At the onset of war, Britain introduced nationwide blackouts. In fact, the UK government instigated the blackout on 1st September 1939, two days before war was declared. The aim was to prevent enemy planes navigating across the UK using city lights.
This was not the first blackout in Britain. In 1915, there was a limited blackout when German zeppelins were bombing their enemies. Lights were dimmed as zeppelins were en-route.
Blackout Britain readies for war
Preparations for the 1939 blackout began in 1937 as the threat of aerial warfare loomed. 300,000 citizen volunteers trained as air raid precaution wardens. From 1938, rehearsals were common. Householders checked for leaking light on the ground; the RAF watched from above.
Disguising cities from the air was the main aim of the blackout. Luftwaffe pilots coupled maps and reconnaissance photos with visible landmarks. Turning off the lights was one of many defensive measures employed by the British. Burning barrels of tar created smokescreens and barrage balloons filled with hydrogen acted as a physical barrier. Of course, there was also the British weather.
Blackout rehearsals became routine from early 1938. People used heavy curtains, cardboard or paint to prevent light escaping their homes. Councils turned off street lights and car and bicycle lights had shutters to direct light downwards.
Leading up to the declaration of war, the women of Britain made and hung thousands of blackout curtains and blinds. They sealed gaps with brown paper. No light got out and no air got in. Newspapers advertised “ARP Curtaining” in black, brown, green, and blue. Ordinary blackout curtains could not be washed. This would weaken them and let through light. A leaflet instructed homeowners to “hoover, shake, brush then iron” the curtains.
Many citizens took extra measures to ensure not even a crack of light escaped. Tape criss-crossed windows and sandbags were piled against openings. The sandbags may have provided extra blast protection as well as preventing any light escaping from the rooms.
Householders were urged to check for light leaks at ground level, while RAF bombers flew overhead to check from above. These exercises revealed traffic to be the main problem.
Public problems in the dark
As well as making it difficult for the Nazis, the darkness made life more complicated for people getting around. Traffic accidents became commonplace. In 1941, there were over 9,000 fatalities on roads across the UK. 1,130 of those came after only one month. Those of a more criminal persuasion also used the cloak of darkness to aid their illegal activities.
Well-meaning citizens and volunteers took to the streets with white paint with varying results. Kerbstones, fences, railings and roadside poles were often painted with thick white stripes. These helped people in vehicles and even pedestrians to get around. This example in Gilford has endured over seventy years of Northern Irish weather.
Counter to this, some white or light coloured buildings were painted dark. This included the Parliament Buildings at Stormont, which were coated with a mixture of bitumen and cow manure. Evidence of this remains on the white stonework even today.
In Belfast in 2016, a new city centre speed limit of 20mph was enforced. This was the maximum allowed on all roads from 1939. While this is a newly reinstated restriction, one thing has remained from the blackout days of 1939. This was the first time white lines were painted down the centre of the UK’s roads.
To stop the escalating road accidents, other unorthodox suggestions were put forward. People should face walking into the traffic and gentlemen should leave their shirttails out to reflect light. Along with carrying a newspaper or a white handkerchief, these were suggestions put forward from London.
Brighter days after the blackout
A “Dim-out” began in September 1944. This allowed the introduction of moonlight-level lighting. Were an alert to sound, full blackout should be observed, though. The blackout would endure until 30th April 1945, two weeks after the liberation of Belsen. By then. Allied troops were making the final advance on Berlin. The people of Britain had endured this unpopular inconvenience for 5 years, 123 days.