Coping with air raids | RBS Remembers

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Coping with air raids

Fragments of glass from London Lothbury office's shattered ceiling, kept as mementoes after the air raid of 7 July 1917 © RBS

Early days

Immediately upon the outbreak of war, the likelihood of enemy attack on British towns and cities became a real concern. In those early weeks, the threat was expected to come from land invasion or naval bombardment, so fears were greatest for settlements on the south and east coasts. English banks issued guidance to their south coast branches, detailing actions to be taken in the event of invasion.

Edinburgh’s proximity to the Firth of Forth was thought to put it at risk, too. Commercial Bank of Scotland moved some of its securities from Edinburgh to London. One Edinburgh insurance company approached its banker, the Royal Bank of Scotland, to ask whether there was spare space in the bank’s London or Glasgow strongrooms that could be used for safekeeping of some of its assets. At that stage, both cities were apparently considered more secure than Edinburgh.

The first bombing raids on British soil were indeed naval attacks, affecting towns in north east England. Before long, however, the greater threat came not from the sea, but from the sky. The use of zeppelins in raids created many more potential targets, including London. As early as October 1914, the Royal Bank of Scotland took out air raid insurance for its London office.

Zeppelins

The first zeppelin raid on a British town targeted Yarmouth in January 1915. It was followed by dozens more in 1915 and 1916. Well over 500 people were killed and nearly 2,000 injured, including Mr HFA Vale from Parr’s Bank’s chief accountant’s department. He was hit in the back by a fragment of shrapnel during a raid on Southend in May 1915. He was not seriously hurt, but the incident was reported in the bank’s staff magazine. 

During 1915 and 1916 many more banks took out air raid insurance for their buildings, not only in London but – as zeppelin raids became more widespread – in other towns and cities too. Nevertheless, it was clear that London was the most frequent target, and various banks began to consider installing defences.

Relatively little was known about the likely effect of falling bombs on buildings, but the most common suggestion was to erect steel netting above roofs, to catch and detonate bombs before they hit the building itself. This solution had serious downsides. Such heavy additions would put severe strain on buildings, and if they collapsed in an attack the damage was likely to be even worse than anything the bomb itself would have caused. There were also the practical difficulties of obtaining building materials amid wartime shortages, and the complication of getting permission to alter leased premises. 

Put off by all these problems, few banks went ahead with complicated anti-bomb installations. Most limited themselves to installing sandbags and fire extinguishers, fixing wire netting under domes and skylights to catch falling glass, and painting woodwork with fire retardant paint.

The one blessing for banks in the early years of the war was that air raids took place at night. Money and books had been safely locked away after the close of business the previous day, and staff and customers were far away in their own homes. All this was to change in 1917, when Gotha planes replaced zeppelins, and raids began to occur in broad daylight. Banks had to switch their focus from protecting the fabric of buildings to protecting the lives of the people inside them.

Daylight raids

The second Gotha air raid on London came on Saturday 7 July 1917, and caused extensive damage in the East End and the City. 57 people were killed and nearly 200 injured.

One of the buildings damaged was the head office of London County & Westminster Bank at 41 Lothbury. The building next door bore the brunt of a falling bomb, but the great glass ceiling above the bank’s public hall was also shattered. A warning had been received, and everyone in both buildings was able to take shelter. The only casualty at this site was a messenger who entered the bank just before the bomb fell and suffered a non-fatal heart attack.

We were warned of the impending raid, and, anticipating that I should not be able to get out for some time, I proceeded to get a cup of tea. I came back a few minutes later, and found that a bomb had fallen…there was scarcely a square inch of the glass remaining in the roof.

A London County & Westminster Bank employee's account of the raid

After the raid, bank staff cleared up the broken glass, tarpaulins were hired to cover the hole in the roof, and day-to-day work went on as usual. For all the banks, however, London County & Westminster’s near-miss had been shocking, and brought home to them the need for better air raid procedures.

Before the switch to daytime raids in summer 1917, bank procedures – where they existed at all – had focussed on maintaining security during an air raid. Step 1 in Parr’s Bank’s procedures, for example, had been ‘Office doors to be immediately closed and the iron shutters, if any, closed’. Now, however, the banks realised that this could leave people stranded outside in the street, unable to find cover anywhere. On 11 July 1917 – a couple of days after the shocking raid of the 7th – they agreed to a new procedure. All bank doors would remain open, and as many people as could be safely accommodated would be allowed in to take shelter.

The banks also revised their earlier building surveys. Where previously they had dealt with structural risks to premises, their focus now shifted to the shelter and safe evacuation of staff and customers. Architects identified the securest areas of each building – often the basement or vaults – and arrangements were made for emergency exits. These were not necessarily very advanced; in a number of cases, they simply consisted of making sure a ladder was available.

In the course of July 1917, many banks also took out life insurance policies for London staff, so that their relatives would receive financial support if they were killed in an air raid. The amounts of cover varied. Working on the assumption that men had more family responsibilities than women, National Provincial Bank arranged £250 of cover for its men, and £100 for women. The Royal Bank of Scotland – with far fewer London employees than National Provincial – arranged much higher cover: £1,000 for married men and £500 for all others, including women. National Bank of Scotland opted for £1,000 for all London staff, including – as one competitor noted with interest – ‘messengers and women cleaners’.

Air raids continued throughout the rest of 1917, and into 1918. As technology advanced, there were fears that the planes might start dropping poison gas, and in September and October 1917 both National Provincial Bank and Parr’s Bank issued medicated respirators – primitive gas masks – to all staff in the London metropolitan area.

In the event, however, the respirators were never needed. A few branches sustained minor damage in later raids, but the main difficulty – in business terms – was disruption to postal services. In the banks, as in the wider community, people worked hard to keep life as normal as possible, and after August 1918 there were no more air raids on Britain.


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