PortCities London

Defending the East End

The blackout, barrage balloons and gun batteries

Lights out!

To stop the bombers from using the light of the city to help them pinpoint targets, the government ordered a 'blackout'.

All lights were to be switched off or turned down. Special hoods were placed over the headlights of cars letting only a tiny slit of light shine on the road ahead.

In September 1939, the first month of the blackout, the number of people killed in road accidents doubled! The law said that people had to prevent any light from being seen outside. All house windows were to be covered.

Wardens on patrol

Warden's uniform
View full size imageAn ARP warden who would have enforced the blackout.
ARP wardens, such as the one shown here, would patrol the streets, knocking on the doors of those households that did not obey the blackout.

Although often unpopular, maintaining the blackout became something of a ritual for Londoners.

Heinkel bomber over the Surrey Docks and Isle of Dogs.
View full size image German Heinkel bomber over the Surrey Docks and Isle of Dogs, c.1940.

In fact, many of the precautions were arguably adopted as much for reasons of public morale as for practical usefulness.

This was because, even at night, the distinctive shape of the Thames could be seen from the air and used as a guide by the German bombers.

A barrage balloon SW30
View full size imageA barrage balloon in the skies above London.

The balloons go up!

As the Blitz went on, large silver balloons began to appear in the skies over London. These were called barrage balloons and were an anti-aircraft device. The balloons prevented planes from making low level attacks.

The specially formed Balloon Command of the Royal Air Force (RAF) was in charge of operating the balloons. They maintained the balloons and raised and lowered them as necessary.

Aircraft deterrent

Anti-Aircraft battery in Southwark Park.
View full size imageAnti-Aircraft battery in Southwark Park.
To defend London, batteries of guns were set up at special sites. Their job was to shoot down enemy planes or deter them from attacking the city.

In the last three months of 1940 only 57 German planes were brought down by anti-aircraft fire. Nevertheless, the presence of the guns was a huge boost to Londoners' morale.

To help both the guns and the fighter pilots spot enemy planes, powerful searchlights, 20 million times more powerful than an ordinary light bulb, would probe the sky at night.


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