Overseas Firefighters of the UK

This feature isn't limited to Isle of Wight firefighters, but the interest began on the Island when I was contacted by the late Don Hayward of Freshwater in 2017. By email he sent me a copy of the photo on the right (Fig.1) which, at first glance, I assumed to be one team on a tug-of-war rope featuring military personnel because they were wearing berets.

However Don's email described that his father was in the photo and named all the others with him, and suggested that this was after he had been conscripted into the NFS Overseas Contingent.

I had never heard of such a unit but was instantly hooked.

It took a long time to successfully evidence the suggestions Don had made in his email and photograph. It fell into place when I discovered original wartime documents at the National Archives that confirmed three important factors. First that the NFS Overseas Contingent really did exist and were formed in spring 1944. Second, unlike any other United Kingdom firefighting unit they wore military styled berets, and finally, that Don's father may have told his family that he'd been conscripted into the unit, but the reality is that all members had to volunteer for the assignment.

To cap it off, when searching through a random collection of notes and images at a small mainland heritage centre, I located the photograph below. This looks remarkably similar to the one above, highly likely to be the same place, possibly the same men, maybe even on the same day, and in this case showing them not engaged in the high jinks of tug-of-war, but in fact hauling a Dennis 500gpm trailer-pump over rough terrain. This second photograph also included a caption indicating they were men of No.6 Column, NFS Overseas Contingent, training near their unit base at the requisitioned Testwood School in the summer of 1944.

The men in the first photo are, from left to right, Alfred Jukes of 3 College Road, Newport, E.Drake of 18 New Street, Newport, E.Pitman of 4 Station Road, Freshwater, R.Morris of 78 Sheridan Street, Leicester, S.Sharman of 11 Waring Street, Leicester, R.Pierce of Oakholme Staplers Road, Newport, and at the back is Don's father Cyril Franklin Hayward, plus an unnamed instructor.

Fireman Cyril Franklin Hayward (Fig.2), was a cake maker and confectioner of 70 Pyle Street, Newport, where he had spent all of his life and which also accommodated the family business established by his father Frank. Born in the town on 24 September 1905, there are no records to suggest that he had undertaken firefighting prior to volunteering as an Auxiliary Firemen in 1939. Don advised me that Cyril had seen action in London during the Blitz when still a fresh member of the Auxiliary Fire Service and was among the massed Island firefighters that attended the attack on Cowes in May 1942. Don recalled that his father loved firefighting and remained in the service after the war until compelled to retire when reaching the age of 55 in 1960. 

Thanks to Don, and the service of his late father Cyril, I have spent many years researching this fascinating firefighting force and its eventual service overseas. 

The National Archives possess a wealth of material on the subject, mainly documents generated by the political machinery that fashioned the concept of an Overseas Contingent. However it was a very helpful volunteer at the Swindon and Wiltshire History Centre that discovered, scanned and emailed to me a vast quantity of documents held in their archive. These documents illuminated the launch, recruitment and structure of the Contingent from a grass roots perspective, offering a view from operational level to compare with political machinations. 

In 2022 this element of the project received an incomparable boost when two separate families allowed me to obtain scanned copies of unpublished diaries written by ancestors that had served in 'B' and 'D' companies of No.4 Column - that being the Column that was actually deployed to Northern Europe in January 1945.

The project widened still further when I discovered that the Overseas Contingent were not the only UK civilian firefighting force to be sent to foreign lands during conflict. Earlier in the war the London Fire Volunteers (Fig.3), a small contingent of AFS firemen who were bored and frustrated due to a lack of action during the Phoney War, ventured to Finland, with official consent, to assist the Helsinki Fire Brigade during the torrential bombing inflicted by the Russians (read LFV Fireman Philip Cory's account here). Additionally by discovery of the devastating Bombay dock explosion incident of April 1944 (Fig.4), it became apparent that many UK firemen were present, some of who perished in the incident. 

Going all the way back to the Second Boer War, in 1900, individual firemen who were members of brigades affiliated to the National Fire Brigades Union and were First Aid qualified, voluntarily departed for South Africa to serve as medical orderlies at the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital at Deelfontein. Whilst that wouldn't qualify as firemen being despatched overseas for their firefighting prowess, the matter changed when the expanding hospital required fire protection and the NFBU firemen were perfectly suited to establish, maintain and staff the on-site fire station and brigade (Fig.6).

More recently I have been in discussion with a colleague in the fire service whose grandfather served in some firefighting capacity overseas during the Second World War. However there is considerable unravelling to be done to ascertain exactly what his role was and to what unit he was assigned as his not inconsiderable range of documents suggests a myriad of movements across the world and in particular the Middle East.

