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The Auxiliary Fire Service

The Auxiliary Fire Service formed across the UK in 1938 as a response to the threat from the Luftwaffe. The AFS was invaluable to Belfast in the 1941 blitz.

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Imperial War Museum Photo: D 2627 (Part of the Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection). Men of the Auxiliary Fire Service jump up from their beds, where they have been dozing in full kit, grabbing their steel helmets as they go, in response to an alarm call. Photo taken by Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer in 1940.

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Across the United Kingdom, the Auxiliary Fire Service formed in 1938. The role of the AFS was critical as part of the Civil Defence Service. With the very real threat of Luftwaffe attack, local level fire brigades would need help.

Each borough and urban district including Belfast had their own Auxiliary Fire Service under the command of a Commandant. Larger services had Deputy or Assistant Commandants. Each fire station in a district operated under a Section Officer with Patrol Officer taking charge of Fire Beats.

Ranks within the AFS included:

  • Auxiliary Fireman
  • Patrol Officer
  • Section Officer
  • Deputy Commandant
  • Commandant

All members of the Auxiliary Fire Service were unpaid part time volunteers. There was a chance they could take on full time paid service if required. Both men and women could join the AFS but women usually held administrative roles.

Auxiliary Fire Service at War

Equipment and training were limited although what little the AFS had was essential to the Belfast Fire Brigade during the 1941 blitz. During the war, local fire brigades and the AFS often found it hard to work together due to incompatible equipment. A standard hydrant valve size was a recurring issue.

The regular Belfast Fire Brigade formed in 1800 operating alongside the police service until 1861. A growing population and advances in technology in the 20th century saw many changes to the fire services. The early 1900s saw 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 Belfast Blitz

Belfast’s Blitz came in April 1941. On 7th April 1941, the Luftwaffe lit up the city with flares and dropped high explosive and incendiary devices across the city.

The docks area of the city was hardest hit. One of the largest fires raged at the McCue Dick 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 fireman to die in the Belfast Blitz. He was 25 years old on 7th April 1941. His grave is in Belfast City Cemetery.

Archibald McDonald died the following day. His headstone in Dundonald Cemetery reads:

Killed by enemy action attending a fire in Belfast Dock Area with Belfast Fire Brigade 8th April 1941.

As fires burned throughout the city, fire crews arrived from the Republic of Ireland to assist the Belfast Fire Brigade and AFS. For the fire services, the border remained open throughout the war. This lead to a camaraderie between the Belfast Fire Brigade and Dublin Fire Brigade, even to an annual football match between the two.

The National Fire Service

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

In the Autumn of 1945, the British Government looked to disband the National Fire Service and return responsibility to local services. In 1947, four Fire Services formed in Northern Ireland.

  • Northern Command
  • Southern Command
  • Western Command
  • Belfast City

After the war, in 1948, the Auxiliary Fire Service reformed as part of the Civil Defence Corps. In the aftermath of World War Two, it was to be an emergency response to the threat of nuclear attack. The AFS finally disbanded in 1968.

A Modern Fire Service in Belfast

On 1st October 1973, the BFB merged with the Northern Ireland Fire Authority. The new organisation, the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland became the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service in July 2006.

In 2017, a motion was put to Belfast City Council to erect a monument to firefighters at Belfast City Hall. 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Fire Brigades Union and current 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.

The Auxiliary Fire Service never had any connection to the British Armed Forces. Supply of vehicles and equipment for both came from the Ministry of Supply but the AFS remained a civilian registered operation. The Auxiliary Fire Service is still active as part of Civil Defence in the Republic of Ireland.

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