The Red Cross in the Second World War

Find out about our work during the war.

black and white photo of Red Cross medics during the Blitz

War was declared in September 1939 and the British Red Cross joined forces with the Order of St John to help the sick and wounded.

As they’d done in the First World War, they formed the Joint War Organisation. This helped to coordinate wartime activities more efficiently, and under the protection of the Red Cross emblem.

The British Red Cross carried out extensive services at home and abroad for the sick and wounded, prisoners of war and civilians needing relief.

Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain from September 1940 to May 1941 was the first major military campaign to be fought entirely by air forces. It was also the largest and most sustained aerial bombing of towns and cities the UK had ever seen.

The British Red Cross supported people who were affected by the Blitz, a nine-month period of exceptionally heavy bombing in London.

Volunteers drove ambulances, carried stretchers and rescued people from buildings that had been demolished by bombs. They ran first aid posts in the London Underground stations 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.

We ran ambulances for the sick and wounded

In October 1939, the Joint War Organisation created a new department responsible for transporting 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 up next to them ready to be loaded.

Patients were examined 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.

We found wounded and missing family

The Red Cross set up the Wounded, Missing and Relatives Department to help people searching for information about servicemen who were 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 search 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 reports home about men being cared for in hospitals overseas. Patients’ relatives really valued these compassionate letters when normal means of communication weren’t possible.

We ran services for British prisoners of war

The Prisoners of War Department was responsible for packing and dispatching parcels to British prisoners of war.

British Red Cross food parcels played a vital role in helping to keep prisoners alive. The Red Cross also sent out next of kin parcels from families, educational book parcels, and even activity parcels containing sports equipment.

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

The Red Cross also sent over 100,000 food parcels to the Channel Islands, which were occupied by German troops from late June 1940 to 9 May 1945.

Bergen-Belsen

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

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.

We ran recovery homes and additional support to hospitals

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

VE day and demobilisation

When the war ended in Europe on 8 May 1945 some of the activities of the Joint War Organisation came to a close. Providing food parcels and other services for Allied prisoners of war was no longer needed, for example.

Other services were gradually reduced. 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 former 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.