How the fire service fought the war

The British public witnessed the mobilisation of 23,000 auxiliary firemen in September 1939 to supplement the 2,700 regular LFB personnel. This happened right before Germany was formally declared at war. The AFS was outfitted for functional integration with the LFB and received fundamental firefighting training in the months that followed.

The country's urban and industrial areas would soon be subject to an air attack, as they had been during the First World War, according to fire defence planners. It is easy to imagine the task that faced them: Planning and preparation required to sustainably manage, control, and coordinate a fire defence over a large geographic area including significant fires and conflagrations on a daily basis - using a response system based on local mutual aid – all while under assault from the air. Quite a challenge.

London firemen and Auxiliary Fire Service firefighters take a tea break at the scene of a warehouse fire at St Katherine Dock, in 1940.

London Fire Brigade/Mary Evans Picture Library / Caters News

There were 1,440 separate fire authorities in England at the beginning of the Second World War. Problems with command and control of so many separate and usually ill-prepared fire brigades proved expensive during the height of the Blitz. That expense resulted in catastrophic losses in both private and commercial property, as well as deaths and injuries among the general public and members of the fire service.

Managing the resources

The executive fire command staff faced a basic administrative and resource issue, particularly in the areas of leadership, management, training, and resource deployment.

Striking a balance between efficiency and efficacy in the allocation of limited resources, safeguarding the civilian population, and limiting damage to property critical to the war effort are all necessary when managing firefighting resources in a combat situation. Government officials soon saw the necessity of a well-coordinated national fire defence system.

(Right) A member of the Auxiliary Fire Service stands at the top of a partly-extended turntable ladder during a training exercise at London Fire Brigade Headquarters.

Imperial War Museum

Firefighters wearing Proto Mark IV oxygen breathing apparatus sets, seen here at the Regional Headquarters station, Lambeth.

To improve the response effort, the Home Office, a division of the British government, developed a national fire defence plan. In order to create unity of command, the strategy called for formalising the control structure, enhancing operational flexibility, standardising administrative tasks (to better manage human resources).

Fitness exercises at a training assault course in Northwood, Middlesex, in 1942.

London Fire Brigade / Mary Evans Picture Library / Caters News

Firemen at a fitness training course in 1943.

London Fire Brigade / Mary Evans Picture Library / Caters News

Training assault courses like the one above, pictured in 1943, were established to combine fire brigade skills with fitness training.

London Fire Brigade / Mary Evans Picture Library / Caters News

Birth of the National Fire Service

This led to the birth of the National Fire Service, which brought under unified supervision and leadership the several independent local fire authorities. September 1941 saw the establishment of the new service.

With a total of 343,000 men and women on its roster, the British National Fire Service was at its most effective during the middle of the war (March 1943). On a permanent basis, the service employed 29,000 women and 87,000 men.

It hired 186,000 men and 41,000 women on a part-time basis to boost the force. 48 hours on and 24 hours off made up the duty tour.

Regular London firefighters being trained in the use of breathing apparatus in the yard of Brigade headquarters, Lambeth in 1940.

London Fire Brigade/Mary Evans Picture Library/Caters News

Role during the Blitz

The national service was never given the chance to carry out its intended duties in the face of a prolonged air bombardment like those that occurred in late 1940 and early 1941. The fractured peacetime approach was still in use when London was bombarded 57 times in a row between September and November 1940.

Incendiaries and high-explosive bombs fell on firefighters working amid a frail and mostly damaged public infrastructure during the Blitz attacks, placing them under aerial attack. Along with buildings, roads, streets, water mains, gas mains, the electric grid, and the telephone system were all devastated by the bombardment.

In their distinctive brass helmets, firemen search for survivors in during the Blitz.

London Fire Brigade / Mary Evans Picture Library / Caters News

To boost the morale of the civilian population, a lot of effort was put into clearing up the wreckage and reestablishing essential services after each operation.

The most crucial requirement for fire suppression was water, as well as the methods to adequately supply it and apply it to fires in exceedingly dangerous and challenging circumstances. It was necessary to build and carefully arrange tanks with capacities ranging from 5,000 to 1 million gallons in streets and open areas in order to implement the idea of an auxiliary water system to supplement, if not completely replace, the public water system.

A system of 12-inch mains was put in place prior to the commencement of the war to transport unclean water, or untreated water, to high-risk areas of London for use in fighting fires. This backup system shown to be just as susceptible to bombing-caused water main ruptures.

Firefighters spray jets of water from fire boats and a Thames barge near Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

London Fire Brigade / Mary Evans Picture Library / Caters News

Ironically, plumbing that was installed above ground frequently escaped bombing because of its flexibility. Essentially, it was capable of bouncing and giving slightly without bursting.

Tank trucks that can transport water found extensive use in supplying water to fire departments. Trailer-mounted 250 gpm portable Jowett fire pumps that were each powered by a tiny 8-horsepower engine worked very well in London.

A team of five firemen, equipment, and hoses were also transported by London taxicabs as part of the 20,000 of these units that the fire command deployed. The taxicab drivers in London were familiar with the area, and their little cars were perfect for pulling the pumps and crew through alleys and confined spaces.

A senior fire officer inspects the nose of a bomb in the Royal Empire Society.

London Fire Brigade / Mary Evans Picture Library / Caters News

The public's opinion of the fire service changed significantly as a result of the Blitz. During the 'Phoney War', firefighters had been thought of as 'army dodgers'. But, in 1940 this attitude changed –the firefighters became known as 'the heroes with grimy faces'.

A dangerous occupation

Approximately 700 firefighters and 20 firefighters were killed in action and 6,000 were seriously injured during raid firefighting in England and Wales during World War II. 91 firefighters lost their lives and hundreds more were hurt defending London in just one raid.

Collectively, the men and women who battled the Blitz fires were undoubtedly courageous, and it appears that they saw their service as merely a component of the war effort. They were aware of and understood the necessity of what they were doing. The most amazing thing is that despite having so many brothers and sisters, both civilians and members of the military, they did not view themselves as unique or exceptional.

A fire crew rush to the aftermath of a V1 flying bomb attack on the Air Ministry in Aldwych in 1944, in which 48 people lost their lives.

London Fire Brigade / Mary Evans Picture Library / Caters News

The shared risk of fire and the resulting appreciation for life that results from experiencing it give all firemen a sense of camaraderie. A firefighter in London during the Blitz named Frank Eyre described this aspect of firefighter culture as follows:

Further reading