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Managing 'Civilian Deaths Due to War Operations'

Julie Rugg reports on recent research done into official attitudes towards burial during the Blitz.

With a European war imminent, on February 28th, 1939, the Ministry of Health published Circular 1779 to all local authorities with responsibility for implementing Air Raid Precaution (ARP) measures. The Circular alerted them to set in train a strategy for dealing with the bodies of victims of enemy action. After the Zeppelin attacks on London during the First World War, it was thought that the next war would be fought in the air and that massive fatalities would be a consequence. In its planning for that eventuality, the Ministry gave extensive consideration to measures for dealing with the dead. It was acknowledged that poorly considered arrangements would adversely impact on morale. The issue was certainly the subject of ‘whispers’: in 1940, Frances Partridge records in her diary hearing that the ARP authorities were expecting ‘70,000 deaths in the first raid on London’, and that sufficient papier mâché coffins had been prepared.
In February 1939, the ARP authorities were instructed to set up mortuary and burial arrangements in advance of the expected conflict. Buildings earmarked for emergency mortuary use included swimming pools, cattle markets and racecourse stables. Facilities such as tables for laying out bodies, stretcher racks and the stationery to deal with the extensive paperwork associated with death were prepared. A mortuary superintendent was employed: usually the local cemetery manager or a leading local funeral director filled this role. In addition, local authorities were instructed to calculate how much space they had available for interment in cemeteries and churchyards and to begin advance preparation of graves. 

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