In Search of Fire
An LFV Fireman's account
Philip Cory was nineteen when he evidenced a lust for adventure in signing up for life onboard a tramp-steamer heading to South America. The experience of prolonged sea-sickness killed his enthusiasm for the sea. On returning home he attended Cambridge and obtained a degree in Natural Sciences which somehow equipped him for a career in advertising whilst residing with his mother at the prestigious address of 62 Albert Mansions, next door to the Royal Albert Hall. In 1939 he volunteered for the Auxiliary Fire Service.
The later role of the National Fire Service Overseas Contingent is a little known subject that I’ve been researching avidly since being directed towards it by an Isle of Wight resident who mentioned to me that his father had been in its ranks. At the time I had never heard of the Overseas Contingent and was immediately gripped not only by its connection to an Island member of the NFS but by the concept of wartime firemen working closely behind the front-line of Northern Europe in close support of the fighting forces. Having engaged in this research I assumed this to have been the first and possibly only occasion when firefighters of the United Kingdom had travelled overseas in response to a wartime demand.
I was wrong. Many years before the NFS Overseas Contingent was a consideration, during the lull of the Phoney War, and before any direction of the war could be predicted, the London Fire Volunteers were on their way overseas amid no glory and little media attention and Philip Cory was among them. What follows is his unabridged and unaltered reflection of that chaotic period. In places I have added supplementary details shown in italics inside brackets.
In Search of Fire by Philip Cory
Scrubbing floors, polishing brass, drills and yet more drills, pumping at the “Serps”; each task performed with monotonous regularity, day in, day out. But somehow never a fire. That was life in the AFS. In November 1939 Finland was caught up into the war and offered a real chance of fighting fires and saving life – the purpose for which we had joined the AFS. Finland would give us the opportunity to put into practice all that we had been at such pains to learn in theory. She needed men. We had the men and she had the experience to offer us.
It was with this idea in mind that an AFS man, Anthony Gilkison (Fig.1), decided to organise a Fire Brigade Unit to Finland. As soon as the news became known, there was a rush of volunteers. So far there had been no air-raids on London, and it was not surprising that more than 600 men wished to take advantage of an opportunity to gain practical experience of war-time fire-fighting.
Gilkison’s plan was to take out a basic unit of eight men and, if the expedition proved a success, to send out further units as finances permitted. In choosing his first unit he had to bear in mind that these eight men would eventually be required to aid and guide any further units which might be sent out later. To be able to settle down quickly in a foreign country it was necessary for a man to have had previous experience of living abroad, and to assimilate the organisation and topography a knowledge of languages was essential. The men chosen came from all walks of life and professions, including an ex-army physical training instructor, a film director, an author, a lawyer, and a rubber-planter.
The Finland Fund agreed to finance the organisation and plans were immediately made for the purchase of equipment. Each man was to have two uniforms similar in design to the standard AFS outfit but with plastic instead of metal buttons.
This change would avoid any danger of cold “burns” which result from touching metal in extremely cold temperatures. We welcomed the adoption of the forage-cap instead of the usual AFS cap which we had previously found so cumbersome. In addition there was an issue of overcoats, undress uniforms of the ski-ing outfit type and rubber thigh-boots. The fire-fighting equipment consisted of a heavy-unit type appliance, a Coventry-Climax trailer-pump, a hose-lorry, 3000 feet of American rubber-lined hose, three sets of oxygen breathing-apparatus, a radial branch and numerous other accessories.
Although the men for the first unit were selected by January 1940, we were unable to get under way before March. This was due for the most part to delay in delivery of the equipment. The needs of our own country had to be satisfied first. In the meantime we were given a two-weeks course of intensive training at the L.F.B. Headquarters. This course, specially adapted for the conditions of extreme cold under which we should have to work, included instruction in the care and maintenance of hose and pumps at such temperatures. News-reel films of Finnish fires showed clearly the difficulties with which we should have to contend. Pictures of firemen rendered inactive by frozen pumps, hydrants or hose made us thankful that spring lay not far ahead.
At the end of our course we heard that our equipment had been assembled at the Home Office Depot at Greenford and was ready for fitting out and packing for shipping. By the 10th of March everything was prepared. On the morning of the 11th we drove in uniform in our appliance to the Finland Fund Headquarters in Belgrave Square. Mme Gripenberg, the charming English wife of the Finnish Minister in London, received us and broke a bottle of champagne over the appliance as a token of good luck.
