I've been after a copy of Terence H. O'Brien's History of the Second World War - Civil Defence for several years. It was published in 1955 by the Stationery Office as the official history of Civil Defence in the UK and is a whopping 729 pages. The level of detail is remarkable. The planning for ARP from the 1920s and through the 1930s is particularly interesting. Every area of Civil Defence is covered and for those wanting the chapter and verse on the Civil Defence Reserve I've not read anything better.
My copy was a withdrawn edition from a library and was just £8 on eBay; a bit of a bargain for a book that is quite rare to lay your hands on these days. The first 180-odd pages are available to read on the Internet Archive website.
Some ARP Wardens and Policemen were trained in the reconnaissance of unexploded bombs. This was an extremely dangerous undertaking as Delayed Action bombs were designed to explode a short time after impact. Other bombs were designed to explode if disturbed. Their detonation could be caused by vibration from a passing vehicle, or by other bombs nearby. ARP personnel did lose their lives carrying these important duties. Those trained in Bomb Reconnaissance wore an armband, later a sewn on patch.
Norfolk based Bomb Reconnaissance Officers examine where an unexploded anti-aircraft shell struck a wall before hitting the ground. (Notice that both men are wearing the Bomb Reconnaissance arm band. The chap on the left is wearing it low on the sleeve, no doubt to avoid covering his other insignia.)
One Warden killed investigating a UXB was Charles Gaetjens. On outbreak of war he signed up and went with the Royal Artillery to France. Evacuated at Dunkirk, he was invalided out and joined the ARP.
Gaetjens was killed as a result of injuries sustained by a bomb that exploded 52 minutes after it hit the BBC’s Broadcasting House on 15 October 1940. At that time a number of people, including Gaetjens, were assessing how to remove the bomb. Six others were also killed by the blast, the muffled explosion heard by listeners to the nine o'clock news as it blew a hole in the side of the building.
Many properties had parachute mines crash through their roofs without exploding. These could be temperamental and detonate if disturbed. One such mine hit 21 Quernmore Road, Harringay, London.
In the early hours of 27 September, 1940, a message was received at the Borough’s Central A.R.P. Depot, stating that a Rescue Party was required at this property.
ARP personnel departed at once, under Leader Sidney Harold (a 36-year-old carpenter) and Deputy Leader Joseph Sweetlove (another carpenter, aged 33). On arrival, Harold ordered his men to leave their steel helmets and other un-necessary equipment which might affect the mine magnetically, in their lorry at the end of the road.
The property was a large house with four floors. On entry through the front door, it could be seen that an unexploded mine was lodged in the first floor with its nose protruding through the ceiling over the entrance hall. An an old lady was known to be on the top floor.
Harold judged it unsafe to attempt to go upstairs, as this might explode the mine. He therefore had a ladder put up in front of the house and ascended it, followed by his Deputy, Sweetlove. They could plainly see the old lady who was very frightened, lying in bed. She had locked the door of the room before retiring.
To reassure her, the men lit their badges up with their torches and then forced an entry through the window. They explained the situation but she seemed unwilling to accompany them. Eventually, however, she asked for time to put on some clothes. To this Harold consented, but when he found that she was evidently intending to make a ‘full-dress’ occasion of it, he would have no more. Sweetlove put her over his shoulder and went down the ladder, assisted by other members of the rescue squad, plumber, George Denton and bricklayer, Charles Johnson. Other members of the squad, Hymms, Hutton and Brodie, were also at hand waiting in front of the house. They were all very much at risk from the mine.
During the whole incident, shells were bursting overhead and shrapnel was falling, while a nearby gun was making the whole building vibrate in such a manner that it threatened to dislodge the mine from its precarious position and explode it at any moment. In fact at 03.33 the mine did explode, destroying number 21, and the adjoining houses, whilst blast rendered almost every other house in the street uninhabitable. The evacuation had been so effective, however, that there were no serious casualties.
It is my intention to put a number of similar stories of the bravery of people like those above into a book. It will focus on ‘civvies’ who spent time around UXBs during WW2 in order to help others. Watch this space!
If you are interested in UXBs, please check-out my previous books, ‘Bomb Disposal in World War Two’, and ‘Disarming Hitler’s V-Weapons’.
I am indebted to Alan House, author of "Home Front Transport - Vehicles of the UK Civil Defence Services 1938 to 1968" for sending me a copy of his book. Alan is a retired member of the fire and rescue service and has written a number of books.
His Home Front Transport book covers the various types of vehicles used by Civil Defence Services during the second world war and then post war by the Civil Defence Corps until it was disbanded in 1968. The book includes information on vehicles that were converted and those specifically manufactured for civil defence purposes. It's a fantastic book with over 300 pages packed with copious black-and-white and colour photographs.
The above book (ISBN 9780956119902) can be bought direct from the author for £9.75 plus postage – simply email the author at email@example.com
The Mechanised Transport Corps, a group of volunteer women drivers between 1939 and 1946, worked for a wide variety of government bodies. Originally an offshoot of the First World War Women’s Legion its 6,500 members, without official recognition in the early years of the war, offered their services to many Civil Defence organisations. Even before war broke out they were driving members of the newly-formed Women’s Voluntary Service and instructing women volunteers in the skills necessary to drive the ambulances of the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service (LAAS).
In Lambeth, forty members of the MTC’s No. 1 Company volunteered to drive the Borough’s ARP Stretcher Parties for the statutory ARP wage of £2 a week, their example followed in further areas in Greater London. By early 1940 members driving for Civil Defence had acquired their own arm badge. In March 1941 two Lambeth SP drivers – a housewife and secretary - were presented with the British Empire Medal by HM The King for helping rescue trapped casualties at a major air raid incident.
Medical assistance of another kind was performed by those driving for the American Ambulance Great Britain (AAGB), a fleet of large cars paid for by American donors to carry mobile surgical teams to bombing incidents. When Queen’s Messenger Food Convoys were created to take emergency food supplies to badly bombed cities, a large number of their vehicles were driven by the MTC. In Leeds thirteen MTC volunteers drove for the Regional Commissioner’s Volunteer Transport and Messenger Service, its Birmingham Counterpart working for the Ministry of Information calling itself the Auxiliary Drivers Association and wearing its own distinctive badges.
Apart from its work for Civil Defence the MTC also drove for – amongst many others - the Home Guard, the Blood Transfusion Service, the Admiralty, the Allied Free Forces, the US Army in Britain and the Inter-Service Research Bureau, a cover name of the Special Operations Executive. And they served in Africa, started the Girls’ Training Corps and formed the basis of the post-war Government Car Service. Not bad for an organisation that nobody originally wanted!
Back in 2008 I published No. 4 in my sadly-incomplete series Within the Island Fortress. Compiled from the personal papers of the Corps’ second Commandant Mrs. Resy Peake – who I was privileged to meet – this told the MTC’s story in detail, illustrated by some fifty original photos and examples of the Corps uniforms and badges.
I have recently had a small number of No. 4 reprinted which I am offering for sale for £15 inc. UK postage. If you would like a copy please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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