Sunday, 5 December 2010

Heroes with Grimy Faces

This was the name given by Winston Churchill to Britain's firefighters during the Second World War and although the Prime Minister was quick to recognise the contribution made by the Fire Services, it was not always the case with the public at large and when the Auxiliary Fire Service or AFS was formed in 1938 at the time of the Munich Crisis, there were many who dubbed volunteers for the AFS as "£3 a week Army Dodgers" for those who volunteered to join the AFS were exempted from the call-up to the fighting services and were paid the princely sum of £3 a week for their troubles. Whilst it was true that some people did join the AFS in order to avoid military service, the vast majority who served in the AFS did so because they wanted to save lives and 'do their bit' towards the war effort. There was also a certain amount of hostility aimed at the AFS from members of the regular municipally controlled fire brigades, who viewed these volunteers as well meaning amateurs despite the high standard of training they received from those same regulars who viewed them with some disdain. Neither was the AFS a male only concern, as there were many women members who were mainly employed on Fire Watching, Driving and Telephonist duties.

The cynicism from the general public aimed towards not only the AFS but at the Civil Defence Services in general continued beyond the Munich Crisis in 1938 and indeed the outbreak of war in September 1939 right through the Phoney War period and up until the start of the Blitz in September 1940, when perhaps not surprisingly, attitudes changed almost overnight. The AFS volunteers performed heroically, especially when one considers that the vast majority of them had never faced a 'real' fire, let alone the conflagrations unleashed by the German incendiaries, for which no amount of training could have prepared them. Any friction between the regulars and the AFS evaporated quickly as a result and the regular Fire Brigades and Auxiliaries worked happily side by side.

The main raison d'etre of the AFS, as well as supplementing the regular fire brigades was to act as a sort of mobile reserve which could be deployed from city to city to augment the fire services in times of great need. Unfortunately, the wheels fell off this particular plan very early in the Blitz - on the first day in fact, when the AFS volunteers brought in from Ipswich to tackle the enormous fires raging at the Surrey Commercial Docks in South London discovered that their hydrant connections were all of differing sizes and certainly of no use to the London firemen already struggling in vain to keep these huge fires under control. There were also petty arguments between the various local authorities who controlled the country's fire services. which sometimes prevented the rapid movement of the AFS volunteers from one municipality to another. Clearly, co-ordinated action was required, not only to ensure commonality of equipment but also to ensure that the petty jealousies were overcome.

Thus, on August 18th 1941 the 1,400 separate fire services in Britain were nationalised and a new body, the National Fire Service or NFS was formed in their place. This new body quickly set about tackling the problems caused by the differences in organisation and equipment thrown up by the huge number of former municipal brigades. There were some frictions at first as old habits died hard but it was quickly realised that the nationalisation was for the greater good and the new NFS under the command of the former head of the London Fire Brigade, Sir Aylmer Firebrace, was soon to prove itself more than equal to the challenges thrown up by the Baedeker Raids of 1942-3 and the Little Blitz of 1943-4 as well as the greater problems caused by the V-1s and V-2s of 1944 and 1945.

After the War, the NFS was eventually disbanded in 1948 and the regional fire brigades were taken back under municipal control. However, the standardised procedures and equipment remained in place and thus it is fair to say that the National Fire Service formed the template for today's modern fire services that we all take for granted in their efficiency and dedication to duty.

In London alone, over 400 firefighters both men and women were killed and today the charity Firemen Remembered strives to keep alive the memory of the wartime fire services in London both by placing memorial plaques such as the one pictured, at locations where firefighters gave their lives, which in the case of many AFS members were at the requisitioned schools that were often used as Auxiliary Fire Stations and also by means of an education programme in which talks are given to schools to ensure that the deeds of these men and women are never forgotten. The National Firefighters Memorial, opposite St Paul's Cathedral was originally commissioned in 1991 following a campaign led by Cyril Demarne OBE, a former senior officer in the NFS and later the London Fire Brigade. Originally designed solely as a tribute to those London firefighters who gave their lives during the Blitz, in 2003 the monument was expanded into a national memorial with the names of a further 1,192 firefighters from across the country who have died in both peace and war being added. Today, this memorial with its evocative image of three firefighters tackling the fires of the City of London and also protecting the Cathedral serves as a lasting and fitting memorial to those men and women of the country's fire brigades who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Published Sources:

London at War - Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995
The London Blitz, A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991
Firemen Remembered Official Website -

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