Garrett E Eriksen examines the Women’s Voluntary Service during the London Blitz.
The rest of this article can be found in the November 2017 issue of The Armourer.
THE WOMEN’S VOLUNTARY SERVICE
The romantic notion of warfare, until World War I, held that fighting and dying should be left to the soldiers. Civilians in towns and cities were considered non-combatants and the expectation was that they would be left alone by military expeditions in general. Though, despite regular pillaging and burning by many armies, it was not considered standard military doctrine, and in many cases dishonourable, to directly target civilians. War was set to change in a sudden, violent and ferocious manner in World War I, including how civilians were seen by the military. This was to be the first time aircraft saw tentative, then experimental, then more widespread usage as bombers and not just as reconnaissance agents. Yet, it was not until World War II that their true combat potential could be measured and, as a result, civilians would no longer be considered removed from the field of combat but as an important strategic target.
The notion of “strategic bombing” would begin to infiltrate military doctrine in World War II in the form we understand it today – where civilian centres would be targeted for multiple reasons including the destruction of munitions factories and to impact the morale of a country and its troops. The Home Front, where civilians were directly impacted and targeted by military forces, would come into play far more sharply than in WWII, and perhaps the most infamous bombing was the bombing of London by the German Luftwaffe which lasted for eight months between September 1940 to May 1941. The London Blitz, as it became known, saw widespread destruction and death throughout the London suburbs as well as large-scale civilian evacuations, especially of children. However, many Londoners stayed to continue supporting the war effort through continued factory work, administration support, logistical operations, or just sheer stubbornness.
Across the country, it became apparent that established logistical support could not handle the sheer chaos and breadth of requirements for its citizens – a volunteer organisation was needed. Stella Isaacs, also known as Lady Reading, stepped forward and approached the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, with the idea of developing an independent women’s organisation that would spread itself throughout the country to place itself where it is most needed. Lady Reading envisioned the newly formed Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) to be an ultimate support for many services running the war effort, and especially in times of air raids. Their duties would include:
“the enrolment of women for the Air Raid Precautions Services of the Local Authorities; to help bring home to every household in the country what air attack may mean; to make known to every household what it can do to protect itself and help the community.”
Even though the focus was initially on recruiting women to assist with the Air Raid Precautions Services, the recruitment was so successful and the WVS so effective that only a few months later the auspice of the WVS was expanded to not only include nursing and hospital duties (including driving ambulances) but to also be available for any and all assistance to local authorities. The slogan “The WVS never says No” grew from their ability to react swiftly and effectively to any challenge sent their way, so much so that the WVS was renamed the Women’s Voluntary Services for Civil Defence in 1939 and at its height boasted over 960,000 women. The structure of the WVS also differed sharply from other organisations in that there was an absolute moratorium on class and rank within the organisation. It was not unusual, for example, for a duchess to be found working alongside a cleaning lady and the only reporting structures that existed were those of the regional directors who would assign ladies to specific areas depending on what was needed.
London has, for many hundreds of years, been viewed as not only the physical capital of Great Britain but also its heart. It has been the focus of attacks and raids before but none more devastating than those in World War I and World War II. Though the bombings in WWII were the most devastating, the Zeppelin Bombings of London in 1915 were equally terrifying for their time and created the need for air raid precaution services in which capacity the WVS would go on to fill in WWII. However, the technology at the time meant bombers frequently missed their targets and so it was truly in World War II where Hitler surmised that a direct strike at the heart of England would impact morale as much as war capacity. However, the bombing would have almost an opposite effect, galvanising many in the country, and the city itself, to defy the terror the bombings were meant to induce. The Women’s Voluntary Service were, in many ways, a manifestation of this galvanisation and defiance and the British propensity to carry on during times of crisis.
Mrs LE Graham, the Centre Organiser for Sheffield during December of 1940, shared a remarkable anecdote that demonstrated that, despite the horror being unleashed around them, the public who had elected to stay were doing their best to support their loved ones on the front. It was from this sense of duty that the WVS maintained it’s mandate.
