Policy Papers

The real lessons of the Blitz for Covid-19

Henry Irving, Rosemary Cresswell , Barry Doyle, Shane Ewen , Mark Roodhouse, Charlotte Tomlinson and Marc Wiggam |

  • RSS Feed Icon

Executive Summary

  • The Second World War has frequently been invoked in commentary on Covid-19. The analogy is not always helpful, but we can take lessons from how the wartime government managed Air Raid Precautions and post-raid services.
  • Air Raid Precautions (ARP) were well advanced by the time war was declared, but it is not too late for the government’s response to Covid-19 to catch up.
  • The blackout provides the closest analogy to social distancing. Its success demonstrates that the government needs to communicate clearly the link between people’s behaviour and the national interest, using sanctions consistently.
  • Volunteers were mobilised in large numbers during the Second World War, but were often poorly coordinated and equipped. Current schemes need to foster local networks and communication between volunteers, while existing pools of labour should be redeployed to essential tasks.
  • The wartime government was slow to pivot when its pre-war forecasts proved wrong, causing serious problems for hospital provision and post-raid relief. There are obvious lessons here for an emergency that changes by the hour not the day.
  • Local authorities carried many of the burdens of ARP and post-raid services, but were not given adequate funding to fulfil them consistently. Today’s government must avoid this mistake.
  • The fire service was completely re-organised when its role on the front line became apparent – today’s crisis is already showing signs of flexible thinking, but we argue that this needs to go further and must involve representative bodies.

This policy paper is the result of a virtual roundtable focused on Britain’s response to bombing during the Second World War. Convened by Henry Irving and held on 25 March 2020, the discussion brought together a range of expertise on civil contingency planning carried out under the umbrella of Air Raid Precautions (ARP). It was chaired by History & Policy in collaboration with the Centre for Culture and the Arts at Leeds Beckett University. Special thanks go to Alix Mortimer (History and Policy) and Andrew McTominey (Leeds Beckett University) for helping to organise the event and edit the contents.


The Second World War has frequently been invoked in commentary on Covid-19. Boris Johnson has described the present as ‘a moment of national emergency’ and has pledged to ‘act like any wartime government’ in the fight against the disease. Subsequent announcements have channelled Winston Churchill’s conviction that ‘The whole of warring nations are engaged, not only soldiers, but the entire population, men, women, and children’ (compare this to Johnson’s insistence that ‘we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted’). While similar language has been used by other world leaders, these announcements have been readily linked to the concept of ‘Blitz Spirit’ and the idea of a ‘People’s War’.

These analogies have not always been helpful and there are significant distinctions between an armed conflict and a global pandemic. It would nevertheless be wrong for historians to simply point out that the Second World War was more complicated than its cultural memory suggests. The Blitz is a case in point. However localised, the reality of aerial bombing forced civilians to alter their daily routines and threw them into the ‘front line’ of the conflict. We can learn from both what worked and the challenges that were faced during this time.


Air Raid Precautions – later termed Civil Defence – covered a range of infrastructure, actions, and services designed to protect civilians from the threat of aerial bombing. They included the construction of public shelters and rest centres; blackout restrictions and anti-gas measures; the creation of new warden, firewatch, rescue, and decontamination services; and the re-orientation of existing first aid, ambulance and fire services. Although administratively separate, these activities were allied to the establishment of the Emergency Medical Service (EMS), which is often regarded as a forerunner to the NHS. The passage of emergency legislation also had an impact on the police service, which was responsible for enforcement and had to shift resources to meet new patterns of criminal behaviour.

The threat of aerial bombing had been recognised long before the Second World War. The UK government had established a secret Committee of Imperial Defence Sub-Committee on Air Raid Precautions in 1924 and created an ARP department within the Home Office in 1935. It was charged with co-ordinating all aspects of passive defence, although responsibility for implementation and recruitment rested with local authorities. This principle was put into law by the Air Raid Precautions Act, which came into force on 1 January 1938. The Act was feted by the Home Secretary as the start of a ‘new chapter in which the Government and the local authorities and the citizens in this country will all co-operate’.

ARP measures were given new impetus in September 1938, when the Nazi annexation of part of Czechoslovakia threatened a European war – and prompted extensive ARP mobilisation. A government review after the Munich Agreement highlighted many deficiencies and led to a significant acceleration of defence measures. This process was led by Sir John Anderson, formerly a top civil servant, who was appointed de facto Minister for Civil Defence in October 1938. He launched a ‘National Service’ drive in a bid to secure some 1.8 million ARP workers and was responsible for the distribution of some 2.5 million ‘Anderson shelters’. Anderson retained responsibility after the outbreak of war, taking the joint portfolio of Home Secretary and Minister of Security.

