THE AUXILIARY FIRE SERVICE - preparations and into action.
As the Government prepared for what appeared to be inevitable
conflict and that such conflict would almost certainly
the use of bombing from the air, each Fire Authority was required to
form an Auxiliary Fire Service, under the
direction of the
local Chief Fire Officer, but whose role was solely to prepare for the
eventuality of war and for dealing with
fires that would
follow an air raid. In London the vast London Fire Brigade, covering the
County Council area, had a well
recruited and trained AFS. The LCC had provided vans and towing vehicles and many AFS
men had attended peace-time or
pre-blitz fires. The
outbreak of war saw the requisitioning of 2,000 London taxis as
Auxiliary Towing Vehicles (ATV's) often
drivers who by their training were later invaluable at finding routes
through bomb damaged areas. Another
advantage of the LFB was it's infrastructure with command arrangments and experienced
commanders. Recruitment began
January 1938 recruiting 28,000 auxiliaries for the London Fire Brigade
who only had 2,500 officers and firemen at the
time. Since most young men had joined
the armed forces the AFS had to rely on those too
old or young for military service.
They also setup
additional fire stations which were opened in garages, bus
stations, schools and other
some local communities had a local fire station for the
first time. There were two types of
auxiliary: unpaid part-timers, who
jobs and worked as fire fighters when they could and when they were needed; and those who, in the
of war, would give up their jobs and become full-time, paid fire fighters. Auxiliary
Firemen had to be British subjects of good character, mentally
and physically fit, and between the ages of 20 and 50 on enrolment.
The AFS was originally an all volunteer organisation and its creation
received a mixed reception among the more
professional firemen. Some brigades accepted the AFS, willingley trained
and took them to real fires to gain experience. At the
other extreme some were given only the help legislation demanded and
were kept toatlly divorced from the peace-time brigades. On the 1st September 1939 the Home Office sent out a telegram to all
fire authorities requiring them to activate their plan and
call out the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS). A shortage of AFS uniforms
meant that many worked in Postman's
By this time there had been a
re-organisation of fire cover and the number of brigades
reduced from 1,450 to a more manageable 578. After the hectic work of activation, as with
the other civil defence services, there was a long period of
anti-climax. The fire services experienced some problems with
morale, recruitment and retention.
As part of the build up to
war, the recruitment of messenger boys formed a part of the
strengthening of the AFS. Officially these boys were aged 16 - 18 years,
but it is a fact that many of these lied about their age and some were
as young as 15.
Its public image was of firemen
being military service dodgers and a wasted workforce. This was hard for
them to bear. The public perception was soon changed as the bombing
began. The public saw just how brave these people were and how hard
their task was. Now they were public heroes. Prime Minister Winston
Churchill later referred to them as
'heroes with grimy faces'.
The Daily Express referred to the AFS badge as
'a badge of
There is no doubt that the fire service did an excellent job during the
blitz on London and else where in the country. For 90% of the auxiliary
firemen the blitz was their first experience of fire fighting.
The aerial 'Blitz' started
when explosive and incendiary bombs first fell on south-east England in
May 1940, by August, incendiaries had caused huge fires in Thameside
fuel tank farms in Essex. Local firefighting units were soon
overwhelmed, the first wartime fire service convoys from an unaffected
area, in this case London, were despatched to Essex to reinforce the
firefighting effort. The first targeted air
raid on Central London took place on the 7th September 1940 and marked the beginning
of the 'Blitz' when London was
bombed for 57
The intensive blitz on the
square mile of the City of London on 29th December 1940 was unparalleled
in the entire world history of fires. Not even Rotterdam, on 10th May
1940, had burned to such an extent, although much of the City of London
could have been saved had the lessons of Rotterdam been learned. Water,
water everywhere and not a drop to use. The Thames, the canals, the
emergency supplies - all were there and nearly all were mishandled or
forgotten. For 2 hours the Guildhall burned without a drop of water upon
Firemen without water are
like soldiers without arms, throughout the night there was no proper or
adequate Operations Centre, no map-reading, no central and infallible
command of the water-supply section of the service; no swift harnessing
of Thames and canals and rivers and lakes; there was simply a little
room at some nearby station off Fleet Street where two tired men ordered
the crews to addresses telephoned through or conveyed by wardens and
policemen or even the firemen themselves.
