Colin Henry Weeks was just 16 years old when war broke out in September 1939. 

His father, Henry William Oscar Weeks, married his mother Elsie Margaret Ryall, in Ryde, Isle of Wight, on 26 July 1917. In the following summer their first child, Raymond Cyril Alexander was born, June 1923 saw the birth of Colin Henry, their second and final child.

In 1924 Henry succeeded his grandmother as sub-postmaster in West Street, in addition to managing the family greengrocery and confectionary store. For his work with the Federation of Sub-postmasters, Henry was awarded a British Empire Medal in 1939.

By then Henry had been a councillor of the town's West Ward for four years and served as the chairman of the Public Health Committee since 1938. In November 1939 he was elected as Mayor of Ryde and served in that capacity throughout the war. Noted for his success in establishing various crop growing initiatives that benefitted the inhabitants during the difficult rationing of war, his incredible achievements received national interest, including a radio interview with the BBC and a visit from a journalist of the Daily Mail - although the subsequent press report that Ryde was a land of plenty amid an austere wartime landscape landed Henry in the soup with some of his contemporaries.

Henry and Elsie did much charitable work for the town during the conflict. Their influence was to reflect favourably in both contemporary and reflective accounts of their endeavours.

Henry and Elsie Weeks on their wedding day in 1917.

Janet Ryall, grandmother, with baby Raymond 1918.

Colin Weeks as a boy, circa 1928.

Extract from the IW County Press, 1939 September 23.

West Street Post Office, to the right, circa 1910.

Colin began writing his diary on 10 June 1941. Clearly his decision to do so came some time after his introduction to the fire service as he immediately goes back to events that occurred just over a year earlier. For those familiar with Ryde his descriptions of places where events occurred are recognisable, albeit under very different conditions. His writing style reveals a touch of teenage irreverence, amusing in places, and frank in others.

Shortly after discovering his diary, I found Colin's elder brother Raymond living in Ratcliffe Avenue. He was contacted and expressed surprise, stating that he knew nothing of Colin's writing. After borrowing the diary to read in 2000, Raymond's concern was that Colin's appraisals of the characters he served with were of a nature that might best be kept from public view. Since then Raymond, and the last of those named in the diary have all passed on.

In the mid to late 1990's my Station Officer at Ryde Fire Station was Dave Potts. Dave was a fourth generation firefighter, his father, Edward, was a brigade regular fireman when war broke out. Edward Potts became a Section Leader when the National Fire Service was formed, rising to Company Officer in the latter years of the NFS. When the nationalised service was disbanded and the county fire brigade was formed in April 1948, Edward became Ryde's first Station Officer under the umbrella of the Isle of Wight County Fire Brigade. Dave told me that his father had recalled Colin, writing his diary while on standby at the Edward Street temporary fire station and training centre in the requisitioned Stainer's dairy yard. 

Colin's words were indeed typed, no doubt using the typewriter provided in the office. Interestingly he typed on lined paper, suggesting that perhaps, like me, Colin's handwriting was not the best. All that remains is to read what he wrote, which begins below. I have changed nothing in the transcription. Some images have been added which did not appear in the diary, with the exception of two photos of Colin himself, which were tucked inside the cover.

My War Diary

By Colin Weeks

My War Diary, from the 10th June 1941.

Being an account of my doings in the Auxiliary and National Fire Service during the second Great War against Germany. These memoirs are respectfully dedicated to my comrades in the Fire Service, in the hope that they will derive some pleasure in the reading of them.

Chapter 1

To give my readers some insight into the circumstances which led to my joining the Ryde Auxiliary Fire Service, I must go back to the 7th of June 1940. At that time the air attacks on the country were just commencing and it had become apparent from the number of times during that week that “alerts” had been sounded on the siren, that Ryde was to witness many more such raids.

I had left school the Christmas before shortly after the outbreak of war and rather than waste my time doing nothing, I helped my father in the Post Office, and made myself generally useful, doing anything from delivering groceries to checking the postal stock. As will soon become apparent, I had no particular flair for the A.F.S. and had up to then taken no steps to enlist in the Civil Defence Services. In fact, I must admit that the fear of anything connected with fire and firefighting had for a long time been one of my childish pet aversions. I cannot account for this fear but at sometime or another, the fear of fire must have impressed itself upon my subconscious mind.

My first activities in connection with the Civil Defence Services had occurred before the war, when as a Boy Scout, I took part in the A.R.P. manoeuvres held in Ryde one night. I was officially described as a messenger, but no messages, alas, came my way, and in company with a fellow Scout, one Mickey Culverhouse, I sat miserably in the entrance of the Town Hall, until the blinding flash of a flare in Lind Street announced that our headquarters had received a direct hit. We were not exactly surprised as we had known during the evening just where and when the occurrence would take place. We promptly evacuated and remained in the Conservative Club until two o’clock the next morning, when the powers that be tired of their entertainment and called the whole show off.

To return to my subject, here was I, doing nothing in particular, wandering past the Town Hall one Friday afternoon in the first week of the Battle of Britain. I entered the Town Hall to see my music teacher Mr Toogood, little realising that in doing so I was taking one of the most important steps in my life. My interview with him finished, I was preparing to leave the building when I was informed by one of the clerks that my father, who at that time was in the office of Mayor, wished to see me in his parlour.

With faltering footsteps and a ‘what have I done now’ feeling inside, I approached the parlour door and timidly demanded admittance. But I was not in for trouble this time, far from it. My father quickly explained the situation; the Ryde Auxiliary Fire Service was badly in need of a clerk, and someone, God bless ‘em, had told the Chief Officer of my qualifications, and that I was as yet not otherwise engaged. Therefore, what could be nicer than my having the job? I was told that the decision rested entirely with me, I could take it or leave it.

All through that afternoon and most of the evening I hummed and ha’ad, until at last I decided that I would accept the appointment. The reasons for my coming to the decision were not those of a patriot, doing his little bit for King and country, far from it, I was hard up, earning a meagre allowance of five shillings a week and now I was offered the imposing figure of a pound per week. Father promptly got in to touch with the Chief Officer and I received instructions to report at Edward Street Training Centre on the following morning.

Feeling rather pleased with myself on that day, I set out at ten to ten for the rendezvous. I marched boldly in, and was surprised to find no one at home. Rather less boldly I mounted the stairs and at last was successful in finding signs of human habitation, for before me was an aged fireman, wearing glasses, and a most attractive white beard. He took no notice of me but continued merrily stitching a piece of battered sailcloth which lay on the table before him. I plucked up courage and timidly enquired if Captain Heller was in. He said that Captain Heller was not in and was not likely to be in for some time, but if I wanted anything I’d better go and see Mr Brading in the office. I thanked him for the information and proceeded across the drill room to the office. Things seemed a little better here, for another man somewhat younger, once again wearing spectacles, with three imposing red stripes on the shoulder straps of his tunic, was busily typing, two-finger style, on a desk, half hidden behind an equally imposing row of files.

He asked me what I wanted, and I promptly told him, after all I was getting pretty used to joining in this game of cross-questioning. He said that the dear Captain never arrived until the morning was far gone, but he did know who I was and what I wanted and if he wasn’t too busy, he’d show me what I had to do. He did, and I did it. There was no getting away from the fact that it was easy such as it was. In fact, there were many occasions when I got so fed up of doing nothing that I settled down to reading a novel to pass the time away. But, alas, this lack of labour was not to last, gradually, so gradually in fact that I hardly noticed it, the work grew bigger and bigger and bigger.

I managed to keep up with it pretty well on the whole, and before long I had settled down to life in the service. I found the money most welcome; I got on exceptionally well with Mr Brading, my office mate, and even had a soft spot in my heart for the Chief Officer. In fact, I felt really on top of the world, despite the fact that the raids were, like the work, growing in number and intensity; but more of than anon.

The Battle of Britain was on, and we were in the thick of it.

