Second World War

How to Survive an Air Raid

Being caught in an air raid is something that most of us don’t usually need to worry about, but that is no excuse for not being ready.  If you know what to do in the event of an earthquake, tsunami, cyclone/hurricane and other similar hazards then you owe it to yourself to learn how to survive an air attack.  So here are some handy air raid survival tips from my personal copy of the NZ Civil Defence 1943 Wardens’ Handbook.

Lemuel Lyes Collection

During the Second World War this handbook would’ve been tucked into the back pocket of your friendly community warden (or district warden, building warden, school warden, shelter warden or farm warden).  They had a lot of wardens back then and there was a good reason – they were preparing for the possibility that New Zealand might be attacked by the Japanese.

A lot has changed since then.  Planes are faster, explosions are bigger and it isn’t as easy to tell who the baddies are.  But this advice about air raids is just as relevant today as it was then:

1:  It is dangerous to watch what is going on in an air raid.  The only safe thing to do is take cover.  Anti-aircraft shells are designed to explode in the air, and the fragments of metal, including the heavy nose-cap, will descend on the country below.  Machine-gun bullets fired from aeroplanes will also fall to the ground.  Even if the raid is a considerable distance away, shell fragments may fall many miles from the scene of action.  Since aeroplanes travel four to five miles in a minute, a person watching a far-off raid may soon find himself in the middle of falling bombs released several miles away.  Curiosity to see the enemy may cost the gazer’s life.

Due to considerable advances in aviation technology such as supersonic jets and intercontinental ballistic missiles, some of this advice is outdated.  The core of the message stays true though – air attacks might seem fun to watch but if you can avoid this temptation then you will be much more likely to survive.

2:  Shelter in the Home – It is therefore essential that some form of shelter should be available to the civilian population.  All Wardens must study the booklet to householders entitled “How to Provide Raid Shelter and Protection from Flying Glass” and should make sure that people in their areas are familiar with its contents.  In houses that cannot provide an air-raid shelter, the safest room should be prepared for an emergency.  Use a large table, which you can strengthen by covering with books or a mattress.

Nowadays personal enforced shelters are beyond the means of most citizens (with the possible exception of Internet magnates), so it is important to identify the safest room in your house and practice how to turn it into an ad-hoc shelter as described above with a good sturdy table, mattresses and books.  If you don’t own books then you are more likely to die – so buy some.

3:  Treatment of Glass – It is safer to have no glass in the window of your refuge room, but if some daylight is required a flexible glass substitute can be used instead.  A temporary glass substitute can be made at home by using a double thickness of cheese-cloth or muslin fastened over the window frame, and coated with ordinary size or varnish.

If the glass is not taken out it should be so treated that it cannot fly into the room.  The easiest method is to paste on the inside of the glass a suitable covering such as a light-coloured cloth or cheese-cloth.  This can be stuck on with a paste made thus:  Mix 2 tablespoons of flour and a small teaspoon of washing-soda into a paste with 3 tablespoons of water.  Add half a pint of boiling water, stir briskly, and heat like porridge for ten to fifteen minutes.  Add ½ oz. of borax to prevent mildew.  Stick the paste to the window frames and glazing-bars as well as to the glass.  A good covering properly stuck on will prevent the glass from flying into the refuge room in small dangerous pieces.

History Geek does not take any responsibility for the loss of bonds due to landlords being unhappy with their windows being plastered with borax and cheese-cloth.  This does address a serious issue though; glass is not your friend – not in hurricanes, not in tornadoes, not in earthquakes and certainly not in air raids.

4:  Taking Cover in the Open – When taking cover avoid bodily contact with a solid wall, because you may be injured by violent percussion or earth shock.  To protect the lungs against blast keep your mouth slightly open.  As splinters from an exploding bomb fly upwards, the zone of greatest safety is nearest the ground.  It is therefore safer to sit than to stand, and safer to lie down than to sit.  Lie flat on your face and support your head in your arms.

