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As the political climate intensified in Europe during the late 1930s, an Act of Parliament was passed authorising the formation of a voluntary fire service. The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) was established in January 1938, and fire stations were set up in suitable buildings such as schools, garages, and factories.

A recruitment drive was launched with as many as 28,000 firefighters required to support London Fire Brigade's 2,500 pre-war establishment. However, since most young men had joined the army, the AFS relied on those too old or too young to go to war. It also marked the first time women would be accepted into the Brigade.

Women undertook some training but did not fight fires in the Second World War. Instead they became fire watchers and drivers, managed the communications network and worked in mobile canteen vans. A rank system for women of the fire service was developed during the war in recognition of their service; many women were awarded for their remarkable achievements during this time.

The AFS were issued with one basic uniform - although shortages forced some recruits to wear Post Office uniforms - that included a steel helmet, rubber boots, trousers and waterproof leggings.

The first targeted air raid on London took place on 7 September 1940 and marked the beginning of the Blitz - a period when London was bombed for 57 nights in a row. For many AFS members, this was their first experience of firefighting.

Most of the bombings happened at night, meaning firefighters spent long hours extinguishing fires or dealing with explosions.

Bombs on warehouses were especially dangerous due to highly flammable products such as alcohol and paint stored within. In the first 22 nights of air raids, firefighters fought nearly 10,000 fires.

Bombings often occurring while the Thames was at low tide meaning access to water was made even more difficult. Vehicles became vital in transporting water around the city; steel frames were fitted to lorries to enable them to carry up to 1,000 gallons of water.

https://morssweb.com/images/lfb/stirrup.jpgIn order to take some of the workload off the fire service, small fires were dealt with by street fire parties and roof-top fire watchers. These were civilians who were given stirrup pumps and taught to use them.

The public's opinion of the AFS changed significantly as a result of the Blitz. During the 'phoney war', firefighters had been thought of as 'army dodgers'. But, in 1940 this attitude changed; firefighters became known as 'the heroes with grimy faces'.

The spirit of comradeship among firefighters and the dedication to their job were commendable and, according to Churchill, the fire service 'were a grand lot and their work must never be forgotten'.

The National Fire Service

To provide a unified service throughout the country, the National Fire Service (NFS) took control on 18 August 1941 when all AFS were merged with local fire brigades to form a national service. By 1943 over 70,000 women had enrolled in the NFS in the United Kingdom.

When peace was declared, London's fire service had attended over 50,000 calls; 327 of London's firefighters had been killed.

After the war, the NFS continued while discussion were held over the structure of Britain's fire services. NFS was disbanded in 1948, however, rather than returning to lots of small brigades, only one service was established per county.

The spirit of comradeship among firefighters and their dedication to their job were commendable and according to Churchill, the fire service 'were a grand lot and their work must never be forgotten'.

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Firefighting Applicances

Dennis No. 2 trailer pump

The most common piece of equipment used by the AFS was the trailer pump. In total, 2,000 trailer pumps were issued to the London AFS and were mainly based at the auxiliary sub-stations. Due to a shortage of suitable towing vehicles, approximately 2,000 London taxis were commandeered into service, converted to include tow bars and ladder racks.


Technical information

  • Crew: taxi crew of four to six firefighters (resource dependent)
  • Equipment: four lengths of canvas delivery hose, four lengths of 4 inch suction hose, six more lengths of delivery hose in the taxi plus 28ft (8m) and 14ft (4m) extension ladders, extra lines, small gear
  • Pumping capacity: 250 gallons per minute
  • Speed: 20mph (speed of towing vehicle)
  • Engine: Austin taxi (towing vehicle)
  • Fuel: petrol
  • Manufacturers: Dennis Brothers

Bedford WLG Heavy Unit with Sulzer pump

Heavy units were issued to assist the lighter trailer pumps. Most AFS sub-stations had at least one heavy unit. As World War II progressed, a large number of such vehicles were issued. It was accepted this particular model was manufactured to the minimum standard necessary for their intended use - they were not expected to have a long lifespan. Heavy Units were also made by Ford and Austin.

The Sulzer pump was powered by a Leyland 33 hp engine which had a pumping capacity of about 600 gallons per minute.


Technical information

  • Crew: four to six firefighters
  • Equipment: delivery hose, 28ft (8m) and 14ft (4m) extension ladders, branches, lines, suction hoses, a large radial branch used for pouring huge amounts of water onto fires
  • Pumping capacity: 600 gallons per minute
  • Speed: 30mph
  • Engine: Bedford (Road) and Leyland (Pump)
  • Fuel: petrol (both engines)
  • Manufacturers: Bedford

Dennis 'Big 4' Pump-Escape

The Dennis 'Big 4' was developed in the 1930s and proved to be a popular and versatile machine. Many remained in service up until the late 1950s. It had a turbine pump at the rear and later versions included transverse bench seats, which made journeys far safer for the crew than the Braidwood style body. However, the crew were still exposed to the elements.

