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World War II Wednesday, 1 September, 1999, 08:03 GMT 09:03 UK
The air raid warden's tale
Barbara Castle:"I knew I couldn't leave"
The 60th anniversary of the start of World War II is on 3 September. Over the next week, BBC News Online will look back to this historic day with a series of features and interviews.

The day the war began
The Bradford-born politician Barbara Castle first became an MP in 1945. During her high profile career she spent a number of years in the Labour cabinet, was elected to the European Parliament and became a life peer in 1990.

At the start of World War II the 28-year-old Barbara Betts, as she was then known, resolved to stay living in London and work as an air raid warden.


I was a member of the St Pancras Borough council and on its air raid precautions committee. I became an air raid warden and was waiting with some alarm for the war to break out.

Everybody imagined that when war was declared the heavens would immediately be filled with German bombers raining high explosives on London.

Now my mother kept all the letters her children wrote to her. I found, after her death, a pile of these letters including some from me. In one, written just before the outbreak of war, I was saying 'Well, of course, if war breaks out I'll come home'.

Barbara Castle with Aneurin Bevan a few years after the end of the war
I was panic stricken at the very thought because, you see, we had all heard of the bombing of Guernica and other Spanish towns in the Spanish Civil War.

The devastation was horrific and I'd been agitating on the St Pancras borough council for the government to build deep air raid shelters in London. No deep shelters were built. The preparations were ludicrously inadequate.

That was under Chamberlain's government before Churchill came into power and before he had steeled the nerve of the government to stop the appeasement of Hitler, which Chamberlain was practising.

Barbara Castle in 1990: "If you are in action it is surprising what you can do"
So there I was, in this tall Bloomsbury house, in my little attic flat, just expecting the worst.

But the moment war was declared I knew I couldn't leave. I wrote another letter home saying 'I shan't be coming home I've got a job to do here. I'm an air raid warden on the borough council and I'm not going to desert.'

But then of course that was the first day of the phoney war and nothing happened for a year as far as blitzes were concerned.

The night of the great incendiary raid on London, a year later, we were rushing out with our buckets of sand and shovels climbing over the roofs to find incendiary bombs.

I remember one awful night, when a high explosive hit a gas main just outside our post. The gas flared up in a great torch. There were enemy bombers droning overhead and we quite expected another bomb to fall on the post at any time. But if you are in action it is surprising what you can do.

I remember thinking to myself once: 'If I survive this it will have been an experience I shall have been glad to have had.'

I think that is what you feel in these terrifying situations. 'If I can only live through it, is something which I'll never forget.' I feel as if I've lived through a piece of history.


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"I lived in a small attic flat in Bloomsbury"
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"I've lived through a piece of history"
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01 Sep 99 | World War II
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