Unsurprisingly, most histories of British infantry regiments concentrate on battles and the soldiers who fought in those conflicts; often forgetting that those soldiers are not just fighting machines taken off a convenient shelf as needed! They were, and are, individuals with individual histories, family lives and backgrounds – sometimes similar to others, but often very different.
From earliest times, some wives and children followed the drum; however, it was perhaps more usual for families of soldiers to remain at home, carrying on their own lives without their menfolk. Until fairly recently, these lives have perhaps not considered interesting enough to record in any detail – but during both WWI and WWII, the ladies did the jobs previously done by the absent male population – they literally kept the home fires burning!
One such lady was Miss Catherine Thorburn, older sister of Colonel D C Thorburn MC DSO of The Highland Light Infantry, who became an Air Raid Warden in Lanarkshire. Born in 1892, Miss Thorburn was not a young lady at the beginning of the war, indeed, in her ID Card, her hair is described, somewhat unchivalrously, as “brown going grey”; however, she did her bit and signed up for warden duties in Lanarkshire! Miss Thorburn was not alone: one in six wardens was a woman, and amongst the men there were a significant number of veterans of World War One.
At the beginning of the war, wardens had no uniform, but wore their own clothes, with the addition of a steel helmet, Wellington boots and an armband. In May 1941 full-time and regular part-time wardens were issued with blue serge uniforms.
The Museum has a small display showing some items of Miss Thorburn’s service as a warden.
The Air Raid Wardens’ Service was created in April 1937, as military experts predicted that any future war would feature large-scale bombing of the British civilian population. By the outbreak of war there were more than 1.5 million in the ARP (Air Raid Precautions), or Civil Defence as it was later re-named.
ARP posts were initially set up in the wardens home, or in a shop or an office, but they were later purpose-built. Each post covered a certain area, varying across the country, but with about ten to the square mile in London.
Since no significant German air raids followed the outbreak of war in September 1939, the main duties of the ARP wardens in the early months were to register everyone in their sector and enforce the blackout. This meant making sure that no lights were visible which could be used by enemy planes to help locate bombing targets. These activities led to some ARP wardens being regarded as interfering and nosy.
However, during the Blitz of 1940-1 wardens and other civil defence personnel proved themselves indispensable and heroic. Whenever the air raid sirens sounded, the wardens would help people into the nearest shelter and then tour their sector, usually in pairs, at considerable risk from bombs, shrapnel and falling masonry. They would also check regularly on those in the air raid shelters.
In the aftermath of a raid, ARP wardens would often be first on the scene, carrying out first-aid if there were minor casualties, putting out any small fires and helping to organise the emergency response. Other members of the Civil Defence services included rescue and stretcher (or first-aid) parties, the staff of control centres and messenger boys. Their work often overlapped with the fire and medical services and the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service).