Anderson shelters were a practical solution to a drastic problem: during World War Two, as the threat of aerial bombardment loomed over Britain, millions of these structures were erected in gardens across Britain. Typically made of corrugated iron and then covered in soil, they offered households vital protection from German bombing campaigns.
Quaint but cramped, safe but restricting, they were often far from ideal in terms of comfort. Nonetheless, Anderson shelters played a vital role during the war and undoubtedly saved thousands of lives.
Here are 10 facts about Anderson shelters, the innovative structures which became an iconic symbol of Britain’s war effort.
1. Anderson shelters were named after the Minister of Home Security
In November 1938, while serving as Lord Privy Seal and Minister of Home Security, Sir John Anderson was asked by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to prepare Britain for defense against bombing raids. The resultant shelters Anderson commissioned were named after him.
2. The shelters could fit up to 6 people
Anderson commissioned engineers William Patterson and Oscar Carl Kerrison to find a viable structure. Their design consisted of 14 steel panels – 8 internal sheets and 6 curved sheets bolted together to cover the structure. The structure was to be buried over 1m into the ground and covered with soil.
Just 1.4m wide, 2m long and 1.8m tall, the shelters were designed to accommodate a maximum of 6 people – 4 adults and 2 children. Following a thorough evaluation of the concept, Anderson, along with Bertram Lawrence Hurst and Sir Henry Jupp from the Institution of Civil Engineers, adapted the model for mass production.
3. Anderson shelters were free for some people
Anderson shelters were provided free of charge for people with household annual incomes of less than £250 (equivalent to approximately £14,700 today). They cost £7 (roughly £411 today) to buy for everyone else.
At the end of the war, many local authorities collected the corrugated iron, though people who wished to purchase their shelters could pay a nominal fee.
4. Anderson shelters were initially pre-emptive
Britain’s preparations for air raid shelters began in 1938, and the first Anderson shelter was set up in Islington, London, in February 1939. By the time Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, 1.5 million Anderson shelters had already been constructed.
While Britain’s pre-emptive approach had prepared them well, the substantial casualties suffered during the Luftwaffe’s month-long Blitz bombing campaign underlined the need for Britain to go further. An additional 2.1 million Anderson shelters were built during the war.
5. People rebelled against the use of Anderson shelters
After heavy bombing raids in early September 1940, thousands of Londoners flocked to underground stations against government advice, rather than using Anderson shelters. The police didn’t intervene, and some station managers provided additional toilet facilities.
On 21 September, government policy was changed and 79 stations were fitted with bunks for 22,000 people and 124 canteens. First aid facilities and chemical toilets were also supplied. The underground stations housed only 170,000 people during World War Two bombing raids, but they were regarded as one of the safest forms of shelter.
6. Anderson shelters were tough to endure during winter
While the corrugated steel sheets provided protection from bomb blasts, they offered little protection from the elements. Anderson shelters were bitingly cold during the winter months while rainfall often led to flooding and sometimes the collapse of structures.
As a result, many people would defy government instructions to spend the majority of their time in Anderson shelters. Some families would take their cue from the air raid siren while others would ignore it altogether and remain in their homes.
7. Decoration competitions were held
People were free to decorate and where possible add comfort to their shelters as they pleased. Bunk beds could be purchased but were often built at home. As a way of boosting wartime morale, some communities held competitions to determine the best-decorated shelters in the neighbourhood.
People also took advantage of the fact that shelters require a considerable amount of soil above and to the sides of the structure to support it. Encouraged by the government’s ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign in 1940, which implored citizens to grow their own food at home, vegetables and flowers were often planted in the upturned soil on or near a household’s Anderson shelter.
8. Anderson shelters were not ideal for urban areas
Given the requirement for garden space to accommodate an Anderson shelter, they were not a particularly viable option in built-up urban areas. Around a quarter of the population did not have gardens.
A 1940 survey found that only 27% of Londoners stayed in an Anderson shelter, while 9% slept in public shelters, 4% used underground stations, and the rest opted to stay in their homes.
9. Anderson shelters were not the most effective option available
During World War Two, Spain utilised the shelter model of engineer Ramón Perera. Larger and sturdier than Anderson shelters, Perera’s shelter proved effective: Barcelona only suffered around 2,500 casualties from 194 bombing raids, earning Perera the nickname ‘the man who saved Barcelona’.
The British government ignored Perera’s expertise and rejected his shelter model. Confidential reports in Britain expressed regret at this decision, suggesting the total of 50,000 Britons killed during Luftwaffe raids could have been reduced.
10. Anderson shelters were replaced by Morrison shelters
When it became common knowledge that the public preferred to stay in their homes and would generally avoid using their Anderson shelters, a new, indoor version was prioritised. This arrived in 1941 in the form of the Morrison shelter, named after Herbert Morrison who had replaced Anderson as the Minister of Home Security.
The Morrison shelter was essentially a large metal cage which, for many of the approximately 500,000 people who had one installed, doubled up as a dining table.