Recollections of Frank Cato – The Auxiliary Fire Service 1939-1941

Auxiliary Fire Service

In July 1939 Percy and I took the ferry across to Calais and made our way through France down to Switzerland. We had a cine-camera with us and were thus able to record our tour. The film shows us, on our motorcycles, journeying through France and, in Switzerland, exploring the glaciers and crossing the Simplon and St Gotthard passes in deep snow. At Zurich we visited the international fair, which was being held at that time. We had planned to go into Germany where previously we had been welcomed and had enjoyed our stay. We purchased the Continental Daily Mail to see if there were any developments in the uncertain international situation, which existed when we left England. In this paper we read that the tension had further worsened and so we decided to avoid entering Germany (War was declared in September). On returning home after our holiday we found a heightened sense of foreboding.

During 1938 Volunteers had been asked to join the Civil Defence Services. Will and I had joined the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) and Ted had rejoined the Special Constabulary Police Force of which he had been a member during the General Strike of 1926.

Over this period Will and I had reported to the Ealing Fire Station. Here, on several nights a week, instruction was given to the many volunteers, perhaps close on two hundred in total. We ran out the hoses to the shouts of ‘Water on’, ‘Water off’ and at the end of the exercise re-rolled the heavy hoses. Repeatedly we pitched the extending ladders against the tower, climbed up and down before closing the ladders and replacing them on to the fire engines. We climbed up to the top of the extended turntable ladder of the Dennis fire engine and came down carrying ‘Charlie’, a weighted dummy, in a ‘fireman’s carry’ on our backs. We were taught first aid and the correct knots to use for specific purposes.

In due course, we, a group of twenty, were posted to form and maintain a sub-station in the grounds of a block of flats near Eaton Rise. Once we were established we were often visited by a small group of young German Jewish boys, who amongst others, had been allowed to leave Germany in 1939. They were boarded nearby under the care of a matron and it gave them great pleasure to visit us and be generally useful in doing odd jobs like polishing the pumps. Our four Coventry Climax pumps, each manned by a four-man crew and a driver, were carried on a trailer and towed by a taxi. The driver of our taxi had the unusual name of Gotobed.

We continued our training, always wearing our tin hats and gas masks; some times we did these exercises wearing the gas masks and poison gas clothing for experience. During the day we also dug trenches and boarded them over to form protection during the anticipated air raids.

In September a radio broadcast by the Prime Minister, Mr Chamberlain, told us that war existed with Germany. We took up our posts with the pumps standing-by for action. Nervously we waited and nothing happened. Then the wail of the air raid warning filled us with anticipation and we waited for the bombs to fall, again all remained quiet. The all-clear sounded and we stood down. Quite an anti-climax. This was followed by a period of non-events, but this did not last indefinitely. Frequent air attacks commenced and before long the AFS were called out to help the regular firemen fight fires in the locality. Members of the AFS continued in their normal jobs and were called out as required. The air raids became more and more intense. They occurred night after night. No area was safe from these bombs and incendiaries. Incendiaries were a fearsome form of attack. Bombers carried large quantities of these and they were showered, indiscriminately, on the houses below, where they would pierce the roof and ignite in the attic setting the whole house alight. Each householder had been warned of this danger and advised to have buckets of sand and buckets of water ready for action. To spray the water, stirrup pumps were available. These were like a large cycle pump that had a foot stand. A tube drew the water from the bucket and, through a nozzle, directed a jet of water on to the blaze.

The raids on London became ever more intense. Streets were devastated as bombs caused gaps between the rows of houses resulting in very heavy loss of life. So dangerous did this become to normal existence that thousands of people slept, each night, on the platforms of the underground railway for refuge. Householders could obtain Morrison and other types of shelters for their individual protection.

Frank Cato AFS

Frank Cato AFS

Hitler was determined, by these sustained bombing raids, to break the spirit of the population and so prevent any British opposition to his plans to conquer the whole of Europe. No London suburb escaped damage and in Ealing the AFS were in frequent demand. In fighting a fire in Ealing Broadway at the Sanders departmental store, a bomb fell nearby and shattered a window, a piece of flying glass cut my arm, but it was not serious. At the hospital I was given a tetanus jab, the wound was bandaged, and I was able to go to my home.

Britain was dependent on food and materials of war being brought into our ports. The merchant navy had suffered grievous losses as German planes and submarines attacked and sunk them on the high seas. To further these losses, the bombers also attacked and severely damaged all our major ports. The crucial raid on the London docks took place over several days and nights. The damage was of the utmost severity. In the sky at night the red glow of the resulting fires could be seen from many miles away. It appeared that all of London was ablaze and, indeed, large areas of the city were. In fighting theses fires, London’s regular firemen became exhausted and much in need of help. AFS members were called in from all the suburbs. Our unit was despatched to the blazing docks. It is hard to describe the scene when we arrived. The whole area was a sea of flames. Buildings and warehouses were blazing unchecked. Bombers flew overhead. Searchlights roamed the sky and anti-aircraft guns thundered. The noise and sights are beyond my description. My unit was detailed to put out the fire raging in one of the merchant ships berthed at the dockside. It was SS Charante. At first we attacked the fire from above, perched on the platform of a crane, but this proved to be ineffective. Next we tried to break through a porthole but, despite our best efforts, we could not fracture the glass with our fireman’s axes. On our third attempt to reach the fire we were able to force an entry into the saloon and eventually the hoses had the desired effect and the flames subsided. As a souvenir of the event, I brought back with me a scorched metal saltcellar from a table. It is inscribed with the ship’s name. This was my last major incident in the AFS as, soon after, I was called up to join the army.

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