When the German Luftwaffe bombed Britain’s major cities from the air with high explosives and incendiary bombs for 8 months during the Blitz of the Second World War (September 1940 to May 1941), the country’s fire service – including hundreds of small provincial brigades and the volunteer Auxiliary Fire Service – was in danger of being overwhelmed.
Recognising this fatal weakness against enemy attack, the coalition government led by Winston Churchill, inaugurated a new National Fire Service on 18 August 1941 that consolidated and unified the service across Britain.
Fire fighting in the 19th and 20th Centuries
In the 19th century, firefighting was heavily dependent on insurance companies who maintained fire brigades in many medium and larger towns. Some smaller towns and villages had no fire cover at all.
As the 19th century progressed, the number of volunteer fire brigades increased. These relied on donations and public subscriptions. In larger towns and cities, the local authorities began to financially support brigades. Some operated a joint police and fire service, with police-firemen under the control of the Chief Constable. Rural fire stations relied on volunteer or part-time firefighters.
1938: the Volunteer Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS)
As the 1930s progressed, the threat of another world war hung over Britain. It was quickly recognised that such a conflict would involve sustained enemy air attacks that would put the existing fire services under tremendous pressure.
In January 1938, the government passed the Fire Brigades Act which authorised the formation of the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS), made up of volunteers. These firefighters would be trained by, and work alongside, professional fire fighters. Local authorities were given responsibility for providing an effective fire service. Rural districts pooled resources for greater efficiency.
28,000 volunteers were needed and a recruitment drive was launched. As many men were increasingly directed towards the armed forces, AFS volunteers included those too young or too old to be called up, as well as those otherwise exempt from military service. For the first time women were encouraged to join. They were not officially permitted to fight fires, working instead in non-operational roles.
By the start of the Second World War in September 1939, the AFS had over 200,000 members.
1941: The founding of the National Fire Service
The Blitz of the Second World War changed everything again. During an intensive 8 months, London suffered 57 consecutive nights of high explosive and incendiary bombing by the Luftwaffe. Major cities across Britain, including Manchester, Coventry, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Southampton, Swansea and Glasgow were also heavily attacked.
London by now had a well-organised fire service and was broadly successful in tackling the infernos caused by the Blitz. But the picture in provincial cities with their numerous small brigades was far more chaotic – inexperienced fire fighters were sometimes sent to major incidents; there were confused chains of command, conflicting orders and incompatible equipment.
An urgent and radical overhaul of fire provision resulted in the Fire Service (Emergency Provisions) Act which unified the 1,888 fire authorities in England, Wales and Scotland and established a National Fire Service under government control, effective from 18 August 1941.
The NFS was an amalgamation of all the local authority fire brigades countrywide, plus the AFS, initially into 43 ‘Fire Force’ areas, usually associated with the various counties and larger cities.
During the longer lulls between enemy attacks, many firemen and firewomen were engaged in small scale industrial production, such as making wireless sets and mine detectors. They also were involved in building work, including the repair and construction of fire stations, such as the one above. In addition, they made toys and grew vegetables – and sometimes reared animals – on bomb sites near fire stations to help relieve food shortages.
NFS firefighters not only fought fires in industrial and commercial premises and homes, but also dealt with emergencies such as crashed military aircraft and munitions explosions, as well as undertaking search and rescue and salvage in bomb-damaged areas in liaison with the Civil Defence Service.
Women in the National Fire Service
The NFS was open to both men and women. At its peak Spring 1943, it had 345,000 full and part-time personnel, including 71,000 women and over 19,000 Youth Messengers – boys aged 16 to 18.
Women were still not allowed to fight fires. However, they were given basic training to deal with emergency situations and were often very close to the action during and after air raids.
Women’s roles included fire watchers, drivers, communication network operators, hose repairers, cooks, as well as dispatch riders who carried messages between fire control and fire stations – a dangerous job, often riding in the black-out, along roads with no signage, sometimes during bombing raids.
National Fire Service fire boats
Among the NFS’s around 330 marine craft nationwide were 242 river, estuary and sea-going Fire Boats. Most were converted former naval and civilian vessels. There were also fire-fighting barges, narrow boats and landing craft operating at coastal and inland ports.
Air raids in London often occurred when the River Thames was at low tide. To overcome shortages of water, boreholes were sunk in the river bed connected by pipes to bridges above from where water was pumped through pipelines to on-shore tanks and other facilities known as Emergency Water Supplies (EWS).
Emergency Water Supplies were installed on sites nationwide in potential enemy target areas. Various methods were used as above, including utilising the basements of demolished bombed buildings for water storage.
Locations were clearly identified, either with the letters EWS – sometimes on a cross which also often indicated the tank capacity – or alternatively with the words NFS Water.
The National Fire Service during the war
By the time the NFS was fully up and running, the threat of enemy air raids on Britain receded. Germany had turned its attention eastwards, invading the Soviet Union in June 1941.
However, between late April and late June 1942, the Luftwaffe attacked some of Britain’s most historic cities, including Canterbury, Bath, Exeter, Norwich and York. The raids were the first major test of the NFS. Despite extensive damage to the cities’ centres, the service managed to contain the spread of fires, something the AFS would have been too disorganised to cope with.
Legacy of the National Fire Service
After the end of the Second World War, the Fire Services Act of 1947 reorganised the fire service, disbanding the NFS and returning control to local authorities.
The NFS had laid the foundation for the modern fire service. It had standardised firefighting – organisation, rank, structure, terminology, equipment, training – and, for the first time, ensured that every part of Britain, including rural areas, had full and effective fire protection.
Memorials to the NFS
Pictured is the national memorial to fire personnel killed during the Second World War. There are also local memorials across the country. This one includes the inscription: ‘Blitz/The Heroes with Grimy Faces/Winston Churchill/In honour and memory of those firefighters who gave their lives in defence of the nation 1939-1945.’ The memorial was re-dedicated in September 2003, with the addition of 1,192 names, to commemorate all firefighters who have lost their lives since the war.
Written by Nicky Hughes
- London Fire Brigade
- Thanks to William Hickin, author of ‘Fire Force, a Short Organisational History and Directory of the National Fire Service 1941 to 1948.’ WFH Publications. For enquiries and purchase, contact Roy Goodey at WFH Publications: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Fireground Museum
- Fire Heritage
- England’s Historic Cities under Attack: The Baedeker Raids, 1942