The Unsung Civilians of World War ll

By Steve Hookins

During the Second Word War Britain was able to mobilise civilians more effectively than any other combatant nation and by 1944 a third of the civilian population was engaged in war work including over 7 million women. Often this work was unpaid and undertaken in addition to other paid employment.  Whereas the contribution of such organisations as the Home Guard and ARP are justly and widely celebrated, the enormous scope of the war work performed by civilians is now far less appreciate and Steve Hookins’ presentation aimed to rectify this deficiency. During it he mentioned over forty civilian organisations covering a remarkably diverse range of activities including defence and weapon manufacture, medical services, transport and communications, fund raising, food production, welfare and entertainment.     

He delivered his talk in costume in the character of “Mr Foreman” of the Emergency Road Repair Service one of the many now “unsung” organisations that played a critical role in Britain’s war effort – in this case carrying out essential repairs on roads badly damaged and cratered by bombs. In London  Sir Thomas Peirson Frank the  chief engineer of the London County Council  coordinated road repairs  and public utility services throughout the war.  The Emergency Road Service enabled London to carry on in spite of the severest air raids. Peirson  also created  “rapid response” teams who repaired upwards of a hundred breaches in the Thames wall, thus preventing low-lying areas of London from being flooded.

 The threat of invasion in 1940 led to the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers (later the Home Guard) . One group of volunteers highlighted by Steve was the Upper Thames Patrol (UTP). Its duty was to guard the navigable river Thames from Lechlade to Teddington Locks and to protect the bridges, locks and weirs from sabotage. In order to do this private launches and small shallow draft vessels were commandeered (or offered) for the duration and kitted out with fighting equipment.  In the event of an invasion, the UTP was charged with opening weirs and blowing up bridges and locks to impede the enemy’s progress. Despite most of the men being in full employment on reserved occupations they had to do a minimum of 7 hours duty a week for which they received the equivalent of 7.5 pence.

The MG factory at Abingdon was given as an example of how an entire facility and its civilian workforce was transformed to support the war effort.   At the outbreak of war car manufacture of MG cars ceased and the workforce started to overhaul light Armoured Tank vehicles. From this they progressed to major Tank manufacture and later, with remarkable ingenuity to aircraft production.

Civilians made a major contribution to dealing with the effects of enemy action through the establishment of a centralised state-run Emergency Hospital Service. This employed doctors and nurses to care for those injured and arrange for their treatment across the range of local and charity hospitals. Before the war and pre-NHS the structure of medical practice and hospital services was chaotic so the establishment of such a coherent service was a major feat of organisation involving such bodies as the Voluntary Hospitals Committee. As the war progressed the Emergency Hospital Service had to deal with a increasing number of issues such as the care of the aged and infirm evacuated from shelters and those rendered homeless. In addition, special treatment centres were established to provide plastic surgery and the treatment of war neurosis.

In many areas the pre-existing manpower became inadequate for the new demands placed upon it. For example, shortage of firefighters led to the formation of the volunteer Auxiliary  Fire Service whose duties included fire watching  and the extinguishing of  incendiary bombs  Over a thousand branches of this service were set up across the country One of its most notable achievements was saving St Paul’s Cathedral from being consumed by fire .   Similarly, the police force was augmented by volunteer auxiliary policemen and an Observer Corps (motto: Forewarned is Forearmed) supplemented the radar operations of the RAF.  Members of this Corps stationed in a Martello tower in Dymchurch were credited with the first sighting of a VI.  Members of the Radio Society of Great Britain (RSGB), an organisation of amateur radio “hams” assisted the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in listening out for illicit wireless activity by possible German spies.

With many men serving in the Military many industries had to find alternative sources of labour.  One example was the conscription of the so-called Bevin Boys to man the mines. As in the First World War, women took over many roles formerly taken by men in such areas as farming (the Women’s Land Army), forestry (the Timber Corps) and crewing barges on the inland waterways (the so-called “Idle Women”).  Although unable to serve in the Home Guard, the Woman’s Voluntary Service gave women opportunities to support the war effort in a multitude of ways. These included Civil Defence, organising emergency food supplies, advising housewives on how to cope with food and clothes shortages and organising salvage and recycling. Women played an important part in aiding bombed out families through the Rest Centre Service.

Civilians also had a role to play to looking after the welfare of the troops. Voluntary organisations arranged for the production of knitted comforts, others focused on supporting prisoners of war (e.g. the British Prisoner of War Association) or helping those in the armed forces with personal problems (e.g. the Church Army). The need for entertainment to maintain morale led to the formation of ENSA.  Steve mentioned fleetingly many more organisations and fascinating facts. I suspect that few members of the audience had heard of the National Pigeon Service or knew that Hitler’s sister- in-law worked in the WVS.   All these organisations, however, had one thing in common: their members wore a specific badge that identified their category of service; illustrations of many of these accompanied the talk.

Brief mention was made of the George Cross and George Medal.  During the war there were many acts of courage by civilians and there was a strong desire to see these recognised.  Eexisting awards open to civilians were not judged suitable to meet the new situation so, in September, 1940 King George VI instituted the George Cross and the George Medal as a mark of honour for men and women in all walks of civilian life. The first nine recipients received their awards in the same month. They included  Chief Officer Ernest Herbert Harmer and Second Officer Cyril William Arthur Brown of the Dover Fire Brigade, and Section Officer Alexander Edmund Campbell of the Dover Auxiliary Fire Service. In the group were the first two women to receive the medal:   Ambulance Driver Dorothy Clarke and Ambulance Attendant Bessie Jane Hepburn for rescuing a man badly injured in an explosion.

Aided with a single prop (a broom) Steve leavened his talk with impersonations of five notable (and moustached)   men of the period. Their identities were guessed with differing degrees of success.  After this entertaining and highly informative talk members were given the opportunity to view a small   display of  genuine WWII Home Front civil defence badges and other ephemera from the speaker’s personal collection.

Arthur Dewar