Chapter 2

At this stage of the proceedings some mention should be made of Fanny. No, Fanny was not a girl, he was the son of the Deputy-Mayor and rejoiced in the startling name of Francis Joseph Raven Needham. It was a good thing that he managed to keep this rather amazing name in the background, in fact he had been in the service some time before the rank and file tumbled to his nickname. I had been pally with him for a long time before I joined the service, having been at the same school for three years, although never actually in the same form. Anyhow, he managed somehow to learn of my new job and startled me one Sunday morning by tearing past me in the street, yelling at the top of his voice that he was joining the fire service as a messenger.

Sure enough, when I reached the station on the following morning there he was, in all his glory. When asked by one of the Leading Firemen what his Christian name was, he replied with determination “Oh my friends just call me Frankie”. For a time, the name stuck, but eventually, the other messengers used their influence to alter things in that direction.

He created a big impression in the station with his new uniform, of which he was justly proud. It did not take the form of the uniform tunic and trousers now issued to messengers but was merely a spic and span pair of overalls, a belt, and a pouch. He was for a long time mystified as to the object of the pouch thinking that perhaps it was for holding any message he might have to carry. He never got the axe to put in it, the learned Section Officer evidently not trusting him with so dangerous a weapon, although he was the only messenger not so equipped.

He will always be remembered for his Turkish cigarettes, which he would lift from his brother’s room shortly before coming on duty of a night on the siren. On arrival at the station, he would huddle down on a form and immerse himself in a thick cloud of grey smoke, the sandy crop of hair being the only visible means of ascertaining his identity. This went on night after night until his mother noticed that he was beginning to lose weight, still who wasn’t in those days. He then received instructions that he was not to report in on the siren at night-time, but was to wait until he was called by telephone. From this moment on it became apparent to me that he was fast losing interest in the service. Evidence of this was soon forthcoming. Ever since his joining Fanny had been the object of any practical jokes forthcoming, but to give him his due he had taken it all in good part, until one day early in August when the following incident occurred.

Francis Joseph Raven Needham was the son of Mrs. Sylvia Needham, deputy-mayor, seen here with the Mayor and a land girl photographed while visiting the Mayor's tomato growing initiative at Knighton.

Fanny was joking with two of the lads, Keith Warder and Alfie Long, and some retort of his evidently annoyed them for they started to chase him around the respirator rack. After a hectic pursuit he was caught, trussed up, gagged, and removed, struggling to the petrol store on the ground floor. When released he seemed to bear no ill-will to his assailants but continued living a crazy existence for another week. Then for no apparent reason at all, he failed to turn up for duty one morning.

At eleven o’clock, when the crews were changing over, the C.O. marched in and proceeded to lecture them on a disgraceful offence which had he stated, had been committed on a messenger during the previous week. He concluded by saying that unless the offenders came to him and accounted for their actions by eleven o’clock on the following morning, the parent of the messenger concerned would take proceedings against them for criminal assault. Keith and Alfred promptly came forward and backed up by the evidence given by a Mr Robinson and myself, they managed to get away with a reprimand.

I still maintain that it was pre-arranged, and that Fanny had merely used it as a pretext for resigning. Anyhow, he got his own way, and the following week commenced work at Cowes in a munitions works. His last action in the service was typical of him. He had been sent into the town by Harry Parker to buy seven pounds of nails, and on returning to the station promptly dropped them all at the bottom of the stairs. He had therefore the task of picking them up which occupied the remainder of the afternoon. On another occasion he was sent to the town clerk with an important message, only to return nearly half an hour later to report that he had forgotten the message, and had been lectured by the town clerk for his lack of memory. We none of us seemed particularly to miss him, although he had many good points. Had it not been for the action taken by his mother leading to his resignation, I think the men would have been really sorry to lose him. He may well be described as one of the too keen type of person, keen as mustard one day and then bored stiff on the following day.

Chapter 3

As time elapsed the fire service began to get a grip on me, and shortly before the end of August I took a decisive step, which I have never regretted. In commenced my training in firemanship.

I shall never forget my first drill, from a hydrant in Adelaide Place outside the County Hospital Nurses Home. Fitted out with brand new equipment, I felt very proud of myself, but returning to the station in a wet dishevelled state I didn’t feel quite so keen. Nevertheless, I stuck it and before long became comparatively proficient in the manipulation of the appliances.

Like many others I learnt that it was useless not to work as a crew, and unless each man did exactly how own job, and not part of someone else’s, the drill was a hopeless muddle. Many is the time I got sworn at by our Leading Firemen for not carrying this out, but it did me good, and cured me. Ladders too presented difficulty which took a great deal of overcoming but eventually I managed to go up an extension ladder without shivering with fear.

Equally memorable was my first night at the station. The siren had gone shortly after nine and accompanied by two other messengers, Bill Turner, and Mickey Culverhouse, I set out for the station. After booking in we settled down in a cosy corner behind the hose storage rack. We supped sumptuously on tea, biscuits, and blackberry tart, and without giving it time to get down, turned in. I found sleep a trifle difficult thanks to the attack of stomach-ache which followed. This was added to by the rough blankets to which I had not then become used. In those days you had to be tough to stand station nightlife, for there were no spring beds or mattresses. We slept on wooden camp beds, no pillows, no mattresses, and only two blankets apiece. As a result, we awoke on the following morning with a stiff back, a sore throat, and nine times out of ten, with a bad head. We soon put a stop to that by providing our own sleeping gear and then when it had no longer become necessary the local authorities took steps to provide better sleeping facilities. Typical of the red tape that surrounds anything under the control of the Government!

What little comforts we did have at the start of my career were provided by the Public Health Services of the Borough, and before that, our personnel were faced with the cheerful proposition of turning in on the floor, or improvising a bed out of two or three chairs placed side by side. It should also be mentioned that in nine cases out of ten the existing comforts were made possible only through agitation and the labour of the fire service personnel. Still, considering what they have had to put up with, they were remarkably contented.

To leave the subject of sleeping conditions for a moment I must mention the only really memorable day raid since I joined up. We had seen hardly a day go by without the siren going, we had seen dive-bombing attacks on Portsmouth, so when the siren wailed out its alarm one afternoon in late August, we regarded it with no particular interest, except as a beastly nuisance, we were in fact more worried about missing our tea than enemy air activity. There was quite a bit of noise and plenty of machine gunning, but in those days, it was nothing out of the ordinary. Then we heard the phone bell ring, little realising that we were receiving our first share in the Battle of Britain.

Mr Brading, who was in charge at the time, immediately put us on standby and one crew was immediately dispatched to cover Binstead post. It later transpired that the Binstead crew had been sent out to trace a Messerschmitt 110 Fighter-Bomber which was shot down by British fighters near West Ashey Farm.

There was no fire, but it was, I suppose, a good chance for a patrol run and we all felt frightfully thrilled to think we had at last done something important. As far as I can remember it was about the only occasion when a part-time crew was sent out from Edward Street while there were still full-time crews in the station.

That week we experienced our first night-time turn-out. On the occasion in question a homeward bound German bomber not being quite sure of its bearings had the impudence to drop sixteen incendiary bombs in a farmyard near Ryde Airport. We at once despatched crews to deal with them, only to find on arrival that the officers in charge of Simeon Street and the Main Station had done likewise. Which means that we were able to deal with five and one third bombs each. Our lads proudly returned to station with their trophies of battle, incendiary fins, which were treated as carefully as if they had been gold dust. Nowadays, if anybody were to present one of us with a complete incendiary bomb, the chances are ten to one that they would get it back in double quick time. They were at the time even more treasured souvenirs than shrapnel, which was hoarded by even the most respected townspeople.

At this juncture I should enlighten my readers into who my particular chums in the service were. They were six in number, all messengers, and rejoiced in the names of Mickey, Bill, Maurie, Podge, Pontius and Sniffy. As you may well guess from their names, they were a motley crew, still, like myself, they mucked in with the rest of the men, and did their bit in times of trouble.

To take them in the order above, we first come to Mickey, of whom I have already made mention previously. He was of small stature, rather a funny tempered lad, and inclined at times to be sulky, but he was keen and as a messenger distinguished himself with his coolness when in the thick of things. He was my particular pal and on several occasions, we were out on patrol together. More can be said concerning him later in connection with the Church Street blitz.

