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U3A Writing: The Anderson Shelter

Sarah Harris recalls helping her father to build a wartime air raid shelter.

For many more memories visit www.u3answ.org.au/remember/remember.html

My earliest memory is when I cut my thumb on a broken glass milk-bottle; it was full until I tripped and I fell on the jagged pieces. I was aged two and to this day the scar is described as identification on my passport! There are other minor early memories but the one I can recall in most detail is when we had to have an air-raid shelter built in the back garden, displacing the chicken run and the rabbit hutches.

I was about eight years old and as school had broken up for the summer holidays I was able to watch my father (exempt from active war service because he was a key worker at the local steel works, he was allowed to be a Home Guard like many of his work-mates) dig this huge hole in the ground. It must have been at least three feet deep and as big as a double bed, the excavated soil gave the rooster a high and mighty pile to crow on and about.

The soil was clay and dried out in huge blue grey lumps, when it rained it was slippery and sticky - terrific for making slide, much to my mother's dismay. The shelter was called an Anderson, made from metal sheets. These had been delivered with instructions on how to erect it. The corrugated iron sheets were very heavy, some were straight sided others were curved. These were seen by us children as potential rocking boats. We didn't see the danger in the razor sharp edges!

The shelter was duly built, the corrugated iron sheets were held together by enormous nuts and bolts which I was allowed to hold and hand to my father when needed. The curved sheets formed the roof and the straight pieces shored up the interior walls. The floor was plain earth which my father covered with old linoleum. Because it was clay it had dried hard and smooth making it quite waterproof.

Steps had been cut for us to go down into the shelter, old flagstone's were used to make them safe. Four bunks, very simple, were made to fit the interior space but leaving a narrow aisle in the centre, and lighting was by night-lights in jam jars which had string handles to carry them by. Hot water bottles were the only heating allowed but when all five of us (my mother, younger brother and sister and sometimes, but rarely, my father) were in the shelter it soon became stuffy and warm.

I can clearly remember the musty smell which held an element of fear too. The rough, grey hairy wool blankets with red hem stitching I can still 'feel' (government issue for use in the shelters); the gasmasks too...especially memorable was the Mickey Mouse type for my younger sister. Masks had to be worn when the siren sounded. During school holidays and at the week-ends I and my friends used the shelter as a den, we took it in turns to play in each other's. We could leave the door open and read comics, play board games and generally keep out of trouble.

Fortunately the shelter was only needed for real once but of course there were many false alarms and practises when the sirens sounded...all very exciting at first but as the war went on I realised that the town was on the flight path to Coventry and there were enemy bombers overhead every night, incessantly droning. When I heard the Home Guard giving us the 'All Clear' I knew what the shelter was really all about. I was very proud to have helped to build our shelter even if it was only to fetch and carry the tools.


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