Unsung Heroes and Heroines of the Home Front

Posted on 17th May, 2024

Unsung Heroes and Heroines of the Home Front:

Working in Air Raid Precautions


Put that light out!’ Most of us instantly associate those words with life on the home front during the Second World War. Many of us probably picture Warden Hodges from Dad’s Army. Yes, the ARP wardens did patrol the blacked-out streets looking for slivers of light showing through tiny chinks in the curtains, but most people may not realise just how extensive the Air Raid Precautions work actually was.


ARP was an umbrella term for a range of different Civil Defence services, such as the wardens (like Mr Hodges); light and heavy rescue; demolition and decontamination parties; ambulance drivers and attendants; as well as the first aiders who either attended serious incidents or staffed first-aid posts.


Youngsters could join the messenger service, cycling at top speed through the blackout, sometimes while the bombs were falling (like young Noakes in The Home Front Girls), to deliver information from one ARP station to another. The official age for joining was 15, but a keen 13- or 14-year-old might well be allowed to join unofficially. It was a dangerous job, and the bombs did not make allowances for age.


The youngest ever person to be awarded the George Medal, which was instituted early in the Second World War, was 15-year-old Charity Ann Bick of the messenger service. Charity, who lived in West Bromwich, had joined when she was 14, having lied about her age. On the night in question she helped her father extinguish several incendiaries, after which, in order to pass vital information between ARP stations, she made several bicycle journeys of around a mile and a quarter. These journeys took place during the height of the air raid and several times she had to dismount and lie on the ground for safety. According to her citation, she ‘displayed outstanding courage and coolness in very trying circumstances.’


‘Very trying’ seems to me a distinctly British way of describing an air raid!


Going back to our friend Warden Hodges, what other jobs would he have done aside from bellowing ‘Put that light out!’? As well as being closely involved in communication during raids, ARP wardens supervised the public air raid shelters and helped to dig out the dead and injured from the ruins of bombed houses. In the clear-up afterwards, they put up UNEXPLODED BOMB notices, checked damaged buildings to see how safe they were, and contributed to the ‘bomb census’. The aim was to record every bomb that detonated by noting its position on a hand-drawn map known as a ‘tracing’, so called because of being traced from an ordnance survey street map.


Advertisements in newspapers and women’s magazines quickly recognised the role of women in the ARP. Lifebuoy Toilet Soap showed a picture of a grubby-faced woman with an ARP tin helmet and a bath towel, while Mrs Peek’s Puddings asked, ‘Can a Warden be a Good Wife?’ at the top of a comic-strip style story of Mrs X, who fears she might have to resign from the ARP because her husband is vexed at having yet another cold dinner served up. Fortunately for her, her friend advises the use of Mrs Peek’s tinned puddings. The tale finishes with the happy husband thinking she must have resigned from her position, but she hasn’t had to – thanks to Peek Frean.


Having taken over the traditionally male jobs while the men were away, thousands upon thousands of women spent long days at work, followed by going out again to perform their wartime ARP duties as wardens, air raid shelter attendants and ambulance drivers. Oh yes, and they were expected to do all the housework, the shopping and the cooking as well; and those who had kept their children at home, instead of having them evacuated, had to care for their families as well - something that readers of The Railway Girls series will be very familiar with.


When I say ‘ambulance drivers’, don’t necessarily imagine an actual ambulance. The standard ARP ambulance was a motorcar that towed a trailer with racks for stretchers. Part of the training involved two of these ambulances, complete with trailers, starting at different places about a mile apart with winding roads in between them. The new drivers had to negotiate this challenging route in the blackout and then pass one another safely.


When the air raid sounded, the only people who could officially be above ground were the various ARP services, the fire brigade and fire-watchers, and the police. The duty of the wardens was to patrol their designated streets and, as soon as a bomb fell, go to that place and determine the extent of the damage before sending for whatever other services would be needed.


And what were the rewards? According to a playground song of the time, ARP workers got their gas-mask free of charge.


Under the spreading chestnut tree

Neville Chamberlain said to me:

If you want to get your gas-mask free,

Join the blinking ARP.


A jolly little song, but also jolly misleading. No one at all had to pay for their gas mask.


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