Ready for war – June 1939

It’s Monday 19th June 1939.

Sir John Anderson and his colleagues have found a vantage point to watch an event of national significance. Down below something out of the ordinary is occurring.

Crowds are gathering to watch and to take  part.

Notices are posted.

A bunch of girls are getting out of school early.

Children of all ages are on their way somewhere.

Now they’re being organised and labelled. But this is not a real evacuation.

They’re being marched off again down the King’s Road. It’s all go.

This was an event for adults as well.

Buses had been hired for the day.

Casualties had been organised for the volunteer members of the emergency services.

It’s all an exercise of course at this stage. These casualties are only pretending.

Regional and national newspapers reported this event in some detail. According to the reports about 7,500 people took part in the biggest Air Raid Precautions test the country had ever seen. Children and adults marched to 125 shelters in the Chelsea area. Virtual shelters that is, chalked off areas to stand in and designated pubs. 400 wardens shepherded the crowds through the streets. 5000 children from 21 schools were taken to underground stations and then taken away again. Sirens were sounded for extra realism. As the streets were cleared “an unnatural silence fell” according to the Times, broken only by a loudspeaker announcement that the bombers were only seven or eight minutes away. A rocket was launched to give witnesses some idea of the noise of bombs falling. “A few idlers” refused to take shelter but at least kept still. Some flyers were distributed calling for real shelters to be built as opposed to the conceptual versions of this event. Buses, cars and taxis parked by the kerb. Some virtual bomb damage was made up for the purposes of the exercise and the casualties were escorted to the first aid post at Chelsea Library (In Manresa Road in those days). My colleagues at the library filled 5 small scrapbooks with cuttings from newspapers ranging from the Evening Standard to the Belfast Telegraph.

The people involved in the exercise are serious but not solemn.  People seem to be enjoying the event.

There’s very little sense of anxiety in these pictures.

From this distance in time I can’t get imagine what it was like for the people of London to be getting ready for a war which would be fought in their own city as well as in Europe. Did they know what was coming? Did they believe that the exercise of June 1939 was a realistic picture of what lay ahead?

The next picture is not of an exercise. It’s about a year later.

The men in the picture are not pretending to search for survivors.

Now go back to the picture of the woman putting up the sign. You’ll see her again wearing a coat and a helmet getting some instructions from a man not unlike Mr Lansdell, (he’s second from the left in the picture below). She might be on the far right of the group of women running. And she’s here on a roof in 1941. Now she’s an ARP warden in the real war.


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