Volunteer Services in the London Blitz

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Article

Mark Cartwright
by
published on 19 June 2024
Available in other languages: French

An army of 250,000 volunteers, both men and women, working in many different services, ensured life went on during the London Blitz, a period of sustained bombing by the German Air Force on the British capital between September 1940 and May 1941. Air raid wardens, firefighters, firewatchers, and volunteers giving vital aid to the homeless ensured that Londoners and those in other bombed cities remained defiant through some of Britain's darkest days of the Second World War.

ARP Recruitment Poster
ARP Recruitment Poster
Imperial War Museums (CC BY-NC-SA)

Air Raid Precaution (ARP)

Knowing full well what a bombing campaign against Britain might entail, the British government established various services to deal with specific areas of a future war on the home front. The first thing to do in an air raid was to inform civilians of the coming danger. Britain had an integrated air defence system, the Dowding System, which used radar and volunteers of the Observer Corps (see below) to track incoming enemy aircraft. What was also needed was a team of dedicated volunteers who could warn civilians in areas about to be attacked and direct people to air raid shelters. The Air Raid Wardens' Service was created in April 1937, and within a year, it had 200,000 volunteer members, both men and women. By September 1939, there were 750,000 air raid wardens.

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Wardens informed the authorities where bombs had dropped, conducted patrols, & supervised public shelters.

Wearing blue overalls and a steel helmet, wardens became a familiar sight across Britain. They were not always welcome as they tried to enforce the blackout, the policy that no non-essential lights should be shown at night in case they alerted bombers to population areas. Consequently, windows and doorways had to be either screened or curtained. The wardens' familiar call of "Put that light out!" did not endear them to the public, but when the bombs finally started falling, wardens became an invaluable part of Britain's civil defence force. Cities and towns were divided into districts and each area was given its own air raid warden post. In London, there were around ten warden posts to every square mile (2.6 sq. km), each post usually having five wardens.

Wardens informed the authorities where bombs had dropped, conducted patrols, and supervised public shelters. Wardens helped out wherever and whenever they could, especially in emergency situations such as rescuing people from bombed buildings or evacuating areas where there was an unexploded bomb. It was dangerous work, and there were inevitably casualties amongst the volunteers.

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Firefighters in the London Blitz
Firefighters in the London Blitz
Imperial War Museums (CC BY-NC-SA)

One air-raid warden, Mr Butler, recalls his work during the Blitz:

Some of the worst things I think was when there'd been a direct hit and someone had blown into little pieces and you had to pick that up, put it in sandbags, label it where it came from, where we found it, and by that they used to more or less identify all these people, who they were and where they came from. Sometimes we'd get two hands, two left hands, or two right feet. Well, you'd know full well that if you got two on the same side there were two people that had been killed there. I think that's about one of the worst things that you had to do and it took a man with a very strong stomach to do it, I can assure you that.

(Holmes, 143)

ARP wardens often formed stretcher units. Allocated a saloon car, four wardens would race to an incident in their area and sort out the living from the badly injured and dead, giving vital preliminary first aid before ambulances arrived to take away those who needed hospital care. Irene, a driver of an ARP stretcher unit, gives her account of arriving first at a community air raid shelter on Beaufort Street in London where a bomb had killed 56 people:

The scene was of death and devastation. Huge slabs of concrete trapped poor mangled bodies beneath their jagged weight. Poor twisted bodies – blackened and begrimed from the blood and dust. Bits of bodies lay in puddles of water, blood and filth. Dear God! That first glimpse of Hitler's work! I felt my stomach heave for a paralysing second, and I thought I was going to vomit, thereby disgracing myself and my squad forever. But I managed to gulp heavily and then felt more or less all right again.

(Levine, 286)

Auxiliary Fire Service Unit, London
Auxiliary Fire Service Unit, London
Imperial War Museums (CC BY-NC-SA)

Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS)

The regular fire service could not have coped alone with the number of incidents a bombing campaign brought. Accordingly, they were supplemented by the AFS or Auxiliary Fire Service. By 1938, Britain's firefighters had grown from 5,000 to 75,000 individuals, 85% of whom were auxiliaries. A much-needed development that did not come until May 1941 was to unify the 1,668 local fire brigades into a single National Fire Service.

