Tuesday, 1 November 2016
Book Review: Jewish Participation in the Fire Service in the Second World War
With the spectre of anti-Semitism still sadly very much in the news in recent times, Jewish Participation in the Fire Service in the Second World War is a timely reminder of how a large proportion of the Jewish population of this country volunteered to serve as part of the huge civilian 'army' of Civil Defence workers who defended their own neighbourhoods against Hitler's bombs and missiles. In doing so, these men and women often had to overcome prejudice and sometimes downright hostility at home and this important work by Martin Sugarman tells not only of how they overcame this hostility but were also able to make a not inconsiderable contribution towards the Allied victory. In their own way, as Richard Overy states in his introduction to the book, these men and women were also fighting for a more democratic and tolerant Britain.
The story of the Second World War firefighters in the United Kingdom is a fascinating one; in may ways they were neither fish nor fowl, being regarded as neither civilians or members of the armed forces. In 1938, the Auxiliary Fire Service was established as part of the newly formed Civil Defence/Air Raid Precautions network and saw a massive expansion from around 5,000 full time firemen to 225,000 men and women by the time of the Blitz in 1940/41.
The author, ably assisted by Stephanie Maltman, has put together a fascinating 408 page work that tells the story of those Jewish men and women who were often amongst the first to volunteer for service. Obviously, reflecting what we now call the demographics of certain areas, there was a much higher proportion of Jewish recruits in some areas over others. In the Whitechapel and Aldgate areas of London for example, the authors estimate that around 85 percent of the entire Civil Defence network were of the Jewish faith and perhaps as many as a third across the whole of London. The West Hampstead and Golders Green areas of London also had enormouse Jewish populations and the local recruitment figures naturally reflected this. These statistics are the more remarkable because before the outbreak of war, there were hardly any Jews serving in the Fire Service across the country.
Ironically, as this war was being fought against a regime that was anti-Semitic to it's very core, these new recruits had to overcome both what we would now call 'casual' anti-Semitism and well as the more endemic kind apparent within some members of the regular Fire Service. It is a sad fact that that some members of the Fire Service were, or had been members of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists and held views consistent with those of that loathsome organisation. Some of the more 'casual' versions of anti-Semitism encountered by Jews at the time were simply the product of ignorance and poor education - indeed many non-Jewish members of society had simply never met anyone of the Jewish faith and therefore their views were tainted by the various stereotypes peddled throughout history. Sometimes, this 'casual' anti-Semitism bred through ignorance was overcome simply by people getting to know one another and the book tells a nice story of Renee Hurst, a Jewish AFS recruit in London's East End who encountered a fellow recruit named only as 'Winnie', who was openly hostile towards her. The two women ended up having a fight and were both confined to quarters due to their conduct. It was during this time forcibly spent together that the two women got to know each other and eventually became firm friends, remaining in contact after the war, even after Winnie had emigrated to Canada.
The book contains a Roll of Honour which lists all of those Jewish Fire Service personnel who lost their lives either on Active Service or in Action. In their introduction, the authors explain the rationale behind some of their research for this aspect of the book. As explained earlier, firefighters were neither classified as armed forces personnel, nor as civilians, although for the purposes of casualty returns, they are classed as 'Civilian War Dead' by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. This means that some graves of Fire Service casualties have simply disappeared with the passing of time, so it is not always immediately apparent whether a casualty died on Active Service, or sometimes even whether or not they were Jewish, so some assumptions have had to be made by the authors, which we will look at shortly. A sobering statistic is put forward in the introduction to this chapter; of the 327 London firefighters killed in the War, 32 (over 8 per cent) were Jewish, yet of the 8.6 million population of London in 1939, only 150,000 (1.7 per cent) were of the Jewish faith.
Following the Roll of Honour, we move on to the various Testimonies and Short Stories, which for me forms the most fascinating part of the entire book. This is a mixture of personal accounts and life stories of individual members of the Fire Service across the entire country and tells tales of heroism during the Blitz and V-Weapons campaigns as well as many interesting insights into the more routine aspects of Fire Service life. I was already aware of some of these stories, such as that of Harry Errington, the only London firefighter to be awarded the George Cross during the Second World War. I also knew of Abraham Lewis, the subject of one of the many Firemen Remembered plaques across London but the vast majority of the stories of these brave men and women were not and it is a fine achievement by the authors that they have at last been placed in the public domain.
There then follows the Record of Honour and as mentioned earlier when examining the Roll of Honour, the authors explain that they had to make some assumptions whilst researching whether or not a firefighter was from a Jewish background. Much time was spent by them examining Fire Brigade Registration Cards to check on a combination of names, occupations and the areas in which personnel served in order to make an educated guess at an individual's background.
The book closes with a sizeable collection of photographs of those who served, as well as pictures of many artefacts, medals and letters.
This is an excellent, well researched and well written book which brings the story of Britain's Jewish firefighters in the Second World War into sharp focus and honours those men and women who served. It will be essential reading for anyone with an interest in the history of the Second World War Civil Defence Services and the Fire Service in particular, or for anyone interested in British social history and I have no hesitation in recommending it to you.
Jewish Participation in the Fire Service in the Second World War by Martin Sugarman is published by Valentine Mitchell and is listed at £35.00 (although this can be improved upon by shopping around online)