"Heroes with grimy faces" - Sir Winston Churchill

"Heroes with grimy faces" - Sir Winston Churchill

May 23, 2013

WORLD WAR I


Photo: Imperial War Museums
Firemen at Cox's Court off Little Britain in the City of London after air raid on July 7, 1917.

From Friends of London Fire Museum

German Zeppelins and aircraft attacked London during World War I.  

There were in all 25 raids on London, 7 by Zeppelins and 18 by aircraft, 22 took place at night, 3 by day.

On a yearly basis there were 4 in 1915, 3 in 1916, 13 in 1917 and 5 in 1918.

A total of 524 people were killed and 1264 injured.

Having been warned by the military authorities of the approach and direction of airships, on some occasions the LFB were able to anticipate the likely target area and concentrate motor engines accordingly, an example being 13/14 October 1915 when motor engines were concentrated at Woolwich, with its Royal Arsenal, before the arrival of the attacking Zeppelin, the resultant fires caused by the 24 incendiary bombs dropped being quickly contained.  

On 7 July 1917 a particularly serious daylight air-raid took place on the City, carried out by Gotha IV bombers, killing 44, injuring 121 and causing three serious fires, one at the Central Telegraph Office in St Martins-le-Grand in the City.

This prompted Chief Officer Sladen to recommend three measures to meet the air-raid situation (a) return former LFB firemen from the armed forces - one officer, 174 men from the navy and two officers, 68 men from the army (b) provide additional Royal Engineers sappers during air-raids and (c) create a Metropolitan scheme of fire brigade assistance during air-raids or expected air-raids.

These measures were quickly agreed by the government including a scheme for fire brigade reinforcement during air-raids, established by the Fire Brigade (Metropolitan Area) Order 1917, under Defence of the Realm Regulation 55B.

This designated the Metropolitan Police District plus Watford, Dartford and Egham Urban Districts - over 750 square miles - a Special Fire Brigade Area in September 1917, and comprised 90 local authority fire brigades including the LFB.

The Chief Officer of the LFB was appointed the Mobilising Officer in charge of the scheme, the Senior Superintendent being the Assistant MO and an additional District Officer post created as the Deputy MO, the scheme coming into operation in October 1917. 

Hydrant and coupling adaptors were issued to meet the problem posed by the varying patterns of connections used by participating brigades, which also undertook training for the scheme.

Predetermined appliance moves were worked out by which motor engines from outer London brigades stood-by at LFB stations from where they were despatched to incidents as required.

 Throughout the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Area (MFBA) 11 motor engines from 10 brigades were on 1st Move call to send an engine to stand-by at LFB stations, subject to the dispatch and arrival of an LFB motor escape to stand-by at their home station.

A second group of 14 brigades were to keep a motor engine in readiness to dispatch if required under the 2nd Move.

If dispatched, predetermined adjacent brigades covered their home station or moved up to stand-by in turn.

To assist identification each engine in the scheme was numbered from 100 onwards commencing with the Kodak Fire Brigade, examples being Wimbledon - 101 and Ilford - 135.  The LFB reinforced or stood-by in the opposite direction as necessary.

First Move reinforcement mobilising was subsequently implemented 19 times with 2nd Move being required only once, on 6 December 1917, an example being motor engines from Wembley and Twickenham attending a fire in Shoreditch.

On other occasions a number of outer engines were moved by the Mobilising Officer outside the 1st & 2nd Move procedure. (Similar Fire Brigade Area Schemes were established during 1918/19 in the North Eastern, South Western, West Midland and North Western English Regions.)

Of the 25 air raids in the London County Council LFB area the worst single bombing incident was that at the Odhams Printing works in Long Acre, Covent Garden on 28 January 1918 when a 660 lb bomb from a Staaken Giant hit the building, 38 being killed or later dying of injuries received and over 85 being injured, the basement then being used as a public air-raid shelter holding c.500 people at the time.

The Brigade rescued survivors and later recovered the dead. While in no way comparable to the aerial attacks of the Second World War sufficient death, injury and damage were inflicted by these air raids to cause serious concern. 

Several LFB stations were damaged by enemy action including Edgware Road, Belsize, Knightsbridge, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Pageants Wharf, Waterloo Road, Streatham and Northcote Road.

