Britain Under The Shadow of War | The British Newspaper Archive Blog


A Look At 1930s Britain Under The Shadow of War

Russia is building up a formidable air fleet and doubling her military railways. America is laying down new capital ships. Britain is strengthening her Navy and her Air Force. A few days ago Belgium announced her intention to spend more money on her Army…One never quite knows what Germany is doing. Her budget reveals her intention to re-arm to a modest extent…No doubt she is drilling her young men and inuring them to war on land and in the air…

These were the words written by former Prime Minister David Lloyd George in an Armistice Day article written for the Sunday Pictorial in 1934, which was titled with the question ‘Peace in Our Time?’

Sunday Pictorial | 11 November 1934

Lloyd George believed that although the international situation was ‘very disturbing,’ he still thought that ‘prudent counsels’ could prevail to avoid conflict on the scale of the Great War, writing how:

There is yet time to calm down the raging nations and bring them to a rational accommodation of their differences.

But as the 1930s progressed, the possibility of preserving peace appeared less and less likely. This was a decade lived under the shadow of war. And in this special blog we will explore, using our newspapers, just what it was like to live in Britain as fears of another devastating conflict became all the more pervasive. We will look at the preparations for war, which involved the production and distribution of gas masks, and the practicing of air raid precautions, as well as the steps that were taken to avoid conflict.

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‘Will There Be Peace In Our Time?’

Nearly two years after Lloyd George’s optimistic piece in the Sunday Pictorial, where he also claimed that ‘Hitler is not crazy,’ a crowd of 30,000 people gathered at Victoria Park, Small Heath, Birmingham. They were there to ‘witness a mock air raid on the park,’ as reported the Birmingham Daily Gazette on 15 July 1936.

Staged by the 18th Anti-Aircraft Battery of the Royal Artillery, Portsmouth, and the 1st Anti-Aircraft Searchlight Corps (R.E.), Aldershot, the display was an attempt to increase recruitment for the ‘anti-aircraft units of the Regular and Territorial Armies.’ One can imagine, with 30,000 people in attendance, that the ploy was a success, but the message was clear. With the need for more men to enlist in anti-aircraft units, and the simulation of a mock air raid, war was most certainly on the horizon, and the country had to be prepared for it.

Birmingham Daily Gazette | 15 July 1936

To this end, the Birmingham Daily Gazette described some of the air raid precautions that were on display at Victoria Park:

The latest devices for detecting and locating hostile aircraft were employed in the demonstration. In one part of the park an instrument for picking up the sound of approaching aeroplanes, and a search-light were erected, while two guns and a mechanism for predicting the position of the aerial target were placed in another position. A second searchlight was stationed in Sparkhill Park.

There was still hope, however. War had not broken out yet, and conflict may still be averted.

A gas mask drill is held in Eastbourne | Eastbourne Gazette | 10 June 1936

But despite these hopes, the Sheffield Independent on 19 September 1936 announced on the ‘gas masks for all plan.’ It had just been announced that a contract had been awarded to a Leyland company, Messrs. Baxter and Company, to manufacture 30 million gas masks, the contract being worth £3 million. The company had just purchased a factory in Blackburn, and was seeking to engage ‘500 girls’ to construct the gas masks.

The Sheffield Independent, introducing the idea of gas masks for the civilian population, describes how:

The masks are to be issued free of charge to 30,000,000 people if an emergency arises. They will be carried in small haversacks, the idea being that everybody will take his mask about with him – ‘like a fountain pen.’

And with these preparations for air raids, and possible gas attacks, it was clear that country was preparing for a different type of war, a war that was not just to be fought on distant battlefields, but a war that would strike at the heart of the civilian population in a way that had never been witnessed before.