The next item on the list, Bill, nice lad as he was, made himself decidedly unpopular by way of being a trifle light fingered and rather too sure of himself, but he too was keen on his job. He was the first of our little clique to take up the motorcycle, and as such was the subject of much leg-pulling and derision. He eventually left the service because of his increased duties in the Public Health Department at the Town Hall where he was employed. He was noted at the station for the endless supply of cigarette lighters which he seemed to possess. He would sell these at ridiculously low figures, and we usually advised the buyers to sell again quickly if anyone claimed their purchases. I, for instance, once bought a very nice chromium lighter for two and a sixpence and promptly the same morning sold it again to the Leading Fireman on duty for five shillings. He amused us all by his fire watching activities, which were carried out each Saturday night on the Scala Cinema in High Street. No, Bill was not keen on the extra duties, nor was he at all partial to fire watching, but his girlfriend was apparently the big attraction. On one occasion Mickey and I watched him depart on his nocturnal prowl and proceeded to construct an apple pie bed for him which was a masterpiece consisting of blankets doubled back, then roped down to the steel frame of his bed and finished off with wet scrubbing brushes and dishcloths. Imagine his feelings when he returned to the station shortly after three o’clock on the following morning and found his bed awaiting him in that state. An eyewitness informed us on the following morning that it was shortly after four o’clock before the poor unfortunate victim got in to bed. He looked pretty seedy on the next morning.

Colin (left) and Bill Turner pictured at Edward Street. Bill was the last surviving member of the group Colin described. In the early 2000's Bill and his wife Sheila invited me to their Binstead home on multiple occasions. Although totally blind by then, Bill was able to recount events with clarity. He was equipped with a computer that was capable reading aloud from typed manuscripts, so I loaded my transcript of Colin's diary for him to listen. Although some of Colin's descriptions, particularly of Bill, were less than complimentary, Bill chuckled to himself and made no attempt to rebuke Colin's claims.

Maurie was the oldest of the gang, and by far the wisest, he was the son of one of the full-time firemen and like his father took his duties conscientiously. He was the first to join and set a good example to us other youngsters. Don’t imagine for one moment that he was one of the sort who could not enjoy a joke, far from it. He was simply a bit older than us and had reached the age when youth has almost had its fling and he was settling down to things seriously.

Podge was the youngest of the party and as you may well imagine from his name, was on the corpulent side. He took rather longer than the others to settle down to service life, but when he did he seemed pretty contented with things. He was a trifle unpopular with No.1 patrol because he never hesitated to express his opinion, never stopping to think if it offended them or not. He worked at Pickford’s at Cowes and was always a mine of information on the supplies of sweets and cigarettes which passed through his hands in the course of his daily routine. This, more than anything, set Mickey’s back up, for he was the son of a confectioner, and quite rightly did not like his father’s business discussed in public. He was not alone in his opinion, for Podge made himself further disliked by working a chocolate racket in the following way. He studied the supplies of chocolate as they passed through his hands and noticed for instance that Mr Brown of High Street Ryde was to receive a case of Fry’s chocolate. He would then wait about two days and march into Mr Brown’s shop and ask for some Fry’s chocolate. In nine times out of ten the shopkeeper was so overcome with surprise that Podge got his own way.

It was Geoffrey Purrier, alias Pontius Pilate, who introduced Podge to the service, and he was like Podge not liked by some of the powers that be. I got on all right with him and did my training at the same time. We didn’t see a frightful lot of him at night for he only stopped at the station to sleep on drill nights. He made a name for himself by his ability to cram large supplies of corned beef, bread and pickles into his mouth all at once. How he came to be called Pontius I am not quite sure, but I think that Arthur Brown, one of our heavy drivers, and a bit of a lad, was responsible.

Mickey and he did not hit it off at all well and he was subject to much teasing from Mickey and his supporters. He always amused us by turning up on the siren during the day, straight from school, with his attaché case, in which was neatly packed his uniform, which he donned on arrival at the station. Arthur Brown amused us one day by blowing Pontius’ glasses off when he made ‘Alice’ our No.2 fire engine backfire. Pontius had the misfortune to be bending over the exhaust at the time and shortly after the explosion reappeared without his glasses and with a blackened face. We lost him early in 1941 when his father got a new job in Winchester. Unlike most of the other messengers I was sorry to see him go, for he was a good kid despite his many faults.

'Alice' was a Leyland Braidwood FE appliance that, by the time of Colin's writing, had been in service in the town for 15 years, pictured above when new with Ryde's regular brigade firemen, circa 1925.

Of Sniffy much can be said but by my time and space will at this juncture only permit me to give my readers some insight into what sort of chap he was. He earned his nickname by his unfortunate habit of repeatedly sniffing instead of blowing his nose. He was of course the subject of much joking and amusement and finding himself in the limelight he put it on pretty badly and made himself decidedly unpopular with his fellow messengers, although he could at times be quite a decent lad.

He was as keen as mustard, as far as his duties were concerned, and many is the time we saw him report into the station when it was his night off. For his age he was, I am sorry to say, one of the filthiest tongued little creatures I have ever met, although we managed to keep him in check pretty well. I felt pretty sorry for him poor kid, as he had no father and was therefore deprived of the home life he deserved. He was a most determined sort of chap and when he made his mind up it took a great deal to make him change it. On one occasion I annoyed him by tipping him out of bed in the morning just after eight o’clock. On the following morning he got up at six-thirty, two hours before his usual routine, and tipped me out of it. You couldn’t really take offence to him because he would always come up smiling afterwards and inform you with the greatest cheek imaginable that he hoped there was no ill feeling caused by his little joke.

These lads were the ones who with me shared the trials, horrors, and experiences of the Battle of Britain. Let us now take a look at them in action. Just ordinary youngsters, but youngsters who proved themselves capable of adapting themselves to the times in which we lived.

Chapter 4

Our first real taste of what the night bomber can do came to us on Saturday the twenty-third of November. As fate would have it my music lesson that week had been postponed from Tuesday to Saturday as I had been forced to work on Tuesday. I shall never forget walking down to the Town Hall that evening, just as dusk was falling. The sky was at the time comparatively clear but dark storm clouds were rolling in from the west and promised a dark and dreary night.

I was playing the organ in the Town Hall when the action warning was sounded on the siren but despite a considerable quantity of gun fire my music teacher Mr Toogood and I continued with the lesson as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. To be perfectly honest nothing out of the ordinary had happened then, for it was a regular occurrence for a raid to take place each evening.

I was playing the organ still when the first bomb dropped. Suddenly without previous warning a high pitched scream became apparent above the musical sound of the organ. I stopped playing but still the noise continued. And then, abruptly, it stopped, and after a pause of five or so seconds the whole building shook like a leaf. After a quick consultation we decided to carry on with the lesson, although I must now admit that I have rarely played so badly and with so little confidence.  At last, much to my satisfaction, the lesson drew to a close and after packing up we made our way downstairs. Mr Toogood asked the wardens where the bomb had dropped, and they cheerfully replied “oh somewhere up the park” which after all was not too cheering to him being an inhabitant of that district. They also told us that incendiaries had fallen in the recreation ground and that the A.F.S. had sent crews out to deal with them.

And now comes the blackest page in my fire service history, instead of proceeding to the station when I heard this, I went to the pictures and sat there until the attack was all but over. Even then I didn’t report in, but returned home and was just preparing to turn in when the ‘raiders passed’ siren was sounded. A fine fireman, but I afterwards put forward the plea that in the first place it was my night off and anyhow I had not been sent for from the station.

My own personal experiences may lead my readers, who do not remember the night, to think of this raid with contempt, so let us have a look at what was going on at the station in the meantime.

When first reading Colin's remark of 'thousands of incendiaries' I believed he was exaggerating, until discovering the method by which the Luftwaffe deployed the standard 1kg I.B (above). 

The siren had gone at eighteen minutes past six and apart from taking the usual steps of warming up the appliances; no further precautions had been taken. At twenty to seven the first stick of bombs, together with thousands of incendiaries, had fallen in the St John’s Park district. Light trailer appliances were immediately despatched to the scene of the occurrences from the Main Station, Simeon Street Auxiliary Station, and Edward Street. Shortly afterwards the Leyland No.1 Heavy Appliance and a further light trailer from Seaview were despatched for the same district.

