Auxilliary Fire Service - Early Days
1st September 1939:
When I got home from work,
my mother told me it had been broadcast on the radio for all Civil
Defence and Forces personnel to report to their stations.
So I got my bike ready and set off on my way back to the City. It was
dark by then, and I was pedalling along
the road with my lights on front and back, but before long I was
stopped by a policeman.
"What d'you think you're doing? There's a
blackout - put those lights out!"
- so I switched
them off and carried on as best I could. Not long after that, another
policeman stopped me.
"What d'you think you're doing, riding
without a light? You trying to get yourself killed? - put
'em back on again!"
- and that's how
it went on all they way up to the City, one telling me to switch them
and the next one telling me to
switch them on.
Eventually I got to Cannon Street Fire Station
and reported; they sent me over to the London
Salvage Corps station in Watling Street, not very far away. I was
told to help take a trailer pump over to
the Mansion House with a Fire Crew - I'd be their messenger, because
at the time they didn't have any telephones in there.
had the use of two rooms - looking at
the front of the Mansion House with the steps going up each side,
our windows were the little ones either
side of the door in the middle. We had use of a toilet which
wasn't far away, where we were able to get a wash, and a little tiny
kitchen where we could make ourselves cups of tea.
Mansion House, London
generally slept on the floor in one room where there was a thick
carpet. The other room was what they called the Boot Room, lined with
shelves which were full of highly polished
coachmen’s boots. They'd put a big bed in there, so about three of
us at a time (depending on the rota) could sleep there without boots
or jackets, but that was as far as we
could get undressed for a while.
By the time Sunday morning came, we'd acquired
a radio, lent to us by the Mansion House people - and that's how we
heard about the war breaking out. The next thing we knew we heard the
air raid sirens going off.
As soon as the sirens sounded, the drill was to
put on our gas masks and tin hats, which we duly did, then sat there
for ages and ages. After an hour or maybe even two, the Sub-Officer
who was in charge said the equivalent of "Blow this for a game
of soldiers" and called the Civil Defence people to ask them
what was going on.
They answered "Why, what are you talking
"We've been sitting here for ages and
"Well, the all clear was sounded about 5
minutes after the warning."
"No it wasn't!"
They checked up and found they'd forgotten to
sound it in the City of London. So that was our
first little adventure.
The photograph above was taken early in 1940 outside the old London Salvage Corps Station in Watling Street. The people pictured are a mixture of Salvage Corps, LFB and AFS. I am second from the left.
Later that day a fellow, who seemed to us at
the time to be ancient, came in wearing an ill-fitting
fireman's uniform, and introduced himself as our driver. When we said
we haven't got anything to drive he
"Well you have now, because my taxi's
outside - they've recruited me, put a towing bar on the back of my
taxi and I'm the driver that pulls the trailer pump" - and
that's how we got a driver. It turns out
he was about 70 at the time so they were scraping the bottom of the
For the next few weeks we did drills and
practicing, dummy messages, backwards and forwards,
generally getting an idea how the trailer pump worked etc. It was
what they called at the time the Phoney War, so they decided it was
daft having all these sub-stations and
we got sent back into Watling Street. Again, it was the same old
thing, except in a different place, and
obviously we had more facilities there.
Around December the firm I was working for
approached the Fire Brigade and asked if I could go back to work for
them again, because they'd lost so many of their staff to the forces.
It was agreed, because of my age really, that I should go back and
work there during the day on the strict
condition that, first of all, I attended and spent the night at
Watling Street two or three times a
week, as directed, and every other weekend. And the other
condition of course was that if there were any emergencies that I
would stay there until sent back to the office.
So that's how we went on -
nothing much happened, except for
the usual table tennis tournaments, sing
songs round the piano and that.
The end of the Phoney War
It was August 1940 when the Germans first
raided, and they concentrated more on the East End. I managed to find
a telephone and called up to ask if I should come in, and they said
they were all right. Later the raids started on the City and I
immediately had to go straight back there.
was September, and during the next seven days, there were all sorts
of things happening - there were bombs all over the place and most
of Watling Street was on fire. I was trotting up and down with
messages, taking over from various people holding
the nozzles while they went and did a
crafty wee somewhere (they should've done it on the fire of course!).
It was getting a bit desperate because the fire was out of control,
so they called the Army in who were
going to make a fire break by blowing up some of the buildings.
