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The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS), Horsham icon for Recommended story

by Maggs

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23 September 2003

From AFS to NFS

The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) was started in Horsham at the end of 1938. With war looming, volunteers were sought. Ten recruits came forward and they were trained at the fire station situated at the entrance to Horsham Park, close to Park House. Later, men were trained at Hobbs Barracks, Surrey, not far from Lingfield. Facilities were better there and the standard of training improved. Shortly before the outbreak of war a sub-station was also opened at Jackson’s Garage, in Springfield Road Horsham. My father, Robert Blake, was one of the first volunteers and worked there as a coach trimmer. I began to research the story of my father, starting with his diary and the Records Office. Then I discovered that there are very few documents to inform us of the work done by Horsham Fire Brigade. Records were handwritten into simple notebooks and very few remain. When the fire brigade moved to Hurst Road around 1970, the council turned the building into offices. A skip was used to take away the 'rubbish', and lots of local war-time history was lost for ever but I have put together as much information as I have been able to find.

When the war began, the men from Jackson’s Garage Sub Station were posted to the main station, full time. They were given a uniform: the jacket was single breasted and offered little protection from heat or sparks (double-breasted jackets were introduced later; to this was added a waterproof, a pair of leggings, Wellington boots and a tin hat. The men often complained that the water soaked through their uniforms very quickly when fighting a fierce fire and their fronts would be steaming with the heat while their backs were shivering cold.

The men were divided into three watches, red, white and blue. Each worked for 48 hours on and 24 hours off. They looked after the watch room themselves, but this meant that when they were called out to an incident, the watch room was left unattended. Not until after they became the National Fire Service (NFS) in 1941, did women take over the roles of watch room attendant, cooks and secretaries.

Initially fire engines were bright red; this made them stand out rather too well, so they were painted a dull grey and even the brass fittings were painted. First they used a Bedford, an old Dennis pump, followed by a Pyrene Pulsometor, which the men were supposed to be able to slide off the trailer and carry to the incident, but it was difficult to manoeuvre and extremely heavy and awkward. I was told that it often got stuck and the men left where it was until the incident had been dealt with and they could return to retrieve it. Rubber-lined hose (fifty feet in length) was always carried; this hose allowed the water through quickly and the men found it easier to handle and carry. They also had a 75 foot canvas hose made of a very course material with a much narrower pipe, which restricted the water and was harder to control.

Water was their main weapon against all fires, and was taken from anywhere, including streams, rivers paddling pools, swimming pools and garden ponds, and even bomb craters. On many occasions, a small quantity of foam was carried, though not often used. Also in regular use was an old ford lorry, known as the 'Dam Lorry', fitted with a canvas tank that held about 1,000 gallons of water when full. This had to be driven with great care, as a sudden halt would cause the contents to slosh over the front of the vehicle. I was told of one occasion on the Carfax when the loaded dam lorry had to break sharply. A cyclist nearly came off a bicycle in front of them, the lorry stopped in good time, but the water didn’t! Canvas Dams (or surface tanks) were constructed and filled ready for use at many sights around Horsham: one was on the Carfax; another down the Bishopric; and one by the Iron Bridge. Each of these held about 10,000 gallons of water, and they were checked and filled regularly so that they were always ready for use in an emergency.

Pumps were later installed in the village sub-stations, including Crawley (then still a village), Cowfold, Broadbridge Heath, Mannings Heath and Roffey. These also had to be serviced weekly by men from the Horsham Station.

For the first few months the men slept on the station floor between the fire engines and sometimes in the hayloft on makeshift beds and mattresses, until they collected enough wooden grocery boxes to build a more comfortable hut in the park. There was an allotment where the men demonstrated how much food could be cultivated on a small piece of land and to add to families’ food rations. Apart from their ordinary duties, Horsham firemen assisted the local community. They organised a number of social functions and lent a hand in running fetes for many worthy causes. Each Christmas the children of the firemen were given a party at the station. All the toys were made by the men in the little spare time available to them. In the summer months they gave displays in the park to entertain the public. A savings group was organized at the station and about 30/- (£1.50p) was the average monthly collection for the Red Cross Penny-a-week Fund.

Co-operation between the NFS and the other Civil Defence Services was extremely good and combined exercises were frequently held. The firemen instructed the Home Guard, troops stationed locally and the civil defence in the best way to deal with fires. For all this work they received £3.00 a week and no pay for overtime. Once they had arrived at the incident, they stayed until all was made safe, however long it took.