News was eventually received by fire service messenger that incendiaries had fallen on an extensive area reaching from Appley Farm to the foot of East Hill Road, causing fires at numerous private residences in the district. With the exception of one bomb which practically gutted St John’s Lodge, very little real damage was done by these incendiaries. By half-past seven the crews had returned to their respective stations, leaving two men from Edward Street standing by at the Lodge in case of a further outbreak. It has by then become apparent from the direction in which the aircraft were flying that a large-scale aerial offensive was being directed against the port of Southampton, for large fires in that direction were already visible. Apart from the blitzkrieg on Coventry, Southampton was that night experiencing the first night attack concentrated on a large scale on one town.

Just before eight o’clock another incoming machine let go a further load of incendiaries and H.E. bombs in the direction of Ashey. The Leading Fireman in charge of Binstead post, observing them, and believing them to have fallen in his patrol area at once despatched a light pump and crew to deal with them. It was not an easy task there and then to say where they had fallen but it was not long before the flames were lighting up the sky and the fire was located as being at Gatehouse Farm, Ashey, where two large hayricks were well alight. On arrival at the scene of the fire the Binstead crew found that they could only deal with one rick as there was insufficient hose on the appliance to deal with the second one nearly a quarter of a mile from the source of water. They got to work on the nearby rick and managed to smother that, and in the meantime their driver took the towing vehicle back to Edward Street for assistance and more hose.

This was readily forthcoming and a light trailer pump from the Main Station was quickly on the scene. Although the fire was under control in no time, it was not until the following evening that the last glimmer of fire had disappeared. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this raid was the early hour at which the raiders passed was sounded. Before midnight the raid was over and the huge fires which had been created to guide the raiders to Southampton were by morning under control. It was not a very long raid, but I doubt if any town in this country had such a night as the people of Southampton experienced that Saturday.

Of our little gang of messengers only two took part in this first raid. Bill Turner and Pontius. Bill was the first man to go to Gatehouse Farm from Edward Street, being sent by the Chief to report on what steps had been taken by the Binstead crew in dealing with the fire. He created a name for himself in the way he carried out his work, taking nearly half an hour before he could get his motorcycle to start. Pontius was also sent out in the thick of it. He was ordered up to St John’s Lodge later in the evening to see if the two men posted on guard there had anything further to report. I can’t help admiring him for the way in which he carried out his duties on that occasion. He was always inclined to be on the nervous side, yet when he had a job to do, he just forgot that and got on with the work. As I learnt it’s not so bad when you are riding a motorcycle for the sounds of gun fire, falling bombs and other distracting elements are not audible above the roar of your engine, but the poor cyclist messenger is in the unenviable position of having to hear all and say nowt.

We definitely created a good impression on the general public by our efforts that night, for on the following morning we were congratulated on all sides for the speedy way in which the outbreaks were brought under control. The Commanding Officer of the Fleet Air Arm Training Camp H.M.S. Medina sent the following telegram to the Chief Officer “Congratulations on smart turnout and prompt action during the air raid last night”. On behalf of the service the following reply was sent “The Ryde Fire Services acknowledge and deeply appreciate your kind message on the twenty-third instant.”

In his weekly instruction sheet issued to the part-time personnel on the following Thursday the Chief Officer wrote the following: “The value of training and practice was clearly demonstrated on Saturday last when work was carried out under real war conditions. Those who took part in the actual fire-fighting operations, those who patrolled under the conditions which were existing at the time and those who turned out and stood by at the different stations and posts, especially those who reported at posts other than their own, all contributed to an exhibition of discipline, efficiency and devotion to duty which commanded the respect and admiration of all who came in to contact with the Ryde Fire Services during the period of anxiety which existed that night. Without doubt, the work carried out on that occasion has proved that the fire-fighting services are a vital part of the Civil Defence scheme, and the local organisation has well merited its formation and its worthiness of support. This kind of thing makes one proud to be associated with such a capable body of men, and the Chief Officer wishes to express to all concerned his deep appreciation of the splendid manner in which the operations were conducted, especially to the officers in charge of the different patrols and appliances, for their most efficient supervision of their respective crews and appliances. We learnt a lot that night, so did the general public!”

These concluding words just about sum things up. With the advent of the blitzkrieg, the firemen of London and the other big cities who suffered so badly had become national heroes, but we in Ryde were not fully conscious of modern aerial warfare until that night. The public still regarded us as three pound a week army dodgers, and we were often referred to as the as the army of dart players. Overnight the position changed, and we were proud to walk the street in fire service uniforms, conscious that the arduous hours of training were not in vain. The argument of the regular firemen has always been that firefighting can only be learnt by years of experience and by constantly attending fires. Many of our lads went to their first fire that night and proved this to be a fallacy. They simply carried things out as if it was just another drill, and despite the existing conditions they kept their heads and made a name for themselves and the A.F.S.

Chapter 5 

On the second of December the Ryde War Weapons Week commenced and before it was over it had firmly fixed a lasting impression in my mind. I shan’t forget that week in a hurry. We spent a great deal of valuable time and showmanship in building and decorating our stall in the Town Hall but somehow it seemed to lack interest. The reply to this was soon forthcoming. We removed one of the Beresford light trailers from its chassis and carried it up into the hall where it was proudly displayed mounted on two soap boxes covered with a Union Jack. Outside the colonnade in Lind Street, we proudly put a Scammell pump and towing vehicle but thanks to a Bren Gun Carrier and an armoured car which provided competition we were doomed to failure in this latter enterprise.

The high spot of the day for those on duty at the Town Hall were the free teas served. As soon as I got wind of this, I put my name down for duty on the stall and was rewarded by being given Friday and Saturday duty. Much as I remember these two days with satisfaction it is of Thursday that most can be said.

On the left, Chief Officer Max Heller is showing the Mayor (Colin's father) around the service's equipment in Lind Street during the events described above.

On that day I was off call on the siren, doing then the part-time one night in two rotas. By a strange coincidence the siren went at precisely the same time as it had that Saturday evening in November. It was a most depressing night and was beginning to drizzle with rain and it wasn’t long before we heard the drone of a low flying plane. I don’t know whether it was sixth sense, instinct or just chance, but my father who is inclined to be a trifle on the nervous side, remarked “I don’t like the sound of this one, I’m going into the shelter”. He had hardly got the words out of his mouth when there were a dozen or so distant thumps which shook the whole place. Father emerged from the shelter murmuring bombs. My brother, home on leave from London, said calmly “don’t be silly, it was only an anti-aircraft gun. No plane would carry as many bombs as that.” He had been in all the blitzes in London, yet he was mistaken. The next arrival was my uncle from the shop, remarking “there’s a lady just come in and she says that half the town’s ablaze!”

That was just about enough for me, I tore upstairs, pulled on my tunic and tin hat, jumped on my bicycle and set out for the station. En route I had a look around and things certainly did look bad. The incendiaries appeared to have fallen on the lower slopes of St John’s Park once again, and the whole neighbourhood appeared to be ablaze. It was indeed as light as day in that direction and I was afterwards agreeably surprised to find how little damage these incendiaries had done.

On arrival at the station, I found that one of our crews had already left to investigate but as yet no details were forthcoming.

The old man evidently wasn’t satisfied with things and sent out the No 1 Leyland engine, so we were promptly packed off to the Main Station to stand by there until they returned. The towing vehicle employed was in private life a coal lorry with no sides and still bearing traces of its stock in trade. When we ordered away the gear was flung on in a most haphazard manner, and it was nothing short of a miracle that we eventually arrived at our destination safe and sound. If anybody doubts this let them try riding on a side-less lorry with a thirty-foot extension ladder up. It’s no joke! We booked in on arrival and settled down until the engine returned. We didn’t have long to wait and within a quarter of an hour were on our way back to Edward Street. Once again, our luck was in. We were crawling along the street which leads from the Main Station when our drivers’ sharp eyes spotted a nasty little bomb crater plumb in the centre of the road. We managed to pull up and by keeping hard over to the right hand side of the road we managed to get past. When we got back to Edward Street we could see the beginnings of a pretty big fire flaring up on the other side of the water somewhere in Portsmouth, but before long the glare disappeared and the activity ceased.

