and children grew up without seeing their fathers. The risk to life and limb from enemy action was obvious, but they faced considerable risk from the elements. Mass built welded liberty ships had a nasty habit of breaking their backs in heavy seas and sinking. Arctic convoys sailed in all weathers and survival for those lost overboard was measured in seconds rather than minutes. Rationing of food and clothing meant that everyone had to plan carefully and avoid waste. Even sweets were rationed. Most families grew vegetables to eke out limited rations. One side benefit of rationing was the improvement in health because it was not possible to over indulge with sugar and fat. As in any situation there were people who were determined to gain personal advantage by deliberately ignoring the rules and trading in scarce or rationed commodities. These people were known as Black Marketeers and were generally reviled by all decent citizens.

     Another constant reminder of the danger was the gas-mask which was issued to everyone and had to be carried at all times. There was a special respirator for babies which totally enclosed the infant. Most houses in urban and rural areas were provided with air raid shelters. Where possible this constituted of a corrugated steel shelter in the shape of as inverted U, covered with earth (the Anderson Shelter.) In other cases houses were given a steel cage to place in a suitable place within the house. The sound of the wailing siren with a rising and falling intensity, warned people to retreat to their shelter. Many lonely uncomfortable hours and disturbed nights were spent in such shelters, waiting for the all-clear siren (continuous even note). Those people living in large cities retreated to specially built large communal shelters. In London the Underground Railway stations were utilised for this purpose.

     Even now, some 60 years later, there are still repercussions in the shape of munitions which are discovered in public areas. Some are enemy aircraft bombs that failed to explode and are uncovered during construction works. Others are 'souvenirs ', foolishly retained by former servicemen unaware of the danger to life and limb. Some are shells or grenades that failed to explode on former ranges. The simple fact is that the number of incidents occurring today is measured in many thousands.