Prior to the start of WW2 the Government recognised the fact that the threat of War was imminent and that they were poorly prepared for a second World War. The Government acted swiftly with the Fire Brigade Act of July 1938 which demanded the recruitment of an auxiliary fire service as part of the country’s Civil Defence Force. As the nation’s capital, London was a natural prime target. Dockland warehouses packed with highly combustible oils, grain and timber were clearly a risk and the narrow maze of streets would provide an easy path for the fire. It was obvious that a large number of firefighters would be needed to prevent London becoming little more than a smoking ruin.
The answer was to expand the regular Fire Brigade by forming an Auxiliary Fire Service. By 1939 about 28, 000 men and women had joined the AFS and regular firefighters, who had been trained as instructors, put the new recruits through 60 hours intensive training. Originally recruits were unpaid volunteers, but eventually the men were paid £3 per week, women received £2 per week, with youths under 18 and messengers earning £1 per week. At first recruits endured poor accommodation, inadequate conditions and were dubbed “£3-a-week war dodgers” by the public who thought they were choosing an easy life. After many recruits left to join the war effort, the Government passed a statutory order preventing full time members resigning. Once the Blitz started, attitudes towards the volunteers quickly changed and they received the recognition they deserved.
(Wartime Pump crew Beckenham)
The London Fire Brigade and the 66 smaller Brigades in the Greater London Region were organised into five Districts. For each regular Fire Station area, an average of six sub-stations were set up, staffed by the AFS with a regular Sub Officer in charge. Garages, filling stations and schools, empty since the evacuation of pupils, were all commandeered for use as Fire Stations. Although the Auxiliary Fire Service only lasted three years, before it was superseded nationwide by the National Fire service, the men and women, served their country during the time of the Luftwaffe’s most severe attacks on London in the blitz of 1940/41.
(Auxiliary Firemen at Beckenham Station 1939)
March and April 1941 were bad months for The Auxilliary Fire Service in the East End of London. Forty three auxiliary firemen and women were killed in three seperate incidents: first on the 19th March, five men were killed at Plaistow Road, West Ham; then four men died as a result of a bomb falling in Wickham Rd, Beckenham on 16/17th April; lastly and worst of all, 34 men and women died at Old Palace School in Bow on 19/20th April.
This is how the story unfolded on that awful night of 19/20th April 1941, which is still today, the largest ever loss of life for the Fire Brigade.
The Old Palace School in Poplar was originally an LCC Board School, consisting of four stories, much like many of a similar design that remain today. During the Second World War, after the evacuation of London’s children, on the day that the Fire Service was mobilised, it became a sub-fire station, 24U under 24 Brunswick Road. In addition to providing dormitories and living space for the AFS, it was used to accommodate garages, stores, offices and the headquarters of local rescue squads. Being at the centre of much of the industry and dockland in the East End of London, the men who were based there would have been out every night, dealing with massive incendiary fires caused by enemy raids. The night of April 19th/20th was a Saturday and Hitler’s birthday. In celebration, Reichsmarschall Goering had launched an attack on London intended to be the heaviest so far. One thousand and twenty-six tons of high-explosives and a hundred and fifty-three thousand and ninety-six incendiaries are estimated to have been dropped on the capital that night. The sky was overcast and low cloud and drizzling rain made targets difficult to identify so that heavy bombing was scattered over a wide area. One thousand four-hundred fires were started.
By midnight the situation was bad enough in the area around Poplar and further east in West Ham and Walthamstow, for calls for assistance to be sent south of the river. Four crews from Beckenham were standing by at Woodside Fire Station, just outside Croydon. They were ordered to Station 24 Brunswick Road. Stopping briefly at West Norwood Fire Station on the way, they arrived at Brunswick Road, just after 1am and were given tea and biscuits before being directed to the Old Palace School to wait for further instruction. There, along with crews from Hackney and Homerton, the men from Beckenham were mustering in the playground, when at 1.53 am the school received a direct hit from a parachute mine. The bomb penetrated the roof of the school building and fell down the stair well, at the bottom of which, was the watch-room, where two auxiliary firewomen, Winifred Peters and Hilda Dupree, were on duty. They were killed instantly. My Great Aunt, Winifred Peters was thirty-nine years old and married with three children, Hilda Dupree was twenty-one years old and, as so often happened, would have been on leave that night had she not swapped duties with a friend who wanted to go to a dance.
Parachute mines were originally developed from mines used at sea and later adapted for urban bombing. When released by the Luftwaffe over targets on land they drifted down to ground level detonating either by contact or detonation. Because they exploded above ground the blast from parachute mines caused particularly extensive damage, sometimes demolishing whole streets of houses and breaking windows as far as a mile away. The effect of the blast was also responsible for the deaths of many caught in its after effect, which sucked the air from the lungs causing suffocation. Most of the men waiting in the playground were caught in the blast from the bomb and already dead when, almost simultaneously, they were buried by the part of the school closest to where they were standing, that collapsed on top of them, and fire broke out in what was left of the building. The remains of the school were demolished in 1948 and a new school was built on the site in 1952.
(Surveying the devastation)
(Searching for the bodies)
(The search continues)
By the morning the fire was out and the business of digging for the injured and dead had begun. First to be recovered were the women from the watch-room, including my Great Aunt, and their bodies were laid on stretchers on the pavement. David Carson, who served under Bow, being off duty and having heard rumour of the incident, went along as it was getting light, to see if he could help and there he saw them covered by blankets. Later that morning Hilda Dupree’s sister, Joyce, hoping to avoid the distress for her parents, was sent by her family to find out what she could about Hilda. Little more than a girl herself, in her mid-teens, she was confronted by what she described as complete devastation and confusion. Some of the men had also been recovered by the time she arrived and they were laid in a line in a space that had been cleared in the playground, ready to be identified. She remembered thinking that they looked “at peace”. She also noted that they ‘were smiling” which further emphasises the fact that most of them had died from the effects of blast, a grimace not unlike a smile, being an attempt to draw in breath. Hilda had been knitting a little blue child’s vest that she took to the station with her to work on when things were quiet. When Joyce finally found someone to ask about her sister, she was shown what was left of the blue vest and she was able to confirm that one of the women was almost certainly been Hilda.
Later, still on the morning of the 20th, officers and men from Penge and Beckenham Fire Brigades arrived and began to identify the bodies of the Beckenham men, as the rubble was cleared. It was a slow and difficult process. Some of the Beckenham firemen described how they were told that some had still been alive, in the early hours of the morning and could be heard under the debris, but had died by the time that rescuers were able to reach them. A number of men were found that day. The dispatch rider, Ernest Henley, was discovered on the 21st and Leonard Roots on the 22nd. Digging carried on with rescuers working in shifts, among them members of the AFS and regular fire service with officers at their side throughout. Until a body was found and identified, a casualty could not be pronounced dead and so while families waited, recovery went on for almost a week. The last body, that of Patrick Campbell, was found on the 26th and taken with all the others to a temporary mortuary in Devons Road. From there the Beckenham men were finally returned home for burial. There were twenty-one of them, the rest being from Hackney and Homerton. Of thirty-two men and two women who died there, all but one, Station Officer Sinstadt, were auxiliaries. The oldest two were 46, with most being in their twenties and thirties, whilst the youngest was a 17 year old messenger, Bertie James Harris, he was too young to do the perilous job of a Firefighter, but was still part of an unparalleled tragedy.
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