Fire Watchers and Fire Guards

During World War 2, there were two organisations which very much a part of the Nation’s defence against fire, but who were not actually part of the Fire Service of the day. 

Originally formed under the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) organisation, (later to become the Civil Defence organisation), were two groups established to add to the overall arrangements for reporting and dealing with small fires caused by air raids, especially those caused or likely to be caused by the hundreds of thousands of incendiary bombs that were dropped.

Many thousands of fires were prevented or outbreaks extinguished by members of the public, organized and coordinated by Local Authorities and working in liaison with ‘Air Raid Wardens’ and the Fire Service. 

As early as 1936, the Ministry of Home Security began correspondence with Local Authorities advising them of the predicted scale of air raids on the civilian population and the likely large-scale use of incendiary attack, following any future outbreak of war. They emphasized that no existing organisation would be likely to cope with the scale of the response needed to deal with such air raids and resulting fires, such that arrangements would need to be considered and introduced in order to cope effectively. This paved the way for the introduction of The Air Raids Precautions (ARP) Act 1937, which provided amongst other things, for the introduction of an ‘Emergency Fire Service Organisation (AFS) and the ‘Air Raid Wardens Service’.

The ‘Memorandum on Emergency Fire Brigades Organisation’ issued in 1937 spoke of the establishment of ‘watching or fire posts’, equipped with hand appliances and manned by personnel trained to use such appliances.  A list of suggested suitable equipment was also given.  To provide the appropriate level of support it was decided to secure householders as volunteers to form Supplementary Fire Parties (SFP) trained by and under the control of the Air Raid Wardens Service..

One of the identified means of tackling outbreaks of small fires and burning incendiary bombs was use of the ‘stirrup pump’. The Home Office, via the Ministry of Home Security announced that it was placing contracts for the manufacture and issue of these on a large scale. 

As 1939 came, and the months passed, leading up to the outbreak of World War 2, it was identified that the Regular Fire Brigade and the Auxiliary Fire Service alone would not be able to cope with fires caused by sustained incendiary attack. It was though recognized that suitably trained and equipped householders could provide a valuable resource for dealing within the vicinity of where they lived and also as a means of providing early firefighting measures in commercial and occupational premises. These volunteers were recruited to operate in the vicinity of their own home and street and were formed into small teams of 3 to 5 persons and trained to tackle small fires caused by incendiary bombs or to extinguish the incendiary bomb itself using water supplied by a stirrup pump or the application of sand. 

In April 1940 Fire Authorities had been made responsible for the selection and training of these ‘Supplementary Fire Parties’ and a further 75000 stirrup pumps were authorised.  Some 20,000 were issued to police authorities and others were issued for use by Air Raid Wardens, units of the Home Guard, and for the protection of crops in rural areas.

The need for more equipment and more civilians to tackle fires in their early stages was still not fully appreciated, even by August 1940, as increased and heavier attacks continued, albeit mainly focused at this time on airfields and strategic targets rather than on the civilian population. This quickly changed as the ‘Battle of Britain’, evolved with the first large scale and prolonged attacks began on the civilian population, evolving into the intense raids throughout the last 3 months of 1940 and into 1941.

The first ‘Fire Watchers Order’ was issued in September 1940 but proved to be inadequate as it applied only to those premises where more than 30 people worked, warehouses of more than 50,000 cubic feet and sawmills or timber yards containing more than 50,000 cubic feet of timber.  The Order was loose in application and not taken seriously with many designated premises remaining without Fire Watchers on duty.

Although part of the role of the Supplementary Fire Parties was to watch out for and react to incendiary bombs and outbreaks of fire, specific Fire Watchers would be on duty at designated premises and buildings.  They would patrol the building watching for outbreaks of fire, tackling any small outbreaks as best they could, bearing in mind that they may be the sole person on duty, and summoning further assistance as necessary.  It is generally recognised that it was the Fire Watchers patrolling the roof area of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, who were responsible for saving it from destruction by fire.

