Police during the Second World War

On the eve of the war there were some 60,000 police officers in England and Wales divided between 182 separate police forces.  The largest force was the Metropolitan Police in London with just under 20,000 men; there was a separate force for the City of London (1,100 men).  There were 58 county forces and 122 forces patrolling cities and boroughs.

There were fewer than 300 women in the total of 60,000.  Policing was seen as a man’s job.  Women police officers were largely confined to dealing with family problems and particularly with women and children.

The war required young men to fight it.  It also required reservists – men who had recently been soldiers – to return to the army or navy since trained men were essential.  Many police officers were reservists, and many more were young enough to serve in the armed forces.  This meant that, at the outset of the war, police numbers were reduced as reservists returned to their units and as young police officers volunteered for military service.  The government and the police authorities sought to limit the reduction in police officers by restricting the numbers who might volunteer (see A Volunteer). The ranks were made up by recruiting reserve policemen, special constables and more women officers.  In 1944 there were 43,000 regular police officers, 17,000 War Reserve Police and Special Constables, and 385 women police.

The police grew older as the war progressed.  While young men went into the armed forces, older men stayed on past their retirement date or enlisted as reserve constables or specials.  Police duties increased because of the war.  In addition to their usual tasks of keeping the peace, pursuing criminals, making sure that the traffic flowed freely, they had new duties – enforcing the wartime blackout, assisting the rescue services during and after bombing raids, checking on enemy aliens in the country, pursuing army deserters.  The new burdens probably contributed to the growing sickness rate among the police.  In 1939 181,300 days were lost to the Metropolitan Police because of sickness; in 1945 this had risen to 345,600 days.