My plan is to finalise the research of all the above and publish a book detailing my findings telling the story of UK firefighters who have served in a firefighting capacity overseas during conflict. Until then the sections below provide a concise taster of the subjects.

Since contacting me with the information that kicked off this area of research in 2017, sadly Don Hayward has passed away.

In one of my last contacts with him he was concerned that as the subjects he'd raised were so many years ago when he was a boy, he may have completely misunderstood, and created the notion of UK firemen serving in Northern Europe from his imagination. But it was no work of fiction, Don's memories were accurate and my only regret is that I hadn't proved it and been able to show the evidence to him before he passed away aged 85 on 6 March 2020.

Don had also served as a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy.

Rest in peace Don, and thank you. 

Fireman of the Karoo

Wilfred Harry Brown was a young man (Fig.5) when he joined Sandown Fire Brigade in 1894 after previously serving as one of the boy knockers-up, responsible for running to firemen's addresses and hammering on their door to ensure they were aware of the need to attend the fire station and deploy to a fire. 

Wilfred was to go on to become one of Sandown's most dependable and skilled firemen exuding a commanding presence which led to his rise through the ranks and eventual appointment as Chief Officer. 

In addition to advancing his firefighting skills Wilfred evidenced a keen interest in first aid. When the British Army suffered a series of humiliating and costly defeats in December 1899 after just two months of the Second Boer War, with casualties littering the battlefields, the authorities and supporting non-government agencies considered what they could do to help.

A group of society elites decided to set up a military hospital to support the needs of the men of the Imperial Yeomanry. Deelfontein was identified as a suitable site in the Great Karoo of the Northern Cape at the point of a strategic railway junction. 

In addition to being a fireman of Sandown Fire Brigade Wilfred was also a Sergeant within the British Red Cross. With that experience and training behind him he volunteered to go to South Africa with a contingent of firemen under the banner of the National Fire Brigades Union to serve as medical orderlies at the IY hospital.

Wilfred departed from Southampton aboard the SS Norman of the Union Castle Line on 10 February 1900 with 27 other NFBU firemen of the Ambulance Division (NFBUAD) joined by Principal Medical Officer Lt. Col. (later Sir) Arthur Thomas Sloggett. They were to be joined by a dozen more four months later. With an addition of seven others who appeared in trickles, a total of 47 NFBUAD firemen were staffed at the hospital.

The first party loaded 1,700 tons of equipment onto rolling stock and headed 470 miles north to their destination at Deelfontein. 

The hospital opened soon after, initially providing 500 beds in tented accommodation but developed rapidly with neatly lined pathways and timber structures that included wards, surgeries, a theatre, a pharmacy and a myriad of stores, administrative and staff quarter constructions. Thus far the firemen's only interaction with fire was to continually stoke the furnaces that provided hot water twenty-four hours a day. But with an increasing site so too increased the fire risks and after a handful of near misses Sloggett tasked the NFBU men with construction, equipping and staffing a hospital fire station. It was basic and featured no dedicated fire engine, but proved its value when a structure described in one of the firemen's diary as the Jew's store caught ablaze on 25 September 1901 and was promptly extinguished by the Union men - everyone was delighted that Deelfontein had its own fire station and fire brigade - wrote Ambulance Brigade volunteer Staff Sergeant John Charles Davis.

The life of the Firemen of the Karoo was anything but dull. Several were captured and temporarily imprisoned in a Boer gaol when acting as stretcher bearers on the front line, swiftly followed by a rescue performed by soldiers of Lord Methuen's column as they advanced across the veldt.

Deelfontein hospital closed in December 1901 when the battlefield element of the war petered out in favour of the British and the Boer's altered their strategy to that of an insurgency. The NFBU firemen returned home soon after. 

Firemen in the Great War

I have unearthed no evidence of firefighters undertaking firefighting duties in a theatre of conflict during the First World War.

However there is plenty of evidence of firefighters who served in other capacities during the conflict, in the fighting forces or the aid agencies.

Unlike the Second World War, where the role of the fireman was a scheduled occupation, firemen of First World War fire brigades were not protected from the call-up when the Military Service Act received Royal Assent in March 1916. This is hardly surprising as it wasn't until 1938 that the first Fire Brigades Act was passed placing legislative obligation on local authorities to provide a firefighting force.

Firemen were fair game for the call-up, but many didn't wait until March 1916 and had already voluntarily responded to the call. They were driven either by concurrent membership of a local corps of rifle volunteers, or simply because they wanted to go and be part of trouncing the Hun and returning home before Christmas

However there were many who didn't want to fight and felt that their skills could be better used in non-combatant roles, some were conscientious objectors who had no desire to carry or use weaponry, but were happy to share the risks of the fighting soldiers in a front-line medical role.

