Preparing for the worst

Seventy years ago, the bombing Blitz on Britain was into its second week.

London remained the main target and amongst landmarks damaged on the night of September 18th 1940 were the world famous Lambeth Walk and the John Lewis department store on Oxford Street. While across the city, around 200 civilians were killed and 550 injured.

Bomb damage 1940

Bomb damage in central London, 1940 (Science Musuem / Science & Society)

Such daily figures were typical in a month that left nearly 6,000 Londoners dead. But although the numbers were horrific, they were a fraction of those planned for in the pre-War period. Things were expected to be much, much worse.

In 1938, renowned British scientist J.B.S. Haldane predicted up to 100,000 deaths in an opening raid on the capital, while the Royal Air Force expected 20,000 casualties daily once German bombing begun. Plans were made to set aside 750,000 hospital beds and stockpile up to a million coffins.

Gas drill 1934

London schoolchildren being taught how to use gas masks, November 1934 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The use of poisonous gas was also anticipated. Civilian gas drills had become increasingly common as war loomed and by 1940 around 38 million masks had been issued to the population – from babies to centenarians. 

Baby's gas mask

Baby's gas mask, c1939 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

As well as gas masks, our museum stores hold other reminders of this expected threat. For example, the small kit shown below was to familiarise Air Raid Wardens with the tell-tale odours of different gases. 

Poison gas ID kit

Poison gas identification kit issued during the Second World War (Science Museum)

As it was, the predicted civilian casualty figures for wartime Britain were wildly inaccurate. But then sustained, widespread aerial bombing of urban areas was – up until then – both an unknown quantity and a terrifying prospect. As post-war Prime Minister Harold Macmillan later remarked, “We thought of air warfare in 1938 rather as people think of nuclear warfare today”.

One thought on “Preparing for the worst

  1. Marcus de Mowbray

    My workshop was badly damaged by a bomb which totally destroyed the building next door. It is hard to imagine what it must have been like to live through the Blitz.

    Reply

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