World War Two

St John during the Second World War

Museum of the Order of St John Isobel MacAuslan, Museum Assistant

Throughout the Second World War (1939-1945), St John Ambulance and the British Red Cross worked hard to provide medical and welfare support for British civilians and soldiers. The conflict not only pervaded every aspect of daily life, but it also brought war right into the home through aerial bombing. Consequently, medical knowledge and provisions, so vital in a time of conflict, were needed by both the civilian population and those fighting abroad.

St John had played an active role in the First World War and its aftermath, often working in conjunction with the British Red Cross. Together, they formed the Joint War Committee and combined their resources to help coordinate their contributions to the war-effort more effectively. Members served at home and abroad, manning hospitals on land and at sea. In addition to this practical work, St John fundraised for causes such as the Indian Soldiers Fund which raised money to support the 1.3 million troops from the Indian sub-continent.

In contrast to the period leading up to the First World War, significant preparations for war were made during the second half of the 1930s. As early as 1935 St John was asked to provide first aid and anti-gas training to the public. During the Munich Crisis of 1938, which followed Hitler’s annexation of Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, the government asked for 755 men from the Royal Naval Auxiliary Sick Berth Reserves to be called up. Incredibly, they reported within two weeks for service.  St John Ambulance Brigade volunteers worked hard to train the public in first aid that could be used during an air raid or a gas attack. By 1940 298,343 certificates had been issued to those who had successfully completed the various training courses.

In 1939, the Joint War Organization (JWO) was established. Like the Joint War Committee of the First World War, the JWO was established to coordinate the efforts of the Order of St John and the British Red Cross. The committee was made up of forty-eight members, twenty-four from each charity. Throughout the war, the JWO provided 249 ambulances which between them, travelled nearly six million miles and carried 681,531 patients. The work of the committee relied entirely upon volunteers to provide their various services. The Central Hospital Supply Service provided soft goods such as socks and bed linen. The Wounded and Missing Department which was first set up in June 1940 following Dunkirk helped to find out what had happened to missing or dead servicemen to answer their grieving family’s many questions.

Upon the outbreak of war in September 1939, the Joint War Organization had a fund of just £2000. On 9th September Henry, Duke of Gloucester, Grand Prior of the Order, launched a Red Cross and St John Appeal to raise funds. The appeal sold flags, made clothes and held fundraiser events such as sales and raffles.  The Order of St John ceased to manufacture medallions, pendants and service medals to conserve materials for the war effort. Furthermore, St John divisions from across the Commonwealth sent clothing that was donated to victims of the Blitz bombings which started in 1940. By the end of the war, over £50 million had been given to the fund.

Oil painting depicting three St John Ambulance volunteers at a First Aid Post in the Second World War, by Rupert Shephard, 1940
LDOSJ:1888 Second World War First Aid Post, by Rupert Shephard, oil on canvas, 1940 © The artist’s estate

The pages of St John’s journal First Aid published during the War demonstrates the huge efforts being made by St John and the British Red Cross to provide support at home. As well as delivering aforementioned training for the public, St John was engaged in continuous training for the War Reserve Constabulary, Home Guard and other reservist organisations. Members of St John were heavily involved in the Civil Defence Service with 50,000 serving in some capacity. During the Blitz, members were mobilized in a variety of different ways. Lady Mountbatten, who was heavily involved with St John and would become Superintendent-in-Chief of the St John Ambulance Brigade in 1942, requested that they work in the air raid shelters of London. Volunteers came from across the country to the capital where they manned first aid posts that were set up in the tube stations where people took refuge. Others worked as ambulance drivers, at home and in London. This was a very difficult task during the blackouts that accompanied the German bombing campaigns, as the roads were dark and covered in debris. Up to 600 people were killed every month due to blackouts. In locations that were being heavily bombed, the local authorities found it difficult to staff rescue efforts because many people were being evacuated. Flying columns of JWO volunteers were formed to respond to bombings. Each unit in the column would be manned by thirteen personnel, at least two of them trained in first aid, and have a first aid vehicle, one or two ambulances and a mobile canteen. Several members of St John were awarded medals for their bravery during the Blitz.

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Hundreds of women worked as ambulance drivers during the Second World War

The JWO ran nearly 250 auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes at the request of the government, who provided grants for the homes. Many of these hospitals were private homes that were offered to the JWO. For example, the Princess Royal offered her home, Harewood House, in Yorkshire. The hospitals were manned by members of St John and the British Red Cross and supplies as varied as games, books and beds were provided by the Stores department.  Occupational therapy was encouraged at many of the homes with patients being taught skills designed to relieve boredom and use their muscles. Across all of the hospitals there was space for 13,384 service men and women to be treated at any one time. Personnel from the British Army, the Civil Defence Service and Allied armies were treated. The JWO would man the homes and were responsible for their upkeep. By the end of the war, over 500,000 patients had passed through the homes.

