British Civilian Life

Civil Defence and Home Guard

Civilian and Civil Defence casualties
Strength of the Home Guard and Royal Observer Corps

Home Guard

The Civil Defence Services in World War Two comprised the following elements:
Air Raid Wardens
Medical Services
Observer Corps
Rescue Services
Women's Voluntary Service

Home Guard

The Home GuardThe Home Guard was formed as a backup to the army, to defend the towns and villages of the United Kingdom should the Germans invade, but they were armed initially with only what could be scrounged up and private weapons. They eventually were properly armed and usually consisted of men in reserved occupations, those unable to fight due to a medical condition, or those who were too old to fight.

The Civil Defence forces outside London were disbanded in September 1944, although the stand-down order did not come until May 1945 and was not completed until 31st December 1944. The London Civil Defence Force was stood down on 2nd December 1944.

The Home Guard was the army that never fought. Hastily organized in May 1940 as the Local Defence Volunteers, it was armed with a mixture of outdated rifles, old fowling pieces, shotguns and improvised weapons and by the end of June the Home Guard numbered some 1.5-million ill-equipped but enthusiastic men. Shortly a consignment of half a million US-made P17 Enfield and Canadian Ross rifles arrived from the USA. By November 1941, the Government introduced military ranks and discipline into the Home Guard, as it numbered 1.5 to 2 million men. It still consisted of volunteer, unpaid and part-time soldiers, formed into units to defend local communities, airfields and vital infrastructure and traffic routes. Later in the war, the Home Guard helped to man AA sites and coastal artillery, as well as defend them, releasing regular troops for other duties.

Strength of the Home Guard and Royal Observer Corps (Thousands)
  Home Guard Royal Observer Corps
  Full-Time Part-Time
Men Women Total Men Women Men Women
1940 June 1,456   27.9 2.3   25.6  
1941 June 1,603   33.2 4   29.3  
December 1,530   34.8 4.4   30 0.4
1942 June 1,565   34 5.1 0.2 28.0 0.8
December 1,741   32.4 5.5 0.4 25.6 0.9
1943 March 1,793   32.8 5.7 0.7 25.2 11
June 1,784 4 32.9 5.9 1 24.8 12
September 1,769 16 32.9 6.2 1.4 24.1 1.3
December 1,754 22 33 6.4 2.1 23.2 1.3
1944 March 1,739 28 32.8 6.5 2.5 22.4 1.4
June 1,727 31 32.7 6.4 2.6 22.1 1.5
September 1,698 32 32.5 6.4 2.8 21.9 1.5
December 1,685   322 6.4 2.9 21.4 1.4
1945 March     32.1 6.5 3 212 14
June     8.7 5.7 2.1 0.9  

Civil Defence Services

In World War One, about 1,400 civilians had died in just over 100 air raids on Britain by German Zeppelins and later, Gotha bombers. The interwar years saw the Committee for Imperial Defence set up a subcommittee whose function was to look at the organization for a war of civil defence, home defence, censorship and war emergency legislation. This group was called the Air Raid Precautions subcommittee. It met for the first time in May 1924. The subcommittee continued its work for the next nine year in secrecy. In March 1933, local authorities were chosen as the agencies to be responsible for local organization. A circular was sent around the local authorities and a new department of the Home Office, the ARP department, was formed in 1935 under the control of Wing Commander E. J. Hodsall.

When, in March 1935, Germany announced that she had re-established her air force, the ARP department immediately went to work and began to issue instructions to the local authorities, merchant shipping and fire precautions.

In January 1937, the first official ARP broadcast was made and an appeal was made for volunteers. Local progress in the setting up of these services varied widely; in some areas large-scale exercises took place and in others ARP services had yet to be formed.

For the first years of their existence, the ARP personnel had only a helmet and a silver ARP badge to denote their role and which service they belonged to. Often the helmets carried some denotation of rank, as did armbands where provided. An ARP inspector spent some time in Spain during the civil war, studying the effects of bombing by German and Italian aircraft and evaluating the defences employed.

On 1st January 1938, the ARP act came into force, compelling all local authorities to set up ARP schemes. It required wardens, first aid, emergency ambulance, gas decontamination, rescue, repair and demolition services as well as first aid posts, gas cleansing stations and casualty clearing stations. The Auxiliary Fire Service was also set up. The Act also provided for funding, 65-70% of the bill would be footed by central government grants, if the local authority submitted plans, which were approved.

In March 1938, war seemed inevitable, as Germany demanded the return of the Sudetenland. ARP services were put on standby and trenches were dug in public parks.

The ARP workers would, in the main, be part-time volunteers and were expected to work up to 48 hours a month. In February 1939, full time ARP personnel were paid £3 a week for men, and £2 a week for women. Skilled rescue workers earned more and part-time pay was introduced later in the year. When Germany invaded Poland on 1st September 1939, war was impossible to stop. Blackout restrictions came into force and the Auxiliary Fire Service was mobilized and local APR schemes were brought into operation.