Workers in a London factory wear gas masks | The Sphere | 6 June 1936

In November 1936, once again on Armistice Day, or what we now know as Remembrance Day, the Nottingham Journal pictured a group of Nottingham schoolboys at the Memorial Arch in the city. The Great War, which had ended some 18 years before, was still etched in the memories of many, and even those who been born after the conflict grew up in a world that had been altered forever by the ‘war to end all was,’ just like the schoolboys who had gathered at the Memorial Arch.

It was here that they posed their ‘anxious question,’ which was, ‘will there be peace in our time?’ Would they escape the global conflict that their parents had suffered? The newspaper noted that the ‘schoolboys’ question is that of all us in these moments of silence – and apprehension.’

‘Fear in All Our Hearts’

In January 1937 the Dundee Courier pictured workers engaged in the production of gas masks at the Blackburn factory, where it was hoped they would ‘produce half a million gas masks a week for the civilian population.’

Gas mask factory in Blackburn | Dundee Courier | 14 January 1937

Such gas masks would be ‘provided for civilians in three sizes,’ as reported the Sheffield Independent in November 1937, an assurance from Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare.

And it was in this atmosphere of preparation for war that Ramsgate reverend, W.A.R. Ball, gave as his thought for a ‘brief but simple civic service held round the war memorial cross in front of St. George’s Church’ on Armistice Day, the following, as reported the Thanet Advertiser:

O God, make us better men and women and give us peace in our time!’

Thanet Advertiser | 12 November 1937

Again, Armistice Day was an occasion when fervent prayers for peace were offered, as recollections of war came once more to the forefront. And the Reverend Ball was not alone in his prayers.

The Bishop of Coventry, whose city would all to soon feel the devastating impact of war, gave a ‘striking Armistice Sunday sermon,’ as reported the Coventry Evening Telegraph. The Bishop said that ‘another Armistice Sunday had arrived in the midst of rearmament,’ at a time ‘when the fear of war was in all hearts.’

And unfortunately, the population of the United Kingdom had every right to be afraid, if an article published by the Broughty Ferry Guide and Advertiser in December 1937 was anything to go by. It published the words of Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare, who was working to ‘reorganise and strengthen the Air Raid Precautions Department.’ Hoare had concluded that:

 …if we were involved in the terrible calamity of war no air-raid precautions, however great their scale, could ensure for the population complete immunity. The most that could be done was to minimise the catastrophe, lessen the loss of life, and ensure the continuance of the services, without which the country could not exist.

Broughty Ferry Guide and Advertiser | 11 December 1937

This chilling proclamation acknowledged that if war came, there was nothing that could be done to protect the country’s entire population. All the precautions and preparations that could be made were being made, but that would not prevent an inevitable loss of life.

‘Fanning The Spirit of War’

But there were some in the 1930s who were making an active and public resistance to the ongoing preparations for war.

In January 1938, the Leicester Evening Mail reported how ‘City Pacifists’ were condemning the ‘Air-Raid Black-Out,’ as the city of Leicester planned to trial a black-out as part of its air raid precautions. With the announcement that a black-out would be held on 28 January 1938, the Reverend F. Seaward Beddow, president of the Leicester Christian Pacifist Fellowship, and Mr. W.R. Burwell, president of the city’s Peace Pledge Union, issued the following ‘manifesto:’

With no desire to judge others, and fully appreciating the sincerity of those who believe that the proposed air raid precautions will protect the civil population, we wish to state that we gravely disagree with their point-of-view. These precautions may protect the lives of some, but we believe that if the thought and energy being expended upon them were put into constructive peace-making, war could be avoided and all might be saved.

Leicester Evening Mail | 12 January 1938

It was their belief that such rehearsals in peacetime, like the planned black-out trial, ‘inevitably created conditions fanning the spirit of war.’ The statement went on, claiming how such precautions:

 stimulate fear and enmity and destroy friendship, understanding and mutual aid between nations. They encourage acceptance of a form of warfare that has been publicly renounced by international agreement. They suggest loss of faith in peaceful diplomacy and reason and encourage a fatalistic belief that war is inevitable. Not least among many evils is their effect upon the minds of multitudes of children taught to look with terror upon other nations.

