London Fire Brigade

The Second World War

The formation of the Auxiliary Fire Service

As the political climate intensified in Europe during the late 1930s, an Act of Parliament was passed authorising the formation of a voluntary fire service.

The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) formed in January 1938 and fire stations were set up in buildings such as schools, garages and factories.

A recruitment drive was launched with as many as 28,000 firefighters required to support London Fire Brigade's 2,500 officers and firefighters.

However, since most young men had joined the army, the AFS relied on those too old or too young to go to war. It also marked the first time women would be accepted into the Brigade.

The AFS were issued with one basic uniform - although shortages forced some recruits to wear Post Office uniforms - that included a steel helmet, rubber boots, trousers and waterproof leggings.

The most common piece of equipment used by the AFS was the trailer pump, which was originally towed by taxis.

Women undertook some training but did not fight fires in the Second World War. Instead they became fire watchers and drivers, managed the communications network and worked in mobile canteen vans.

A rank system for women of the fire service was developed during the war in recognition of their service; many women were awarded for their remarkable achievements during this time.

The Blitz

The first targeted air raid on London took place on 7 September 1940 and marked the beginning of the Blitz - a period when London was bombed for 57 nights in a row. For 90 per cent of AFS members, this was their first experience of firefighting.

Most of the bombings happened at night, meaning firefighters spent long hours extinguishing fires or dealing with explosions.

Bombs on warehouses were especially dangerous due to highly flammable products such as alcohol and paint. In the first 22 nights of air raids, firefighters fought nearly 10,000 fires.

Bombings often occurring while the Thames was at low tide meaning access to water was made even more difficult. Vehicles became vital in transporting water around the city; steel frames were fitted to lorries to enable them to carry up to 1,000 gallons of water.

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.

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; firefighters became known as 'the heroes with grimy faces'.

Fire boats

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, 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 to rescue 500 troops from shallow waters.

During the rescue mission, the flag from the vessel was used to bandage a soldiers injured arm. This is currently on display at the museum.

The National Fire Service

To provide a unified service throughout the country the National Fire Service took control in 1941. By 1943 over 70,000 women had enrolled in the NFS in the United Kingdom.

When peace was declared, London’s fire service had attended over 50,000 calls; 327 of London's firefighters had been killed.

The spirit of comradeship among firefighters and their dedication to their job were commendable and according to Churchill, the fire service 'were a grand lot and their work must never be forgotten'.