WOMEN'S VOLUNTARY SERVICE FOR AIR RAID PRECAUTIONS, later WOMEN'S VOLUNTARY SERVICE FOR CIVIL DEFENCE: United Kingdom. 1938-1945. Response to the 1938 call for 1 million volunteers for air raid precautions suggested to Sir Samuel Hoare, the Home Secretary, that a separate organization for women might be established. This initiative led on 16 May 1938 to the establishment of the Women's Voluntary Service for Air Raid Precautions, with the Dowager Marchioness Lady Reading as Chairman, and with the Royal support of the Queen and Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, as Patrons. The Home Office was to provide initial training and funding. The organization continues to this day as the Women's Royal Voluntary Service.
At the declaration of war on 3 September 1939 the Women's Voluntary Service for Air Raid Precautions had recruited 165,000 members, making a conscious effort to develop nationwide coverage, given that any part of the country was believed to be vulnerable to air attack. Membership was drawn from those unable to join a women's military formation or who were not involved in essential war industries - the membership thus mirrored other volunteer services with the young and elderly, as well as those housebound or had young children or were primary care givers. Some number of men participated in the organization, especially in the role of drivers, as many women of this day were not trained in the operation of motor cars. Shortly after the initiation of hostilities the organization's name was changed to the Women's Voluntary Service for Civil Defence to reflect the increasing number of roles the organization was filling.
One of the first major tasks assigned to the Women's Voluntary Service was participation in the city evacuations, during which approximately 1.5 million mothers and children were relocated out of the metropolitan target areas. The Service operated 3 receiving nurseries in London for children under age 5 who were to be evacuated. Each child's head was washed, he or she was issued any clothing they needed, and the child was escorted by a Service member to the nursery in the destination county. During the first 2 years of the war, the London receiving nurseries evacuated 30,000 very young children in this way. And between 6 and 13 December 1944, a thousand additional members drafted from county units to London assisted in the relocation of 2,700 unaccompanied children and 900 mothers and children from their evacuation locations in Wales back into the Home Counties.
The Women's Voluntary Service performed a significant mass feeding role starting in 1939. They first operated fixed communal feeding centers, the British Restaurants. In 1940, they provided mass feeding at the Alexandra Palace reception center for refugees from Europe, and the organization developed its first mobile canteen. And by 1944, when evacuations were undertaken from areas heavily impacted by the German V weapon campaign, there were sufficient mobile canteens to permit their deployment as a key component of the evacuation effort.
Another critical and complex task was air raid response. In 1941 the Women's Voluntary Service organized rest centers to which people rendered homeless by bombing were directed; these provided food, clothing, and washing facilities. By 1943 this service had expanded to include staffing Incident Inquiry Points, which were set up in as short a time as 30 minutes after the all clear in a bombed area to assist in providing a central welfare inquiry service about those injured or killed. In 1944 a further role expansion came with the initiation of the Household Gift Scheme, an effort that collected and distributed furniture, rug, and even blanket donations, including from British colonies, to bombed out families.
The Women's Voluntary Service performed a wide variety of other general social service and war service tasks. These included establishment of women's clubs for mothers, transporting hospital patients, making camouflage nets, staffing hostels and sick bays, darning socks for the military, collecting books for soldiers, assisting soldiers on compassionate leave, distributing ration books, taking food to agricultural workers in the fields, and recycling materials with possible military uses. Campaigns in 1944 focused on educating the public in household repair work and on fuel conservation. In addition, in 1944 and 1945 Women's Voluntary Service members were deployed to Europe and to the Far East to provide social services for British troops in the theatre of war.
A total of 241 Women's Voluntary Service members died on duty during World War II.
Sources: Women's Royal Voluntary Service, "History: The War Years 1938-1945," location http://www.wrvs.org.uk/history/wartime/index.htm, 2002.
Entry 03100 - posted 3 September 2003