As the political climate intensified in Europe during the late 1930s, it became clear that in the event of a war the fire service would come under tremendous pressure. The Second World War broke out in 1939 and lasted until 1945.
In anticipation of war an Act of Parliament was passed authorising the formation of a voluntary fire service to supplement the regular Fire Brigade. The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) formed in January 1938.
The AFS expected that they would need to recruit and train 28,000 firemen to supplement the London Fire Brigade, which only had 2,500 officers and firemen at the time. Since most young men had joined the army, the AFS had to rely on those too old or young for the army. For the first time, women were accepted into the Brigade.
The AFS set up fire stations in buildings such as schools and garages. Members of the AFS were given basic uniforms and worked with pumping units, such as trailer pumps. These would be towed by a vehicle like a taxi and painted grey.
Sometimes London’s firemen would go to other areas of the country to provide assistance, but working alongside other fire brigades was not easy. There was confusion over who was in control, equipment used by different brigades was often incompatible and each brigade had different rules and regulations.
The organisation of the fire services throughout the country needed to be unified, and in 1941 the NFS took over.
The first targeted air raid on London took place on 7 September 1940 and marked the beginning of the Blitz when London was bombed for 57 nights in a row. Firemen were constantly at work, not only putting out fires but dealing with explosions. Bombs in warehouses were especially dangerous due to the products they stored, for example, highly flammable alcohol and paint.
In order to take some of the workload off the fire service small fires were dealt with by street fire parties. These were civilians who were given and taught to use stirrup pumps.
Women undertook some training, but did not fight fires in the Second World War. They became fire watchers and drivers, managed the communications network and worked in mobile canteen vans.
A rank system for women of the fire brigade was developed during the war in recognition of their service. This started at leading firewoman and went up to senior area officer. Many women were awarded for their remarkable achievements during this time.
At the end of the war, the majority of women were discharged from the fire service. Some women remained in the AFS and numbers gradually fell until the AFS was disbanded in 1968.
During the Second World War there were nine fire boat stations, three pre-war fire boats in service as well as extra emergency fire boats and barges. The boats held pumping equipment which could provide up to 14,000 gallons of water a minute.
The Brigade’s most famed boat is the Massey Shaw, which was named after the first chief officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. The boat, built in 1935, played an important role in the evacuation of Dunkirk. In May 1940, the Massey Shaw travelled to Dunkirk to rescue some 500 troops from shallow waters and ferry them to larger vessels returning to England. The boat was retired in 1971.