By the late 1930s it was obvious that war with Germany was imminent. The government started to set up some form of defence for the civilian population. Under the heading A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) volunteers were trained as local wardens. Respirators or gas masks were produced for every adult, child or baby and different types of Air Raid Shelters were developed and constructed. The largest shelters were the public shelters found under parks, schools and other public buildings. In the middle years of the war plans were in motion to construct large "dormitory shelters" which would essentially become permanent homes for up to 3,000 Dockyard and other vital war workers, these were then developed to become underground hospitals which thankfully were never needed to maximum and today deep underground at Leigham, Plymouth close by the Asda supermarket: curtain rails still encircle the spot where a bed once stood. This site is cut within Cann Tunnel, built in the last century. A macabre find was a petrified fossilised rabbit!! The wail of the Siren became an unwelcome bedfellow. When a survivor of the Blitz is taken back underground today ,often it is as if they travel back in time and are transported back 50 years in an instant....they see the faces, they hear the Ack-Ack{Flak}, they feel the screaming whistle of a bomb....they are a child again living under dangerous skies.Bombsites still exist......producing the look of a house cleaved in half as does bomb fragmentation damage in the form of splinter marks in walls that on close scrutiny show a spider`s web of radiating splits and cracks. A common street lampost on close inspection shows heat and blast damage with pitting and supports a bent , melted ,and twisted sign even 50 years after the raid, and many a pavement too holds the splatter stain of the spit of a burning incendiary bomb. The wild desolate wilderness of Dartmoor at Hamel Down still sport anti-glider poles...some still topped with barbed wire to deter the enemy invading by air with airborne glider forces. Tragically the moor is littered with plane crash sites, mostly allied that fell foul of weather, faults, some distant enemy action, or just ran out of luck. This location is near Black Tor copse, south- west of Okehampton and is of a U.S. Liberator and claimed three lives.


Most of the public shelters date from 1939-1940. They were deep dugout trenches, normally laid out in an "H" shape series of connecting passageways. The trenches were reinforced, lined and roofed over with concrete. The excavated earth was used to infill on top. Many factories had their own shelters for their workers such as this Tungsten mine outside of Plymouth at Hemerdon,which still has it`s Blackout blinds in place as well as an air raid shelter running under it,..complete with sign.People would have to remain in the shelters until the All Clear was sounded. It is recorded that persons who spent long periods in these shelters could develop a medical condition known as "Air Raid Shelter sore throat."Lamposts were painted with white bands to help avoid people walking into them in the pitch black night. Kids would form themselves into innocent "Street Corner Gangs" and hide prized objects such as bits of shrapnel in the hollow bases of these lamposts. 


In this design liquid concrete is poured over a mould to form an arch.


This design consists of precast concrete sections with steel supports to give added strength.

Both types had toilet cubicles with chemical bucket toilets fitted with wooden seats. Escape hatches and ladders were provided in case the entrances were blocked by rubble. Normal entry was down a flight of stairs into an airlock (a curtained off area to guard against possible gas attack). Most shelter entrances had heavy curtains and sandbagged blast walls to protect against flying debris.
Once inside seating (if provided) normally consisted of wooden benches set into the wall. Most shelters had electric lamps installed and were outfitted with first aid, lighting and tools for emergency use. Some shelters had heating, bunkbeds and even canteen facilities. The walls would often be liberally covered in graffiti,such as this portrait of Mussolini

These people were just like us,but they endured hardships beyond our imagination. We should not forget the innocents in the enemy homelands too who suffered.

Public shelters range in size from small single units accommodating 50 people to large complexes of 5 or 6 interlocking units designed to accommodate up to 1,200 people. Most of the school shelters in Plymouth were built to accommodate 200 to 300 people.Some shelters are known as surface shelters and are basically 3 brick thick walled above ground bunkers,with a blast wall protecting the entrance. The escape hatch provides the weak link for entry today,being merely bricks set in builders sand. The accommodation inside consists of a single chamber seperated into two sections by a central blast wall.


At the end of the war these shelters were abandoned and quickly blocked up. Many of these wartime relics lie undisturbed under playgrounds and carparks until found by accident or building activity. Recently one such shelter was discovered and excavated at the old Devonport Technical School (on the site of the Plymouth College of Further Education). During the summer of 1992 the authorities at Plymouth CFE gave Steve Johnson permission to excavate a small grassy area behind the old Devonport Technical School. His diary records that recent dry summers had revealed a depression in the ground and a concrete "edge" was beginning to show through. Ten hours of careful digging and scraping revealed the top of a bricked up doorway. A small hole was made and the sound of a loosened brick falling back into the shelter made a satisfying solid echo as it hit the concrete floor below.

"Shining a torch in we could see the toilets and passageways, our eyes being the first eyes since the war to gaze upon the scene. Inch by inch the opening was enlarged until we could enter and stand in passageways and galleries which had lain empty for half a century.

We hung our hardhats on pegs where one the warden's steel helmet may have rested. Toilets, complete with wooden hinged seats, remain as well as the gas proof escape hatches and air lock curtains. A child's shoe long abandoned, wartime graffiti, the name of Bernard written on a toilet wall all brought back the ghosts of the past.

At the end of the tunnel section was a false wall - testament to the day when the shelter was damaged in an air raid - and where part of it was sealed off. Two reported fatalities and many injuries so who knows what may lay behind the wall. Perhaps one day we will find out!" As often we have done a time capsule of modern trivia which we left behind,sealed within the shelter for future generations.[Contents..gas bill,coke cans,condoms,newspapers,coins small toys,photos and letters.}

Steve Johnson, Excavation Diary 1992



1/ World War II graffiti found in the Underground Air Raid Shelter at Sutton High School and also the shrub verge at Lower Street, both Plymouth. Done by schoolchildren from Primary to Grammar age, they are a stunning window into the past. Files are 900k at most. HITLER, CHURCHILL, GOERING, HITLER, MUSSOLINI, "PLUCKED NAZI EAGLE," BATTLESHIP, HEINKEL, HEINKEL, GOERING, GOERING 


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