Motor vehicles were becoming faster and accidents involving members of the crew became a frequent occurrence.

The dual-purpose term (pump-escape) relates to the fact these fire engines could carry either a 50ft (15m) wheeled escape or an Ajax 40ft (12m) extension ladder.


Technical information

  • Crew: four to six firefighters
  • Equipment: delivery hoses (20 lengths), canvas hose with rubber lining, suction hoses, branches, two hook ladders, 40ft (12m) Ajax extension ladder or 50ft (15m) wheeled escape, 60 gallons of water carried in an internal tank
  • Pumping capacity: 700-1,000 gallons per minute
  • Speed: 45mph
  • Engine: Dennis
  • Fuel: petrol
  • Manufacturers: Dennis Brother

Dennis Merryweather turntable ladder

Towards the end of the 1930s it became difficult to import vehicles from their German manufacturers. As a result, the London Fire Brigade turned to Merryweather, who had been producing all steel turntable ladders for a number of years.

They had ladders with a maximum height was 100ft. The Dennis chassis was fitted with a pump, which meant the vehicle could supply its own water if necessary.


Technical information

  • Crew: two or three firefighters
  • Equipment: 100ft ladder (31m), special 120ft (37m) length of delivery hose, rescue lines, guy lines, two hook ladders
  • Pumping capacity: 350-400 gallons per minute
  • Speed: 30-35mph
  • Engine: Dennis
  • Fuel: petrol
  • Manufacturers: Dennis Brothers and Merryweather and Sons

Leyland Limousine dual purpose pump

The Leyland limousine dual-purpose pump was designed to be streamlined and ultra modern, setting the style for subsequent enclosed models. Although the crew now had a roof over their heads, it will be noted that there were no windows in the cab doors.


The first ever diesel fire engine was part of this Leyland fleet.

The ability to carry breathing apparatus (BA) inside the cab made the kit easier and quicker to use - meaning this particular model was later referred to as a 'BA pump'.

The design for these appliances was specific to London Fire Brigade and very similar machines were built by Dennis and Merryweather.

Technical information

  • Crew: maximum of six firefighters
  • Equipment: 40ft (12m) Ajax extension ladder or 50ft (15m) wheeled escape, single hose reel hook ladders, delivery hose, suction hose, foam making equipment, small gear, 60 gallons of water
  • Pumping capacity: 800-1,000 gallons per minute
  • Engine: Leyland
  • Speed: 45mph
  • Fuel: petrol
  • Manufacturers: Leyland Motors Ltd

Dennis Lancet canteen van

The canteen van entered service with the Brigade in 1936. It provided welcome hot drinks and light food at major fires and extended incidents. It served throughout World War II and well into the 1960s, making it one of the longest serving vehicles in London Fire Brigade fleet history.


Technical information

  • Crew: two firefighters
  • Equipment: fresh water tank, water heating boilers, crockery
  • Pumping capacity: N/A
  • Speed: 30pmh
  • Engine: Dennis
  • Fuel: petrol
  • Manufacturers: Dennis Brothers

Leyland Control Unit

Control units are used as forward command posts at major fires and incidents, where they provide a radio link to Brigade control and act as a focal point for liaison between senior officers and other emergency services.


Hose laying lorry


Foam tender


Breakdown lorry


River floats

During the Second World War there were nine fire boat stations, three pre-war fire boats in service, as well as extra emergency fire boats and barges. The boats held pumping equipment which could provide up to 14,000 gallons of water a minute.


The London Fire Brigade's most famed boat is the Massey Shaw, named after the first Chief Officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. The boat, built in 1935, played an important role in the evacuation of Dunkirk, rescuing several hundred soldiers from shallow waters.

Boardgame Premise

Scenario: one night's air raiding during the London Blitz of 1940.

Scope: one london fire division


  1. Early air-raid warning
  2. Incendiary bombing. This came first, to light the way for the next phase.
  3. High explosive bombing phase. With firefighting going on at the same time!
  4. Aftermath: Damage and casualty assessment.


The London Blitz, David Johnson 1980. Covers the incendiary raid of the city of London on 12/29/1940. Includes maps of the city before and after showing areas burned. Incident map of Redcross Street Fire Station showing coverage zone and alarm calls.


Research into specific fire stations only available in document archives? Do these records even exist? Newspaper accounts from the days following a raid? Most likely would require old school in-person archival searches in London.