ARP wardens and Air Raid Precautions in WW2
ARP wardens were volunteers in part of a wider organisation known as Air Raid Precautions (ARP). Its remit was to protect and support civilians in and with regard to WW2 air raids. This page describes the recruitment of ARP wardens; who they were; how they were organised; their role; uniform; training; exercises and typical work - which was much more than enforcing the blackout. Realism is supplied through illustrations and recollections from people involved at the time.
By the webmaster: her childhood recollections and further research with contributions from others who lived at the time
ARP warden recruitment
The Government was preparing for war well before it actually came. The recruitment of ARP wardens was just one example. In April 1937 (two years before the war broke out), the government passed the Air Raid Precautions Act 1937 which created what was to be the forerunner of the ARP, the Air Raid Wardens' Service.
Following the Air Raid Precautions Act of 1 January 1938, every local council became responsible for organising its own Air Raid Precautions, not only its ARP wardens but also ambulance drivers, rescue parties and liaison with police and fire brigades. By the time the war began it had recruited around 200,000 volunteers, and recruitment went on during the war.
These ARP wardens were organised into local groups, each headed by a Chief Warden for the area, and every urban street or group of streets had appointed ARP wardens.
During the war, the ARP was phased into an umbrella body called the Civil Defence which lasted throughout the war.
I never heard of any shortage of ARP wardens even though they were all volunteers.
Recruitment posters for the ARP
Who the ARP wardens were
ARP wardens were either too old or infirm for the armed forces or they were in reserved occupations. Many had served in the First World War and brought their expertise with them. About one in six were women. Everyone I knew as a child called them simply ARP men.
The ARP warden uniform
ARP wardens were instantly recognisable from their uniform. It was a Civil Defence armband, a steel helmet and an ARP lapel badge worn over their own black (or dark) clothes.
The helmet for most ARP wardens was black with a white W for warden, but the chief ARP warden for an area had a white helmet with a black W painted on it, so distinguishing him from the other ARP wardens.
Each ARP warden carried his gas mask, a police whistle, a torch and a haversack with a first aid kit.
The remit and work of the ARP
The remit of the ARP was the protection and support of civilians with regard to air raids. In this it was different from that of the home guard whose remit was defence.
In practice the work was wide-ranging and included training, exercises and attending meetings in association with regular soldiers, as well as the direct protection and support of civilians.
An ARP warden's main and best-known task was to check everyone's blackout. It was illegal to show any light after dark, so he would patrol the streets, and if he saw a chink of light, he would shout "Put that light out!". If necessary, he would knock on doors to reinforce the message. The purpose, of course, was to prevent Nazi bombers from recognising centres of population from the air. There were, of course, no electronic means of navigation.
Perhaps less appreciated, is the work on emergency response, almost whatever, the problem, providing a helping hand or an authoritative calming reassurance, giving information and writing reports.
Below are some recollections from people who were alive at the time.
On-going work of patrolling the streets
ARP wardens had to patrol their designated streets. Some houses in our road had their back fences removed so that the warden could patrol through the back gardens to see if there was any light showing.
He did more: He would watch for dropped incendiary bombs starting house fires whilst the householders were hiding away in their shelters.
Wardens were expected to work at a rough rate of two or three nights a week which increased as the severity and frequency of the air raids increased.
"Put that light out!" or risk the wrath of the ARP warden
Horror of horrors if the ARP man called out, "Put that light out at No.10", because if you lived in number 10, all the neighbours knew that you were endangering their lives too! You certainly made every effort to find the source of the chink of light which was causing the ire of the ARP Warden.
ARP wardens' deal with the aftermath of dropped bombs
The ARP also dealt with the aftermath of an air raid, mainly unexploded and time bombs. The wardens would clear a street of people and wait for the army bomb disposal team.
All too often, they would have to clear bombed buildings and deal with the dead and survivors.
Everyone had to leave their front and back doors unlocked at night so that if the house was hit by a bomb, the rescue people could get in and deal with casualties. It was human nature for some people to take the opportunity to rob their neighbours. So part of wardens' duties were to act as special constables. Houses and shops that had been bombed had a large sign stating "Looters will be shot". I'm not sure if anybody was actually shot, but it was fair warning.
During one air raid, I saw ARP men pumping water onto incendiary bombs to put out the fires. My family thought they were very brave.
ARP men would be on patrol from dusk till dawn the next morning, whatever the weather. They would stop by our back door and my mum would give them a cup of tea.
Lack of sleep for ARP wardens
My father was an air raid warden. He took his turn with other wardens to patrol the locality at night to check the local houses for showing lights in the blackout and do other home front tasks as appropriate. The work meant that he went without sleep for whole nights at a time and then had to do the hard manual work of his day job as a blacksmith - a reserved occupation. This was in Midsomer Norton near Bath.
One evening he called us outside as he had heard the noise of a very large plane approaching. Even though it was dark, we could clearly see that it was German as it was very low. It carried on to Bath where it bombed the city. Although there was an anti-aircraft unit in there, it all happened so quickly that no preventative measures could be taken. I still have my father's ARP badge which is identical to the one in the photo. It is hallmarked as silver.
An ARP warden's dilemma
While my father was on an ARP patrol, he saw a German plane or doodle bug (not sure which) heading for our house. This put him in a huge dilemma: whether to rush home to warn my mother or continue his route. Luckily for him the thing suddenly changed course.
ARP wardens deliver of air raid shelters and gas masks
Unlike the on-going street patrols, there were also one-off quite major tasks, like delivering gas masks and prefabricated Anderson and Morrison shelters to the public and being involved with children's evacuation at the local end.
Less major but just as important was the delivery of local information leaflets. Remember there was no email or internet. (National information was delivered via newspapers and the radio.)
Lifelong advice from my father's ARP work
Something my father taught me that has become second nature to me in later years is to back rather than drive into a parking space. This he said was so that you could drive out quickly in an emergency - and I have always done it. In practice he always went to his APR meetings by bicycle, but he did have a car for getting him to and from the factory where he was employed in a reserved occupation as an engineer on war work.
... And in my own family, my father did fire-watching on the roof of nearby flats which were higher than the surrounding houses; my husband's mother drove ambulances; my aunt helped organise and direct the evacuation of children from the local town to the safer country; and my uncle helped direct people to public shelters where they could not have their own shelters at home or were away from home during an air raid. That is all I was told about - and I wish I had asked more questions at the time, but I'm sure that others in the wider family played their part.