On 7 September 1940, the German air force (Luftwaffe) began a bombing campaign in Great Britain. The Blitz began with 79 consecutive nights of bombing in London, and spread throughout Britain. Coventry was particularly badly hit on 14 November 1940, when the Luftwaffe dropped 500 tons of explosives and almost 900 incendiary bombs in ten hours.
By the time the Blitz ended in May 1941, thousands of civilians had been killed across Britain and over a million houses destroyed or damaged in London alone.
British Red Cross volunteers were heavily involved in preparing for the bombings, and helped civilians survive the attacks.
Preparing for the Blitz
The British government knew the country was at risk of being bombed, so they began preparing in 1939 by building air raid shelters and organising training.
The British Red Cross has a crucial role in supporting the statutory emergency services (a role we continue to play today) and during the inter-war years, thousands of our volunteers were trained in how to deliver first aid, making them uniquely placed to help injured air raid survivors.
In 1939, 140 of our volunteers became instructors on air raid precautions. Many more were trained throughout the war. They taught civilians in their communities what to do if their town was attacked by gas, high explosives, or incendiary bombs.
During the Blitz
Our volunteers supported the emergency services and eased the suffering of Blitz survivors in several ways.
Staffing bomb shelters
During the Battle of Britain, Londoners took shelter in underground stations. Our volunteers set up first aid posts and organised games to distract children. Volunteers gave 45,000 hours of service in the City of London medical aid posts alone.
Throughout the country, volunteers helped run bomb shelters and sick bays for evacuees. They also set up temporary homes for elderly people who’d become homeless who couldn’t face night after night in a shelter.
Supporting the emergency services
Volunteers set up first aid posts and mobile first aid units, freeing up the ambulance services to treat the most urgent cases.
Volunteers were also stretcher bearers and performed first aid on people pulled from the rubble.
Distributing relief to survivors
The Duke of Gloucester’s Appeal for the Red Cross and St John raised money for civilians injured by enemy action, as well as for wounded and sick servicemen and prisoners of war.
In September 1940, at the start of the Battle of Britain, the Joint War Organisation (the British Red Cross and Order of St John) allocated £250,000 to provide immediate relief for civilian victims. According to the National Archives, this is equivalent to over £7 million today.
We administered the funds in consultation with local authorities. The relief was for the bodily injured, and those who were suffering from shock or had lost relatives or homes.
The public in the UK and other countries were very generous in donating items, as well. Gifts came from almost all parts of the world, many of which were scarce in the home market. In terms of money value, more than half of the gifts in kind from overseas was made by or donated through the American Red Cross. We received immense donations of hospital supplies from America.
At home, volunteers organised work parties which created 3,583,000 items (such as clothing) out of material they bought themselves. These items were given to our headquarters, who then distributed them among bombing survivors. Many more items were made and given directly to hospitals and other organisations.
We distributed items through our local Branches and through organisations like the Women’s Voluntary Service and Salvation Army.
Supplying hospitals and shelters
We supplied local authorities with thousands of items to be used in hospitals, shelters and rest centres, including:
- soap and towels
- mattresses, blankets and pillows
- fresh fruit and special foods for ill people and infants
- medical items and first aid boxes.
After increased attacks throughout the country, we sent £80,000 worth of supplies to civilian hospitals (worth nearly £2.3 million today).
While our war-time volunteers sacrificed countless hours helping their communities survive, many of them lost their own homes and family members.
Being a volunteer was not without its risks. Medical posts were bombed and several volunteers were killed while on duty. In the first six weeks of the Blitz, 19 Red Cross volunteers were killed and 14 injured in bomb attacks. In the following year, 21 volunteers were killed and 14 injured.
Many Red Cross buildings were bombed several times, but volunteers carried on with their life-saving work.
Find photos of our work in the Second World War