As the war continued, each new ARP development was followed by new weapons deployed by the Axis powers. The early air raid warning system sounded an alert in one of a hundred areas warning of approaching enemy aircraft in five minutes. This meant that factories and areas not immediately threatened or buzzed by nuisance aircraft all shut down factories as the workers headed to the shelters. Nuisance raiders caused the ARP to develop an Industrial Warning System, where spotters were stationed on the roofs of factories and sounded the alert when enemy aircraft were seen approaching. This cut down enormously on the time spent in shelters by factory workers.

In 1940 some local authorities began to issue a sort of uniform for their Civil Defence services and in February 1941, a heavy battledress uniform was issued, first to rescue services and later to the other services. During 1941, the phase ARP was phased out in favour of Civil Defence. The Civil Defence services began to be wound up in September 1944 and some blackouts began to be lifted. At the end of April 1945, the Civil Defence wound up on 2nd May 1945, holding a final parade on 10th June 1945, reviewed by King George VI.

Air Raid Wardens

ARP wardens were first introduced in January 17, their duty being to establish and advise on air raid precautions in their sector. They would be at posts and report the particulars of air raid damage, assist the inhabitants and warn of unexploded devices and seal off effected areas. The ARP Warden Service was formed in March 1937. The wardens would perform many jobs and provide immediate help with bomb damage until the rescue services could arrive. They had to have a detailed knowledge of the local area, where any dangerous chemicals, petrol or oil were located, where useful rescue materials might be located and the positions of useful reporting points as well as the location of the local rest centres, first aid posts and hospitals.

The first posts were in the warden's own front room or a shop, but later these were purpose built locations, with power, telephone and a shelter for the warden. They were also issued with gas masks, anti-gas suits and other rescue equipment. The early scheme had one warden per 500 people, but later it was replaced by a scheme of not more than 10 warden posts per square mile, so a warden should not have to move more than half a mile to a damaged area. The sectors were each served by five wardens under a senior or Sector Warden, while several sectors were covered by a warden's post under the control of a Post Warden. The post areas were grouped under a Head Warden, sometimes known as an Area Warden, who would be in charge of an area containing six to eight thousand people. Large towns of more than 150,000 population would be divided into divisions of eight to ten Head Wardens, and all the Head, Post or Area Wardens had a deputy. The local Warden Service was controlled by the Chief Warden at the local authority's headquarters and would have a reserve of wardens as reinforcements.

Wardens were trained in everything they might need. Rescue work, organization, elementary first aid and bomb protection as well as ARP procedures. They also had to oversee the public shelters but these were taken over by a Shelter Marshal, later renamed Shelter Wardens and under the control of the Warden Service.


Fire was not considered a high danger before the war. Only fire resulting form bomb damage being a major problem and the Auxiliary Fire Service was formed to combat this. Mass incendiary raids were not expected. German heavy bombers could carry a thousand one kilo Electron incendiary bombs, and a single German bomber with a full load could start up to 150 fires over a three-mile area according to the Home Office.

A single electron could be easily dealt with by sand, water or covering the small fire, but if left alone could develop into a major fire. As well as the civilian Fire Service, the Auxiliary Fire Service was formed in January 1938; the Fire Brigade Act of July 1938 gave local authorities 2 years to bring their brigades up to strength. Before the war broke out, recruitment was far below its target of 200,000 but when war broke out recruits flooded in. Auxiliary fire stations sprang up everywhere, dispersed all over cities and rural areas. Early in the war the fire engines patrolled at intervals to spot fires but the wardens and fire guards proved more effective and such patrols became unnecessary. As well as the AFS, there was the Women's Auxiliary Fire Service, whose presence released men from control centre and messenger duties.

War had seen the peacetime bright-red fire engine disappear to be replaced by wartime grey and tin helmets were issued to the firemen. As well as trailers and vehicles, many fire brigades had fire floats and boats, with many battling for hours on end along the Thames River to contain the fires on the docksides and streets of riverside London.

The National Fire Service reached its peak at the end of 1942, numbering 350,000 in 39 fire forces, each of 4 divisions, with two columns (100 pumps) per division and a reserve of 20 pumps. A company had ten pumps and a section five. The NFS was controlled by the Home Office but each CD region had its own Fire Officer, who liased between the CD Regional Commissioner and the Fire Force commanders within the region. There were also mobile control units at large incidents.

The Fire Watcher Service was formed in September 1940 in the Fire Watchers Order, which was to spot and report the fall of incendiaries and their ensuing fires. But all their efforts could not prevent the devastation of December 1940, and in August 1941 the watchers were reorganized into the Fire Guard. These would spot incendiary fires, battle them to the best of their ability and send for reinforcements from the NFS if required.


The fear of the use of poison gas by German aircraft was one of the paramount concerns of the Second World War. Although Britain, France and Germany had all renewed the Geneva Gas Protocol (1925), in September 1939 there were still concerns that the enemy might have employed gas against military or civilian personnel, and ARP personnel were trained to handle gas attacks and on anti-gas measures and protection.

Several arms of the ARP services were directly concerned with gas. The Decontamination Service was the first, to decontaminate roads, buildings and materials contaminated by liquid or jelly gases, which would evaporate over time and these would have been dealt with by using a neutralizing agent against the liquid or jelly. Decontamination of people was carried out as part of first aid, while later decontamination personnel were trained in rescue work as well. Depots were set up as six depots per 100,000 people, with two decontamination squadrons per depot, each squadron consisting of six men with their equipment.