“…One of our elderly canteen volunteers … was in the Town Hall W.V.S. office the morning after the Sunday night raid, fitting herself out with necessary clothes. We asked her if we could do anything for her, and she replied that if we could send two wires to her soldier sons she would be very grateful. … the wires both said. “Bombed out – but still smiling. Mother.” She had no home, no clothes, no money – and tears came to her eyes, but her desire to avoid worrying her sons as shown in the telegram was, we considered, almost heroic.”
The WVS was a Jill-of-all-trades and took on a vast variety of duties and functions during the Blitz. Their proclivity towards not having ranks in their organisation meant that any volunteer, no matter their social standing, could be sent to where their skills would be most effective. During the Blitz, fire and emergency services were stretched to the limit dealing with, not only evacuations, but the damage that was done by the bombings and the consequences thereof. It was not the bombings themselves that were so devastating but the collateral damage that was of main concern – fires flared up everywhere, buildings were on the verge of collapse, roads and infrastructure were interrupted, blocked or destroyed utterly. It became apparent that the emergency and support services needed support themselves. The WVS already had their hands full assisting in the evacuation of Londoners, and especially of the children, to the English countryside, but in between their roles of essentially running the Air Raid Precautions Services and ensuring citizens were educated on what to do during an air raid, they would help with providing logistical support for the emergency services and even providing things as simple as food and drink for the beleaguered firefighters who were on call for days at a time.
The WVS offered spaces for Londoners who had lost their homes, livelihoods, families or even limbs due to the bombing. They would reunite families who had been separated, provide food for the droves of people who needed them, sometimes serving up to 3,300 meals a day and supporting over 9,000 homeless persons. In between this, they still performed functions such as crafting camouflage netting, collecting medicine and supplies (or even crafting medicine from herbal options), passing information along to areas that were cut off, knitting new clothes for people who had none, supporting patients in and from hospitals, and not to mention helping troops who were back from the front find family or a roof over their heads. These functions were taking place around the country but also during the time of the Blitz, which is nothing short of astounding!
Isabel Catto was a member of the WVS and recounts how, on 29 December 1940, one of the most devastating attacks on London was taking place. Thousands of incendiary bombs were being dropped, and yet, despite the obvious danger, Isabel decided to continue with her mandate: to secure clothes for those who were in need.
“The next morning I went off to London. It was all guarded with the police. You weren’t supposed to go through, but I was in uniform, and I said I had these things in the Warehouse, and I didn’t know if any could be saved. I’d managed to get hold of three lorries, and we were in these, and they let us through. When we got to the Warehouse, it hadn’t received a direct hit, but half the side of the building was down. But clothes were still hanging on their rales, some of them soaked with water, but they would dry out. So we got a lot of people to help, and we shoved them off the rails and threw them into the lorries, and we saved most of them. I realised that once you’ve received the order, you must get them out and get them distributed! Don’t leave them all in one place! We were fortunate!”
A year before the London Blitz began the WVS were issued their first uniforms in June of 1939. Designed by Irish fashion designer, Digby Morton, the uniform was initially simple, consisting only of an overcoat and trilby. A full suit would be designed and introduced shortly after with a summer dress and beret also being introduced in 1940. Designed to be practical, easily recognisable and versatile, the suits were made of green-grey tweed and would lead to the epithet the “Women in Green” as a descriptor for WVS activities in an area. The suits, however, were not free to members and a full uniform would cost up to £9 – well beyond what the average member could afford. Even so, many more affluent members of the WVS would often contribute to, or outright purchase unfirms for other members where possible. The decision to make the uniforms a purchasable item was made by Lady Reading with the aim of ensuring that there was no extra burden on the British tax payers who were already strained from the war effort.
Find out more, including about the uniforms and badges of the WVS in the November 2017 issue of The Armourer.
Multiple badges were available to the WVS including a cloth armband, a cloth embroidered badge, a name tab, a bar brooch and monogram brooch, and a metal badge. Each had had differing designs but all were to denote the wearer as a member of the WVS. The cloth armband was worn on the right arm, noting that some jackets and overcoats also had a WVS insignia embroidered on the cuffs, whilst the cloth embroidered badge was worn on the beret or sometimes the left breast of a jacket or overcoat. Name tabs displaying one of the twelve regions a member was assigned to were worn under the WVS logo on the left breast. War chevrons war also introduced but only in 1943 and thus after the Blitz.
Find out more about the WVS in the November 2017 issue of The Armourer.