The next day our party, accompanied by Station Officer Locke (Fig.2) of the London Fire Brigade, who was to act as an independent observer, left Shoreham by plane for Finland. Many of us wondered whether this would be the last time we should see England, but any sadness that might have been in our hearts was soon dispelled when, at the airport, we noticed a typical example of British humour. On the notice-board, usually reserved for the names of airports where landing was impossible owing to weather conditions, was written the solitary word – “Berlinksi.”
Our route lay via Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Stockholm. The equipment was to go by sea to Oslo and thence by rail to Finland. Pending its arrival, we were to start work immediately with the Helsinki Fire Brigade and would thus be fully conversant with their organisation and methods by the time it arrived.
At Amsterdam we stayed the night before catching the morning plane to Stockholm. Amsterdam was in the grip of war-fever so we took the opportunity of seeing something of the Dutch Fire Service. The city had already been divided into sub-stations and a large number of fire-floats added to cover the extensive docks and intricate system of canals. Each of these floats was in touch with headquarters by short-wave radio. Later in the evening we were invited by the Chief Officer to see “what we thought of the Dutch beer”. He drank our health and wished us good luck. We reciprocated. Little did we then know the fate that lay in store for him.
The next morning we left for Stockholm. Although there were rumours of peace between Finland and Russia at the time of our departure from London, the Finnish Minister assured us that it was unlikely the Finns would really make peace. It was not until we landed at Copenhagen that we heard he was wrong. The news came from a waiter in the aerodrome restaurant who, much to our amazement, informed us that “thanks to his friend and Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, peace had been made in Finland.” Since this information came from an Axis source, we decided to continue our journey to Stockholm and from there sent a telegram to the Finland Fund asking them whether, in view of the peace, it was necessary for us to proceed any farther. The reply came that we were to go on; there was work to be done. But our journey from Stockholm on was not to prove so easy as it had done up to present. Owing to the peace there was a rush of refugees back to Finland, and it was impossible for us to get seats on the plane to Helsinki although our passage had been paid for. Consequently we had to wait for two days before the first boat to Turku, in Finland, left.
At this time it was extremely cold in Scandinavia, and the Baltic was still frozen over. Boats steaming from Stockholm to Turku had to proceed along a channel cut by an icebreaker.
The ship was crowded. The atmosphere “below” was stifling. Cold, as it was on deck, we frequently had to come up for air. While we paced the decks we noticed that soldiers were dismantling the anti-aircraft gun in the bows. As I watched that gun disappear bit by bit, I felt that with it went the whole purpose of our journey.
We had hardly been under way more than a few hours before the ship stuck fast in the ice. A radio message was immediately sent for the assistance of the icebreaker, but it would be some hours before it arrived. We thought this would be an excellent opportunity to get off the ship and have a walk on the sea. So we asked the captain if he would allow this. With a smile on his face he took us into his cabin and produced a book of rules and regulations. “You see,” he said, “it says quite plainly that no one is permitted to get off the ship during the voyage. Yet, on the next page, it says that bathing from the side of the ship is permitted. So, if you care to take a bathe...” It was not long before we had a ladder over the side, and had walked along to have a chat with the crews of some of the other ships behind us. None of the other passengers took advantage of this opportunity to stretch their legs. I presume that proves the saying that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun – or, when circumstances permit, 40 degrees of frost.
On the second night we called at Mariehamn in the Aaland Islands to pick up some more passengers. The ship was already full, but somehow more than 150 people managed to squeeze themselves into the corridors and public rooms. Many brought their dead with them, and it was indeed an eerie sight to see the white coffins being carried aboard on that cold, moonlight night. The greater proportion of the new passengers were soldiers going home on leave. Most of them were so tired that they slept on their feet.
In the morning we awoke to find ourselves nearing the harbour of Turku. So thick was the ice that we had to ram the quayside eleven times before we could land. The custom-house was completely burnt out and two sunken ships lay alongside the quay, only their funnels and masts visible above their tombstone of ice. At last we were in Finland. The journey from Stockholm to Turku had taken two and a half days. Normally it takes twelve hours.
The train to Helsinki left the ruined Turku station at five in the evening. The journey usually took three hours, but we were warned that, since the line had been heavily bombed from time to time, it would probably take six hours or more. It was well past midnight when we eventually arrived.
The Finland Fund representative was waiting at the station to take us to an hotel where rooms had been booked for the night. Before I turned out the light and went to sleep I opened the window of my room. On it was a reminder of what had been. It was a notice that read: “Anyone opening this window or in any way disturbing the blackout is liable to shot at sight by the watchman on duty outside.” I looked out. No one fired, for the lights of Helsinki burned again.