The all clear came through shortly after nine o’clock so it was a pretty short affair. It seems to me that a plane coming over under the bad weather conditions which were prevalent at the time, and mistaking its target for Portsmouth, was responsible for our share of the activity.

The whole affair seemed to display the hand of providence, for despite the fact that sixteen high explosive bombs were dropped right across the heart of the town from east to west, the total casualty list showed none killed and only one injured. What a miraculous escape. Ryde certainly seemed in luck’s way that night.

Young Podge will have good cause to remember that raid for the rest of his life, for he had the misfortune to be landed in the thick of it. He had heard the siren go, but took no notice of it, for he was proceeding along Queens Road towards the parish church, on his way to the pictures. He was just coming up to the church when the first bombs whistled down in Riboleau Street. Each one seemed unpleasantly nearer so Podge took cover behind a large stone gateway on the other side of the road. There were more explosions, unpleasantly close, but Podge had the satisfaction of picking himself up safe and sound, if not quite so clean and smart as when he started out. There were three small calibre bombs dropped within fifty yards of where he was standing, the nearest being just about twenty yards away, so he had a pretty close shave.

Pontius’ mother, who was Podge’s neighbour, was also in the vicinity at the time. She unfortunately stayed on the church side of the road, but despite being considerably blackened and shaken she got away without serious injury. I’m afraid that after that her nervous system broke up and Pontius very rarely put in an appearance at the station after that, after dark.

The comments of the weekly rag on the matter may be of interest. As the report of the incident practically filled the edition of the following week, I must quote only the most interesting and relevant passages. The report read as follows.

“Two churches and three schools were damaged as a result of bombing in a town on the south coast on Thursday evening. A church, which was considerably damaged, is closed for services until repairs are made, and two of the schools were unable to open. Remarkable escapes from injury occurred throughout the town. Casualties were few and none fatal. A one-armed man was trapped beneath the debris of his house but was rescued only slightly hurt. The bombs fell almost in a straight line across the town. First a flare lit the sky and was followed by a shower of incendiary bombs which fell on a hill. The worst structural damage was to four houses in a small side road. Two bombs fell, one in the road itself, the other on a pair of houses. A high explosive bomb missed a church by only a few yards, bursting in the drive opposite to a door of the nave. Stained glass windows along the whole length of the south side of the church were shattered, the stout oak doors were smashed and the stonework was pitted by bomb splinters. The interior was littered with glass and other debris, and the church was closed. The incendiary bombs, although they lit half the town with their white glare, actually achieved little. The fire brigade turned out but were soon back, the bombs being quickly under control.”

So wrote the reporter of the Isle of Wight Times. A colourful description was the complete thing, but in the above extract I have tried to cut out the journalese and quote fact. I think it is only fair to mention that had it not been for the valuable work done by the troops that night in dealing with the incendiaries as soon as they dropped, we should have been sure of an all-night job. As it was, not one pump was brought into action, all the outbreaks being successfully extinguished with stirrup pumps and sandbags.

As so the week wore on, nothing of interest taking place until the Saturday on which War Weapons Week ended. On that day we winded up the proceedings with a grand parade of Civil Defence vehicles. This parade is still regarded with superstition and horror by the motorcycle messengers who took part in it. Parade was hardly a just name for the affair, for it was carried out at a pace of slightly less than four miles an hour, this being necessary owing to the military band which led the procession on foot. By the end of the proceedings when the three-mile course was completed, two of our machines had withdrawn from the procession in flames. What a fire service, still everybody seemed to be well satisfied with the show so no more was said.

What struck the general public most in the show was the number of appliances we possessed, in fact there were quite a few who refused to believe that they all belonged to Ryde, insinuating in most unpleasant tones that they had been borrowed from other parts of the island for the occasion. I personally cannot take part in a function like this without feeling a thrill and things like this make me feel more proud of the service than actual fire fighting. Its just the same with church parades, I can’t help feeling proud to belong to such a service, when we are out on parade. I must say that with all his other failings the Chief always got the best out of us on ceremonial occasions.

Above - three photographs taken during the Lind Street form-up and procession that closed Ryde's War Weapons Week in December 1940. In the centre photograph Bill Turner is the motorcyclist closest to the camera.

Chapter 6

Stanley Fairbrass, originally appointed as Chief Officer of Newport Fire Brigade before the war. By the time he undertook the role of AFS examiner, he had been appointed by the island's combined local authorities as supreme commander of all Isle of Wight fire brigades and AFS units, the first man to do so.

I now come to the moment which every auxiliary dreads far more than the dangers to which he is experienced in fire fighting; the passing out examination. Our particular class of trainees had quite a time ago completed our training, yet when quite without warning the Chief Officer informed us that we were to be examined on the following Sunday we couldn’t help feeling some qualms of anxiety. We spent the week busily in revision, even working up our knowledge until late on Sunday morning.

At last Sunday afternoon came, a miserable day, wet and windy, and we assembled in the training room at Edward Street at half-past two awaiting the arrival of the examiner, Captain Fairbrass, Chief Officer of the Newport Fire Brigade. Eventually our patience was rewarded, and he arrived, only three-quarters of an hour late, which in the circumstances was pretty promising. We were then divided in to parties of four, who then in turn were taken in to the office for questioning. Once again, the four messengers up for examination of whom I was one, were kept waiting until the last. And then when we were just beginning to hope that we had been forgotten we were ushered into the torture chamber.

We were all rather agreeably surprised with the simpleness of the questions we were asked and had little difficulty in answering. If we were to so much as hesitate over anything the examiner promptly proceeded to help us out.

Luckily it was too wet for any drill out of doors, so we had to be content with a dry hose running drill which was simplicity itself, a few questions on the running of the trailer pumps and a demonstration of picking up and dragging. That was all but weren’t we glad when it was over. There was nothing for us to do now but wait for the results.

These were soon forthcoming. On the weekly sheet appeared a small paragraph which stated that all the members of the personnel who had taken the examination were successful, and that special praise was due to the ‘messenger team’ who had done exceedingly well. This bucked us all up considerably and we commenced to lay plans for the celebration on the day we got our proficiency pay and badges.

One Saturday evening just before Christmas the day fixed for the presentation, we mustered at the station and after listening to speeches from the Chief Officer, the Chairman of the local Fire Brigade Committee, and from my father the Mayor, we were presented with our badges and gratuities. We then had a sing-song and light refreshments consisting of slab cake and cups of tea.

We the trainees set out for the public house which conveniently lies opposite the entrance to the station drive. Of what transpired after that, I am I fear a little hazy. As far as I can gather, we spent the next half hour in the saloon bar, solidly drinking port wine and then for want of anything better to do proceeded down town to the fish and chip shop where we purchased a supply of fish and chips. There were taken back to the station where we consumed them.

Not wishing to put an end to the festivities at that stage we purchased a large packet of cigars and proceeded to wade through them. After a rather shaky game or two of billiards we retired for the night in the bedroom at the station. This room is very small, and it is worthy of mention that we were able to cram four of us into it for the night. On the next morning we woke up feeling more dead than alive and it was well past ten o’clock before we could be persuaded to move. Fortunately, the hangover did not seem to be permanent and by dinner time we had regained much of our composure. If any of my readers are shocked by this festivity, let them think for a moment of how they would have felt in such circumstances. I know that if I had the chance over again, I shouldn’t hesitate. The only real regret was the shocking waste of money, squandered away on our entertainment that evening; still I suppose it did somebody some good. I know that in the short but eventful half an hour we spent in the ‘London’ I disposed of just on eight and sixpence.

As you will probably have guessed we had to sleep at the station following our adventures on the razzle. In some cases, it was carried a wee bit too far and Willie Turner for instance made a practice of sleeping there practically every night, rather than let his parents know what time he got in. With the majority of us however we only used that excuse when we had any special celebration on, or when we stayed out late to dances or suchlike. We did of course continue to sleep at the station whenever we were on siren call, whether there was a raid on or not.

