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Liverpool Blitz: The Blackout and ARP wardens

It was feared that the bright lights of the city would provide an easy target for enemy bombers, so from 1 September 1939 major cities like Liverpool were ordered to black out any light that could be seen from the sky.

ARP wardens and firemen at the scene of a blaze
ARP wardens and firemen at the scene of a blaze at West Brunswick dock. 27 September 1940
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The blackout was supervised by ARP (air raid precaution) wardens. There were 1.4 million ARP wardens in Britain, most of who were part time volunteers who had full time day jobs. They patrolled the streets watching for the slightest chink of light and supervised people getting into air raid shelters. A warden needed to know how many people were sleeping on his patch and where, so in case of a bomb or fire he could direct the rescue services quickly and accurately.

People were required to cover their house windows with anything that would prevent light escaping - paper, curtains, blinds and even paint. These items quickly became dear and hard to find. Train and tram windows were also blacked out. Lit signs and shop windows were switched off, changing the face of the city dramatically. Car headlights were taped up but for a small slit, and streetlights were initially banned but then restricted to pinprick downward lights only. ARP wardens and police patrolled the streets, spotting any glimmers and warning the guilty party to 'put that light out'.

Of course the lack of light caused problems for people on the ground as well as enemy pilots. People walking and driving the streets at night were often involved in accidents despite traffic bollards and sharp bends being painted white. People were knocked down, fell onto railway lines, fell down steps and even fell into the Leeds-Liverpool canal. Rules were relaxed a few months into the war, when accidents had reached ridiculous proportions, and pedestrians were allowed to carry torches provided they were masked with tissue paper and switched off during raids. British Summer Time was also extended to give people more daylight hours towards the end of the day.

ARP wardens at the scene of bomb damage
ARP wardens and other rescue workers at the scene of bomb damage on Sidderley Street. 4 September 1940.
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Initially the dance halls, cinemas and pubs suffered as people didn't risk leaving their houses at night for fear of an accident, but by December 1939 the population of Liverpool was coming to accept the blackout and just 'got on with it'.

It is argued that the blackout was of limited use once the city was hit and burning, as the enemy pilots knew exactly where to drop their bombs. Fire spotters were appointed to help identify these fires quickly and prevent as much damage as possible, particularly to important buildings like banks and hospitals. From December 1940 men aged 16-60 had to perform up to 48 hours fire spotting each month. Some avoided it by travelling to North Wales every night, and were locally described as travelling on the 'funk express'. To make up the numbers women were recruited and trained as well.

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Find out more about what it was like to be an ARP warden by visiting the Imperial War Museum website.

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