The Cleansing Service was to clean people who had been exposed, through showers by mobile units with special vans and lorries. Clothing had to be boiled, if exposed, for varying lengths of time dependant on the material. Civilian clothing was the responsibility of the Ministry of Health.

burning, smoke or other hazardous materials. Each gas presented its own problems and required special counters, and the Gas Identification Service, with 3 personnel per 100,000 population provided where possible, was to identify the gas used in an attack.

Medical Services

The expected nature of air raids in the Second World War, led to the First World War trench-warfare style of triage being adopted for home use. First Aid parties would attend the scene of the destruction, where they would deal with minor injuries on the spot, prioritizing more serious injuries and sending them back to First Aid Posts, each with a doctor and trained nurses to treat the more serious injuries. The most serious cases would be sent to a casualty clearing hospital. Along with the emergency ambulance service these made up the ARP Casualty Service. After 1938, the casualty services came under the control of the Ministry of Health.

Each Warden's sector had an assigned doctor, who could be summoned to an incident if there were casualties. These were called ARP Medical Officer or Incident Doctors. The Medical Services also controlled the Emergency Mortuaries to deal with the vast number of bodies expected as a result of air raids, a series of these being set up in each area in commandeered premises. The stretcher-bearers worked exclusively from hospitals and were made up of volunteers.

Observer Corps


In 1938, the duties of the police were envisaged as increasing so enormously when war broke out, that the numbers of police had to be trebled. The First Police Reserve of Police Pensioners, the Second Reserve of Special Constables, (part-time and unpaid) and the Third Reserve, which was a war reserve that was full time and signed up for war service only, were all needed to fill the Police Services manpower requirements. At first all police were regarded as a reserved occupation, but later increasing demands on personnel saw police were released up to the age of 30 and war reservists up to 33, leaving more work for the Special Constables.

Another source of personnel was the Women's Auxiliary Police Corps, where WAPCS worked in administrative areas and as drivers. Their numbers were small, not reaching 10,000 at their height, some forces employing no women at all.

The build-up to war had seen police stations bomb-proofed, while reserve stations were set up and suitable buildings were converted and equipped to be used if the main station was bombed. Outside London the police were usually in charge of incidents. The police had the power to deal with blackout violations, but not the wardens, who referred them. The police also had to deal with incendiaries, gas, unexploded bombs, crashed aircraft, national registration, loose barrage balloons, enemy aliens and drunken servicemen. Their special departments had to monitor spies, fifth columnists, looting, sabotage and black marketeering. The police also had their own messengers, the Police Auxiliary Messenger Service.

Rescue Services

The Rescue Services was, in its first incarnation, to rescue survivors and repair or demolish damaged structures. Much of the training was based on earthquake rescue work. All members of rescue parties were taught to cut off supplies of gas, water and electricity to damaged buildings. Many members of the rescue service were trained in resuscitation, as gas masks were useless against domestic (coal) gas.

To enable rescue workers to avoid domestic gas, the remote breathing apparatus was developed. This was basically a service gas mask with a long hose connected to it, through which fresh air could be breathed. They were also trained in putting out small fires and tackling incendiaries. At first the standard rescue party was ten men in two classes; major incidents and smaller incidents as Class A and Class B respectively with each having different equipment.

The light teams numbered four or five to every heavy team per 100,000 populations but in cities, heavy parties were in every area. The Borough Engineer or Surveyor acted as Head of the Rescue Service in most cases, overseeing the organization and administration of the service. In January 1943, a year after London, the stretcher parties were reformed into light rescue parties and women members were transferred to other Civil Defence services. Rescues could last for days, continuing throughout bombing and air raid alerts. Rescue workers were the first Civil Defence unit to be issued with uniforms, the first issue being blue overalls. Helmets were worn when working, but flat caps or trilby hats were worn at other times.

Women's Voluntary Service

In June 1938 the Women's Voluntary Services for ARP, was formed to provide extra bodies for ARP work. These women took on all roles and in February 1939 the name was changed to Women's Voluntary Services for Civil Defence. They worked in every imaginable job; salvage, medical support, staffing public kitchens, shelters, food drives and also included a Housewife’s Section. Those who were committed with children or other work and were too busy to give regular time to the WVS or Civil Defence work, worked for the WVS when they had spare time. The Housewife’s Section was formed in 1938, and early in 1942 had evolved into the National Housewife’s Section of the WVS. It was common practice for Housewife’s Section members to be trained as Fire Guards, as well as having first aid and anti-gas training.

Civilian and Civil Defence casualties, due to enemy action as reported to 31st July 1945.
Total CivilianCivilian Defence Workers on duty
TotalMenWomenChildren Under 16UnidentifiedTotalMenWomen
Killed and Missing, believed killed60,59526,92325,3997,7365372,3792,148231
Injured and detained in hospital86,18240,73837,8227,622-4,4594,072387

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Proofread 1/3/2001