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Caring on the Home Front - Volunteer memories from World War Two

Stories » Air raids » Betty Popkiss

Betty Popkiss

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 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 themout with her hands.

What was it like?

betty2“It was a frightening time – the start of saturation bombing of munitions and engineering works in Coventry.
I had just become a St John’s [sic] Ambulance volunteer. It was my first job after leaving Barr’s Hill Girls Grammar School and that night I called into the air precaution post that stood in Hen Lane, Holbrooks. As our post was only round the corner from where we lived, I used to call in most evenings and see what was going on.

The bombing that night began with a shower of slow-burning incendiaries. We all ran around putting them out with sand and earth. Then a man ran up to me and told me one was smouldering on his roof. He asked me if we could get a ladder and go up into his loft before the house caught fire. I hated heights and was really nervous, but between us we managed to put out the flames with the help of a bucket and a stirrup pump.

betty3Then, as I walked home the main shelling suddenly started. It was very dark, the sirens were wailing and our anti-aircraft guns were blazing as the bombers dropped their high explosives.
Suddenly a little girl who lived on my road ran up to me and just said ‘mummy, daddy … please …’. Something was obviously terribly wrong and I told her to run on to the ARP post to get help while I dashed down the road.”

What did you do?

betty4“As I ran I looked ahead and realised a bomb had made an almost a direct hit on an Anderson shelter. As I got near I realised our neighbours, the Worthington family, were all trapped inside. Instinctively I started digging into the rubble with my bare hands. It was too slow to work like that and I frantically looked round for something to use. Remarkably, I found a spade lying nearby. I remember hearing moans from inside. There was no shouting, no screams.

betty5A young boy on a bike appeared in the street and as I looked up I noticed the kitchen door of the family’s house had been blown open.
I shouted to him ‘go upstairs and get some blankets’ – but he was upset and didn’t want to go into somebody else’s house. I can still see his frightened face. I told him ‘just go and do it’ – then other people started arriving to help.We all worked together, fumbling around in the dark with only light from the shells exploding overhead.

Together we got the family free. There were Mr and Mrs Worthington, their daughter Joan, who was a friend of mine, and I think two other sisters and two other girls. I helped to give them first aid.
I just pulled off my brand new black coat and laid it over them.”

What happened next?

betty6betty7“I was awarded the George Medal. I left England as a young bride of 19 years. My late husband, a Rhodesian and I spent our honeymoon in London in November 1942 – a very blacked out London where most famous buildings were closed to the public.”

Betty received the George Medal for her heroic deeds that night.

Now a grandmother in Cape Town, she came as a special guest to the unveiling of the Women in the Second World War Memorial on the 9th July 2005. The visit marked the first time Betty had returned to England in over sixty years.


Throughout November 1940 the Luftwaffe began to increase the bombing of provincial cities in Britain. There was a particularly heavy raid on Coventry on the night of 14 November, with over 400 bombers destroying a large part of the city centre, including the Cathedral. Find out more about the Bombing of UK Cities.


Young members of both organisations played their part in the war effort. Their first aid training and willingness to help others were more important than ever. Many volunteered for Civil Defence work and saw action in the midst of the worst bombing raids of the War. Betty Popkiss was only 17 when she received her George Medal.


Throughout the Blitz, ordinary people showed extraordinary bravery in horrendous conditions. Members of the Civil Defence services put their lives at risk night after night to rescue and help people caught up in the bombing. Members of St. John Ambulance and the Red Cross were no different, and by 1944 they had had 194 members decorated by the King. Find out more about Bravery in the Blitz.

Protecting your home

This footage was shown in cinemas just before the war, and advises people on how to protect their homes from the expected gas attacks.