PLYMOUTH'S

WORLD WAR TWO

UNDERGROUND AIR RAID SHELTERS

WAITING UNDERGROUND

 

NEW UPDATE: JUNE 2003

HI-RESOLUTION GALLERY TO BE FOUND AT BOTTOM OF PAGE

In the long hot summer of 1939 Plymouthians witnessed the impending and eventual outbreak of World War II. The extended school summer holiday saw furious activity in the deserted school playgrounds and verdant public parklands. Mechanical excavators were busy digging trenches in these playgrounds, in almost every City park, and in many sports grounds. Not even little green shrub borders were spared. The aim of all this activity was to provide underground refugees for the population of Plymouth. This war would bring a new threat -aerial attack by bombs of 500kg and more- the front line was not to be a muddy field in some far off land, but right here in our town. Mutley, Stoke, Devonport and St Budeaux: all were the front line in 1939, when the front line was to shortly become the home line and the deliverence of D-Day..also details of "Churchill`s Army and 5th. Columnists} was a long way off and of course as yet unknown.

These trenches were to be known as ":Public Underground Air Raid Shelters". Size would vary greatly, from a humble 50 person shelter to a virtual underground village offering protection for 1,200 of our citizens. Some shelters were basic, offering merely protection from the German bombers overhead and somewhere to sit and answer the call of nature. Others rose to the luxury of bunks and a canteen.

By late 1940, virtually everybody living in the "then Plymouth area", was no more than may be five minutes from an underground refuge. These air raid shelters would be no protection against a direct hit (as would be so painfully proved later in the war) but would give excellent protection against a near miss and perhaps more importantly against flying debris such as roof slates, masonry and glass, and of course shrapnel.

So by the end of 1940 we can envisage a City whose school playgrounds and parklands are honeycombed with passages which during "Air Raid conditions" would fill with the jostling humanity of war-torn Plymouth, where songs would be sung ("Roll out the Barrel", "Run Rabbit Run" and so on), where birthdays would be celebrated underground, and where school lessons and tables would be repeated in "troglodyte" classrooms. Stories of near misses and of those who had been "bombed out" would be passed around over a thermos of tea and a slice of bread and butter. And sadly, most sadly of all, this would be a Plymouth where many of our citizens, our mothers and fathers, our grandparents, our children and our babies would have their lives slip away from them while huddled deep under some verdant park or otherwise joyful playground where only some brief instant ago, on the ground above there had been so much jollity and laughter.

GRAFFITI The concrete walls that so protected our citizens, however, were much more than a defence to the worst the German Luftwaffe could throw against us. To some they were a canvas, a drawing board, a sketch pad upon which over the years they would pencil and sketch rhymes, love messages, love hearts and above all images of war, images of the threat from above and images of that eventual day of sure victory that lay (in 1941) in some unknown far-off day.

Within a one mile radius of today's Royal Parade in Central Plymouth but below our feet and pounding traffic we have images of Hitler, Churchill, Goering, (with earrings - influenced obviously by the popular belief at the time that he was a bisexuall). We have images of Mussolini, of Victory 'V's (with adot-dot-dot-dash: being part of Beethoven's 5th Symphony and morse for "Victory V"). We have pencil drawings of barrage balloons and bombs being dropped out of aircraft and the image of the German raiding eagle. We have enigmatic lines such as "sing, sing, what shall I sing, the cat has stolen the pudding string". Other images are more straightforward such as a portrait of Hitler with "breasts" and a woman's figure, or more to the point Hitler with a bomb sticking in his head!!!

This graffiti' as we call it now really does tell us everything. It gives us a unique insight into what was in the minds of those that went before us in our City. For instance, just a short distance away from the hustle of today's Breton Side Bus Station we have an inscription over the entrance of an underground shelter that really does transcend time. It reads "Enter here all ye who need to rest", and above is a representation of a Crucifix. On the lighter side is found Donald Duck, Popeye, forts, Air Raid timetables, battleships,aircraft, Hitler with one testacle,....there being a song that went "Hitler.....he`s only got one ball.....the other.....is in the Albert Hall!" Hitler with forked tongueand infant sketches of Hitler....and love messages.

What more can be said to cast a mind-picture of life in Plymouth in those dark days of the spring of 1941 when our City was very nearly brought to its knees? We can feel we have seen everything: well, almost, but never quite all - for in a shelter not one half mile away again a Graffiti shows a crumbling and smouldering swastika, the German eagle plucked of its feathers and, above, the inscription "After".

