Local History Society

 Memories - The Black-Out Exercise, May 1939


On April 1st 1939, the 'Mercury' announced plans for a simulated air raid, with a 'Black-Out exercise' to be held from midnight on Saturday May 6th to 3 a.m. on Sunday May 7th.

On April 8th the 'Reading Mercury' published a rather indistinct freehand-drawn 'map showing the area which would be involved in the A.R.P. test black-out on the night of May 6th-7th', covering an area from Reading down to Alton and Liphook. It would encompass Arborfield:

'A map showing the area which would be involved in the A.R.P. test black-out on the night of May 6th-7th'

The 'Mercury' reported on May 13th the results of the simulation in the Reading area, while the 'Times and Weekly News' went into some detail on what happened in and around Wokingham:

Biggest "Blackout" yet attempted

Successful local organisation

Ground exercises carried out under war conditions

Britain’s biggest military zone can be made completely invisible. This conclusion may be drawn from the extensive "blackout" exercise carried out between midnight last Saturday and three o’clock Sunday morning, over a district which included Aldershot, Farnborough, Camberley, Sandhurst, Blackdown, Reading, Wokingham, Windsor, Maidenhead, Bracknell and Ascot. Thousands of troops and A.R.P. volunteers carried out ground exercises under war conditions.

So effective was the "black-out" that R.A.F. pilots flying from Odiham, who are thoroughly familiar with the countryside, were unable to distinguish one town from another.

Within the Aldershot Command, lighting was under military orders and the consequent effectiveness of the darkness was hardly surprising. But the real feature of the test was the enthusiastic co-operation of thousands of householders, shopkeepers and motorists, who concealed or dimmed their lights to such an extent as to baffle experienced airmen.

For the first time the railway systems co-operated with the local authorities, proving that even on a bright moonlight morning such communications can be effectively concealed from the air. Both the Great Western and Southern Railways reduced lighting at stations to the minimum. On the Great Western trains travelled with blinds drawn, and hoods were fitted over the cabins of locomotives to conceal the glare of the furnace. Signal lights were kept going, but these could not be seen from the air.

Isolated lights from farmhouses and single cottages, and the occasional undimmed headlamps of a motorist in a hurry gave nothing away. Traffic lights were operated through slits, invisible from the air, street lights were extinguished, and war-time conditions were observed throughout the military and R.A.F. centres. Military observers expressed themselves well satisfied. The success of the "black-out" for Reading is extremely important, since it is generally known that this town would be an important civil centre in war-time.

A thick river mist which descended on parts of the area hampered the exercises at Windsor and Maidenhead but everything was carried through according to plan. The Wokingham and Bracknell areas were not quite so fortunate.


Aeroplanes were to have added to the realism of the operations in Wokingham, but as there was so much fog this was impossible. The ground exercises, however, went on as planned. All the A.R.P. Services in the Borough (except wardens on Post "A.4", "C.2", "B.1 and 2" and wardens other than the Post Warden of "B.3") took part. The Umpires and Producers for the incidents wore white arm bands marked A.R.P. in green. In a most realistic manner craters were indicated by white powder on the roads and notices indicating damage were posted at or near the sites.

The preliminary caution was received in Wokingham at 10 minutes past midnight; this was followed by the read message and the warning signal was then given. Although the enemy bombers did not pass over, the exercise went ahead and it was assumed that damage was done as follows:

  • Three Mustard Gas Bombs in Waterloo Road.
  • Two H.E. Bombs in Evendons Lane; one hit No.120 (Post Office). The house collapsed and there were casualties trapped alive under the wreckage. There were three other casualties. The other bomb dropped in the centre of the road about 20 yards west of the Post Office but did not explode.
  • H.E. bomb in "Rose Court" making crater in court. Nos. 1 and 2 were set on fire and Nos. 4 and 5 collapsed. There were 5 casualties (2 stretcher cases and three dead).

The "Raiders Passed" signal was received and given at 10 to 1 a.m. and at 1.5 Warning of another expected raid was given and the Warning Signal sounded. At 1.15 another enemy formation should have crossed the borough and dropped bombs to do the following damage:

  • Two H.E. in Reading Road at Bridge over the Emmbrook, the North side of the bridge collapsed reducing the road to one way traffic, the water main, gas main and electric main were cut. Mill House collapsed and caught fire – there were 5 other casualties, 3 being stretcher cases.
  • Incendiary bombs on Plough Inn, London Road, set house on fire; there were 4 casualties.
  • Incendiary bombs on the wooden buildings in Sales Nurseries, Woosehill Lane, should have set the buildings on fire.
  • Incendiary bombs in Brickfields, Molly Millars Lane, which was presumed to have set fire to wooden buildings.

The "Raiders Passed" signal was sounded at 2.15 and the All Clear (white) was received at 2.30 when the Exercise closed.


A "Times and Weekly News" representative reports as follows, on the activities in Bracknell, Binfield and Billingbear.