The Brigade posted stretcher bearers at the ports and railway stations to receive and transport injured soldiers returning from abroad. In this capacity, they worked alongside other voluntary organisations such as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and the Women’s Transport Service. Members also assisted with the movement of evacuees, serving as welfare officers and guides. Volunteers who were not conscripted into the armed forces often served in the Home Guard or as ARP wardens.

In the aftermath of the First World War, St John had established the St John Ambulance Cadets to meet a demand from young people who were keen to volunteer. Cadets were formally established in 1922 and admitted children between the ages of 11 and 18. Amongst other things, Cadets would receive training in first aid and citizenship. Upon the outbreak of war in 1939, there was a large body of St John youth ready to do their bit for the war effort.  Cadets were involved in a whole range of tasks such as working in hospitals and wartime nurseries, farming, collecting herbs, shopping for the elderly and disabled, working in canteens and collecting scrap metal for the war effort.

Members of St John based in the Channel Islands worked under the particularly difficult conditions of the German Occupation, which lasted from 30th June 1940 until 9th May 1945 following the German surrender. Not only were medicines and fuel heavily restricted, they also had to deal with famine and the dangers of minefields. The service dealt with over 20,000 cases on Guernsey during the occupation. As an alternative to the horse drawn ambulance, volunteers came up with ingenious ways to keep the service going which included developing a gasogene ambulance and a building a windmill to generate electricity. During the food shortages that plagued the island in the final years of the war, the SS Vega, chartered by the International Committee of the Red Cross, made several visits to the islands from Lisbon with relief parcels. Members of the JWO helped to divide and distribute the supplies for residents of the island. A personal account of the work of St John during the German occupation of the Channel Islands can be found in Guernsey’s Occupation Ambulance Service by Gary Blanchford.

Members of St John were also active abroad. On 15th March 1940, the first convoy of St John and Red Cross personnel to be sent to the continent were inspected by the King in the quadrangle at Buckingham palace. They left for France with twenty ambulances that were to be manned by a group of dedicated volunteers. More ambulances were to follow. St John people were to be found serving in the Royal Naval Auxiliary Sick Berth Reserves and the Military Home Hospitals reserve. By the end of August 1939, 1,606 St John people had reported for duty with the navy and by the start of 1940 nearly 2,500 had signed up with the army. One member of the Northfleet Division, Sergeant Henry Eric Harden was awarded a Victoria Cross for bravery during the Battle of Arnhem for his actions on 23rd January 1945 as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Members of the St John Ambulance Nursing Corps also took on greater responsibility. Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) were re-established at the start of the war. Over 6,000 served abroad with the armed forces, working in military hospitals.   There was a large amount of work to be done at home as well in the Auxiliary hospitals. Nine members of the Littlehampton division clocked up 10,000 hours of voluntary duty in one year as they worked to serve the medical needs of their community. Many women became members of the Civil Nursing Reserve, some of them being deployed to JWO locations.

The JWO worked to support British soldiers who had been interned in Prisoner of War Camps. The Indoor Recreation Section sent gifts such as playing cards, instruments and books to help relieve their boredom. Education was also supported by the JWO and programmes of study were created along with books so prisoners could study and help their future careers.  They even sent exams that the prisoners could sit! Some Prisoners of War even volunteered for medical duties and trained their fellow inmates in first aid. At Stalag 383 in Bavaria nearly 300 prisoners of war sat examinations successfully in First Aid, hygiene and nursing. By the end of 1944, 500 certificates had been awarded and 1,500 accidents at the camp had been treated.

Towards the end of the war, members of St John Ambulance and the British Red Cross, along with the British Army and medical students were sent in to provide help at the newly liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The horrors of the camp provided a huge challenge for the volunteers who faced many situations that medical training at the time did not account for. They found 53,000 survivors and 13,000 unburied bodies. Many of the starving inmates had to be fed by tubes to help build their strength up. Disease was rife and the camp was burnt to prevent the spread of typhus and ticks. The painter Doris Zinkeisen was one of the first to capture the tragedy of the concentration camps, having been deployed there with St John Ambulance. Her painting Human Laundry depicts survivors from the camp being washed and deloused before travelling to a makeshift hospital.

Human Laundry, Bergen-Belsen Concentration camp- April 1945, by Doris Zinkesen. Public domain image obtained from

The immense efforts of St John Ambulance volunteers during the Second World War helped to provide vital medical services for both civilians and soldiers alike. A founding principle of the St John Ambulance movement is that it provides healthcare in times of peace as well as war. Consequently, it is no surprise that when you look at the editions of First Aid published in May, June and July of 1945, you do not find jubilant celebrations like those of 1918 but rather articles advocating for the continued intensification and modernization of First Aid training and nurses’ rights.

Bibliography and Resources

Cole-Mackintosh, Ronnie, A Century of Service to Mankind: The Story of St John Ambulance

Blanchford, Gary, Guernsey’s Occupation Ambulance Service

Riley-Smith, Jonathan, Hospitallers: The History of the Order of St John

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