Reprinted from the Manchester Guardian, this article by Bernard Lennon affords an interesting and amusing sidelight on the changing attitude towards the "P.B.I." of Civil Defence brought about by the experience of "blitz" conditions.
"The P.B.I. of Civil Defence - that's us," said old Mattinson when the wardens brought up the rear of the parade held in connecxion with Warship Week. "Mugs all along the line," he said afterwards. "Remember before the war started?"
Most of us did remember, about the time of Munich there had been the distribution of respirators, to use the official phrase, thogh by the time the work was accomplished neither the recipients nor the distributors indulged in such high-flown language. The wardens were blamed for all the discomforts of the long queue. They were told repeatedly why other centres and different hours would have been more convenient.
It is doubtful whether even that ordeal was as bas as the calls we made on householders a month or two before the war began. Had everybody in the house a gas mask? Had a gas chamber been prepared? Had everyone received a carton for his or her gas mask? What were the dimensions of the garden or the backyard? The responses could hardly have been called warm. There was little open to opposition, to be sure, but there was no lack of looks to express the thoughts which were not put into words. We were told there was not going to be a war and were left to imagine what kind of lunatics we were to be wasting our own and other people's time on fools' errands. Many people seemed to take delight in letting us stand on the doorstep in pouring rain or a cutting wind. Even the friends on whom we called seemed to consider us fanatics who had to be humoured.
We remembered all this and we remembered old Mattinson's comment on the wardens when it was announced not so long ago that we had to undertake a house-to-house examination of gas masks, and we showed little enthusiasm. The work was to be done in pairs, and partners made arrangements in an atmosphere of mutual commiseration.
On the night that Conway and I began our rounds there was a biting wind with occasional squalls of rain. We had visions of ourselves standing on doorsteps while mocking eyes watched our numbed fingers fumbling with head-harness, stretching the face-piece, testing the elasticity of the rubber band, removing and replacing the inlet valve. We discussed whether a truculent or an apologetic tone would be the more suitable and compromised on politeness. We knocked at our first door. It opened.
"We have called on behalf of the Wardens' Service. Could we see the gas masks please?" "Yes, certainly. Come in. Come in. It's cold out there."
Conway and I looked at one another, and I saw his eyebrows lift as we followed the young woman into the house. "It's the wardens, mother," she called out as she went to gather the family respirators together. When we had passed them both mother and daughter became talkative, treating us as if we were the confidants of the C.I.G.S. Would Hitler use gas next time? When would the war be over? We extricated ourselves with soothing words and wondered if this treatment was a flash in the pan.
At the next house we were also asked in. The gas masks were again brought forth promptly and readily. The examiners were again treated as a cross between Delphic oracles and experts in the higher strategy.
It was the same all that evening and the next evening and every evening till our area was completed. We received with smiles and allowed with reluctance to depart. We were offered cups of tea, biscuits, even cigarettes. We were overwhelmed with sympathy at having to spend our valuable time like this. "You shouldn't be coming here," said one man. "You ought to make us come to you." Then he proudly showed us the piece of railway line which had embedded itself in his asphalt garden path.
Apologies were showered on us if anyone had mislaid a mask and had kept us waiting, or if we had to call a second or third time at a house before finding anyone home.
Our experience was not exceptional. Every warden reported the same welcome, the same readiness to comply, the same desire for advice, the same belief in the wardens' omiscience.
"Perhaps," suggested someone, "it was the uniform that did the trick." "Don't you believe it," said old Mattinson. "Remember that we had a blitx last year."
"And what about the wardens now? Do you still think they're the Poor Blooming Infantry of the Civil Defence?" "Maybe I wasn't so far wrong as you seem to think," retorted Mattinson, who was a corporal in the K.O.R.L. a quarter of a century ago. "The P.B.I. won the last war, didn't they?"