Sheffield Independent | 22 March 1938

But preparations for war went on regardless, and by March 1938 the Sheffield Independent reported how 30 million gas masks were now ready for the civilian population. A joint statement from the Home Office and the Air Raid Precaution (ARP) Department read:

At least a dozen parts for gas masks, which will be issued free to every man, woman and child, are being made by textile, rubber and light metal contractors. These parts are being assembled in the Government’s gas mask factory at Blackburn. We are turning out 650,000 gas masks a week. Although the Government started work only 12 to 15 months ago, at least 30,000,000 gas masks are now ready.

Meanwhile, the Sheffield Independent reported how many in Sheffield were ‘rushing to give their services for air raid precautions work.’ The city had 1,600 volunteers, from ‘all works of life,’ for ARP work, whilst it was detailed how ‘Doncaster has been in the fore front of the air raid precautions scheme.’ Doncaster, it was reported, was ‘now exceedingly well organised,’ having been ‘one of the first towns to experiment in a mock daylight air raid.’ The town’s women, furthermore, had responded to ‘the appeal for ambulance workers in a fine fashion.’

ARP precautions in London | The Sphere | 8 October 1938

However, pacifists across the country were resistant to participating in such air raid precautions. Mr. R.F. Hatt, of Alton, Hampshire, told a Fareham meeting of the Peace Pledge Union how he believed that ARP work was ‘part of the war machine which was creating a war mentality.’ Moreover, the Hampshire Telegraph noted how the group discussed disarmament as a road to peace, which was acknowledged to be a ‘risk’ by Mr. B. Thomas of Portsmouth, but such a risk was ‘as nothing compared with the destruction of civilization resulting from a war.’

35 Million Gas Masks Ready

But preparations for war continued to rumble on regardless. On 1 June 1938 the Eastbourne Gazette reported how ‘Four hundred sets of gas masks’ had now arrived in the Sussex seaside town, with a ‘gas mask census’ soon to be undertaken, which would ascertain the different sizes of gas masks required by Eastbourne’s population. Meanwhile, Eastbourne now had 456 air raid wardens, with the majority of them trained in gas and fire precautions, as well as first-aid.

Eastbourne Gazette | 1 June 1938

The town was also home to an ARP ‘demonstration trench’ and a ‘sand-bagged hut,’ which could be viewed beside the cricket and football grounds at the Saffrons. The Eastbourne Gazette wrote, in relation to these exhibits, how:

 It is hoped that members of the public, especially those responsible for schools, hotels and other establishments, will find the opportunity to visit them, remembering that the earth used for overhead cover may be planted with flowers or grass if in a garden. Smaller trenches can be designed by individuals according to their own requirements.

And by the next month of July, the Dundee Courier reported how 35 million gas masks were now ready, having been distributed to ‘regional stores’ in London, Reading, Bristol, Cambridge, Coventry, Nottingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Gateshead, and Galashiels. The Home Secretary, as relates the same article, was ‘anxious’ for these masks to be sent to local stores, so that their delivery to the civilian population could be ‘expedited as much as possible.’

The Scotsman | 6 May 1938

It is no wonder, then, that the writer of the ‘London Diary of an Ulsterwoman’ in the Belfast Telegraph feared, in August 1938, for the younger generation:

 …it is somewhat horrifying to think that the boys and girls of to-day are passing their most impressionable days in an atmosphere of war talk and war precautions. One can only wonder what will be the effect of it on them as they grow older.

And by September 1938, the task of issuing the many millions of gas masks to the civilian population had begun in earnest. In the Borough of Tynemouth, enough gas masks had ‘been assembled for the whole of the civil population,’ as related the Shields Daily News. An official stated how:

A start was made early to-day in the delivery of gas-masks to persons who have been fitted. A house to house system of distribution has been adopted and people with motor cars are asked to assist with this work.

