Almost as soon as the war broke out, YMCA developed mobile canteens to bring refreshments to the troops.
These second-hand vans, painted camouflage green, were first used in East London and by the end of 1940 there were 500 vans bringing refreshments to troops, rescue workers and victims of bombing raids. Vans also travelled to Belgium and France. At the retreat of Dunkirk, YMCA remained on the beaches until ordered to leave.
The tea cars followed advancing and withdrawing armies. As well as serving mugs of tea, they sold cigarettes, chocolate, cake, hair cream, toothpaste and stationery. In contrast to the static huts of the First World War, the tea car was a more mobile service for increasingly changeable theatres of war. On the Home Front, particularly during the Blitz, these mobile canteens provided food and drink to those made homeless and hungry.
YMCA’s world fellowship came into its own as the war progressed: tea cars, cinema vans, and mobile libraries bearing the red triangle of YMCA were a common sight. The first British YMCA mobile canteen landed on the Normandy beaches on 29 July 1944.
Internationally, the World Alliance of YMCAs expanded its work with prisoners of war and refugees: more than 250 secretaries visited camps in 38 countries. In Britain, there were large-scale education programs for prisoners of war. Around a thousand prisoners were trained as primary school teachers, coached to pass university entrance exams or given basic theological training.
In the United States, YMCA, together with five other national voluntary organisations, founded the United Service Organisations for National Defence, today known as the USO. YMCA staff worked in U.S. internment camps holding 110,000 Japanese Americans, organising clubs and activities for the children.
In Australia, along with the Salvation Army, YMCA was given responsibility for troops’ ‘Recreational, Social and Moral Welfare’ and ‘care of the walking wounded’. YMCA was afforded the same status as the Red Cross Society, the Australian Comforts Fund and the Salvation Army.
This gave YMCA ‘official military establishment status’ – essentially, we had permission to operate with troops in all areas and particularly in front line positions. The official history of the Australian YMCA provides an insight to the dangers faced by mobile units, some of which found themselves ahead of the front lines: ‘Sometimes they [the mobile canteens] were official vehicles and at other times they were trucks that had been co-opted. The canteens enabled YMCA staff to keep up with the battle or at time get ahead of it. In these circumstances the canteens came under attack and the men were wounded or captured.’