1939 - 1945

Graphic by Ronnie Cusworth 2003
Auxiliary Fireman Harry Smith
Litherland Auxiliary Fire Service
National Fire Service
Graphic by Ronnie Cusworth 2003
With Thanks to Barbara Smith
Graphic by Ronnie Cusworth 2003
United Kingdom. 1937-1945. Established in 1937 under the Air Raid Precautions Act, the Auxiliary Fire Service was one of a complex series of organizations and services designed to carry out civil defence in the United Kingdom in the event of war. In essence, the Auxiliary Fire Service became the first truly national fire service in England, Scotland, and Wales. The Auxiliary Fire Service was trained by local fire brigades, operated under their operational control, and was provided facilities, vehicles, and the other services that created an operational organization. At the same time Auxiliary Fire Service units were provided pumps, hose, and equipment, and a single uniform per fireman, and were regulated by the Home Office. As a result, there was constant competition for scarce resources in the broader scheme of national mobilization for what became World War II, and local authorities often complained that funding was inadequate.

As was to prove to be the case when the Auxiliary Fire Service was reconstituted in 1949, considerable thought and effort was devoted to the design of appropriate equipment to meet the needs of the Auxiliary Fire Service units. As a result, standard appliances were developed that were within the capabilities of volunteer crews to operate, especially considering that these crews were recruited from those either too young or too old for military service.

At the height of operations, the Auxiliary Fire Service numbered approximately 180,000 men and 41,000 women. Auxiliaries were not necessarily received with open arms by the full time local brigades, with harassment not being uncommon even to the petty level of not allowing members of the Service to use the shower facilities of regular stations. However, the Auxiliary Fire Service distinguished itself in some of the hardest fought fire bombing attacks of the war, operating at a high professional standard under enemy fire as the bombs fell. The Auxiliary Fire Service officially became part of the National Fire Service when that organization was established in May 1941.

Graphic by Ronnie Cusworth 2003
United Kingdom. 1941-1948. In the United Kingdom, prior to World War II approximately 1600 Fire Brigades were independently organized and managed by local governments with no national standardization of organization, equipment, training, or ranks. There was wide variability in the capabilities of equipment, with metropolitan departments well equipped with modern appliances, but some village departments still operating steam powered or even hand powered pumps. Although some Brigades had established mutual aid agreements, many did not, and there was no requirement for mutual aid for major events.

A study in the 1920s had identified the need for significant reform in fire organization, but its recommendations were not implemented, in large measure due to cost. The May 1936 report of a committee chaired by Lord Riverdale presented similar recommendations for reform, recommendations that were taken far more seriously due to developing tensions in Europe. This served as the impetus for the Home Office Memorandum on Emergency Fire Brigade Organization, which provided local authorities detailed instructions on preparations for air raids. The Air Raid Precautions Act, passed on 1 December 1937, and the Fire Brigades Act of 1938 provided the theoretical and legal foundation for the development of an effective wartime firefighting system by further defining local authority responsibilities for emergency fire planning and for standardization. However, the onset of the Blitz in 1940 still saw British fire organization structured around local Brigades.

Probably the major exception was the activation on 1 September 1939 of the London Fire Region, under the command of Commander A. N. G. Firebrace, CBE, RN (Retd) as Regional Fire Officer. The 66 fire brigades surrounding London were divided into three districts north of the River Thames and two south of it, and procedures were established for the brigades and the districts to reinforce each other in the event of attack.

The severe impact of German strategic bombing of British cities highlighted shortcomings in equipment, in the ability to respond to multiple major fires at one time, and in the coordination of multiple Brigades at one major fire. Incompatibilities in equipment were routine, with appliances from one Brigade having different sizes and threadings of hose connectors (three London metropolitan region departments carried, for example, 2 3/4 inch round threads, 2 3/4 inch instantaneous couplings, and 2 1/2 inch instantaneous couplings, none compatible with the other) , in many cases making it impossible for units responding out of their locality to connect with hydrants. At times it was impossible to determine the senior officer on the fireground due to differences in insignia and titles. Differences in training standards meant that some units were unable to set up a dam and draft from it. And many Brigades sent their Auxiliary Fire Service units to respond to major events, sometimes without the supervision of experienced fire officers, while keeping their regular units at home on the excuse that the rate payers paid taxes to protect their own towns or cities, not the cities of other tax payers.

On 28 April 1941 the Home Secretary convened a meeting to consider possible solutions to these problems. The recommendations from that meeting were that firemen should be dressed in standard uniforms with common ranks, use standard standard operating procedures, be trained to common standards, and have a standard command structure with unity of command. These recommendations were submitted to the House of Commons, coming with exquisite timing on 13 May in the aftermath of a major German air raid, and were adopted by the House on 20 May. As a result, the local Fire Brigades were combined into a national service in 22 May 1941 with Royal Assent to the Fire Services (Emergency Provisions) Act; this arrangement was officially established in secret as the National Fire Service on 18 August 1941. The Auxiliary Fire Service, established as an Air Raid Precautions organization from its beginning was incorporated into the National Fire Service at this time.

The new structure was based on the existing regional civil defence structure. The fire forces in each of the 12 Regions were assigned to the control of Regional Commissioners, with direct supervision by a Chief Regional Fire Officer and subordinate Fire Force Commanders. At the peak of staffing 118,000 men served in the National Fire Service with 180,000 members of the Auxiliary Fire Service; 29,000 full time women served, with 41,000 members of the Auxiliary Fire Service. In one of the ironies common in preparedness, the developments of World War II meant that the National Fire Service never had to face the level of threat met during the concentrated German air raids of the Battle of Britain by the local fire brigades. However, this structure served efficiently during the German Vengeance weapons (the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 ballistic missile) campaign of 1944-1945 and was generally viewed by the fire service as having been very successful.

King George VI approved the design of a flag for the National Fire Service on 11 August 1943: the Blue Ensign with the National Fire Service badge in the center of the fly. After the conclusion of the war, fire services reverted to the control of local government in 1948 in keeping with the original agreement for the activation of the Service. This was symbolized on 20 January 1949 by the laying up of a National Fire Service Ensign at the Imperial War Museum.

Graphic by Ronnie Cusworth 2003
Click on the N.F.S. WWII Helmet to see Harry Smith and members of the Litherland A.F.S. in 1940
Harry is on the far right - back row

Litherland & Ford Digital © Ronnie Cusworth 2002-2008