A history of SSAFA in World War Two
SSAFA's support for serving personnel, veterans and their families during the Second World War was invaluable to the war effort.
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From finding accommodation for families visited wounded relatives to advice about debt or housing, find out how we were there for the Armed Forces family in World War Two.
There are striking similarities between SSAFA's work then and the support we provide today. During the six years of the war, the central team at SSAFA's Head Office Case Department dealt with an average of 200 cases each day. Around the country local representatives helped families in many ways from caring for the sick to giving assistance with debts, removal expenses, medical and dental treatment and clothing.
Help for serving families
Committed SSAFA volunteers arranged for expectant mothers to go into maternity homes, organised accommodation for families visiting sick and wounded men in hospital, made enquiries about missing men, and visited families on behalf of Army welfare officers. They also advised on issues such as evacuation, dealing with landlords and creditors, and childcare. During the second half of 1942, SSAFA received 2,000 applications asking for help with the care of children of a serving man during domestic emergencies. These included a mother being seriously ill or having another baby. By the end of 1944, we were running 13 children’s homes and a Married Families Club, where a serviceman and his family could stay during his leave.
The bombing of UK cities caused anxiety among men serving abroad and SSAFA helped with local investigations in support of an inquiry bureau set up to allow members of the three services to obtain news about the safety of their families, a scheme later extended to general family enquiries.
SSAFA helps overseas
In May 1941, SSAFA set up a special Overseas Service to deal with the mounting volume of enquiries from abroad. Our first overseas bureau opened in Cairo, Egypt in September 1941 initially to handle enquiries from relatives. However the Cairo bureau, and other overseas bureaux that followed it, soon became a hub for men to discuss their family problems and make enquiries about relatives at home.
General Montgomery, Commander of 21st Army Group, wrote of SSAFA that: 'In the knowledge that his family at home are being well cared for by SSAFA, the soldier fighting overseas may wholeheartedly devote himself to his duty without being worried by family troubles and consequently hampered in the efficient execution of his duty. I am sure that all your workers know the enormous value of the work that they are doing and will put their shoulders to the wheel in the serious days that are ahead of us and give only of their best.'
Montgomery requested that SSAFA provide a bureau to accompany the 21st Army Group and a staff of 11 following the troops overseas in October 1944.
By the end of 1945 200 SSAFA personnel were serving overseas. The volume of overseas work peaked in July 1945, when there were 7,900 new enquiries from, or concerning, men who had not used the service before.
When Pat Tonks started working at SSAFA's Head Office in 1924 she was our youngest member of staff. Fifteen years later at the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, Pat had become an essential member of our central team. She soon began to receive hundreds of letters from Forces families worried about what war would mean for them.
Pat remembers, 'One day was normal; the next five years altogether abnormal'. Pat soon took charge of the Head Office Case Department where she worked with three assistants, including the wife of the Director of Welfare at the War Office, eight shorthand typists, plus voluntary helpers to handle an average of 200 cases a day. Pat's practical response to the demand for SSAFA's help was: 'I'll do what I can, shall I?'.
After the end of the war, SSAFA continued to provide essential services to the military community. In 1953 when a truce in Korea was imminent, the War Office requested an experienced caseworker to meet the British prisoners. Pat Tonks took on the case and flew to Japan with up-to-date news from home for each man. Pat flew to Japan in person carrying photographs and news from home, which had been collected in just two days by SSAFA volunteers around the country.