During the Second World War, the British Red Cross and Order of St John worked together as the Joint War Organisation to help wounded and sick servicemen. By the end of the Second World War, Joint War Organisation volunteers had sent over 20 million standard food parcels to British and Dominion prisoners of war.
The parcels were carefully chosen to give the best dietetic value and to supply elements that were lacking from prison camp diets. The parcels, usually sent at the rate of one per man per week, weighed around eleven pounds and contained, according to availability, some or all of the following items:
- 1/4lb packet of tea
- tin of cocoa powder
- bar of milk or plain chocolate
- tinned pudding
- tin of meat roll
- tin of processed cheese
- tin of condensed milk
- tin of dried eggs
- tin of sardines or herrings
- tin of preserve
- tin of margarine
- tin of sugar
- tin of vegetables
- tin of biscuits
- bar of soap
- tin of 50 cigarettes or tobacco (sent separately).
Volunteers staffed seventeen centres around the UK and packed up to 163,000 parcels each week. The Joint War Organisation had eight ships under permanent charter, with others standing by, to transport the parcels on the first stages of their journey to the prison camps.
The majority of these ships operated a shuttle service between Lisbon in neutral Portugal and Marseilles in the south of France. At Marseilles, the parcels were transferred to railway vans under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Through the French and Swiss postal services, the parcels finally reached Geneva, where the International Committee of the Red Cross arranged for their distribution to prison camps in Germany and elsewhere.
See photos of our work in the Second World War
Find out about the history of Red Cross nursing and hospitals
Learn about the history of emergency transportation