The Home Front:
“We’ve Got to be Prepared”
The Home Guard
Initially called “Local Defence Volunteers” (LDV), it was a defence organisation of the British Army. Operational from 14 May 1940 until 3 December 1944, the Home Guard, comprising 1.5 million local volunteers otherwise ineligible for military service, usually owing to age or reserved occupations, it was given the nickname “Dad’s Army”. It was as a secondary defence force and guarded the coastal areas of Britain and other important places such as airfields, factories and explosives stores.
The south west Durham villages, within the Gaunless Valley, Evenwood, Cockfield, Butterknowle and Copley all had Home Guard units under the command of Major Russell and Captain A. Foster.
Evenwood Home Guard c.1941/42
Jack Smith: Bill Smith: Jack Hymers: Eric Weston: Chris Hutchinson: Fred Britton: ?: Eric Bennett: Raymond Gibson: Wilf Bussey: Nelson Bussey: Sammy Lee: Bowes Thompson: ?:
Norman Proud: Bobby Henderson: Harry Thackerey: Norman Wren: Harry Stones: Jos. Priestley: George Vickers: Fred Todd: Eric Priestley: Arnold Bolton: Tommy Buttle: Harry Welford: Arthur Oldfield: Jack Sayers:
?: Bobby Watson: George Mason: Willie Postgate: Dick Heaviside: James Law: Ralph Bowman: Major Russell: Captain A. Foster: Walter Bowman: Bob Cox: Edgar Tweddle: Sid Lowson: Joe Wren: Norman Knaggs
Kneeling Left: Doug Henderson: Tazie Prudhoe
Kneeling Right: George Blackett: Ronnie Wilson
Air Raid Precautions (ARP)
During the Great War, Britain was bombed from the air. Zeppelins wreaked terror across the coastal towns of the east and south east. Likewise, during the Spanish Civil War, the German Luftwaffe conducted air raids on Spanish towns. The British government saw the danger and prepared the nation for ordeals to come. Protective measures had to be taken including simple precautions. Important buildings were sandbagged and barrage balloons were introduced over built up areas and military installations.
Air Raid Precautions was an organisation dedicated to the protection of civilians from the danger of air-raids. It was originally created in 1924 as a response to fears about the growing threat from the development of bomber aircraft. In September 1935, the British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, published a circular entitled, “Air Raid Precautions” which invited local authorities to make plans to protect their people in the event of a war. Some councils responded by arranging the building of public air raid shelters. These shelters were built of brick with roofs of reinforced concrete. However, some local authorities ignored the circular and in April 1937 the government decided to create an Air Raid Wardens’ Service and during the next year recruited around 200,000 volunteers.
Back row: left: Jim McDonald (the undertaker) ? ? ? ? ? John Bainbridge
Front Row: Rowland Nixon (bus driver) Tommy Bussey ? Nora Welsh; Isaac Parkin ? ? Mr. Daniel (the hairdresser)
Ultimately, there were around 1.4 million ARP wardens in Britain during the war, almost all unpaid part-time volunteers, who also held day-time jobs. They had a basic uniform consisting of a set of overalls and an armlet, along with a black steel helmet. The steel helmet had W for Warden in bold white writing across it, except for Chief Wardens who wore white helmets with black lettering.
The ARP was responsible for:
- sounding the air raid sirens
- the handing out of gas masks,
- distribution of pre-fabricated air-raid shelters (such as Anderson shelters, as well as Morrison shelters) for family use
- the upkeep of local public shelters
- the maintenance of the blackout
- assistance with the rescue of victims of bombing
Sounding Air Raid Sirens
Wardens were responsible for the sounding of air raid sirens. People were now expected to immediately take cover before the raid actually started. Another siren was played to announce that it was safe to leave the air raid shelters.
