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Emergency Services of WWII

Emergency Services of WWII

When it comes to depicting the Home Front at re-enactment events we all rather naturally think of the Home Guard, the Women’s Land Army, Royal Observer Corps and other sundry organisations such as the WVS. But over the past few years the three branches making up the emergency services; fire, police and ambulance, have become more prominent. These services are essential today, but during the war they were indispensable in saving lives and property.

At various vehicle shows organised by the MVT or IMPS we have begun to see fire engines, ambulances and police cars from the period of WW II. At the War & Peace Revival these vehicles turn up and even at Brooklands and Chatham the emergency services are represented. Displays of equipment have also become part of the items on show and visitors volunteer information to say how a relative served in one of the emergency services during the war. Television dramas such as ‘Foyle’s War’ have also helped in boosting the image of the emergency services and visitors now identify the vehicles from such programmes.


The numbers of those who served in the emergency did not reach the same level as those involved in the actual fighting, but the total is impressive all the same. For example, the Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance formed part of the Civil Defence Service to help in the aftermath of air raids and more than 90,000 people joined. Around 23,000 people joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment with a further 15,000 involved in other duties. Around 250 auxiliary hospitals were established with a capacity of almost 13,500 beds in addition to the larger general hospitals in cities. Between 1939 and 1945 the Red Cross also arranged for the delivery of more than 20 million food parcels to prisoners of war.

Vehicles and Equipment

We are now used to seeing various types of civilian ambulances forming part of Home Front displays and because of this people are becoming more aware of the fact the crews were in the forefront during air raids. Wartime emergency service vehicles are extremely rare, but on the odd occasion when one does come up for sale any interested party has to move quickly to get it. Medical equipment such as surgical instruments and other items including splints are available on specialist auction sites on the Internet and militaria fairs. Documents, bandages and other items can be purchased at militaria fairs and sometimes they can be found at car boot fairs for reasonable prices.

At a recent event at Brooklands Museum at Weybridge in Surrey there were displays on each of the emergency services including an Auxiliary Fire Service. A lady by the name of Gwyn Gilby has been collecting medical equipment for a long time and she had some of her items on display. Gwyn explained that she uses the items to put on talks about the medical treatment in both world wars and is adding to her collection all the time. She has a Website at: www.vadact.co.uk

The Police

Also at Brooklands were Barry and Jackie who between them put on a static display called The Law at War, and they turn up at many events including Chatham Dockyards in Kent. They have collected authentic items from typewriters and telephones to the paper forms and documents to recreate the daily workings of a police station during the war. They turn out in period uniform and really look the part. This is serious stuff and collectors will recognise how valuable the items from the rarity alone. All ages are fascinated by the display because most have seen Foyle’s War and this brings it alive for them. The Website for the Law at War can be found at: www.thelawatwar.co.uk

The police had a range of duties from enforcing the blackout to apprehending enemy airmen who had landed after being shot down. The regular police were supported by War Reserve Officers, which numbered 17,000 in 1944, and they wore epaulettes with the initials ‘WRC’ and a service number. Enemy airmen were held in police cells until the military could collect them for questioning before being taken to a POW camp. One such incident happened on 27 September 1940 when a German Ju 88 was shot down and crashed on Porlock Beach, North Somerset. The pilot, Helmut Ackenhausen was held in the local police station. It would be interesting to see Jackie and Barry using their ‘holding cell’ to recreate something like that at an event. Between 1939 and 1945 there were 1,600 homicides reported and a total of 68 executions in the same period. That is lot of deaths for the police to deal with and so Foyle would have been busy.

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The police assisted with evacuees, prevented looting and had to deal with ‘spivs’ selling items on the black market which allow for interesting and diverse scenarios to be depicted. The interaction between a re-enactor depicting a police constable and a spiv is amusing and entertaining, but some of the older generation actually remember such incidents. Police re-enactors also interact with members of the public at events and produce original handcuffs to arrest someone. At the Watercress Line Railway event ‘War on the Line’ police constables accompany the ticket collector on the trains to check identity cards and keep an eye out for spies or spivs.

My old friend Derek Woodward turns out as a police officer, even a French Gendarme, and he says that original uniforms in good condition can be obtained and prices vary but are still quite affordable. Re-enactors depicting wartime police do so for a variety of reason, the same as any other portrayal of military units. Some are interested in the historical role of the police and some had family connections. I have met re-enactors whose grandfathers were police during the war and their fathers served after the war. Boots, bicycles and lamps all add to the effect and when they sound the air raid siren people take notice.

The Fire Service

Re-enactors depicting firemen have been around for some time, but we have simply not taken that much notice of which is a great pity because they have a history to tell. Tenders of the fire brigade turn out either in their usual letter box red livery or the drab ‘battleship grey’, but in whatever colour they appear these vehicles have started to attract more attention. At the 2012 ‘Salute to the 40s’ event at Chatham Historic Docks a good display was put on by the fire service which included rescuing people from a burning building with pyrotechnic smoke for realism.

The hoses were reeled out and the pumps started to allow the firemen to get to work. It was a most effective display and reminded me of wartime newsreel footage. A static display of equipment showed axes, helmets, safety harnesses and uniforms.

This was a museum-style display and showed how much things have moved on with regards to safety standards and new technology. Items related to the fire service can be picked up at various collectors’ fairs and axes do turn up on stands at shows for reasonable prices. The helmets worn by firemen were of the style similar to that worn by the military, but painted in grey with insignia of the service. Original helmets can be hard to obtain but not impossible and these can be used for static displays.

The Auxiliary Fire Service was raised in 1938 and in 1941 it was amalgamated with local fire brigades to form the National Fire Service. From 1940 the firemen and women across the country were in the front line as cities such as Liverpool, Bristol, London and Coventry were bombed in the ‘Blitz’. In 1944 the V-Weapons brought more danger and the fire services were once more back in the thick of things. Over 370,000 men and 80,000 women served in the fire service and in London alone 327 were killed.

The uniforms and equipment for the emergency services such as axes, belts, boots and helmets are now all collectable items but they can be worn at events to show what it looked like all put together. I have seen firemen travelling by steam train which recreated the time and made all the more dramatic by the personal items the men carried such as gas masks.

Where To See Them

Recreating the emergency services may not sound exciting because they never carried guns and although they never rode on tanks the members of these branches fought a deadly battle clearing up the devastation of the Blitz. At more and more events we are seeing the emergency services being represented. At last year’s North Yorkshire Moors Railway event at Pickering there were emergency services and even at the Mapledurham event and Lacock in Wiltshire, fire tenders turn out. These displays can enhance military re-enactment displays such as the police to patrol barriers where unexploded bombs are being dealt with by Royal Engineer bomb disposal units.

It will not cost a fortune to recreate someone from the emergency services but it will take time. Tracking down the right equipment and completing the research to present a good display is something re-enactors are used to and do very well. This must be done to satisfy an increasingly curious public who turn up at events and ask a range of question to which a re-enactor must have some credible answer. It is all good for the pastime and depicting the emergency fills in another gap to present a continuous timeline of WW II history. We have seen the Home Guard become recognised, so perhaps it’s time for the fire, police and ambulance to receive the same treatment.