Dr Linsey Robb on the civilian medical services in the Second World War

Auxiliary Fire Service in London 1941

During the Second World War Britain’s civilians were targets of attack to an unprecedented degree. The German Luftwaffe dropped bombs and incendiaries on major cities and industrial areas across Britain causing both high levels of structural damage and significant amounts of civilian death and injury. Over 67,000 British civilians died and 140,000 were seriously injured in the course of the war. This was not unexpected. Because the attacks on Britain during the First World War and the numerous bombing casualties witnessed during the Spanish Civil War successive inter-war British governments made plans to protect and treat British civilians in the event of another mass-scale conflict. Some of these measures were preventive in nature. Most notably, the wartime government provided air raid shelters. Over 3 million Anderson shelters, outdoor shelters for gardens, and over 500,000 Morrison Shelters, indoor shelters, were provided during the course of the war. These were free to those with small incomes. Others sheltered in existing structures such as railways arches, underground stations and cellars. However, hiding from the attacks was not always enough, civilian injuries and deaths were, to a great extent, unavoidable.


The government made plans for this also. Several Civil Defence organisations were founded for these eventualities. The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) augmented the existing fire services to fight the massive fires caused by the Luftwaffe’s onslaught. Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Wardens were responsible for local reconnaissance and reporting, and leadership, organisation, guidance and control of the general public. Wardens would also advise survivors of the locations of rest and food centres, and other welfare facilities. Rescue Parties were required to assess and then access bombed out buildings and retrieve injured or dead people. In addition, they would turn off gas, electricity and water supplies, and repair or pull down unsteady buildings. Ambulance Services would transport seriously injured victims to hospital and first aid parties treated those they could on the scene. Despite a shortage of men on the home front women were often kept from the most dangerous of these services. This was most notable in the fire services. In contrast, women formed three-quarters of casualty services, a job which often took them to the heart of danger in bombing raids.

My research examines the experiences of those in Britain’s home front casualty services during the war.
Discussion questions for students:
  • What provisions were made to prevent and treat civilian injuries on the British Home Front during the Second World War?
  • How and why did these provisions differ from Britain’s previous wars?
  • What role did women play in Britain’s civil defence provisions and why?