The City of London blitz
was on a colossal scale; the magnificent heroism of the London
fire-fighters, regulars and auxiliaries alike, was a worthy tribute to
their love of their country and their undying faith in the cause for
which they were fighting. On that eve of New Year's Eve on the 29th
December 1940 the enemy made his most furious effort to fire the City of
London. Within the square mile of the City there was no residential
quarter, and during the week-end the City was deserted by the hundreds
of thousands who pour in during the week to the banks, insurance
companies, the Stock Exchange, the Wool Exchange, the law offices,
commercial offices, the London offices and branch warehouses of the
textile houses and business organisations of every type.
On that Sunday, sleepy
caretakers and a few persons alone were left in the City, with an odd
family here and there. Many who should have known better had left no
caretaker or keys behind and had added this insult to firemen to the
injury to themselves and the state of non-provision of fire-watchers for
their premises. By December 29th (the 114th night of the Blitz on
London) 1,500 fires were burning, from 100,000 bombs dropped.
It proved to be the most
carefully calculated and the fiercest attempt at fire-raising on a mass
scale that has ever burnt the pages of history.
THE AFS BECAME A NATIONAL ORGANISATION,
AND WAS TO BE THE KEY FACTOR IN FIGHTING THE BLITZ.
LONDON - the heart of the fire service of Great Britain.
covered by the London Fire Brigade covered the entire London County Area, an
extent of 117 square miles. Within peace-time it had 59 land stations and 3
river service stations, but the wartime expansion into the London Fire
Service, which included the Auxiliary Fire Service, brought the numbers of
personnel up from less than 2000 peace-time regular firemen to over 20,000
total mixed strength; while the number of fire stations, with emergency
stations attached to every peace-time fire station, increased to nearly 400,
including new training centres, annexes and supplementary river stations and
water units. Within the same county area there were nearly 35,000 hydrants
and nearly 2000 fire alarms.
London Fire Brigade was administered from the Headquarters on the Albert
Embankment at Lambeth on the south bank of the river, an
imposing red-brick building rising 8 floors, covering many acres and with
every facility and device for intensive training.
The brigade was organised
in two divisions, which are subdivided into six districts. The divisions
were in the Northern and Southern Divisions - north and south of the
River Thames, respectively - and the districts denoted by the letters A,
B and C (North Division) and D, E, and F (Southern Division).
London's regular fire service
personnel were standardised in comparison to the rest of the country, men
were brought back from retirement to add to the numbers and those due to
retire at the beginning of the war were later ordered back under the Police
and Fireman's (War Service) Act, 1939 (2 & 3 Geo. 6. ch. 103), to remain at
their posts for the duration of the war.
Most of the rank and file,
both in London and the provinces, were ex-naval ratings or army privates and
men of a similar type who were of the 'old school' and had served 10, 15 and
20 years in the brigade, they were tough, robust, well trained and well
THE NATIONAL FIRE SERVICE - born in the stress of
To overcome some of the earlier problems the fire service was again
re-organised into the National Fire Service (NFS) bringing
together the 16,000-plus fire brigades within the country. This force came into
existence on the 18th August 1941 and all
brigade and AFS personnel were transferred into it.
The service was responsible, through regions, to the Home Office directly
meant that the chain of command was much simpler and the
standardisation of training and equipment could be quickly
In a 60 day period
beginning September 1st, 1941, London reported:
16,276 small fires (1 pump)
1,314 medium fires (2 - 10 pumps)
110 serious fires (11 - 30 pumps)
conflagrations (30+ pumps)
A return to attacks on London soon began to test the new NFS and it's
procedures. Then followed more provincial raids, but after the 1941
invasion of Russia there were rarely air raids on the UK on the scale of
those of the 1940 and early 1941 blitzes. Yet there could be no
certainty that they would not come again so the new organisation was
quickly developed. Manpower was found to meet the increased needs and
centralised control, standard procedures, ranks, equipment and training
soon followed. The early years of the NFS were in many ways the best.
