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MEMOIRS 1939 to 1945 - Stacey Simkins

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 off
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.

We 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,_London

We 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 about?"

"We've been sitting here for ages and nothing's happened!"

"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 replied:

"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 barrel!

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.

This 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 there.

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

After 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.

Later on 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

30th 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 somewhere".

So I 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.

Next thing 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 rooms.

The rest 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 a 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.

There 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.

The doctor 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 though.

First of 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!

Of course 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 thats why I can't hear in that ear.

Some Fiery Times

Occasionally 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.

There were 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.

On another 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.

I was 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.

On one 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.

"Did you see what I saw?"

"What 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 GhostBUSters!

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. wardens' post.

"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 it!"

"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: 

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