by P.A. Reynolds F.I.M.T., A.M.Inst.B.E.
Blackstone portal fire pump in action 1939


Step back in time to a pivotal point in history.

It's April 1939. Hitler has begun confiscating Jewish valuables. The battleship Tirpitz is launched. Hitler renounces the Anglo-German Naval Treaty.


Tension is building worldwide. Across Britain, people are being prepared for a war that they are still praying will never happen.


Reprinted from “Motor Commerce, Motor Trade Monthly”, April 1939

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In this article the author, who is amongst other things an official lecturer on Air Raid Precautions, shows in what directions the motor trade can help the authorities in the event of an emergency

Events on the Continent have once again turned our thoughts with increasing urgency to the matter of Air Raid Precautions, and this article is offered as a sincere attempt to help those garage owners who have not yet decided upon the work they can do.

At the moment we find that garage staffs have enrolled in large numbers for the Auxiliary Fire Service, as Air Raid Wardens and as Special Constables. Garage owners, too, have, of course, offered themselves for these services, but many of them feel that in addition to this, their specialised knowledge and their engineering and transport facilities can be put to good use. The main question is – how?

German battleship Tirpitz launched in 1939

German battleship Tirpitz, launched April 1939

The Public’s Jobs in Time of War

Let us review for a moment what would have to be done by the civil population in time of war. The big job would be to produce munitions and all the paraphernalia of war and, at the same time, to maintain all of the essential services such as the supply and distribution of food, materials and so on. Now this would necessitate a complete reorganization of transport because so many commercial vehicles are scheduled for special work with the forces.

In addition to this, it is safe to bet that private motoring would be almost non-existent. These events alone would bring their own special problems, but most of the organization work has already received the attention of those responsible.

Now although most of the A.R.P. tuition given at the moment is concerned with anti-gas measures, we are none of us so foolish as to imagine that this is all that we would encounter. Gas would be the least of our troubles, for it obvious that high explosive bombs would be that main form of air attack, with incendiary bombs as a second string.

Air Raid Wardens Wanted, World War 2 poster
Maintenance of Communications

High explosive bombs would be dropped for two purposes. The first would be that of shaking the morale of the population and the second would, of course, be that of the destruction of both factories and communications. It needs little imagination to realise the chaos of but half of the exits from large towns were rendered impassable, and it is because transport is so vital that we in the motor trade should concentrate upon its preservation.

There would be scores of wrecked vehicles to clear off the roads. There would be debris of all kinds to remove, and although it is not suggested that motor engineers should undertake this work entirely, there would naturally be occasions when the use of a powerful salvage cranes would be of invaluable help to the authorities.

The use of incendiary bombs would necessitate the swift transport of fire-fighting appliances, and whilst the various fire authorities have a large number of vehicles earmarked for this work, there are bound to be many casualties. There would be a demand for light cars to tow the smaller type of fire pump, to carry hoses, and so on

Diagram showing external & sectional view of British WW2 Mark 1, 250lb general purpose bomb
Even if Gas Were not Used

Although I have stated that the probability of poison gas being used extensively is not particularly great, owing to the fact that that so much of its effectiveness depends upon weather conditions, we must not blind ourselves to the fact that an enemy’s task would be to harass a country as much as it could. A modern bomber can carry about a 5,000lbs. load of missiles, and as the incendiary bomb weighs only about 2lbs., we see that each machine is capable of starting about 2,500 fires within a few minutes. The results of this you can imagine. H.E. destroys many of the gas-tight rooms; incendiary bombs bring thousands of fire-fighters and others into the open, and it is then that a gas attack would be most effective.

A Bren gun carrier and Lewis gun team take up positions by a sign on the A33 trunk road

Bren gun carrier & Lewis gun team on the A33 trunk road, during exercises in Hampshire, 1938

Copyright Imperial War Museum

It is Essential that Transport Should Go On

Now, as I have said, transport must go on. There must be the transport of munitions, not only to docks but to the various aerodromes and gun stations. Medical supplies would have to be rushed all over the place, and other materials would have to be transported from factory to factory or to the various distributing stations. The railways would be hopelessly inadequate for catering for the huge quantity of supplies required, and anyway, one of the first aims of an enemy would be to blow up the tracks and destroy as many bridges as possible.

It is to the roads, then, that we must look for the bulk of our transport, and it is in connections with this that the motor trade can be of enormous value to the country. Let no garage owner think that with private cars off the road his work would decline. The destruction of transport would be one big aim of an enemy, and, as a result, every repairer’s whole facilities would be needed to keep the vehicles on the roads. Military repair shops would only be able to cope with the task of handling their own W.D. lorries – and it would be to the garage proprietor that the government would look for considerable assistance. The chief thing, then, that the motor trade can do is keep its workshop equipment in sound conditions and ready to be used should the occasion require it.

