Wartime: Barrage Balloons and the Library

Books for Balloon Barrage Men (Telegraph and Independent, Thursday 14 September 1939)

Sir. – At various points in and around the city the men who man the balloon barrage are working in small groups.  Their hours of duty are long, and their means of recreation limited.  The YMCA are providing games and other amenities, and I have been asked to help to arrange a supply of suitable books for them.

There must be many readers in Sheffield who would be willing to give books from their private libraries, and I should be very glad to receive them at the Central Library, the Libraries Committee having kindly given permission for books to be received, selected and issued there.  Light reading is most likely to be welcomed, and there should be a ready use for fiction, plays, travel, belles-lettres and similar types.

May I appeal to all who have suitable books to spare to send them to the Central Library for this purpose?

Yours etc

J P LAMB

City Librarian

This letter from City Librarian Joseph Lamb, dated just a few days after the start of World War II and repeated in the Star, was probably the first of Sheffield’s wartime book drives.  That such an appeal should be issued so soon after the declaration of war suggests preparedness and foresight.

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Air-raid defences, including barrage balloons, were being put in place around the UK during the late 1930s.  Sheffield had around 70 of the huge balloons.  They aimed to interfere with an aeroplane’s flight path and efforts to drop bombs.  They might even bring it down by catching it in the cables which secured them to winches on lorries.  The balloons were managed by crews who, day and night, manoeuvred them into place and raised and lowered them to protect suspected targets.  Wind and rain made the job more difficult.  The crews were often housed in schools and other public buildings, and their lives must have been a mixture of hard work, boredom and tension.

Hence the need for books and games for relaxation and diversion.  J P Lamb asked for ‘light reading … fiction, plays, travel, belles-lettres and similar types’.  This was a change from the usual calls of librarians of the period for their borrowers to read serious books.  (In fact, Joseph Lamb did not scorn light reading, stocking popular books ‘in the belief that having attracted novel readers … [libraries] are given the opportunity of leading them to better reading, or at least to informative books’.  He was criticised for this by other librarians.  Furthermore, in the lead-up to war, books which explained the international situation had been in demand from the library.)

Unfortunately, there are no records of how people responded to the appeal.  How many books were donated?  What were they?  The success of two book drives in 1943 and 1944, when over a million books were collected, suggests that this early appeal was probably successful.  And we do know that when crews moved on, they often left behind games and books for their successors; and that by October 1939 there was a library service for troops stationed in Sheffield.

In September 1939, the war was for newspapers the only story in town, and they were unsurprisingly patriotic and positive.  J P Lamb’s letter shared space with:

  • ‘Why Germany Has Invaded Poland’, a long article by Count Sforza, former Italian Foreign Minister
  • a leader, ‘Nazis’ Rage’, doubting the German war effort and mentioning the plight of Jews ‘treated … with such devilish inhumanity’
  • reviews of a book about British naval history and essays by historian Lewis Namier who was a Polish Jew by birth
  • discussion of blackout regulations and lighting restrictions as the long nights drew in.

But it was not all serious.  There was a column by the Rambling Naturalist and, by popular demand, a crossword (puzzles had been dropped to make way for war news).

Sheffield’s other main paper, the Star, was much the same: a leader entitled ‘Hitler’s War on Women’, an article by Beverley Baxter MP asking ‘Have German Plans Miscarried?’; and – lighter in tone – a snippet that research by Sheffield metallurgist Robert Hadfield had helped produce the newly essential tin hat.

Lamb’s letter was also an early indicator of his library’s important role in the wartime life of the city, for example, in public information and assistance services.  But this story is for another post.

Here are the pages from the Telegraph and Star.

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