Sunday, 18 January 2015

A to Z of The Blitz (F)

The men of Gordonbrock Rd School, Brockley AFS Station pose with their taxi (Author's collection)

After a short break, we resume our occasional series with a look at some Blitz related facts beginning with the letter 'F'.

F stands for Firefighters and whilst we have covered the subject in more detail in our December 2010 edition of this blog, it would be churlish to ignore the contribution made by the Fire Services during the Blitz and indeed, the whole Second World War.

As a belated recognition of Hitler's aggressive intentions, the United Kingdom began reluctantly re-arming in 1937 and one of the by-products of this policy, was the establishment of a Civil Defence structure, one of which was the Air Raids Precautions Act of 1937, under which legislation local authorities were required to draw up emergency fire schemes for their respective areas. These plans were to be put forward to the Secretary of State for approval and included within these plans was a requirement for the formation and recruitment of an Auxiliary Fire Service, or AFS. These plans were followed with varying degrees of enthusiasm depending on the local authorities concerned; some diligently proceeded with the plans and built an efficient organization from the outset, whilst others that were frankly pacifist in their outlook, adopted a "head in the sand" attitude and either totally refused to comply with the plans, or were less than helpful in their preparations, thus totally betraying the local people that had elected them in the first place, for by 1938, most people were of the opinion, that sooner or later, war with Germany was inevitable.

Auxiliary Fire Stations were established, often in schools whose pupils were to be evacuated and the early Auxiliary Fire Engines, such as they were consisted of requisitioned taxi cabs, towing a trailer pump and with a ladder on the roof rack. Uniforms were eventually issued and the Auxiliary Firefighters were rigorously trained by teams of 'Regular' Firemen. Each Auxiliary Fire Station had a nucleus of experienced regular firefighters attached to them, the object being to get the AFS men working to a routine and to mould them into efficient fire crews, but despite their excellent training, the truth of the matter was that when the Blitz proper started in September 1940, most of the Auxiliary crews had never tackled a 'normal' fire, let alone those which would be unleashed by the Luftwaffe. Never has the phrase "Baptism of Fire" had a more accurate meaning.

Greenwich AFS training in 1939 (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

Recruits to the AFS were paid the sum of £3.00 per week and became automatically exempt from call-up to the Armed Forces and because of this latter exemption, the AFS attracted many Conscientious Objectors and people generally who preferred to save lives rather than possibly be a part of taking them, no matter how noble the cause against Nazism. This exemption was also the cause of some hostility whipped up in some quarters of the media during the so-called 'Phoney War' period when there was little or no enemy activity in the skies over Britain - "£3 a week Army Dodgers" and "£3 a week to play darts" (a favourite off duty pastime) were just two of the accusatory headlines spotted in the press. Apart from the men on the 'front line' fighting fires, there were many female recruits to the AFS employed on telephone and messenger duties as well as an ever changing band of teenage cyclist messenger boys, too young for military service but eager to get their first experience of wartime service.

This sort of carping was to end suddenly on September 7th 1940 when the Blitz on London started in earnest following Hitler's decision to order the Luftwaffe to switch their attacks from the RAF's airfields and so-called industrial targets such as the Thames-side oil refineries and Channel Convoys to London itself. Vast fires burned in London's East End and Docklands, as well as south of the Thames at the Woolwich Arsenal and the Surrey Commercial Docks, where huge stacks of timber burned out of control for a while. It was hardly surprising when the Fire Officer in charge at this latter location, Station Officer HW 'Gerry' Knight, when seemingly surrounded by fires from the blazing timber, asked for reinforcements by phoning through the message "Send all the bloody pumps you've got, the whole bloody world is on fire!"

Plaque commemorating the Surrey Docks fire (Author's photo)

The fires were eventually brought under control but not until vast areas of the Surrey Docks had been destroyed; indeed, some parts of this dock system were never to function normally again until after the war. 

However, the events of September 7th highlighted some serious defects in the structure of the AFS that needed to be urgently addressed. It had always been intended that as well as operating in their own localities, each local AFS was to act as a sort of mobile reserve, able to move from one part of the country to another in order to reinforce those areas which needed it the most at any given time. However, with over 1,400 separate fire brigades in the UK, all under municipal control, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be major differences in procedures and equipment. This was graphically illustrated on September 7th, when provincial AFS crews brought in from outside London to help at the Surrey Docks fires found that there equipment and hose connections were not compatible with the London Brigades' fittings. Something clearly needed to be done as a matter of some urgency and on May 13th 1941. just two days after what proved to be the final raid of the 'First Blitz', the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison announced the nationalization of the UK's fire services. This came to pass on August 18th, 1941 when the National Fire Service came into being with standard equipment, standard uniform and drill procedure and a unified command structure, under the former head of the London Fire Brigade, Sir Aylmer Firebrace.

This new force saw the country through the Baedecker Raids of 1942, the Little Blitz of 1943-44 and the Vengeance Weapons of 1944-45 and although the UK's fire services were returned to municipal control after the war, the National Fire Service provided the template for today's modern fire services across the country which continue to use standardized equipment and procedures.

The events at Surrey Docks created a phenomenon that was to become better known in cities such as Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo - the firestorm, which is the next 'F' covered by this article.

Part of the aftermath of the Hamburg firestorm - August 1943 (Author's collection)

A firestorm only occurs when a fire attains such an intensity that it creates and then sustains it's own wind system, with the fires sucking in oxygen from all around in an effort to keep the fires burning. This is what happened at the Surrey Docks on September 7th - the vast stockpiles of timber and other combustible materials, such as the dock roadways themselves made from timber blocks covered in asphalt were ignited by the German incendiary bombs which were thermite powered and exacerbated by the use of oil bombs which seeped the fires into corners filled with wood chips and sawdust. The winds built up which fed these fires with oxygen raged at gale force speeds and pulled loose planks and baulks of timber into the fire and even threatened to pull people into it's grasp. As it was, the firefighters tackling this conflagration found themselves in danger of being surrounded by fires and had to rapidly pull back to safer areas, often abandoning equipment as they ran for their lives. These men often found their sodden uniforms beginning to steam and smoulder and witnessed bizarre sights such as telegraph poles spontaneously bursting into flames for no obvious reason.

The fires were brought under control as the fires were gradually surrounded by over a thousand pumps but it took several days before all the fires in the Surrey Docks were extinguished.

The firestorm phenomenon was again to rear it's head in Hamburg during the Operation Gomorrah raids of July and August 1943 and which were covered in the February and March 2013 editions of this blog, as well as in the Dresden raids of February 1945. These raids were on a much bigger scale than the Luftwaffe's efforts of September 1940, with more aircraft bombing the targets, with a larger bomb load and with a much greater proportion of incendiaries amongst their bomb loads. The death toll for the Hamburg raids alone make sobering reading. It is thought that some 42-45,000 people perished in this series of four RAF raids plus two USAAF daylight raids spread over the period from 24/25th July to the night of 2nd/3rd August 1943. When one compares this to the 30,000 or so deaths caused in London during the entire war, one can clearly see how the Germans truly "reaped the whirlwind" as promised by Sir Arthur Harris, AOC in C of RAF Bomber Command.

Next time we shall take a look at the letter 'G' with such connections as Goering, Gas Masks and George Crosses.

Published Sources:

Gomorrah 1943: Hamburg's Destruction Through Aerial Warfare - Ed. Dorte Huss, Forderkreis Mahnmal St Nikolai, 2013
Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg 1943 - Keith Lowe, Penguin Viking 2007
The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991
The Thames on Fire - LM Bates, Terence Dalton Ltd, 1985

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