"Heroes with grimy faces" - Sir Winston Churchill

"Heroes with grimy faces" - Sir Winston Churchill

February 17, 2006

PERSONALITIES

UPDATED NOVEMBER 2008

HARRY ERRINGTON


Photo of Auxiliary Fireman Errington

The Times - Obituary - 2001

IN THE winter of 1940-41 there was some diversion of attacks by the Luftwaffe away from London to the industrial cities and ports, with the purpose of disrupting war production and the supply of produce from abroad. But a theory that the British public could be bombed or terrorised into surrender still persisted in some elements of the German high command. In consequence the capital seldom had more than two or three nights in succession without an air raid, most of which delivered a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs on Central London, the Docklands and the East End.

The fire services were not overwhelmed simply because the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) of volunteer firemen had been established before the war and significantly expanded when conflict came. Many of the voluntary firemen worked at their normal jobs by day — in banks, offices or shops — and reported to their stations for duty each evening. Harry Errington was just such a man: the master cutter for a Savile Row tailor by day and a fireman by night.

During a raid on London in early 1941, he and two other auxiliary firemen had taken temporary shelter in the basement of a building only for it to receive a direct hit. Errington was initially stunned but, on recovering his senses, he found the rooms above on fire and his two comrades trapped beneath the debris of the partly fallen ground floor. He had no tools beyond a fireman’s axe but set to work to dig out the two men with his bare hands.

The task appeared near hopeless and he was driven back by the heat of the fire above, before he was able to free either of them. Finding and soaking a blanket, he wrapped it round his head and shoulders and returned to heaving the debris aside while the building creaked and groaned above him as the fire took a fiercer hold. Freeing his comrades at last, he turned to the stone stairway which — though filled with smoke — led to the relative safety of the street. Neither man could stand, much less walk, so Errington dragged each of them to the foot of the stairway, then carried them in turn on his back up the stairway and clear of the burning building.

All three recovered, miraculously sustaining no serious burns or injury. The two trapped by the fallen debris would have been burnt or crushed to death but for Errington’s persistent and courageous determination to free them, despite the risk to his own life. One of the men saved was a solicitor who, as Sir John Terry, served as managing director of the National Film Finance Corporation 1958-78.

For his gallantry in saving the lives of his two comrades, Harry Errington was awarded the George Cross in August 1941. This decoration had been instituted by King George VI in 1940 specifically to recognise acts of conspicuous gallantry in circumstances of extreme danger by civilians, or by members of the Armed Services when not in the immediate presence of the enemy. The award ranks with the Victoria Cross, awarded for valour in battle, and is worn before all other decorations except the VC.

Errington continued to serve with the AFS until the end of the war, as the V1 flying bomb menace and the silent V2 rockets threatened London and southeast England well into 1945, and fire often following their impact and explosion.

Harry Errington was born in London in 1910. His Polish parents, Soloman and Bella Ehregott, coincidently lived in Poland Street, Westminster. They had arrived from Lublin in 1908 and anglicised the family name to Errington when Harry was born.

He was educated at the Westminster Free School and won a trade scholarship to train as an engraver. The nitric acid used in the engraving process affected his chest, or at least his mother believed that to be the case, so he went to train as cutter under his uncle who was an established “out-door tailor” with several contracts in Savile Row. He remained in the business until retirement.

He had a lifelong interest in basketball and coached the amateur team from Regent Street Polytechnic, which was prominent in the English amateur competition in the years shortly after the war, winning the national competition on at least one occasion. He became involved in managing the basketball competition in the Olympic Games held in London in 1948. In later years, he became vice-chairman of the United Kingdom Amateur Basketball Association and, later, a life vice-president, travelling as far afield with the team as Canada, Iceland, Russia and Poland.

Having once, as a young man, accidently invited two girls to be his guest at the same basketball final in London, he decided that romance was a chancy affair — and remained unmarried.

(Born Aug. 20,1910, Errington died Dec. 15, 2004 at age 94.)

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SIR FREDERICK DELVE

Independent - Obituary - 1995

Frederick Delve, for 14 years Chief Officer of the London Fire Brigade, was an outstanding figure in the world of fire. His 92 years spanned the part of a century remarkable for its increase in fire hazards and in developing the essential services for dealing with them.

"Freddy" Delve was the son of a Brighton master tailor. His parents' plans for his education were shattered in 1918 when an over-patriotic "flapper" on Brighton sea-front mistook the tall, blond teenager for an older man dodging military service, and pinned a white feather to his lapel. To his parents' distress, he joined the Royal Navy on his 16th birthday. The war ended two weeks later.