Sandbagged fuel pumps and fuelling car Air Raid Precautions in London, 1939

Sandbagged fuel pumps - Air Raid Precautions in London, 1939

Copyright Imperial War Museum

We must now see what other ways we possess of assisting. We hear a lot about decontamination, about rescue parties, and of fire fighting. As motor engineers, we need not concern ourselves with decontamination work, for that will be relegated to the properly trained bodies. There is, however, one aspect of it which we may consider, and that is the decontamination of vehicles. As doubtless many of you know, with the blister types of gas it is essential that all traces of the liquid be removed as completely and as soon as is practicable. This is necessary because the liquids will continue to give off their dangerous vapour in some cases for a considerable period. Vehicles that have been driven through either mustard gas or lewisite will leave a certain amount of trouble behind them as they proceed, for even walking over the ground that has been contaminated is dangerous.

Use for Your Power Washing Plant

When it is realised that a drop of the liquid the size of a pin head will produce a blister on the skin the size of a shilling, the necessity for killing and removing the chemical is clear. Mustard and lewisite can be counteracted in two ways – either by destruction by means of an antidote, or by washing. If the necessity should arise, the antidote would, it is hoped, be supplied, but the chances are that much reliance would necessarily be placed upon washing.

It is here that the power washing plant would prove of value. Operators would, of course, have to be provided with protective clothing, and although there is no need to discuss this in the present article, I will gladly give to those interested details of a more exact nature. At all events, a supply of rubber boots, rubber gloves and waterproof aprons would be essential.

WW2 Air Raid Warden wearing gas protective clothing, gas mask and steel helmet 1941

I have mentioned the task of clearing the roads of damaged vehicles, and this would mean a demand for salvage outfits both for the actual government work and also on behalf of the local authorities and other concerns. There would be debris, too large to be man-handled, and cranes would certainly be needed for this too. Again, it is more than likely that on occasion the use of a welding plant would be required for rescue work, so we see that our ordinary servicing appliances would play a big part in the struggle.

So far I have suggested but one thing – the care of our workshop equipment, for the other matters would only be carried out in time of war. We possibly feel, however, that there must be some other job awaiting us now – a job that that we can perhaps do better than anyone else. What is there that we can do?.

Members of the Home Guard operate a Browning machine-gun from a trailer hitched to a car

Members of the Home Guard operate a Browning machine-gun from a trailer hitched to a car

Copyright Imperial War Museum

One of the difficulties confronting local authorities at the moment is that of securing enough rooms in which the various A.R.P. lectures can be given. Most of the schools are of course used for the work, but as evening classes take up most of the available accommodation, the difficulty is by no means solved. There are possibly a number of garage owners who can make arrangements for lecture rooms without very much dislocation. It doesn’t take long to remove cars from one’s showrooms, for example; whilst workshops are not the most comfortable places in which to sit, some of those might well be offered if large enough.

Again, Air Raid Warden posts are needed- and who is there in your district who doesn’t know of your garage? The office with its telephone facilities would make an ideal post, whilst surely you have enough room to offer some of it for first aid? Incidentally, don’t overlook the fact that your air compressor will provide a most effective means of preventing gas from penetrating a room. All that you need to do is see that the room air pressure is kept a few pounds above atmospheric pressure. But don’t forget to have a filter on the intake pipe!

Those of you who have already undertaken some A.R.P. work will know that there are a number of services that you can help with regards to transport. There are, for example, the intelligence service, police, fire-brigade, hospitals, communications, and so on, in addition to those I have already mentioned. Each of those will require transport in some form or other, and it is to you that the country will look for the efficient maintenance of such transport.

Civil Defence Training Pamphlet No 2, Objects Dropped From The Air (3rd Edition)

Civil Defence Training Pamphlet No 2, Objects Dropped From The Air (3rd Edition)

Issued by the Ministry of Home Security.

I have suggested a few ways in which you and your staff can help in this work of precaution. No motor trader will be left out should ever war be declared, and no one need feel that by stopping at home and doing the work that I have suggested he will be shirking his duty. Many employees would have to go, of course, but that would make the tasks of those left of all the more importance.

To sum up, then, your first job is to decide what you can do – and don’t forget that keeping your workshop equipment in condition is of major importance. Then when you have made your decision, work quietly at your appointed task and use your abilities as an organiser of business to see that in your town, at least, there is someone who can be relied to carry on efficiently.

Reprinted from “Motor Commerce, Motor Trade Monthly” for April 1939 (p.p. 34, 35 & 76)

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