Chapter 15: The Attack on the Ports and Provincial Cities
On the night of 14th November 1940 the German Air Force, with some 330 bombers, attacked Coventry for eleven hours. The administrative and business centre of the city was heavily damaged, the fire situation got out of control, most of the public services were brought to a standstill, and local government was, for the time being, paralysed by the shock.
This was the first of a long series of raids on the centres of war production, the ports and other densely populated areas of the United Kingdom. These raids continued until the end of May 1941, after which the weight and frequency of attack rapidly diminished. Between 1st June and the end of the year there were only four night raids causing more than fifty fatal casualties each, all on the north-east coast of England.
So far as the work of the post-raid services was concerned, there was one big difference between these provincial raids and the attacks on London. While the capital was bombed continuously for weeks, and sometimes months, on end, the attacks on the provinces were spasmodic, intermittent and widely dispersed. Apart from Plymouth and the Merseyside, both bombed for a week, most cities were attacked one and sometimes twice within forty-eight hours, and then left alone for a period. Places like Southampton, badly shaken during several raids in 1940, were allowed time to recuperate.
A short analysis of all night raids causing more than fifty fatal casualties each during one period of three months—from March to May 1941—will illustrate this point. In all, there were in this period seventy such raids, eleven on London, eight on Liverpool, seven on Plymouth, five on Hull, and four on Bootle. The rest comprised seven cities attacked one, eight twice and four on three occasions. During these three months, the German Air Force scattered all its heavy blows among twenty-four cities, ranging from Plymouth in the south to Glasgow in the north, Belfast in the west to Tynemouth in the east.
The geographical distribution of hundreds of smaller raids was even more widespread and lacking in continuity. The pattern of the whole series from the Coventry raid in November 1940 to the end of May 1941 is an untidy one; a confused arrangement looking much
more like the aimless, destructive outbursts of a child with conflicting impulses than the results of clear decisive planning often regarded as the prerogative of totalitarian leadership. It is not for the present writer to say how far this scattered bombing was due to over confidence in the destructive power of air attack, or whether it reflected a failure to understand the potentialities of improvisation, and the resilient capacity of great cities to maintain the business of community life.
This particular characteristic of large cities was later demonstrated in Germany. The raids on Hamburg of July and August 1943, when 8,600 short tons were dropped, were among the most devastating of the war.1 Yet, despite the deaths of over 60,000 people (compared with 554 in Coventry on 14th November 1940), the destruction of nearly one-third of all the houses in the city, and the disruption of the public services, Hamburg as an economic unit was not destroyed. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey reported in 1945 that it never fully recovered from the bombing, but in five months it had regained something like eighty percent of its former productivity despite the fact that great areas of the city lay in dust and rubble. Just as it was much easier to destroy buildings than the machines within, so it was easier to destroy the physical structures of a city than to wipe out its economic life.
The general conclusion, then, is that the spasmodic character of the provincial raids during 1940–1 lightened the task of those who were responsible for providing the civilian population with the necessities of life.2 To say that is not the minimalise the seriousness of the initial shock to such cities as Coventry, Birmingham, Southampton, Belfast and many others. But when, as so often happened, a quiet period of several weeks followed destruction, it was extraordinary what was accomplished in repair and renewal, and what powers of adaptability were shown by the general public.
The city that had an immense capacity to absorb damage, renew itself each morning, and hide its wounds was London. Primarily, this was a function of size, for all round the boundaries of the county itself there stretched an extensive belt of urbanisation gradually thinning out into semi-rural areas. Yet this was the only city selected by the enemy for continuous bombing. To a smaller extent, provincial capitals like Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool showed a similar capacity to absorb damage and rehouse their homeless people.
