The characters that I have included in the Leaders section of this website are many and varied. Some led with strength and by example over a protracted period - Chief Officer Wilfred Harry Brown serving fifty-odd years at Sandown for instance. Others led by their utter commitment to the cause, even where their style may have been unorthodox and today would probably have been lambasted and placed in the ‘inappropriate’ category.
In the case of Hector Percy Scott, I base his inclusion on his fortitude, perception and endeavour over a period of little more than ten-hours – though there was clearly more to the man than that.
An example of a simple Incident Command System, where the Incident Commander has just three direct spans of control - comprising two Sector Commanders and Command Support.
In modern fire service training for Incident Command, we are taught that as Incident Commanders we add to the spidery structure of our command network to minimise our individual spans of control – that is to say how many points of contact we are remaining in direct communications with – and at any stretch five spans of control is, according to those with the acumen to study the issue, the absolute maximum that any commander can effectively remain in control of.
For a Level 1 or Initial Incident Commander of the fire service today this generally begins with your first fire appliance in attendance, i.e. the one you arrived on – your spans of control at that stage are limited to four; your driver (who is also your pump operator), a team of Breathing Apparatus (BA) equipped firefighters, the Entry Control Officer (ECO) and of course the Fire Control Centre back at headquarters.
Once the BA team are deployed into the affected building and in direct radio contact with the ECO, this reduces the commanders spans of control to three. More appliances begin to arrive, persons from the neighbourhood may rush to the commander with information regarding the family or property, the Press arrive at the scene, the Police arrive, representatives of the utility companies arrive to isolate gas and electric, wider family or friends of the property owners rush to you in emotional panic… in no time at all you can be completely overwhelmed and if not careful take your eye off the primary objective – your BA teams on the inside taking the risks, fighting the fire and searching for missing persons.
In mitigation of the potential overloading effect an experienced Incident Commander will know from Fire Control, or more likely today from what is displayed on the onboard Mobile Date Terminal (a kind of toughened laptop) what other appliances are mobilised and heading to the same incident – and will already have a plan for the next Crew Commander before he’s even arrived – perhaps to liaise with the Police to close the road, talk to the neighbours and family and filter anything relevant to the objective, and so on. In that way that second Commander becomes the Incident Commander’s fourth span of control and has a handful of spans of control of his own.
Having been a firefighter for many years, and thinking I was pretty good, it came as something of a shock when I first served as an Incident Commander to realise just how much you have to deal with, sometimes under immense pressure of time and urgency – stress – and my first time was before the introduction of the wholly appropriate spans of control methodology with gives me some idea of what commanders went through during the war; because… thanks to Ryde’s late Company Officer Max Heller I am able to leaf through every wartime NFS Operations and Training Note issued from No. 1/1942 to No. 39/1944, and nowhere, not in a single one of those dozens of notes, is there a single unequivocal method for structured command at incidents. Given the nationalised service’s exceptional administrative bureaucracy this seems a glaring omission.
The content of the notes varies from the mundane care of hose to the vital recognition of delayed action devices and somewhere in the middle there are plenty of hints for commanders of how to approach certain specific types of incidents. Each different type suggests a different method of approach, an impossible task to remember it all and implement it at real-time incidents.
The closest they had was an OT Note concerned with NFS Mobile Control Units, but if I state that the note included half a page dedicated to an utterly pointless diagram specifying the position of in-van seating placements you’ll get the idea that it wasn’t a brilliantly conceived piece of work and of little actual value to anyone but the cleaner.
This was the world into which Hector Percy Scott was thrust when the destructive leadership of Thomas Upward saw the latter removed from command of the Isle of Wight’s fire services, demoted, and removed to a Portsmouth based role within four months of the NFS being established.
Upward had no opportunity to command the NFS at a major incident. Fortunate perhaps, as he’d made a sufficient mess by poor organisation and a lack of people skills behind the scenes. When Hector Percy Scott was appointed interim and temporary Acting Column Officer, no one could have known that he’d been propelled to the forefront on the cusp of IW firefightings greatest test.
East Cowes gasworks, photographed in the 1950's.
When researching for Volume 7 of the history of IW firefighting, concerned with the Cowes Blitz chapter Why Has Time Erased the Traces, the true nature of a local hero began to emerge from the documents held at the Public Records Office, the National Archives and in Portsmouth (and a handful of other obscure archives).
Heroism – a term too loosely used in modern media reporting and at risk of losing its meaning. A simple internet search suggests several varying definitions but most settle on the simple great bravery. On the night of 4/5 May 1942 many recorded acts and no doubt many more unrecorded acts fall within that category. When the news broke that two Ryde firemen were to be formally awarded for their heroism in preventing the explosion of East Cowes gas works, another fireman wrote to the County Press making the not unreasonable point – why only those two?
