• Andy Robson


The Air Raid Precaution (ARP) Service

The First World War had brought home the threat of aerial bombing to Britain's population, initially from 'Zeppelin' airships and then from 'Gotha' long-range bombers. The threat caused far more panic and fear than the reality of the bombing, which, in truth, was on a very small scale; in total there were about 80 bombing attacks made against targets in Britain during which around 1,400 people were killed and 3,300 injured.

However, the lesson was learned and in 1924 a Sub-committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence was created to look at the implications of another aerial assault on Britain’s cities. Over the next decade, the Air Raid Precautions Sub-committee looked at a variety of provisions including the building of dedicated air-raid shelters, the mass evacuation of non-essential civilians from urban areas, and the practicalities of a curfew and blackout; the air attacks on Britain during WW1 had been launched at night. The threat of gas attacks, which had become common-place at the Front during the late war, were taken very seriously and it was planned to issue every member of the population with their own Gas Mask.

As the political situation in Europe deteriorated during the 1930’s, primarily due to the threat to peace posed by Nazi Germany, an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Department was created as part of the Home Office in 1935. This took over the remit of the Air Raid Precautions Sub-committee and began putting measures in place to provide a practical response to any future air assault.

In April,1937 the Air Raid Warden Service was created to provide an enforcement and advisory body for the country’s air raid precaution system. It was envisaged that ultimately 800,000 trained volunteers would be required, providing the service during their spare time. A Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) was created in May,1938 to support this. Following the Munich Crisis of September,1938, it was reported that half-a-million volunteers had already come forward to receive training.

A Technical Committee on Structural Precautions Against Air Attack had been created as early as 1936. This looked at how communal areas could be adapted to act as mass air-raid shelters. In addition, a specification for a cheap, mass-produced shelter which could be installed in every garden led to the Anderson Shelter in 1938. This was constructed from 14 galvanised, corrugated steel panels which were formed into a closed half-cylinder when bolted together with a door at one end. To improve the protection they provided, the shelters were to be built into pits dug into the garden and then covered with the excavated soil. Their internal fitting-out was left to their owners, but they could generally accommodate 6 adults in reasonable comfort. Although the shelters would not withstand a direct bomb hit, they would provide protection against flying shrapnel from a near-miss or falling masonry. Poorer families were issued with a shelter for free, but everyone else had to pay up to £7, based on income, for theirs.

The Air Raid Precautions Act of January,1939 stipulated that all local authorities must put measures in place for their own ARP service. An area’s ARP provision was commanded by a Chief Warden who was based at a central Report & Control Headquarters. His zone of responsibility was divided into Districts, each commanded by a District Warden, which, in turn, controlled a number of Warden Posts. These Posts were initially housed in suitable shops and offices, but later dedicated buildings were purchased or constructed. These tended to be located at major road junctions for ease of communications. Each Post was commanded by a Post Warden and enough Wardens were based there to adequately cover their assigned area. The guideline was one Warden to 500 inhabitants in an urban area and so generally up to half-a-dozen Wardens were based at each Post.

By the outbreak of war in September,1939, there were no less than 1.5-million people, the vast majority of them unpaid volunteers, serving with the various ARP bodies. Everything was in short supply and initially all these wore civilian clothes with nothing but an Armband to show their role. In addition, every man and woman was issued with a Mk.II ‘soup-bowl’ military helmet for protection. Financial limitations meant that these were manufactured to a lower standard than those issued to the Services and were less resistant to flying shell-fragments and debris. Identifying letters and shapes were generally painted on these helmets to show the wearer’s function/speciality/rank. These designs developed during the course of the War and became quite intricate.

Local ARP services were divided into several separate, but inter-linked bodies:

ARP Wardens

Wardens were the most numerous ARP workers and had many areas of responsibility, including;

  • Issuing and Checking Gas-masks

  • Maintaining the black-out

  • Operating Air-raid Sirens

  • Controlling and Guiding the flow of people to dedicated Air-raid Shelters

  • Providing information on raids to the local ARP Control Centre

  • Evacuating and Guarding areas around unexploded bombs

  • Rescuing people from bomb-damaged properties

  • Providing primary medical care for casualties

  • Providing emergency re-housing for ‘bombed-out’ families

In October,1939, Wardens were issued with 'bluette' overalls with a red 'ARP' sew-on badge. Not until May, 1941 were they issued with a uniform of dark blue army-style battledress and beret.

