*** World War II air campaign -- civil defense

World War II Air Campaign: Civil Defense

British gas masks
Figure 1.--While aerial bombardment of cities in World War I was relatively rare, it did occur. And as a result there was enormous concern during the inter-War about aerial bombardment in any future war and how to protect civilans. And the advances in aviation meant that it would be far more destructive than in World War I. This concern escalated when Göring and Hitler announced the creation of the Luftwaffe (1935). Actually they had been building the Luftwaffe in secret soon after taking power. The two coutries that gave the greatest attention to civil defense (CD) were Britain and Germany, although neither built deep shelters for civilians. Much of the concern before the War was the use of poison gas. As a result of Hitler's threats of war at Munich over the Czech Sudetenlland (September 1938), the British rushed foward plans to issue gas masks to civilians. Here British officials and mothers test the reactions of babies to a respirator designed to protect them against poison gas (March 3, 1939). A few day later, Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, a country which at Munich he pledged to respect. Image courtesy of the Military History of the 20th Century website.

While aerial bombardment of cities was relatively rare, it did occur in World War I. And as a result there was enormous concern during the inter-War about aerial bombardment in any future war and how to protect civilans. And the advances in aviation meant that it would be far more destructive than in World War I. This concern escalated when Göring and Hitler announced the creation of the Luftwaffe (1935). Actually they had been building the Luftwaffe in secret soon after taking power. The two coutries that gave the greatest attention to civil defense (CD) were Britain and Germany, although neither built deep shelters for civilians. Much of the concern before the War was the use of poison gas. The British as a result prepared plans to issue everyone gas mask, The French had a more limited program. The Soviets did not have an important CD program. Moscow's subways were built deeper than necessary, in part out of considration for aerial attack. Germany's Axis partners had very limited civil defense programs. Musolini apparently thought that the Germans had largely won the War ad that the Meditrranean would become an Axis lake making Italy safe from aerial attack. The Japanese with wood and paper cities were the most vulnerable to aerial attack. The militarists who launched the Pacific War believed that Japan was invulerable beause the Imperial Navy could prevent attacks and the Americans did not have bombers of suffient range. The United States began Civil Defense planning even before entering the War. President Roosevelt put Mrs. Roosevelt and New York's popular mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, in charge of the effort.

Country Trends

Civil defense took on enormous proportions in three countries: Britain, Germany, and Japan. Many others countries were bombed, but only these three contries experienced sustined bombardment designed to knock it them out of the war. The German effort to bomb Britain out of the War is known as the Battle of Britain. The Allied effort to knock the Germans and Japanese out of the War is known as he strategic bombing campaign. American and British bombers attacked Germany and American bombers attacked Japan. Civil Defense prepartions varied widely. The British had few mass bomb shelters, although the subways were eventually opened. And home shelters were made availavke. Britain's majo CD assett, however, wasthe vertical outlay of its cities. Rather thn bulding up, the Britih built out. This meant that bombing London and other cities was ounterproductive it took more vombs to destroy British cities thn Germn cities. And it meant that enormous quantities od scarce military resources could kill or diplace numbers of civilians. The Germans eperienced the longest strategi bombing campaign. Bombing was a first light, but when the British aquired heavy bombing capability with the Lancaster (1942) and the Americans jouned them (1943) the arond the clock bombardment began (1943). The destriction of the Luftwaffe layed German cities ioen to huge waves of Allied bombers. German cities and war industries were reduced to rubble, but Germany's highly effective CD campaign limited civlian casualties. Japan's principal CD assett was distance. The Home Islands were beyond the reach of american bombers. The cities themselves were the most vuknerable of all belligerant countris. They were mostly built of wood and paper and were esenyially huhe potentil bonfires. Unlike the Jpanese, America had the capability of developing new advanced weapons during the war. The new F6F Hellcat made possible the seizure of the Narianas Islands from which the new B-29 Bombers could reach the Home Islands. Even before the use of two atomic bombs, American bombers had turned Japanese cities into glowing cinders. And CD efforts were of little avail.


We know very little about Australian civil defense efforts. We do note school air raid drills after the devestaiung Japanese air raid on Darwin in the north (February 1942). Fortunatelly for the country, the population and major cities were located in the coutheast. Ans at the time najor American milktary shioments were von the way, incklusung substanial air assetts.

