ARP wardens (there were 1.4 million of them nationwide) were responsible for crowd control, rescue, demolition, supervising air raid shelters and enforcing the night-time 'black out', and were recognisable by the 'W' (for warden) painted on their helmet.
ARP was a reaction to the fear, shared throughout Europe in the 1930s, of annihilation from the air. Whereas Britain’s experience of 1917-8 air raids had resulted in 1,500 killed in just over 100 raids (compared with 750,000 killed on active service), in the 1930s government estimates calculated that 600,000 would be killed and 1.2 million injured in air raids in a future war.
'Every crumbling crash seems to mean [that] the next one [ie bomb] is going to be overhead'
In fact, civilian deaths in the UK from bombing totalled one-tenth the expected figure at 60,595. Thus many civilians were encouraged by an alarmed government to play their part in the Home Front, before the war actually started.
Once the Blitz started on London in September 1940, the ARP and AFS found themselves stretched to the limit, as this letter written over two days, 9th-10th September 1940, from an East End schoolteacher to his friend illustrates:
'... Dear Peter I would like to have written a nice cheerful letter but things are pretty grim here. After spending all Saturday night and all Sunday night in a public [air raid] shelter, miles from home and feeling worn from lack of sleep, I've just been bundled down another ... It's no use trying to tell what some parts of London look like. Sufficient to say it took me two hours to get to work this morning ... People are tight-lipped and strained.
AFS and ARP personnel are tired, dirty and unshaven, but still fighting. You can judge for yourself when I tell you that Winsor School is just a burnt-out shell ... Woolworths opposite the station is literally just a rubbish heap, and huge girders lie around like twisted hairpins ... And East Ham is lucky compared with scores of other areas ... For many people the worst disaster is the shambles that used to be Beckton Gas Works ... Considering it took an hour to boil a cup of water, and later the gas failed completely, it must have been pretty heroic to get the Sunday joint ready ... Nothing I could say could faintly describe the terror that fills everyone.
Every crumbling crash seems to mean [that] the next one [ie bomb] is going to be overhead ... I'm forcing myself to write on, to keep me from listening to the waves of bombers passing one's head. Three have gone by already… People are no longer ashamed of their fear, and the shelters are full to suffocation. Here goes another wave of bombers and the staccato of machine gun fire…I must try and get some sleep now ...and send it off in the morning ...'
Jonathan Croall, Don't You Know There's A war On? The People's Voice 1939-45