In 1938, before the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain established a system of Air Raid Precautions, or 'ARP'. To meet the expected threat of building fires started by enemy air raids, Britain established an Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) to supplement peacetime fire brigades. This is the story of one London fireman, Frank Hurd, told in his own words.
Photograph of Frank Hurd in uniform.
Frank Hurd was a 24-year-old Londoner from Islington. On 7 September 1940, the first night of the Blitz, Hurd was stationed at Euston Road fire station. His account ''Blitz' over London - An impression of the first large scale night raid on the capital, 7/9/1940' vividly describes his experience of fighting his first major fire, from the boredom of waiting for a call-out to the anticipation of going into action after a long drive across London to East Ham:
We were getting a bit fed up with this sort of thing and I think a few of us (I know I did) half-hoped for 'something to happen' & then felt ashamed for letting the monotony 'get us down'.
We all guessed it must be something unusual to send us from Euston on a journey that long.
While heading to East Ham, Hurd saw the first signs of the raid:
Houses were demolished, roads torn up and a surface shelter had been wrecked. Ambulances and rescue squads were at work at we passed. Fires of varying sizes were visible all round.
After being ordered to Beckton Gas Works, Hurd experienced his first bomb:
A weird whistling sound and I ducked beside the pump with two more of the crew…then a vivid flash of flame, a column of earth and debris flying into the air, and the ground heaved. I was thrown violently against the side of the appliance.
While the gas works burned, Hurd was forced to wait while others went to fetch water. Looking around he marvelled at the sights:
What a sight. About a mile away to our right was the river front. The whole horizon on that side was a sheet of flame. The docks were afire! On all other sides it was much the same. Fires everywhere. The sky was a vivid orange glow. And all the time the whole area was being mercilessly bombed. The road shuddered with the explosions. A-A [anti-aircraft] shells were bursting overhead. A Royal Navy destroyer berthed in one of the docks was firing her A-A equipment, as were other ships. The shrapnel literally rained down. It was now about midnight and still this incessant racket kept on.
German Heinkel He-111 bomber over London's East End
On 7 September 1940, the Luftwaffe launched an aerial bombing campaign against British cities. London bore the brunt of the bomber offensive, which lasted until May 1941.
Despite the noise and danger of the raid, Hurd found himself surprised by how quickly he became accustomed to it:
It surprised me how quickly we got used to sensing whether a bomb was coming our way or not. At first we all lay flat every time we heard anything but after an hour or so we only dived for it if one came particularly close.
Then, in the middle of the night:
At about 3:30 a.m. a canteen van arrived and served us out tea and sandwiches. It was the first bite any of us had had since one o’clock mid-day the day before, fourteen and a half hours ago.
German incendiary bomb
Though the most common types of incendiary bomb only weighed one or two kilos, their thermite filling created fires hot enough to melt steel. A single bomber aircraft could carry hundreds of these incendiaries, and tens of thousands could be dropped in a single raid.
After a final flurry of bombing and gunfire:
Then, quite suddenly, it ceased. The silence was almost overpowering for a time. Then, about five a.m. the 'All Clear' went. We had been subjected, without any real cover to eight hours' bombing!
Yet Hurd still had to remain on the scene for a few hours longer. By now the fires were drawing in firefighters from across southern England:
We stayed there until ten o'clock on Sunday morning when our Sub-officer handed over control to another officer. This officer and his ten pumps, we afterwards found out came from Brighton!
Hurd wrote this account in early December 1940. Later that month, on the night of 29-30 December, the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) mounted a massive raid on the City of London, the historic centre of London, dropping more than 100,000 incendiary bombs. That night, Hurd fought fires near Smithfield Market, less than half a mile from St Paul’s Cathedral, which was also threatened by fire.
Hurd was injured while on duty and died in hospital on 30 December 1940. During the Second World War, 327 London firemen were killed.
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