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London alone had an estimated 3,500 firewatchers keeping vigil each night during the blitz.

The part-time auxiliary volunteers, who included women, were given 60 hours of training. They usually went on duty at night when they were most needed (since most bombing was done at night). Ordinary people tried to help fight fires, too, and many people equipped themselves with buckets of sand or a stirrup pump, which cost 12 and a half shillings (£28 or $35 today) – these became so popular that getting one became extremely difficult since they sold like hot cakes. Lack of equipment was a familiar lament of volunteers. With not enough fire trucks, many AFS volunteers drove to scenes of devastation in converted taxis equipped with a trailer pump.

Peter Blackmore, an AFS volunteer in London, memorably describes his first night in action:

Bombs were falling fast and heavy. We did a great deal of ducking…and my heart was in my mouth…Eventually we came to a standstill at the wharf where we were to spend the endless night. Everything seemed to be on fire in every direction, even some barrage balloons in the sky were exploding. The cinder-laden smoke which drifted all around made us think of the destruction of Pompeii.

(Gardiner, 11)

Balham Bomb Damage, London Blitz
Balham Bomb Damage, London Blitz
Imperial War Museums (CC BY-NC-SA)

The work was hard, both physically and emotionally, and it took its toll. London was hit every single night in long spells without respite. As one resident, Olivia Cockett, noted in her diary about her sibling in the AFS: "Brother a hero in the AFS doing rescue work and laughing and joking and looking 20 years older in three days, during which he had seven hours off duty" (Holland, 746).

Firewatchers

From the start of 1941, compulsory firewatchers (later renamed Fire Guards) were imposed by the government on all industrial premises. Eventually, there was a compulsory scheme where every citizen – men (between 16 and 60) and women (between 20 and 45), with exceptions for those who worked more than 60 hours a week (for men) or 55 (for women), or if a woman had a child at home under 14 years of age – had to perform 48 hours of fire watching each month. Failure to carry out one's duty resulted in a £100 fine or a three-month prison sentence. London alone had an estimated 3,500 firewatchers keeping vigil each night during the Blitz.

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George Hodgkinson gives the following account of his work as a firewatcher:

As chairman of my own street fire-guard organisation I had to go on the street to be ready with buckets and stirrup-pump and so on, ready to snuff out any incendiaries that were round about. We lost one neighbour and her mother and we were under the bombs all night, our family, eleven solid hours. We got a landmine exploded within a few yards of the house: it ripped through the house hooking the curtains to the window frames, took the roof off, the tiles falling on to the pavement and you could see the stars through the building. We were in a rather desperate state at the end of the night.

(Holmes, 144)

Women Plotters, AFS
Women Plotters, AFS
Imperial War Museums (CC BY-NC-SA)

The firewatchers saved countless fires from getting out of hand and destroying not only homes but also factories. Florence Rollinson describes her work as a volunteer and that of her father, a firewatcher in a place where one can imagine vigilance was very much needed, a match factory in the East End of London:

The men in these fire-watch parties would go up on the roof in small groups and securing themselves with rope would watch out for fire bombs before they could take hold by kicking them off. The building was some hundred feet high and these tactics saved the factory. (The firm's Liverpool works had been burned down by incendiaries.) The men would change shifts quite often and come down for a breather with dad giving us a commentary of what was happening. As I was part of the First Aid party we had formed in the works, we would take care of casualties, even those brought in off the street, and also keep the firewatchers supplied with tea and coffee. During those bitter cold nights in the blitz, we'd lace their drink with rum to keep out the cold! This was supplied by the directors of the firm, some of whom were also in the fire-watch party so everybody did their bit.