Fighting Fires at Victory Road School, Portsmouth and Chichester

The Horsham Fire Brigade was not limited to the town, but sent to most of the surrounding villages, towns and even cities. They were also on standby in London, Dover, Folkestone, Tunbridge Wells, East Grinstead, Portsmouth, Southampton, Chichester and places in between. The early days of the war were quiet, but in Horsham on 12 January 1940 there was a tremendous fire at Victory Road School (caused by a faulty central heating system). The school was completely destroyed by the blaze and the heat was so intense that it melted the glass in the windows and welded together coins left in the classrooms. For all the heat generated, it was still a freezing night: wet uniforms froze and tin helmets were covered with ice. The firemen worked for six hours to control the blaze, greatly hindered by the lack of water pressure, and they were later criticized for the time they had taken to overcome the fire.

In August there was a heavy enemy bombing raid on Portsmouth. Sixty-four high explosive bombs and three oil bombs were also dropped on Chichester, where the central administration of the Police, ARP and emergency war-time services were based. One hundred and seventeen people were killed and 99 seriously wounded. Horsham firemen were sent to help and during the night the men had a great deal of bomb damage to deal with; they found they had to climb over rubble to put out fires and rescue the injured. The following morning they returned to the scene to help make it safe. My father remembers that he climbed to the top of the pile of rubble, which he had been standing on the night before, and found the remains of a male body that he had unknowingly stood on. The thought of this horrified him and affected him for many years.

Horsham Brigade worked on this site for a week, day and night, and all this time they had to supply their own food and drink. No provision was made for the welfare of fire crews in the early days. A catering van was supplied by the generosity of the people of Canada the following year.


In September 1940 the German Air Force and England’s fire brigades began a battle every bit as fearsome as those being fought on the front line; this was one of the busiest times for Horsham’s crew. They raced with huge numbers of other fire engines to London and became part of the 25,000 firemen from all over south-east England who fought the fires of the London Blitz. From 7 September the Luftwaffe raided London day and night, at first the attack was centred on the docks, this is where the Horsham men were sent. Most of the firemen in England joined the AFS a short time before the war, some had not been in service long enough to have attended a serious fire. The beginning of the blitz was a terrifying sight to these people. The heat, smoke and noise made it difficult to control a natural fear of fire and the enormity of the task were daunting. Everywhere they looked great sheets of roaring flame leapt about them, making it so bright that there was no difficulty in finding their way. Walls came crashing down around them, and enemy planes flew over their heads. When they arrived a terrible black smoke hung over the city, all that could be seen was the cross on top of St Paul’s Cathedral shining above it. A truly awesome sight. Bombing did not subside until 5 October, after which most raids took place at night. The attack ended at last on 8 December giving both fire service and the people of London a welcome chance to recover.

But the war came closer to the Horsham firemen's home ground when a bomb landed on the house of the district nurse in Colgate, a village close to Horsham, she was rescued and taken to the first aid post at the village hall, but two other bombs followed: one hit the Post Office, the second fell on the Village Hall, killing the nurse, who had just been taken there for safety, and wounding a first aid worker, who later died. Another bomb exploded close to the church gate, it killed three members of the Auxiliary Fire Service. Three more bombs fell on the village that night, but did not explode, although one of them did go off some time later.

Between times Horsham’s firemen still dealt with house and chimney fires, farm building and haystack fires and the many accidents caused by the blackout. Enemy planes crashed quite regularly around the area; the fires they caused had to be extinguished quickly before they became a beacon to attract other enemy bombers. Incendiary fires burnt fiercely in St Leonard’s Forest where another fire fighter lost his life.

Still more was yet to come: on the evening of 29 November another enemy attack was made on Horsham, and a two-year-old girl was rescued from a house in Orchard Road, where seven people were killed. One of the dead, a young evacuee, had been sent to the town for safety, from London. It was a Friday; the bomb went down the middle of the road, taking out the front of the houses. The Fire Brigade were hindered by the broken water main and filled buckets from one of the bomb craters in the road to douse the fire. There were 23 casualties.