Public Air Raid Shelters
As a first response to the threat of bombing in the late summer of 1939, trenches were dug around schools and factories for children and workers to take cover during the confidently expected air raids. As the Phoney War lengthened into autumn and winter however, proper air raid shelters were issued to the population to supplement the public and institutional shelters that were replacing trenches as places of shelter around the county.
Public air raid shelters were built: For example, in Newcastle it was announced that:
“arrangements had been made for substantial shelter to be available for many thousands of people who may be in the streets when an air raid occurs. Business firms, offices and other interests have co-operated with the City Engineers Department to make this practicable.”
“Two principal shelters in the official list are as follows:
1: Victoria Tunnel – This shelter has accommodation for 1,000 people with entrances in Claremont Road, Spital Tongues and Ouse Street, off City Road.
2: The Ouseburn Culvert – will give first-class shelter to some 500 people”.
Air Raid Shelters
Anderson Shelters were issued to householders in the more vulnerable areas such London. However, many people constructed their own “refuge rooms” or when the bombing commenced in May 1940 they took shelter under the stairs or in their cellars.
Maintenance of the Blackout
The ARP had to enforce the “Blackout” which was intended to prevent streetlights, light from windows etc. providing German night bombers with visual navigation aids. No lights were allowed at night. People went to great lengths to completely blackout their homes. Those who transgressed would hear the Warden’s words “Put that light out” and repeat offenders would find themselves in front of the local magistrates. Fines or even imprisonment were the penalties for breaches in the regulations.
A report on the North East provides the following account:
“Day 36: All times British Standard Time. Blackout ends: 07.20, begins: 18.27.
The effectiveness of the blackout for Sunday, 8th October 1939 stated that in the Northern Region reports were not very encouraging. At 02.00 on September 4th the RAF reported that all towns in the Tyne and Tees areas had odd lights visible and that Newcastle was clearly visible as a town area, between 21.45 and 22.00 on September 14th. A lot of blue mercury lights on railway sidings were also spotted. Things improved with police warnings to offenders and on September 24th, when Squadron Leader Smith of 607 Squadron overflew the area at 6000′ from 21.45 to 22.15, the report stated that the blackout was very effective and the only lights seen were four welding flashes. Continuous vigilance was essential however, and a report following a flight on the evening of October 2nd stated that a few isolated lights were again visible in Newcastle, the Pelton Coke Ovens were clearly visible and the shape of a large building at Birtley could be clearly discerned because of dim lights visible through the roof. On the following evening the report stated that (1) Several railway yards were distinctly visible, (2) Several moving points of light (cars) were seen, (3) At the coke ovens, Axwell Park, there was a “red glow against clouds of steam”. Although attempts were made to minimise the problems presented by coke ovens and, even more so, by steel works such as those at Consett, there was little that could be done short of closing them down.”
Assistance to the victims
The ARP also helped rescue people after air raids and other attacks. Duties included helping to police areas suffering bomb damage and helping householders. ARP wardens were trained in fire-fighting and first aid and could keep an emergency situation under control until official help arrived. Some women became ARP Ambulance Attendants whose job was to help administer first aid to casualties, search for survivors and, in many grim instances, help to recover bodies, sometimes those of their own colleagues.
The British government believed that some form of poison gas would be used on the civilian population during the war. It was therefore decided to issue gas masks to everyone living in Britain. By 1940 the government had issued 38 million gas masks. The government threatened to punish people not carrying gas masks. However, a study at the beginning of the war suggested that only about 75 per cent of people in London were obeying this rule. By the beginning of 1940 almost no one bothered to carry their gas mask with them. The government now announced that Air Raid Wardens would be carrying out monthly inspections of gas masks. If a person was found to have lost the gas mask, they were forced to pay for its replacement.
