Military Firefighters

The history and structure of dedicated firefighting personnel within the Military is quite complex and an attempt is made here to add some clarity. A number of Military personnel with a dedicated firefighting role have lost their lives in the course of their duties, especially members of the Army Fire Service, during World War 2. Due to these deaths being recorded under their various Military units, records can prove to be difficult to find and confirm.

The Army 

Prior to the outbreak of World War 2, the Army had no separate Fire Service as such, although ‘Garrison Fire Brigades’ were established at Aldershot, Blackdown, Bordon, Bulford, Catterick and Colchester. A further Brigade was later authorised for Bovington.  These Fire Brigades were commanded by Non-Commissioned Officers, (NCOs), seconded from their regiments and supported by 16 to 30 civilians.  Ordnance and other depots made their own arrangements for manning any fire engines they had.

In July 1941, a Fire Fighting Wing within the Pioneer Corps was formed.  This Wing absorbed all the men engaged on full-time fire service duties. Members of the Army Fire Service, operating under the umbrella of the Pioneers Corps, were subsequently established throughout many theatres of war, including the operation of many fireboats. 

On 1 July 1946, the Pioneer Corps Fire Fighting Wing was disbanded and the whole of the Army Fire Service absorbed into the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). In 1961, it was civilianized and became part of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps.

The Army Fire Service continued in name until the creation of the Defence Fire Service in 1990 and later the Defence Fire & Rescue Service in 2004. 

The Royal Air Force

With its origins dating back to 1921, the RAF has long had a force of dedicated firefighters providing fire protection at the various RAF stations around the UK and elsewhere in the world. With the outbreak of World War 2, many more RAF airfields required firefighting protection around the world, including the provision of protection as part of RAF aircraft movements in support of advancing troops or at forward bomber bases in active theatres of war. Post World War 2, the provision of fire protection at RAF establishments continued with a mixture of RAF career and civilian employed firefighters.

The Royal Navy

Following a fire in Portsmouth Dockyard in 1664 the first fire engine was authorized by the Navy Board and was purchased at a cost of £20. As a result of the passing of the Metropolitan Police Act in 1860, the Metropolitan Police assumed the organization and manning of Fire Brigades in all Royal Navy Dockyards, which were organized on 5 Divisions headquartered on Woolwich, Portsmouth, Devonport, Chatham, Sheerness and Pembroke.            

Fire protection in Royal Navy Dockyards came under close scrutiny after a disastrous fire in July 1919, at the Royal William Victualing Yard, forming part of the Dockyard at Plymouth, In 1922, the responsibility changed to that of the newly formed Royal Marine Police.

Leading up to World War 2, the fire protection in Royal Navy land bases was a mixture of organised Fire Brigades, mainly in HM Dockyards under the control Royal Marine Police with other Royal Navy personnel performing fire piquet duties at locations not having an organized fire brigade. In some of the Dockyards, duty drivers from the Engineering Department and the duty Royal Navy personnel piquet augmented the permanent Royal Marine Police Firemen. Firefighting on Fleet Air Arm bases was, like that at Royal Air Force bases, seen to specialist with specialist training and equipment given to those engaged for aircraft crash firefighting duties. 

 Each of the designated HM Dockyards had a Fire Brigades headed by a Chief Fire Officer, under the overall control of the Admiralty. It was clearly expected that in the event of war, Naval Dockyards in particular, would be the focus of attack from the air and so fire protection arrangements were enhanced. Auxiliary Firemen were recruited from within the dockyard workforce.

The decision was taken in June 1942 to form the ‘Royal Naval Fire Force’, (RNFF), utilising serving personnel with firefighting experience, (Stokers), and the transfer of those having previous fire service experience, particularly those who had previously served in Local Authority Fire Brigades during the air raids of 1940/41 and also, those who had seen the early days of the National Fire Service (NFS), combining with the established Dockyard Fire Brigades, where they existed.

The RNFF was responsible for fire prevention and firefighting in Royal Navy shore establishments throughout the UK and also overseas. They utilised many of the same range of vehicles and pumps as issued to the NFS, including turntable ladders as well as crash tenders for aircraft incidents and also fireboats. The designation ‘Fireman’ was not adopted, using instead the designation ‘Stoker’, together with ‘Petty Officer’ and the usual Royal Navy officer designations. 

In September 1945, the Admiralty recommended that, with the cessation of hostilities, it was no longer economical to retain the Royal Navy Fire Force and that it should be disbanded. It was further recommended that at Naval Air Stations, specialist teams would be retained to cover the flying operations of the Fleet Air Arm. The list of major establishments identified as requiring fire protection arrangements in addition the Dockyards included the RN Armament Depots, Victualing Depots, Oil Fuel Depots, and Store Depots. At this time HM Dockyards existed in Portland, Portsmouth, Chatham, Devonport, Sheerness, Pembroke, (Repair Base) and Rosyth. 

This resulted, in February 1946, in the RNFF being disbanded and the responsibility for fire protection in designated establishments was subsequently handed to the Royal Marine Police

In October 1949, the Admiralty Constabulary was established and members of the Royal Marine Police, the Royal Marine Special Reserve and the Admiralty Civil Police were merged into one Force

During the Autumn of 1956, a review of the provision of fire protection in HM Dockyards considered the organisation of the Fire Brigade under the control of the Admiralty Constabulary, which had been established and built up gradually since the end of World War 2. This review resulted in the reduction of a firefighting capability at many Royal Navy establishments. 

The main focus then fell on the four Dockyard Fire Brigades remaining at Portsmouth, Devonport, Chatham and Rosyth. Local Authority Fire Brigades served all other RN establishments with some, particularly the Armament Depots and Storage Depots, having one or two personnel retained for instructional duties and fire equipment maintenance.  In April 1958, there was a further reduction in the number of personnel at those locations having dedicated firefighting personnel, together with a corresponding reduction and disposal of firefighting vehicles. In November 1959 it was decided to withdraw the fire brigade at Rosyth for a period of 6 months, with a view to this being a permanent withdrawal there and at the other three HM Dockyards. The result was that, all of the remaining Admiralty Police Fire Brigades were disbanded by 1968 with some officers being retained as a newly formed Admiralty Fire Prevention Service, having the responsibility to advising on fire prevention and performing instructional duties, but having no firefighting role.

It is often quoted that the last Police Fire Brigades disappeared with the formation of the National Fire Service and this is indeed true in respect of Local Authority Fire Brigades, but the Royal Navy can claim to have had the last functional Police Fire Brigade.

Firefighting at the Royal Navy Air Stations and Helicopter Bases continued to be seen as being of a specialist nature and left to the Aircraft Handler Branch and as such did not come under the scope of the far-reaching review. 

Joint Service Organisation

In April 1990 the ‘Defence Fire Service’ was created by the amalgamation of the fire protection services of the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force and the Procurement Executive Fire Service, although the very specialised nature of all 3 Military services resulted in the continuance of certain specialist separate roles, including the specific needs of the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm, who maintained their own trade firefighters.

It was re-named the ‘Defence Fire & Rescue Service’ in 2004. A later further reorganisation in 2006, resulted in the creation of the ‘Defence Fire Risk Management Organisation,’ (DFRMO), encompassing the members of the Defence Fire & Rescue Service, the Royal Air Force Firefighters and the Royal Navy Aircraft Handlers Branch

Today the firefighters of the Defence Fire Risk Management Organisation continue to serve at designated military establishments, including deployment to protect the assets of Military forces in action in theatres of war or on deployment as part of peacekeeping duties.