This is a pretty good bit of advice – to avoid acting as a biological shock absorber don’t lean against any walls and remember to make sure to keep your mouth slightly open to stop your lungs exploding.

5:  Aerial Machine Gunning – In this war low-flying aircraft have machine-gunned many persons, but to do so effectively the aeroplanes must be not more than about 50 ft. above the ground-level.  Hence this form of attack is unlikely near city buildings, trees, &c.  A machine gun can fire ten or twelve bullets per second.  Thus a plane flying at 200 miles per hour will fire a bullet every 10 yards or so.  Remember these points: –

(a)  Since most bullets will not penetrate an ordinary brick wall, those in brick houses are safe if they keep away from windows:

(b)  Keep out of sight of attacking planes and do not congregate:

(c)  If caught in the open, lie face downwards and keep still.  Faces and shadows are very conspicuous from the air:

(d)  If possible, take cover indoors.

If under air attack by modern fighter planes then machine gun fire will be the least of your concerns – but the above is still very good advice if you find yourself being attacked by helicopters.  Just remember that they have thermal image sensors so lying down and staying still probably won’t be enough.  The best advice is probably to keep out of sight and avoid hanging around in big groups of people.

6:  Effectiveness of Bombs against Civilians – Bombs are very dangerous, but their effectiveness is limited.  After Britain, with a population of 45,000,000, had been bombed for nearly two years, the death-rate was less than one in a thousand.  Not all direct hits result in casualties and not all bombs register direct hits.  A large proportion of any city is open ground:  other areas consist of buildings evacuated in an alarm, and here a direct hit would not cause loss of life.  The Warden who may be out in a raid, or the civilian who is hoping bombs will not be labelled with his name, should realize that there are heavy odds against his being hit.  This chart shows how much the risk of injury can be reduced by acting on the simple precautions described above.

As you can see – taking cover significantly increases your chances of survival.

So in summary:


–       Watch the air raid

–       Take “arty” photos of the air raid with instagram

–       Shelter near windows

–       Lean against a wall

–       Congregate in large groups, especially in the open


–       Identify the safest room in your house

–       Have cheese-cloth ready to put on your windows

–       Make an ad-hoc shelter out of a table, mattresses and books

–       Lie on the ground with your hands over your head and with your mouth slightly open

On a serious note, the chances of being caught in an air raid are thankfully pretty slim but it is something to keep in mind if traveling to a volatile region.  In 2006 the Israeli Air Force responded to Hezbollah attacks by bombing civilian targets across Lebanon including the Beirut International Airport.  Thousands of tourists and foreign nationals were stranded in the city during the attacks, including a television crew who were making a show on international foods.  The documentary they made chronicling their experience is worth watching.

I’ve got some more Civil Defence advice to share in upcoming posts including dangers you should watch out for after an air raid and a guide to surviving a full on enemy invasion.  I hope you all have a great week.

© Lemuel Lyes

9 replies »

  1. Would there be a possibility that you could sell borax and cheese cloth through this site? Would save a lot of bother resourcing it…
    Cheers sue (vintage historian)

    • Hi Sue, thanks for visiting my blog! You are right, it can be difficult to find cheese cloth and borax at your average corner shop. But I’ve got good news, both of these items are easily purchasable through Trade Me. If I were you I would act now though, as there may be a rush in the event of war being declared.

    • Thanks! The booklet gives a fascinating glimpse into wartime conditions. Fortunately most of this advice was if course never needed down here, but it gives a sense of what civilians may have been doing to prepare for the possibility of attack.

  2. Hi! Thank you for posting this. I’m creating an album based in a science fiction universe I’ve been working on for the past two years. One of the story tracks in the album has a PSA on how to survive an unexpected aerospace attack.

    • Wow, that is an incredibly creative way to use the old Warden’s Booklet. I’m glad it was useful and wish you all the best for the upcoming album!

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