The next morning we received our orders. We had arrived too late for the war, but were about to witness the grim aftermath – the evacuation of ceded territory. The evacuation of Hanko had been in progress for some days. Tammisaari, the nearest village to the new border, was to be our headquarters. We were to take nothing other than washing-gear and a towel, but even this proved an unnecessary luxury when we found that the water-pipes in the town were frozen. There was some difficulty at first in finding, from the population of such a small village, someone who could act as interpreter. A man was eventually found whose English was as colourful as the house decoration by which he earned his living. He had previously been the bos’n on a British ship. It was not long before he had found us somewhere to sleep – no easy task in a small village, whose population had swelled from 4000 to 9000 in a single night. Wisely, I think, he selected the lunatic asylum for us.
Tammisaari had been turned into a clearing house. The time limit given to the Finns to move out of Hanko was so short that it was essential to get everything out of the ceded area first, and then distribute it later. When we were faced with the stacks of furniture in the streets and fields, we wondered whether it would all ever be sorted. But the whole evacuation was carried out with calm and efficiency. There was no panic even thought there was only two more days to midnight on Good Friday, the time at which Hanko had to be handed over. The work went on ceaselessly day and night, with occasional breaks for something to eat at the canteen. Here the Lottas (Women’s Auxiliary Service) would smilingly provide free milk, porridge, bread and butter and a cigarette for the tired and hungry workers.
At midnight on Good Friday the Russians entered Hanko. I doubt very much whether they found more than bare walls, for most of the Finns had taken away even their doors and window frames. The Hanko firemen told us with great delight that they had made a point, before leaving, of filling the hydrant pits with water so that they would freeze up solid.
There were many sad hearts in Tammisaari that “Good” Friday, and ours could be numbered among them. Thousands of people had been uprooted from their homes, many were dazed with the thought of what might lie ahead. There is no better of learning to know and undersand a people than by being with them in their sorrow. We had seen many sad faces but few tears and, in these few days, had come to love and respect the Finnish people for their honesty, their simplicity and their kind-heartedness. But somehow we felt that they resented our presence at such a time. Who could blame them?
After Easter we were able to move from the asylum to new billets in the fire station. Two bare rooms were our quarters, but we soon had the comfortably furnished from a neighbouring furniture dump. Moving into a fire station, however, entailed an additional type of work. It is common practice among foreign fire brigades also to run the ambulance service. None of us had had much previous experience of this type of work, and we were in no way encouraged by our first “case” which turned out to be an extremely gory suicide. But we were anxious to help in every way possible and during our stay in Tammisaari attended more than twenty ambulance calls.
There were seventy Swedish volunteers with lorries attending to the evacuation. For the first few weeks we worked with them as loading crews, and during that period moved so much furniture that we began to believe that the letters L.F.V. on our uniforms stood for London Furniture Volunteers and not London Fire Volunteers.
Then came the German invasion of Norway (9 April 1940). The Swedish drivers immediately left with their lorries for home. How were we to carry on? Six of us could drive, but we hadn’t a lorry between us. It was imperative that a search be started for anything that had four wheels and was capable of moving. The appliance room at the fire station offered several tempting possibilities. Apart from the Tammisaari machines, it contained three antiquated appliances from Hanko – one of which was a model T Ford -, an 1888 Merryweather “steamer” and a horse-drawn, hand-operated pump. The two latter, we were told, had done valiant work during the war; proof enough that Finland needed fire appliances. We suggested that the three Hanko appliances should be stripped of their superstructure and used as lorries. The Hanko firemen naturally raised strong objections. But there was no time for sentiment. Overnight we stripped the appliances and presented the horrified firemen with the fait accompli next morning. This was one occasion on which I was thankful I did not understand Finnish. In addition we managed to scrape up three derelict lorries, and with these six vehicles were able to carry on the good work.
Many and varied were the tasks we were called upon to perform with this ramshackle fleet. Nothing appeared to be impossible. With the aid of applied science and a few words of encouragement we even managed to load an 18ft boat on to one of the fire appliances. Admittedly it was kept there by the grace of God and the weight of two men in the bows, but all arrived safely at their destination.
On one occasion we were set to work on clearing a snowbound narrow-gauge railway which ran from the forest to the local prison. We worked, under armed guard, with some of the inmates, many of whom were Russian prisoners. Strangely enough, no one asked us what we were “in” for, but when, at mid-day, we were marched with the others to the prison canteen for a meal, we began to fear that perhaps some slight error had been made. We were relieved to find that the “term” we had to serve lasted only the duration of the meal.
