After Germany had invaded France in May 1940, the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, targeted Britain. They failed to win control of the skies in the Battle of Britain in August 1940 and Germany’s invasion plans had to be postponed. However, Nazi leaders were convinced Britain would surrender if her civilians lost the will to fight. The plan was to destroy morale through heavy bombing raids on towns and cities.
Throughout the Blitz, Joint War Organisation members operated ambulances, acted as stretcher-bearers, ran mobile units, and made up first aid parties, rescuing people from buildings demolished by bombs. They also manned first aid posts, for example in the London Underground stations that people were using as air raid shelters.
Their work went further. As war loomed, St John Ambulance and the British Red Cross had begun to train its members, Civil Defence workers and thousands of members of the public in air raid precautions (ARP).
Coventry, St John, Air Raids
‘I dug with my hands’
Betty Popkiss had just finished school when she joined St John Ambulance. On 19 October 1940, she called into the ARP (air raid precautions) post near her Coventry home. That night, Coventry suffered a second Blitz. When a family’s Anderson shelter took a direct hit, Betty began to dig them out with her hands. Read Betty’s story
London, St John, Air Raids
For a night’s rest
Clare Lerner started as a first aider in the East End. Bombs fell, walls crumbled, and Clare barely slept. The experience inspired her to co-found the Country Hospitality Scheme. Such a scheme allowed first aiders like Clare to relax in the countryside for a weekend, and to return to London refreshed. Read Clare’s story
London, St John, Air Raids
A life underground
Evelyn Bristor provided first aid services in the most legendary of air raid shelters: the London Underground. With other staff, she slept on the platform, supervised the nightly arrival of ‘food trains’, and calmed people as the bombs fell. Evelyn witnessed Londoners creating a life of their own underground. Read Evelyn’s story
London, Red Cross, Air Raids
Jack Hunter built ships on the Suffolk coast. Once war began, his local British Red Cross detachment collapsed. So Jack found other ways of continuing his first aid training. When the London docks needed carpenters, his firm sent him. And when the docks needed a first aider, Jack was again on the job. Read Jack’s story
Glasgow, Red Cross, Air Raids
To the cheers of Royalty
Mary Glasgow did not expect to enjoy it. But the first aid lectures inspired her. She ‘swotted’ on the bus home, studying bone structure and muscle groups. Her efforts paid off. At a first aid drill show, Mary’s team impressed the Queen, proving that Glasgow was ready to defend the Isles. Read Mary’s story
England, Air Raids
‘Everybody’s got to go’
St John Ambulance men instructed their fellow citizens in air raid precaution. By the time Britain declared war, people all over the country knew what to do. In the Blitz, ambulance men—despite depleted numbers—led stretcher parties and ambulance convoys. On the home front, the men gave their all to defend and care for civilians. Read the St John ambulance men’s story
This footage from a St John Ambulance training film gives an idea of what an air raid in London would be like.
The government set up a Civil Defence Service to cope with the effects of enemy bombing – 90,000 St John Ambulance and British Red Cross members joined
From September 1940 to May 1941, 41,000 civilians were killed and 137,000 injured during air raids in Britain
By 1945, St John Ambulance alone had issued 1.2 million certificates to the public in first aid, home nursing and civil defence-related classes