The public house to which Colin refers, was The London Hotel in Well Street. The London enjoyed a close association with the auxiliary firemen both formally and informally, and was used as the assembly point for new auxiliary recruits, such as those photographed above being the first batch on 3 October 1938. In the centre is Henry Weeks, soon to become Mayor, and at the rear left is Chief Officer Max Heller. Many of these wartime recruits continued their firefighting service post-war, including Bill Barnett the tall chap standing in front of the window who served in the Isle of Wight County Fire Brigade as Station Officer at Bembridge. 

At this point in his diary, Colin reverts from using 'chapters' to specifying dates.

Sunday 22 December 1940

My first Christmas in the fire service will always stand out in my mind as a most pleasant memory. On the 22nd of December, the Sunday of the Christmas week, the part-time crew to which I was attached had the fortune to be on evening turn of duty. This evening shift was always a red letter day for our crew as we were in the habit of clubbing together and providing a really good hot supper which we cooked ourselves.

As soon as we learned that we were on evening turn on the 22nd, preparations began to go forward for a meal on a larger scale than ever attempted before. We co-opted several of the more notable part-timers from the other crews and arranged with the Chief Officer to do a double turn of duty from one p.m. until ten-thirty. As I pointed out to the Chief Officer at the time, we wanted to work in a good, combined drill in the afternoon and then prepare for the big spread in the evening. Although he readily gave his consent to this project, he was just a little dubious as to the nature of the drill to be conducted. He told me that the only drill that we were likely to get through that day was a knife and fork drill!

As it so happened, we unanimously decided that it was rather too nippy for a drill so we concentrated on the food.

From one o’clock onwards members of the fire service could be seen strolling stealthily up and down the station drive bearing mysterious parcels. Then the big moment arrived, ‘Jonah’ the cook general of our gang, an undertaker by trade, but a darned good cook despite his professional calling, was sighted riding a tradesman’s bicycle down the drive with a large, galvanised bath perched precariously on his handlebars; the turkey had arrived!

Just before six o’clock we sat down to dinner, sixteen of us in all, including the Chief Officer, the Section Officer and the two Leading Firemen. Considering the shortage of food caused by war conditions the fare was certainly sumptuous, and for the benefit of any who may be interested I will quote the menu. For first course we dined on turkey with sausage meat stuffing, green peas, cauliflower, bread sauce, bacon, and baked potatoes. For second course there was custard and Christmas pudding in plenty, and we finished up with mince pies, coffee, and port wine.

The port wine was the subject of much conjecture, and we were wondering what the reactions of the C.O. would be, for he was a staunch teetotaller. When Mickey and I produced the first bottle he looked a trifle surprised, but said nothing, except that he would rather have water if we didn’t mind. So far so good!

As we filled up the glasses around the table it became apparent that there wasn’t going to be enough to go round. The Chief looked rather pleased with himself and said with a grin spreading over his face “it looks as if somebody will have to go short!” Mickey, who was sitting next to me, promptly dived under the table, produced a second bottle and remarked cheerfully “on the contrary sir, there’s plenty more where that came from!”

After our drinking several toasts the toastmaster, Peter Jolliffe, said a few words of thanks to all concerned and the Chief in responding provided a fitting close to a truly memorable social event.

The proceedings were perhaps a trifle marred by a siren in the middle of the proceedings, but it didn’t cause us any real inconvenience except for the influx of critical full-timers who regarded the festive board with hungry eyes, and who had as usual plenty to say on the lavishness and extravagance to which we part-timers went to satisfy the inner man!

Friday 10 January 1941

The New Year was heralded in with an abundance of long raids which, owing to the cold weather made station life misery. Sleep was almost impossible, but we wrapped ourselves in as many blankets as we could find, brought down pillows and blankets from home and managed to stick it.

Thanks to the labours of Robbie, the station orderly who was responsible for the maintenance of the central heating system, we were just prevented from being frozen stiff. It was however nearly as cold as it would have been sleeping out of doors.

On the tenth, a Friday, we passed an eventful day. The day started with a raid still on from the previous night. At a quarter past twelve our slumbers were aroused by the telephone bell. As there was no likelihood of the all clear coming through just then we were at once on the alert. I slipped out of bed and was half dressed before we were given a standby. Two minutes passed and then we were given orders to turn out and standby at the Binstead post as they were out on patrol.

Leading Fireman Harry Parker, photographed while attending a command course at Men's Fire Force School, Rake, Hampshire, during the period of the National Fire Service.

As I was by this time fully booted and spurred the Leading Fireman, one Harry Parker, in charge of the crew, told me to come along with him and make up for the man who was on leave.

Off we went, flying through the night at breakneck speed, jolted and bumped until all the breath was shaken from our bodies. We were far too busy concentrating on hanging on to notice the heavy gun flashes and glare of incendiaries in the direction of Newport. As we swept down the drive at the entrance to the Binstead post the low branches cut us all over the face and swept my tin hat off. I quickly retrieved it, we turned the pump round and finding it too cold to stay where we were we went in to the post and sat down.  There we waited until just on half past one when the Binstead crew returned.

It transpired that once again Jerry had fired a rick, this time at Fairlee Farm at the approach to Newport, and not quite the look of things our chaps had gone on to lend a hand to the Newport crews already fighting the fire. And so it was that we turned back for home, and I missed a good night’s sleep.

In the afternoon of the same day, I was one of the contingent sent to Newport for the funeral of a Newport fire service messenger, and although we were refreshed by the warm cups of tea and cakes served to us at the station after the service it was more than I could do to keep warm.

We returned to the station shortly after four o’clock and after an hour’s hard work I knocked off thinking that I could spend the evening quietly at home with a good book, a warm fire, and a cosy bed to sleep in. Once again, I was unlucky. The siren howled out its nightly warning just as the six o’clock news was commencing, but what did I care, I was off siren call that night.

For just on fifty minutes there was not a sound in the sky, just an uncanny silence. This looks promising I said to myself, we shall get an early all clear. I was wrong. By seven o’clock the first wave of bombers came droning noisily into the sharp staccato bark of the anti-aircraft guns. By half past seven I gave up reading and did some thinking. In the first place there had been an unusually long lull before the first planes drifted in. Secondly since they had appeared there was not the customary lull between each wave, just one continual din. By the length of the lull between each wave we had learnt to divine with some accuracy as to where the attack was on.

I therefore quite rightly came to the conclusion that it was Portsmouth which the Germans were attacking this time. As things got bad, I announced my intention of reporting for duty. I waited a bit to see if there was going to be any break in the attack, but there wasn’t so off I went.

I have in my short span of life seen many things but as yet there is nothing which presents a firmer image on my mind than what I saw when I looked that evening towards Portsmouth. It was a clear starlit night but the light of the stars were eclipsed by the angry red glow which hovered over the mainland. This was rapidly growing in intensity, and it seemed impossible that anything could be done to control such a blaze. To anyone who has never been in a big fire blitz the scene is indescribable, but let it suffice to say that it appeared as though the fires of hell had taken possession of the Hampshire shore that evening.

Our escape was marvellous, for with the exception of a Molotov breadbasket dropped over Seaview, the island escaped Scot free from the hail of Nazi bombs.

We gazed across the water at the terrible fires, rapidly spreading, and some idea may be given as to the state of affairs when it can authoritatively be stated that over twenty five thousand incendiaries rained down on Portsmouth during that raid. It was hell to see the bomb flashes appear like white pin-pricks in the midst of the raging fires. There was a lull in the attack shortly after ten, but two hours later the raiders were back, plastering the brilliantly illuminated docks and commercial buildings. It was not until after four o’clock the following morning that the last wave, satisfied that its work of destruction was complete, left the district. For once in our lives we thanked God for the narrow stretch of water which separates the island from the mainland. It may be a confounded nuisance at times, but that night it saved the islanders from a taste of what the poor people of Portsmouth had to bear.