Volunteers trial gas masks | The Sphere | 3 September 1938

Indeed, the newspaper detailed how a ‘large number of people had already placed their motor cars as the disposal of the ARP committee,’ whilst other preparations in the borough were underway. These included the digging of ‘public shelter trenches at various open spaces’ by 800 unemployed men; it was estimated that these trenches could accommodate 10% of the borough’s population.

There was some lighter news, however, regarding the distribution of gas masks in the United Kingdom. On 5 October 1938 the Kirkintilloch Herald reported how:

We understand that in one part of Dunbartonshire last week children were running about the streets wearing gas masks, and others were fighting mock battles in the trenches being formed for the protection of the civilians.

Kirkintilloch Herald | 5 October 1938

Reports of ‘gas mask misuse’ had also emanated from Stirlingshire, whilst it was reported to the Home Office that:

…some people have been testing their gas masks with domestic gas and with the exhaust fumes from their motor cars. The public are warned against this highly dangerous practice. The Government respirators are not designed to give any protection against ordinary gas which would not be used in the event of war.

Even in the shadow of war, children continued to play, and people continued to make questionable choices.

‘Not One Person In a Million’

But by September 1938 there was some hope that war could be averted. Following the Munich Agreement, signed on 30 September 1930, by Adolf Hitler, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Premier Édouard Daladier and Italian leader Benito Mussolini, which saw the Sudetenland ceded from Czechoslovakia to Germany, Hitler’s apparent final bid for territory, there was a belief that war had been avoided. Chamberlain, and the thousands who greeted him as he returned from Munich, certainly would have desperately believed that peace was now possible.

Crowds greet Neville Chamberlain at Heston Airport | Illustrated London News | 8 October 1938

Addressing the ‘surging crowds’ outside Downing Street as he returned home, Chamberlain stated:

The settlement of the Czechoslovak problem is, in my view, only a prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace.

He then read a joint statement, which was signed by Hitler and himself, as reported the Illustrated London News on 8 October 1938. Retiring into Downing Street, Chamberlain then came to the window, and uttered these now infamous words:

This is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.

He then recommended the ‘excited’ crowds to ‘go home and sleep quietly in your beds.’

Neville Chamberlain addresses the crowds from a Downing Street window | Illustrated London News | 8 October 1938

But did the population really believe that peace had been secured? An article by Oscar R. Hobson for the Daily News (London) on the London Stock Exchange was scathing. The ‘boom’ which had followed the Munich Agreement had not lasted, although:

The Stock Exchange did its best to create an air of confidence at the opening by marking prices up above their Friday closing levels, but the volume of public buying was most disappointing, and very soon prices began to sag.

And Hobson was sure of the cause of this dip, writing how:

The reason for this poor showing is not far to seek. It is that not one person in a million, however much they may applaud his eleventh-hour efforts for peace, believes that Mr. Chamberlain has assured ‘peace for our time.’

Neville Chamberlain holds the Munich Agreement | 8 October 1938

Such hope had temporarily peaked, but collapsed, just like the stock market.

And in November 1938 a poem called ‘Armistice Day’ by M.S. Hewer was published in the Worthing Gazette, which addressed the sad futility of that now infamous phrase, which had been used by Lloyd George in 1934, and again by Chamberlain four years later:

Peace in our time! How oft the words are spoken
Unmindful of their import, till the hour
When war’s dark clouds and thunder bolts have broken
The calm security of fancied power.

‘We Shall All Be in The Trenches’

The temporary euphoria of the Munich Agreement was not to last, and preparations for the inevitable conflict continued. By 1939 these now involved the provision of Anderson shelters, steel shelters that could be erected in gardens to provide protection from air raids, to the civilian population. On 9 February 1939 the Aberdeen Press and Journal reported how:

Britain’s towns and cities which are entitled to receive the free household steel raid shelters now being made have been told by Sir John Anderson, Lord Privy Seal, to give a preliminary estimate of numbers required within one week.

