Firefighting During the Blitz in London

During World War II, the German Luftwaffe, or Air Force, bombed the city of London. At the time London was the world’s second busiest port in the world. It was also the political, economic and religious seat of the British Empire. Near the docks were a huge natural gas work and the Ford Motor Company plant. Some of the businesses along the Thames included flourmills, grain storage silos, tar works and chemical plants. Any of these could trigger a major conflagration. Also near the river were the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, businesses, and homes for millions of Londoners. 

In 1937, the British passed the Civil Defense Act allowing local authorities to raise an auxiliary Fire Service. London made plans to have a force of 28, 000 Auxiliary Firemen and Firewomen. Two years later on September 1, the Auxiliary Fire Service mobilized. In this short time period 23,000 members had been recruited, trained and equipped. Throughout the city there are more than 300 Auxiliary Fire Service Substations. The London Fire Brigade had 59 land stations and 3 river stations.

During the war the number of men serving as firemen would swell to 273,000 nationwide. In addition, 70,000 women, both full-time and part-time performed such duties as dispatchers, couriers, canteen operators, and in some areas as pump operators for the fire department. Personnel worked 48-hour shifts and were then given 24 hours off. When not fighting fires, the men often produced war materials at the firehouse. In their off-duty time many firefighters worked in factories that made more war goods.

The British wisely planned ahead for fires caused by war. They strategically placed equipment and firehouses in high-risk areas and a top-secret alarm center opened near Parliament. A backup plan for coordinating communications was in place if the need arose.

Apparatus used at this time consisted of fire pumps and pump escapes units. These rigs were engines with a rear-mounted, two-wheeled portable ladder. This enabled the ladders to fit into narrow spaces. They could also serve a dual purpose when a nozzle was mounted at the end of the ladder, thus providing another way for firefighters to attack the blazes. An innovative taxi driver devised a quick hookup device that enabled jitneys, automobiles and light vans to pull them to fires. This may have been the first time auxiliary firemen rode to fires in taxis. This made it possible for them to get to fires with limited personnel and equipment.

Anticipating the possibility of ruined or malfunctioning water mains the Londoners placed 6-inch steel piping in gutters with hose connections spaced along them. Each supplied five streams. They also used large lorries (trucks or vans) with pre-connected hose in various sizes. Up to 6000 feet of rubberized canvas hose could be laid when the truck moved forward. Throughout the city were thousands of camouflaged water tanks. They used flatbed trucks to hold 1000 feet of steel pipes. When the city was under attack, nine firemen coupled 1000 feet of pipe in 16 minutes. Forty stationary pumps were installed along London bridges. Each could suction 3000 gallons of water from the Thames per minute.

Twenty new fireboats and four barges were built to join the London Fire Brigade Fleet. One of the boats already in service, the Massey Shaw, joined the fleet in 1935. The Massey Shaw is best known for participating in a rescue mission in 1940 before the Blitz began. She made three trips across the channel and helped evacuate men from the shores of Dunkirk. She ferried military men to larger ships waiting offshore. According to Ditzel: “The Massey Shaw and its 13-member volunteer crew of London firemen and auxiliaries rescued, while under German bombardment and strafing more than 600 soldiers and sailors.”

Each new fireboat had two pumps mounted midship that could pump 1000 gallons of water per minute to land companies and a large stationary nozzle on the bow enabled them to attack ship and dockside fires. The four barges each housed four Dennis fire pumps. Each one had twin holes cut in the stern. Hose from the pumps was fed through the holes and then placed over the side. The barges could move in all directions. The other two pumps on the craft were used to concentrate on dock and ship fires.

Since 1939, air raid sirens had pealed frequently but these alarms turned out to be false. A concern arose that citizens would become complacent when actual attacks occurred.

It was almost 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, September 7, 1940 when the London blitz began. Although bombers struck several weeks prior to this, on this afternoon hundreds of planes targeted London’s waterfront. The Ford Motor plant and the gas works fell first creating a huge fireball. Soon additional bombs set the docks and the thriving businesses along them afire. The fire service had anticipated major fires when the Germans attacked but were stunned by what they saw. Gerry Knight, a Station Officer sent this message to the alarm office, “Send all the bloody pumps you’ve got … The whole bloody world’s on fire!” 25,000 Auxiliary Firefighters joined the London Brigade to battle the flames. Five hundred fire pumps were dispatched to the docks. Water mains snapped. Power, telephone, gas and fire alarm service ceased. At 6:00 p.m. the attack ceased. But the devastation and conflagration that remained were mind-boggling. But the respite from the bombings lasted only two hours.

When the Lutwaffe returned at 8:00 p.m., one of their targets was a paint factory. Firemen arrived to battle the fully-engulfed structure. As the officer-in-command requested more manpower and equipment, another bomb landed inside the plant and its explosion blew out the fire. The firemen were amazed.

At headquarters firewomen worked by candlelight to send equipment where it was needed most. With normal modes of communication disabled, firewomen and youths who had been recruited as couriers, used motorcycles to carry critical messages. Only a thread of light emanated from the motorcycle headlights for they had been painted black to prevent the light directing the enemy to the streets of London. Acting as a courier was very dangerous. With the constant possibility of an explosion, getting trapped by a fire and little light, it was a challenge to deliver the information sorely by headquarters and the firefighters.

