Civil Defence: Civilian Services

Civilian Services (including ARP, AFS and WVS)
In the late 1930s, a war in Europe was becoming an increasingly likely prospect. The events running up to and including the Munich Crisis in 1938 did much to raise concerns and awareness in Britain for the need to make preparations for war (see the section on pre-war build-up for more on this period). As a result, as early as 1937 saw the introduction of the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Act and the setting up of an Air Raid Warden service and other Civil Defence services. The services were to be formed of volunteers who performed many roles with the aim of preparing and helping the civilian population, especially in the event of enemy bomb attacks. Film from Birmingham, entitled This is a Matter Which Vitally Concerns You (1938), offers an example of an explicit appeal for local people to join the Air Raid Precautions service. From the next year, the film ARP/ Malton Evacuees (1939) shows pre-war ARP training exercises in preparation for gas attacks in Yorkshire as well as evacuees arriving.

The WVS, the Women's Voluntary Service for Civil Defence as it was known during the war, was also established in anticipation of the need to deal with the impact at home of the outbreak of war. Founded in 1938, the WVS played a significant part on the home front in both community support and welfare work. Amongst its many roles, the WVS was involved in the co-ordination of evacuees and in providing support and welfare services after bombing attacks.

With the outbreak of war, for the ARP, some of the warden’s main roles took the form of issuing warnings of possible bombing attacks as well as implementing government precautions against attack, including black-outs. The ARP and other civil defence services also prepared themselves thoroughly for dealing with the event of various forms of attack. Film was often used to record training exercises during the war. Leatherhead Newsreel (1940 – 1945), from Surrey, depicts the training of the Civil Defence services. The film demonstrates the simulation of a fire and rescue, where people playing 'casualties' are stretchered down from bombed buildings and attended to by first-aiders.

The ARP also trained regularly for possible gas attacks and were responsible for staging gas drills, training civilians in how to deal with burns from chemical attacks and the decontamination of land after being hit by poisonous gas bombs. The film Air Raid Practice – Knoll School Hove (ca. 1940) shows wardens and officers of Hove's Air Raid Precautions 'M' Group, overseeing a gas mask drill and air raid exercises in a Hove school. Film from Derbyshire, ARP in Sandiacre (ca. 1940), shows an exercise in dealing with a gas attack wearing full anti-contamination suits, whilst Buoyant Upholstery Fire and Incendiary (1940), also in Derbyshire, presents a demonstration by the ARP on how to extinguish an incendiary bomb. The Newcastle ARP (ca. 1940) made a film of a simulated phosphor bomb attack, cordoning off streets whilst the public looked on.

When attacks did take place, the ARP service along with the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS), took on key and often dangerous roles such as helping the public to find shelters, searching for survivors after bombing raids, fire rescue, stretchering casualties to safety and dealing with incendiary devices. The Pathé film Front Line London (1944) shows ARP bomb spotters sounding the alarm for an attack and the recovery effort after a V1 bomb hit. Port of Destiny (1946) documents fires being tackled at the Southampton Docks after Blitz bombing raids. Exeter Blitz Aftermath (1942) captures some of the recovery operations co-ordinated by Civil Defence services, including those likely to have been run by the WVS, such as a missing persons unit and supplies being dispensed.

Following the war, all Civil Defence organisations (apart from the WVS, now the WRVS) were disbanded. However, the crucial role played in the war by all civilian organisations was recognised and celebrated in many post-war tribute events including victory parades. Films such as Civilians in Uniform (ca. 1946), from Surrey, offers a reconstruction of the activities of the local Civil Defence organisations as a commemoration of their work.