They, too, were surrounded by zones of urban development which helped to ‘cushion’ the raids, and from which could flow a stream of assistance within a few hours. Cities like Plymouth, Hull and Barrow, which had no cushion areas, felt the effects more severely, and the Government eventually had to create an artificial ‘cushion’ by providing hutments on the periphery, mobile reinforcements and other special services.3
The social problems arising from air attack in the provinces, in Scotland and Northern Ireland differed in on fundamental way from those which faced the authorities in London. In one important respect only did they present a singular issue of their own, and that was the phenomenon of ‘trekking’ which emerged to worry the Government in the spring of 1941.
When the raids began in the closing months of 1940 there was the same, or even greater, lack of preparation in most provincial cities. The removal of financial and other impediments came too late to effect any significant improvement in the post-raid services before one city after another was attacked. Because London absorbed so much attention during 1940, a process of critical local surveys by Ministry of Health inspectors did not get under way until the beginning of 1941. These showed many glaring inadequacies. Even when they were pointed, it was rare for any city to take energetic action on all fronts before it was attacked.4 Nor was there much curiosity about the lessons of London for, as Mr. Willink, the Special Commissioner for London’s homeless people, told the House of Commons, ‘nobody in my office, or myself, has ever been asked for any general information on the way London attempted to deal with this problem by any local authority in England, Scotland or Ireland’.5 It seemed as though each local council, its officials, and the general public, had first to live through a heavy raid before they could form any idea of the real nature of its consequences.6
The attack, when it came, threw up many of the same administrative weaknesses as in London. While the provincial cities did not experience the peculiar difficulties of London’s two-tier government,
many of them were confronted with the problem of relations with surrounding district councils and the county council.7 It was these authorities who received the overflow of homeless people and the nightly trekkers. What they provided in the form of rest centres, food, billets and so on had to be coordinated with the executive work of the city council. What each authority did or failed to do affected a circle of other authorities. No longer could each local body act independently; if one stood aloof or tried to live by itself distress and disorder were inevitable. Air attack in 1941 made a mockery of British local dependence and civic self-sufficiency, just as in 1940 it had overwhelmed national self-sufficiency in Western Europe. For local government in Britain, the effective answer lay in pre-arranged pacts of mutual aid and a willingness to relinquish some part of local sovereignties.
The need for concerted action by the authorities of the city and of the surrounding country had received little attention before the spring of 1941, although in 1940 all the difficulties created by the frontiers of responsibility had already appeared on a small scale, when homeless people and trekkers left Coventry, Swansea and other cities for nearby urban and rural areas.8 During the early months of 1941 as attacks were delivered on the ports of Southampton, Hull, Swansea and Bristol, the problem of providing in the surrounding country many of the post-raid services already considered necessary for the towns became more urgent. The volume of nightly trekking increased, and the lack of effective liaison between urban and rural authorities stood out more clearly. The situation was seen at its worst when Plymouth was raided for five nights at the end of April 1941, and some 30,000 people were rendered homeless.
For about a fortnight after the first Plymouth raid, the nightly ebb and flow of people between town and country cannot have involved fewer than 30,000 people. On 24th April it probably reached 50,000. To make matters worse, the rural rest centres were already crowded with homeless people.9 Since anything up to three-quarters of the centres
in cities like Plymouth were liable to put out action in two or three nights’ raiding, temporary accommodation was essential for large number of homeless people in the surrounding country areas.
The Government, interpreting trekking on this scale as a symptom of lowered morale, was anxious that nothing should be done to encourage such movements.10 No specific provision was therefore to be made for the people taking part.11 But the difficulty was, in the circumstances of confusion which prevailed in Plymouth and other cities, and with little or no coordination between urban and rural authorities, to distinguish the genuinely homeless from the real trekkers, i.e. those who left the danger zone each night.
In practice, of course, it was not possible to refuse food and accommodation to the trekkers even when they were identified. And it was very difficulty to prevent them from using transport to get out into the country. Bus companies put on extra services, partly because they wanted their vehicles dispersed for the night. The Army, the Navy and commercial concerns also scattered their vehicles, and the drivers quite naturally took on as many passengers as they could. During the series of raids on Merseyside, when a total of possibly 70,000 people were rendered homeless, extra trains as well as buses were run, and on 10th May 1941 about 58,000 people, of whom 40,000 to 45,000 were trekkers, spent the night in other areas of Lancashire, Cheshire and North Wales.