NUMBERS AND LOCATIONS It is often asked "Is there a shelter in my park or under my school?" The answer is almost invariably "Yes!" A visit to the West Devon Records Office, Plymouth and a look at the A.R.P. sector plans will help the inquirer to highlight the bewildering number of locations, of which here I shall list just a few.

Devonport Park and Central Park each had 5 shelters providing refuge for up to 1,200 people. Victoria Park had 3 shelters and parks such as Thorn Park, Tothill Playing Field, North Prospect Recreation Ground, Alexandra Park, The Blockhouse, St. Levan's Park, Plymouth College playing fields, and Astor Playing Fields all had a shelter. Schools, of course, had and still do have them such as: Sutton High, Hyde Park, Montpelier, Salisbury Road, North Prospect, Keyham Barton, St. Boniface, Devonport Technical, pre-war Devonport High for Boys (now the Plymouth College of Further Education) and Public Central (now part of the University). Even public courtyards, large front and back gardens and car parks were not immune to being dug up and having trenches laid. A common backlane door may reveal a long forgotten hatch that leads deep below to a shelter; set within a long disused limestone quarry with dripping stalactites growing down from the ceiling; and guarding a staircase under a vaulted roof. How many hands have glided along that rail. How many memories linger here.

Just how many shelters were there and how many exist today? This is not an easy question. Records are at times vague, inaccurate and often misleading. Also from the plans it is difficult sometimes to tell whether one shelter was built with six separate tunnels - or was it six shelters? Whichever way it is looked at, there were hundreds and probably 100 or so shelters survive today.

FEATURES AND METHODS OF CONSTRUCTION Today, under our feet these shelters sleep, sealed up, covered with earth, turf on concrete and tar, but still there, left much as they were the day the last "resident" left. Apart from "talking" graffiti, what else was left behind? Small things - "people's things" - were left such as: train tickets, purses, shoes, hair grips, perfume bottles, marbles, pencils, coins, colouring book pages, remains of that last meal - bones of pig, cow, sheep, and rabbit to name but a few. Other strange items included empty sea-shells such as Limpets or Periwinkles. Were these also remains of a meal or merely used as children's toys?

Some shelters have much of their construction fabric, fittings and furnishings remaining. Items such as intact wooden benches, electric light installations, wiring, reflectors and bulbs chemical 'Elsan' toilet buckets with wooden seats, iron: stands for 'wash bowls', sandbags still standing firm against the next bomb blast which will now never come, blast curtains still hanging to protect against the ingress of flying debris, gas blinds waiting to seal the shelter off in case of a poison gas attack, stairways and doorways to nowhere. Soft drink bottles that never were returned for their deposit, signs telling you to collect the keysfrom a now derelict lodge. All so quiet, so peaceful,....just the drip,drip,drip,of water on water and the invasive plant roots grow big on it. . Nobody ever returned for the jam-jar ...the war is over, wounds are healed. The lamp will light no more darkness and the wooden bench will have no more company.

There are one or two items of 'trivia' that may be of interest.Posters dated 1940-41 still hang in many air raid shelters, informing one that smoking is prohibited and that 'dogs are not admitted'....(they may get hysterics during a raid and bite people).

How did these shelters work and how were they built? Firstly, there are basically two common types of Plymouth public underground Air-Raid Shelters. The first is the 'Arch' type and the second is the 'Square' type - both referring to the shape of the tunnel cross-section. Both types appear to occur in roughly equal numbers in the City and often if two shelters are built in the same playground or park, one may be 'Arch' and the other 'Square'. Possibly different contractors built in different ways depending on the availability of raw materials or labour, or perhaps these style differences reflect different dates of construction.

For both types, the initial method of construction has been identified. Firstly a large deep trench was cut by mechanical excavation. The trench was laid out to a plan of tunnels or 'galleries', to one another, to prevent blast shooting from one end of the shelter right through to the other. Basically shelters worked on a damage limitation plan. If you were in the actual part of the shelter that took a hit....tough, but if you were just around the right-angle bend, then you would probably be alright. A section that had been hit would be simply sealed-off by building a wall across the trench, and the undamaged section would carry on as a smaller shelter; as shown in the previous photo. These trenches were then concrete lined. In the 'Arch' type, liquid concrete was poured over a wooden shelter while in the 'Square' type, pre-cast concrete sections were slotted and locked in together rather like 'Lego'.