Mr. A. Whiston installs an Anderson shelter in his garden in Hanley | Staffordshire Sentinel | 6 September 1939

In Scotland, the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh would be the first to receive the shelters, and the newspaper advised how:

For the present householders will have the option of storing the shelter un-erected and or erecting it and sinking it. The sinking of the shelter in a garden and the work of excavation may – unless done under direction – result in the maximum efficiency of the shelter not being attained, or in damage being done to gas mains, electric cables, or drains.

The shelters, as reported The Sphere on 25 February 1939, would be offered free of charge to those:

…whose occupations are compulsorily insurable under the National Health Act, and to those not compulsorily insured but who are mainly dependent on earnings or pension not exceeding £250.

Shelters are delivered in Birmingham | Birmingham Mail | 15 November 1939

Meanwhile, the same Sphere article detailed the ongoing efforts of the Birmingham ARP organisation, which involved:

…a dug-out in pre-cast concrete which can be sunk into the ground under its own weight…one-man or two-man streamlined sentry-boxes for wardens, these recently tested by allowing 50 tons of masonry to fall on them; and a white asbestos padded suit, carrying its own supply of air in the head-piece, for fighting incendiary bombs.

And for those who were not entitled to the free shelters, in March 1939 Sir John Anderson stated that ‘householders in the areas most exposed to attack should be given the opportunity to purchase these shelters through the local authorities,’ as reported the Nottingham Journal.

Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough | 31 March 1939

The need for some sort of shelter from aerial attack was at the forefront of many people’s minds by this point in 1939. On 11 March 1939 the Daily News (London) reported how:

Deep bomb-proof shelters are more important than a new town hall or street widening schemes in the opinion of a large number of Bedford’s 50,000 inhabitants. A petition to the council is being organised and the town canvassed for signatures. In several roads, it is reported, 90 per cent of the residents have signed the petition, which states that ordinary town improvements should be suspended until the public has been provided with sufficient protection. 

This was surely true of many areas of the United Kingdom; although it was not the case in Leeds. The same article reports how 150 people had refused delivery of the shelters, even though they had ordered them. Meanwhile in Glasgow, protests against such shelters were actually organised by the ‘housewives of the High Possil Corporation housing estate,’ where children carried cardboard versions of the Anderson shelter. Their complaint was that their gardens had been ‘uprooted without giving them real protection.’

A woman installs an Anderson shelter in Dundee | Dundee Courier | 27 September 1939

However, the Daily News (London) also reported that ‘Southampton householders appear to be taking quite kindly to the new steel shelters.’ Of 1,050 shelters issued to the city, 400 had already been distributed.

But despite these measures, it was again apparent that not everybody in the country could be protected from aerial bombardment, and indeed, Sir Alexander Rouse, chief technical officer of the ARP Department of the Home Office, did not believe that such universal protection was ideal. Speaking at a luncheon in London, he stated how:

If we provide deep bomb-proof shelters for the whole of the nation so that it can have complete protection whilst our soldiers and sailors do good service for us, what is going to happen to the nation? We are all going to go underground, and if that be so the war will not be won by us.

The Sphere | 25 February 1939

He continued, as reported the Birmingham Mail on 23 March 1939:

We cannot expect – we civilians – to have more protection than our soldiers and sailors. We shall all be in the trenches.

And less than six months later, the shadow of war became a very real thing, as Germany invaded Poland, and war was declared. The civilian death toll, following raids across the United Kingdom, in London, Coventry, Birmingham, Cardiff, Clydebank, Belfast, Southampton, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Hull, Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool, as well as other towns and cities, was 70,000. For those who lived in apprehension of war throughout the 1930s, their worst fears were to come true, although the precautions established during the decade may well have saved many lives.

Find out more about life in 1930s Britain by browsing The Archive here, whilst you can find out more about life during the Second World War by reading our specially curated blogs here.


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