Published On: Sun, Sep 26th, 2021

Hiding in plain sight: the menace of shrapnel

Very usefully, Simon Webb, in his book Secret Casualties of World War II, reminds us of the common experience  contemporaneous with the Second World War of shrapnel falling from the skies over British cities, and he does this by citing first-hand accounts of people dealing with it in their daily routines, or by reproducing reports of death and injury caused by it, and even referencing the asking of a question in the Commons about deaths caused by shell fire (which wasn’t answered). For instance, the reader might know from casual references in works of fiction about how children would visit “bomb sites” to collect the fresh layer of shrapnel after German air raids. In his book, Webb cites Gabriel Moshenka, and her work on this actual phenomenon. Of course, more likely than not, the material these children were collecting would be fragments from British Army shells, and not from any German bomb. This is because these objects rarely hit a Luftwaffe airplane, and when they weren’t raining back down to explode just as if a bomb had been dropped, they were exploding in the air to send down a rain of jagged, red-hot pieces of metal. Sometimes a person would even be able to pick up a nose cone, which regularly came detached from the casing of an anti-aircraft shell which would create the general deadly scrap. Indeed, the author remembers such an item being in the possession of his grandfather, and was always mystified about i) how it could be found in the UK (the finder never was abroad during the war), and ii) how it survived so complete-looking as a used object. Now, of course, the author understands that it would have been one of hundreds of thousands of such objects that were shot out of British Army cannons with no regards about where it would land. Webb says that maybe 9,000 nose cones per night fell onto London each night for a good part of a year.

The other contemporaneous war time experience that Webb reminds us of is life as normal as possible (overlooking impinging legal restrictions). We are asked to remember that for lots of people in London, and similarly so – we might suppose – in other cities and towns, during German air raids, life was lived as normally as could be managed. Reading the accounts from folk who chose to be outside and not under cover during a raid, and especially the report on how people still queued in Leicester Square to see the premiering film, Gone With the Wind, one starts to appreciate that people must have been able to develop an intuition about whether or not they would get hurt by a German bomb (for reasons about to be discussed). However, the same could not be said about shell fire pumped into the air by the British Army (again, as to be discussed), and this is why it was really the barrage from one’s supposed own side that would take unawares people who thought they were safe from bombs.

It is being assumed that the reader has read the previous parts in this series, and therefore knows the two ways that anti-aircraft artillery shells could be a danger to those underneath them – but to state it explicitly: the first was if the shell failed to detonate, and then it returned to the ground to explode, and the second was if the shell did what it was supposed to do – explode – but without hitting a plane and being absorbed by that object.

Of course, most shells exploded harmlessly (for the Germans) in the air, thus in a way the ammunition potentially threatened more life and limb, because it increased the area where what was essentially assorted sizes of jagged grapeshot could fall onto people in the streets, or in their gardens as they stepped out to inspect the sky, or, if the objects were heavy and large enough (remember, 9,000 nose cones a night) even upon them, through their roofing, as they were sleeping in their beds (or even causing enough friction upon landing to start a fire). On the other hand, a shell that fell to earth and then exploded, while it may do the job of a real bomb, would also act like one so that, if landing inside a building, would at least have the blast and subsequent shrapnel contained by walls and floor (although this would be no comfort to anyone in the building at the time). When contemplating this – in conjunction with a fact that the reader is about to be introduced to – one begins to suspect that most civilian deaths from shell fire came about as a result of the shrapnel. To what extent shelling as a whole was responsible for deaths that occurred in the period known as the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, J.B.S. Haldane, a biologist, but also evidently a general technical expert, sat on a post first war sub-committee of a Cabinet Committee investigating the future prospects of aerial warfare, and in his 1938 book, ARP, he said of British anti-aircraft shells that “they killed a number of Londoners in 1916-1918. In some raids they caused as many casualties as the enemy bombs.” If the same standard was applied from one war to the other (and there is little reason to not do this), it would mean that upwards of nearly 30,000 were murdered by British Army anti-aircraft fire during the course of the war.

To understand the reality of this prospect, Webb leads his reader through a couple of thought experiments – and it is true to say that these exercises leaves one with a firmer appreciation of what all this loose ammunition would certainly have had the potential for.

Webb estimates that during the Blitz, there would have been as many as 10,000 shells per night shot into the air over London. With the average weight of these shells being 30lbs in September 1940, this would be 300,000 lbs of ammunition shot off, effectively without a notion of, or a care for how it was going to perform, or where it would go.

Following from that, understanding how it was that at the start of hostilities it took 20,000 shells to shoot down one bomber (the actual BBC says it was 30,000 – the reader can do his own search for that), one discovers that, therefore, 60,000 lbs of explosive would have landed intact (without exploding in the air) back in the streets of London, very likely to detonate there. This means that to stop one Dornier Do 17 from dropping its load of 2,200 lbs, 27 times as much potentially explosive ammunition would be “dropped” by the British Army. And if one considers that about 1 civilian was killed for every 1 ton of German explosives dropped (with 1 Imperial ton being just a bit more that the weight of the cargo of the Dornier), it means that the British Army theoretically, potentially, killed 27 civilians trying to down a bomber that would have killed 1.