After completion, both types of shelters were either capped over with earth or the playground re-tarmaced over. Both types also had toilet compartments at either end of the galleries with crude spring doors for privacy being stencilled 'Ladies' and 'Gents'. Some toilets were vented, either to the open air, or to the shelter next door in the park!

The 'Square' type shelter often had large steel reinforcing girders set within it to strengthen the construction. Apparently, when newly built, the 'Square' type (prefabricated) shelters were not up to the shock of the bombing so iron girders were added later on to bring them up to specification. Underground air raid shelters were built to a standard layout, often their actual shape and layout being dictated by the physical topography of the site they were built into - almost being designed as they were built.

The standard dimensions were:- depth below ground 25m - 0.7m; width of galleries 1.4m; height of galleries 1.7m - 1.9m; length of galleries 20m - 27m. The 'Arch' type features galleries painted throughout with whitewash, while the 'Square' type has a natural concrete finish throughout with whitewash only being applied near the entrance areas, possibly to ease ingress and egress in blackout conditions. Local correspondence has revealed that the sections for the square type were brought up from Cornwall, being made at the Pentewan concrete block works, near Par, the sand coming from the nearby silted up harbour. Many shelters feature one or two internal drains. Primary source research tends to point to two uses. One was for the cleansing and disinfection of the shelter, the other was for the emptying of the chemical toilet buckets into!!

Both types have one or more escape hatches. The function of these hatches was to provide emergency escape from the shelter in the event of the main entrance and entrance stairwell being blocked by the rubble of a direct hit on a close-by large building. These hatches are vertically overhead and set in the roof of both types of shelter. Each hatch was reached and opened by means of a steel ladder, and was provided with a ventilation grill to provide fresh air to the shelter. Beneath the grill we have found a butterfly nut controlled metal disc backed by an 'O' ring seal. In the event of an actual or anticipated poison gas attack, this butterfly nut would screw up against a threaded spindle and hold the disc and 'O' ring firmly against the grilling in order to render the shelter 'gas-tight'.

To further protect the occupants of the shelter from gas attack, the main entrance of each shelter had an air-lock type construction built into its design. Upon entry, a gas-blind would have to be raised up, admitting those entering into a vestibule, this blind then being closed behind them. Before being able to pass into the main part of the shelter, a second blind would again have to be opened and closed to permit exit from the vestibule compartment to the shelter proper. These blinds also function as 'blast curtains' being thick, heavy and fibrous in nature. Any flying debris would be stopped upon impact by the curtain from entering the shelter proper.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS . Thanks are due to Plymouth CFE; Plymouth College of Art; Ministry of Defence; Plymouth City Council; Devon County Council; and countless Headteachers also Plymouth City Museum and lastly to Torex Hire, Plymouth without whom literally not a stone would have been turned.

Many primary school children are thankful to the help all those above gave to me for bringing their 20th. century history alive through role play re-enactment and artefact handling sessions; and bring history alive as "living history." Those who gave their lives,of all sides,fighting for what they believed in will never be forgotten. Any one with items they would care to donate for future use are more than welcome to get in touch. Please also feel free to get in touch for any further information.


Inspiration by "After The Battle "magazine.

And ..yes..there is even a Ghost photograph!!!

This is the ghost pic. Several photos.were taken within one minute or so of each other,all used electronic flash as there was no available light;being pitch black.This image only recorded what appears to be two seated figures.The one on the right appears to be a torso with a bearded head,note facial details..eyes..,the left figure seems to be seated and looking to the viewers left,arms bent at the elbows..the skull being seen side on resembles an X-ray image. This site although of 1940`s construction is cut into an area that was once occupied by a medieval Friary. I say nothing but merely present it to you.There was no smoke, mist, or dust, wind etc. that could explain this and nothing was seen visually in our torch beams at the time the photo. was taken. It may look best downloaded,saved and printed in colour at 720dpi.

Contact Steve Johnson Telephone +44-1752-772699 or if in the U.K. Plymouth 772699

NEW UPDATE: JUNE 2003

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 

2/ HI-RESOLUTION GALLERY OF WORLD WAR II & COLD WAR AIR RAID SHELTERS, MAY BE FOUND HERE. MANY IMAGES.

E-mail steve@cyberheritage.co.uk 

 Steve feels the investigations that you have just seen on this Web page are unique.