"Heroes with grimy faces" - Sir Winston Churchill

"Heroes with grimy faces" - Sir Winston Churchill

August 29, 2006

REMEMBERING WAR

UPDATED JANUARY 2008
Firefighters' Memorial

(Photo: LFB web site)

The men and women of London's fire service played a crucial role in the war, with a total of 327 members of the London Fire Service - both regulars and auxiliary - dying in action and more than 3,000 suffering serious injuries.

On Sept. 11, 2005, a Service of Remembrance honored the ``resilience, determination and selfless heroism of firefighters during the war,'' according to a press release from the London Fire Brigade. Following the service, a procession including vintage emergency vehicles traveled from the church for a ceremony at the Firefighters National Memorial, opposite St. Paul's Cathedral - which firefighters saved from the German raiders.

London Fire Commissioner Ken Knight said: "The fire defence of the capital was under enormous strain during the Blitz and the story of firefighters during this time is one of selfless heroism. This is an important event that remembers their sacrifices, as well as the innocent victims of those dark days. As a brigade, we are immensely proud of the achievements of those firefighters who worked tirelessly to protect Londoners during wartime."

According to the History Channel:

``On the evening of December 29, 1940, London suffers its most devastating air raid when Germans firebomb the city. Hundreds of fires caused by the exploding bombs engulfed areas of London, but firefighters showed a valiant indifference to the bombs falling around them and saved much of the city from destruction. The next day, a newspaper photo of St. Paul's Cathedral standing undamaged amid the smoke and flames seemed to symbolize the capital's unconquerable spirit during the Battle of Britain. The ability of Londoners to maintain their composure had much to do with Britain's survival during the dark years of World War II. As American journalist Edward R. Murrow reported, Not once have I heard a man, woman, or child suggest that Britain should throw her hand.''


TIME MAGAZINE
Monday, Sept. 23, 1940
"They Are a Miracle"

As German bombers continued their efforts to burn down London, not a few superbly sunny-sided Britons last week harked back to Sir Christopher Wren and the Great Fire of 1666.

Sir Christopher, whose greatest architectural monument is St. Paul's Cathedral, which so far has enjoyed a number of narrow escapes from Nazi bombs, laid plans to rebuild London as a city of broad avenues and noble vistas such as Paris and Washington are today. Sir Christopher's grandest ideas were ignored, but last week it seemed that no matter who wins the Battle of Britain, future years may see a vastly improved and reconstructed London rising out of much present ruin and debris. Economist John Maynard Keynes figures, perhaps optimistically, that up to this week German bombers had destroyed no more than Londoners have the means to rebuild in a year.

Last week the average Londoner had a new hero as glamorous as Tommy Atkins: the British fireman.

Members of the London Fire Brigade and of the Auxiliary Fire Service could no longer work in shifts last week. German incendiary bombs were falling too thick and fast, so the workers averaged 20 hours of fire fighting every day, snatched cat naps and quick gulps of food washed down by tea served hot in buckets right on the blazing job.

In the Express, owned by Aircraft Production Minister Baron Beaverbrook, slick Columnist John MacAdam shamefacedly wrote of the Auxiliary Fire Service that before the Blitzkrieg began "we used to smile a little at them sometimes. 'The spit and polish firemen,' some people called them and there were others who used to talk about 'three pounds ten a week for playing darts.' The A. F. S. took it all with a shrug—in much the same way as they now take the chorus of inner "Thank God for the A. F. S.' . . . There never was a force in the history of service that had a more terrible baptism of fire."

The A. F. S. consists of people of all classes, butchers and baronets, clerks and cooks, lawyers and liverymen. "I used to sell gramophone records," volunteered a fire-truck driver whom the Nazis have kept so busy that he has grown a beard for lack of time to shave. "Funny how a beard gives you a hand with the girls," he added. "I've a good mind to keep it as a permanent fixture."

The regular staff of the London Fire Brigade numbers 2,500 and these professional fire fighters were generous last week in praise of the unprofessional A. F. S., who number over 25,000 men and 5,000 women. "When you consider that most of these fellows have never been near a bigger fire than their sitting-room grate, they are a miracle," boomed a Brigade officer. "Our men are hardbitten, experienced fighters and they trust the A. F. S. boys to the hilt."

It was commonplace last week for London fire fighters to go right on with their work in burning buildings while the next Nazi load of incendiary bombs was being brought up at full throttle. Only when these actually began to fall did firemen take cover, not in air-raid shelters but simply by jumping for the nearest doorway or partial shelter. One elderly woman, so paralyzed by fear that she was unable to go to a shelter, found herself watching the firemen, began brewing them a bucket of tea.

London has 31,438 fire hydrants, 3,000 grey A. F. S. pumps, 130 red L. F. B. fire engines, 67 miles of hose and 1,800 street alarms. The bell-clanging fire engines are the only London vehicles permitted to dash through a red light (police cars urgently requiring to go through a red light must slacken speed sufficiently to go up on the pavement and "go round red"). The Brigade takes its own films of big London fires, using the films to instruct young firemen, selling the best footage to British newsreels.

Most spectacular London Fire Brigade exploit of World War II was when one of their Thames River fire-fighting floats was borrowed by the British Admiralty for use in extinguishing fires at Dunkirk during the B. E. F. evacuation. The Brigade flatly refused to let the Admiralty man their float with British sailors unused to fire fighting, sent a regular crew of London firemen over on the float to Dunkirk. There they found the fires out of control, spent six days rescuing 1,200 troops and floated them safe home across the Channel.