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The Blitz and Civil Defence, c.1939-1945

‘In Civil Defence EVERYBODY has a part to play.  This is specially true of fire-fighting. In every house there  should be one or more people ready to tackle a fire bomb.’

Civil Defence No. 5, ‘Fire Precaution in War Time’, Public Information Leaflet, 1939.

Street scene of buildings on fire with soldiers in gas masks tending to the injured
Roland Vivian Pitchforth, ARP Practice. © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 371)

The 1940-1941 Blitz left Britain burning. The attack on 29 December 1940 became known as the ‘Second Great Fire of London’.

In March 1941, Clydeside was extensively damaged by bombs and fire, with over 1,000 people dying, and many more wounded and homeless. In May 1941, Liverpool Royal Infirmary’s emergency air-raid responders treated 757 patients, including 20 with burns and scalds. Civil defence efforts to prevent and respond to fires and burns (like those depicted in the practice session picture) rose dramatically.

By 1935 it was clear that first-aid organisations would bolster Air Raid Precautions (ARP). In October 1940, 37,196 British Red Cross members were participating in Civil Defence, and 60,000 St John members by 1943.

Such work was dangerous: in 1944, 83 St John members died in air raids. By the beginning of 1939, the British Red Cross, St John, and St Andrew’s Ambulance had already instructed over 100,000 people in anti-gas training. Between 1938 and 1945, St John trained 1.2 million people in courses including first aid and home nursing.

Civil Defence activities continued during the Cold War in preparation for aerial, chemical, atomic and thermonuclear attacks. If there was a nuclear attack, heat radiation and the blast waves would cause burns and fires. Alongside these new threats, advice was still provided on the older threat of mustard gas burns.

Men for first aid parties poster

ARP roles included first aid, ambulance, rescue and demolition, and decontamination. Whilst appeals for volunteers could be gendered, women were involved in the ARP, and also wider Civil Defence roles, including watching for and tackling fires. Over 70,000 women enrolled in the National Fire Service by 1943.

© Imperial War Museums(Art.IWM PST 13899)

Goggles were developed during the Second World War to protect first aiders’ eyes from incendiary bombs. After 1945, organisations continued to innovate. St John Ambulance issued new burns guidance from what had been learnt. By the 1950s, advice addressed radiation burns from nuclear attack. In between, the National Hospital Service Reserve was established, embracing Red Cross and St John volunteers.

Copyright and Credit: British Red Cross Museum and Archives

ARP goggles
Stirrup hand pump cigarette card

Over 175,000 stirrup pumps were disseminated nationally. Advice on how to use them was distributed in handbooks, pamphlets, and on cigarette cards. Official ARP instructions for householders were ideally to prepare a stirrup pump ‘with a two-purpose nozzle either producing spray for dealing with the bomb itself, or producing a jet for tackling the resulting fire.’

Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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