The organisation was enthusiastic to achieve it's aim; funds were made
available and many improvements followed in the service, training and
equipment. Sufficient enemy activity together with inevitable
conventional fire incidents kept the NFS busy, but from it's formation
the service was never stretched to the extent that it's predecessors in
the AFS had been nor to the extent that it was designed to cope with. As
enemy action tailed off the NFS found itself with too big an
organisation for it's role. Spare manpower was used to carry out
productive war work and some men were released for the armed services
who were by then suffering from a manpower crisis.
At its peak in 1943 the NFS in London alone
comprised 50,000 personnel, with a total of 370,000
including 80,000 women, elsewhere in the country.
Shortly before D-Day a long expected threat materialised. Hitler's
revenge weapons, initially V-1 pilotless plane began to be launched
towards London. The blast effects caused relatively few fires but the NFS became instead more closely involved with the Civil Defence
organisation in rescue work. When peace in Europe was finally announced on 8th May 1945, 327 men
women of the London
region of the NFS had been
killed in action and over
3,000 injured. Of the final total of 875 operational fire stations within
London area, 662 were
damaged at some time or other during the years
of the war by fire, bombing or blast. Including the V-1
rocket incidents, over 50,000 emergency calls had been attended by
London's fire crews. Those who had served in the firefighting services of
this country could feel justly proud of the contribution they had made
in home defence, which at times had equalled the dangers and rigours of
soldiers in the front line.
World War 2 Fire Services
Crewed by members of the Fire Service
Endurance! They are not enough.
To these admirable qualities must be added knowledge and experience, if
an efficient auxiliary fire-fighter is to be made.
Technical knowledge is fundamental if we are to be in a position to
conduct a successful fire defence of London - knowledge which will
enable us to make the best use of our material - knowledge of our
organisation which will ensure that our appliances and personnel are
mobilised just where they are wanted in the shortest possible time.
There is a science and an art of
fire-fighting. Most of the science can be learnt at a fire station, but
the art can only be learnt at fires. As a seaman is made by going to
sea, so a fireman can be made only by attending fires - year after
year, as many of them as possible.
The Auxiliary Fire Service is no "paper"
force. Its members have enrolled in what must surely be one of the most
practical and exacting of A.R.P. jobs - a vitally important branch
of home defence".
Commander A. Firebrace.
In March 1944
volunteers from the NFS were invited to join a newly
to be part of the invasion of France on D-Day.
volunteered went before selection boards and all had to
tests and medical examinations.
they underwent specialised firefighting training , fitness
work-outs and long
route marches. They practised getting pumps
on and off
landing craft - sometimes 'under fire'. Five columns were
formed and were
ready for operation in time for the 6th June - ready
to cross the
channel to assist the armed forces by putting out fires as
Each Column had a Headquarters and 5 Companies.
Each Company had a
Headquarters and 2 Sections each consisting of 6
pumps plus support
vehicles. One Column was formed in each of
Regions 4, 5, 6, 7
and 12 and the Column would be designated by that
Region number with
Companies designated A, B, C, D and E. Sections
within each Company
were lettered X and Y.
On the 25th January 1945, on the coldest night for 80 years, No.4
Column was sent into action, sailing from Tilbury to Ostend. They
were sent, not to assist the British forces who were being protected by
the Army Fire Service, but to assist the American Army. The
Headquarters and one other company went to Namur, two
to Liege, one to Verdun and one to Etain.
NATIONAL FIRE SERVICE No. FOUR OVERSEAS COLUMN
Within a few hours of arriving at Verdun,
the company was in action fighting a severe roof fire in a hotel being
by American troops. In the main, the
units were with the Twelth (US) Army Group and the Quarter Master Corps,
others were attached to the US Army Ordnance
Corps. Primarily ration, fuel and ammunition dumps were the main risks protected.
was not long before the whole of N0.4 Column was spread over Holland,
France, Belgium and Luxembourg, on the 17th March 1945 the first NFS
crossed over the
Rhine into Germany.
The column finally boarded ships home on 15th
July 1945. During their time within this theatre of war, personnel attended over
recorded large incidents, 120 pipe leaks and special services.
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