Civilian honours and awards
explains how a new release from Ancestry could help you to track down brave home front ancestors during the Second World War
The Second World War brought air raids on an unprecedented scale to British soil, as well as many other threats to public safety.
A huge civil defence organisation was created to assist the emergency services, with firewatchers, air raid wardens, first aid workers and rescue teams formed throughout the country.
Nearly two million men, women and teenagers, some as young as 15, played their part. There were acts of heroism by both civil defence volunteers and ordinary members of the public – thousands were awarded medals or given commendations for their bravery.
For relatives of the men and women who were honoured, the chance to see descriptions of their actions will be invaluable and many others will be fascinated to find references to events in their locality and discover reports written by witnesses to whom they’re related. Recommendations for gallantry awards were forwarded by the Regional Commissioners in charge of civil defence to a special committee, the Interdepartmental Committee on Civil Defence Gallantry Awards. The committee’s minutes and recommendations provide an interesting picture of the work that these civilian volunteers undertook, often in terrible circumstances.
Available in The National Archives (TNA) series HO 250, until now it has always been necessary to visit TNA at Kew to see them. However, they have recently been indexed by the
There were acts of heroism by both
civil defence volunteers and ordinary members of the public
name of the recipient and the reason for the award, for example, “Herbert Reginald Evans. Fire Brigade, Margate. Grounds for Recommendation: Removing guns and ammunition from burning building at RAF Manston, Kent, on 22 August 1940.”
Ancestry’s collection of civil gallantry awards records, which was released on 5 November, can be found at search. ancestry.co.uk/search/db. aspx?dbid=9160.
Details of bravery
Each recommendation was accompanied by descriptions of the brave act in detail and witness statements from other participants. These have now been indexed and include the individual concerned’s name, age, address, occupation and the name and position of the person who recommended them. They are available as images on Ancestry so that the whole recommendation, with the comments made by the committee (not always complimentary and some recommendations were rejected or downgraded), can now be found online.
The highest class of medal awarded was the George Cross, introduced in September 1940 and the equivalent to the Victoria Cross. Many more received the George Medal, also introduced in 1940, or the British Empire Medal. Commendations took the form of either an oval plastic badge or, later, a silver laurel spray to be worn on a medal ribbon or directly on a coat.
Each incident is summed up in a brief statement. One tells us: “At 1.45am on Thursday, 30th July 1942, two wagons forming part of a freight train carrying bombs, TNT and other goods, was struck and set on fire by incendiary bombs when travelling on the line near Coventry Road bridge. The driver of the train discovered the fires when stopped at a signal box, and the guard and firemen left the train to inform two other signal boxes of the occurrence. Railway employees uncoupled the burning wagons and the driver pulled the rest of the train clear.”
A more detailed account, given by Police Superintendent Bloomer, tells of how members of the Home Guard and air raid wardens put out fires on the embankment, and the local factory firemen controlled the blaze until the fire service arrived and brought the fire completely under control.
The burning wagons were then opened and everyone helped unload burning boxes of TNT from them so they could be damped down.
Detailed evidence statements were taken from all participants and it’s clear everyone who took part was quite aware they were dealing with burning explosives.
The Railway Executive recommended the railway workers for awards separately. Engine driver Archibald Cook and fireman George Simkiss were awarded the George Medal; air raid warden George Carter, a 17-year-old civilian, and William Deakin, also aged 17 and in the Home Guard, all received the British Empire Medal.
Above: Police, air raid wardens and the Home Guard carry out a rescue operation at a London school following a German bombing raid
The Auxilliary Fire Service manning a hose at a fire on 27 May 1939