(Gardiner, 251)

Women's Voluntary Service

The Women's Voluntary Service for Civil Defence (WVS) was formed in 1938 by Stella Isaacs, Marchioness of Reading. The WVS proved an attractive way for women to help in the war effort and the organisation boasted 300,000 members within 12 months. These figures were boosted from March 1941 when conscription for women aged 20 to 45 (and without children at home) was introduced. Conscripted women were given the choice of joining a military auxiliary service, the civil defence service, industry, or the Land Army which worked in agriculture.

Volunteers Distributing Tea during the London Blitz
Volunteers Distributing Tea during the London Blitz
imperial War Museums (CC BY-NC-SA)

WVS volunteers operated mobile canteens which were much appreciated by those made homeless and other volunteers working in the streets like the firefighters. WVS volunteers also operated centres which distributed food and clothing to those who had lost, literally, everything. Clothing came from donations, but it was also the task of the WVS to negotiate with clothes manufacturers and shops to sell them clothes at wholesale prices. Local rest centres became essential as the authorities were overwhelmed with the need for tens of thousands of people for somewhere to live after losing their homes. By September 1940, with the Blitz not even a month old, some 25,000 people were already dependent on the rest centres for shelter, sanitation, food, and clothing. Gioya Steinke, a volunteer dealing with the destitute in a rest centre remembers:

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It was very distressing, there was a lot of grief and crying. You didn't know who was a street market person and who was a person from the posh flats, they were all reduced down, and this, I think, had a lot to do with the wonderful camaraderie of the war.

(Levine, 29)

The feelings of the destitute are summed up by Lily Merriman, who lost her house to a bomb: "We felt like refugees. I used to feel dirty. We didn't see any of our old neighbours any more. We was shifted, and that was it" (Levine, 30).

Royal Observer Corps

The volunteers of the Observer Corps (OC), created in 1929, formed a network of beady eyes which scanned the skies for enemy planes. Across Britain, there were 30,000 volunteers, operating 1,000 observation posts around the clock. The service was managed by the police but came under the ultimate control of the Air Ministry. OC members did their training in the evenings and weekends since, like so many volunteers, they often had day jobs as well. Each post was equipped with binoculars, an altitude estimator (a sextant-like instrument), a grid map, a telephone, and, naturally, tea-making facilities. Observers communicated sightings to a Group Centre, which then linked to the local fighter defence centre. On top of this network was a whole army of civilian amateur observers who contacted the authorities whenever they spotted an enemy plane. This became such a popular pastime – and an unreliable one since distinguishing friend from foe was far from easy – that the book Aircraft Recognition, published by Penguin, sold over two million copies.

Recruitment Poster for Women, WWII
Recruitment Poster for Women, WWII
Imperial War Museums (CC BY-NC-SA)

Home Guard

The Home Guard boasted around 1.5 million members throughout the war. Volunteers, who were first called Local Defence Volunteers, were those men either too young or too old for active duty in the regular armed forces. For this reason, the Home Guard became known as 'Dad's Army'. In the early years of the war, duties included acting as lookouts for an anticipated invasion and operating roadblocks, roles which helped the regular army deploy its units for other purposes. During the air war, the Home Guard frequently helped out during raids, for example, in rescue work.

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Bomb Disposal

As many as one in ten bombs dropped by aircraft failed to explode, and these had to be dealt with in case they went off later. Army bomb disposal units were alerted to the presence of unexploded bombs (UXBs) by ARP members or anybody else who spotted them. The London bombs were usually taken away for destruction on Hackney Marches, which became known as the 'bomb cemetery'. The work was highly dangerous – 123 personnel were killed by the end of 1940 and 67 wounded – but it still attracted volunteers. Tony White, a conscientious objector, volunteered for this type of work since:

It was something constructive in the sense that you were digging out bombs that were meant to harm, immunising them, and you could see it as a direct service for the community. But the major reason was my proving something to myself, that I wasn't 'dodging the column'…There were several 1,000 pounders that we got, about 4 or 5 feet long, they were a pretty good size. They were heavy of course, and we got them out by winching them out, with a tripod type of rig to haul them out. We'd take them away and try to neutralise them. You'd screw in and make a hole in the casing, trying not to disturb the fuse…that job had to be done very carefully, and then we'd inject steam which would neutralise the powder or the explosive and then one could remove the fuse safely. And then an officer would retreat to what was theoretically a safe distance and then explode it with an electrical device. This was when the thing could explode before the officer had got far enough away, he was always the one at the greatest risk and we did suffer casualties.

