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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Fire Duty

Civilian firefighters practise with a hose
Civilian firefighters practise with a hose©
Before World War Two there were hundreds of locally organised fire brigades in Britain, many of them ill equipped, and few with more than 20 full-time firemen. In 1937, the government passed legislation to enable the establishment of an Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) of volunteers to support the regular fire brigades in the event of war. By September 1939 the AFS had over 200,000 members, some of whom were equipped with pumps pulled by cars, or London taxis painted grey, as equipment was in such short supply.

The Blitz on London and other large cities greatly enhanced the reputation of fire-fighters - Winston Churchill dubbed them the 'heroes with grimy faces'. Firemen dealt with hundreds of fires raging out of control as bombs continued to fall and buildings collapsed around them. The blazing fires provided a marker for more German raids, creating yet more destruction. In the first three weeks of the Blitz the London firefighters fought 10,000 fires.

Regular paid fire-fighters worked 48 hours on, 24 hours off, although during the Blitz, they sometimes worked for 40 hours or more. They were joined, mainly at night, by part-time members of the AFS. For many of these volunteers, it was their first experience of fire-fighting.

During the Blitz, the division of responsibility among different fire brigades caused chaos when one fire brigade called for help from others. As a result, in May 1941 the Home Secretary announced that the regional fire brigades and the AFS would be merged, and their name changed to the National Fire Service. This change was effected in August 1941. Some of the most senior jobs went to men from the Auxiliary Fire Service. The creation of the new service ensured that there could be standardisation of organisation, equipment and drills throughout the different fire brigades.

Women were recruited into the fire service from 1938 onwards. In March 1943 there were 32,200 women serving full-time, and 54,600 part-time, with the National Fire Service. While women did not tackle major fires, they provided important back-up to their male colleagues. They staffed communication centres, crewed mobile canteen vans and acted as drivers and dispatch riders. During bombing raids the latter were often the only means of communication between fire crews and their control rooms.

From December 1940, after the 'Second Great Fire of London' showed the disastrous consequences of leaving small commercial and industrial premises unattended at night, compulsory fire-watching patrols were introduced. Men between 16 and 60 were required to put in 48 hours each month. In September 1942, women were also obliged to take their turn.

During the war, more than 900 firemen and women lost their lives.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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