Following the very heavy and sustained incendiary raids in November and December 1940, particularly on London, the Minister of Home Security broadcast an appeal for volunteers to form Supplementary Fire Parties, in advance of a forthcoming order that would require compulsory duties for designated civilians.  At this time, it was also apparent Local Authorities were experiencing a reduced number of volunteers for fire duties as many people moved away from their houses at night in the perceived and actual target areas. Due to the increased uncertainty of available volunteers, new regulations were introduced on 15 January 1941, which required civilian men and women of prescribed ages to sign on for part-time fire watching and fire party duties. These regulations also gave new powers for Local Authorities in the creation and organisation of their schemes.

At the same time, the Fire Watchers Order, introduced in September 1940, which had proven to be inadequate, was replaced by the ‘Fire Precaution (Business Premises) Order’.  Local and ‘other appropriate’ authorities including Government departments were required to make adequate arrangements for detecting and extinguishing fires in prescribed premises and industrial districts.  All males between 16 and 60 residing or working in such locations had to register for part time duty and women and youths below 16 were encouraged to volunteer.  The maximum period of compulsory duty was 48 hours per month.  Training was conducted by the Fire Service, the Wardens Service or experienced members of Supplementary Fire Parties.  At private premises, their own instructors gave training, while Government employees were in the main trained by Ministry of Works fire training instructors. 

The new Orders were, however, still confusing to many and they were considered to be over complicated.  Curiously, by way of example, they were written in such a way that the whole of the Palace of Westminster was not included.  Appeals to staff and even MPs failed to produce sufficient volunteers and the Ministry of Works had to ask the Police and the London Fire Brigade to improve cover.  In April 1941 it was decided to appoint a full time ARP Officer for the Palace but before this was complete the House of Commons chamber was destroyed, Westminster Hall severely damaged and 2 Police Constables were killed.  On 30 May 1941 Fire Watching duties were compulsory for men aged 18 to 60 working in the Westminster Palace complex.  The following year the Order was extended to any building “the preservation of which or the contents of which appear to be in the public interest by reason of their historic or national character”.

Even with the changes there was no real standard way that the Supplementary Fire Parties were organised or who were responsible for them.  The demise of Local Authority Fire Brigades upon the creation of the National Fire Service (NFS) necessitated a complete rethink and so, in August 1941, it was decided that a new organisation should be formed under the supervision of the Wardens Service.  The ‘Fire Guard Organisation’ was organised on a national basis with their own organisational and rank structure under the control of the local Chief Warden.  For the first time, whole-time paid posts were introduced for certain roles and grades of rank, with responsibility for coordinating and controlling volunteers, formed into ‘Street Fire Parties’, within a given area. ‘Fire Guard Depots’ were established and the previously issued ‘SFP’ identity armlets were replaced with ones bearing the name ‘Fire Guard’.

Despite the new service, there was much criticism about over complicated and burdensome rules and regulations.  One of the biggest criticisms was that there was so many ways that people could get exemption from enrolling for part time duties.

Following a lull in air attacks which began in August 1941, the Fire Guard organisation was put to its first test with a raid on Exeter on 24 April 1942 and when many thousands of incendiary bombs were dropped. This was the commencement of what became known as the ‘Baedeker’ raids. Such raids, which were specifically targeted on the Cathedral Cities and continued until 31 May, when Canterbury was attacked.

The raids highlighted shortfalls in the Fire Guard organisation and general fire prevention measures.  In some cases there were far too few Fire Guards available due to poor recruitment or lack of emphasis placed on compulsory enrolment.  Some of those who were enrolled chose to evacuate from the Cities under attack, along with other civilians.  There was also criticism made that, Street Fire Parties lacked leadership and direction.

In May 1942 a further Order was issued which made it compulsory for women to enrol for Fire Guard duties.  It was then compulsory for every person not engaged in any other form of part time civil defence duties to register themselves, with women between the ages of 20-45 becoming eligible for duty with Street Fire Parties.

In February 1943 a new ‘Fire Guard Plan’ was issued. This new Plan was given legal standing by means of a series of Orders.