London firemen fighting a blaze during the Blitz
One of the places they were going to blow up
was the London Salvage Corps station so we
had to evacuate. That was quite fun, because we had to get as much
stuff out as we could and move it round
to a small building where they'd done a bit of training before the
war. There was a raid going on at the time, and I was staggering
backwards and forwards carrying all
sorts of things like blankets, books, spare hoses. I was going along
with one big load, when a bomb dropped
nearby and the window of a shop shattered.
Although I could feel something in my gumboot,
I just staggered on. When I got to the other
building I found there was a long slither of glass which had gone
straight down the side of my boot - it had gone through the sole, but
when it was carefully extracted, it was discovered
that it hadn't even made a hole in my sock - so I was dead lucky
I was there for about seven days and nights,
with all sorts of things happening. I saw a policemen
get blown up trying to put out a bomb, which he thought was an
incendiary but which turned out to be an
explosive one. Another time, in nearby Bucklesbury, there was a
fellow working as the pump operator when a bomb fell on the building
the pump was next to. I saw him go straight up in the air and across
the road, and his head was bashed in against the opposite brick wall
- which wasn't very pretty.
London Docks with Tower Bridge, 7th September 1940
about seven days it did quieten down a bit, so they sent me home. I
stopped off at the
office to let them know I was still in one piece more or less, then
found my way back home and went straight down into the air raid
shelter. That was on the Friday night, and I didn't
wake up again until Sunday.
it started again and I left the office to go back up to the Fire
Station, but after a few days I went back home. It was quiet in the
morning but I found that the building where the office was had been
hit during the night during a small raid. Fortunately I still had
my uniform on so was able to get in, and we spent most of the day
passing books out from
the office so that we could carry on business.
A Very Close Shave
September 1940, and some idiot in the Fire Brigade Headquarters had
got a bee in his bonnet about saboteurs, so decreed there should be
someone on duty outside the station
all day, every day. On that particular night it was my turn from 10
o'clock to midnight.
I duly stood outside but, having come from the fug of the basement
where we were living at the time, I soon felt I had to "go
nipped back inside to the toilet, which was behind the
games/recreation room and behind the appliance section, stopping on
the way to take off my tin hat and gas mask, leaving them on the
snooker table where a fellow called Hawkins was idly bouncing one of
the snooker balls off the cushions.
I did what I had to do, and I was just picking up my hat and gas mask
when we heard a short whistle.
I knew I was waking up underneath the snooker table some twenty
minutes after it had
happened, where Hawkins and I had automatically dived. I discovered
that the snooker
table had moved about six or eight feet up the room, and leaning
against it was the hose
rack, which stood around 10 feet tall and 15 feet wide, in which all
the hoses were stored
when not in use. It had come through the wired glass partition which
separated the two
of the lads had all come upstairs to find out what was going on and
were busy trying
to sort things out. They were all rather surprised to find me still
there, because I discovered that the small crater where the bomb had
dropped - and I should explain it was
small crater because the bomb was a 'light case', which is designed to
throw its force
outwards rather than downwards - had landed more or less in the same
spot as I had been standing a few minutes earlier.
wasn’t much left of the fire engines, they were wrecks, and of
course it took quite a while
to get everything sorted out. They told me to go down and get some
sleep, which I did
quite easily, and the next morning I just got up and went into work,
leaving them to carry on with the clearing up. I never thought any
more about it until the beginning of December, when my face and neck,
my hands and wrists, were all "running", which I was told
was all the stuff that had gone in coming out again.
gave me some carbolic oil to put on it, and told me to stay indoors
which I did for
about four weeks, because I know I missed Christmas that year, and
then I thought that was that. There were two things I didn't know
all, about eight years later [c. 1948] I started getting an ear ache
in my left ear which
only lasted about five or ten minutes at a time. The doctor had no
idea what caused it. Then one night in 1950 I found this thing
sticking out of my cheek which I managed to get out; it was a tiny
spring, about half-inch long. My brother Dennis identified it as part
of filament out of the big bulbs they had as headlamps at that time.
