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Firefighters of the Second World War.

From the formation of the Auxiliary Fire Service through the bravery of the Blitz, discover our history during WWII. 
Historical photo of Firefighters attending to an incident

The Auxiliary Fire Service

As the political climate intensified in Europe during the late 1930s, an Act of Parliament was passed to authorise the formation of a voluntary fire service. The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) formed in January 1938 and fire stations were set up in schools, garages and factories.

A recruitment drive was launched, with over 28,000 firefighters needed to support the Brigade's 2,500 officers and firefighters. However, as most young men had joined the army, the AFS welcomed those too old or too young to go to war. It also marked the first time women joined the Brigade.

Did women fight fires in WWII?

Though women did train, they didn't actually fight fires in the Second World War. They became fire watchers and drivers, and managed the communications networks. A rank system for women of the fire service was developed during the war to recognise their service and bravery – many were awarded for their remarkable achievements. 

Jane Rugg, Museum Curator

By 1943 over 70,000 women had enrolled in the NFS in the United Kingdom.

What equipment did the AFS use?

The firefighters of the AFS were issued with one basic uniform: a steel helmet, rubber boots, trousers and waterproof leggings – although shortages saw some stuck with just Post Office uniforms. The most common piece of equipment used by the AFS was the trailer pump, which was originally towed by taxis.

Historic fires

The Blitz – 57 nights of bombing

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 many 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.

The heroes with grimy faces

Bombings often occurring while the River 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. Meanwhile, to reduce the workload of the fire service, small fires were dealt with by 'street fire parties' – 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 – our firefighters became known as 'the heroes with grimy faces'.

According to Churchill, the fire service:

...were a grand lot and their work must never be forgotten.
Firefighters putting out a fire from a small boat

The fire fleet – our fireboats in WWII

During the Second World War there were nine fire boat stations, three pre-war fireboats in service, as well as extra emergency fireboats and barges.

These boats played a vital role in fighting fires along the banks of the Thames, and were staffed by both firefighters and volunteers. 

 

Every boat held pumping equipment which could provide up to 14,000 gallons of water a minute.
Massey Shaw historic picture

The Massey Shaw – Dunkirk hero

The Brigade's most famous boat is the Massey Shaw, named after the first Chief Officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.

She was built in 1935 and played an important role in the evacuation of Dunkirk. Crewed by a team of volunteer firefighters, she formed part of the flotilla of small vessels which evacuated British troops from the beaches. She made three brave trips and rescued over 500 troops.

Did you know?

During the rescue mission, the flag from the vessel was used to bandage a soldier's injured arm – it's still in our museum's collection today. 

Birth of the National Fire Service

To provide a unified service throughout the country, the National Fire Service (NFS) took control on 18 August 1941 when all the auxiliary fire services reorganised to form a new national service.

After the war, the NFS continued while discussion were held over the structure of Britain's fire services before eventually being disbanded in 1948.

When peace was declared, London's fire service had attended... over 50,000 calls ...though tragically, 327 of London's firefighters lost their lives. It's a sacrifice we'll never forget.