"Heroes with grimy faces" - Sir Winston Churchill

"Heroes with grimy faces" - Sir Winston Churchill

June 02, 2010

100 YEARS


From London Fire Brigade press release

Charlie Harwood, who served as a firefighter in Tooting during World War Two, visited Tooting Fire Station to celebrate his 100th birthday with firefighters from the station’s green watch in March 2010.

Charlie was presented with a commemorative firefighter’s axe by green watch’s youngest firefighter, Mark Whittall. Children from the local Henry Cavendish primary school also presented Charlie with a bunch of flowers and excerpts from Charlie’s war-time memoires were read out.

Bill Thorne, green watch manager, said: “It was an absolute honour to invite Charlie to the station. It was a fantastic opportunity for the firefighters to meet him and hear about his experiences of firefighting during the War. Charlie is a real life hero”.

Charlie, who reached his 100th birthday on March 6th, was born in Vauxhall and spent his early life in Balham. He enlisted with the Auxiliary Fire Service in 1939. On the Friday before the War was declared Charlie was asked to report to his local fire station, along with all the other civil defence and fire brigade personnel. He said: ”I went home from work, had my tea, said goodbye to my wife and reported to Tooting Fire Station”.

Charlie spent the war years fighting fires in London, attending many of the major blazes and incidents, including those during the Blitz.

Charlie remembers his first ‘shout’ was a huge blaze caused by bombing at Woolwich Arsenal. He said: “I thought I was driving into hell, there was fire everywhere you looked, it was awful. After a while we drove back to Tooting. As we looked back towards the docks it looked as if the whole of London, particularly the docks, was on fire”.

Charlie recalls a particularly tragic incident during his time as a firefighter: “We were called to Henry Cavendish school, which was being used as a fire brigade sub-station. On arrival we found 12 firemen and one firewoman had been killed by a bomb falling on their mess hut as they sat to eat. It was our job to retrieve the bodies. I had lived in this area all my life and knew well a couple of the men who had been killed”.

Being a firefighter during the War was a tough job, Charlie said: “We worked 120 hours a week and our wages were £3 a week”.

Unfortunately, Charlie’s eyesight was not of the standard required to remain in the peacetime fire brigade. In 1945 he returned to the building trade, an area he’d worked in prior to joining the brigade.