Secret Casualties of World War II

Uncovering the Civilian Deaths from Friendly Fire

Secret Casualties of World War II looks at the numbers killed during the war as a result of anti-aircraft fire, whether from shells that did not explode in the air, or from the shell splinters that fell back to the ground. The author focuses mainly on events in Britain but also considers the American experience, including civilian deaths from Naval gunfire at Pearl Harbour and during the Los Angeles ‘air raid’ of 25th February 1941.

A book that fills in an often neglected aspect of the Home Front, including many personal anecdotes and individual incidents throughout the war. Whether these casualties can really be described as “secret” seems to be stretching a point, since so many people seem to have been aware of them at the time.

It would have been a stronger book had the author found some evidence that the problem had been deliberately ignored or covered up by the government. It seem more likely that this was a problem where it impossible to calculate the true figures. The author’s ‘guesses’ and ‘assumptions’ provide some context but evidence from an expert might have leant more weight to his argument.

Nevertheless an interesting study of a lesser known side of the Blitz. The following passage concerns the problem of shell splinters:

ARP wardens and nurses cover up the bodies of children killed in an air raid on a school in Ardgowan Road, Catford, London. Thirty eight children and six teachers died. Not a friendly fire incident.

There was uneasiness at the time about the number of people being killed by artillery fire, as an exchange in the House of Commons in 1943 indicates. In March that year, a Member of Parliament rose to ask the Home Secretary a question. Independent MP Edgar Granville wanted to know:

the number of civilian casualties in the London area from anti­ aircraft shells and splinters during the enemy raid on London on 3rd March; and whether he will give a public warning of the dangers involved in standing in the open to watch the barrage during intensive anti-aircraft fire?

Home Secretary Herbert Morrison was too wily to be drawn into revealing exactly how many people were actually being killed by falling shrapnel and shells which exploded in the streets. He admitted that there had been such casualties but limited himself to saying:

In districts in which bombs and anti-aircraft ammunition are falling together it is not always possible accurately to attribute casualties to the one cause or the other, but it is known that on the occasion in question some of the casualties were due solely to the latter cause.

While in the circumstances it is not desirable to give detailed figures, I cannot too strongly emphasise that the public, unless their duties otherwise require, should not neglect the warnings so often given not to remain unnecessarily in an exposed position during an air raid, but should take cover in the nearest accessible shelter, including surface shelter.

In other words, people were certainly being killed by their own artillery fire, but the government did not want to say how many!

Shelters for Wartime Caravan Dwellers. Caravans are springing up outside the area affected by nightly raids and these caravan dwellings in Hertfordshire have their own shelter in which to take cover during air raid warnings. 1940.

We made a few rough calculations in an earlier chapter to try and work out how many artillery shells might have exploded on the ground, rather than in the air. Let us now try and do the same thing for shell fragments falling from a great height. In London, anti-aircraft guns were firing perhaps 10,000 shells in a night. Taking as an average a weight of 301bs and assuming that about a quarter of that weight would be taken up by the explosive charge within the shell, means that each shell would deposit somewhere in the region of 22.51bs of steel fragments on the ground below.

If, as we did before, we guess that 10 per cent of the shells did not explode in mid-air, then that would give us something over 9,000 which did. If we multiply 22.5 by 9,000, we find that 202,5001bs of metal would fall onto the streets of London in one night. This equates in metric terms to 91,852kg or over 90 metric tonnes of pieces of metal, every single night for months on end.

Original wartime caption: The enemy aircraft having been spotted, a 3.7AA gun roars into action (in background) with thepredictor detachment (in foreground) following its course.

Some of the bits of metal would be little more than splinters or specks, but there would be many larger pieces, ranging in size from a bullet to the nosecone shown in Illustration 3. Because the nosecones of the shells invariably detached when they exploded, there could be around 9,000 of these crashing to the ground each night during the Blitz. That they could be deadly is seen when we look at newspaper reports from the time.

The Evening Despatch for Tuesday, 17 December 1940, at the height of the Blitz, tells the story of 73-year-old Miss Hannah Maria Moore, who was living on the top floor of 89a Lea Street in Kidderminster. She went to bed during an air raid and the nosecone of a shell fell from about 20,000ft, smashed through the roof of the house, penetrated the ceiling of the room in which Miss Moore was sleeping and struck her on the head, killing her instantly.

The reminiscences of people who lived through the Blitz are full of stories of nearly being hit by big chunks of metal from anti-aircraft fire. Such anecdotes come of course from the survivors. Here are [some] more stories from people who provided personal accounts to the BBC’s archive about the Second World War:

I remember hearing German planes over head and anti-aircraft guns firing from Kingsway in Derby. Pieces of shrapnel would whistle down, one large piece knocked off a back door at a house in Lodge Way.

Shrapnel was very jagged and heavy and falling from a height certainly had the capability of killing or seriously injuring any­ one it hit. Strangely, in all the war histories I’ve read this has never been mentioned and I’ve never seen any statistics of persons killed or injured by our own shrapnel although there must have been quite a few. Probably it was all attributed to the bombs.

‘One thing you never thought of, after the ack-ack, say a minute or so afterwards, was how everything would come down - all the bullets they had been firing would start coming down so it was very dangerous to be outside.’

There was a very heavy raid. We had a gun site near a search­ light battery and they were firing at these Germans. The targets were actually illuminated - the aircraft were illuminated and the ack-ack was going and there was quite a lot of heavy firing; we rushed out to the gate because we thought we heard a German aircraft get hit and one of the engines on fire.

We rushed up to the gate, which was about 15 feet away from our front door, and my dad suddenly grabbed me and shoved me and shouted to my mother, ‘Run!’

We did but we didn’t know why. The next thing, there was a huge great flash and a spark, which came up from the gate right by us. It was a piece of shrapnel that had come down. Dad had heard it whistling and could hear it heading towards us.

One thing you never thought of, after the ack-ack, say a minute or so afterwards, was how everything would come down - all the bullets they had been firing would start coming down so it was very dangerous to be outside. The next morning I did find the nose cap of a shell in the garden and a big chip out of the path - it was roughly where my mother had been standing, so my dad had probably saved her life.

This excerpt from Secret Casualties of World War Two: Uncovering the Civilian Deaths from Friendly Fire appears by kind permission of the publisher, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, copyright remains with author. The above images are not from the book.