Resigned to Service life, Delve became a wireless telegraphist. His ship was sent to the Black Sea to evacuate the British Military Missions as the Red Army overran the ports there and for the first time he became aware of the importance of good communications.

In 1922 Delve left the Navy, and joined the Brighton Fire Brigade. By 1929 he had passed a series of technical examinations with distinction, been commended for two particularly courageous rescues and promoted at the age of 27 to Second Officer - the youngest in Britain. He moved to the prestigious Croydon Fire Brigade as Chief Officer in 1934 and under his leadership they became the first in the country to install radio communications between all appliances and HQ.

It was from Croydon that he led his brigade to the legendary Crystal Palace fire in 1936. There, he said, "for the first time I saw firemen turning their brass helmets back to front to protect their faces from the searing heat." It was there too that he developed the skill which was to become vitally important during the Blitz, of relaying hose over long distances and, if necessary, uphill from the water sources to the fires.

Delve was one of a small group of young, dedicated senior fire officers who had been pressing the Government to take seriously the threat of firebombing in any future war. It was not until after the air attack on civilians in Guernica during the Spanish Civil War that, in 1937, the Home Office set up a committee, on which Delve served, to advise on changes in the fire service in Britain which, at that time, comprised more than 1,660 different brigades, most with equipment incompatible with neighbouring forces. The ensuing Fire Brigade Act of 1938 established the Auxiliary Fire Service and, for the first time, admitted women to the brigades.

As war started he became Deputy Inspector-in-Chief of Fire Services and when the enemy began their saturation raids on Britain's cities he travelled to their aid with help, advice and, if necessary, support from neighbouring brigades or the armed services.

The heroism of the Blitz firefighters could not hide the deficiencies of their equipment and organisation and Delve was, again, among those who persuaded the Government to establish the National Fire Service in 1942. Soon afterwards he was appointed Chief Officer of No 5 Region - the whole London area including its 70 craft of the River Thames Formation which he delighted in equipping with radio-communication. It was to prove essential in their work protecting the fleet of support vessels which packed the Thames Estuary, laden with explosives and ammunition, awaiting D-Day.

When the RAF began their intensive campaign against enemy cities, Delve was among the fire chiefs who advised on how to achieve optimum results from fire bombing. Soon he was protecting London from the onslaught of V1 and V2 rockets.

After the war, when the NFS was disbanded, Delve remained in London as Chief Officer of the re-formed London Fire Brigade where he dealt with the many new problems, including tower blocks, increasingly difficult traffic accidents and the dangers of moving hazardous materials across the capital. He replaced the old street fire alarm posts with the "999" system, modernised the fleet of fire appliances and began a rebuilding scheme for fire stations.

He was the first Chief Officer of the LFB to be knighted in office and, on his retirement in 1962, joined the board of Securicor. He never ceased to grieve for his wife, who died after 56 years of happy marriage.

(Frederick William Delve, fire officer: born 28 October 1902; Chief Officer, Croydon Fire Brigade 1934-41; Deputy Inspector in Chief, National Fire Service 1941-43; CBE 1942; Chief Officer, London Fire Brigade 1948-62; Kt 1962; married 1924 Ethel Morden (died 1980); died 2 October 1995.)

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JACK BRIDLE

Independent - Obituary - 1999

JACK BRIDLE had a long and distinguished career as a fireman from 1931 to 1963, which embraced the temporary nationalisation of the country's various fire brigades during the Second World War.

He was "born under a hose-cart", the son of a fireman at the busy Shaftesbury Avenue station of the London Fire Brigade in 1907, when a fireman's working week was 144 hours; when he joined in 1931 Bridle's hours were still half that. Even so there was no shortage of recruits, and to improve his chances of following his father into the brigade, he had joined the Army in 1924. After six years in the Royal Engineers he qualified as an Instructor at the Command School in Alexandria and had to resist the temptation of a commission and an appointment to the Army Education College at Shorncliffe.

After joining the London Fire Brigade, he made rapid progress through the junior ranks and by 1939, within eight years, was one of the 130 District Officers, from whom the 20 Superintendents were selected. The threat of war had increased promotion prospects; a new rank of Chief Superintendent had been introduced. But there was no national fire service; fire prevention and fire-fighting were the responsibility of local authorities, and some ran their brigades as an extra division of their police force. Others took a more enlightened and professional approach, and kept them separate.

Yet, despite a recent Royal Commission there was no responsibility for local authorities to co-operate with one another, and a distinct and almost aggressive parochialism prevailed. The new Auxiliary Fire Service of 1938 was by no means the single body that its name suggests; the constituent pumps and personnel were essentially auxiliary to one of the multiplicity of local brigades. At government level such planning that was possible was in the hands of the Police and Fire Brigade Division of the Home Office, their hands strengthened by their administration of government grants for additional equipment, which included German turntable ladders.