In our black uniforms we had come to be known as the “Black Watch of Tammisaari.” I was not surprised, therefore, to be ordered one day to play the role of undertaker. For a hearse I had but an antiquated fire appliance. Well do I remember that March evening when I, eyes streaming not from sorrow but from intense cold, drove back with my load and deposited it on a carpet of snow in the moonlit cemetery.
We worked for six weeks on the evacuation of Hanko. The night before our return to Helsinki we gave a farewell party to the Lottas and the Fire Chief. We were sorry to have to say good-bye to our friends, for we should have to go a long way to find such kindness and hospitality again. We had worked hard admittedly, harder than most of us had thought ourselves capable, but our efforts had been adequately repaid.
The party was a great success and ended up in an air-raid shelter. The reason for this was made clear when one of our friends produced a bottle of Schnapps. The sale of alcohol in Finland is controlled by the government who, owing to a tendency of the people to get extremely drunk in times of crisis, close the shops and forbid the sale of drink during such periods. But, as the donor explained, “Finland is a dry country, but it sometimes rains.” Our friends asked us what our plans were, to which we replied that we intended to go to Norway. We had missed one war and, if we could possibly help it, we were not going to miss another. Our appliances and equipment, having narrowly escaped falling into German hands in Norway, had now reached Stockholm. From there we could drive them to Norway, but first we should have to obtain the consent of the Finnish authorities.
Back in Helsinki, it was not long before we had the necessary permission. General Sihvo (Fig.3), chief of Finnish Civil Defence, agreed to present the appliances to Norway as a token of friendship from Finland. The Norwegian Government thought the idea a good one, and we left almost immediately for Stockholm. Here things did not plan out as easily as we had expected. The dock which contained our pumps had been declared a military area, and no foreigner was allowed to enter without permission. Every day for three weeks we asked the Finnish Legation if the necessary permit had been granted. Each time we impressed upon them that the position in Norway was by no means improving and that of something drastic was not done soon, we should be too late for yet another war. Each time they told us that they expected the permit “any day now.” When that day eventually arrived we rushed excitedly to the dock only to find that the appliances had been sent to Finland the day before. We were assured that there was a very adequate reason for this. There was no concealing our disappointment at being unable to get to Norway, but we knew that we would be of little use without our appliances. When, a few days later, the British evacuated, we realised that we had perhaps been spared a horrible fate.
The next move was to get back to England. But how was this to be done? The Germans controlled the west from Norway to Belgium, so it was impossible to return the way we had come. Two possibilities remained open to us: by sea from the Finnish Arctic port of Petsamo or through Russia to Odessa and home via the Middle East. In either case we should have to return to Finland, and this would give us an opportunity to demonstrate our equipment to the Finns. The Helsinki Fire Brigade were in favour of our doing this, and we agreed to stay a minimum of ten days. Before leaving Stockholm we made a point of applying for Russian visas.
When we got back to Helsinki we found that the London Fire Brigade observer, who had not come with us on our abortive attempt to get to Norway, had secured himself a passage on a Finnish ship from Pestamo to England and expected to leave in a few days. There were no berths available for us, he said, but he understood from the British Legation that arrangements were being made for a special ship to fetch both us and the 150 British military volunteers who were still in Finland. We were ready to leave at three days’ notice. Several weeks passed, and there was still no sign of the ship. Then Dunkirk was evacuated, and we learnt that the ship which was to evacuate us was being used there.
By this time the Germans were in complete control of Norway and, from their bases at Kirkenes, were able to control the sailings of all ships from Petsamo. Ships were frequently stopped and any British passengers taken off and interned. Somehow, we thought, it was a risk worth taking. But we were soon disillusioned when, on making our application to the shipping company, we were told that all passenger and crew lists had to be submitted to the German Consul in Petsamo before a ship was permitted to sail. And, as we found later, no captain was prepared to risk hiding a British subject on board his ship. The Petsamo route was therefore out of the question.
There remained the other alternative – over Russia. Unfortunately this way was made impossible by a firm but polite refusal by the Russians to grant us the necessary transit visa. All our efforts to convince them that our purpose in going to Finland was purely humanitarian and not political proved to be in vain.
Cut off from east and west, we could only resign ourselves to remaining in Finland for the duration of the European War. It was not a very pleasant prospect to face. But we still hoped that the war which we had so often sought in vain might one day catch us up.