One month later to the day, 100,000 firebombs were dropped on London by the Luftwaffe. Firemen each worked in 15-hour shifts, rescuing the injured and extinguishing the fires. They were soaked to the skin within minutes of arriving, the wet cloths getting heavier and colder as the night went on, adding to the misery and mayhem that surrounded them. Fires raged in the open, at petrol stations, timber yards, warehouses, paint and chemical works and in the homes of Londoners. Bombs fell constantly, making new fires and taking lives. Flames lit the way for the enemy bombers. Splinters from shells flew through the streets, causing more injuries and destruction. Two of Horsham’s exhausted firemen stopped by a tea wagon and shared their sandwiches with a pair from another brigade. When they parted company to return to their posts, a bomb burst overhead killing both of their newfound friends. Without injury, Horsham’s two startled firemen returned to the task of fighting fires.


The following year on 10-11 May the Luftwaffe struck again, dropping hundreds more Bombs on London's East End. Again, Horsham sent its firemen to the rescue. Fires were burning fiercely all around them. Bombs were still falling and exploding. Buildings crumbled and fell burning to the ground shooting sparks and flames high into the night sky. Chemicals in warehouses added to the danger as they exploded from the heat or added their poisons to the air. The vast amount of water used to quench fires flowed into the bomb craters hiding them from view and creating yet another hazard. Young boys rode motorcycles through burning streets, over miles of hose, craters, water and debris with messages from their fire crews and control centres. Woman telephonists worked on, ignoring the danger around them, so that the emergency services could keep in contact with each other. The Women’s Auxiliary Fire Service drove petrol-laden tankers through hot sparks and flaming, crater-ridden streets to keep the fire engines mobile, or they drove canteen wagons to the worst-hit areas to feed exhausted men and offer support, encouragement and that important cup of tea.

A Place in History

Men and women volunteered for the Horsham AFS from all walks of life just before and during the war. Few of them realized what they would have to face; some of them gave their lives; others returned to civilian life hoping for a quieter more peaceful future. But these men and women never forgot the sights, sounds or fear of the war years. All of them deserve recognition and a permanent place in history.


For further information and photographs please go to: links

Written by Margaret Baldwin

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Raid Orchard Road Horsham

Posted on: 12 November 2003 by blackcat

Hello Maggs!
My grandfather owned 13, Orchard Rd. His name was MrH.Farr and on the night of the raid he was playing cards at the Welsh's at the bottom of the Road.The house was damaged. To what extent I am unsure, but it was repaired soon after. Grandfather had the house'GROVE COTTAGE' re-numbered 11A as he thought 13 unlucky what with the raid and having lost two grandchildren there in Nov.'39 with diptheria.
I remember as a very small child all the rubble in the road. I recall some of the names of the people in the road. There was a Mr. Bullard who was killed. Mr & Mrs Dinnage were dug out. Other residents in the road were:
Herbert & Sarah Farr. No 13
Miss Stroke (next door)
MrWelch & daughter Connie
Emmy Hayes
Mr & Mrs Coltrop & Ron (Next door. Their house beyond repair.)

Please give me any further details you have about this incident. You are the first source from which I have been able to determine the precise date of the raid. Many thanks!


Message 2 - Raid Orchard Road Horsham

Posted on: 19 November 2003 by Maggs

Thankyou for the information about the people of Orchard Road.It was very interesting to read as it is very difficult to find information on events back then.
I am afraid that I have no other details, although you may find some interesting bits about air raids in Horsham on my main web site at links


Message 3 - Raid Orchard Road Horsham

Posted on: 01 December 2004 by swaters1

I am interested to learn more about the events of 29th November 1940, and in particular the bombing of Orchard Road, Horsham, Sussex.
My father Anthony (Tony) Waters lived with his brother (Ray) and parents (Jim + Inez)in Orchard Road, Horsham during WW2.
When the raid struck on the evening of 29th November Ray was killed in his bed when the house collapsed, as one bomb hit the ajoining property. Ray was just 14 years old. My grandmother, managed to rescue my father (Tony 9 - years old) from the wreckage, and they took shelter in a bomb crater in the middle of the road, fearing another attack. My grandfather (Jim)was on duty as a telephonist at the time and was unable to leave his post, although he knew from his telephonist work that Orchard Road had been bombed.
The bomb crater in which my father and grandmother took refuge filled with water due to a ruptured water main, and it was from this that the fire brigade took water to douse the fires.
Today, Jim, Inez, Ray and my father Tony are together again buried in Hills Cemmetary. My father could never bring himself to talk about the events surrounding this period, and sadly i think it scared much of his life. My mother (Tony's wife) still lives in Horsham today (Dec 2004)
I would be interested to learn more of the circumstances of this, the most traumatic event my family has ever known, but not shared.
Simon Waters

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