Thursday, 20 September 2012

Blackout and Occultation


Enforcing Blackout Regulations

Occultation Instructions

Evaders and escapers on the run in Nazi occupied Europe were no strangers to the blackout that was in force there. Most servicemen would have been stationed at some point in Britain or an Allied territory where it was already operational.

Aircrew were used to flying over a dark unlit Europe at night. Only the lights of neutral countries such as Spain, Portugal and Switzerland shone out of the void. Escapers and evaders often described seeing the twinkling lights of Spain with a sense of magic behind the words. It must have been a special experience for exhausted men to finally see tangible evidence that their journey was nearly over.

Once those travelling through Spain reached Gibraltar, they would have encountered a British held port where there was no blackout. With the Rock being stuck at the end of neutral Spain which had its lights unrestricted, throwing up a hundred per cent blackout would have served very little purpose especially with night bombing attacks highly unlikely.  

The man on the run in occupied territories would often travel at night. In the towns and cities, he moved around under cover of darkness before curfew and in the countryside it was better to journey after dark, then rest up and hide during the day. (A major difference from Britain was the introduction of curfew during the dark hours. Times and length varied depending on the location and state of civil unrest or resistance activity.)    

Occultation, as it was termed in France and Belgium came into effect almost immediately those countries fell to the Nazis, and like Britain, lights were shielded or extinguished at night. An extract from the May 24 1940 proclamation by Brussels Burgomaster Van De Meulebroeck relating to an occultation order is self explanatory:
"At nightfall, the lights in all houses and living quarters must be completely occulted.

Vehicles in movement must also be occulted; the light slit of the headlights may not be larger than 1cm in height and 8 cm in width. Infringers will be severely punished."
Specially occulted yellow lights were placed on top of some sign-posts in order to facilitate traffic in darkness, and window occultation material was used to cover windows and glass. Trams, buses and trains all had their sources of light shielded via shields, masks or blinds.
Families and businesses in the occupied territories often made up their own structures for covering windows and doors after dark so that light did not leak out, just as they did in Britain. Wooden frames with dark material stretched across became common, and these would fit on to the window. Outer shutters were closed where they existed and thick curtains lined with light resistant fabric were also used instead of or in addition to the main covering. A major difference existed in the colour of material or covering used for keeping light from showing out from of buildings. In Britain, whilst similar methods were utilised to cover windows and doors, black was the standard colour. In Belgium and France this was associated with bad luck and death, so a dark navy became the prevalent colour.
Edouard Reniére recounted his experience of blackout as a boy in Brussels:

‘I remember the decalcomania my parents applied on the glass panes of our apartment in Brussels. These were thin decorated plastic sheets with one side to be moistened before applying to the glass.’
The main result in villages, towns and cities were communities relying largely on moonlight or any dregs of natural light left, although evaders in Paris in 1943 reported the existence in some places of faint shielded street lighting lit by small blue glim bulbs.

The evader and escaper would often travel at night. In towns and cities, they moved around under cover of darkness before curfew and in the countryside it was less risky to get about after dark then rest up and hide during the day. RAF evader Alfie Martin reported an unusual incident in the darkness when he was taken at 4.00am to catch an early train in Lille. He said it was still dark and there were only a few people about. Of these some were searching the streets with torches. Bewildered by their behaviour he quickly realised that they were collecting cigarette ends. 

Thanks to Edouard Reniére for information and memories on occultation

Bale Out Escaping Occupied France with the Resistance – Alfie Martin 

© Keith Morley



  1. That was interesting. I didn't realise that neutral countries would be ablaze with lights at night time. It's obvious now I think about it.

  2. Once more an informative, entertaining post by Keith.When we think of blackouts in the UK, the Warden Hodges springs to mind from the popular ‘Dads’ Army’series shouting “put that ruddy light out !!”. Of couse ARP Wardens did much more than that but they were in charge of enforcing compliance from the general public as mistakes cost lives. The main duties of the ARP wardens in the early months were to register everyone in their sector and enforce the blackout. This meant making sure that no lights were visible which could be used by enemy planes to help locate bombing targets. These activities led to some ARP wardens being regarded as interfering and nosy. However, during the Blitz of 1940-1 wardens and other civil defence personnel proved themselves indispensable and heroic. Whenever the air raid sirens sounded, the wardens would help people into the nearest shelter and then tour their sector, usually in pairs, at considerable risk from bombs, shrapnel and falling masonry. They would also check regularly on those in the air raid shelters. Once in the shelters people would try to find ways of passing the time. Came across a book recently called ‘The Blackout Book’ which comprised over 500 activities, games and puzzles to do in the shelter to while away the time. Sometimes some people clashed as some wanted peace and quiet and some were noisy. On September 21, 1940 the London Underground started to be used as an air raid shelter. On the busiest night in 1940, 177,000 people slept on platforms. Many bought sandwiches, thermos flasks, pillows and blankets. In these frightening times faith was important.
    “Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.” (Helen Keller.)