The primary function of the Plan was to prevent fires, including inspection and enforcement of Fire Prevention Orders introduced for designated premises, tackle any outbreak of fire in its early stages using issued firefighting equipment, report outbreaks of fire and summon assistance from the NFS when the fire was beyond local Fire Guard control, act a guides to any responding NFS resources and assisting them as appropriate at the scene, including damping down after the blaze had been controlled, so as to release the NFS crews for other incidents.

In general terms, the Plan operated following a siren alert, on the fall of bombs or hearing anti-aircraft gunfire if no prior alert had been given and at any time from half an hour prior to and after the designated period of ‘black out’ throughout the hours of darkness.  Each NFS fire station area was divided into Fire Guard Sectors, each under a Fire Guard Sector Captain.  Each Sector was sub divided into Street Party Areas under Party Leaders. Each Street Party was responsible for properties, which could be houses or designated small business premises, not requiring their own Business Premises Party under The Business Premises Order. Each Party consisted of 20-30 Fire Guards split into Teams of three Fire Guards, one of whom was the designated Team Leader.  In each area, in addition to a ‘Depot’ for general administration and equipment storage, there was a designated ‘Fire Guard Point’ that would be manned immediately on an air raid alert linking Sectors with each other and with the NFS.

A Business Premises Party would be established in designated business or Government premises and, upon warning of or actual attack, Fire Guards would form into Parties and locate at designated parts of the premises. In areas where the buildings were predominantly designated business or Government premises or a combination of both, and to save the manpower that would be required to have Fire Guards in each and every premises, it was permissible to group such premises into a Block, preferably one with clear access roads on each side, but at the least with clear space between Blocks and for this designated Block area to be covered by 20-30 Fire Guards.

Yet more changes were introduced in April 1943 when the Fire Guard organisation was established as a separate service.  A Local Authority officer replaced both the Chief Warden and the Fire Guard Staff Officer as the head of the service and given the title Fire Guard Officer often assisted by a Deputy Fire Guard Officer and Assistant Fire Guard Officers depending on the size of the local authority area. Other changes took place to the existing rank structure and replaced with  whole-time paid ‘Fire Guard Area Officers,’ part-time unpaid ‘Area Captains’, ‘Sector Captains’, ‘Block Leaders’ and ‘Street Party Leaders’. 

Compulsory service for men was extended to 63 years of age and voluntary enrolment for men between the age of 16 to 70 and for women 18 to 60. By the end of December 1943 it was estimated that there were some 6 million people enrolled in the organisation.  

The first test of the new organisation came with the ‘Little Blitz’ that commenced in February 1944, directed mainly on London.  Vast numbers of incendiaries were dropped together with high explosive bombs.  This period of activity continued until April. 

Barely had the newly organised Fire Guard really established itself when D-Day commenced the liberation of Europe and despite a period of a new terror commencing on 13 June 1944, brought about by the use of V1 flying bombs, (‘Doodlebugs’) and later, V2 rockets the need for protection from a large civilian fire force diminished. The ‘V’ weapons did cause devastating damage over a wide area, but relatively small scale and localized fires.

Gradually schemes were closed in those areas not seen to be under threat and the Fire Guard Plan was suspended with the responsibility for reporting fires reverting to the Wardens Service. With the exception of the London Region and designated coastal areas, there was a relaxation of any daylight Fire Watching at the majority of business premises. On 6 September 1944, with the Allied advance going so well through the occupied countries of Europe that it was decided to make substantial reductions in the Civil Defence Organization in all areas except the London region and the Southern and Eastern areas of England. On 2 May 1945 the whole of the war organisation for Civil Defence was disbanded. 

Many members of the general population during this period, received basic firefighting training and many died as a result of their efforts to control the devastating fires caused by air raids, particularly those many thousands of outbreaks caused deliberately, by incendiary bombs.

The names of the men and women who performed these roles and who died in the course of playing their part in the defence of the nation do not meet the Trust Criteria for inclusion on the Firefighters Memorial, but nonetheless we recognise and remember them on this website in tribute. A listing is recorded in the Trust’s Book of Remembrance.