On the outbreak of the Second World War the British government were especially worried about the Luftwaffe dropping incendiary bombs. Some 86,000 stirrup pumps were distributed to local authorities and air-raid wardens were asked to arrange for local volunteer groups to be formed to help put out fires during bombing raids.
The government decided to establish the Auxiliary Fire Service. Around 6,000 people were recruited and they went on duty after working in their normal jobs during the day. Temporary fire stations were set up in schools and church halls. Volunteers agreed to work on low pay and without sick leave or holidays. This upset the Fire Brigades Union who were at the time trying to improve their members pay and conditions.
In September 1940, a Fire Watchers Order was issued. Men could now be compelled to fire watch for a maximum of forty-eight hours per month. Local fireman also trained new Supplementary Fire Parties (SFP). In some cases local authorities provided the men with steel helmets and armbands marked SFP.
The owners of factories and large buildings were responsible for providing firewatchers. It was therefore of great embarrassment when it was discovered that when the House of Commons caught fire in May 1941, MPs had not provided sufficient volunteers to protect it.
During the war 793 fireman and 25 firewomen lost their lives and another 7,000 were seriously injured. This included a large number who were temporarily or permanently blinded by heat or sparks.
A major change that I made was the institution of the National Fire Service. There had been agitation for this from several quarters - notably from Lady Astor after the Plymouth blitz. I was not willing to be rushed. Experience was very limited. Traditionally fire brigades are a local authority service and I was in sympathy with their desire to retain control of them if they could be made to succeed.
However, when I visited Coventry and saw fire brigades from every part of the Midlands and some from the North working in the area I realized that the crews were not speaking the same language. They literally had to have interpreters on duty to explain to the visiting fire services what was meant by the words of some orders. Organization also differed.
This convinced me that a national fire service was essential for the war. I promised the local authorities that I would get the brigades returned to local government after the cessation of hostilities. Naturally they did not want the N.F.S. to be permanent, and they took the change very well, as did the firemen themselves. In due course, Mr. Chuter Ede returned the brigades to counties and county boroughs but not to county districts.
Bombing for that year ended with the extremely heavy raid of May 10-11 in which it seemed the Germans were trying to burn down the whole of London at the same time. Coming into the Hulton Press offices after it was over, I found W. J. Dickenson, our financial director, jubilant. He had been in charge of the office fire-fighting arrangements while incendiaries were falling all over the area around St Paul's and Ludgate Circus. Our own team, he said, had been up on the roof half the night, kicking incendiaries off into the street or, as sometimes happened, onto neighbouring buildings. As an additional precaution three or four of the staff, seeing a hose left unmanned by the firemen, had commandeered it and played the water on our building to prevent fire spreading from our blazing neighbours.
So bad did the feeling become in some places (one volunteer recalls) that Auxiliaries never wore their uniform (if they possessed one) in public, if they could avoid it. Not being thin-skinned the candid remarks so often heard about three-pounds-a-week men doing b all for their money didn't worry me at all, but quite a number of competent firemen gladly got themselves into one of the services, usually the Air Force, in order to get away from the cutting remarks of ignorant members of the public.
The offices of World Review, Picture Post and the Evening Standard stand like an island of culture in a sea of desolation. This is largely due to the efficiency of our own fire fighters. Many owners and employers have only themselves to blame. Fire-watching was futile. In many cases buildings were left unwatched and locked up.
We were in the cellar when the swish of incendiaries through the air was followed by a loud thud above. I raced upstairs - two floors, three, four. There was sizzling behind a bedroom door, it was locked, I crashed it. In the middle of the bed was a fountain of flame. I bent the mattress, but could not reach the opposite end. I looked round and there was one of our journalist residents. Together we carried the burning mass to the window and threw it out. We saw that Neville's Court was covered by naming incendiaries, ran down and emptied buckets of sand on the nearest fires and dug up earth to cover them. I became aware of a young lad digging at our side; he lived next door and was awaiting call-up to the navy. Together we worked our way down the Court, putting out fires, and met others doing the same. This gave me the idea. Six of us formed ourselves into a Voluntary Fire Guard for the Court. Two watched each night, the four others on call. It was this which lifted the burden of doubt and guilt from my mind; I was doing a positive service. I sent the idea to my old colleague, Herbert Morrison, who was Home Secretary. He replied cordially that he was thinking of setting up a national Fire Guard Service. Later he did.
As far as Vauxhall there was the light of early dusk, and after Lambeth it was nearly the light of day ... The Temple and its lawns were brilliant and beautiful... The Pool, below London Bridge, was a lake of light. I saw a stupendous spectacle. Half a mile or more of the Surrey shore was burning ... The wind was westerly, and the accumulated smoke and sparks of all the fires swept in a high wall across the river. The scene was like a lake in Hell. Burning barges were drifting everywhere ... We could hear the hiss and roar of the conflagration, a formidable noise, but we could not see it, so dense was the smoke. Nor could we see the eastern shore.
There were pepper fires, loading the surrounding air heavily with stinging particles so that when the firemen took a deep breath it felt like breathing fire itself. There were rum fires, with torrents of blazing liquid pouring from the warehouse doors (nor any drop to drink) and barrels exploding like bombs themselves. There was a paint fire, another cascade of white hot flame, coating the pumps with varnish that could not be cleaned for weeks. A rubber fire gave forth black clouds of smoke so asphyxiating that it could only be fought from a distance, and was always threatening to choke the attackers.
Bristol was bombed while we were there: we used to go down to the cellars of our Hall of Residence. We wore trousers over our pyjamas during night raids (but never in daytime or in the street - trousers were not thought respectable for girl students at that time).
One night in my first term King's College Arts library, which was occupying the Great Hall of Bristol University, was set on fire by incendiaries and completely destroyed. Soon after that we were sent home, for an extended Christmas vacation. There was nowhere for us to work without the library space.
Later, students were on a rota for firewatching. We usually did one night a week, on duty for two hours at a stretch, two of us together, working as part of a team. Those off duty slept in camp beds. The most exciting place to watch was the room at the top of the tower of the University building. You could see the whole of Bristol.
News from Intelligence sources that both in Germany and occupied Europe fire bombs were being manufactured on an enormous scale meant that a painful decision had to be taken by the cabinet, for the fire bombs were soon to be dropped on us.
We made fire guarding compulsory. The decision, which was quickly put into force because of the urgency, caused some trouble with the T.U.C., who had not been consulted.
The workers (and in this I include everyone from stockbrokers to clerks) took it very well and there is no doubt that the Fire Guards prevented thousands of serious conflagrations. Members, officers and journalists of both Houses played their part in protecting the Palace of Westminster after I made approaches.
Soon the number of incendiary bombs being dropped increased considerably and the decision had to be made to augment the forces available by making the order apply to women; indeed, of general application. During the weekend which came immediately after the cabinet agreed on this the Germans began dropping explosive incendiary bombs. Dared we go ahead with our plan? It was felt that the women themselves would not wish sex equality to apply in one matter and not another and so the order stood. The women stood up to things, bless them.
One result of the Fire Guard was to create a fellowship which cemented class to class. Fire-watching became a sort of social occasion and if we had had few protests when the organization began we did receive quite a number when it was disbanded, simply because we had not consulted the public about ending it. People missed their get-togethers in factory, office and public building even if a get-together meant going without a comfortable night's rest.