Children trying their gas masks for size
The ARP had the problem of dealing with unexploded bombs. It is estimated that one in ten of the bombs dropped on Britain did not explode. Wardens would arrange for all premises to be evacuated and all roads within a 600 yard radius of the unexploded bomb. At the beginning of the war these bombs were not too difficult to deal with. The ARP would inform the Bomb Disposal Unit (BDU) and skilled men would be sent to remove the fuse of the bomb. However, in 1940 the German manufacturers began to build in anti-handling devices. The bombs were now designed to explode if anyone attempted to remove the fuse. Members of the BDU therefore had the more difficult task of cutting a hole in the casting and removing the explosive contents.
Fire Guard Messengers
Many councils appointed children volunteers aged between 14 and 18 as messengers or runners. These Fire Guard Messengers would run or cycle through the night raids ferrying messages between ARPs and the fire department units and incendiary volunteers with their buckets of sand.
Evacuation of Children
Many children were evacuated from urban areas to the countryside. For example, about 44,000 Newcastle children were evacuated to places in Northumberland, Cumberland and Yorkshire. By 21 October 1939, 11,000 had returned to the city. Some, if not all, of the pupils from Cowgate School went to the Hexham area; Canning Street went to the Carlisle area; Richardson Dees School at Wallsend went to the Ponteland area and Rutherford College went to the Carlisle area.
Other miscellaneous measures included:
- The Government ordered that cinemas, theatres and public places are to be closed.
- The drivers of horse drawn vehicles (milkmen, coalmen etc.) were ordered to tether their horses to the nearest lamp post or tree and all traffic was to stop when an alert was sounded.
- The BBC closed all radio stations except the Home Service.
In December 1941 Parliament passed the National Service Act, which called up unmarried women between 20 and 30 years old to join one of the auxiliary services. These were the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the Women’s Transport Service. Married women were also later called up, although pregnant women and those with young children were exempt.
There was also provision made in the Act for objection to service on moral grounds, as about a third of those on the conscientious objectors list were women. A number of women were prosecuted as a result of the Act, some even being imprisoned. Despite this, by 1943 about 9 out of 10 women were taking an active part in the war effort.
Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS)
The first recruits to the ATS were employed as cooks, clerks and storekeepers. At the outbreak of the war, 300 ATS members were billeted to France. As the German army advanced through France, the British Expeditionary Force was driven back towards the English Channel. This led to the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk in May 1940, and some ATS telephonists were among the last British personnel to leave the country.
As more men joined the war effort, it was decided to increase the size of the ATS, with numbers reaching 65,000 by September 1941. Women between the ages of 17 and 43 were allowed to join, although these rules were relaxed in order to allow WAAC veterans to join up to the age of 50. The duties of members were also expanded, seeing ATS orderlies, drivers, postal workers and ammunition inspectors.
Women were barred from serving in battle, but due to shortages of men, ATS members, as well as members of the other women’s voluntary services, took over many support tasks, such as radar operators, forming part of the crews of anti-aircraft guns and military police. However, these roles were not without risk, and there were, according to the Imperial War Museum, 717 casualties during WW2.
By VE Day and before demobilization, there were over 190,000 members of the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service. Famous members of the ATS included Mary Churchill, youngest daughter of the Prime Minister and Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth, eldest daughter of the King, who trained as a lorry driver.
Many women were soon doing men’s work, being employed in the factories, shipyards, railway sheds, forestry and farming. In June 1939, the Women’s Land Army (WLA) was formed for agricultural work and in 1942 the Women’s Timber Corps (WTC) helped with forestry work.
Women’s Land Army
June 1939: As the prospect of war became increasingly likely, the government wanted to increase the amount of food grown within Britain and in order to achieve this, more help was needed on the farms so the government formed the Women’s Land Army, known as the Land Girls. The majority of the Land Girls already lived in the countryside but more than a third came from London and the industrial cities of the north of England. At first, the government asked for volunteers but this was supplemented by conscription, so that by 1944 there were over 80,000 members. The WLA lasted until its official disbandment 21 October 1950.
