Emergencies, by their very nature, cannot be predicted. However, the likelihood of disaster always threatens to befall us. Weather channels erupt with blizzards, cyclones, tornadoes and flooding. Fires strike with or without the presence of lightning, but with its immediacy and apparent randomness. Plant closings, job losses, and real estate foreclosures produce more indicators but their implementation may still take us by surprise.
Humans are not the only animals with the ability to prepare for lean times. We create codes and processes in preparation for many instances which will never arrive. We institutionalize responses to emergencies by creating and staffing public services such as firefighters, police, and emergency medical personnel. The entire Department of Defense – in effect, the entire governmental system – exists to provide help in times of need.
Prediction of a state of emergency seems easy during a war, but with what effects? Interruptions to services and sleep are expected, but bombs follow no predictable pattern or schedule. Armies change tactics and weapons. Citizens prepare for one threat and are faced with another, from a totally unexpected corner. Rationing of gasoline and rubber might be anticipated to provide troops with needed resources for mobility, but who would have guessed that silk for stockings would have been sheared for use in parachutes during WWII, or that spices would become impossible to obtain since boats from the sources of such staple goods as salt and pepper – India, China, France – were sunk?
The most inspirational examples of community resilience persist in stories of London during the Blitz. For eight months, between September 1940 and May 1941, few nights passed without aerial bombardments. Although casualties were predicted at the start of the war to tally over 1 million people, civilian deaths numbered about 67,000 throughout the Commonwealth[i], a significant reduction from the initial prediction.
How did Londoners protect their lives and city without succumbing to the temptation to flee, or give up hope? Resourceful and responsive citizen volunteers minimized disruptions and furnished essential services. Wardens of the Air Raid Precautions Service (A.R.P.) were organized in posts located every few blocks in London; their familiarity with the buildings, resources, and people in their ward were critical for the initial tasks of registering residents and distributing gas masks. During bombing raids wardens patrolled in pairs to maintain blackout conditions, escort people to shelter, douse incendiary bombs, perform upkeep on public shelters, and rescue people after air raids. The 1.4 million volunteers’ service was personal, protective, local, and relied on close acquaintance with their neighbors.
Not every job depended on volunteers, but every job supported either war or recovery. The Ministry of Works’ primary task was to keep industry functioning, making essential repairs to factories after bombings, often within one or two weeks. Their “Special Repair Service” teams completed structural repairs to private buildings and also built new structures, travelling in “Flying Squads” of caravans with their own supplies. Their self-sufficiency helped locals recover by leaving community resources for residents.
In damaged cities, life took on a new-found spontaneity and culture of adaptability. Taxi-drivers found new routes around bombed intersections, medical aides treated patients without benefit of much training, and communications were handled by everyone: Army signalers, volunteer radio operators, even teenagers on bicycles. When shops were bombed, shopkeepers moved their stock to an intact spot without concern for the niceties of ownership or lease. A wartime columnist told of an unusual sharing of resources, “It was funny to see raw sirloins of beef being carried from one stately club, which was temporarily cut off from the gas supply, to another equally stately establishment, which had offered the hospitality of its old-fashioned coal ranges….”[ii] The expectation of continuity demanded no less.
Although clearing up after bombings took time, billeting for people who had lost their homes was handled immediately – sometimes with friends and family, but often with strangers far from home. Sir John Anderson who designed British evacuation schemes beginning in the summer of 1938, divided the country into three areas: sending areas – urban districts where heavy bombing raids could be expected; neutral areas that would neither send nor take evacuees; and receiving areas – rural districts where evacuees would be sent. Although families on both sides were concerned that “compulsory billeting would be far worse than war,” bedrooms were requisitioned and filled with little consideration for preference or proclivity. Urban dwellers were encouraged to arrange with friends and relatives in other parts of the city to provide shelter in case of emergency… and a temporary lodging allowance was paid as an incentive. Throughout the war very few people slept rough, without a shelter of some kind.
There were three factors that supported resiliency in the city while under terrible duress: the urban form, intimate knowledge of one’s neighbors and surroundings, and redundant and scalable solutions for sheltering.