Britain: Air Raid Precautions (ARP)

The Air Raid Precautions (ARP) was the British civil defense organisation. It was established long before World War II and the Battle of Britain. Britain was bombed by the Germans in World war I, by both bombers and Zephins. The attacks had been of no strategic importance, but the civilans were terrified. Britain was building a strategic bombing force to prepare a massive aerial assault on Germany in 1919. The War ended, however, before the campaign was launched (1918). And after the War with improvements in aviation, it became obvious that aerial bombardment could devastate whole cities. Italian military theorist Giulio Douhet published a work on future air warfare that proved highly influential (1921). One memorable phrase reached the public conciousness, "the bomber will always get through". [Douhet] He proved to be correct. The British Government as a result established the Air Raid Precautions organization (1924). The German bpmbing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War made it clear that the German Luftwaffe was prepared to bomb cities. The British Air Ministry believed that a German bombing campaign woukd be devestating and predicted a million casualties and the destruction of London. And Britain almost went to war with Germany over Czechoslovakia (1938). The Government believed that poison gas would be a part of the German asault and ordered gas masks for civilians. No effort was made to build deep shelters, although home shelters were devised. The 1939 Hailey Conference concluded that providing deep shelters would lead to workers staying underground rather than working (1939). The ARP braced for a German attack during the Munich Crisis so when war did come, they were ready. The ARP took on the task of issuing gas masks, pre-fabricated air-raid shelters (Anderson and Morrison shelters), setting up public shelters, and the maintenance of the blackout. The ARP also helped in the rescue effort after air raids and other attacks, and some women became ARP Ambulance Attendants whose job was to help administer first aid to casualties, search for survivors, and in many grim instances, help recover bodies, sometimes those of their own colleagues. ARP Wardens patrolled assigned city neigborhoods to make sure that every home was blacked out. The iniitial Luftwaffe campaign was a daylight campaign against the RAF. When this failed and increasing losses forced the Luftwaffe to shift to night-time bombing, the black out became very important. Boys served as ARP messengers. The effectiveness of the German aerial bombardment campaign proved less than anticipated. There was substabtial property damage and civilian casuakltues, but far less than anticipated. And the Luftwaffe did not significantly impair the British war econonomy. This was because the Luftwaffe was a tactical force and the RAF exacted a heavy toll on the slow-moving bombers. After the British withstood the Blitz, Hitler shifted the Luftwaffe east to prepare fvor Barbarossa (1941). The morale of the British people remained high througiout the Blitz. The ARP headquarters was at Baylis House in Slough, Buckinghamshire. The Goverment created the Civil Defence Service (1941) which took over the ARP responsibilities and organization. Even so, the public continued to refer to civil defense as the ARP throughout the War. The ARP was formally disbanded (1946).


The French were also concerned about German aerial attack, but had a more limited program than the British. There was not radar defense system. And the Germans used the Luftwaffe primarily to defear the French Army, not to destroy French cities. The French would experince more dmage to their cuties as a result of Allied operatibes to liberate the cojuntry and drive out the Germans. A major Allied target were the French transpot system being used by the Germns to supply the Atlantic Wall beach defenses. The Allies also target French ports with U-boat instaltions and French industry being used to support the Germn war economy. We have not been able to find much information about the French evacuation program. We believ it was primarily aimed at getting children out of Paris, but have few details. Perhaps readers wil know more.


Unlike many countries the Germsns attacked, the Germans had air defenses--primarily the powerful Luftwaffe. The delay in the Allied strategic bombing campaign gave the Germans the time to build not only a formidable air defence line, but also a first-class Civil Defense system. There was both Air Defenses and Air Protection (Luftschutz). The German air defenses were formidavle. The Kamhuber Line radars not only directed the German fighters, but alerted the cities of an coming boming raid. The British fought the campaign at first with obsolete aircraft. But by the end of 1942 the Lancaster was ready and the American 8th Air Force with its B-17s and B-24s were in place. President Roossevelt and Primeminister Churchill agreed to a round-the-clock bombing campaign (January 1943). The strength of the Kamhuber Line and the Luftwaffe took a deadly toll on Allied formations (1943). The arrival of the long-range P-51 escorts changed this and the Luftwaffe could no longer defend the Reich's cities. The basic defense becme the anti-aircraft Flak batteries. The Flak batteries could take a toll on the bomber formations, but could not stop them. The Germans called Civil Defense Luftschutz (Air Prorection). German civilians had to rely on the the bomb sheters and civilian defense facilities from the increasingly heavy Allied raids. In the end the Allies leved virtually every major German city. The civil defense program, however, proved very effective in protecting civilians. Te Germans also launched a major evacuation effort, much less publicized that than the British evacuation program. .


Germany's Axis partners had very limited civil defense programs. Italy was not ready for which was demonstrated by the country's disaterous martil performance. Not onlu=y was the military not prepared, but neither was the civilian government dspite bombastic public prformance by Mussolini. There was no significant civil defense effort cinducted before the War. Musolini entered the War apparently thinking that the Germans had largely won the War and that the Meditrranean would become an Axis lake making Italy safe from aerial attack (June 1940). This of coursedid not occur and especially after America entered the War, the Allies secured North Africa and had the air power to begin atacks on Italy. The Italian people were on their own ith virtually no availale shlters. Some Italians sought shelter in caves which wre availanble in a fw locations.