A notable member of the nation’s military once remarked that awards for gallantry are made to those witnessed doing what they did by those willing to award them. Sidney Burchell, Cowes A.R.P. Officer, was recommended for an award because he refused to leave his post despite learning of the death of his wife and serious injury to his pre-school aged son. The recommendation was refused on the basis that Burchell’s own life wasn’t at risk – had his control centre at Northwood House taken a chance bomb strike would he then have qualified? For a man such as Burchell, injured to the point of losing the use of a hand in the First World War, I doubt very much that the lack of a gong caused him to lose much sleep.
But surely this was bravery of a type. A bravery of resolute conviction to duty. The courage of a man emotionally torn yet infallibly continuing the duties which, if he had not, may not have been conducted with the swift, exacting, and positive outcomes for which Burchell was so esteemed. Submissions despatched to the Treasury Committee on Civil Defence Honours written by his subordinates, emphasise his leadership as a key factor in the success of ARP rescue operations, and of his bravery in continuing with the task despite his personal loss.
When I first wrote of Hector Percy Scott in one of the IWFBF books, we were in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic and heroes of a new generation were showing similar fortitude in the face of an unseen danger; shopworkers, postmen, delivery drivers, carers, and of course a multitude of skilled NHS staff (and I’m sure many more that I apologise for not including) – we cannot say that all of them were at risk of danger in every moment of the duties they performed, we simply couldn’t be sure – but were they any less heroic for doing it?
From experience I can state that the pressure and expectation of a fire service incident commander requires a certain fortitude. What I can’t remark upon from personal experience is how on earth, knowing that a district of this Island is being pounded by tons of high explosive ordnance, cannon, and machine gun fire, with fires raging and buildings collapsing, I would even begin to manage the deployment and movement of men, women and resources numbering around 1000 to attempt to mitigate the rapidly evolving devastation. How do you do that?
Newport Fire Brigade 1932, when the fire station was accommodated behind the arches of the Guild Hall.
A very young Hector can be seen fourth from the left.
Hector Percy Scott, at the time of the Cowes blitz, was 31 years old. He’d been a fireman, serving under his father Chief Officer Sydney Percy Scott, since he was a teenager in 1930. Concurrent he was a Master Builder in the employ of his father’s business, H.Scott & Sons.
By the mid-30’s he had succeeded to the status of brigade engineer, a senior position among the firemen, and under the command of his father’s successor Stanley Fairbrass, he was appointed to Station Officer of Newport Fire Brigade (ostensibly to allow Fairbrass to concentrate on his broadening responsibilities as supreme commander of all Island fire brigades prior to the formation of the NFS).
It should be considered that throughout his entire career there was no formal command structure in Isle of Wight firefighting circles. Younger men learned their trade from older men that did it before them – drilling with hose and branch, pitching ladders and commanding men at fires – it was learned on the hoof.
The famously tall Sydney Percy Scott, Hector's father. This photograph taken around the time of the end of the First World War shows his tunic carrying the number '1' badge, indicating his seniority among the firemen but not yet holding officer status.
When the UK’s first Fire Service College was opened at Saltdean in the requisitioned Grand Ocean Hotel, the opportunity was taken to standardise command training but there is no record that Hector attended a course. The available records evidence that he had knowledge of the reinforcing policy but that appears all. The unusual dog-legged structure of Fire Force 14, beyond Hector’s control and a direct result of island status, caused mainland reinforcements to arrive after they might have made a major difference to the extent of the conflagrations in Cowes and East Cowes. If nothing else, they proved welcome reliefs for the Island’s shattered firefighters.
The Grand Ocean Hotel, Saltdean, the NFS Fire Service College.
So how did Hector cope with the demands coming into The Grange, Fire Force 14d headquarters, as the reality of the events to the north of the Island dawned upon him and his controllers?
We can’t possibly know how he coped; all we know is that he did.
How can we judge the appropriateness of his command decisions? There was no model for him to follow, in Isle of Wight terms the event was unprecedented. The 14d resources available to him on that night were at least seven times greater than the entire strength that the Isle of Wight possesses today.
On the occasions where I have participated in protracted incidents involving substantial proportions of Isle of Wight firefighting resources there is inevitably grumbling from firefighters and junior commanders of the decisions made by senior command, and probably the other way too. During the war years, as my research has unearthed, the Press were quick to leap on any perceived failures on the part of the NFS. Yet from the first-hand accounts of firemen and the Press reports of the Cowes blitz, no complaint is levelled at the actions or command of Fire Force 14d.
