An Alarming Time with an Antique Air-Raid Siren!


Anyone who has been wondering why this blog has not been updated In a whole month will be glad to know that I have not just simply vanished off the face of the earth. For the last three weeks, I have been on holiday in the Peoples’ Republic of China. I visited three cities, Peking, Xi’an, and Shanghai. More of that in a future posting. This posting is to share the prize souvenir which I brought back home with me to Australia from my trip to the heart of the Orient!

A hand-cranked, handheld air-raid siren! Most likely dating back to the time of the Second Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945), this is the first military antique (or piece of ‘militaria’) that I have ever purchased, and at a fair bargain, too!

It was purchased at the Panjiayuan (‘Pan Ji’ya Yuan’) antiques and flea market in Peking. Anyone wanting to buy antiques in Peking is strongly advised to go here! I did, and I had a wonderful time – just remember to wear your poker face and haggle hard!

Is this siren rare? Not particularly. In all likelihood, hundreds, if not thousands of these things were produced by all sides during the Second World War. And it may well be a reproduction. But is it cool? You bet! Fold down the handles, lock in the crank, open the slide and let ‘er rip! Soon, that classic siren wail will be filling the air, sending people diving for cover! It is completely mechanical and is totally capable of sounding the alarm now, as it was nearly eighty years ago!

The siren comes complete with its original military green canvas carry-pouch, which, like the siren itself, certainly shows it’s age.

The History of the Air-Raid and it’s Siren

The first air-raids ever took place on London during the First World War. Carried out by the German Air Force, these first aerial attacks on a civilian population were done using zeppelin airships, the only craft large enough at the time to carry out practical, cross-channel raids.

British preparations for air-raids in the first war were nonexistent, and the strategies for coping with this new kind of attack were hastily thrown together in response to the threat hovering in the skies over London and other British towns and cities. A typical air-raid warning consisted of little more than London’s Special Constabulary (a volunteer force of citizen-policemen) walking or cycling around London, the familiar, discordant shriek of their ‘Metroplitan’-style police whistles providing the only form of rudimentary alarm. Considering that the screech of a police whistle was as common then as a police siren is today, not everyone paid attention, and probably paid with their lives.

Air-Raid Precautions (1924)

Fearing that thousands of Londoners might be killed in future European wars, an organization called Air-Raid Precautions was created in 1924, he aim of which was to develop strategies for the protection of London, other British cities, and their civilian populations, in the event of future air-attacks.

ARP was responsible for protecting and calming the civilian population of Great Britain during air-attacks, by providing warnings of raids and supervising safe evacuations, and by helping to maintain a citywide blackout that would confuse enemy aircraft flying overhead. Wardens were appointed whose job it was to enforce the blackout, and to assist the population during a raid, guiding them to air-raid shelters before the bombs started to fall.

The Wartime Air-Raid Siren

Air-raid sirens were developed in the late 1930s to warn people of the danger of upcoming aerial attacks or ‘air raids’ during the Second World War. A typical air-raid siren is comprised of a pair of cylinders or wheels, one spinning inside the other. The sound of the airflow constantly being interrupted is what gives the siren it’s distinctive droning wail. The faster a siren’s wheel spins, the louder the sound, and the higher the pitch, due to the more frequent interruption of airflow.

These sirens typically came in three general sizes:

Handheld, crank-operated ones, which could be operated by one man standing up (such as the one featured in this article)…

…medium-sized, manually operated sirens that were placed on portable stands…

…and finally, large, electrically powered sirens, typically mounted to large poles, or to the tops of large buildings.

Sirens normally produced two different types of alarms:

Red Alert”, or “Red Warning” – a continuous, up-down rolling wail – this is the classic wartime siren sound that we all know from movies, TV shows, and computer games. Hearing this meant that an attack was imminent and ongoing. Civilians were to make their ways to air-raid shelters immediately. Such alerts came in two forms: one was a general alarm. The other was the signal to seek immediate shelter.

In England during the Second World War, factories engaged in wartime manufacturing were expected to keep running after the first siren had gone, and to instruct their staff to seek shelter only upon hearing the second siren which signaled an imminent attack. If the first siren was a false alarm (and they did happen), then the factory would have stopped work for no reason, and precious time would have been lost.

“White Alert”, or “All Clear” – a long, continuous, rising note that sounded for a preset period of time, indicating that an attack was over. It would now be safe to come out of shelters, and continue with ones lives.

Air-Raid Sirens After the War

The drone of an air-raid siren is most commonly associated with the Second World War and the conflicts of the 1930s and ’40s. However, they continued to be used well after the end of the Second World War.

The onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s meant that these sirens, now also called ‘civil defense sirens’, were redeployed to warn of impending nuclear attacks. The two old wartime signals of ‘Red Alert’ and ‘White Alert’ were still used, but we’re now supplemented with other warnings which indicated the likelihood of an attack, to give civilians more time to evacuate to their fallout shelters. The new medium of television was also used, along with the old standby of radio.

With the ending of the Cold War in the late 1980s, these venerable sirens were given yet another lease of life. They are still used in the United States to warn of impending natural disasters, such as tornadoes, giving people an audible signal of the approach of danger, allowing them to escape to their storm-cellars and bunkers before the big one hits.

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2 Comments

  1. Bruce Varner said,

    June 4, 2014 at 10:41 PM

    Always interesting information. I look forward to each new post so I can learn something new! Keep up the good work.


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