When I showed it to the doctor, he said that must have been causing
my earache because it had been going round and round my system, and
when it gets to where the veins are not very big, it gets stuck
and causes the ear ache. As soon as it started moving again, that was
it. After that I
didn't have any more earache!
the other thing which only came to light many, many years later, was
that the explosion
had jumbled up all the bones in my right ear, and they gradually (in
the words of Edgar
Allan Poe) ossified, in other words all got stuck together, and
why I can't hear in
Some Fiery Times
when there was a raid and I wasn’t on duty, I used to go out with
some of the
local lads and we'd do a spot of unofficial fire watching. On one
occasion, we knew some incendiary bombs had landed in a row of shops
in Katherine Road, which were shops with two storeys above, and we
were certain there was one in the shop that was empty.
We managed to get in and I went up to the top floor and discovered on
the landing there
was an incendiary just starting to erupt.
no fire buckets or anything, so I took off my tin hat and put it over
the top and stood on it. That deprived it of the air necessary to
burn, and after about 5 or so minutes it went
out. Of course it didn’t do my steel helmet much good and I got a
real rollicking when
I took it back to the station and asked for a new one! The funny part
about that was that
some 3 months later I read in the paper that an Air Raid Warden had
been given the George Medal; and yes you've guessed it, it was for
putting his steel helmet over an incendiary.
occasion, they’d managed to set fire to the church at the end of
the road we were living in, and I was helping the local AFS who'd
brought up a trailer pump and were trying
to keep it under control. Actually there was a hall behind the church
where they used to hold little functions; I went to a dance there
from time to time.
standing by one
of the windows directing the water onto the fire inside, when I
suddenly heard this noise: it was all the tiles on the roof, which
were red hot, sliding off. So I crunched myself up
against the wall, fortunately the roof was far enough out and the
tiles all crashed down on
the ground. Just as well I wasn’t standing out any further or I
would've got slightly dented with red hot tiles!
Incidents on Lombard Street
It was the
practice at the time that, when the all clear sounded, those left in
the station had
to go out and patrol a given area to see if there were any unreported
fires. I was friendly
with another young man at our station who had a motorbike, and when
we were both
on duty together we got adjoining "rounds" and I used to
ride pillion as observer while
he rode us round both areas.
occasion at about 3 a.m. we were driving down Lombard Street when I
saw a London
bus going across the end of the road - it had full headlights on, and
all the inside lights
as well. I didn’t say anything as I thought I must have been
dreaming, but my mate called out over his shoulder.
you see what I saw?"
was that?" I asked.
"A bloody bus with all it's lights on!"
"Me too!" I replied.
We drove quickly to the crossroads and looked
in the direction where the bus should be but
there was nothing in sight. Perhaps we should have called in the
At another time, I was by myself going down
Lombard Street on foot when I fell down a hole.
I put my hand out to help myself up and felt something cold and round
and metal. I realised I had found a
U.X.B. [unexploded bomb]. I got out of that hole middling smartish
and ran up a side lane to Cornhill, where I knew there was an A.R.P.
"Did you know there is a U.X.B. in Lombard
Street?" I asked.
"No, how do you know?"
"Because I've just fallen in the hole with
"Blimey, you'd better show us where!"
So I led them back to the hole where they shone
a torch down to check. Within a couple of days it had been removed
and the hole filled in.
Herbert Mason's iconic picture of St Paul's Cathedral, 29th December 1940
For more of Mason's photos, and an interesting article about the Blitz, please follow this link:
Before I got called up to the RAF, my brother
Dennis and I had been up to a pub called the Wakefield for a drink;
the route home took us over a bridge which crossed the railway line.
There was a little road off to the side which led down to a place
called the Salisbury Hall, which was quite a large sized hall where they used to hold dances and Scout
meetings and so on. It had been pressed
into service as a furniture store, for people who'd
been bombed out.
There was an air raid on at the time, but all
the lights were shining out over the railway line. So we went down to
investigate, but found the place was all locked up. Fortunately there
was a window open a little bit, and I managed to get through it and
inside. Climbing inside over
the furniture was no problem because the lights were on, but once I'd
switched the lights out it became a bit
more difficult, and I had to rely on Dennis shouting to tell me where
he was, then climb up the furniture by feel so I could get back out
of the window.
Early 1941, my father died, which wasn’t all
that brilliant, he was only 56, but he had lung trouble caused by
working for donkeys years in the gas works. So that was that.
History and photos of London Salvage Corps at: http://londonsalvagecorpsassociation.com/