Seventy years ago London's streets echoed to the sound of bombs exploding as Hitler switched his tactics from a plan to invade, to conducting a strategic bombing campaign. Of all of the many quotations often resurrected at anniversaries, Churchill's tribute to the few is perhaps the most well known. Less well known, but equally important, is his acknowledgement of the contribution made by members of the London Fire Brigade and the members of the Auxiliary Fire Service during the 76 nights of the Blitz. Churchill, a man who always seems to catch the zeitgeist of the moment, said of their sacrifice that the Fire Service were 'a grand lot and their work must never be forgotten' and on another occasion referring to them as 'heroes with grimy faces'.

For a man with such an ability to find the power of rhetoric to meet such occasions, by his high standards this was a lukewarm tribute. This perhaps explains the lack of coverage and recognition of the vital work done by members of the LFB during the Blitz. It seemed that the recognition, when it came, had seemed a long time coming.

German aircraft had dropped bombs on London for the first time on August 24, 1939. In retaliation, the Royal Air Force bombed Berlin enraging Hitler who threatened to drop 4,000 bombs a night on London. September 7, 1940 was the first night of the Blitz. It was to be a long day for the members of the LFB and the AFS. The first raids had started just after midnight, with the services responding to over 50 fires in the first three hours between 2400-0300. A period of relative calm ensued during the early morning with a small raid happening around 1400, when 49 men were killed at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich with a further 67 injured. 

The main event, however, was about to start with 348 German bombers and 617 fighters taking off from airbases all over France at 1600, and setting course for London, occupying a 20 mile block of British airspace. Throughout that first day, over 950 German aircraft were involved in attacks on London; around a third of the Luftwaffe. The change in tactics caught the Royal Air Force off guard as they had been expecting further attacks upon the airfields that had already taken a hammering through the Battle of Britain.

The evening brought with it a taste of what would be served up over the following eight months as London endured a strategic bombing campaign that claimed over 20,000 lives with a further 50,000 injured and over a million homes destroyed or damaged in London alone. On that first night in its peak hour between 1800-1859 the LFB responded to 308 calls covering an area from Streatham Vale to the south of London, to Finsbury in the north, Putney and Hammersmith in the west and Woolwich in the east.  

The bombing around Canary Wharf, Stepney and New Cross in the south was the heaviest, with clusters of bombs falling within the main line of attack in which over 90 per cent of the bombs fell in Lewisham, Southwark, Lambeth and Tower Hamlets. London's economically vital waterfront bore the brunt of the first night of attacks with the run quay warehouses at the West India Dock to the Commercial Surrey Docks, with its large store of lumber being a major economic target. The Gas Works and Ford Motor Company were also attacked.   


The full article will feature in FIRE's April issue.


Posted: 16.46pm, 05.04.11