A RARE survivor from the days leading up to the Second World War was recently brought to our offices by Harry Smith of Cradley Heath. Carefully preserved for almost 75 years, it is a letter issued by Rowley Regis Council inviting residents to volunteer for Air Raid Precautions duties.
The image of a boilersuited ARP warden wearing a white steel helmet has entered popular consciousness, thanks in no small part to Bill Pertwee’s portrayal of ARP Warden Hodges in the immensely popular TV series Dad’s Army (1968-1977), but 1.4 million wardens served in the war, volunteers who performed vital duties, particularly at the height of the blitz on British towns and cities.
The Air Raid Precautions organisation was set up in 1924 in response to the growing threat of aerial bombardment.
German zeppelins first dropped bombs on Britain on 19th January, 1915, when they attacked Great Yarmouth. They were superseded by aircraft, particularly the Gotha G.IV bomber, and the deadliest air raid of the war came on 13th June, 1917, in a daylight attack on London which killed 162 and wounded 432, with 18 children killed by a bomb falling on a primary school in Poplar.
After the war technological advancement increased the threat of the bombers and when the ARP was established in 1924 it was estimated that bombing would cause 17,500 casualties a week.
If anything, the threat of the bombers was over-estimated, especially after the air raids of the Spanish Civil War were reported.
Chaos and widespread panic was predicted among civilians and in 1938 the Air Ministry was predicting 65,000 casualties a week, with a million casualties and three million refugees in the first month of a war, and much of London expected to be destroyed. The fact that, when war eventually came, there was no breakdown in society or collapse in morale can be partially attributed to the fine work of the ARP.
In the war the ARP was responsible for issuing gas masks and Anderson and Morrison shelters, the upkeep of public shelters and maintenance of the blackout.
Harry Smith’s letter was issued from the office of the Rowley Regis Town Clerk, Clifford Buckley, who was one of the signatories, along with the mayor, Clifford Carey Lewis, and Walter Owen, chairman of the ARP committee.
The letter reads:
“Dear Sir or Madam, quite apart from the National ARP Campaign, which will be brought to your notice from many quarters during this week, the Council specially appeals to you and all the other eligible members of your household to volunteer for enrolment to one of the services in the ARP Organisation, thus taking your part in the measures to be adopted to protect ourselves, our homes and our town should the country ever have to defend itself against aggression.
“You can help to ensure that the number of volunteers in Rowley Regis is as great as, if not greater, comparatively speaking, than any other Town or District. Will you help? “Much has already been achieved by the Council. A number of Wardens and decontamination squads have been trained and first aid posts and cleansing depots earmarked, but a considerable amount yet remains to be done.
“Enclosed with this letter is a memorandum, with enrolment form attached. In your own interests, as well as those of the other residents in the Borough, there are three things you should do NOW. Read the memorandum, complete the enrolment form and send it to us. If further forms are required they will be gladly sent on request. In addition, you should call at your local depot (particulars of which are also enclosed) and be fitted with your respirator. At this depot you can obtain any information you may require, and if you are in doubt as to the service to which you are best suited do not hesitate to ask.
“You are, we feel sure, as anxious as we in the Council are, to see that this area (a vulnerable and important one) is in the forefront of districts trained and ready with an efficient ARP Organisation.
“And remember that ARP is purely local and defensive in character. It is the fourth line of our defensive system and as necessary as the other three, which cannot be effective without the confidence and moral support of ARP.
“Training will be given at times and places to suit you. So join at once and let us, in Rowley Regis, assists in making this National Recruiting Week a great success and a job well done.”
The letter is dated 1st October, 1938 – the day that German troops crossed the border and occupied the Sudetenland, a pivotal moment in the build up to the Second World War.
Throughout 1938 tensions had increased over Nazi Germany’s demand that Czechoslovakia hand over the Sudetenland, the area of the country occupied by native German speakers. It seemed that the issue would plunge Europe, if not the world, into war once more and the crisis came to a head in September 1938.
In March 1938, when Germany had annexed Austria, Britain and France assured the Czechoslovak government of their support in the face of German aggression. Czechoslovakia mobilised its army in May but attempts to set up an international summit on the issue in July failed because Britain refused to accept the USSR as a diplomatic partner.
On 10th September Herman Goring made a speech at the Nuremberg Rally attacking Czechoslovakia and two days later Adolf Hitler made his closing address to the rally, vehemently attacking Czechoslovakia and its president, Edvard Benes. On 13th September Sudeten Germans, backed by Germany, began an armed revolt and the Czechoslovak government declared martial law.
On 15th September British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met Hitler at Berchtesgaden to personally discuss the Sudeten crisis.
Chamberlain returned to London two days later for talks with his cabinet colleagues.
On 18th September Chamberlain met the French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier and agreed that neither was prepared to go to war over the Sudetenland and on 21st September the British and French governments advised Czechoslovakia that they would not assist if Germany invaded.
On 22nd September Chamberlain flew to Germany for more face-to-face talks with Hitler, this time in Bad Godesberg. Hitler demanded full German occupation of the Sudetenland by 1st October. The Czechoslovak army mobilised again on 23rd September and at 1.30am on 24th September Chamberlain and Hitler concluded their talks. Chamberlain presented Hitler’s demands to the Czechoslovak government and his own cabinet, both of which reject them. The French government also rejected them and ordered a partial mobilisation of the army. War appeared to be inevitable, especially after Hitler made an inflammatory speech on 26th September.
On 28th September Hitler invited Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini, the Italian Duce, to a last-ditch conference in Munich.
The Czechs were not invited. On 29th September the four leaders agreed to the German annexation of the Sudetenland, the so called “Munich Agreement.” The Czechs were forced to accept and give up their territory to Germany.
Chamberlain flew back to England the next day, to great acclaim, and declared “peace for our time”, with Hitler’s signature to a piece of paper affirming “the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.” The following day German troops crossed the border into Czechoslovakia.
Eleven months later Britain declared war on Germany.