A brief introduction to Historic photography Second World War

Bravery Through Time: The Evolution of Modern Britain’s Fire Service

A new National Fire Service was inaugurated on 18 August 1941, which consolidated and unified the service across Britain.

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-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.

Silver badge with 'NFS' in red in the centre
National Fire Service badge. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

Recognising this fatal weakness against enemy attack, the coalition government led by Winston Churchill, inaugurated a new National Fire Service on 18 August 1941 which consolidated and unified the service across Britain.

Fire fighting in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Illustration of firefighters spraying water on a burning building at the end of Blackfriars Bridge.
Firefighters using a hand pump to tackle a fire at the southern end of Blackfriars Bridge. ‘Fire in London’ – 1808 hand-coloured etching by Thomas Rowlandson. Image in the Public Domain.

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. 

Firefighters with a steam pump infront of St Helen's Town Hall
Firefighters with a steam pump in front of St Helen’s Town Hall, Merseyside, where the clock tower had caught fire in 1913. The wooden shaft to the right is where the horses that pulled the pump to the scene would have been harnessed. Image in the Public Domain.

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)

Five men in uniform stand by their firefighting vehicle.
Pictured in September 1939, just before the start of the Second World War, five volunteer firemen of the AFS stand by their firefighting vehicle – a modified London taxi that pulled a trailer pump (left). Cars were also utilised, as equipment was in short supply. The building shown behind, Eltham Palace Road School, London, acted as their AFS fire station. Nationwide, factories and garages also served as fire stations. Image © IWM HU87102

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.

A woman in uniform stands by a recruitment van with London Fire Brigade on the side.
A member of the AFS with a London County Council Fire Brigade vehicle during a recruitment drive. Image © LONDON FIRE BRIGADE.

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.

AFS firemen taking a break on the site of a bombed house in London. Image © IWM D2654.

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

Smoke above the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.
Smoke rising from the London docks following an air raid at the start of the Blitz, 7 September 1940. Image in the Public Domain.

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.

A firefighter puts out a fire in the ruins of a building.
Damping down fires in the aftermath of the bombing of Birmingham by the Luftwaffe, 10 April 1941. Image in the Public Domain.

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.

A group of fire fighters spray water into a tall building on fire.
Fighting fires in Queen Victoria Street, London, during the Blitz. Image in the Public Domain.

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.

Firemen and firewomen pose on a pump.
Firemen and a firewoman pose on a 1937 Dennis pump escape appliance at what was probably a NFS recruitment event, Manchester. Image courtesy of the Fireground Museum, Greater Manchester.

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.

Firefighters stand outside a small brick fire station with three vans and two motobikes.
A newly-built NFS fire station, Bromley, Greater London, in 1942. Pictured centre is a Heavy Unit pump, the ‘workhorse’ of the NFS. Image © LONDON FIRE BRIGADE.

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

Six women in uniform ride motorbikes.
NFS women dispatch riders in training. Image © LONDON FIRE BRIGADE.

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 firefighters with a van with 'Control Unit 35 Fire Area' on the side.
NFS (London Region) Fire Force 35 Control Unit. Image © LONDON FIRE BRIGADE.

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

Fighting a warehouse blaze from a fire boat on the River Thames. The NFS’s fire fighting River Thames Formation (RTF) covered the 95 miles from Staines, Berkshire, up to the Medway and Queensborough, Kent. The river gave quick and vital access to riverside warehouses which often stored hazardous combustible materials such as oil, paint and chemicals. The many docks where they were located were constantly the target of enemy bombers. Image © LONDON FIRE BRIGADE

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.

Water supplies

Firefighters operate trailer pumps going into the river.
NFS firefighters operate 5 trailer pumps in a training exercise in 1942 to lift water from the River Thames. Image © LONDON FIRE BRIGADE.

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

Aerial photo of factory on fire.
Aerial photograph of Caley’s chocolate factory, Norwich, burning after a Luftwaffe ‘Baedeker’ raid 27 April 1942. These raids were named after the famous German travel guides, and were in retaliation for the RAF bombing of the historic German city of Lübeck on 28/29 March. Image © IWM FRE1088

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

Cover of a fund-raising booklet published by the National Fire Service Benevolent Fund in 1944. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

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.

NFS firefighting crew with an enclosed pump vehicle. Image © LONDON FIRE BRIGADE

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

The bronze National Firefighters’ Memorial, located just north of the Millennium Bridge, City of London. It bears 1,027 names of those who lost their lives and was sculpted by John W. Mills. The memorial, based on a photograph, depicts a relief crew damping down a fire in Cannon Street, London, 17 April 1941. Unveiled 4 May 1991. Image via Creative Commons.

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.

