Continuing our series of blogs called ‘Behind the Episode’. Our resident aviation expert, Kirsty, will be looking further into the real history threaded throughout our audio drama, particularly the aircraft featured in each episode.
“Put that light out! Put that light out! an enemy plane could see that fire for miles.”
With these caustically delivered words ARP Warden Hodges angrily berated Captain Mainwaring, whose platoon had inadvertently set fire to the church hall chimney, ironically whilst trying to help the wardens. It was a refrain that was to become all to familiar to fans of Dad’s Army, whilst Warden Hodges zealously went about his duty to ensure that not a chink of light was visible in the environs of Walmington-on-Sea in the hours after dark. And it would have been a not dissimilar scene acted out every night throughout Britain in the dark, dark years of WWII.
The Government actually imposed a total blackout throughout the United Kingdom on 1st September 1939, two days before hostilities were declared. As Warden Hodges had touched upon above, the aim was to deprive enemy bombers of anything that might provide an aid to navigation. All households were issued with blackout materials and were required to ensure that all windows and skylights were blanked out after sunset. Typically, thick dark cotton fabric, wooden boards or paint were used to comply with the regulations, with many offices or households fashioning blinds that could be quickly set up and fastened in place.
To stop light flooding out when one entered a shop, storekeepers were often obliged to install double doors, customers having to ensure that they had closed one door before opening the next. It was a similar situation at cinemas where, because it was so dark at the pay kiosk, seasoned film goers would invariably arrive with the exact fee already counted out. When outside, people were forbidden to smoke, strike matches or use a torch or any other form of light. Needless to say, the lighting of fires was also prohibited.
Initially all streetlights were switched off and cars were only allowed to drive using sidelights. Not surprisingly, in the first few months of the war, the number of road deaths doubled, forcing the authorities to relax some of the regulations. Cars were permitted to drive on dipped headlights but had to be fitted with slit masks, indicators and brake lights had to be dimmed and reversing lights were banned. To make the cars easier to be seen, bumpers and running boards were required to be painted with matt white paint. To assist nocturnal drivers in finding their way about, white lines were painted down the centre of roads and curbs were painted white.
The death toll on the roads continued to be high, forcing the government to reduce the night-time speed limit to 20mph. Pedestrians were warned to keep away from the edge of the pavement and where possible to only cross the road at a proper crossing. Men were encouraged to wear light coloured shirts and keep their shirttails outside of their trousers to aid visibility.
Trains were also completely blacked out to such an extent that it was not always possible to detect the arrival of a train at a platform. With stations in complete darkness, passengers frequently disembarked at the wrong location or even got out at no station at all. Like street curbs, the edges of station platforms were painted white, but the blackout resulted in many accidents.
It was officially recognised that the dark conditions made young girls and women particularly vulnerable and they were cautioned to take extra care and where possible, avoid being out on their own. Needless to say, the blackout served the criminal fraternity well, with households being particularly vulnerable due to Air Raid regulations. These required all doors to be left unlocked at night so that if a house was bombed rescuers could gain easy access to deal with casualties.
The task of enforcing the rigorous blackout regulations was entrusted to ARP Wardens, like Shuttlefield’s Mr Martin. The Air Raid Wardens Service was established in 1937 when the call had gone out for 800,000 volunteers. Such was the growth in the threat, however, that by the start of the War some 1,000,500 people were involved in ARP services.
Typically, a warden would be allocated to each street and would conduct continuous rounds to ensure that all statutes were being rigorously observed. They were not afraid to angrily identify any household in violation of the rules, so that neighbours were left in no doubt as to who had put their lives at risk. “No. 7, put that light out!”
Those flouting the regulations could expect to face the full force of the law, a stiff fine being the normal penalty. In addition to these duties Wardens were expected to keep a watch out for incendiary bombs and assist with the aftermath of air raids. Such duties included clearing streets where there were unexploded bombs, assisting with the evacuation of casualties from bomb damaged properties, finding temporary accommodation for displaced persons and coordinating the activities of the rescue services. These were dangerous duties and during the War at least 7,000 Wardens lost their lives.
As to whether the blackout worked, historians now argue that this is unlikely as aircraft were able to navigate by focusing on things like railways, major roads and the reflection off large bodies of water. What it did do, however, was to instil in the civilian population a common purpose and a rule structure that enabled them to cope with privations of that grim time.