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The Blackout 1940

Discussion in 'The Home Front' started by Jim, Nov 1, 2010.

  1. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Published in The Daily Express May 1940

    The first new dance of the war, the 'Blackout Stroll' was designed specially for 'You ladies called "wallflowers", fated to sit out all the dances, because perhaps 'your face isn't your fortune'. The idea was that, as darkness fell on the dance-floor, the wallflowers would have a chance to bloom by grabbing someone else's partner. The dance didn't catch on. The blackout-top of everyone's list of grievances in every survey did not drive cares but people up the pole. 'The blackout depresses me frightfully. I was alone the other night in a strange town and I felt like sitting down in the middle of the road and weeping', said one Lancashire schoolteacher.

    The white line lady, Mrs Rhoda Diaper at work in Kensington, her task was to paint the town white as a deterrent to blackout crashes, and trees and poles also got the treatment.

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    Saving Lives or Causing Deaths?

    It was more than depressing: people walked off the edge of station platforms, into canals, through glass roofs. At the very least they cannoned into unfamiliar piles of sand bags-and each other. One in five of the population claimed, in the first February of the war, to have suffered some injury in the process. Many of the staggering total of 3,000 deaths on the roads in the first three months of war were the direct result of air-raid precautions Hitler, said some cynics, had found a cheap way to win the war. The blackout was more than a physical experience: it was total social upheaval, and a cause of bitter resentment. In a large factory you may never see daylight from November to March. You arrive in the dark; the windows are permanently painted black; and you leave in the dark. Each night, you step out of your factory or office into an alien, dangerous place. For the first moments in the street there is nothing-just the sound of shuffling figures and vehicles in first gear. In the first weeks of war a girl goes to prison for a month for flashing a torch in a policeman's face. A Buckinghamshire driver, whose radiator bursts, washing the black paint from his headlamps, is fined 15/- (75p). 'I loathe every warden, and would like to murder them' declared one normally mild-tempered lady civil servant.

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    The Daily Chore

    At home, the task of mounting the daily blackout was boringly repetitive: a relentless chore with a black cloth, paste and pins. The least chink of light brought the warden round with a bang to the door-then often as not' opened to let the full flood of the hall light into the street. Once safely back home, often after tedious, train journeys lit only by blue bulbs (too dark to read by), few had the inclination to venture out again. 'Listening in' became the nation's major evening pursuit. For those who had to work at night, there were special perils. The marshalling yards, a nightmare of clanking wagons being sorted from point A to point B in almost total darkness, were among the worst places to be. Bus conductors, who had to make up shortages in their change from their own pockets at the end of the day, were plagued by passengers offering copper instead of silver. A few members of the working population did prosper in the gloom; the story was told of the man who asked a prostitute how much he owed her after a blackout encounter, 'Half a crown', she told him. 'That's not much,' said the client, surprised. 'Well', came the reply, 'I manage all right, what with my old age pension.' Others who managed all right by night included a semi-mythical army of cat stealers which the Daily Express took seriously enough to warn its readers against on October 23, 1939: 'Watch your cats, thieves are busy'. Persian's in particular were at risk, it seemed. And rumour had it that if the skins were finding their way to the fur trade, the remainder was turning up as margarine or worse: 'They do say there is cats in pies.' Animals at large were certainly in peril: at least one New Forest pony that persisted in roaming the streets of Ringwood was given a warning coat of white paint. Indeed motoring in the country, though it was the town dweller that never ceased to complain of the horrors of urban motoring was probably a greater strain on the nerves. At least the town dwellers had painted kerbs to guide them, or at least to bump into. The countryside was a matter of winding lanes, black sign posts, and a ditch on each side.

    The whole nation was intensively prepared for the blackout, the picture below shows a Leicester Street over a year before war broke out in a trial run to paint the town white.

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    Growing Resentment

    Had Hitler done what he had been supposed to, mount an immediate air attack, the blackout would have seemed meaningful. As it was, resentment spiralled against the authorities that kept the grim affliction going. The ARP wardens took the brunt of it: 'Three quid a week's too much for just playing cards and such like for them buggers', maintained one man. Others blamed the government directly; all very well to plunge the civilian population into darkness, but what else was the administration doing? The children had been evacuated, the lights had been turned off, so when was the fighting going to start?

    A contemporary cartoonist tries to look on the bright side of the blackout.

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    In Paris and Berlin, the British knew, the lights were on. Although gasmasks were, within weeks, vanishing from the shoulders of the population (and piling up unclaimed in lost luggage offices) the blackout stuck. True, small chinks appeared in it: shopkeepers won permission for glow-worm lighting; pedestrians were allowed to strike matches and carry torches in the street; candles began to flicker again in churches around Christmas time. But as a wet blanket on normal life, the blackout had come to stay. As a result, moonlit nights figured on everyone's calendar both as a threat and a delight. 'Nice day for the blitzkrieg' people would say, as the sky cleared and the moon rose and the 'Bombers Moon' was soon enough to join the 'Harvest Moon' as a seasonal phenomenon.

    One of the many posters put out by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, who turned out four or five new designs each month. The artist, G. R. Morris, specialised in a surrealist approach. Other posters, produced after a national glut of carrots, promised that carrots would help you see in the dark.

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    But on the clear moon lit nights of the phoney war, people ventured out nonetheless:

    'Down the inky avenue,
    Inky, pinky, parlez vous,
    You'll find your way
    Doing the Blackout Walk, Oi!'
     
  2. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    All the blacked out headlamps below were photographed in a single car park in November 1939, and none of them matched the official requirements. Most were illegal. Conflicting and ever changing regulations bedevilled the blackout business.

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  3. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    A factory in Leeds turns from making signs to hammering out the proper government approved headlamps

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  4. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    And when the lights were back on ... :silly:

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