Sunday 16 December 2018

The Auxiliary Fire Service: From Army Dodgers to Heroes with Grimy Faces

A group of AFS firemen (and cab) at Gordonbrock Road School (author's collection)

The Auxiliary Fire Service or AFS was formed in 1938 at the time of the Munich Crisis and on its formation, there were many who doubted the motives of those who volunteered for firefighting duties. An explanation for this early hostility could perhaps have been due to the fact that volunteers for the Fire Service were automatically exempted from the call-up to military service. As a result, a fair number of conscientious objectors were attracted to the AFS and although attitudes towards these principled individuals were more enlightened than during the Great War, there were still many small-minded citizens who could not bring themselves to show any sympathy towards this attitude.

As a result of this, aided and abetted by some of the more hysterical sections of the press, both local and national, there was still some lingering hostility towards the AFS during the dying days of peace and during the so-called "Phoney War" period immediately after the declaration of war in September 1939. "£3 a week Army Dodgers"  and "£3 a week to play darts" were just two of the insults directed towards these volunteers. There was also some hostility towards the Auxiliaries from the regular firemen themselves; some of this was aimed at the conscientious objectors from a minority of firemen who had previously served in the armed forces themselves and harboured outdated views. Sadly though, some was racially motivated, especially towards the considerable Jewish contingent who volunteered for service in the AFS. Some of this was the casual anti-Semitism which pervaded (and which sadly sometimes still pervades) society, whilst some of the more overt hostility came from members of Mosley's British Union of Fascists, some of whom served within the Fire Services.

Firemen in Cheapside on the morning of 30 December 1940 (author's collection)

Fortunately, once the bombs began to fall, it was clear to the public at large that the firemen (and women) were not "Army Dodgers" at all and had in fact, volunteered for the most dangerous role within the Civil Defence and the prejudice aimed at them rapidly evaporated. The truth of the matter was that the newly formed Civil Defence service, of which the Auxiliary Fire Service was a major part, was essentially a citizen army of local people and tended to reflect the ethnicity of the local recruits. For example, in the Aldgate and Whitechapel areas of East London, some 85-90 per cent of the Civil Defence was Jewish - simply local people playing their part in helping to defend their own neighbourhood.

The London Fire Brigade in 1939 was under the control of the London County Council and across the whole of the United Kingdom, the Auxiliaries were similarly held under municipal control. Such a vast expansion of the Fire Services required a similar increase in the number of accommodation and equipment. The former was easily solved by invariably using school premises, newly vacated as a result of the evacuation of school children and which with their catering facilities and ample space for parking, were ideal for use as makeshift fire stations. More of a problem was the provision of sufficient vehicles to act as fire engines. In the capital, the London Taxi came to the fore, towing a trailer pump and with a ladder strapped to the roof rack. Their drivers also went to war and their encyclopedic knowledge of the streets made them an invaluable weapon in the fight against the fires lit by Hitler's bombs.

A London Taxi in attendance at All Hallows-by-the-Tower on 30 December 1940 (author's collection via LMA)

As the word 'auxiliary' suggests, the AFS provided additional or extra capacity to the regular fire brigades and was designed to supplement them by acting as a sort of mobile reserve which could be deployed from city to city in times of great need. The fragility of this plan became evident on the first day of the Blitz, when AFS units arrived from outside the capital only to find that their equipment was not always compatible. For example, hydrant connections were of differing gauges and the standards of training often differed from region to region, so whilst the provincial volunteers were certainly willing, they were not always able to assist. There were also sometimes 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.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, the men and women of the AFS performed heroically during the Blitz. Despite their intensive training, most of the firemen of the AFS had never tackled a 'normal' fire prior to the commencement of the Blitz on 7 September 1940, let alone the sort of fires caused by incendiary and high explosive bombs but during the first twenty two days of the bombing of London, they had fought almost 10,000 fires across London. The Firewomen (the use of the word 'Firefighter' didn't begin until the 1980s) didn't actually tackle fires during the Second World War but instead performed equally vital duties such as Fire Watchers, Drivers and managing the communications network and by 1943, over 70,000 women had volunteered for the Fire Service across the United Kingdom. As a result of their work during the Blitz, the firefighters found themselves feted as "Heroes with grimy faces" a phrase originally coined by Winston Churchill but one which caught the imagination of a grateful public.

Firemen Remembered plaque at Invicta Road School (author's photograph)

However, as a result of the experience gained during the Blitz, it was clear that coordinated action was required, not only to ensure commonality of equipment and training but also to ensure that the petty regional jealousies were overcome. Therefore, on 18 August 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 service 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.

The National Firefighters' Memorial (author's photograph)

In London alone, 327 firefighters - male and female - were killed during the war but thanks to the work of the charity Firemen Remembered, many memorial plaques have been places at locations where firefighters lost their lives. 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:

Jewish Participation in the Fire Service in the Second World War - Stephanie Maltman & Martin Sugarman, Valentine Mitchell 2016
London at War - Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995
The London Blitz, A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991

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