In this guest post, John Beales considers the strained relationship between the MOI and regional blood donor recruitment organisers. The post is based on research undertaken for a  M.A. History dissertation at the University of Bristol. John is now working on an AHRC-funded PhD  at Keele University and the Imperial War Museums, researching the experiences of British armed forces personnel during the Falklands campaign.

Although public awareness of blood transfusion and donor recruitment is now commonplace, the origins of this awareness lie in wartime publicity campaigns to recruit donors for what was then a radical innovation in medical care. These campaigns provide a vivid example of the weakness of some Ministry of Information campaigns and the tension between local and national publicity.

In the inter-war period, blood transfusion remained relatively rare and public awareness of it was extremely limited. Blood donation in Britain was organised by a variety of voluntary organisations supplying individual hospitals on an ad hoc basis.[1]As preparation for war increased in 1939, four blood depots were established in strategic towns on the outskirts of London. These were designed to supply blood to the expected civilian casualties of mass bombing, as part of the newly established civilian Emergency Medical Services system.[2]

At the same time, the War Office appointed Lionel Whitby (himself the recipient of a life-saving blood-transfusion during the First World War) as the head of the Army Blood Transfusion Service (A.B.T.S.) based at Southmead Hospital in Bristol. Britain subsequently entered the Second World War with the only army with an established Blood Transfusion Service.[3] However, although there were reciprocal arrangements to exchange blood and blood-plasma between the military and civilian systems, both functioned as completely separate services with clearly defined geographical donor recruitment areas.[4]

This resulted in a strained relationship between local and national publicity. Denied direct funding from the War Office, the A.B.T.S. developed informal strategies for recruiting donors. By the time war was declared on 3 September 1939, it had managed to recruit 5,000 volunteers in Bristol through local publicity carried out via existing charities, social organisations and religious groups.[5] These efforts were entirely separate from a high-profile national recruitment drive, which only publicised the EMS scheme operating in London.[6]

These tensions continued throughout the war. Whereas the MOI and the Ministry of Health (MOH) had the financial resources to use the mass communication mediums of cinema, the wireless and the national press to promote blood donation, there was never a nationally coordinated blood donor recruitment campaign. The army, and each civilian MOH region, instead undertook their own campaigns augmented by generic publicity material produced by the MOI and MOH.  However, whilst the MOI’s role was to act as the conduit of information between the government and the people, it sometimes initiated campaigns by itself without consultation with key stakeholders.[7]

Poster ‘If he should fall is your blood there to save him?’

A 1943 Army Blood Transfusion Service donor recruitment poster designed by Abraham Games (Imperial War Museum, PST 2938).

The lack of co-ordination created numerous problems. Appeals often gave the impression that blood was needed immediately, when in fact volunteers were being sought to provide estimated future blood needs, leaving potential donors disgruntled when they were not summoned immediately.[8] Many episodes were reported of prospective blood donors being turned away by local facilities that lacked the resources or organisation to deal with them, to the infuriation of those responsible for recruiting donors.[9]

Lionel Whitby, like those managing the regional civilian services, was particularly frustrated by national newspaper reports and radio broadcasts (orchestrated by the MOI) that urged volunteers to simply turn up at their local hospitals to donate.  This advice was at odds with the organisation of blood donation in both the military and civilian systems, which required donors to attend appointments on a demand-and-supply basis in relation to targeted and timed local recruitment drives. For example, in the South West, mobile blood collecting teams visited towns and villages on a cyclical basis, using village halls, churches and business premises as temporary donor centres, rather than hospitals.[10]

The A.B.T.S. call up of pre-registered donors was designed to produce a flow of donors at the optimum rate of ten per half-hour and was backed-up by highly organised and well-tested local publicity campaigns.  The A.B.T.S. planned donor sessions four to six weeks in advance, sending out re-usable postcards detailing appointments for individual donors, or for convenient appointments to be determined by local coordinators and firms. Centrally initiated calls for donors were consequently considered a hindrance to donor recruitment since they often contained information that, although well-meaning, was not correct.

The situation did improve in the later stages of the war. In the run up to D-Day, it became obvious that additional donors would be needed. Indeed, based on Lionel Whitby’s analysis of the management of casualties in the North Africa campaign, it was estimated that 30,000 pints of blood would be needed to open a second front in Europe.[11] This calculation resulted in the A.B.T.S.’s largest donor recruitment drive of the war. The ‘Blood for Victory’ campaign, which ran in Bristol from 12 to 26 February 1944, aimed to recruit 50,000 new volunteers in the city. It had the primary goal of recruiting new Group O donors, the ‘universal donor’, to ensure there were sufficient donors to call upon when D-day occurred. Similar campaigns were subsequently run in cities throughout the South West.Window Display

Window display from the ‘Blood for Victory’ Campaign in February 1944. Source: Museum of Military Medicine, RAMC 1816/6/1/2/2.

The ‘Blood for Victory’ campaign was the first occasion that the A.B.T.S. received direct support from the MOI. The result was an unprecedented level of publicity: 3,500 door to door canvassers were recruited; the national and regional press were invited to an editorial conference resulting in daily publicity over a protracted period; thousands of posters and banners were displayed across the city; shop fronts were provided with a variety of displays; the MOI information film about the work of the A.B.T.S., Of One Blood, was shown in cinemas and civic centres; loud speaker vans toured the city; Guy Gibson V.C. of ‘Dambusters’ fame opened the campaign by donating blood and a radio appeal was made to women war workers in Bristol, followed by a general national radio appeal.[12]

The MOI post-campaign report records that this concerted effort resulted in 65,205 additional prospective donors in Bristol and its environs.[13] The combination of a regional donor recruitment system and MOI’s resources had for once worked in harmony.


[1] William H. Schneider, ‘Blood Transfusion Between the Wars’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 58, 2 (2003), p.193.

[2] Brett Holman, The Next War in the Air: Britain’s Fear of the Bomber, 1908-1941 (London: Routledge, 2014).

[4] Mark Harrison, Medicine and Victory: British Military Medicine in the Second World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 37.

[5] Laura Dawes, Fighting Fit: The Wartime Battle for Britain’s Health (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2016), pp. 26-34.

[6] Museum of Military Medicine [MoMM], RAMC1816/1/2/3/1, Review of the Army Blood Supply Depot, 2 September 1939 to 31 December 1940, p.2.

[7] Nicholas Whitfield,’ Who is My Donor? The Local Propaganda Techniques of London’s Emergency Blood Transfusion Service, 1939–45’, Twentieth Century British History, 24, 4 (2013), p. 98.

[8] David Welch, Persuading the People: British Propaganda in World War II (London: The British Library, 2016), p.17.

[9] L.E.H. Whitby, ‘The British Army Blood Transfusion Service’, Journal of the American Medical Association, 124, 7 (1944), p. 421.

[10] Daily Telegraph,‘Transfusion Volunteers’, 13 July 1939, p. 13.

[11] MoMM, RAMC1816/1/2/3/1, Review of the Army Blood Supply Depot, 2 September 1939 - 31 December 1942, Appendix G, pp. 2-3.

[12] John Hedley-Whyte and Debra R. Milamed, ‘“Our Blood, Your Money”’, The Ulster Medical Journal, 82, 2 (2013), pp.115-6.

[13] MoMM, RAMC1816/6/1/2/2, Ministry of Information Campaigns Division, 'Bristol Donor Panel Campaign: Plan of Campaign', pp.1-2.

[14] MoMM, RAMC1816/6/1/2/2, Ministry of Information Campaigns Division, 'Detailed Analysis of Bristol Campaign Figures, February 12th-26th 1944', p. 2.