The October 2010 National Security Strategy identified pandemics as a Tier 1 threat, which informed the proposals set out in the 2018 Biological Security Strategy. Nevertheless, it has been reported that key aspects of this strategy were not implemented due to a lack of resources. The confusion over an EU ventilator scheme adds to the sense of muddle.

The UK did not treat warnings from Wuhan with the level of seriousness that Neville Chamberlain’s government treated Czechoslovakia. But, while the UK entered the Covid-19 emergency less well prepared than it did the Second World War, it is not too late to implement the lessons. In particular, as we shall see, the need is for a coherent, cross-service approach in the style of Anderson not Churchill. This should prioritise evolving medical understanding based on the experience of health professionals and epidemiologists and avoid political point-scoring.

Mobilising ‘the People’

The blackout

The role of the public was central to wartime ARP measures. Consider the blackout, which provides the closest analogy to the social distancing and shielding measures introduced to stem the spread of Covid-19. Blackout restrictions were introduced on 1 September 1939 and required that all windows and doors should be covered to prevent light that might help enemy aircraft locate their targets. The restrictions forced individuals to accept a level of responsibility for collective security, and to alter their own behaviours accordingly. Its success rested on the clear communication of the restrictions, fairness in their application, and a measure of common sense.

The mixed messaging at the start of the Covid-19 crisis made it harder to communicate the distinction between the individual and collective risks of the virus. Marc Wiggam’s comparative study of the blackout in the UK and Germany shows that UK rules were accepted because they were believed to be effective and were universally applied, even if the impact of bombing was highly localised. This legitimacy was sometimes undermined through inconsistent or overzealous interpretations of the law, things which are already causing dissatisfaction in the present crisis.

The failure of a later information campaign encouraging people to wear white in the blackout is also instructive. The campaign was intended to reduce the alarming increase in pedestrian fatalities caused by road traffic collisions during the blackout. But, unlike the lighting restrictions themselves, it was a notable failure. Opinion polls found that people remained unconvinced of its merits and did not want to look conspicuously cautious. The freedom to put oneself at risk was viewed differently from the need to protect one’s neighbourhood and the nation and (without the force of legislation) was one that most were willing to take. This suggests that when existing social distancing measures are revised, the links between people’s behaviour and the local or national interest needs to remain explicit, consistently communicated, and backed by sanctions where necessary.


Alongside the Blackout, ARP also involved the mass mobilisation of the civilian population. By 1941, the government had surpassed its target for 1.8 million ARP workers, including those involved in broader civil defence activities. The majority were part-time volunteers. This included some of the members of existing voluntary organisations like the British Red Cross and St John Ambulance, as well as those who had joined new bodies like the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS). The Women’s Voluntary Services (WVS), which had launched in June 1938 to encourage women to participate in ARP, boasted another million volunteers. The British Red Cross and St John Ambulance had already started preparations for another war by the early 1930s, and provided first aid training for many civil defence workers and volunteers later in the decade. In Scotland, St Andrew’s Ambulance Association supplied similar training. The largest provider in the UK was St John Ambulance, which issued almost 300,000 certificates in first aid in 1940 alone, and, from 1938-1945, trained 1.2 million people for qualifications including first aid and home nursing. These figures should be read alongside the approximately 750,000 who have joined the NHS volunteers at the time of writing, in addition to today’s St John and British Red Cross volunteers.

The recruitment of volunteers was, however, only the first stage of mobilisation. Henry Irving and Jessica Hammett have explored the challenge of recruitment into ARP, finding that initial enthusiasm was often damped by insufficient instruction, poor training, and a lack of basic equipment. In a devolved organisation, local factors were the most important and individual ARP posts developed distinctive cultures (a theme which is repeated in Charlotte Tomlinson’s work on the WVS). Those responsible for the NHS volunteer scheme should pay particular attention to its ‘local’ organisation – whether physical or digital – and facilitate communication between volunteers as well as from the top down.

Creative redeployment

Wartime mobilisation also raised questions of responsibility and status, especially in cases where wartime recruits worked within or alongside pre-existing services. Auxiliaries were recruited to both police and fire services to ensure that they could cope with additional war work, as well as to insure against the risk of burnout, illness and casualty among regulars. However, auxiliary firefighters were commonly treated as subordinate and were in some cases barred from attending fires with non-military causes, making it impossible to gain experience before the Blitz. Such tensions were largely avoided in the police force, which had a pre-existing pool of Special Constables and a Police War Reserve to bolster its numbers.

