Explore > The Boy Scouts are carrying on: Scouting during the Second World War


Scouting during the Second World War

This was the war time slogan of the Scout Movement and incorporated an indomitable spirit that faced adversity from the home front to the brutal regime of the Japanese internment camps of South East Asia.  The Scout Association during the War commissioned a booklet entitled They Were Prepared and a film Men of Tomorrow in 1941.  Both films were aimed at Scouts and didn’t communicate the role Scouts played in the Allied war effort to the wider public.   Around 53,000 Scouts were trained to undertake over hundred and seventy National War Service jobs by the end of 1940.  This article will explore this hidden history alongside first-hand accounts of Scouts involved in War Service.

Scout War Service Armband

Scouting on the Home Front

For those who were too young or not living in areas that were heavily bombed had plenty of opportunities to contribute to the war effort.  By the close of 1940, Scouts had collected thirty five thousand tons of waste paper including one Troop in Ponders End who gathered forty five tons in nine months.  Forestry camps were organized with Scouts moving felled trees to points of collection which was physically demanding as the camps lasted for several weeks.  Harvest time provided many opportunities for Scouts to assist farmers and enjoy the pleasures of the countryside.  In 1942 six hundred Scouts picked more than a million pounds of plums in Worcestershire alone and this was replicated across the country.

Scouts Collecting Paper for Recycling

Scouts at a Forestry Camp

Scouts helping with the vegetable harvest

Scouting Bravery

Scout Frank Davis

Scouts played a key part in Civil Defence roles during the Blitz serving as Police messengers, firemen, stretcher bearers and rescuing people from the rubble of buildings.  Not all Scouts survived working in front line roles, 17 year old Frank Davis of the 11th Bermondsey and Rotherhithe (St James) Group died on 8 December 1940 at Trinity Church, Dockhead, London.   He was awarded the Bronze Cross for conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty as an Air Raid Warden he rescued a fellow Scout Messenger and was killed by enemy action.

Citation of bravery in Scout Association Award Records

Patrol Leader George Collins

A Silver Cross given to Patrol Leader George Collins a Sea Scout of the 12th Shoreditch (Jubilee) Group.  The Weekly News Bulletin stated “(He) was in a street in which two houses were struck during an enemy air raid (8 October 1940).  Running to the spot he discovered that in one house there had been three children in bed on the first floor.  No one knew whether the children were still there and Collins volunteered to find out.  No ladders were available and the stairs and half the lower part of the house had been blown away, so he climbed over the debris and, with great difficulty, reached the bedroom in which the children were trapped.   He had to dig with his hands through about 3 feet of rubble and plaster but managed to get the injured children out safely and pass them down to helpers outside.  Throughout this action Collins was in grave danger since the floor of the bedroom was gradually giving way and the outside wall was liable to crumble at any moment, but he refused to come down until his task was finished, despite the enemy ‘planes overhead’.”

Citation of bravery in Scout Association Award Records

International Scouting

Internationally Scouting engaged with the world wide conflict according to the local circumstances.  Polish Scouts not only undertook civil defence roles as their British counterparts but also took up arms against both the Germans and Russians who simultaneous invaded Poland in September 1939.  During the occupation of Europe Scouting became an underground movement banned by the Nazi Party but this did not deter Scouts from secretly meeting even with the threat of the death penalty.   

The French Boy Scouts rescued of forty Jewish children from deportation to the concentration camps by hiding them in the countryside around Lyons.  When the Germans came to collect the children from the Red Cross in Lyon they only found the elderly residents of the local almshouses whom they had no interest in deporting. 

Nearer to home the Channel Islands under German control couldn’t suppress Groups like the 11th Jersey even when their building was torched and equipment confiscated.  They carried on with secret meetings and passing badge tests by exchanging the little equipment they possessed.

Indian Scouts assisted with famine relief operations at Hissar providing clothing and collecting over three tons of ‘amlas’, edible berries with strong vitamin properties for the starving during 1940.  Another famine in Bengal in 1943 also saw Scouts intervening to save lives and mitigate the effects.  The District Commissioner reported that, “They managed a food centre for destitute wanderers whom the local villagers were unwilling or unable to assist.  This centre was praised for the care with which it was managed – no waste and no peculation by workers and villagers."

With the liberation of France and the Low Countries from June 1944, Scouts once again wore their uniforms openly and assisted the Allied advance.  A BBC correspondent commented that, “The Scouts are doing a twenty-four hour a day job.  I have seen them resetting the cobblestone approaches to bridges so that our armies can get along quicker.  After nightfall they act as guides to soldiers whose duties take them out into the pitch darkness in towns and villages where they could easily lose their way.” 

Offering Relief

The Scout International Relief Service was instigated in 1944 for adult Scout Leaders to provide humanitarian assistance in Europe and to deal with the aftermath of conflict.

Members of the Scout International Relief Service   

Notable achievements included the delivery of one thousand tons of food and fifty thousand articles of clothing to families and Prisoners of War in Greece.  The most harrowing part of their work was caring for the former inmates of the concentration camps, in one case had established water, lighting, sanitation and processed one thousand displaced persons within seven hours of arriving at one such camp.

Scouts Distributing Relief Supplies in Holland

An example of Scouting flourishing in the Far East Prisoner of War Camps can be seen in the example set by Major Cross Pedley imprisoned in Formosa.  The senior British Officer wrote that Pedley’s efforts had, “The effect on the general morale of the camp was excellent.  At a time when starvation, brutality and the sheer struggle for existence might easily have produced moral chaos, the quiet work of the Rovers (section of Scouting), and their example of common-sense and unselfishness helped to restore that high standard of conduct in adversity which one expects from the Scout Movement.”

©2010 The Scout Association Archive. Allrights reserved.
Registered Charity numbers 306101 (England and Wales) and SC038437 (Scotland) Incorporated by Royal Charter.