Apart from the question whether the nation could have afforded to divert even a fraction of the men and materials required, it would have needed a gigantic effort to have provided all rural areas surrounding all cities like Plymouth and Hull with rest centre accommodation, canteens and other services for movements on the scale of 20,000 to 50,000 people a night. Some distress was therefore inevitable, though it was made worse by the failure to prepare to the extent that was possible, and by the muddle and confusion caused by a lack of cooperation between authorities for town and country areas.
While many householders invited the trekkers from Plymouth into their homes for the night, other trekkers had to find their rest in bad, and sometimes filthy, conditions in barns, churches, quarry tunnels and every conceivable kind of building. Many, too, lay down in ditches, under hedges and in the open country. ‘The Y.M.C.A. canteen stooped on the Yelverton Moors on the night of the 25th April and called out for customers. These appeared in no time from among the ditches and heather of the open moor.’12
Strenuous efforts were made by the staff sent down by the Ministry of Health to improve the services in the rural areas, and to build up some coherent system of liaison between Plymouth and nearby authorities. The difficulties were eventually overcome, and some semblance of order was restored primarily because the Germans discontinued the attack. With these lessons in mind, and still anxious about morale, the Government began to devise policies to deal with the problem of cities like Plymouth which had no supporting cushion of urban development. It was decided that rest centre provision in and around the target areas ‘must be greatly and immediately expanded’, that concerted plans should be prepared by the authorities of target towns and their surrounding areas so that, in the event of heavy raids, all should go into action together, and that hostels should be erected on the outskirts of Plymouth, Hull and other cities. This was in May 1941, when the heavy attacks ceased.
From June 1941 onwards, these policies were steadily pursued and detailed plans were carefully worked out. The execution of the plans was also subjected to much more supervision, investigation and direction by the Ministry of Health. But they were never, in fact, tested, for at no other period of the war did this problem of the trekkers arise again as a serious issue.
Trekking was the chief feature which distinguished social behaviour in the provincial from that in the London raids. Even so, the number of individuals concerned in trekking was small in comparison with the total of people made homeless by the attacks on provincial and Scottish areas during 1940–1. To those who experienced these attacks the deficiencies of the post-raid services must have caused at least as much distress as they did to Londoners in the autumn of 1940.
There is no need to tell the same story for each of some thirty cities, or to tell it in detail more than once. There was the same monotonous and insufficient food in the rest centres, the same meagre provision of clothing, blankets, washing facilities, first aid, lavatories, furniture and information and salvage services, the same inadequacy of unsupported public assistance officials and of casually organised volunteers, the same weak liaison with the police and civil defence controls.13 All these faults were constantly in evidence during the winter of 1940–1 as one city after another was bombed.
While the basic problems were the same, differing only in scale from those in London, the social effects were, with a few exceptions, less severe. As in London, immediate needs, like running canteens and rest centres and providing clothes, were met to a great extent by the Women’s Voluntary Services, the local Councils of Social Service and teams of voluntary workers. The degree to which these services for homeless people depended on labour freely given was measured in October 1941, when a rough census showed that part-time work at rest centres alone, throughout the country, was absorbing 200,000 women.
In general, there was less development of individual case-work and welfare among homeless people in the provinces than in London.14 Except in certain cities like Plymouth, the victims of air raids also depended less on official services—billeting, rehousing, rest centres and other branches of assistance. Most people, for instance, made their own arrangements for starting a home again. They probably knew better than Londoners where to go for help, they probably had more friends and relations living on the outskirts or in rural areas on whom they could temporarily lean, and reorganisation and repair was not such a cumbrous task as in London. Sheer size and sprawling growth helped to save London from being brought to a standstill in the autumn of 1940, but at the cost of producing social stresses on a scale not equalled elsewhere.
