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

Stories » Air raids » St John Ambulance men

St John Ambulance men

‘Everybody’s got to go’

men01St. 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.

How did you become involved?

Derek Fenton:

men2” Hitler was in power and countries were feeling very nervous. The letters ARP were ominously brought home to the public. St John became closely involved with the first aid training. By the middle of [1939], it looked as if war was inevitable.

Thomas Hurst:

men3[The Council] appointed me District first aid superintendent. Three days before the war actually broke out, [they] phoned me up and said, `Mr Hurst, will you come full-time?’ My own boss, Teddy Sear, who was still butchering, said, `Yes, by all means Thomas, because it looks as though everybody’s got to go.’ “

What did you do?

Derek Fenton:

men4“During the early part of 1939, I became more and more involved. There were many first aid classes attended by large numbers of the public. Although I was only eighteen years old, I was the senior demonstrator and the class secretary of a first aid class for pharmacists. In those days we were lucky if we got a full night’s sleep—as well as long days, we also had interrupted nights.”

Gordon Geard:

” In 1941, I joined the St. John Ambulance [Brigade] at Montacute, because groups had started in villages on first aid, fire-watching, fire service, and Home Guard. We had quite a nice group at Montacute, and I found it very interesting.”

Any special memories?

Mr. Cardy:

men5” People talk about lady drivers, but I have a great admiration for them. I was with them when they had to drive [our ambulances]. They were large cars and carried four patients a time. They were not easy to drive I can tell you. When you’re driving in convoy on a dark night and going fairly fast, and your front light’s got just a tiny little headlight…who would want to do it? I had the greatest admiration for them girls. “

Thomas Hurst:

men6” Some of the [air raid] cases were pretty ghastly.
On [one] occasion a house had been demolished. The stretcher party and the rescue parties were still there, and I went down to see what was going on. The roof had collapsed, and they could hear the cry of somebody in amongst the ruins.

After digging still a bit further they managed to find and uncover a lady sitting in a chair with a baby in her arms. Next to her was a Singer sewing machine, and the cry was coming from underneath the Singer sewing machine. The woman was obviously past help and the baby [too]. After a while the stretcher party managed to extricate this laddie of about ten years old. He was pinned down underneath the machine. It was the machine frame that really saved that boy.”

Gordon Geard:

men7.jph“One night I was asked to a fracture of a femur. [The doctor] stood by my side, watched everything I did, never said a word. By the time I finished I turned round to him and I said, `All right Doctor?’ He never said anything. He went down through every nut, and he nodded as he walked away. I knew everything was all right then.”


From 1935 the British Red Cross and St. John Ambulance were asked by the government to run air raid precautions training classes. They ran classes for both Civil Defence workers and the general public. By 1939 St. John Ambulance alone had trained 61,738 civilians in anti-gas measures. Find out more about these classes. Find out more about Civil Defence training.


The Joint War Organisation provided 249 ambulances, employing 360 drivers and carrying 681 531 patients over the course of the war. Their ambulances travelled nearly 6 million miles. Find out more about Joint War Organisation transport.


During the Blitz the people who lived in large towns and cities had to cover their doors and windows with special blackout material. This stopped any light getting through that might be a target for a German bomber. Anyone who didn’t do this could be fined. As well as this, car headlights were banned, which made driving ambulances difficult and dangerous, especially when the roads were covered in debris. Up to 600 people were killed every month as a result of the blackout, mostly through road accidents.

Gas attack


Gas Attack from British Red Cross on Vimeo.

Gas masks


Gas Mask Display from British Red Cross on Vimeo.