Auxiliary Fire Service and National Fire Service

The Auxiliary Fire Service formed across the UK in 1938 as a response to the threat from the Luftwaffe. The A.F.S. was invaluable to Belfast in the 1941 Blitz.

Auxiliary Fire Service

In 1938, authorities in the United Kingdom formed the Auxiliary Fire Service. As part of the Civil Defence Service, the role of the A.F.S. would be crucial in helping localised fire brigades in the aftermath of aerial attacks from the Luftwaffe. The A.F.S. remained a civilian registered operation. The supply of vehicles and equipment came from Westminster's Ministry of Supply but there was no connection to the military armed forces.

In Northern Ireland, each borough and urban district including Belfast had its own Auxiliary Fire Service. Each A.F.S. district had a Commandant, with larger services also requiring a Deputy or Assistant Commandant. A Section Officer took control over each fire station across Ulster, while individual beats were overseen by a Patrol Officer. The role of Auxiliary Fireman was crucial in supporting overstretched fire brigades in time of need.

Everyone within the Auxiliary Fire Service was an unpaid, part-time volunteer. Should the need arise, the potential for full-time paid service was a possibility. Volunteers comprised both men and women, with the latter usually filling administrative roles.

Equipment and training were limited in wartime. However, what little the Auxiliary Fire Service in Ulster had to offer was essential in helping the Belfast Fire Brigade in 1941. There would be many complexities facing localised fire brigades including incompatible equipment and different sizes of hydrant valves across Northern Ireland.

Belfast Fire Brigade - The first of its kind

The regular Belfast Fire Brigade had formed in 1800, operating alongside the local police until 1861. A growing population and advances in technology in the 20th century saw many changes to fire services. The early 1900s saw newer, larger stations open at Ardoyne, Albertbridge Road, Shankill Road, and Whitla Street. By 1911, Belfast had the first fully motorised fire brigade in the United Kingdom.

The A.F.S. during the Belfast Blitz

On 7th April 1941, the Luftwaffe lit up the city of Belfast with flares and dropped high explosive and incendiary devices across the city. The docks area of the city was hardest hit and one of the largest fires raged at the McCue, Dick and Co. timber yard on Duncrue Street. Two Auxiliary Fire Service members lost their lives battling the inferno as a parachute mine exploded nearby.

Brice Harkness was the first firefighter to die as a result of the Luftwaffe attacks on Belfast in 1941. He was 25 years old and his grave is in Belfast City Cemetery. A colleague, Archibald McDonald died the following day and lies at rest in Dundonald Cemetery, Co. Down.

As fires burned throughout the city, fire crews arrived from the Éire to assist the Belfast Fire Brigade and Auxiliary Fire Service. For the fire services at least, the border remained open throughout the Second World War. This led to a camaraderie between the Belfast Fire Brigade and Dublin Fire Brigade, and even to an annual football match between the two sides.

The National Fire Service

On 3rd December 1941, the National Fire Service superseded local brigades and the A.F.S. in Great Britain. The legislation in Northern Ireland followed the next year.

In 2017, a Belfast City Council motion sought to erect a monument to firefighters at Belfast City Hall. That year marked the 100th anniversary of the Fire Brigades Union and then leader Jim Quinn paid tribute to the men and women of 1941.

Among the most trying times for firefighters here was the 1941 Belfast Blitz which saw 1,200 people lose their lives and 56,000 buildings destroyed. Six firefighters from Northern Ireland died during World War Two.

During the Blitz we had assistance from units in Drogheda, Dundalk and Dun Laoghaire. We also had fire engines coming from Glasgow, Leicester, Liverpool and Manchester. People don’t realise how bad the Blitz was and how unprepared we were at the time.

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