(Gardiner, 258)

General Volunteers

Countless members of the public volunteered on the spot to fight fires, rescue people trapped in collapsed buildings, and give direct aid to the homeless. Volunteers were also present in large numbers in medical services, acting as stretcher-bearers, ambulance drivers, and staffing first-aid centres. There was an army of volunteers in control centres, at advice bureaus that helped people negotiate the red tape impeding them from getting the help they needed, and working as messengers, frequently required when phone lines were damaged. Some volunteers performed several of these roles all at once. John Sargent earned a living as a machine operator in the daytime, his nights were spent on call for ambulance duty (8 p.m. to 5 a.m.), and his weekends teaching first aid to civil defence volunteers and the Home Guard.

Charities were dependent on volunteers to distribute aid. The Charity Organisation Society distributed tens of thousands of necessary items given to Britain by the American Red Cross and the Canadian Red Cross. The Quaker Society of Friends, St John Ambulance Brigade, YMCA, the Salvation Army, and others all did much good work during the Blitz.

Italian Detainees Working to Clear Rubble During the Blitz
Italian Detainees Working to Clear Rubble During the Blitz
Imperial War Musuems (CC BY-NC-SA)

There were, too, some forced volunteers. German and Italian nationals (and others) living in Britain when war broke out often found themselves detained by a government suspicious of spies and reacting to the popular press that called for such people to be rounded up. Around 27,000 people were detained in this way and sent to camps in faraway places like the Isle of Man. Within a year, some 10,000 detainees were released, but many were then obliged to work in demolition gangs clearing up the destruction caused by the bombs.

The Cost of Volunteering

Although volunteering brought a sense of purpose for many and a feeling that one was 'doing one's bit', there were often lasting psychological consequences to witnessing the horrors of war close up. Mental anguish under sustained bombing, when the loss of loved ones and one's home were a constant threat, was an experience of most people, but volunteers were particularly susceptible to experiences that left additional mental scars. In a period when the most common reaction to problems of the mind was simply "carry on and keep busy", few victims sought professional help. There were physical symptoms, too, such as sleeping problems, exhaustion, and hair loss. "Doctors noticed an increase in peptic ulcers, and advertisements for diarrhoea remedies increased" (Gardiner, 186). Volunteers saw terrible things, but these were made even more poignant by the nature of recruitment and distribution. Volunteers very often worked amongst the people they lived with and so knew all too well the victims of bombing raids. They also saw their colleagues badly injured or killed, thus losing the only people who had shared their often unspeakable experiences. There was a system of pensions for volunteers and compensation for physical injuries, but it was only after action by various trade unions that compensation was introduced for psychological injuries sustained while performing the myriad of volunteer duties that ensured Britain survived the Blitz.

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About the Author

Mark Cartwright
Mark is a full-time writer, researcher, historian, and editor. Special interests include art, architecture, and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the WHE Publishing Director.

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Questions & Answers

What did people do to help during the Blitz?

Many people helped during the London Blitz by volunteering as air wardens, firefighters, firewatchers, and in the Women's Auxiliary Service. Medical services, digging out bomb victims, helping the homeless, disposing of bombs, and serving charities were other areas where people volunteered their help.

What did volunteers do in WWII?

Volunteers in WWII worked in the Home Guard, Air Raid Precautions Service (ARP), the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS), the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS), the Royal Observer Corps (OC), the Red Cross, and in various charities.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Cartwright, M. (2024, June 19). Volunteer Services in the London Blitz. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/article/2486/volunteer-services-in-the-london-blitz/

Chicago Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Volunteer Services in the London Blitz." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified June 19, 2024. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/2486/volunteer-services-in-the-london-blitz/.

MLA Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Volunteer Services in the London Blitz." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 19 Jun 2024. Web. 18 Jul 2024.

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