During the raid of 8 September 1915 two incidents took place which led to the posthumous award of medals for gallantry to two members of the brigade.

Fireman C.A.Henley, on duty at one of the last remaining Street Stations in Bartholomew Close in the City, was rendered unconscious when a bomb exploded nearby, destroying the station. 

On recovering he rescued a woman from an adjacent damaged building and conveyed her to nearby St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, returning to get a jet to work from a hydrant until relieved by arriving fire crews, but later died from injuries received at this incident.

He was posthumously awarded the Kings Police Medal. 

During the same raid, at a fire caused by enemy action at Furnival Inn, Lambs Conduit Passage, Holborn, Fireman J. S. Green, following participation in earlier rescues and attempting a further rescue of persons reported on an upper floor, was badly burned and later died of his injuries, for which he was posthumously awarded the Council’s Silver Medal.

Two Station Officers were also awarded the Kings Police Medal for meritorious service in leading and co-ordinating firefighting and rescue work following air raids - StnO W.Gardiner of No. 24 Station Brunswick Road at an incident near his station in Poplar on 24 September 1916, and StnO T.M.Crane at the Odhams Printing Works incident at Long Acre, Covent Garden on 29 January 1918.

A fire and explosion at Brunner-Mond's munitions factory at Crescent Wharf, North Woolwich Road, Silvertown on the evening of 19 January 1917 killed 73 people and injured over 400 others.

Among those killed were two firefighters - Sub-Officer H. Vickers and Fireman F Sell - in attendance from West Ham Fire Brigade's nearby Silvertown station, which was wrecked and where several members of firefighters' families were killed and injured.  

Shrapnel from this explosion also caused a serious fire in a large gasometer at Blackwall and at the East Greenwich Gas Works on the opposite side of the river as well as triggering numerous street alarm calls to various parts of East and South East London by people who had seen the glow of the fire in the night sky.

This put under pressure an LFB already dealing with the Blackwall, East Greenwich and other resultant fires and in process of providing extensive reinforcements to West Ham Fire Brigade at the original incident. 

The LFB sent 29 pumps and two floats and fire brigade reliefs were maintained for 10 days. 

Six members of the West Ham FB were later given awards for bravery at this fire. 

A motor engine was subsequently stationed at LFB’s North Woolwich station while Silvertown Fire Station was reconstructed.

Consequent upon this and other fires and explosions in munitions plants and military depots elsewhere in Britain, in July 1918 a further order, the Fire Brigades (Metropolitan Area) Order 1918, provided for fire brigade reinforcement throughout the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Area to be extended to fires in such establishments.

With the end of the war these government sponsored reinforcing arrangements lapsed, being formally terminated in August 1921. 

The largest death toll of LFB members in a fire not resulting from enemy action occurred at a cattle feed factory at Albert Embankment in the early hours of a fog-bound 30 January 1918.  Seven members of the brigade - two Sub-Officers, W. E. Cornford and W. W. Hall and five firemen, E. J. Fairbrother, W. H. Jash, J. W. C. Johnson, A. A. Page and J. E. Fay - perished under a wall collapse during the latter stages of the incident.

A Superintendent and a Station Officer were also injured. 

Ironically, this was later to become the site of Brigade Headquarters.

In common with the rest of the population, the Brigade was affected by the influenza epidemic which swept the country during 1918/19 and suffered staffing difficulties as a consequence.

In all, 224 fires and other incidents caused by enemy action were attended by the London Fire Brigade and 138 persons rescued, for which members of the brigade were awarded 3 King's Police Medals, 1 Silver Medal and 43 Commendations (one KPM and 35 Commendation   recipients were later awarded BEMs); members of assisting bodies also received commendations as follows: London Salvage Corps 3, London Rifle Volunteers 2 and MWB turncocks 2.

Thirteen members of the brigade received injuries, from which 3 died: Firemen J. S. Green, C. A. Henley (both decorated posthumously) and A. H. Vidler, and 3 were invalided from the brigade. At the end of the First World War Chief Officer Sladen and his deputy S. G. Gamble retired, being replaced by A. R. Dyer and C. C. B. Morris respectively.