As for the matter of shrapnel coming into existence when a shell successfully explodes in the air, before looking at the results of Webb’s thought experiment where this is concerned, please consider the following sentence from the Wikipedia entry on the Blitz:

Although the use of the guns improved civilian morale†, with the knowledge the German bomber crews were facing the barrage, it is now believed that the anti-aircraft guns achieved little and in fact the falling shell fragments caused more British casualties on the ground.

[† Highly debatable – see previous article in series.]

This state of affairs is one apparently reported in a book by (presumably) historian, M.J. Gaskin, entitled, Blitz: The Story of the 29th December 1940. So, reader, please see that the democide that took place under the cover of German bombing is not something that Webb is inventing, and the author regurgitating.

Using figures that the reader will have to read the book to see – except to say that Webb thinks that 90% of shells exploded in the air, with almost all of them causing shrapnel that fell again to earth – Webb suggests that the British Army effectively fired 202,500 lbs of grapeshot onto London every night. And the author is of the opinion that it was this that took its victims unawares, which is why it was so deadly – as will now be explained.

Citing a November 1940 survey, Webb retails how nearly 60% of Londoners didn’t bother to take shelter during an air raid. He also reminds us that, in spite of how crowded they looked in the pictures of them, not even 40% of Londoners would use the underground stations – or even be able to do so, for that matter. A tiny 4 percent of people huddled in these places, with 9 percent using (wholly inadequate) public shelters, and 27 percent in Anderson shelters.

If this news is surprising to modern eyes, who have learnt about the relentless pursuit of the Germans to break British moral by bombing people into homelessness (as is indeed presented by images of Londoners under blankets on underground rail tracks), then it will sure to come as a shock that in fact it was British Army shelling that was such a dramatic force in altering people’s lifestyles.

Think about it reader. The Luftwaffe pilots would tend to use a conflagration – a fire – that they’d already started in a target zone to then concentrate further bombing. Moreover, if a pilot felt that he couldn’t get close to this target due to his being unnerved by exploding artillery shells (one would say that this is the only thing it was good for, except that it didn’t stop bombs being dropped), then he would unload his cargo somewhere on his approach and then return to base. Knowing this, then reader, do we think that once people on the ground gauged which way a bombing raid was coming from (if it was possible for them to do it), or more realistically, where a bombing raid was already taking place, they would have an understanding of whether or not they were too close in proximity to be outside of a shelter? The answer is possibly yes, is it not? Surely, that they had a general clue about what was happening in the skies above them, this is why people took calculated risks – or indeed none at all – when it came to what was being delivered from German planes so that they felt confident about not being undercover.

On the other hand, with anti-aircraft artillery, which can travel several miles along the horizontal (from one town to another), when it was fired into the air in the name of trying to hit an enemy plane, it would not stop travelling – in one form or another – after it had reached the zone above the area of bombing. So, imagine a circle of anti-aircraft batteries firing in the direction of this zone as it occurs at the centre of their formation. It would mean ammunition falling all along the line of the circumference opposite to where it had been fired – and also in front and beyond it, depending on the range of the weapon. This is why the men on the guns wore helmets. In fact, this why firemen, ARP wardens, police, and whoever else was out in the street and on war duty, had to wear a protective metal helmet (which some shrapnel could yet pierce).  It is plain to see that if people had an inkling where bombing was taking place, they could consider themselves safe, but injury from a shell could come out of nowhere, and this, the author would posit, was why people still went into the streets during air raids, but it is also why so many were killed.

At the top of the page it was mentioned that a question was asked in the Commons about death from shrapnel, and Webb goes into a little detail about it. Posed as late in the war as 1943 by Edgar Granville, it was a question about “the number of civilian casualties in the London area from anti-aircraft shells and splinters during the enemy raid on London on 3rd March”. It was a question answered by Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, which began like this:

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

Morrison then goes on to refuse to give detailed figures – in this day and age he would cite security concerns – but Webb summarises like this:

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

This author would add that there was cause to ask this same question in the Commons whenever it sat during the war.

In the previous article in this series, it was said that the economic blockade using the pretext of “Covid-19” could be compared to the financial-social-political readjustment that was happening under the cover of, and using the pretext of a World War – and there are more similarities to note. Just as UK Government murdered thousands in care homes in 2020 to create the impression of a public health emergency, so did it murder thousands in 1940 and 1941 to create the impression of a war that up to that point had largely been “phoney” – even as that period was called – because the Germans did not want to prosecute a war (that they had in fact already won) against Britain. UK Government is perpetually and most vilely criminal (and it won’t be brought to justice while its ever-potential prey refuse to admit it).

[Please note, the title of this article is stolen from the pertinent chapter in Webb’s book].

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