NFS Area Headquarters, Wintershill Hall, Durley, Hampshire.
It may be considered that the decision made at Wintershill Hall, Fire Force Area headquarters, to install a Divisional Officer on the Island less than two months after the events of 4/5 May, were an indictment on Scott’s command prowess. Unlike the removal of Thomas Upward in late 1941 and the reassignment of Divisional Officer Pearson in early 1944, no evidence exists to suggest that Hector was a cause for concern. What is apparent is that while Hector was commanding ‘D’ division as an Acting Column Officer, divisions A, B, and C, were commanded by Divisional Officers – sending a D.O. to the Isle of Wight was merely acknowledging its escalation as a division with an equal need, probably because of the events of the Cowes blitz rather than Hector Scott’s reaction to them. Staff at Wintershill may have inwardly considered themselves at fault for assuming the Isle of Wight to be of a lesser risk in the first place.
Hector Percy Scott, circa 1930, when a young fireman of Newport Fire Brigade.
Pearson’s arrival signalled the end of Hector’s command and the need for him to assume the role of Column Officer. Hector was returned to his substantive rank of Company Officer at Newport.
There is absolutely nothing to suggest that Hector Percy Scott was at fault.
There is copious evidence showing that he was a young man, appointed to a position well above that normally considered for a man of his age and experience, that it was a conscious decision of Area Headquarters to downgrade the risk to the Island (incorrectly) and not allocate a dedicated D.O., that Hector’s preparation for the role in terms of formal training was minimal, and that no person, publication or report levelled complaint at command of 14d generally or at him specifically.
From the evidence available one can only assume that Acting Column Officer Hector Percy Scott had inherited enough of his father’s leadership aptitude to carry the Island’s fire force through its most severe test.
How exactly he did it, how he maintained composure when at one point the peripheral bombing of the street where his parents lived was reported to The Grange, we will never know for sure. What we do know is that every fireman and firewoman gave their all at the point of the Island’s greatest disaster and to do that they must have looked for leadership and decisiveness and found it in Hector Percy Scott.
The IW County Press of the war years, refer to Hector’s many escapades and commands at fires, some accidental, some due to enemy action. In 1944, he led the way during a fire at Ashlake Copse House in Wootton. Directing his crews into the smoke he was floored by a burning beam occasioned by a partial roof collapse. By the time his men extricated him from beneath the debris, his hands, forearms, and face were badly burned.
Hector remained a Company Officer within the NFS until 14d was disbanded with effect in the morning of 2 April 1948. From that day he continued as a wholetime member of the newly launched Isle of Wight County Fire Brigade as a Sub Officer of Blue Watch at Newport Fire Station.
He was never promoted again. This seems surprising for a man that had achieved so much to have remained in the modest role of Sub Officer for the remainder of his career. What more did he need to prove for he had risen to the greatest challenge placed before any Isle of Wight firefighter prior to, or since, 4/5 May 1942. There have been dozens of fire service commanders serving the Isle of Wight since that fateful night, and we all, me included, like to think that we’d rise to whatever challenge is presented, but thanks to Hector and those of his generation, we can feel confident that never again will we be thrust into the pits of hell that besieged our grandparents generation and in particular the events of the Cowes blitz.
In communication with Hector’s daughter in 2020 she told me – He rarely spoke of the war, except to say he had a lot of responsibility. It seems he rarely spoke of the job at all, with the exception of his 48-hour attendance at the scene of the terrible Aquila Airways crash at Shalcombe Down in November 1957, where he was deeply upset by the scenes he had witnessed. It was not long after this event that he suffered his first heart attack.
His daughter summarised – He was a quiet, calm, and above all modest man, with a great sense of humour. I never saw him flustered or angry. He was always the family man, happiest when at home with my mother, my sister, and me.
He was in charge of Blue Watch at Newport after the war, and was known to be a stickler for the rules. Everything had to be done to a high standard, but his crew liked and respected him, and his superiors also had a high regard for him. He was very much his own man, and I think to some extent, this was the reason he was overlooked for promotion.
I have nothing but a deep respect for the late Hector Percy Scott, for his fortitude and endeavour in the face of overwhelming odds, responsibility, and expectation.
Hector suffered a second heart attack in January 1965, but remained in the service. A third and fatal attack occurred in the next month, and he died at the Royal County Hospital in Ryde on 16 February 1965 and buried at Mount Joy three days later. Hector was 53.
The Cowes Blitz
For those wishing to know more about the Cowes Blitz from the Civil Defence perspective, and of Hector Percy Scott's part in it, I recommend reading the dedicated 86-page chapter in the history of IW firefighting Volume 7 - As Severe a Test, available to purchase at Blurb, HERE.