In 1939 the Home Secretary decided that his office must do what it could to provide some centralising influence, and augmented his tiny Inspectorate of Fire Brigades, largely by asking the London County Council to second a small but powerful cadre. The Chief Officer himself, so felicitously named Firebrace, led a team of 14 of which Bridle was one; he was assigned to the West Midlands. It was here that he distinguished himself in 1940 by advocating a mobilising procedure of the London Fire Brigade. Instead of leaving machines in their own stations if they were not ordered to a fire, the LFB had a procedure based on three standard messages - if the incident could be dealt with by local resources, the officer in charge made a home call; if greater strength was needed, a district call brought in appliances from further afield, and if things got worse a brigade call mobilised the entire brigade.

District and brigade calls meant that stations near the fire were reinforced from within the brigade so that cover was maintained over the entire area, even though many of the mobilised machines might not be sent to the incident. This proven procedure meant that time was saved in concentrating reinforcements where they were needed. There was another precedent of which the Home Office and a London officer would have been aware, based on the 1917 plan whereby London and most if not all the adjacent brigades gave one another mutual support in mobilising against the first air raids on this country. Thus to say that Bridle's plans clashed with a Home Office doctrine that represented the autonomy of local authorities by leaving a concentration of local appliances at their native stations and summoning - or requesting - reinforcements from further afield is perhaps something of an exaggeration.

How much operational responsibility was given to seconded officers is not always clear, but Bridle was called to account by the legendary A.L. (later Sir Arthur) Dixon, a Cambridge wrangler who had entered the Home Office in 1903 and was then an assistant under- secretary in the Police and Fire Brigade department. But nationalisation of the 1,600 various fire brigades was strategically essential in wartime, and in 1941 they were reconstituted as a single National Fire Service of 39 Fire Forces. Bridle at 34 was by far the youngest of the Fire Force Commanders, and it is significant that he was appointed OBE the next year.

His first command was of 23 Area, which covered Warwickshire and the West Midlands; in 1943 he was given the larger command of 4 Area, based at Leeds. Thereafter he saw little of the war on the Home Front and, when it ended and the National Fire Service was restored to the counties and boroughs of the day, he ended his fire-fighting career as Chief Fire Officer of West Sussex from 1948. In 1963 he retired to Guernsey.

(Alfred John Bridle, fire-fighter: born London 30 June 1907; OBE 1942; married 1936 Eva Talbot (two sons); died St Peter Port, Guernsey 27 January 1999.)

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CYRIL DEMARNE

The Times - Obituary - 2007

Cyril Demarne was a sub officer in the West Ham Fire Brigade instructing the Auxiliary Fire Service when war was declared. On the the first day of the London Blitz, September 7, 1940, he recalled a "lovely sunny day. There were about 300 German aircraft. Some flew along the waterfront from North Woolwich to the tidal basin and bombed the big factories. [They] had thousands of people in them and there were horrendous casualties."

Three miles of the waterfront became a continuous blaze, and Demarne ordered 500 pumps to the scene. The commander thought this exaggerated and sent someone down to see. The man reported back that 1,000 engines were needed.

There followed 57 consecutive nights of air raids, a night off for bad weather, then they resumed until May 10, 1941. On continuous duty, the AFS tackled fires and dug the dead and injured from the rubble.

In October 1941 Demarne was appointed company officer at Whitechapel in the new National Fire Service. In 1944 he went back to West Ham as divisional officer and was later transferred to the City and Central London where he was involved in three of the worst V2 incidents with more than 300 people killed.

Cyril Thomas Demarne was born in Poplar in 1905. He joined the Fire Service in 1925 and after the war had two years service in the West End before being promoted to chief fire officer West Ham. In 1952 he was appointed OBE.

Retiring from the Fire Service in 1955, he moved to Aus-tralia and was senior instructor of the Fire Service Training School at Sydney airport until 1964. He also developed the Norfolk Island and Papua New Guinea aviation fire departments and set up and ran the safety centre at Beirut airport until his retirement in 1967.

He published his memoirs, The Blitz - A Fireman's Tale (1980) and Our Girls: A Story of the Nation's Wartime Firewom-en (1995). He contributed to The Blitz Then and Now (1987) book series and appeared in several TV documentaries.

Demarne was married in 1930. His wife died in 1986, and he leaves two daughters.

(Cyril Demarne, OBE, fire officer, was born on February 7, 1905. He died on January 28, 2007, aged 101)