In the meantime we had to find work. Fortunately for us the Finns offered to take us on as full-time members of the Helsinki Fire Brigade. Their headquarters (Fig.4) was already overcrowded, but sleeping accommodation on two-tiered bunks was found in the gymnasium for us and twenty firemen evacuated from Viipuri. Our room-mates were very sociable though the drone of their incessant chatter was maddening in the extreme. There was only one cause for friction between us – the question of fresh air. Finns are in the habit of sleeping the whole year round with their windows closed. This did not tally with our method of upbringing, and many a night we would lie prostrate with heat until we could stand it no longer. Then one of us would creep stealthily across the room and open a window. For a short while we could breathe again. Soon a shadowy form in combinations would steal across from the other side and, with a muffled grunt, close the window again.
Despite a few differences of opinion, the men were very kindly disposed towards us and were most sympathetic at the time of the Battle of Britain. One of our staunchest friends was the Deputy Chief Officer, Carl Aastrom. Tall, thick-set and about forty years of age, he spoke very good English, which he had learnt during a long stay in America. He did everything in his power to make us happy and comfortable in our job. On many of our leave days he invited us to his country cottage for ski-ing or, later on, fishing.
Life at the Helsinki Fire Station was a very pleasant change from the inactivity of an AFS sub-station. Our time was better organised. The hours were the same as in London: forty-eight on and twenty-four off. On duty days working hours were from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.
Reveille was at 6.30 a.m. Room-cleaning had to be finished by 8 a.m. when breakfast, consisting of porridge and coffee, was available in the canteen. At 9 a.m. everyone had to parade in the station yard, roll-call was read and any orders of the day announced. On the appearance of the Chief Officer the assembled company would shout in chorus “Good morning sir,” or its equivalent in Finnish, which sounded like “Ho-o-o hup!” Then we were dismissed, and those who were on leave were free, the remainder forming up in the appliance-room alongside their appropriate machines for inspection. From 9 a.m. until 12 noon was spent in various workshops. Every man had his own trade, which made the station almost self-contained. A well fitted-out metal shop with oxy-acetylene welding plant and numerous first class lathes was responsible for turning out all the branches, couplings and nozzles, etc. A carpenter’s shop provided all wooden requirements, including interior coachwork for appliances. In addition there was an electrical workshop, a boot-making and repair detachment and a tailor’s shop at which all uniforms were made and cleaned and pressed after fires. All these workshops were within a stone’s throw of the appliance-room which made possible a very speedy turn-out if the bells went down. During our stay in the fire station we had ample opportunity of learning all these trades.
At 12 noon we indulged in a good solid meal, often lacking in variety but never quantity, and occasionally brightened by the welcome appearance of ham and eggs specially provided for us. Then followed two hours’ rest during which most of the firemen retired to their beds and slept soundly, if somewhat noisily, until 2 o’clock.
The afternoon was taken up with drills and physical training. At five the evening meal was served, and afterwards a game of billiards or listening to the radio in the lounge passed the evening until bedtime.
A fire or other occurrence was announced by a system of bells. One long ring indicated a fire call; one short ring a “take”; two short rings meant that the driver of the Chief Officer’s car was wanted; three short rings were the most unpopular – they meant that it was time to get up; if the ladders were called for, four rings would send them speedily on their way; and finally, five rings brought the ambulance to the scene of an accident in double-quick time.
Saturday was a gala day for the Finns, for it was the day of their steam-bath, known as a sauna. Although there were an ample number of shower-baths in the washroom, the sauna, a national institution, was considered a necessary part of one’s toilet.
On the principle that I will try anything once, I allowed myself to be initiated into what, to my mind, seemed to be an ingenious form of self-torture. Having undressed in the changing-room, I was ushered, amid shouts of glee from my tormentors, into a large steam-heated chamber. In the left-hand corner stood a stove, on top of which lay a pile of large round stones. Water was thrown on to these heated stones from time to time, and with each application the heat became more intense. At the far end of the room benches rose in tiers to the ceiling. The higher one sat the hotter the atmosphere became. Finally, to complete the picture, there was a shower-bath, some scrubbing brushes and soap. The method of indulging in a steam-bath is this: you start by sitting on the lowest bench and slowly work your way up to the ceiling, remembering to pour cold water over your head on the frequent occasions when it feels as if it will burst. Once at the top, and when the sweat is flowing to the full, you start gentle flagellation of the body with a bunch of young birch leaves. This stimulates the sweat-glands and has a sweetening effect at the same time. Unfortunately I had brought no leaves with me, but many more sadistically minded firemen were only to anxious to demonstrate on me. A thorough scrubbing with soap and water and a dip under the cold shower completes the operation and reduces body temperature to somewhere near normal. In winter-time it is usual to dash outdoors and have a quick roll in the snow before settling in the changing-room to cool off. That is, of course, if you have not died of heart failure beforehand. I think I should have been more favourably disposed towards my first sauna if I had not been in the chamber at the same time as the blacksmith, who raised the temperature to such a high degree that I felt sure the Fires of Hell would seem to him but a mild form of central-heating. In some private saunas beer is often thrown instead of water on to the heated stones. This type can be thoroughly recommended, provided that the greater portion of the beer is put to a better use.
