For Sale - Indoor Air Raid Shelters (16 May 1975)
I was rummaging in our barn the other day when I came across an old camp bed. Not that anybody would ever use it for camping; its wooden frame and folding legs were far too heavy for that. But it was still in good order, except for the canvas, which needed renewing.
Then I remembered how we came to possess it. I found the bed – and also a parrot cage – in the loft of a Water Eaton house we took over in September or October 1946, and which we occupied for about three years.
It had apparently been left there by the previous occupants, whose new whereabouts I did not know – they had left the district.
So I kept it for those occasions when we were over-full of visitors. Only later did I suspect that it might be a relic of the days when Bletchley was so packed with evacuees, park employees and bombed-out people that beds were issued to households that could not otherwise sleep them.
My suspicion is now a near-certainty, for I see that in the previous February a “sale of evacuation equipment” took place at the Council Offices.
Persons were limited to one article only of each class of equipment. On offer were 65 blankets in good condition, 15 soiled or damaged; 204 sheets in good condition; 60 pillow slips in good condition; 63 pillows all soiled; 110 mattresses in good condition, 9 damaged; and 15 camp beds in good condition, 37 damaged.
The blankets and sheets fetched around 15s each. And the camp beds sold for 4s each – “together with a useful piece of canvas that alone would be worth more.”
So had those other people bought the bed at the sale? Or do I owe the council 20p, plus 29 years’ interest? Or would the high director of finance rather have the bed on which occasionally to rest his undoubtedly weary head?
About that time Bletchley was busy trying to get the late war out of its hair.
There was the first of a series of requests that all unlicensed weapons should be handed in at police stations. Scores of German Luger automatic pistols and modern revolvers were handed in at Bletchley – most of them by ex-servicemen who had apparently scrounged them while overseas.
An unexpected offering was a wooden-stock pistol that had to be loaded by ramrod – an article more likely to have been a relic of the threatened Napoleonic invasion that that of 1940.
Then there was the question of the Morrison air-raid shelters. These were not like the better-known Anderson shelters, which were made of corrugated galvanised iron and were for use outside the house. They were cage-like contraptions for use indoors and were supposed to provide protection should the house fall down around the shelterers’ ears. They had saved lives in bombed parts of the country.
The council announced that householders could now purchase their Morrisons for 30s each. They said that, with suitable supports, they might make good sheds, though it would be necessary to obtain permission to erect one.
A number of people had already bought theirs, but there were still 165 outstanding somewhere in Bletchley and these would be collected at some time unless they had been paid for in the meantime.
There were also a few brick surface shelters held by householders. The council said these could now be used, or adapted or demolished by the householder as he thought fit – and at his own expense. The materials would become his own property.
Then there was the Defence Medal fiasco. Towards the end of the war the government decided it might be a good thing to acknowledge the war service rendered by civilians by awarding a special ribbon to members of the Civil Defence and the Fire Guard who had served at least three years. Troops who had served three years on Home Defence were also entitled to it.
The ribbon was coloured green (for the green fields of England), flame (for the blitz) and black (for the black-out).
Over 700 civilians in Bletchley were found to be entitled to wear it, but by the following May only 20 had applied.
In a drawer at the Council Offices reposed a roll of ribbon 36 yards long waiting for customers who never did turn up.
It was the same all over the country. A surprised government wondered why. The truth was that the ribbon carried little distinction when 6,999,999 other civilians were also entitled to it, to say nothing of the troops. At that moment all had only one desire – to put the war behind them and get on with what they were doing before they were interrupted.
As for the troops, there was a permanent order that all ribbons must be worn, but as the war went on this order came to be more honoured in the breach than in the observance in many units – and for much the same reason. Only a decoration or a string of at least five service and campaign ribbons carried any distinction.
In this connection I remember with affection our old unit major. The only ribbon he ever wore was his DCM of the first world war. This put him in a class of his own among all the younger colonels and majors of other units surrounding him and enabled him – with a wink and a nod – and ourselves to get round any amount of red tape for the speedier conclusion of the job in hand.