At dawn on Sunday, September 8, 1000 pumps were at the scene, suctioning water from the Thames River. The German planes finally went home. In their wake were 19 conflagrations and 17 major fires, not to mention innumerable spot fires throughout the area. Civil defense workers provided assistance to the firefighters as well as fire personnel from Birmingham and other British cities. A dispatch issued by Fire Service Headquarters lauding the auxiliaries read: "The way in which the situation was dealt with gave rise to real confidence in the organisation and mobilising arrangements-and in the morale and efficiency of the auxiliaries."

The Germans returned on Sunday evening to drop their incendiary devices for eight hours. One of the companies dashing to the fire scene was Walter Turley along Abbey Road. Turley, joined by two auxiliary firemen and eight civil defense workers laid a hoseline and entered a fully involved building. Without warning the structure collapsed, killing all eleven men.

These raids continued for 57 consecutive nights. There was a brief lull due to inclement weather but the when the skies cleared the attacks resumed.

During this time utilities were restored time after time, only to be blitzed yet again. Bomb craters became reservoirs for the fire service. Day after day the firefighters worked valiantly to extinguish all the flames so when night fell they would provide no illumination to the enemy.

On Sunday December 29, the Germans concentrated their efforts on the square mile heart of London. Located in this area were St. Paul’s Cathedral, numerous churches, libraries, the book publishing industry and block upon block of four and five-story brick buildings. Many were from medieval times and were constructed close together with narrow alleyways between them. On this evening hundreds of fires began. Steel pipes were quickly connected, hoses were coupled and fireboats stood ready. Fire engines were placed at 700-foot intervals. Specially equipped hydrants along Blackfriars Bridge were put into service. The individual fires soon merged into one. 2000 pumpers and 9000 firemen, women and messenger boys worked together to douse the flames. During the night eight firemen died when walls fell on them. Another eight died before the night ended. Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the firefighters to save St. Paul’s Cathedral, a survivor of the Great Fire of London in 1666. This structure was of utmost importance and must be saved, at any cost. Paul Ditzel said: “The cathedral was more than an edifice to the British. It was a sign that so long as St. Paul’s stood, so would the resolute Britons.” The fire service needed no command from Churchill to spur them on to save the building. Performing brave and daring feats, they fought the fires and extinguished the flames and the cathedral continued to stand.

A new fire apparatus emerged during this time: the Soap Box Fire Engine. These unusual vehicles were constructed out of cardboard boxes and mounted on baby buggy wheels. They held hand pumps, sand bags and water buckets.

The bombings continued. On March 19, 1941, 2000 fires began. A team of five firemen took their equipment to fight a fire at the docks. Suddenly a parachute mine, an explosive as large as gas station storage tank falling silently, annihilated all five of them.

On Wednesday, April 16, 1941, 150,000 incendiary devices and 16,000 pounds of high explosive bombs fell to the ground, igniting 2250 fires. The roof of St. Paul’s Cathedral was struck, leaving a large crater in its wake. While injured, the edifice still stood. Six firefighters lost their lives that night.

The Germans continued their nightly raids. Yet the firefighters continued to douse the fires.

On Saturday, May 10, 1941, a full moon provided bright illumination to the enemy. That evening 3000 fires began. Firemen filled a portable reservoir with 5000 gallons of water and inserted suction hoses into it to feed their pumpers. But a bomb exploded in the center of it taking 17 men with it. Little trace of them could be found. The Parliament’s House of Commons, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey were hit. Firefighters carried their equipment up 200 stairs and through a maze of catwalks into the Abbey. They successfully fought the embers but a portion of the roof collapsed and the men had to use their hose lines to slide to safety. Before the night was over 35 firefighters had died.

For a few more weeks the Germans continued their nightly visits. Then Hitler’s aerial forces concentrated their efforts on invading Russia.

14,000 people died during these raids. Thousands of buildings were destroyed. Yet the Germans could not break the British spirit.

A memorial now stands in Old Change Court, near St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Cathedral survived due to the efforts of the fire department. The memorial contains the names of the 1027 firemen and over 24 firewomen who died in the line of duty during the war. Winston Churchill said it well when he called all firefighters, “heroes with grimy faces.”

Ditzel, Paul. Firefighting During World War II. New Albany, IN: Fire Buff House, 1994.
“The Fire Service: AFS/NFS: “Baptism by Fire.” The Midnight Watch. 24 Feb. 2002. 30 March 2002
“Key Dates.” The London Fire Brigade. 11 Jan. 2002. 30 March 2002 (link no longer
            Active July 2009)
"The London Blitz, 1940," EyeWitness: History through the Eyes of Those Who Lived It. 2001. 30 March 2002
“A 20th Century Fire Service.” The London Fire Brigade. 22 Nov. 2001. 30 March 2002   
Floren, Terese.  “History of Women in Firefighting: A  Brief History.” International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services.  2007 22 July 2009