Great redundancy was built into the city. Underground transport was independent from the interconnected network of streets above ground. Neighborhoods were small enough that people could get from home to work on foot or bicycle. Land use patterns distributed factories and stores throughout the city so that no single area was a primary target. The tremendous number of structures lowered the odds of any one being hit. (The density did cause collateral damage through bomb attacks and resultant fires, but access to firefighting services was close at hand.[iii])
Winston Churchill exhorted the House of Commons on 8 October 1940, “We must so arrange that, when any district is smitten by bombs which are flung about at utter random, strong, mobile forces will descend on the scene in power and mercy to conquer the flames, as they have done, to rescue sufferers, provide them with food and shelter, to whisk them away to places of rest and refuge, and to place in their hands leaflets which anyone can understand to reassure them that they have not lost all, because all will share in their material loss, and in sharing it, sweep it away.”[iv]
People – volunteers, civilians, and the military willing to undertake intense and irregular work when confusion reigns – is the most effective component of preparedness. Peter Ackroyd writes in London: A Biography, “It is difficult fully to define that particular spirit, though it is clear that Londoners made a deliberate effort to seem unafraid, and that this self-control may have sprung from an instinctive unwillingness to spread the contagion of panic. After all, what if this city of eight million people were to regress into hysteria?”
Finally, there were multiple options for dodging bombs, from as close as the dining table or only as far as the Tube stop. There were Morrison shelters, a steel-topped table with mesh sides and a sprung base to become a bed at night. Distributed in kits of 359 pieces and three assembly tools, over 500,000 of these were used during the war. They measured 6’-6” by 4’ long, and could accommodate two adults and a child, or more people if necessary. They were designed to be placed on the lowest level of a structure, and could withstand the force of “substantial debris” falling without collapse.
TheAnderson shelter was the popular backyard version, which could house six people on narrow benches. In the simplest installation, a rectangular area was excavated, corrugated metal shaped into a protective half-oval and covered with earth, and the metal ends reinforced with sandbags. These had the benefit of being virtually indistinguishable from the gardens and yards from the air, after a few months of vigorous plant growth. They had the severe disadvantage of trapping groundwater and condensation, often soaking the blankets and supplies placed within them for safekeeping.
If people were in transit, there were Communal Shelters available. Often located in church crypts, apartment cellars, or other available spaces, they were rudimentary spaces that could house 10 to 50 people. They offered no more than benches or a floor space, with sandbagged entrances. They were not designed for to meet any specific structural resistance, but were pressed into service as an alternative to being caught outside with no protection. The communal shelters that housed the greatest number of citizens were the London Underground stations. Many stations opened after 9 pm every night, and were outfitted with bunks, clinics, canteens, toilets, and entertainment. Many people staked their claims early to spaces along the walls, but space was at such a premium that hammocks were strung across the tracks after trains shut down for the night. The nightly ablutions, hair rollers, bedtime stories and children’s pajamas became as much a routine in public as they had been at home.
And when the barrages were over but the war was not yet won, “The city seemed to resume its normal course, with its postmen and bus-drivers and milkmen and errand boys, but there was the strangest feeling of ennui or despondency after the spectacular damage of the Blitz.”[v] Years of preparation were complete, and the enemy diverted. Evacuees returned home, and people became complacent about the air-raid and all-clear signals.
Becoming prepared is only half the battle – remaining so may be the more difficult task. It is difficult to sustain the energy necessary for constant preparation over a long time period. When emergency supplies are not activated for a while, we break into the storerooms or fail to set aside additional resources. We lose our exhilaration at the prospect of another shift at the volunteer post. We enumerate the difficulties of evacuating versus the comforts of remaining home, even when threats are nearby. When faced with crisis after crisis, we suffer from disaster fatigue, and find it difficult to evaluate the relative strength of one threat against another which passed with no consequences. Even with unceasing reminders from television and media, we forget the past.
It is only through constant interaction with other people – trusted friends, neighbors, colleagues – that coercion works. Their behaviour impacts our own, and we model our actions to mimic theirs. We fill bathtubs and water jugs before storms, shop for bread and peanut butter, stock candles and batteries. Told over and over about the severity of the storm, we will only evacuate if urged by those we trust, because we see only the trouble of the endeavor, and not the potential for deliverance.
[i] Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
[ii] Panter-Downes, Good Evening, Mrs. Craven.
[iii] Except during the Second Great Fire of London, on 29-30 December 1940, when the German Army waited for the River Thames water levels to shrink to uncharacteristically low levels and dropped 10,000 incendiary bombs. Resiliency, in this case, depended upon water… which wasn’t there.
[iv] Mitchell, Blitz Spirit.
[v] Ackroyd, London: The Biography.