At the time of writing, the police have announced that they will delay retirements to mitigate staff shortages caused by illness and self-isolation, but could go further by mobilising special constables, promoting PCOs and co-opting security guards, who supermarkets are already using to fulfil public order functions by managing queues. The Fire Brigades Union, National Fire Chiefs Council and fire authorities have also agreed that firefighters will deliver food and medicine, drive ambulances and retrieve dead bodies during the crisis. We suggest that similar actions should also be taken in other sectors and that existing pools of labour be redeployed to key worker positions. For example, Mark Roodhouse has argued that licensed taxi drivers could be used as delivery drivers for the duration of the emergency, while commercial waste collection could be re-allocated to help maintain household recycling services.

Unexpected Features

The Blitz did not conform to the pre-war forecasts that underpinned ARP planning. It had been widely believed that ‘the bomber will always get through’ and that a future war would start with a devastating campaign against civilian targets. Military forecasts were initially based on First World War Zeppelin raids, but were revised upwards following the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. By March 1939, the UK government anticipated that 3,500 tons of explosives would be dropped on the day that war was declared, with 600,000 casualties expected during the first fortnight.

The Blitz was undoubtedly a devasting experience for those who lived through it. The first raid, on 7 September 1940, saw around 340 tons of bombs dropped on London’s docklands and caused fires that could be seen for some ten miles. It resulted in 448 civilian fatalities. Official figures for 1940-41 estimate that a total of 8,200 tons of bombs were dropped on London alone (a figure that equates to approximately 28,000 high explosive and 100,000 incendiary bombs). Across the UK, there were 43,000 civilian deaths. This was nevertheless a very different reality to that which had been imagined. Pre-war estimates had assumed that one ton of ordnance would result in at least 16 fatalities. If this had been correct, the first raid would have killed almost 5,500 people. As the official historian of Civil Defence wrote in 1955, a ‘significant unexpected feature of these attacks was the relatively small loss of life’.

This unexpected feature had profound consequences for the Ministry of Health, which was responsible for post-raid medical treatment and welfare. Its pre-war plans led to the creation of an Emergency Hospital Service in 1939. This involved the mass redistribution of existing hospital beds and the creation of almost 80,000 new beds in hutted facilities across the UK. The EHS brought changes to both voluntary and municipal hospitals. In Leeds, as Barry Doyle has shown, the small Hospital for Women had to allocate twelve beds for emergencies until 1943, while the council-run Seacroft Infectious Disease Hospital was transformed so that general casualties could also be treated. These changes were not without problems. The rapid overhaul of hospital provision meant that large numbers of vulnerable patients were pushed out of the system in 1939, while the state paid large sums of money to voluntary hospitals to maintain empty beds that were ultimately not needed. The elderly and those with mental and chronic illnesses lost out in the short term.

There is an obvious comparison to be drawn here, as the NHS struggles to deal with the demand on services caused by Covid-19. As in 1939, routine operations have been cancelled in order to free up bed space, and new facilities – like the vast Nightingale Hospital – have been constructed to increase capacity. Only time will tell whether these facilities are proportionate, but the wartime experience suggests that focus needs to rapidly turn to the medium term. It took the Ministry of Health until 1941 to work out a new financial system for payments and vulnerable patients were only gradually readmitted to hospitals like Seacroft.

The police were also forced to adapt quickly in the Second World War. The closure of schools in some urban areas led to concerns over juvenile delinquency as bored youths – so-called ‘Blitz kids’ – roamed the streets while their parents were at work. The realities of bombing, the blackout, and consumer rationing also led to new forms of criminal behaviour as illegal entrepreneurs spotted new opportunities to make money. These examples suggest that social distancing restrictions will create new vulnerabilities. It is likely that increases in interpersonal violence, cybercrime and burglary from shops, warehouses, and commercial premises will offset decreases in housebreaking and assaults. As in 1940, the police force will need to be agile to make the most of limited human resources.

Local Variations

While the Home Office and Ministry of Health set the agenda, the execution of ARP measures and provision of post-raid services was carried out by local authorities. This made administrative sense as most emergency measures were grafted onto existing emergency and medical service provision. The government also believed that local authorities were best placed to respond to the specific needs of their areas. Nonetheless, the result was a patchwork system that was frequently criticised for being unsuited to the task at hand.

