We are grateful to Wallace Phillip’s article “Thornbury 1939-1946” which provides an excellent account of Thornbury’s Fire Brigade in World War Two.
The Auxiliary Fire Service was set up in 1937 so that volunteers could help the existing fire service in time of war. Since most young men joined the armed forces the Auxiliary Fire Service had to rely on those too old or young for military service. Throughout the country 360 additional fire stations were set up that were opened in garages, bus stations, schools and other suitable locations. There were two types of auxiliary: unpaid part-timers, who did their normal jobs and worked as fire fighters when they could and when they were needed; and those who, in the event of war, would give up their jobs and become full-time, paid fire fighters.
In Thornbury Mr. Arthur Wilkins, who despite advancing years was full of energy and enthusiasm, was in charge of the training of the volunteers to the Auxiliary Fire Service helped by the Thornbury Rural District Council Voluntary Retained Firemen. The outbreak of war was followed by some six or seven months of the so-called ‘Phoney War’ during which regular training was interspersed with the occasional civil fires of grassland, hay ricks, chimney fires, etc. However eventually the real thing began in the district with the dropping of incendiaries at Hallen. From then on there was plenty of activity.
We know that at least two of Thornbury’s retained firemen Tom Green and Bill Stewart became a full time firemen during war time. They travelled as far away as London and Plymouth to fight fires during the Blitz, as well as fires in Bristol and the local area.
Women were recruited into the fire service from 1938 onward. It would appear from this poster on the left that that none of the women would be working as actual fire-fighters and we assume they answered the telephone, took messages or drove. We have spoken to one of these ladies, Mrs Joan Green nee Blanchard, a neighbour of ours who sadly died in 2012. Joan was able to tell us that during World War II the firemen from the neighbouring fire station used the Register Office to keep their uniforms and as a a place to relax whilst on call. She herself was one of the women who slept there during the war whilst on Fire Duty. Presumably this was because it would not have been suitable for the women of the Fire Service to sleep in the same building as the firemen.
We have another record in Thornbury of “fire woman Pat Prewett.” Sadly we do not know who this lady was and would like to know more about her and other female members of the Fire Service.
To overcome some of the early organisational difficulties the Home Secretary announced that the Regional Fire Brigades and the Auxiliary Fire Service would be merged, and their name changed to the National Fire Service. We understand that in Thornbury this was led by Mr R G Millard (later MBE) with Captain Arthur Hewlett Wilkins as 1st Officer. On the 13th January 1940 the Western Daily Press reported on a meeting of the Rural District Council at which Mr Millard told the council that the Home Office had said there could only be 10 whole time firemen in the Thornbury Fire Brigade unless there were a number of air raids, in which case the numbers could be increased to 24. This meant that at present six whole time firemen would have to be given notice. They were authorised to obtain two heavy trailer pumps as they had responsibility for ARP fire services at Sharpness Docks.
Meg Wise from Thornbury and District Museum has told us that Thornbury became a centre for the gathering of fire appliances from the West Midlands, South Wales and Bristol. Fire appliances and their crews came into town from all around these areas; the vehicles were parked from the Swan up and along Silver Street and down St Mary Street and when required were dispatched to areas where bombs were being dropped.
On the right we have a thumbnail image of Thornbury firemen on night duty during the war. Please click on the image to see a larger photograph of firemen Jack Collins, Bill Clark and Tom Green.
Wallace Phillips described some of the terrible situations that the Thornbury firemen had to deal with. First there was the raid on Bristol on the night of November 24th 1940;
” A Thornbury crew was sent to the devastated area of Park Street and Queen’s Road, Bristol. When the raids were resumed the following night, another Thornbury crew was called in to the Bristol Fire Headquarters in Rupert Street before being sent out to a fire in a paper warehouse near St. Philip’s railway station. As the crew made their way there the sights of flames pouring from St. Peter’s Church and the Church of St. Mary le Port and the holocaust in Union Street and Castle Street became an indelible memory.”
Wallace Phillips went on to say:
“The next major blitz which lasted for some thirteen hours on January 3/4 1941 was on one of the coldest nights of a cold winter. A Thornbury crew sent to deal with a fire at Dallin’s Wharf just off the Bristol Centre had to set up their trailer pump on the edge of the dock with the quayside slippery with ice and with icicles forming on helmets and overcoats and eyebrows frozen as the firemen worked, while if a hose was left idle for half an hour it literally froze solid. ”
According to Wallace Phillips “at the end of June, 1945, Mr. G. R. Millard presented to the Civil Defence Committee this summary of enemy action within the Thornbury Rural District between 1939-1945. There were 219 incidents requiring action by ARP services. The number of bombs dropped was 566 plus about fifteen in the River Severn between high and low water marks. High explosive bombs which did not explode on impact numbered 83. The number of incendiary bombs dropped was estimated at 1,536, fire pot incendiary bombs 10, oil incendiary bombs 39, phosphorous incendiary bombs two, parachute mines four and photo flash bombs ten.
Casualties were: killed seven males, two females; injured eight males, six females. There were two crashed enemy aircraft, their crew casualties being four killed and two injured. Livestock killed numbered 27 and injured twelve. Houses damaged numbered 584 of which eight were totally destroyed. The highest number of high explosive bombs dropped in one raid was 95 on August 22/ 23rd, 1940. ”
To assist the Fire Brigades volunteer Fire Watchers were sent to a high point in their village or town and watched there all night for fires. If they saw a fire they had to report it to the fire department.
In Thornbury the roof of St Mary’s Church (which was covered with 2 ft of bricks to protect it from incendiary bombs) was used as a watching post. We have been told by a local history enthusiast George Ford that his father Frederick George Ford and Dennis Thompson were two regular Fire Watchers here. However many other people were involved in Fire Watching and we understand that senior pupils of Thornbury Grammar School were also recruited.