WW2: The Blackout

During World War 2, the Blitz was one of the German military’s most devastating attacks on Britain, killing 32,000 civilians and seriously injuring a further 87,000 people. The sustained bombing raids on major cities, ports and manufacturing centres between 1940 and 1941 destroyed two million houses, 60% of which were in London.

The terrifying air raids by the German Luftwaffe began on the evening of 7th September 1940, at around 5pm, when the eerie sound of the air raid sirens wailed out across London. This was the first of a series of almost nightly air attacks on the capital that continued until May 1941.

Looking through window

© Public Domain

On the first night alone, London was attacked by more than 350 German bombers, who dropped 300 tonnes of bombs on the docks and surrounding streets in the east end. The aircraft had set off from French airfields, which had been under German occupation since May 1940.


What was the Blackout?

Even before the Blitz officially began, the Blackout plans had been set out in the Air Raid Precautions’ training literature, Public Information Leaflet No 2, when the war started in September 1939.

As the Luftwaffe attacked the capital and other cities night after night, imposing a total blackout became increasingly important. It was the practice of minimising artificial light to hinder the enemy aircraft and prevent them from seeing their targets. The technique was used mainly during the London Blitz, but it was also imposed in coastal regions to help protect ships from being seen by enemy aircraft and submarines.

At the beginning of WW1, aircraft such as the BE2 were used mainly for reconnaissance, discovering where the enemy was based behind the trenches. The main threat to the Home Front came from submarines during the Great War.

By the time of WW2, aircraft had become devastating fighting machines but fortunately they weren’t equipped with the sat nav technology used in the 21st century. People today might not realise how primitive the aircrafts’ location devices were during WW2.

There were maps in existence, of course, but it was a challenge for pilots not to veer off course if they didn’t have visible landmarks to show them the way. It was widely known that navigation and targeting would be much more difficult if the artificial lights on the ground were dimmed.


What did people have to do in the Blackout?

Rather than make the British population live in darkness, lights could be switched on, as long as the windows and doors were blacked out. This was the case for residential and commercial buildings and factories.

People were required to totally black out their windows at sunset, using a variety of materials including heavy black curtains made of a suitably dense material, cardboard, or even black paint. The measures had to prevent even the smallest glimmer of light from escaping.

Peter Johnson, in an interview recorded for the website 1900s.org, recalled growing up during the war. His mother made their home’s blackout curtains from black material, which wasn’t rationed. He added, “Most housewives made their curtains on treadle sewing machines.”


What did it feel like to live in darkness?

The Blackout was one of the most unpopular aspects of the war, as it disrupted civilians’ regular activities and caused widespread grumbling. People complained it lowered their morale even further.

Shops and factories suffered their own particular problems. Factories often had a large area of glass roofing, where they couldn’t install temporary blackout panels, as it wasn’t physically possible. They had to resort to permanent methods such as black paint, thus losing natural light during daylight hours.

Enabling customers to enter and leave shops was a challenge in itself to avoid glimpses of light every time the door opened. Shopkeepers had to install double “airlock” doors, so customers could go through one door and wait for it to fully close before going through a second, thus avoiding the risk of any lights showing outside.


Were people watched to ensure they were following the rules?

The ARP men and women were responsible for making sure people followed the rules. They patrolled the streets after nightfall and if they spotted any lights from properties, they were tasked with telling the householder to adhere to the Blackout.

Offenders were breaking the law and were subject to legal penalties. The ARP wardens could report offenders to the local authority if even a small light was visible. This could lead to a court appearance, bringing shame on the family and a hefty fine.


What damage did the Blackout cause?

While the Blackout served its purpose of preventing the Luftwaffe pilots from seeing any landmarks or targets, it had a negative impact in many ways. People found it “confusing, frightening and dangerous” if they were outdoors in pitch darkness – which many people were, as they made their way home from work.

Road accidents increased and there were incidents where people had drowned after stumbling into a river or pond in the darkness. A newspaper report detailed how a rail passenger was seriously injured after stepping off the train during Blackout and falling over a viaduct in Denham, Buckinghamshire. Businesses faced problems of their own, especially factory workers, who never saw daylight. There were reports of employees feeling depressed and suffering low morale as a result.”

Employers endured higher electricity bills. Shopkeepers had the added financial burden of adapting their premises with the double doors to stop light escaping. Petty crime increased, in particular pickpocketing and crop theft from people’s vegetable patches.


How long did the Blackout last?

Regardless of how unpopular these measures were, the Blackout lasted until the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, when Germany was finally defeated. However, the rules were relaxed slightly in September 1944, when the government permitted lighting could be used at night if it was no brighter than the equivalent of moonlight. However, the full blackout measures were imposed if the air raid alert sounded.

It was a relief to civilians when the full street lighting came back on in 1945, after more than five years of darkness. The end of the Blackout was symbolised for Londoners when the mighty Big Ben clock was again illuminated to signal the end of Britain’s darkest days.

Automatic Access wishes to thank those brave people who served in any capacity during the war. As a mark of respect, we will be observing the 2-minutes silence on the 11th November. We will remember them.