A Warden’s rank was denoted by markings on their helmet:

Black helmet with white ‘W’ Warden

White helmet with black ‘W’ Senior or Post Warden

White helmet –

with one stripe over the crown District Warden

with 2 stripes over the crown Chief Warden

All Wardens' Posts were issued with first-aid tins and the trouser pockets on the Warden’s battledress were designed to hold a single ‘First Field Dressing’.

Volunteer Wardens were required to be on duty roughly 3 nights every week; generally reporting to their Posts after a full working day at their jobs. Once the Luftwaffe’s night bombing campaign got into its stride during the winter of 1940-41, however, the Wardens were increasingly called out for extra shifts.

Although Wardens were of a wide range of ages, many were veterans of WW1 who were too old for the Army in the new conflict. One in 6 of the Wardens were women.

About 1.4-million ARP Wardens were active during the course of the War.

Since telephone communications could become unreliable during a raid, volunteer Messengers, often Boy Scouts or members of the Boy’s Brigade, were used to carry messages between ARP stations or teams working in the field.

First Aid Attendants

Trained to provide primary medical care to casualties of bombing. Medical supplies were carried in canvas haversacks to make the Parties as mobile as possible.

Casualties were then carried by Stretcher Parties to First Aid Posts, which were sometimes mobile to get as close to the scene of the bombing as possible, and then, if necessary, to Hospital by road Ambulance.

First Aiders wore dark blue army-style battledress. This had been specifically designed to have a large number of pockets so that numerous small items of equipment could be carried. A Red Cross badge was sown onto the right pocket of the blouse.

Ambulance Drivers

Evacuated casualties to the necessary care centre, from First-Aid Posts to Hospitals. Ambulance Drivers were issued with a full-length, double-breasted coat and peaked cap.

Bomb-Damage & Rescue Crews

Made bomb-damaged buildings safe and helped evacuate both the dead and the wounded from bombed areas.

These crews were generally composed of volunteer building workers or tradesmen who were accustomed to such work. They were issued with overalls and a waterproof oil-skin cape, and generally moved around in a truck or van which towed a trailer loaded with their tools and equipment.

Crews were denoted as Light or Heavy depending on their equipment.

Fire Watchers

It gradually became apparent that it was fire, not bomb-blast, that caused the most damage to a bombing target. For this reason, an increasingly high percentage of aircraft bomb loads came to comprise incendiary (fire-starting) weapons rather than high-explosive (HE). The idea was that the

HE bombs would destroy buildings, and the incendiaries would set the wreckage on fire. Incendiary bombs were small – the standard Luftwaffe weapon weighed just 2-kg – and literally hundreds were carried in a single aircraft’s bomb-load. These did not explode, but burned with extreme intensity and would set fire to anything flammable within reach.

Recognising the danger of these weapons, the Fire Watchers were tasked with looking for fires in buildings and then calling the fire services so that the flames could be extinguished before they took hold. In addition, any reported incendiaries would be found and extinguished using sand.

Fire Watchers were not issued with uniforms, but wore Armbands to indicate their service.

The huge conflagrations which broke out during the Blitz made the

Government re-double its efforts to prevent such occurrences. In September, 1940, every commercial building became legally obliged to have a Firewatcher continually in attendance. And in January, 1941 local authorities were given the power to conscript civilians for fire-watching duty.

In February,1941 the Fire Watching Service became subordinated to the Wardens Service.

Although the ARP was predominantly a Volunteer service, a nucleus of full-time Staff was required to ensure that the system worked efficiently. In 1944, for example, when the threat of air attack was much reduced and ARP numbers had declined accordingly, about 8-9% of staff were full-time; 67,000 against almost 800,000.

Of these, 10,000 full-time workers were women, as were 180,000 of the Volunteers.