Service with the Helsinki Brigade gave us experience of more than forty fires. The attendance for a call was three pumps, but later, when petrol shortage became acute, was reduced to two. We rode our own appliance and, although we were invariably first out, we found that the Helsinki firemen had the advantage over us at the scene of the fire. They used unlined 3-in. hose, several lengths of which were coupled together and coiled on a hose-reel attached to the back of the appliance. In this way two men could run out many hundred feet of hose from the hydrant to the scene of the fire in a few seconds.
Here, if the fire was of reasonable proportions, they would fix a one-into-four breeching from which four separate lengths of 2-in. rubber-lined hose, each with a hand-controlled branch, could be run into the building. It took us much longer to couple up numerous 50-ft. lengths of heavy American hose. But the time they saved in getting to work we were able to save in making up. Our hose was easier to roll and in winter time we had a distinct advantage. The Finnish unlined hose would freeze solid over its entire 100ft. length and could not be rolled up. The only way to get the hose back to the station was to thaw it our every 10ft. with a bucket of hot water and then fold it up concertina fashion.
There is one aspect of Finnish fire-fighting not known in England. In order to keep the interior warm in winter, walls, ceilings and floors of houses are lined about 9 in. thick with sawdust. It is therefore essential not to use an excess of water which would be soaked up by the sawdust until the weight made the floor collapse. Additional care has to be taken in turning over to make sure that the fire has not crept under the floor and behind the walls.
The first large fire we attended was at a timber yard some ten kilometres outside Helsinki. The yard, situated in a clearing made in the forest, was well alight and spreading rapidly to the forest and two neighbouring wooden houses. Seven fire brigades were in attendance, but very little could be done owing to shortage of water. We were assigned to one of the houses and, after many hours’ work, succeeded in saving about half of it. But it was no easy job. As soon as part of the fire in the house was put out, the intense heat of the main timber fire would dry up the wooden walls and reignite them. After some hours the water supply was improved and the fire eventually got under control. On our way back to headquarters we expected to find that series pumping had been put into operation, but discovered that the increased water supply had been obtained from boosting the mains by means of two appliances pumping water from a stream into a hydrant.
On only one occasion did we have an opportunity to use our breathing-apparatus. Fire had broken out among wood-shavings and packing-cases in the basement of Fazer’s Sweet Factory in Helsinki. It was an extremely smoky job and the seat of the fire difficult to find. Ten impetuous firemen clapped on their smoke masks and rushed into the basement. Within a few minutes seven of them had collapsed through lack of oxygen and had been brought up with their faces in various stages of discoloration. Only then did the Finns decide to use their Draeger oxygen-apparatus. The heat in the basement was so intense that after twenty minutes it was decided to relieve the men at the branch. Two of us were chosen, and I was one of them. We quickly donned our Proto apparatus and, with ropes around our waists, crawled along the hose until we came to the man at the branch. He muttered a few words of encouragement in Finnish – at least, I think they were encouragement – and made his way back. The smoke was so thick that it was impossible to see any fire. It was merely a question of playing the hose in various directions and then judging the position of the fire from the intensity of the heat thrown back in one’s face. After twenty minutes we were both very thankful to be relieved. That we looked as tired as we felt must have been certain for, on removing our apparatus, we were at once approached by a nurse who asked if we would like a glass of brandy. I never refuse a drink, and I can think of no occasion on which one was more welcome. A few days later each of us received our just reward: two pounds of sweets with the compliments of Messrs. Fazer.
Although our original intention of fighting fires under blitz conditions could not be fulfilled during our enforced stay in Finland, our time was not wasted. We obtained valuable experience of chemical, electrical and forest fires in addition to the more usual types. But, what is more, we served another very important purpose. As firemen we were frequently to be seen driving through the streets of Helsinki. Our red appliance bore the name “London” Fire Volunteers and was manned by men in “British” tin-hats. At the bonnet flew a small Union Jack. If there was a large fire it was reported in the papers, accompanied, more often than not, by a picture of the “English” firemen at work. We were photographed for the news-reels too. Here, then, was propaganda at its best. A reminder, at a time when many Finns were wavering in their political opinions, of the generous help that had been given them in the past by Great Britain. And we could even ring a bell to draw attention to it.
