“Imagine it,” our guide Ed encouraged us. “Every night you face the same question: go to the shelter, where it’s stinky, crowded and noisy. Where you probably don’t get much sleep. Where your neighbors have come after downing a few pints at the pub to make it through another night at the shelter and then are sick and belligerent while they’re down there.
It’s pitch black. A doctor is walking around spraying everyone with disinfectant. There are 30 toilets for 1300 people. Chances are, you’re not going to get any sleep down there and you’ll have to work in the morning.
So, do you do it? Do you take cover in one of Manchester’s bomb shelters? Or do you stay at home and risk it?”
Ed painted the scene as we stood in the opening chamber of Manchester’s largest WWII bomb shelter. I tried to fathom what it must have been like. I could see the remains of a few notches in the brick and stone wall where the bunk beds had been fastened. I looked over to the not-so-private toilets. We were already underground, so I couldn’t imagine having to extinguish all light and spend the night here in pitch black darkness. But neither could I imagine worrying about Nazi aircraft flying overhead and bombing my city while I slept. It’s not in my realm of experience.
The shelters were bigger and more spacious than I’d expected. They’d been built in the 1830’s as a canal route for boats, and ran under the Great Northern Warehouse which was now owned by the Great Northern Leisure Company, who let Manchester Walking Tours have access to the length of tunnels they still owned for the Underground Manchester Tour.
Though we’re not at war right now, and bomb shelters would do no good against nuclear attack and any other threatening attack we’d face in this day and age, the tunnels are still hidden away, with no access other than that granted to the tour company.
In order to get in, we’d headed into the AMC Theatres and then were ushered into an office by a security guard who then let us into a locked down that lead down into the chamber where we stood with Ed, imagining what choices we might make if we’d been faced with air raids by the Nazis.
“On Christmas night, 1940, they heard a lot of commotion and loud noise and bombing. There was panic in the shelter. The next morning when the ‘All Clear’ was given, some people emerged from the shelter to discover that their homes, a few minutes walk from the Camp Street Shelter where they’d stayed, were gone.”
Ed went on to tell us that it wasn’t until after the war that a fascist named Moseley who’d left England and was a Nazi supporter, told American interrogators that Hitler had never planned to bomb that area. He’d been taken by the grandeur of the Midland Hotel, where our tour group met that night. He planned to use it as his headquarters once Germany occupied England. With 68% air bombing accuracy, he didn’t plan to drop any bombs in that general area.
But the people who lived there in 1940 didn’t know that. All they knew was that they might or might not survive the night. They thought they’d have a better chance hidden underground in a bomb shelter. If only they could get up the gumption to stay there. Or did it take more courage to risk it and stay home? That was the question, night after night, after night.
Of course, none of us can really know what we’d do in a situation like this. I think I’d go to the bomb shelter. What would you do?