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Gimme Shelter - The Backyard Bunker of World War II

Updated: Dec 30, 2019

On February 25th 1939 the first Anderson Shelter was erected in a garden in Islington. A government project to offer air raid protection to households that was remarkably resilient.

After Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Great Britain, returned from his infamous peace conference with Hitler in September 1938, he made his ill fated remark "peace in our time." Despite his buoyant public proclamation and hallowed "piece of paper" in November 1938 he appointed Sir John Anderson to head up Air Raid Precautions. Engineer William Patterson was commissioned to design a small and cost effective shelter that could be easily erected in people's gardens. It was one of the many preparations Chamberlain put into place as he accepted the inevitability of the gathering storm.

The first "Anderson shelter", as they came to be known, was erected in Islington, London on February 25th 1939. Between then and the outbreak of war in September that year 1.5million shelters were distributed. A further 1.2million during the war itself.

The shelters were composed of six curved corrugated galvanised steel sheets with two steel plates at either end. The sheets were bolted together and earth was packed on top. They could shelter six people and were surprisingly sturdy, owing to the corrugation of the metal, semi circular shape and end plates that were not fastened to enable flexibility. The shelters were then painted as well and some still survive up to today, with no rust or decay on the metal.

Anderson Shelters were provided free of charge to households with an income of less than £250 a year. Those earning more were charged £7.

The shelters were dark, damp and offered no protection for the noises of bombing raids. Families were advised to spend the night in the shelters, but most chose to only move to the shelter once the air raid siren sounded. The shelters often developed standing water on the floor and the tilt facilities were a bucket in the corner. Many families tried to make their shelters more appealing, there are many stories of people planting vegetables or flowers in the earth spread over the top of the shelter.

Most people living in industrial areas did not have a garden to erect a shelter. A 1940 survey found that only 27% of Londoners used an Anderson shelter, 9% used public shelters and 2% Underground stations. The rest were either working night duty or preferred to sleep in the comfort of their own homes, concluding that if they were to die, they would die in comfort. Some families even constructed their shelters within their homes using sandbags rather than earth.

After the war the Government collected up the shelters or sold them to the households for £1. Many were dug up and reused as workshops and sheds.

Some consider the Government made an error in not employing deep bomb proof public shelters like those constructed by Ramon Perera in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. British engineer Cyril Helsby had helped Perera escape to Britain in 1939 as Barcelona fell to Franco and they lobbied the British Government to employ the deep installations to no avail.

Instructions for the erecting of an Anderson Shelter are still available here. Although experts in the field do warn that World War II corrugated iron was around 2mm thick compared to the normal 0.7mm thick manufactured today.

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