The fires were still burning fiercely on the morning after the raid and firemen from as far away as Nottingham had to be called to assist in damping down operations. The famous landmarks so well known and loved by us on the south coast were no more. The beautiful city Guildhall stood a blackened shell in the city square, the Hippodrome was levelled to a mass of smouldering debris, the big shopping centres of Commercial Road were charred and battered, but strange to say, the dockyard, perhaps the biggest military objective in the south of England, was comparatively unscathed.

On the other side of the harbour the shipyards of Gosport too escaped lightly, but the residential and business areas were left in blackened ruins, a sign to the world of what respect the Nazi airmen showed for the civilian population.

Having dwelt on the more important issues at stake, let us turn to our share in the proceedings. It was shortly before eight o’clock that we had an inkling of what was happening in Seaview. The telephonist at Seaview Auxiliary Station phoned up the Chief, asking for further assistance as both pumps had been despatched to deal with the numerous incendiary bomb fires in the district. As we had up to then received no information of any occurrence in the district, the Chief, I fear rather got the wind up and ordered out three crews to Seaview, one from Simeon Street, one from Edward Street and a third from the Main Station. As it so happened the crews from Seaview did their work so promptly and efficiently that this assistance was not required. But then to look at it from the Chief’s point of view, it might have been.

Our lads were gone little over the hour, returning proudly to the station with a bucket containing over forty unexploded incendiaries. They were rendered harmless and cleaned up, keeping them for souvenirs. I eventually got fed up with keeping mine and after a month or two it found its way in to the dustbin.

Some mention should be made of the brave fireman Wilson-Chalon, a part-timer attached to the Seaview Station. He swears to this day that the dent in his tin hat was caused that night by a falling incendiary bomb. On considering that an incendiary weighs over two pounds and that it was dropped from a height of somewhere in the neighbourhood of ten thousand feet, I doubt very much the veracity of Mr Chalon’s statement. So do the majority of the fire service, although the Isle of Wight Times swallowed his story good and proper making quite a story out of the supposed incident.

It is a funny thing but when I reported in on the second siren, just on midnight, I turned in and slept through the rest of the raid, not even the gunfire waking me up. This was some difference from the heavy attacks we have experienced since, when we spent the early morning right up to the all clear sitting on the pumps in the garage, around the boiler, or admiring the scene out in Edward Street.

Once again the Chief was full of praise for the way in which we went to work that night, especially the lads from Seaview. In his instruction sheet to the part-time personnel on the following Thursday he wrote; “Seaview experience; the personnel attached to the Seaview Auxiliary Station acquitted themselves splendidly during the work which they performed in dealing with the shower of incendiary bombs in their district on the tenth instant. Those who were able to witness the manner in which the job was tackled have nothing but praise for all concerned. One thing which impressed them was the quick arrival of assistance from other posts. The Chief Officer adds his personal congratulations to all who took part in the proceedings on their most excellent display.”

The men and appliances of the Seaview post, photographed later than the events described during the period of the National Fire Service. For organisational and administrative purposes, these men, both as the AFS and later the NFS, came under the direct control of Max Heller of Ryde.

Tuesday 18 February 1941

After a fairly quiet and uneventful month, marked only by a short attack on Cowes one Sunday night, we come to what I can proudly refer to as my first fire. As it happened it was my leave day and I was just finishing off my tea when my mother drew my attention to an imposing column of black smoke arising from the other side of the road appearing to come from the chimney of my grandmother’s house. I wasn’t quite sure of what ought to be done but thought that it wouldn’t do any harm to find out what was going on. When I arrived I found that the chimney was well and truly on fire and remembering what I could about chimney fires, got working on the fire.

Things seemed to be going pretty well and about half an hour later it seemed as if the fire was out. As I was in a hurry to get on to a music lesson and as I was confident that the worst was over I left the clearing up to the hands of others. This was a fatal mistake for the instructions I had given about keeping all the doors and windows closed were not carried out and on returning to the scene of the fire nearly two hours later, I was startled to find a full A.F.S. crew at work with a chimney pump. It appeared that with people constantly coming in and out, the draught had fanned the flames back to life and a fire worse than before had been caused.

Under the able directions of Leading Fireman Potts we soon got things safely under control and but for a cracked chimney breast, a good deal of soot and a little bit of scorched skirting board the damage was very little.

I quite rightly got rapped over the knuckles for leaving a fire before I was satisfied that it was out, but after all we were learning by experience and that evening I learnt more than I have ever learnt in a week of drills. I don’t think that I am likely to make the same mistake again, which is what really matters.

I had good cause to remember that fire, for wherever I went, I was haunted by the filthy smell of burnt soot which adhered to my uniform mackintosh for weeks after the occurrence. It was with a feeling of pride that I read my name on the official fire report, knowing in my heart that had the truth been written there, I should not have appeared quite so proud or so contented. Still as I have said before it was a valuable experience.

Sunday 9 March 1941

This day stands out in my memory as one of the very few occasions when I went to the pictures on a Sunday. Bill Turner had pressed me very hard to go with him to the Theatre Royal and although I was not too keen, for want of anything better to do I accompanied him.

As I had expected the siren went about the usual time, half past seven, and there was also as usual a good deal of gunfire unpleasantly close and loud at times. We held a hasty council of war and decided to see the picture round before reporting back to the station. So, we settled down not too comfortably, happily oblivious to what was going on outside, for just before nine, when the gunfire seemed at its height, a Jerry bomber let go a load of bombs right across the lower part of the town.

Fortunately, the only ones to explode were of very small calibre or I should not be writing this now. The large calibre ones, which were of the five hundred and fifty pounder type, were all fitted with delayed action fuses, yet even the fire watchers did not hear them whistle down. The nearest one landed just over thirty yards away amongst the tombstones in St Thomas’ churchyard, another of the same size crashed down through the unoccupied premises of the Isle of Wight County Press, burying itself in the basement where it remained until it was dug out two days later.

By way of showing the irony of the situation, I must relate the experiences of two of our part-time men. A fifty pounder had according to the wardens crashed down in to the garden of the house of one of our lads and had failed to go off, so he was advised to evacuate. He then promptly moved all his gear to the house of another of our lads who was living above the building where the five hundred and fifty pounder had pitched in Union Street. Once again, he passed the night happily unaware that he had jumped out of the frying pan and in to the fire. Luckily for all concerned, the Bomb Disposal Squad was successful in removing both these delayed action bombs before they could do any damage. I don’t feel quite so keen about spending Sunday evening in the pictures now, still a miss is as good as a mile so why worry?

After the incident everybody commenced finding what might be delayed action bombs in their gardens, but with one or two notable exceptions, they were proved to be mistaken. As a result, many of the main streets were closed to traffic and much inconvenience was caused to all and sundry.

Friday 11 April 1941

It was early on Good Friday morning and there was a pretty heavy raid on somewhere for the planes had been passing continually since seven on the previous evening. There had been several lots of bombs dropped around the district but nothing very close handy.

And then, five minutes before the all clear was sounded the very last plane over was hit by anti-aircraft fire and down came the bombs, killing three and doing a considerable amount of damage to residential property.

In the mess room four firemen were playing cards and among them was Georgie Jones, the undertaker. When they heard the whistle of the falling bombs George promptly dived under the table. The others continued with their game.

The explosions shook the building and then nearly a minute later a head appeared above the edge of the table, and in a hoarse whisper Georgie murmured “Glass!” That was all but it was the way in which he said it that made this incident so memorable.

NOTE - Colin makes light of this attack in comparison to the records of the ARP. Two high explosive bombs came down in the grounds of Caversham House in Dover Street, used as district ARP headquarters. One struck the Vectis Nursing Home and a UXB was reported at Broughton House in The Strand, two HE's struck buildings in Monkton Street causing the deaths of Councillor Alfred Williams, his wife Gertrude, and 44-year old Beatrice Rowe who died in hospital the following day. Three HE's came down in Wood Street and one in Trinity Street, and the wider area covered by the Ryde district of the AFS saw further HE's and incendiaries strike in Seaview, Bembridge, Nettlestone, Nodes Point and Havenstreet. With all this activity it seems surprising that Colin's diary makes no mention of the crews of Edward Street being called out.

