HISTORY OF THE RAF FIREFIGHTER
1918 – 1939

In 1918 fires at Shotwick and Ternhill cost £57,000 also losses of nearly £50,000 after fires at Wyton, Upavon and Lopcombe Manor compelled the Air Ministry to order a number of fire fighting vehicles with pumping facilities. Also a fire On May 21st 1919 at Ligescourt in France resulted in the loss of a Handley Page aircraft (0/400 D8314) and the hanger in which was accommodated. This fire was fought with only portable extinguishers, subsequently the Court of Inquiry concluded that the RAF lacked effective fire fighting equipment and that personnel were poorly trained. This eventually led to the provision of a fire vehicle at every permanent RAF Station.

Merryweather1918A Merryweather/Hatfield conversion for airfields

leyland RAF Felixstowe 1920sLeyland Fire tender at RAF Felixstowe 1920’s

In 1921 Vehicles were initially adapted to the airfield role and modified Crossley 6X6 tenders were fitted with crash rescue equipment, a single 30 Gallon chemical foam extinguisher and ‘Fire Snow’ (Foam) hand held extinguishers. By 1922 the modification programme was complete.

crossley Duxford 1921

A rebuilt Crossley Crash tender at Duxford showing a single 30 gallon chemical extinguisher tank mounted behind the driver.

1922 The Fire Training of RAF personnel started at RAF Cranwell where a small unit was established to train a trade known as Aircraft Handler/Fire fighter. The London Fire Brigade controlled the Unit who provided the instructors and devised the training methods and schedules. The Chief Instructor of the unit was Captain Desbrough. Very little is known of the activities and effectiveness of the unit at RAF Cranwell; however links remained with the London Fire Brigade well into the 1940’s.

In 1930 the RAF ordered more Crossley and Morris B1 chassis for conversion to fire tenders.

1930 Crossley1930 Crossley ‘On the Run’

1931 morris commercial

1931 Morris Commercial 3 Foam Tanks and Wooden Body Work

1932 The Air Ministry published an ‘Air Publication’ (AP) 957 entitled ‘ROYAL AIR FORCE FIRE MANUAL.

fire manual

Although it was a general fire fighting manual there is mentioned two early Fire Tenders and drills associated with these. Also an appendix laying out the Syllabus for a Course of Instruction in Fire Fighting Duties at RAF Cranwell appears.

fire manual internal

1932 Ford 6x4

         1932 Ford 6 x 4 with Three Foam Tanks

Crossley mounted foam

Another type of Crossley with mounted foam extinguishers. These vehicles also had the capacity for a stretcher bay to carry a casualty

Crossley stretcher bay

Rear view showing the stretcher bay

During This Decade (1930’s) The Crossley IGL (Indian Government Lorry) went into service with the RAF the first example of this in 1936 was the ‘Streamlined Crossley’ 6×4 which was also the first fire vehicle with bodywork enclosing the whole vehicle. It was fitted with 200 gallon water tank and 20 gallons of foam compound were available for foam production and discharge by twin air-foam pumps driven by a power take-off in the cab. It was also equipped with four 60Ib CO2 cylinders discharging through hosereels and applicators. The streamlining was not an exercise in styling, but was designed to facilitate cleansing and decontamination after a gas attack.

Streamlined

The streamlined tender and the one shown here was photographed at RAF SCAMPTON in 1936.

fire demo 1937

A fire demonstration at RAF Cranwell in 1937 the vehicle being used is the Streamlined Crossley

NB: The foam hose line the rescue men in asbestos suits carrying out a simulated rescue and the two other fire fighters using the CO2 lines

asbestos streamlined

The first type of protective clothing which was introduced for fire-fighters was an asbestos suit manufactured by Bells Asbestos and Engineering Company. It weighed around 28lbs (12.7 Kg) it was only worn for close rescue work by maybe two fire-fighters. The image shows two fire-fighters close to a Streamline Crossley, one holding the CO2 line and one holding the foam line. But by 1943/44 the asbestos suit was seen to be too cumbersome for use with modern aircraft and was rendered obsolete.

Compiled by S Harrison 2016

Find out about the War years of RAF Firefighting