When heavy attacks were delivered for several consecutive nights on relatively small, or geographically isolated, boroughs, the social consequences were not very dissimilar from those which occurred in some of the East London areas. The main differences was that the effects were much less prolonged. Bootle, Clydebank and Plymouth were among the places to experience air warfare which, for a short time, was shattering in its effect on community life.
A few facts about Bootle and Clydebank tell something of the trials of those who lived in these towns, and illustrate the kind of problems which faced the authorities during and after the raids. Bootle had some 17,000 houses and a population of about 55,000 when the heavy raids began in the spring of 1941. Nearly two houses in ten were totally destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. Two more were seriously damaged. Only about one house in ten escaped damage.15 Over sixty percent of all the houses affected were damaged at least twice.
about one person in four was rendered homeless. One retail shop in three disappeared, eleven out of twelve rest centres were put out of action, and all the main roads were blocked. But only 262 people were killed during the raids which lasted from 1st to 8th May 1941.
Despite this widespread damage, with all its attendant effects on food distribution, gas, water and public services generally, about one-quarter of the population continued to sleep in their homes throughout the raids.16 The total number sleeping outside Bootle on the night of 8th May 1941 (the last night of the heavy raids) was about 25,000. Some 10,500 persons, or nearly one-fifth of the population, trekked daily for a few days anything up to twenty miles.17 Owing to the damage sustained the local rest centre system was largely ceasing to fulfil its functions by 8th May, and to relieve congestion some 6,000 homeless women and children were transferred on the following day to rest centres away from the town. In addition, many adults made their own arrangements to live outside the borough for a time. Over 7,000 people were, in fact, billeting in other areas in June 1941, but the majority of these—and the children who had been evacuated—returned within three months.
During the first four days of the raids many of the people in the town were fed from mobile canteens staffed by volunteers.18 Then, with the help of the Ministry of Food, the Army and regional reinforcements, field kitchens and British restaurants were quickly set up. The task of resettling people in homes was a long and difficult one. Precise information about what was achieved does not exist, but the following figures give some measure of the burden which fell on the local authority. The staff of the billeting department (which had to move its office six times in seven days), with the aid of 200 school teachers, billeted some 4,800 people in the borough. Another 7,000 were billeted outside the town, about 1,650 people were rehoused in neighbouring areas, and over 4,000 travel vouchers were issued up to 21st June 1941.
The salvage and removal of furniture was also a formidable task. The Council set up a special department, and on the day after the last raid seventy-five furniture vans were operating in the borough. Within a fortnight, 1,300 furniture removals had been carried out.19
A large number of voluntary helpers offered their services in all this work of renewing the life of the town. No fewer than 1,500 workmen, for instance, arrived in the borough on the Sunday after the heavy raids and gave their labour on debris clearance and demolition work.20
While temporary removals from the town, and a daily trek of people backwards and forwards, together accounted for about half the population, the loss of working time was not apparently excessive. Among the 24,000 workers living in Bootle when the raids began, the total loss due to absences amounted to some 200,000 man-days, equivalent to a loss of eight working days each in May 1941. One-half were absent from work, the average loss of time for each absentee being sixteen days. Among those who lived in houses which were rendered temporarily or permanently uninhabitable the loss of time was twice as greater as for those whose houses were damaged but still habitable.
Evidence of this kind does not suggest that there was any significant break in morale as a result of the raids.21 But the absence of children from school was more serious, mostly for reasons not directly connected with air attack. In April 1941, before the period of heavy raiding, some 7,000 children were examined, and nearly one-quarter were found to be verminous. About fifteen percent of these 7,000 children were excluded from school on medical grounds, the chief reasons being scabies and other skin diseases.