When one talks of A.R.P., one immediately thinks of the work that has been put in at Billingbear by Mr. Read. Therefore, the first point visited was the shelter and dugout built by him and his volunteers. Precisely at 12 o’clock we arrived at this noted landmark and were immediately met by Mr. Read and a B.P. Scout who was doing service during the midnight activity. Mr. Read volunteered to escort us around this shelter.

Upon entering we found ourselves in a room 5ft. by 6ft. which was evidently used for decontaminating purposes. The outer door was closed and the inner door opened and revealed numbers of people who were waiting for the beginning of activities. The first person met was Mr. Sergeant of the Red Cross who was keeping records of the casualties that arrived during these raids. Miss Bayne Jardine was in charge of the 1st aid assisted by Miss Noel Read, S.R.N., late of Westminster Hospital. Eight others who had recently passed their test made up the party, who assisted those in charge.

In this second room one noticed a curtain drawn across what was evidently a doorway and upon drawing this aside, a door could be opened and immediate entrance was made to the dugout, which would hold about two persons. Electric lighting, water and sanitary arrangements had all been catered for. Mr. Read was justly proud of the work that he and his volunteers had so ably and skilfully put in.

The first high explosive dropped at Billingbear Farm about 12.15, and four volunteers became casualties. A later raid was made at the Forest Lodge. The response to the call for volunteers for this effort was excellent, great enthusiasm and interest being shown by all. The wardens who took road patrol did their work efficiently considering the inclemency of the weather.

The Binfield Memorial Hall was the next point visited. Here, we found Mrs. H. Rowe in charge, ably assisted by 12 Red Cross nurses and 15 volunteers who were casualties for this point. Three raids took place in this area and bombs fell at the following places: Col. Hume’s residence, Emmett Nest and a "Crossways".

A messenger brought the news to No. 4 Sector that at 12.48 a bomb was dropped at the "Shoulder of Mutton", causing a crater. Screams were heard and wardens were sent out to ascertain the injuries. There were 3 casualties and they were sent on to the First Aid Station at the Memorial Hall, Binfield. At 1.20 a message was received that an air raid was on and at 1.47 a message was received that a bomb had fallen outside the "Beehive" and this was burning furiously. In the road were dark patches of liquid representing Phosgene. There were two casualties resulting from this who were then dispatched to the Memorial Hall where they received treatment.

The main first aid station was then visited at the Church House, Bracknell. This was under the supervision of Miss Ford of Bracknell, who is attached to the Berkshire Red Cross Society. Here were received all the more serious casualties from 10 other first aid points and, when these had been redressed they were dispatched to hospital. Dr. Turner was also in attendance at this point. The recorder of casualties for the Red Cross was Mrs. Templeman. Here also was a small detachment of the St. John Nursing Association under the supervision of Mrs. Green who also kept the record of casualties for this detachment. Bombs were dropped at Bracknell Station and the International Stores, High Street. Both of these raids were carried out with high explosives.

The St. John Ambulance Brigade under the control of Mr. Green was rendering able assistance in bringing in cases that were more serious in a number of private cars and also a specially fitted out lorry belonging to Messrs. Drake and Mount for stretcher cases, and also the regular ambulance was put into active service. A call was made upon the Fire Brigade during this raid.

[… The article also described activities in Ascot and other areas to the east]

Letters on May 12th:


Dear Sir,

In my opinion I think that everything went off as well as could be expected. The "Black-out" was organised by the Aldershot Command and our Exercise was prepared under their direction, practically all the personnel of the Wokingham Borough A.R.P. were on duty.

It must be realised that under the circumstances it is more difficult to carry out an Exercise of this description in peace time especially at night when "make believe" has to be resorted to, to such a great extent – taking this into consideration, the Services carried on their duties remarkably well.

I want to thank everyone present for turning out and carrying out their duties in the spirit they did. I have also received a letter from Major General Collins, the County A.R.P. Officer who has asked me to convey his cordial thanks to all who took part and also to make this Exercise as practical a one as possible.

Yours Faithfully, J. H. Titterington, A.R.P.Controller.


Dear Sir,

I would be much obliged if you would allow me the use of your columns to say a few words of appreciation to all those who took part in the A.R.P. exercise on the night of May 6th/7th, in the Wokingham Rural Area.

It is impossible for me to personally thank everybody who turned out, on what, in some cases, may have seemed a tedious job, but I hope that everyone who reads this, will realise that the mere fact of having gone to their allotted post, is part of the training we all have to undergo, to fit ourselves to take our places in case of an emergency, and it is only by an exercise such as this, that those who are trying to get the organisation to run smoothly, can find out by any mistakes, which have been made, where that organisation can be improved.

Thanking you in anticipation, Mr. Editor, I am, Yours Faithfully, J. N. Bald, A.R.P. Controller.

The July 14th issue announced an A.R.P. Exercise for the Weekend, covering Wokingham and Winnersh, which was duly reported the following week. It mentioned that planes from Woodley made the exercise more realistic.

With acknowledgements to Surrey & Berkshire Media, and to Berkshire Newspapers

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