It was, therefore, with little surprise that in September 1940 we were informed that the Germans had “requested” the Finnish Government to find us a “quieter” form of employment. The Finns, dependent as they were on German goodwill for their trade with the outside world through Petsamo and the Baltic, could do nothing but acquiesce.
No one was more upset at the news that the Fire Brigade Authorities who offered us free board and lodging at the fire station for as long as we cared to stay. Most of our unit were able to find fresh employment fairly quickly. The greater number taught English, and in our small unit we were able to boast an Assistant Lektor at the University of Helsinki, a Lektor at Turku University and two teachers of English in the Helsinki schools. The three latter were under the auspices of the British Council and in this way we were able to carry on cultural propaganda until the German attack on Russia in June 1941. At this stage it was arranged for our transfer to a camp in Sweden, where we remained until it was possible for us to travel home.
Fate had played many strange tricks on us in our search for a fire. The final touch of irony came when the war at last caught us up and found us on the wrong side.
Members of the LFV
So far I haven't located the names of all who wore the rare insignia of the LFV and set off for Helsinki in the early spring of 1940. In addition to Philip Cory there are three who are known, in addition to Station Officer Allan Frank Locke of London Fire Brigade who accompanied the LFV.
Fireman Ronald Tatchell
Ronald Tatchell born on 27 October 1912 was a Yorkshireman born and bred. The small parish of Penistone near Barnsley was his birthplace, and in 1991 the place where he was laid to rest. In 1933 he married Mabel Cooper and they raised three children.
Prior to the beginning of the war Ronald joined his local unit of the Auxiliary Fire Service and later volunteered for the LFV. Most notable is that of the 600 or more firemen that offered their services to the 8-man crew that travelled to Helsinki, Ronald, who declared his civilian occupation as that of heavy lorry driver, appears to have been the only one selected from outside of London.
Fireman James Guy Bramwell
James Guy Bramwell was a teacher, scriptwriter and successful published author who also published under the pen name James Byrom.
In 1986 he submitted an oral history of his wartime endeavours under interview at the Imperial War Museum. The 1939 Register located James as an AFS fireman stationed at the requisitioned Sloane Grammar School, Hortensia Road in Chelsea. Born on 25 July 1911 James was a confirmed pacifist who joined the AFS to avoid being called up by the armed forces, in his own words - it was sort of halfway to doing something active without actually committing oneself to the war. One remained a civilian, that was the point. When life at Sloane school proved dull and unrewarding, he snapped at the chance to go overseas with the LFV. Among the crew of eight were his cousin, whose name is unknown.
Although he appeared to have revelled in the roles the LFV undertook in Finland, there was some concern as he declared to the IWM - We got to know people including the Finnish firemen who on the whole, especially the Chief, were quite charming. Some however were pro-Nazi and so there was difficulty there. Sometimes there was enough manifestations to make us feel uncomfortable.
Fireman Charles Anthony Gilkison
Charles Anthony Gilkison (photographed on the left in 1977) is the man credited with the idea of forming a unit of firefighters to assist the city of Helsinki after seeing news images and hearing stories of the suffering caused by Russian bombing.
The Gilkison family suffered greatly from loss during the First World War. Anthony, as he was commonly known, was born in 1913 and had no memory of his father Captain Dugald Stewart Gilkison, a career soldier killed in action with the Cameronians on 20 September 1914. Additional losses of an uncle and two other members of the family compelled Anthony to regard warfare as futile, whilst recognising the opportunity for excitement and service with the AFS and the awareness that in doing so he would avoid the military draft when it came.
Professionally he was, both pre and post-war, a film maker with a pioneering spirit. In 1938 he was one of a four strong team from Rayant Pictures, including his wife Thelma, that travelled across Hungary, Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece to capture colour footage and process it in a custom-built mobile studio.
Originating from Easingwold, Yorkshire, where he was born on 3 June 1913, Anthony Gilkison studied at Oxford, Heidelberg and Munich before seeking opportunity in the moving picture trade. During the LFV's tasks to assist the civilian evacuation of Hanko in the face of Russian hostility, Anthony met a local girl named Brita Margareta and fell in love. His dashing looks compelled Finnish firemen to name him the Prince of Siam. Presumably separation from Thelma led to divorce as Brita returned to Britain with Anthony and after the war she became his wife.