The first great disruption of the education and welfare service occurred in September 1939; the second in the winter of 1940–1. Bootle children suffered, as other did in all target areas when teachers were lent to civil defence and the various services for homeless and injured people. There were, for instance, no school meals being supplied in Bootle in July 1941, certain branches of the school medical service had not been restarted after their suspension in September 1939, and the deaths of infants rose in 1941 to 108 per 1,000 births—a figure higher than that ruling during the period 1916–20.22
These fragmentary social facts serve to provide a background of tough reality against which the story of physical destruction in Bootle—and other towns in Britain—has to be visualised. Many of these
people had never known the standards of home life, of space, quietness and stability, which other people accepted as a matter of course. They looked out on a world of disorder and instability with different eyes, for had they not, grown up with hardship by their side during many years of unemployment? To them, leaking roofs, broken windows, no schools and a nightly trek to the open field in springtime meant less than the loss of a job. Yet trekking was considered by some authorities to be an index of weakening morale.
Clydebank was another place which experienced, in proportion to its population, an immense amount of damage. On two successive nights it was heavily raided.23 About 47,000 people lived in 11,945 houses which were mainly of the tenement type.24 After the raids only seven houses remained undamaged.25 Precisely thirty-three percent were demolished, and forty-three percent were so damaged as to be uninhabitable. In all, therefore, seventy-six percent of the houses were unfit for use, and some 35,000 people out of 47,000 were without homes. This was the result of two raids in which, it was estimated about 150 metric tons of bombs were dropped.26 The number killed amounted to 528, while 627 were injured and treated in hospital and another 426 attended first aid posts.
For about a year and a half an average of 800 workers were engaged on repairing houses. Roughly 504,000 man-days of labour were spent in this way. Within seven months of the raids about ninety-fix percent of the first air work had been done, but another thirteen months passed before all the houses that could be repaired were repaired to a reasonable standard.
With this scale of housing damage it was not surprising that, in April 1941, the night population of the burgh dropped to 2,000 as compared with 47,000 before the raids.27 Where they all went to no one knew. Many no doubt moved temporarily or permanently to Glasgow and other places, some trekked away each night, while several thousands were evacuated to the Vale of Leven and various reception areas. But a good proportion of the workers turned up at reception areas. But a good proportion of the workers turned up at John Brown’s shipyards next morning, and the vast majority were back at work after an average absence of about 11–14 days. Some thousands of them returned quickly despite the fact that although
billeted as much as thirty miles away they could not obtain hot meals during the day at their place of work.28 This loss of time on account of the raids was not materially different from that found in Bootle.
The business of restoring civil life to boroughs like Bootle, Clydebank and Plymouth placed a great strain on local resources, especially in the work of repairs to houses, factories and essential services.29 All the tasks of renewal were complicated when the nerve-centres of local government were disrupted. Sometimes the civic centre with its controlling machinery and records was wholly or partly destroyed, sometimes departments had to be transferred to new premises several times in several days, while on many occasions the effects of the raids, and particularly a complete breakdown of the telephone system, left councillors and officials in a dazed and bewildered condition. What was needed, and what was eventually organised in great detail, was a stimulating flow of reinforcements in the form of men and materials, not to supersede the local authorities, but to help them to their feet.
Coventry, Southampton, Clydebank, Plymouth, Norwich and other stricken areas all needed this help. They received it at varying degrees of speed and efficiency from the regional offices of the central departments and from other local authorities;30 in some instances even shorthand typists and typewriters were sent. Mobile feeding canteens, water carts, ambulances, transport vehicles, doctors, engineers, billeting officers, building workers and materials, loud-speaker information vans, blankets and other equipment all had to be despatched as quickly as possible after the raid had ceased.31
The organisation of assistance on this scale had to be carefully prepared in advance, for the restoration of a city’s economic life had to be thought of as a single task. With so many Government departments concerned, in addition to the local authorities, the military,
and various voluntary agencies, coordinated planning was essential.32 This was the chief function of the Regional Commissioner,33 and one lesson that had emerged by the end of 1940 was the need to establish, on the morning after the raid, an ‘advanced regional headquarters’ on the outskirts of the bombed city.34 Another was the importance, in all these provincial attacks, of mobility in the local and regional organisation of the post-raid services. This could not be satisfactorily achieved without a high degree of cooperation—or mutual aid as it came to be called—between local authorities.