Some problems were evident before war was declared. Despite confidence that it would meet its ARP recruitment targets, the government was aware of serious problems of maldistribution between different localities and different services. To make matters worse, it knew that the largest shortfalls had been recorded in the most vulnerable urban areas. The provision of communal air raid shelters also differed from place to place. Again, the city of Leeds provides a good example, as it entered the war reliant on shelter space in strengthened commercial basements. It was not until later that a comprehensive building programme got underway, with the city’s highest-profile public shelters not completed until after the city had suffered its only serious raid in March 1941.

Such issues were magnified when the unexpectedly small number of casualties – but large number of displaced persons – that resulted from the bombing placed additional pressure on post-raid welfare services. It quickly transpired that the need for temporary accommodation, food, clothing, and longer-term financial assistance was greater than the need for hospital beds or cardboard coffins. The clearest account of failings was compiled by the journalist Ritchie Calder, who reported on the London Blitz for the Daily Herald and published a book-length collection of his articles in 1941. He highlighted serious deficiencies in the official response. Reports from September 1940 described families being forced to walk miles for a bed, insufficient food being available, and a profound lack of communication between the services involved.

During this time, volunteers worked tirelessly to support survivors, but their efforts lacked co-ordination and were unsuited to the scale of the problem. Rest centre provision designed for 10,000 people was completely overwhelmed by the 100-250,000 people estimated to have been made homeless during the first six weeks of the Blitz. Municipal buildings, theatres, cinemas and public halls were hastily converted to offer food, clothing, blankets, places to wash, and a place to sleep. But the support available often remained inadequate. Local authorities did not have the power to requisition buildings and were advised to spend just £20 on fitting out each building! Poor co-ordination between the Ministries of Health and Food also meant that feeding stations and rest centres were not fully integrated. According to a report by the National Council of Social Services, one centre opened on 12 September 1940 with a ‘kitchen’ equipped with just two spoons and a blunt knife.

These problems can all be traced back to financial decisions made before the war. The ARP Act required local authorities to make provisions, but provided only limited grant funding, resulting in inequalities of provision between better-off and worse-off local authorities. It was for this reason that Leeds entered the war without adequate shelters, despite city authorities having published a comprehensive plan for ARP in July 1938. The same problem haunted the provision of rest centres. In 1938, the Ministry of Health had decided that these should be provided under the 1929 Public Assistance system, with local authorities responsible for supporting their own peacetime residents. This ruling required rest centres to distinguish between local residents and those from other boroughs, accounting for the cost of each so that non-local costs could be reimbursed by the state. The administrative burden simply could not cope with the strain of the Blitz.

Local authorities and NHS trusts bear the greatest burden of the current emergency and operate in the context of a decade of constrained budgets and ‘efficiency’ savings. Drawing on the lessons of the Blitz, we believe that the government must offer financial support to these bodies at a consummate level to the support offered to business. In the long-term, it may be desirable to impose a windfall tax on companies that have continued to operate during the crisis to help redistribute the financial burden.

Temporary Reorganisation

In some cases, problems with local provision were deemed serious enough to warrant wholesale reorganisation during the war itself. This was the case for the Emergency Hospital Service, where the redistribution of beds was just one aspect of the wider reorganisation of a previously uncoordinated sector. The EHS introduced an entirely new regional system, bringing provision together to create a ‘market’ for services. New administrative areas were devised to serve populations of roughly 3-5 million inhabitants, with acute services consolidated in metropolitan areas and hospitals in satellite towns providing general services and referring up where necessary. A similar regional pooling of the resources and expertise of the 160 foundation trusts could be important today as staff become unavailable for work through sickness and self-isolation.

In May 1941, a similar reorganisation of fire authorities was carried out at the height of the Blitz. While pre-war planners had fixated on high explosives and the potentially devastating use of poison gas, incendiary bombs proved to be the greatest threat to life and property during the Second World War. This placed the fire service on the ‘front line’ and transformed firefighters, both regular and auxiliary, into ‘heroes with grimy faces’. It was they who faced the nightly onslaught of bombs with only a helmet for protection.

As Shane Ewen’s research shows, however, the management of individual fire brigades was frequently criticised. This was especially true of the combined police fire brigades which protected the northern port and industrial cities of Hull, Liverpool and Manchester. These cities all suffered serious raids in winter 1940-41 and their police brigades were condemned for providing inadequate fire protection. Critics cited weak leadership, poor organisation, a lack of operational knowledge (despite the precedent of London), and a lack of integration between regular firefighters and the AFS. Many of these deficiencies had been evident before the war, but they assumed a new significance during the Blitz.