However for Anthony the war was far from over. On his return to London he left the AFS and joined the Army, as an unarmed non-combatant medic of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and soon attained the rank of Sergeant. While serving in Italy he received a parcel from Finland, which by then had allied itself with Germany. Despite the technicality of Anthony being essentially an enemy of Finland, in appreciation of his effort in creating and mobilising with the LFV, the Finns wished to show appreciation by issuing him with their Medal of Merit for Civil Defence, which was caught in the postal system for eighteen months before it tumbled out of the package into Anthony's hands somewhere in Italy during the campaign to defeat the nation's fascists and flush out German forces.
In the knowledge that a British citizen could not receive tributes from an enemy except with the express permission of the Monarch, Anthony sought the blessing of George VI by the appropriate channels. In London the King granted permission but in the chaos of war the news didn't reach Italy. His Commanding Officer considered the lack of response as reason enough to distrust Anthony - I fell out of favour. Even my military rank was reduced, and I was transferred to cleaning duties.
After the war Anthony and Brita settled in Devon. Anthony returned to his documentary film production career and continued working until 1980, maintaining his home with Brita in Torridge and annually visiting a cottage they owned on Finland's Nauvo archipelago.
Anthony passed away at home in Torridge on 13 March 2000 aged 87.
Divisional Officer Allan Frank Locke GC
Allan Frank Locke was a career fireman and officer of the London Fire Brigade. Remarks made by Philip Cory and James Bramwell suggest that as far as the LFV men were concerned, Locke, at that time a Station Officer, was there to look out for their welfare. The official line is that Locke's deployment was a reconnaissance mission.
When Locke accompanied the LFV's arrival in Finland in March 1940, no-one could have known that the London Blitz would strike with ferocious suddenness six months later. But it was perfectly obvious to all concerned that thus far Britain had not been subjected to such an attack and that sending an experienced officer to Finland under the pretext of overseeing the LFV, provided the perfect opportunity for an experienced fire officer to gain intelligence that could be of great value to the London Fire Brigade when the inevitable attacks began on the capital.
35-year-old Allan Frank Locke was born in Portsmouth on 23 November 1904 where his father George was a Sergeant in the city Police-Fire Brigade.
Allan joined the London Fire Brigade in 1925, spending the next five years at Northern Divisional Headquarters, Euston, followed by two years with an emergency tender unit. A period of just over a year in the fire inspection department was followed by secondment to the Divisional Officer's office where his recently acquired skills and knowledge were put to use in the planning of the new LFB Headquarters which eventually opened on Albert Embankment, Lambeth, in 1937.
By then Allan was promoted to Sub Officer spending 30-months between the Dockhead and Cannon Street stations before selection to work with the LFB detachment entrusted with the fire defence of Westminster Abbey during preparations for, and during, the coronation of King George VI on 12 May 1937. A return to operations followed as Sub Officer in charge at Whitechapel in 'C' District before a recall to HQ accompanied by promotion to Station Officer.
Following the trip to Finland he returned to LFB as a District Officer and it was within his district that BBC's Broadcasting House was struck by high explosive bombs on 15 October 1940. In a remarkable act of selfless courage, particularly given his senior rank, Allan fearlessly crawled into the rubble, clearing a tunnel with a saw and his bare hands to save the lives of BBC staff. His actions, witnessed and reported by a Station Officer and Sub Officer, were submitted to the Treasury Committee on Civil Defence Honours.
BBC Director General Sir Frederick Wolff Ogilvie added his own eyewitness account, closing with - I should like, if I may, particularly to mention Divisional Officer Locke, who tunnelled under the wreckage to extricate the injured, spending two and a half hours at a single stretch, at great danger to himself, and refusing to be relieved. He was wholly exhausted by his work. May I submit that his name should be considered as a candidate for the George Medal.
The Treasury Committee were convinced, DO Allan Frank Locke became one of few firefighters to be awarded the George Cross since it was instituted on 24 September 1940.
Allan and his wife Doris, who'd married in 1933, retired from life in the city to Teignmouth, Devon, where DO A.F. Locke GC passed away on 3 May 1986.
A Thank You
Much of the information above, and access to many original photographs, has been made available through the hard work, commitment and support of Jari Auvinen, curator and superintendent of the Helsinki Fire Museum accommodated in the halls of the architecturally stunning Erottaja Fire Station, Helsinki.
He and I cannot converse in one another's language, but the wonder of Google Translate has enabled us to communicate electronically and I am deeply appreciative of his willingness and enthusiasm to assist me with the project of researching the London Fire Volunteers.
Through his words, and related articles in the Finnish press from the last two decades which he has shared with me, plus the comments by modern Finns in an associated social media thread, it is clear that the men of the LFV left a lasting and positive impression on the people of Finland in the best traditions of British fire and rescue services.
Thank you Jari.