The extent to which reinforcements were needed, and the efficiency with which calls for aid were met, varied in different parts of the country according to the strength of local government, the standing of the Regional Commissioners, and the quality of the regional staffs of the central departments concerned.
The ability of the regional branches of the Ministry of Health to cope with unexpected and difficult situations, and to stimulate effectively large and powerful local authorities, had a more decisive influence on the standard of performance of the post-raid services than on the work of the evacuation scheme. For evacuation, both policy and the detail of its application had been highly centralised; directions to local authorities had been issued in the form of circulars from Whitehall. But for the post-raid services the method of administration was very different. This was largely because of their original association with the poor law. Comparatively few circulars were sent direct to local authorities, instructions generally being issued to regional officers who were left to pass them on either by visits or by regional circulars. Even then, only a limited amount of guidance and direction was given to these officers by the Ministry of Health until five or six months of raiding had passed.35 In the working out of policy, therefore, a good deal was left to local and regional initiative. This method, while it held out the possibility of greater attention being paid to the special position of individual authorities, involved three dangers. The influence and meaning of Whitehall policy might be diluted in transmission, officials at the centre were deprived of
direct contact with local authorities, and the chances of great variation in the character and scale of provision made by local authorities were considerably increased.
Any system of administration was bound, of course, to have some weak links, especially when—as in the post-raid and evacuation services—the functions of the central and local authorities were sharply different. Policy was settled at the centre, which also supplied all the money; but executive responsibility rested almost entirely on the local authorities. If direction was given by circular, the written word tended to depreciate in value as the war went on and more and more paper descended on local authorities from a growing number of Government departments. But if, on the other hand, departments relied on inspectors and local visits to provide direction and stimulation, the executive agencies were often burdened with too many conferences and inspections. They felt as thought they were being treated like bad boys who stopped work when the master’s back was turned. This, in fact, is what happened in some regions during 1941–2. The Ministry of Health—and other departments—who had generally left authorities alone in 1940, and had not followed up the results of policy directives, all awoke at about the same time in 1941 to the need for close supervision. The consequence was, as one senior regional officer remarked, ‘every service is now trying the schoolmaster trick in order to get priority for itself and the result if worse than before’.
So far as the services for homeless people were concerned, the situation was mainly the product of two factors. One was the unfortunate early history of these services; their association with the poor law, the uncertainties over finance, the lack of thought about the social results of air attack on the civilian population. The second was the existence of great differences in the executive ability and quality of the work of local authorities. The effect of the first factor on these different standards of performance was to accentuate them in relation to the post-raid services; in other words, the bad authorities became worse, while the good ones, seeing policy at the centre being tuned to a low standard, were either complacent or marched ahead of the rest.
In the provinces, as well as in London, there were, in fact, immense differences in the way individual authorities fulfilled their responsibilities to homeless people. A number showed initiative, resourcefulness, and considerable powers of recovery from repeated raids. One such authority was Hull. In November 1940 this was the only county borough in the provinces that was operating a central source of assistance and information for the victims of air raids. It was also one of the few cities to pay a lot of attention to the individual problems of homeless people. An efficient regional office of the
Ministry of Health, and recurrent raids which helped to keep these problems constantly before the authority, no doubt contributed to the achievements of the local services in Hull.36
The authorities of many cities were often good in some departments of their work, but bad in others. Liverpool had an efficient billeting department which, at one period, was placing people in homes at the rate of nearly 40,000 a week; its other services such as rest centres and information were, however, not nearly so good. During 1941, the average standard of performance improved among all the post-raid services in those cities which had learnt be experience what air attack meant. But one persistent weakness remained. It was prominent in Southampton, Plymouth and other places. The local authorities almost always made the mistake of not calling for help soon enough. Sometimes, the regional officers also gained an impression, when they arrived on the scene, that their help was not really welcomed. This happened with both efficient and inefficient authorities. One or two—for example, Birmingham—thought they were so good that no improvement was possible. Local independence had to be jealously guarded, and the intrusion of Regional Commissioners was in a few instances either just tolerated or openly resented.