Women’s Timber Corps
Formed in 1942, the origins of the Women’s Timber Corps (WTC) go back to World War I when the Women’s Timber Service was formed to help with the war effort. In 1940, to solve a labour shortage and an increased demand for timber, the Forestry Commission started recruiting women as forestry workers and also to work in sawmills. In 1942 responsibility passed from the Forestry Commission to the Home Timber Production Department of the Ministry of Supply and the women became part of the new corps. As many of the women who had joined the Forestry Commission came from the Women’s Land Army, the WLA took over the administration and recruitment for the WTC and although the WTC was officially part of the WLA it retained a separate identity. The uniforms were identical except that the WTC replaced the WLA felt hat for a beret and wore the WTC badge.
A full set of kit consisted of:
- 2 green jerseys
- 2 pairs of riding breeches
- 2 overall coats
- 2 pairs of dungarees
- 6 pairs of woolen knee socks
- 3 beige knit shirts
- 1 pair boots
- 1 pair of brown shoes
- 1 pair of gumboots or boots with leggings
- 1 green beret
- 1 melton overcoat
- 1 oilskin or mackintosh
- 2 towels
- a green armlet and a metal badge
- a bakelite hat badge
The corps was divided into nine geographic areas responsible for the work and welfare of the women in that area. Accommodation ranged from purpose built hutted camps, through small hotels and hostels to private billets. Never as large as the WLA, the WLC had a maximum strength of over 6,000 working throughout the United Kingdom. The corps was a mobile organisation so the workers could be posted anywhere.
Munitions factories relied heavily on women. For instance, Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) Aycliffe was built at Heighington Lane, Aycliffe, County Durham during the early 1940’s. It opened as ROF 59 (Filling Factory 8) in the spring of 1941. It operated 24 hours a day, employing some 17,000 workers in three shift groups and was operational for just over 4 years until the end of World War II in 1945, by which point it had produced some 700 million bullets and countless other munitions. The factory was designated as a “Top Secret” installation and surrounded by high fences with barbed wire. During its existence, the factory produced millions of finished munitions including bullets, shells and mines. 17,000 women came from the surrounding towns and villages to work at the factory, filling shells and bullets and assembling detonators and fuses for the war effort. Workers were transported from surrounding areas onto the factory site by bus and train, with the most local workers arriving on foot or by bicycle.
The workers were mainly women and became known as the “Aycliffe Angels”. The name comes from William Joyce, known as Lord Haw Haw who was an American traitor working for the Nazis during World War II. Joyce broadcast Nazi propaganda over medium and short wave radio to Britain and the United States. In numerous broadcasts he had said, “The little angels of Aycliffe won’t get away with it” and promising that the Luftwaffe would bomb them into submission.
By its nature the work was very dangerous and many workers were killed and injured during the manufacturing process however due to the secrecy surrounding the factory and its workers, many incidents went unrecorded and unreported in the news.
Bevin Boys were young British men conscripted to work in the coal mines of the United Kingdom, from December 1943 until 1948. They were chosen at random from conscripts but also volunteers. Nearly 48,000 Bevin Boys performed vital but largely unrecognised service in the mines and many of them were not released until years after the Second World War ended. Ten percent of those conscripted aged 18–25 were selected for this service.
The National Registration Card was issued to everyone in Great Britain. The scheme was introduced in 1939 at the outbreak of war. The card, at all times had to be carried and shown on demand to a policeman. Initially, they were coloured brown but in 1943 a new blue coloured one was introduced for adults.
Many goods and most food were imported by sea so articles, and particularly food, needed to be distributed fairly. Ration books were used to allocate food and certain goods. They were printed and distributed amongst the population. A black market flourished. Petrol rationing was immediately introduced – cars were taken off the roads. Unsurprisingly, Hitler ordered the German U-boat fleet to attack the north Atlantic shipping lanes – a tactic first used in the Great War. As the U-boat offensive took hold, merchant losses increased and shortages resulted.
Identity Card, Ration Books