The London World War 2 Blackout

McLeod Governance has a fond spot for Bill Bryson’s “At Home”.

There is much to learn from Bryson’s tome on the history of the house.

In the chapter on the Fusebox – a fundamentally important improvement in the history of housing no less – there is a fascinating discussion on the blackouts that London imposed on itself during the Second World War.

Bryson recalls:

In the Autumn of 1939, during the slightly hysterical confusion that comes with the outbreak of war, Great Britain introduced stringent blackout regulations to thwart the murderous ambitions of the Luftwaffe.

For three months it was essentially illegal to show any light at night, however faint.

Rule breakers could be arrested for lighting a cigarette in a doorway or holding a match up to read a road sign. One man was fined for not covering the glow of the heater light from his tropical fish tank.

Hotels and offices spent hours every day putting up and taking down special blackout covers. Drivers had to drive around in almost perfect invisibility – even dashboard light were not allowed – so they had to guess not only where the road was but at what speed they were moving.

Not since the Middle Ages had Britain been so dark, and the consequences were noisy and profound. To avoid striking the kerb or anything parked along it, cars took to straddling the middle white lines, which was fine until they encountered another vehicle doing likewise in the opposite direction.

Pedestrians found themselves in constant peril as every pavement became an obstacle course of unseen lampposts, trees and furniture.Trams, known with respect as ‘the silent peril’ were especially unnerving.

“During the first four months of the war” Juliet Gardiner relates in Wartime “a total of 4,133 people were killed on Britain’s roads” – a 100% increase over the year before. Nearly three quarters of the victims were pedestrians. Without dropping a single bomb, the Luftwaffe was already killing six hundred people a month, as the British Medical Journal drily observed.

Fortunately, matters soon calmed down and a little illumination was allowed in people’s lives – just enough to stop most of the carnage.

McLeod Governance raises this in the context of a case study of where the best intentions – ensuring that the Luftwaffe couldnt see light and use it as a target – can have unintended consequences.

It got us thinking about the many rules and regulations that society and companies introduce that similarly have impacts much further than what they were intended.

McLeod Governance has never been a great fan of rules for rules sake but – and perhaps this is a reflection on our competency and imagination! – we have never worked out a way to test the unintended consequences of a new process, a new control, a new framework.

The day we do we will stop writing this column – for it is the day that our future will be paved with the gold of many seeking the holy grail of internal controls and risk management.

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