During the winter of 1940–1 the Civil Defence Committee of the War Cabinet devoted a good deal of attention to this problem of local government. It first arose over the administrative defects shown by West Ham and Stepney, and then by Southampton when the Regional Commissioner asked for ‘definite authority’ … to coordinate and direct’.37 But Mr. Morrison, the Minister of Home Security, did not agree that a local authority, when badly hit, should be superseded by the Commissioner. It might, he said, discourage them in their efforts at self-help, and nothing should be done to weaken the sense of local responsibility.
The raids of April and May 1941, particularly those on Plymouth, revived the question. One observer, who had seen Plymouth burning, recorded his views on local government in these words: ‘Local authorities did not profit from each other’s experience; neither regional headquarters nor Whitehall succeeded in conveying to them the need for a bigger, swifter, more efficient preventive organisation; small air raids had the unfortunate effect of making many satisfied with inadequate civil defence; the peacetime system of slow committee rule,
of red tape, of endless letter writing between London, regional headquarters and the periphery has shown itself an absolute danger to human life’. The impediment of local boundaries should be removed, this critic said, by the pooling of certain public services on a regional basis. Elderly, inefficient and obstructive aldermen, councillors and local officials should be invited to make way for younger men.38
Once again, the relations between the central departments, the Regional Commissioners, and the local authorities were examined. But the Government maintained its view of the situation; radical changes would produce more difficulties than they would cure. Apart from an amendment to a defence regulation in July 1941, which gave the Government full power to direct a local authority to take action to meet the consequences of air attack,39 the position remained substantially the same.
All authorities were informed that the administrative and executive machinery which had been through the battles of 1940–1 would still continue. With this assurance, preparations were tightened for the following winter, and efforts were made to speed the restoration of community life in those cities which were still smarting from the blows of April and May 1941. Except for one or two unfortunate places like Hull, which, among large cities, had the distinction of being under fire for the longest period, the Germans allowed this work to go on unhindered.
In July 1941 a comprehensive document of thirty-nine pages, comprising reports from all departments on ‘Preparations for Heavy Air Attacks next Winter’, was studied by the War Cabinet. This looked at the war situation, the chances of invasion, the position of the ports, and the need to be prepared for renewed, and heavier, air attacks in September 1941. It gave close attention to the problem of coordinating the post-raid services, emphasised the importance of pacts of mutual assistance between local authorities in target and cushion areas, and described the action being taken, first, to build up mobile reserves and stocks of equipment and materials and, second, to expand the provision of services in agreement with policies already defined.40
The state of the post-raid services in the middle of 1941 was broadly as follows. In and around target areas in Britain there were about 14,000 rest centres (some specially equipped and staffed as medical
rest centres) providing for about five percent of the population of these areas. It was aimed to raise the proportion to eight percent by the winter. Yet even the five percent ratio gave accommodation to about 2,000,000 people. A year previously there had been room for some 670,000 people, and at the beginning of the war the figure had lain somewhere between 300,000–400,000. But a crude comparison of this kind does less than justice to the actual achievements of the winter of 1940–1. In quality of accommodation, in equipment, in staff, and in all the subtleties of a more humane approach to people in distress, the rest centres of 1941 had nothing in common with those of September 1940.
In Scotland, the development of the various post-raid services was very similar to that in England and Wales, both as regards policy and financial arrangements.41 It was not, however, until Glasgow and Clydebank raids of March 1941 that many local authorities, whose preparations had lagged, began to take an active interest in the work. The next few months witnessed, as in England and Wales, intensive efforts to apply the lessons of air attack. The Scottish Department of Health established four flying squads to assist local authorities in operating information and rest centres, the work of inspection and supervision was increased, exercises, rehearsals, and courses of staff training were started, equipment was improved and schemes of mutual aid between authorities were planned.