In response, Herbert Morrison (who had replaced John Anderson as Home Secretary and Minister of Security in October 1940, partly due to criticism over the provision of rest centres) nationalised the fire service for the duration of hostilities. Individual authorities were merged to form 39 regional fire areas across England, Scotland and Wales, each of which was put under the authority of a fire force commander (usually a former chief fire officer with experience managing a large brigade). The AFS was absorbed into this model, with auxiliaries becoming full-time firefighters on the same pay and conditions as regulars. In agreement with the Fire Brigades Union, the new ‘National Fire Service’ also introduced a standard 72-hour working week (48-hours on, 24-hours off), a national minimum rate of pay and a new training programme.

Albeit on a vastly expanded scale, the government's recent announcement of the largest employment and wage subsidy package in the country’s history was the result of negotiations between the Treasury, business groups and the Trades Union Congress, and further demonstrates what can be achieved when the representatives of business and workers work together. The government should not be afraid to take further decisive action, with the support of the representative bodies of key workers.


‘What was the impact of the Second World War?’ Questions like this make challenging essays, but they rarely make good history and obscure the nuances and continuities associated with any event. The Second World War had various legacies, but these need to be understood in relation to what came before, what occurred during, and what happened after the war. Moreover, as some changes planned during the 1930s were put on hold during the almost six year-long conflict, the impact of the war can easily be overstated. This can be seen clearly in the case of the NHS, which incorporated elements of the EMS, but was also built on longer-term developments in healthcare and hospital provision. Nor did the NHS signal the death-knell for voluntary first aid networks. Instead, as Rosemary Cresswell and Stefan Ramsden have shown, organisations like the St John Ambulance and British Red Cross still played a key role after 1948.  Voluntary aid societies provided a wide range of services such as first aid, ambulances and loaned medical equipment, and offered civil defence and workplace first aid training. They also supplied volunteers for the NHS, including in preparation for the possibility of another war, through the National Hospital Service Reserve.

Nonetheless we concluded our discussion with a practical legacy that could be immediately adapted to current circumstances. The story begins soon after the creation of the National Fire Service, when the Fire Brigades Union campaigned for a ‘Fireman’s Charter’ for improved conditions across the service. Their language consciously echoed the ‘Atlantic Charter’ signed by Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, which set out British and American goals for the post-war world. The union’s campaign appealed directly to the British public, drawing on the heroic imagery of the Blitz and involving hundreds of mass public meetings. These efforts led, in February 1942, to a pay increase and improved sickness and injury policies.

Whether expressed in the form of rainbows or clapping, the Covid-19 emergency has demonstrated a groundswell of public support for the NHS and other key workers. Their morale is fundamental to the success of treatment and the continuation of essential services. To bolster this morale, the government would be well-advised to work with unions and professional bodies like the British Medical Association to draw up NHS and Care Charters making the case for better PPE, increased pay or a Covid-19 bonus to express the nation’s gratitude, and longer-term guarantees around funding and organisation.

Further Reading

Joan Clifford, A Good Uniform: The St. John Story (London: Robert Hale Limited, 1967).

Rosemary Cresswell, ‘The "British Red Cross still exists", 1947-74: finding a role after the Second World War’, in Neville Wylie, Melanie Oppenheimer and James Crossland (eds.), The Red Cross Movement: Myths, practices and turning points (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020), pp. 148-63.

Barry Doyle, The Politics of Hospital Provision in Early Twentieth-Century Britain (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2014).

Cuthbert L. Dunn, The Emergency Medical Services, 2 volumes (London: HMSO, 1952; 1953).

Shane Ewen, Fighting Fires: Creating the British Fire Service, 1800-1978 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Susan Grayzel, At Home and Under Fire: Air Raids and Culture in Britain from the Great War to the Blitz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Jessica Hammett, ‘“The Invisible Chain by Which All Are Bound to Each Other”: Civil Defence Magazines and the Development of Community During the Second World War’, Journal of War & Culture Studies, 11:2 (2018), 117-135.

Lucy Noakes, ‘“Serve to Save”’: Gender, Citizenship and Civil Defence in Britain, 1937-41’, Journal of Contemporary History, 47:4 (2012), 734-753.

Terence O’Brien, Civil Defence (London: HMSO, 1955).

Stefan Ramsden and Rosemary Cresswell, ‘First Aid and Voluntarism in England, 1945-1985’, Twentieth Century British History, 30:4 (2019), 504-30.

Mark Roodhouse, Black Market Britain, 1939-1955 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Richard M. Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (London: HMSO, 1950).

Marc Wiggam, The Blackout in Britain and Germany, 1939-1945 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Related Opinion Articles


Papers By Author

Papers by Theme

Digital Download

Download and read with you anywhere!


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More