Bronze relief on the pedestal of the National Firefighters’ Memorial depicting a female incident recorder on the left and a dispatch rider on the right, along with names of the 23 NFS firewomen who lost their lives in the war. Image via Creative Commons.

Written by Nicky Hughes.

Further Reading

10 comments on “Bravery Through Time: The Evolution of Modern Britain’s Fire Service

  1. Me Grandad Arthur Lewis Augustus Joseph Merriman was in the Auxiliary Fire Service during WW2 serving at The Mitchell’s and Butler’s Brewery Fire Station in Cape Hill on the border between #Birmingham and #Smethwick. He had served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in the Great War where he was a sniper having shot rabbits in his home village of Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire before the Great War and became a crackshot. He had tried to sign up to serve in the British Army in World War Two but was told that he was too old at the age of 40. So he joined the Auxiliary Fire Service and we had his gas mask, stirrup pump and bucket which he used on Fire 🔥 Watch during World War Two. Smethwick Heritage Centre the Museum in the Park had the original Pre World War Two fire engine on display some years ago now but it was a magnificent engine Keith Bracey

  2. There is a group thar reenact the work of the NFS at 1940s shows in the Midlands. See nfs-afs.org.uk or facebook.com/nfs.and.afs for details.

  3. A good summary. My Dad joined the NFS and was based at Whitefriars in the City of London. He helped to save St Paul’s Cathedral. They had to fight fires while the blitz was taking place and in many ways it was as harrowing and dangerous as being on the front. Dad survived but saw many of his comrades lost. His trade was a master bookbinder but he enjoyed the camaraderie and stayed on in the fire service after the war until he retired.

  4. Tony Morris

    An interesting article but a shame about the inaccuracies. In the 19th century firefighting was heavily dependent on the insurance companies. They maintained fire brigades in many medium and larger towns and often donated fire engines to smaller towns. During the 19th century there was an increase in the number of volunteer fire brigades established and these relied on donations and public subscriptions. In larger towns and cities, the local authorities did begin to provide brigades or support the volunteer brigades financially, but in smaller towns they remained dependent on donations until 1938. Whilst some operated police fire brigades, many others did not, and they kept the services separate.

    The 1938 Fire Brigades Act had nothing to do with the formation of the Auxiliary Fire Service. It was the 1937 Air Raid Precautions Act that required urban and rural local authorities to provide an auxiliary fire service to deal with fires resulting from air raids. The 1938 Fire Brigades Act then required urban and rural local authorities to provide fire brigades to fight peacetime fires. Up until then there had been no national requirement for local authorities to provide a firefighting service. The Act also ended the practice of charging for attending fires. Although most authorities took the opportunity to make their Chief Fire Officer also responsible for the AFS, some did not and instead kept the AFS under the control of the person responsible for air aid precautions.

    • Hi Tony, we have amended the section on fire fighting in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the other information regarding the 1938 Fire Brigades Act came from the London Fire Brigade. Many thanks for your feedback.

      • Tony Morris

        Thank you for the amendment. Unfortunately London Fire Brigade’s information is incorrect, this website is accurate – https://www.ww2civildefence.co.uk/fire-guard-history.html. Not only have I researched this period in detail and examined both pieces of legislation, my Grandfather was a Chief Fire Officer covering three local authorities at the time. Each had to agree to his also becoming responsible for the emergency fire service (later called the auxiliary fire service) requirements of the 1937 Air Raid Precautions Act. I believe the confusion arises because the requirements of the 1937 ARP Act became effective during 1938, shortly before the 1938 Fire Brigades Act was passed. This may seem a minor point but I am sure you will agree that historical accuracy is very important.

  5. maggiemoo2015

    I read with interest and enjoyed looking back at this time before my life. The dispatch rider force was just lovely. My grandfather was dispatch rider in London during the war. He could get his bike into amazing places. The pictures are a joy to observe. Many thankks for sharing these women and men who kept the blitz from completely flattening our capital.

  6. Kristina Stinson

    My grandfather was in the fire service in a market town in Northamptonshire during the war. His crew were sent to Coventry during the blitz, where he very nearly died when buning buildings collapsed next to him. He said they and other outside crews wasted precious time because the hose fixtures in Coventry were different to Northamptonshire. Every county and major city had differing couplings. No one in the government had thought to ensure adaptors were issued generally on the offset of war: with tragic results. The crews had to join hoses together and find the river, by which time the fires had really taken hold. A small but never mentioned fact.

  7. Del Harris

    I am clearing my bookshelf of unwanted books and publications.Among them is a WW2 booklet published by the National Fire Service Benevolent fund in 1944.Before I dispose of it has any collectors value.If not it will finish up in my fire pit.

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