Towards the end of 1941 a survey was made of the state of readiness of the emergency relief organisation, as it was called in Scotland. This showed that there were over 2,700 rest centres staffed by about 60,000 voluntary workers42 and providing accommodation for 300,000 homeless people. These were backed by 220 information centres, sited, for the most part, in libraries, schools and halls, with an enrolment of 5,000 volunteers. The billeting organisation of the local authorities comprised some 9,000 officers. In comparison with the vague and inadequate schemes of 1939–40 all the services in Scotland eventually reached a high standard; but, apart from one raid on Aberdeen in April 1943, their operational efficiency was never seriously tested after the spring of 1941.
To supplement rest centre accommodation in and around certain towns with no large urban hinterland—or cushion area—in England, Wales and Scotland a number of hut hostels were erected. The object of this measure was twofold. First, to aid the clearance of rest centres in the event of heavy attacks and, secondly, to provide temporary
shelter for groups of workers, and their families, who had been rendered homeless and who were essential to the docks and to the renewal of the economic life of the bombed area. It was decided in May 1941, when these plans were drawn up, to provide for 200,000 persons. An acute shortage of men and materials, accentuated in 1942 by the building programme for the American Forces, inflicted a succession of cuts. By October 1942, when hostels for 27,500 persons were ready, the scheme had been reduced from 200,000 to 45,000 places.43
The work of first aid repairs to war damaged houses was nearing completion by August 1941. Over the whole of Britain approximately ninety-four percent of the houses had been dealt with, most of them receiving first aid only. In all, roughly 2,110,000 houses had been damaged or destroyed in England, Wales and Scotland by 19th June 1941.44 The number destroyed and damaged beyond repair amounted to 113,000, while another 200,000 or more were so seriously damaged as to be uninhabitable without extensive repairs. London region accounted for sixty percent of all damage and destruction, the provinces and Wales thirty-nine percent, and Scotland for just over one percent.
As housing damage had proved to be for the civilian population the most important consequence of air attack, the provision of temporary shelter and, later, of repaired houses or fresh accommodation, was the biggest post-raid task of local authorities. Second in importance, but first in order of time, was the need to provide food and drink immediately a raid had ceased. This need had been demonstrated very quickly in London and, as a result, new services were hurriedly improvised there. But in most of the heavily bombed provincial cities emergency feeding had been only vaguely and inadequately organised during the winter of 1940–1. After that crisis had passed, improvement was rapid. By August 1941, with the responsibilities of the Ministry of Food now clearly defined, arrangements were complete for emergency services in 148 of the larger towns, with a combined population of 20,000,000. These services consisted of mobile canteens and ‘emergency meals centres’ stocked with foodstuffs and solid fuel cooking equipment. The centres were established in schools and halls near the outskirts of towns, and were operated by the local authority under the direction of the Ministry of Food.45
Behind these lines of defence, a chain of cooking depots was being set up in the middle of 1941 outside seventy-two of the most important towns. Each depot could supply within four hours 3,000 hot
meals for distribution in insulated containers anywhere within a twenty-mile radius. Many of these depots were ready to operate by the end of August 1941.
While these plans were being pushed forward, substantial progress was also being made among the other branches of the post-raid services. So many cities and town in Britain had been heavily bombed at least once that they were at last convinced of the need to plan and prepare in advance. The details of the provision eventually made in every target area of the country are not essential to this narrative. The general lines on which the various services were developed have already been described elsewhere in this chapter and in the preceding one on London.
A study of many reports for 1941 and 1942 shows that there was still much local variation in the quantity and quality of the post-raid schemes. Nor had many provincial areas reached the standard of services achieved in London by July 1941. Nevertheless, in practically every area the arrangements were incomparably better than those which did duty in the winter of 1940–1. The country was now prepared, up to the limits imposed by the shortages of men and materials, for another assault by the enemy on the civilian population.