It was battlefield lifesaving which many of the non-combatant firemen were drawn into. 

In 1909, at the request of the War Office, the British Red Cross and Order of St John began arrangements to combine their skills and personnel and form units beneath the umbrella of the Voluntary Aid Detachments.

VADs, as both the units and the individual members became colloquially known, trained to provide many facets of medical care from the front-line to the home front.

By October 1910 the VAD comprised 202 detachments across the country with a membership of over 6,000 volunteers. A typical men's detachment comprised 56 individuals - a Commandant, one Medical Officer, a Quartermaster, a Pharmacist, four Section Leaders and 48 men. 

For the majority of the firemen deployed to France and Belgium with a VAD unit, tasks focussed in the main on the duties of hospital orderly, immediate lifesaving care, utilising local resources to create improvised stretchers, and, when necessary, exposing themselves to the mud, wire, bullets and bombs to retrieve wounded men from no-mans land. 

Prior to the war the men were attired in blue tunic, breeches, putties, and a peaked cap. At the outbreak of war the ensemble was reproduced in Army khaki. I have unearthed no evidence suggesting they were provided with a helmet although it seems unthinkable that they were not.

Supporting the hospital and frontline components, the VAD developed a vast network of support services providing transportation, administration, stores and supply lines and welfare facilities for both members and patients. So greatly did the VAD expand and its role encompass so broad a brief that by the end of the war over 90,000 VAD volunteers were active on either side of the Channel, almost 250 of which lost their lives in the conflict. 

There is however, nothing to suggest that firemen formally exercised their firefighting skills such as that of the Deelfontein IY Hospital Fire Brigade of the Second Boer War.

Ironically the Germans did utilise the skills of men drawn from Posen Fire Brigade, but in an unorthodox and unthinkable turn of the tables. 

Forty-eight Posen firemen were actively recruited in January 1915 to join Flammenwerfer-Abteilung Reddemann (Flamethrower Department Reddemann - the latter word being the name of unit commander Haupt. Bernhard Reddemann). Formed in Berlin and attached to the 5th Army, German High Command agreed that the best men to use fire as a weapon were those who understood how to fight against it. The experiment was, in the opinion of the Germans, successful, and a further draft of two NCO's and twenty men arrived to joined the unit from Leipzig Fire Brigade before the end of the month. If you wish to know more about this misguided unit of men that failed their calling, conduct an internet search for Totenkopf Pioniere, or in English - Deaths Head Pioneers.

Within British circles use of horrific backpacked flame weapons never progressed beyond experimentation stage. No British firemen were pressured to sacrifice their principles by manipulating the physics of their sworn foe to be that of atrocious wartime ally. 

UK firefighters seconded to India - the Bombay Dock Explosion

On Friday 14 April 1944 an explosion occurred at the Victoria Dock of Bombay. The cause was a fire of unproven origin in the hold of SS Fort Stikine that was in the process of unloading a cargo of cotton bales, timber, oil, gold, ammunition, 240 torpedoes, and around 1,400 tons of explosives.

The event was subject to two major explosions that sent other ships to the sea bed and was of such unimaginable power that one vessel was tossed from the water onto the dockside. Fires wrought havoc across an 800 metre arc around the ship of origin which was cut in two. Sensors recorded an earth tremble 1,700km away at Shimla, and the second explosion was sufficient to register a notable impression on a seismograph. 

80,000 persons were made homeless, an estimated 800-1300 were killed, including 66 firemen seven of who were UK officers and firemen sent to India to assist with organisation of the city brigade.

Researching the incident is no difficult feat as there are many documents and books including the fascinating Bombay Explosion by John Ennis (Cassell 1959), in addition to which a substantial part of the event was captured on film and can be freely watched on YouTube and other websites.

What is proving harder to identify is the background of the seven UK firefighters killed on the day - why they were there and where had they served before. Those men, whose names are set into the Mumbai Firefighters Memorial, are remembered every year from 14-21 April when Fire Safety Week is observed in honour of those lost during the disaster. 

For now the research remains work in progress. The seven UK firemen to die that day were all listed with the Bombay Fire Brigade and named as Asst. Officer Commanding Harold Palmer, Company Officer Robert Chargers G. Andrews, Company Officer Arthur D. Reynolds, Auxiliary Officer Samuel Thomson, Auxiliary Officer Ferdinand Roberts, Auxiliary Officer Aron Joseph Days, and Section Leader Daniel Hamilton Thomas. 

A short video of the Bombay Dock Explosion can be seen HERE.

If you have enjoyed this page, why not make a small donation to the Firefighters Charity.