The Japanese Government was aware of Japan's vulnerability to aerial attack with wood and paper cities. The primary reasoning thery ignored this ulnerability seems to have been that the the Japanese military believed gthat they could establish a wide security zone which would make American air attacks impossible. And that the war would be short because the Americans would quickly make peace, unwilling to pay the cost in blood and treasure needed to to assault Japan's newly won empire. Military planners often make mistakes, but this has to be bear the tops of the greatest mistakes in history. A U.S. War time assessment of civil defense preparations reported, "The Antiaircraft Defense Association, "Kokukiokia," instructs civilians in air raid measures. It is a local, voluntary organization working under government control, educating and training the public. Smaller units known as "Neighbor-Group Air Defense" groups, of about 11 families each, are also organized to combat fires, etc., but until actual raid conditions prevail, no knowledge of their efficiency in training may be expected. Such information as is available tends to show that the government is thoroughly aware of the vulnerability of the islands." [U.S. War Department] As far back as 1933 we notice practice air raid measures--in this case involving poison gas. During the actual war, Japan would be the only country to use poison gas. A few air raid shelters were constructed in Tokyo (1936). Others have been built throughout the empire, but not for the genral public. The American war time assessment continues, "While the necessity of gas-proofing these shelters is perfectly obvious, and no doubt regulations were issued to this effect, there is no documentary evidence along these lines. According to a German broadcast on March 23, 1942, 'The Japanese government, recognizing the failure of the people to purchase gas masks for their protection, began the distribution of masks throughout the islands, limiting the number to one to a household for training purposes and assessing the costs to the individual. The State bears the cost to the poor.'" The Japanese began evactuating children from the cities in the last year of the War. But when the American bombing raids became effective and food began to diasappear, civilans began fleeing the cities.

Soviet Union

The Soviets did not have an important CD program. s with Japan, its primary CD assett was distance, but unlike the Japanese, the vastness of the country added to the distance factor. Moscow's subways proved an important CD fcility. They hd been built than necessary, in part out of considration for aerial attack. Saving civilians was, however, not a high priority for Stalin. He fid not allow civilian evacuations in Lenningrad, Moscow, or Stalingrad. His calculation was that the Red Army would fight harder to save civilians. As in Britain, the Luftwaffe proved in capable of an effective strategic bombing campaign. Cities in the westen Soviet Union were bombed or occupied, but muv=ch the country's industrial plant was evacuated east beyond the Urals which placed Soviet industry beyond the reach of the Luftwaffe. The Luftwaffe was too small and lacked the heavy bombers needed to wage a strategic nombing campaign in the East. Stalingrad was the last Soviet city to be razed by German bombers (September 1942). Luftwaffe losses in the effort to save Stalingrad (942-43) and then in the effort to protect German cities (1943-44) left the Germans incapable of strategic bombardment.

United States

The United States began Civil Defense planning even before entering the War. The United States had ahuge advantage in its CD planning--the benefy of distance from agressor mations ad a two ocean shield. The World War I Council of National Defense was reactivated by President Roosevelt and created the Division of State and Local Cooperation to assist the Council's efforts. [SEMP] As a result, civil defense preparations began as a continuation of what had been implemenbt during World War I. Officials involved soon concluded that giving significant responsibilities to local and state councils was an inadequate resoponse to the dangers involved. The President vested responsibility primarily at the Federal level with the creation of the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD) within the Office of Emergency Planning (OEP) in the Executive Office of the President (EOP) (May 20, 1941).[SEMP] The OCD was originally headed by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and was charged with developing both protective measures and suppoting national morale. La Guardia was to work with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, but the two did not get along. The matrix of American CD agencis effort was expanded just days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with the creation of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). The CAP was assigned responsibility for commissioning civilian pilots to patrol the coast and borders. They were also to engage in search and rescue missions as needed. And this woud soon be needed when German U-boats appeared off the American Atlantic coast. Pearl Harbor lent great urgency to th CD programs. And there was a near panic after Pearl Harbor about possible air attacks, especially on the West Coast.

Civilian Evacuations

Throughout the inter-War era, especially after the rise of the NAZIs in Germany, there was oncern iver the bombing of ciies. The Germans had begun this in Woirld War I with a few Zepohlin and bomber attacks on London and coastal cities. The Allies were planning a major strategic bombing campaign in 1919, byt the Germans requested the Armistice before it could be lunched. he fears of air attacks on cities were conformed during he Spanish CivilWar when the Germans aiding Franco forces devestated the Basque town of Guernica. As a result the British and to a lesser extent the French planned to evacuate children in case of War. The British at the onset of World War II crried how massive evacutiin of London and other citie that has becmee an iconic aspect of British resistance to NAZI tyranny. Other countries also conducted such evacuations. The Germans and Japanese conducted the two other major evcuations, in both cases after the Allied strategic bombing campaigns began to have a sbstantil impact on their cities. There were major differences in these evacuation operations.


Suburban Emergency Management Project (SEMP), "What Is Civil Defense? World War I through the Eisenhower Administration," SEMP Biot No. 243.

U.S. War Department. "Civil Protection Against Gas Warfare in Enemy Countries" Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 17, (January 28, 1943).


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Created: 2:32 PM 11/1/2012
Last updated: 2:33 PM 5/29/2023