Air-raid alert 1917

06 Dec

The Great War brought a previously-unknown danger to Londoners – air raids. This brought on challenge unknown in previous wars: how to alert people to the approach (and departure) of raiders.

London policeman warning of an air raid

In 1917, with air raids by Gotha bombers increasing in frequency and deadliness, the authorities had to devise a way to warn the population of the approach of enemy aircraft.

At the start of July, the Commissioner of Police announced the use of warnings carried by police, giving rise to the curious picture above.

Notice published in Flight magazine (19/7/1917)

Notice published in Flight magazine (19/7/1917)

Less than two weeks later, on 21 July 1917, further measures were developed. It was announced that three ‘sound rockets’ would be fired in quick succession to warn of air raids on the capital, alongside the display of ‘Take Cover’ notices. The rockets were to be fired from the tops of all London Fire Stations.

“Sound bombs” to alert to public in a raid (Illustrated London News, 28/7/1917) – showing the rockets (1), inserting the time fuse (2), loading the rocket into the mortar (3), firing the rocket (4) and cleaning out the mortar (5)

The ILN reported the use of this method the next day (alongside the above illustration).

“Our readers will be interested to see from these photographs exactly how the warning by sound-signals was given to London at 8.30 a.m. on Sunday, July 22, when 237 one-pound sound-bombs were fired 300 ft. into the air from 79 London Fire Brigade stations. An official notice that such a warning would be given, in case of an expected raid on London, had been issued by the Home Office only the previous evening. “Take Cover” notices were shown at the same time by the police in the streets, and at 9.45 they displayed the “All Clear” notice. The authorities were satisfied with the results of this system of warning, though the Home Secretary, Sir George Cave, thought that the number of signals might well be reduced, and that the warning might be delayed until enemy aircraft were nearer to London. Later, it was stated that only two, instead of three, rockets would in future be sent up from each station and that signals that could be seen as well as heard were considered.”

As well as the change to two sound rockets, the arrangements were nuanced so that they were automatically to be fired from Fire Stations inside the County of London and but only in other places within 10 miles of Charing Cross if they were felt to be at risk. The police would continue to display ‘Take Cover’ notices – now specified to be in red letters. From October, ‘Specials’ carrying these notices began to be issued with steel helmets.

‘All Clear’ messages were also to be given by the police – in black lettering. Late in 1917, this message was accompanied by bugles sounding.

The all-clear sounded by Boy Scout bugler in a motorcar (Illustrated London News, 27/10/1917)

This picture was accompanied by a description of bugles used to sound the ‘All Clear’ in October 1917:

“On October 18 it was announced that authorities had decided to give the “All Clear” signal in London after air-raids by bugle-calls. It was not long before the new system came into operation, in connection with the raid of October 19-20, wen took place the Zeppelin attack on London which ended so disastrously for the raiders during their return voyage to France. After the enemy had left, the first “All Clear”, blown by men, or in some cases by Boy Scouts, in motor-cars, was given in the London area soon after the official notification had been issued.”

This is not the full history of air-raid warnings during the war, which Neil Hanson tells more thoroughly in his account of the air raids on London – The First Blitz. It does, however, show us something of the ongoing development of the civilian experience of war, to which the urgent need to know about an enemy attack was a new development for Londoners in the Great War.



London Illustrated News

Flight magazine online archive

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Posted by on 6 December 2012 in Air Raid


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