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The Red Cross in the Second World War

When war was declared in September 1939 the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John joined forces. 

As they had done in the First World War, they formed the Joint War Organisation ensuring activities were carried out efficiently and under the protection of the red cross emblem.

The Red Cross carried out extensive services for the sick and wounded, for prisoners of war and for civilians needing relief as a result of enemy action, at home and abroad.

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In October 1939, the Joint War Organisation created a new department responsible for the transport of the wounded.  

Throughout the war the department sourced and supplied hundreds of ambulances to the Army. Red Cross ambulance crews provided assistance to the sick and wounded, both at home and abroad.

Notably, Red Cross ambulances helped transport the wounded in the days following the Normandy landings. 

When planes carrying the casualties landed, ambulances drew alongside them ready to be loaded. Patients were examined and classified before being transferred to waiting ambulance trains or direct to special hospitals.

The ambulances carried 1,013,076 casualties and patients and covered 9,142,621 miles.

Second World War - Ambulance services

Convalescent homes and auxiliary hospitals

Throughout the Second World War, properties across the country, from village halls to private mansions, were used as convalescent homes and auxiliary hospitals.

See the full list of properties.


Battle of Britain

During the summer and autumn of 1940 the German Air Force launched a major aerial bombing campaign against the United Kingdom.

The Battle of Britain was the first big campaign to be fought entirely by air forces. It was also the largest and most sustained aerial bombing the UK had ever seen.

Heavy bombing raids occurred across towns and cities. The British Red Cross supported people who were affected by the Blitz. 

Volunteers drove ambulances, carried stretchers and rescued people from buildings that had been demolished by bombsThey manned first aid posts in the London Underground stations that were being used as air raid shelters.

The Red Cross gave out essential items such as food, medical supplies, blankets and clothing to people in town halls, emergency rest centres and hospitals. 

The Battle of Britain.


Wounded and missing services

The wounded, missing and relatives department was set up to help people searching for information about servicemen who had been reported missing or wounded. 

Families who had no news of their loved ones could use the service to find out if they were safe.  

Red Cross volunteers ran a searching service in hospitals to gain information from patients about men who had been reported missing. They also responded to queries about the condition and progress of men in hospitals around the world.

Red Cross welfare officers sent home reports about men being cared for in hospitals overseas. These compassionate letters were highly valued by patients’ relatives and offered comfort when normal means of communication weren’t possible.

Searching for the wounded and missing

Services for British prisoners of war

The prisoners of war, wounded and missing department was responsible for packing and dispatching parcels to British prisoners of war. 

Parcels containing food, medical items, home comforts such as soap, games and clothing were packed and sent by the Red Cross.

These parcels greatly improved the quality of life of many prisoners during the war.

Read about Red Cross services for prisoners of war.

Food parcels

Packed for British prisoners by Red Cross volunteers, food parcels were carefully designed to contain the right proportion of starch, protein and sugar.

By the end of the war over 19 million food parcels had been sent to the prisoner of war (POW) camps.

Memories of Red Cross food parcels

Next-of-kin parcels

Once every three months the next-of-kin of a prisoner of war could send him a parcel. Weighing up to 10lbs the parcels were filled with basics such as blankets, clothing, shoes and soap.

Food, except solid chocolate, was not allowed as the War Organisation supplied separate food parcels to the prisoners of war.

The Red Cross added ½ lb. of plain chocolate to every parcel as a gift, provided the parcel did not weigh more than 9½ lbs.

From 1940-45, over 1 million next-of-kin parcels were dispatched to prison camps.

Next of kin parcels

Recreation parcels

In the autumn of 1940 a special section of the prisoners of war department was established. The indoor recreations section provided items to prisoners who were desperate for entertainment in prisoner of war camps.

By the time dispatches stopped in March 1945, entire libraries of books - more than 239,000 in total - complete orchestras of musical instruments, and innumerable board and card games had made life in prison camps more bearable for detainees.

Outdoor sports equipment was also sent to the main camps allowing prisoners to take part in team and individual sporting activities.

In 1941, the Royal Horticultural Society proposed that seeds be supplied to prisoners. Seeds from around the world were gifted to the Red Cross in response to an appeal. 

Prisoners created gardens and vegetable patches – the produce of which could be used to supplement scarce prison diets – all within the prison walls.

Contents of recreation parcels


Assistance to the Channel Islands

From late June 1940 until 9 May 1945, the Channel Islands were occupied by German troops.

During the occupation, communications with the islands were badly affected. The Red Cross ran a postal message system throughout the war allowing friends and relatives of islanders to keep in touch with their loved ones.

The Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944 profoundly affected the food and economy on the islands. 

Supplies were cut off and the locals suffered. Conditions were dire. The Red Cross sent food parcels as if the islanders were prisoners of war.

In December of the same year, the SS Vega carried over 100,000 food parcels to the Channel Islands along with many other supplies.

It made five more voyages between February and April 1945. Each shipment provided much needed Red Cross relief supplies for the semi-starved islanders.

Read more about the Channel Islands

"The ship that saved my life"


On 15 April 1945 British and Canadian troops liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. 

There they found over 13,000 unburied bodies and around 60,000 inmates, most acutely sick and starving. 

On 21 April, five British Red Cross teams were sent to Belsen. Red Cross doctors and nurses staffed the hospital, welfare officers took care of children, and cooks established canteens to feed the inmates.

Others set up first aid posts, handled stores of fuel and clothing supplies and drove patients from the camps to the hospital.

Liberation of Bergen-Belsen.


VE day and demobilisation

The end of the war in Europe on 8 May 1945 brought to a close some of the activities of the Joint War Organisation, such as food parcels and other services for British prisoners of war.

Other services were gradually reduced, though not completely stopped. Members of the British armed forces remained in hospital. The services of British Red Cross ambulances and welfare officers continued at home and overseas.

After VE day, new services were needed. These included the repatriation of prisoners of war and welfare services for disabled ex-Service men and women. 

The Red Cross raised funds and set up schemes which ensured those in most need were properly cared and provided for. 

VE Day and demobilisation

Second World War - VJ Day

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