River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Fire Watchers

February 2002

Tackling German incendiary devices in WWII

In the blitz on London in 1940/41 the Germans realised that, in some situations, especially with dense housing and factories, incendiary bombs could produce greater destruction than the same weight of HE bombs. Large areas of the City of London and of the dockland area were destroyed by fire. It was a lesson the British learned well when it came to retaliation, ultimately leading to the enormous and awful firestorms that devoured Hamburg and Dresden. Later the Americans adopted the same practice in Tokyo.

The British home defence people reacted quickly to the danger. The incendiary bombs were relatively small, somewhere between 4kg and 8kg in weight, and, in principle, could be dealt with fairly easily if tackled quickly, preferably by placing a bucket full of sand over them and quenching with water any fire that had been started. Unfortunately they were sometimes situated in rather inaccessible places in lofts etc. To achieve a quick reaction fire watching parties were compulsorily established in every street and in every work place. How it was organised may have varied but in our area each street was divided into groups of about 25 houses and these groups were further sub-divided into seven. The residents in each of these sub-groups were required to form a fire-watching party that maintained a vigil over their 25 houses on one night of the week on a rota basis. Similarly work places that were closed over night were watched over by small groups of workers.

Buckets of sand and buckets of water were placed all around so that there would always be one relatively handy and a stirrup pump was available for each group when on duty. A stirrup pump was a hand operated pump with a rigid suction pipe that would reach the bottom of a bucket when the pump was stood alongside, and a flexible delivery pipe, about 1m long, with a nozzle. Usually one person operated the pump whilst another directed the jet. This arrangement of firewatchers so equipped worked reasonably well at first and many fires were snuffed out before they got started. The Germans learned of this, however, and made life more difficult and dangerous by making incendiary bombs with a small explosive charge that went off after the bomb having first ignited. The explosion spread burning phosphorus over short distances, which was potentially very nasty for those attempting to tackle the bomb, so that it became necessary to wait until after this minor explosion. The problem was worsened further by the Germans varying the time between the initial ignition and the explosion.

Of course the majority of firewatchers, with their limited area of responsibility, were not involved in any action on most nights. Fire watching parties sometimes became something of a social occasion, and there were some tales to be told when there were offices to be watched over with mixed sexes amongst the firewatchers. In the main it was a fairly onerous duty, however, most people worked hard with long hours during the war and the requirement to stay alert for one night of the week was hard. If they did have to go into action the task could be dangerous and demanding. Incendiary bombs were usually dropped in a container, which opened nearer to the ground so that the bombs fell in a cluster or 'stick', landing fairly close together which meant that there would normally be more than one bomb to deal with.

After our house, which we shared with two other families of relatives, was destroyed by an HE bomb we moved a little further away from the centre of London near to some other relatives. This time we had separate houses. My father, grandfather and two of my uncles, all of whom were too old for military service, formed one group of firewatchers; they all lived quite close to one another so that, on their 'duty' nights, they would normally stay in their own homes until there was a need for action. On one such occasion my father was sitting in the kitchen with his 'tin hat' on the table alongside An inveterate smoker he was practically dozing off with his cigarette in his mouth. German bombers were overhead with their characteristic throbbing beat as the noise from their twin engines moved in and out of sync. There was nothing unusual about that, but suddenly there was the sound of multiple bombs followed by an extremely loud rattling noise outside the house.

My father woke with a start grabbed his helmet and pulled the strap under his chin. He then let out a yell and began dancing around still yelling. For a moment we wondered what on earth was wrong but poor Dad had caught his dangling lighted cigarette with his helmet strap and had firmly clamped it under his chin. We thought it was hilarious and he himself told the story with some humour later but he didn't see the joke at the time. Venturing outside and meeting up with the rest of his team they discovered that a number of incendiary bombs had fallen in the road and on the pavement. Our house was on a corner and bombs had fallen in both of the roads forming the corner. All the houses in the group's domain were checked and miraculously not one of the bombs had landed anywhere other than in the roads.

On another occasion the team had been spurred into action by an HE bomb falling just 400yds away. One of my uncles was last to emerge and the others had got to his door and opened it when the uncle appeared at the far end of the passage running towards them as he put on his coat. My aunt was very house proud and she polished the lino of the hallway floor until it shone, she also had a carpet runner the full length of the hallway. Uncle stood on his end of the carpet runner and promptly slid the length of the hallway and was catapulted out through the open door. There were a few comments about his enthusiasm to go into action. The bomb had landed in the garden of a house around the corner and it had blown an Anderson shelter over the roof and into the road. There was some concern over the fate of its occupants but it was later established that there had been no one in it. There was considerable damage to a number of houses but, on that occasion, nobody was injured.

Even at school the sixth formers were required to do their stint of fire watching. A room was set-aside for the firewatchers. It was equipped with bunks and tea making facilities, and turns were taken to remain on watch. I think that there were times when the lads went a bit mad when there was no staff present. Although I didn't mind school, like any youngster I was always pleased at any excuse for a day off. Every morning after a raid I used to go to school hoping to find that it had been hit and we could all go home again, I might see evidence of the previous night's raid on the way to school but when I arrived it was always standing there completely unscathed - until one day - as I turned into the drive, oh joy, I could see the fire engines all parked outside and firemen milling around. But it was short-lived joy as I discovered that the building was still intact. It transpired that, with a touch of irony, the sixth form firewatchers had managed to set the building on fire; they had overturned their oil heater. Whilst it had been a significant fire while it lasted it had not damaged many of the classrooms and there was no interruption of classes, we just had to put up with the awful smell that accompanies building fires that have been subsequently quenched.

So, whilst there were tales to tell, and numerous close calls of other types, the two fire watching groups with which I was closely associated never tackled an incendiary bomb fire throughout the war.

Ron Watts

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