Vol 5. 4th Edition
Fighting the Blitz - A fireman's story...
by Manny Gold
Throughout the summer of 1940, the Battle of Britain had been occupying the skies over southern England. When Hitler and Goering realised that they could not defeat the RAF, they switched their attention to the intensive bombing of London and other major cities. Hitler believed that the bombing would break the morale of the British, but he clearly underestimated the resolve of his adversary. This is the story of a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service during the London Blitz who, at the time of writing, was in his 91st year. It is testament to many men like him that the city survived the ordeal.
"With war approaching I decided that I wanted to join the Fire Service. At the time I was living in Chelsea and working in the West End as a tailor. So, I decided to go along to my local station in Soho and enquired if I could become a fireman. Firstly, I was told that I would have to have a medical examination and was given a form to take to my doctor. If pronounced fit, they would then take me on. I visited my doctor, who I happen to think was German, and he said “How can I help you?” “Well,” I replied, “I want to join the Fire Service and was told that I would have to undergo a medical.” He started to laugh, “You don’t need a medical”. I said, “The rules state that if I want to be a fireman I’ve got to have a medical”. “Come here, give me the papers” he then signed them and didn’t give me the medical!
This was January 1939, so I went back to the Fire Station, they accepted me, and I was sent to a store in Theobalds Road to get kitted out with a peeked cap, wellington boots and a pair of dungarees, which I took back to the station. I then reported twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, for drill. I remember the Officer-in-Charge saying “When you finish this evening you hang your kit here, put your name in it, and it will be there waiting for you on Thursday”. However, when I returned on Thursday, my dungarees and wellingtons had disappeared. I complained to the Officer who said, “Well, you’d better take someone else’s”. It was a two hour session where we learnt the rudiments of firefighting. We had to learn twenty knots, exercising and training, hose drill and ladder drill.
My first encounter with the war was on 1st September later that year. I was returning to Chelsea via my parent’s home and it must have been in the six o’clock news they announced that all Auxiliary Fire Service personnel should report for duty. By that time, of course, I had a full uniform because we’d previously given a Fire Service display in Hyde Park with one of the Royals present and had conducted a number of live exercises to demonstrate our effectiveness. So I went home to get my kit, packed a suitcase, together with food and changes of clothing, which they asked us to bring.
I was told to report to 110 Jermyn Street, which had been a car showroom. On arrival, there seemed to be hundreds of men and women milling around. Some had taken up residence inside a few remaining new cars, others made beds on the floor. A fire alarm had gone off in a local street and I was despatched to investigate. I went with a colleague and we just stood there, looking like lemons! We didn’t really know what to do and probably looked very foolish. By the time of Mr Chamberlain’s announcement on 3rd September, we had already been told to report to a station at the London Pavilion right in the centre of Piccadilly. There were four of us, the chap in charge was called Bill Pin, and we were given our first appliance, a London taxi carrying 20 lengths of 50ft hose, ladders strapped to the top, and a trailer pump, tied with rope to its bumper. We also found that there were three or four other crews with similar appliances. We stayed there for a few weeks, eventually being transferred to the Canada Life Assurance building in Charles II Street, off Piccadilly. Designated X Station, it was a very modern building which we took over completely. The first floor was sleeping accommodation, the second for women and the top floor was catering. The building was established into a full sized station serving one of six pre-defined zones in Soho. We had a complement of 100 men and 10 pumps. The strict regime meant that we worked 48 hours on and 24 off.
In the summer of 1940, demands on the Fire Service were increasing as attacks on London intensified. The initial targets were the industrial sites and the docks. The first major attack for us was during the mid-summer months when the air raid siren sounded and we were called out to Buerk’s Chemical Factory at East Ham. We had been given to understand that we were only to attend fires when the ‘all clear’ had sounded but this wasn’t so in reality. It caused a bit of a riot with the crews and eventually we were all ordered out with bombs dropping and fires all around us. The City, Aldgate and Moorgate had been badly blitzed with incendiaries and, on hearing our bell, people ran into the streets trying to flag us down to attend to their house fires. We had to ignore them. On arrival, we drove over an unexploded bomb without knowing it but we survived and swung into action. Pumps were set up on the Thames although we had to have a minimum of 27ft of water to draw from. This was fine until the tide went out which left our hoses completely dry. Then we were machine gunned by planes and had to dash into a shelter for safety.
The Blitz was a nightmare. We were out almost every night which was soul destroying, houses bombed beyond recognition, hundreds made homeless, and factories and warehouses burning beyond control. Although on the scene at night, the next morning was devastating when you could see street upon street flattened with remains of buildings smouldering. I was eventually appointed deputy to the Officer-in-Charge and had to direct local operations. The continual bombing caused havoc, complete and utter havoc. Most of the older buildings were built of timber and simply burnt out. We used to come back absolutely filthy. Every station in London had six sub-stations and we had to take over schools and office buildings to maintain adequate coverage.
I particularly recall a Sunday evening, 7 September, at 5 pm when the air raid sirens sounded. Wave upon wave of Heinkels, Dorniers and Messerschmitts dropped their bombs on the docklands and the area was blitzed by high explosive bombs and incendiaries. Many buildings were housing vital supplies for the war effort and contained some highly combustible material. Warehouses exploded and burnt until they were ashes. The docks presented the most difficult hazards because of what they contained. I remember seeing Whisky Wharf blow sky high and the area became one holy inferno. The warehouses were full of everything from paint to timber and much needed equipment brought in from across the Atlantic. It all went up in smoke. We simply could not cope!
The tidal problem with the Thames, coupled with the excessive demand, became a constant nightmare and to help we constructed a number of steel tanks which each held 5,000 gallons to try to overcome the drought. We sited two in the Haymarket and Regent Street which were filled from street hydrants. These provided a badly needed reserve when the streets were blitzed and main water arteries breached which meant we couldn’t get anywhere near a hydrant.
Even our stations fell to the raiders. So, at the end of the Blitz, some of the main stations in which I had served were no longer. Shaftesbury Avenue was hit with a high explosive which killed the Officer-in-Charge. I was a guard of honour at his funeral. There had been some caretakers living in the top of the building and when it collapsed, they were lucky enough to just walk out. There were lighter moments, however, although not many. I remember Burlington Arcade being hit one night and two from my station went upstairs in a shop to rescue some shirts. We were always under instructions not to remove any items, but on this occasion my two colleagues emerged like Michelin men and I think everyone turned a blind eye. Even the Fire Officer smiled as he tapped one on the shoulder and said, “alright then?”
Eventually, the RAF had the upper hand and raids became less frequent. That was fine until the Doodlebugs appeared on the horizon and it all started again. The first I heard of this was when I had been relocated to Westminster Fire Station for a short while. Then we were no longer fighting fires, but became removal men for those bombed out of their homes.
After the war, I wanted to be a driver having passed all my exams and driven the biggest of vehicles. However, I returned to tailoring until I reached the ripe old age of 75!".
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