Even before the Second World War began there was an acute housing crisis in Britain. During the war, six years of house building were lost, over 100000 houses were destroyed by bombing, and many hundreds of thousands more were evacuated because of structural damage. When the war ended a massive number of families were left homeless.
The Vigilantes, also known as the Secret Committee of Ex-Servicemen, were men that had fought in the war and made the decision to take the housing crisis into their own hands. In the summer of 1945 the Vigilantes began to break into empty houses by night and install homeless families in them. They first targeted coastal resorts on the south coast of England where high numbers of properties were left empty until the summer season.
Homelessness increased as servicemen were discharged from the armed forces; at the same time military camps began to empty. In May 1946, a family moved into a disused anti-aircraft camp in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire. Word spread and they were soon joined by other families. Over the following months newspaper coverage of the squatters' action inspired around 40000 people to squat in 1000 military camps in England and Wales. Local councils, unsure how to respond, began to switch on electricity and water, and Squatters Protection Societies were formed within the camps.
The government and the mainstream press responded sympathetically until the squatters began to occupy luxury flats and hotels in London. The police were ordered to patrol and cordon off unoccupied property to deter squatting and some arrests were made for conspiracy to commit trespass and forcible entry. In response, marches and other forms of street demonstration and were staged. Members of the Communist Party, who supported the squatters fairly late in their campaign, were wrongly arrested as the organisers of the London squats.
Despite this, the squatters action was ultimately very successful. The Ministry of Works (a government department formed in wartime to take charge of property for military use) handed over 850 former military camps to those occupying them and many of the London squatters were given alternative housing.