Thursday 24 April 1941

The sirens were late going tonight, not until just on half past nine, but it wasn’t very long before Jerry was over, and our gunners were letting him have it good and proper.

I was at a dance in the Town Hall when the raid commenced and my first knowledge that anything was happening was when one of our firemen, Bert Dewey, sidled up to me and said that a phone message had just come through from the station instructing us all to report to our respective stations.

It didn’t take us long to see what for, for when we got into the street it was as light as day and a vivid red glare lit the sky in the direction of Newport. When we reached the station, we found out that three of our pumps were out on patrol and another had gone to standby at Newport.

It transpired later that Jerry had in the bad weather conditions prevailing at the time, mistaken his whereabouts and instead of dropping his load on Portsmouth had given us something to play about with. Parkhurst Forest was good and truly alight, and it wasn’t until the following morning that firemen assisted by two thousand troops succeeded in controlling the blaze.

On the same night Swainston Manor, near Calbourne, was gutted by incendiaries and six people were killed when a stick of H.E. bombs fell across Cowes.

Once again, a water carrier was unnecessarily sent out of the town, for when it did get to Parkhurst the crew were handed fire beaters and told to get on with the job. Not much water carrying attached to that!

'Bert Dewey', Herbert James Dewey, went on to become a Leading Fireman of the National Fire Service. Together with his mother they ran the Oakdene guest house on the corner of St. John's Road and Benett Street. Bert was also a skilled musician who for many years maintained an eponymously titled orchestra. 

Colin Weeks astride his AFS BSA motorcycle.

Sunday 22 June 1941

On the Saturday, Podge and I had gone out longing to get away from Ryde for a change and had ridden nearly forty miles on our cycles, with the result that when we reported at the station to sleep, we were none too fresh.

Just after midnight I woke up shouting “George I want to speak to you”. Heaven only knows why, but I did. Bill Hickman in the next bed looked up and said, “What’s the matter Colin?” to which I replied “I want George”. At this juncture George appeared on the scene and all I could do was to murmur feebly “What’s the time?” I don’t know that this is particularly important, but it has always stuck in my mind because of the events which followed it.

I was woken up again at half past one by the siren sounding and by the eerie drone of a large formation of planes gradually increasing in volume. By the time that the guns opened up I was up and dressed and Willie Turner had reported back from his fire watching.

We went down stairs and stood at the door in Edward Street watching the gun flashes until two gigantic flashes occurred in the direction of Swanmore and the whole place shook and shuddered like a crazy thing. After the tumult had once again subsided there was a bright glow of fire appearing to come from somewhere in the vicinity of Ashey Road so away we went for our first crew to investigate.

I was sent off to call in on our part-time men and after picking my way cautiously through the glass strewn streets, I started to make my way back to the station, only to find that my motorcycle was not of the same mind. Anyhow I managed by pushing it and by crawling along to get back to the station.

I was immediately ordered away to Bettesworth Road School as messenger to the crew, for Turner, who was attached to the crew as messenger, was for some reason at Simeon Street with a bike which refused to go another inch. So off I went still going dead slow for the machine wasn’t running too well now.

I naturally thought the quickest way to get to the school would be by going down Church Street, but I reckoned without the debris which I found there. I made my way panting and sweating down Church Street pulling my machine over the glass and...


Colin's diary ends there, literally mid-sentence with pulling my machine over the glass and...

It is clear that Colin was attempting to bring his diary up to date some time after the events being described. When I spoke to my Station Officer in 1996, asking if he knew why the diary ended so abruptly in the middle of a sentence, he replied with what may be a slightly romanticised version of events as inherited from his father who knew Colin. Allegedly Colin was using the typewriter at the Edward Street fire station, writing that final line, when the Luftwaffe's most serious attack on the Isle of Wight, known locally as the Cowes Blitz, began around 23:00 hours in the evening of 4 May 1942.

From contemporary records it is clear that the two-wave attack was accompanied by two major stages of deployment from the Ryde district. Colin was either in the first, around midnight, or the latter in the early hours of 5 May. Legend has it that he left the typewriter, with the unfinished page within its carriage, when he was among one of the contingents that headed to East Cowes.

Sadly, alongside his colleague Leading Fireman Herbert Dewey and WVS volunteer Alice Hann, he was killed by the blast of one of the first bombs dropped in the second wave of the attack at approximately 04:15 in the morning. 

Colin and Bert had been permitted the opportunity to leave their duties for brief refreshment at the WVS van staffed by Mrs. Hann near the corner of Minerva and Clarence roads in East Cowes. At the time of his death Colin was 18 years old.

A press report of the funeral indicated that the two firemen were buried side by side in the West Street Parish Cemetery. In 2007, determined to pay my respects, my wife Sharon, youngest daughter Shannon and I scoured the vast area comprising the cemetery to locate the graves. On discovering the headstone of Herbert Dewey, broken and laying on its back, I was able to identify Colin Weeks' last resting place in the adjacent plot where the headstone was completely covered by growth.

The graves of Herbert Dewey (left) and Colin Weeks (beneath the leaves) as we discovered them in 2007. A small gap in the leaves is where I pulled at the growth to reveal sufficient details of the headstone to be sure we had the correct one. The headstone had evidently been protected by the growth for many years and was in virtually new condition. When Colin's father Henry passed away in February 1955, as per his request he was interred in the same plot with his teenaged son.

My wife, daughter and I cleared the plots and tidied them as best as we could and were assisted by the Friends of Ryde Cemetery to conduct a more thorough clean on 5 April 2008. Joined by my colleagues from Ryde Fire Station we held a service of memorial on the 70th anniversary of their deaths, 5th May 2012, accompanied by Dr. Kieron Cooney, who played a touching rendition of Amazing Grace on the bagpipe. Following this I have to give great credit and appreciation to Wight Stonemasonry who not only repaired Leading Fireman Dewey's headstone for a nominal cost, they also, without being asked, carried out a highly professional clean up of both graves. On 5th May 2017 a 75th commemorative service was held, officiated on our behalf by Rev. Graham Morris of All Saints Church.

I regularly return to check on the tidiness of the graves and on every Remembrance Day place a poppy on each and salute them.

I never forget their sacrifice and that it was Colin's diary that compelled my research, initially into his service and death, and ultimately to every other item that appears in this website and in the associated IWFBF publications.

Rest in peace.

Photo courtesy of Island Echo.

'On the Run'

A poem I created for the 2017 memorial service.


As children we’d play in the park and we’d swing

And as brothers jump for joy at the sound of the ring

Of the engine bells as the appliance screamed past

On our bikes we would go and pursue them so fast


Those memories are old and now it’s us on the run

Living those dreams that our childhood begun

We’ve ridden the red stallion from east to the west

Like Langdon, Buckett, Jolliffe, all those chiefs and the rest


‘Ready when wanted’ was the Ryde brigade call

Through dirt, smoke and furnace you gave it your all

And to fulfil that motto you faced dangerous odds

And you left me behind here for the place of your God


For the enemy was many and his deeds were too much

And you fell away from me and for your hand did I clutch

I snatched the thin air where you had once been

In the thick of the action, at the heart of the scene


So I remember you brother and fight back the tears

And take us both back to those innocent years

Of love, life and laughter, all that marvellous fun

So standby my brother, until we’re both off the run


'On the Run' is a fire service term for something that is operationally available - it could be an engine, an item of equipment, or indeed a member of the crew. If an engine malfunctions, an item of equipment fails, or a firefighter is sick, on holiday, retires, or dies, they are considered 'off the run'.

'The Run' was either a purpose-built gently sloping floor, or an additional timber construction anchored to the floor of a Victorian fire station that enabled a horse-drawn engine to be parked on a gentle slope. In the event of a fire call, once the horses were harnessed, the engine driver would release the brake allowing the engine to roll forward, creating sufficient momentum to ease the job of the horses to get speed up.

Although it has been well over a hundred years since any UK fire service used horse-drawn appliances, the phrase 'on the run' is still used today to describe what is available for immediate turn out.

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