A is for… Anderson Shelters

The British government began thinking about how to protect the civilian population in the event of an enemy attack as early as the 1920s.[1] However, development stalled as no designed could be created that provided protection against blast and gas. While the Munich Agreement of 30 September 1938 between Germany, the UK, and France presented a way to prevent another major war,  it was widely known that the threat of war had only merely been postponed, rather than gone completely. By the mid-1930s stories had already filtered in to Britain from civil-war-torn Spain and China, in which air attacks on civilians had been carried out. It was agreed that solutions had to be found to proved at least some protection against bomb blasts.

Air-raid shelter in London, 1940. Mrs Alice Prendergast has planted her vegetables on top of the shelter, and now has lettuce, beetroots and marrows growing.

Designed in 1938, and named after Sir John Anderson, who had been placed in charge of air-raid preparations by Neville Chamberlain’s Cabinet, the Anderson shelter was a type of air-raid shelter designed for use in the garden. Anderson was a scientist turned politician who led the Ministry of Home Security. Their responsibility covered all central and regional civil defence organisations, including Air Raid Wardens, rescue squads, fire services and the Women’s Voluntary Service.[2]

Anderson commissioned the engineer William Patterson to design a small and cheap shelter that could be easily erected be civilians in their gardens. Designed to accommodate up to six people, the government supplied them free to low income families who earned less than £250 a year. Later, they would also sell them to wealthier people, at a charge of £7. The first Anderson shelter was erected in a garden in Islington, London, on 25 February 1939.[3] 1.5 million Anderson shelters were distributed in the months immediately leading up to the outbreak of the war.[4] During the war a further 2.1 million were erected, and when production ended, 3.6 million had been produced.

An Anderson shelter in London remains intact amidst destruction and debris, after a land mine fell a few yards away. The three people that had been inside the shelter were not hurt.

Made from curved sheets of steel bolted together at the top, they were intended purely as an emergency protection during air raids. In practice, at the height of bombing raids, it was not uncommon for them to be used every night. When covered with earth the shelters would give some protection from shell fragments and bomb splinters because of their corrugation.

Very few Anderson shelters have survived since the Second World War. Only fifteen near-standard shelters remain in their original position. Other shelters have been moved, rebuilt or used for other purposes, or only survived because they were clad in concrete. If you would like to visit one of these original Anderson shelters, you can find a list of where they are here: https://www.andersonshelters.org.uk/index.html

Side note: Other types of air-raid shelters in Britain

There were many other ways the people of Britain sheltered from air-raids, here are some more:

Morrison Shelters – European houses often had cellars, however this was far less common for British houses. With Anderson shelters only suitable for those who had gardens, another design for a shelter had to be developed. This led to the design of a cage-like construction that could be used inside the home. Named Morrison shelters, they came in self assembly form and the householder had to bolt them together. Each pack held a whopping 359 parts, and three tools were supplied.[5] Approximately half a million Morrison shelters were distributed by the end of 1941, and a further 100,000 in 1943.

Communal Shelters – Another issue was protecting members of the public who may be on the streets, or in public spaces, when an air raid sounded. Beginning in March 1940, a programme of street communal shelters was established, intended to accommodate up to fifty people.[6] Not only rather unsafe, due to the fact that they were surface shelters, problems with quality control during their hurried construction meant that some failed to provide the protection that had been expected. Although the design was improved, they became very unpopular, and remained so throughout the war.

The Underground as a Shelter – Many Londoners opted to use the tunnels and platforms of the underground stations, as they felt safer deeper underground. Initially, the government ministers had not been keen on the idea, but eventually stations were fitted with bunks for 22,000 people, supplied with first aid facilities and toilets.[7] 124 canteens opened as part of the tube system, and shelter marshals were appointed to keep order, during the hours spent inside. An estimated 170,000 people shelter in the tunnels and stations of London across the war years.

[1] RAF Museum, ‘Air Raid Shelter Protection,’ last accessed 2 April 2021, https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/online-exhibitions/history-of-the-battle-of-britain/air-raid-shelter-protection/

[2] Martin Stanley, ‘Anderson Shelter History,’ last accessed 2 April 2021, https://www.andersonshelters.org.uk/history.html

[3] Ibid

[4] RAF Museum, ‘Air Raid Shelter Protection,’ last accessed 2 April 2021, https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/online-exhibitions/history-of-the-battle-of-britain/air-raid-shelter-protection/

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[Image 1] Air Raid Shelters in London, 1940, Imperial War Museum (IWM), last accessed 2 April 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205070170

[Image 2] Air Raid Precautions dog at work in Poplar, London, England, 1941, IWM, last accessed 2 April 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205198906

[Image 3] Morrison Shelter on Trial: Testing the new indoor shelter, 1941, IWM, last accessed 2 April 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205198002

[Image 4] RAF Museum, ‘Air Raid Shelter Protection,’ last accessed 2 April 2021, https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/online-exhibitions/history-of-the-battle-of-britain/air-raid-shelter-protection/

[Image 5] The London Underground as air raid shelter, London, England, 1940, last accessed 2 April 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205192916

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