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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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ARP Heavy Rescue Squad

by David Feebery

Contributed by 
David Feebery
People in story: 
Bert Feebery
Location of story: 
Beckenham, Kent
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
29 October 2004

In 1939 my dad, Bert Feebery, was a carpenter working for Beckenham council, a leafy suburb on the outskirts of south east London. At this time Local Authorities had to make plans to deal with the aftermath of enemy air raids, and as a council employee and tradesman dad was allocated to one of the council's ARP heavy rescue squads. These squads also included a bricklayer, a plumber, an electrician and a couple of general labourers, all council employees. Each man was issued with overalls and a steel helmet, plus a respirator and a protective oilskin cape to wear in case of a gas attack. They completed a first aid course, and drove around the borough in a small council van towing a trailer with all their tools, ropes, lamps and other equipment.

On the days when he was on ARP duty, dad would come home at the usual time from a days' work to have his tea and a sit down, then change into his overalls and cycle back to the council depot on standby. It was not unusual after a busy night at the height of the blitz in 1940-41 for him to get home in the early hours, snatch some sleep, then get up and go back to work again.

After the air raid 'all clear' had sounded, the heavy rescue squad went to work at bombed houses where people were thought to be trapped inside. Their job was to make the ruins as safe as possible before the search for survivors began in earnest. They started by turning off the water and electricity supplies while the Gas Board dealt with gas leaks, then dad got busy shoring up damaged walls and floors with timber to prevent further collapses. He once told me that a high explosive bomb would penetrate the roof and maybe the upper floors of a house before exploding, blowing the walls out sideways and allowing the floors to collapse one on top of the other like playing cards. Most survivors were expected to be either in the cellar or basement if there was one, or sheltering under the stairs which were usually the strongest internal construction in an ordinary house. Once the place was as safe as they could make it, the heavy rescue squad would do any labouring tasks that were needed, shifting rubble and setting up more shoring as the search moved deeper into the ruins. The work was done by the light of electric torches, hurricane lamps and the van's headlights.

It was also done as carefully and quietly as possible because the ruins were very unstable, and the best chance of finding survivors was to listen for them calling out. Sometimes the rescuers were too late and it became a matter of digging out bodies.

Early in 1941 dad volunteered for the Army and served in north Africa and Italy as a motorcycle despatch rider with the Royal Signals. I didn't come along until 1947, after his 'de-mob', and when I was growing up he was always much more chatty about his time overseas than when he was in the ARP. One of the few things I clearly remember dad telling me himself was how he hated the plaster dust. Pulverised from walls and ceilings by the bomb explosion, the dust would swirl around them as they worked, making it hard to breath and to see and coating everything with fine powder. I only found out most of his ARP story from my mum after dad died in 1985. She said that recovering dead victims from bombed houses, especially the children, always moved dad deeply, but he never really talked about his experiences in any detail, even with her.

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This story has been placed in the following categories.

Air Raids and Other Bombing Category
Air Raid Precautions Category
Kent Category
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