The Fire Service (AFS/NFS)


December 1940

The lull in the bombing continued over Christmas. Then, on 27th December, the sirens sounded again and once more fire bombs began to drop over the City. It was a fairly bad night. Londoners thought that they were in for it again. But the following night nothing happened. The sirens were silent. The man in the street breathed his sigh of relief and speculated on the chances of a resumption of the lull. But twenty-four hours later these speculations were rudely put to an end. On Sunday. 29th December, the Luftwaffe fired the age-old City of London in the most savage attack of the aerial war. The German communiqué said that 100 000 fire bombs were dropped: for once this may be the truth. Here, then, is the story of the Great Fire of the City of London, 1940.

The air-raid warning was received at approximately 6 p.m. in the control room at Fire Service Headquarters. Soon after, the City of London report centre telephoned advice of two large falls of incendiary bombs at a certain point in the E.C. district and to the north and south of the Guildhall. In a very few seconds further reports of incendiary showers were received from other parts of London, notable from the X-* District, a sector of the City, and from Y-* District, south of the River, and opposite the City. Soon local stations in these areas were inundated with fire calls and emptied of their first-line engines. About an hour later a serious fire situation had developed in the neighbourhood of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Towards 8 p.m. two further conflagrations were reported spreading, one in the Y-* area and the other in the square quarter mile of narrow City streets comprising X-* District.

* Censored

In the City Danger Zone

Fire was spreading easily in the City danger zone-where the buildings were old and particularly open to fire risk, where narrow alleys and crooked streets ran between warehouses crowded with inflammable stocks, where space was so valuable that courtyards were roofed over with glass to house more and ever more sacks and crates packed with easily-fired goods. An adequate organisation of roof spotters would have saved many buildings and much stock from the peril of sparkstorms. As it was, there were few roof spotters and the fire spread. In addition, to this, the owners of many buildings had padlocked and bolted their doors, thus seriously hampering the firemen.
There is normally no shortage of water for the fire services in London, but on this occasion immediate calls were sent for the supply of emergency water. A time-lag necessarily occurs before this water can come through. Pumps must be positioned on the Thames, dockside, canals, lines of hose laid to the fire area, canvas dams erected. These matters are put in hand at high speed; but the water cannot come through in a minute. As soon as possible those tough river boats with their heavy pumps were in position, hose had been flung across the mudflats, powerful hose-laying lorries were setting out their twin lines in the direction of the City danger zone a mile away. At the same time, mobile land pumps were seeking strategic positions by the-riverside where there might be water within reach of their suction pipes. These pumps eventually operated at bridges and dock. basins situated some distance from the fires.
Before nine o'clock a message from the Guildhall reported that the spire of a neighbouring church was in imminent danger of collapse and might spread fire to the historic hall itself. Reinforcements were required here-and in a hundred other places too. By that time over three hundred fire engines had been sent to the City. More had been diverted to fight fires in other parts of London.

Fires in Their Hundreds

The fire situation in that square half-mile of the City called the "danger zone" was assuming alarming proportions. Even in peacetime its narrow, congested streets flanked by warehouses filled with inflammable goods made the possibility of a conflagration in this area an ever-present anxiety for London's fire chiefs. Fires were started in hundreds of buildings and orange fireglow blazed with the bright force of sunlight. A glare rose high into the sky that could be seen from great distances beyond London. Dark City alleyways and passages, curtained for a century by tall walls, exchanged their twilight gloom for a flood of yellow light in one theatrical moment. Firemen walked the streets through blinding spark showers that drove down from the roofs with the intensity and regularity of a snow-blizzard. Waves of flame rolled across whole streets, black clouds of smoke smothered the air. Firemen fought on. It seemed that they fought a lost battle. And high explosives were falling, killing and injuring men.
Three important City fire stations were burning and had to be evacuated. The controls retreated out of the immediate danger area and set up again on the outskirts of the fire. Then, towards ten o'clock the roof of the historic Guildhall caught alight. A control staff in the vaults stuck to their posts until the fire had all but reached their door, but eventually these, too, had to be evacuated. Before midnight the all-clear siren sounded: It was a relief to those working that the bombing was at an end; but civilians further overloaded lines of communication with what they thought to be new information as to unreported fires.
By this time various units of the emergency water service were in operation and the supply of water was being strongly augmented as the minutes passed. large canvas dams had been erected and firemen cheered as they saw the water pour in. Pumping operations gathered force. Firemen gathered new hope. Reinforcements of fire engines had arrived. So that now there was water and there were pumps and firemen to work them. Almost enough of each: enough anyhow to start effectively the stemming of that ferocious flood of fire. And more engines were racing on their way, more emergency water units were coming into operation every moment.
From then on every man was at work. Gutters ran with black water that streamed off the charred buildings. Dispatch riders scrambled their motor-cycles over the maze of snaking hose-lengths that littered every street. Petrol lorries arrived; and here it may be noted that some of these heavy vehicles loaded with inflammable petrol were driven by girls of the Women's Auxiliary Fire Service, driven through dangerous blizzards of spark and flying ember. Women also brought canteen vans into that inferno, working tirelessly on through the night to feed the thousands of firemen on the job. The work of feeding those crowds of men was a problem. What could be done was done. Yet many firemen there had to work the night through and on into the middle of the following day without refreshment or rest. A fifteen-hour stretch of this hard, wet work without so much as a cup of tea is no small order: but the men knew what they had to do and they stuck it.

Copyright © 2002 Peter N. Risbey.