Yeovil At War

Fire Watchers and Fire Guards

Civilians trained to combat incendiary fires


During the Second World War, there were two organisations involved in the nation’s defence against fire, although they were not actually part of the fire service of the day. These two groups were formed under the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) organisation, and were established to support arrangements for reporting and dealing with small fires caused by air raids and the use of incendiary bombs. The groups were organised and coordinated by local authorities and worked in liaison with Air Raid Wardens and the Fire Service.

In 1936, three years before war was declared, the Ministry of Home Security began talks with local authorities advising them of expected air raids on the civilian population and the likely large-scale use of incendiary attacks. It was believed that the existing fire service would be unable to cope with the scale of the response needed to deal with such air raids and resulting fires. This brought about the Air Raids Precautions (ARP) Act 1937, which introduced the ‘Emergency Fire Service Organisation' (AFS) and the ‘Air Raid Wardens Service’.

The ‘Memorandum on Emergency Fire Brigades Organisation’ of 1937 recommended to creation of ‘watching or fire posts’. These were to be equipped with stirrup pumps, and manned by personnel trained to use the appliances. In order to provide the appropriate level of support, householders acting as volunteers would form Supplementary Fire Parties (SFP) trained by and under the control of the Air Raid Wardens Service.

It was thought that suitably trained and equipped householders could provide a valuable resource for identifying and providing early firefighting measures in their local area. The volunteers were recruited to operate in the vicinity of their own home and street, and were formed into small teams of three to five persons. They were trained to tackle small fires caused by incendiary bombs, or to extinguish the incendiary bomb itself - either using water supplied by a stirrup pump or the application of sand. In April 1940, Fire Authorities were made responsible for the selection and training of these ‘Supplementary Fire Parties’.

Although part of the role of the SFP was to watch out for and react to incendiary bombs and outbreaks of fire, specific Fire Watchers would be on duty at designated premises and buildings such as Westlands. They were to patrol the buildings, watching for outbreaks of fire, tackling any small outbreaks as best they could, bearing in mind that they may be the sole person on duty, and summoning further assistance as necessary.

New regulations were introduced on 15 January 1941, requiring civilian men and women of certain ages to sign on for part-time fire watching and fire party duties. These regulations also gave new powers for Local Authorities in the creation and organisation of their schemes.

At the same time, the Fire Watchers Order, introduced in September 1940, which had proven to be inadequate, was replaced by the ‘Fire Precaution (Business Premises) Order’. Local and ‘other appropriate’ authorities including Government departments were required to make adequate arrangements for detecting and extinguishing fires in prescribed premises and industrial districts. All males between 16 and 60 residing or working in such locations had to register for part time duty and women and youths below 16 were encouraged to volunteer, with a maximum period of compulsory duty being 48 hours per month. Training was conducted by the Fire Service, the Wardens Service or experienced members of Supplementary Fire Parties. At private premises, their own instructors gave training.

There was no standard way that the Supplementary Fire Parties were organised, or who were responsible for them. The demise of Local Authority Fire Brigades upon the creation of the National Fire Service (NFS) necessitated a complete rethink and so, in August 1941, it was decided that a new organisation should be formed under the supervision of the Wardens Service. The ‘Fire Guard Organisation’ was organised on a national basis with their own organisational and rank structure under the control of the local Chief Warden. For the first time, whole-time paid posts were introduced for certain roles and grades of rank, with responsibility for coordinating and controlling volunteers, formed into ‘Street Fire Parties’, within a given area. ‘Fire Guard Depots’ were established and the previously issued ‘SFP’ identity armlets were replaced with ones bearing the name ‘Fire Guard’.

In May 1942 a further Order was issued which made it compulsory for women to enroll for Fire Guard duties. It was then compulsory for every person not engaged in any other form of part time civil defence duties to register themselves, with women between the ages of 20-45 becoming eligible for duty with Street Fire Parties.

In February 1943 a new ‘Fire Guard Plan’ was issued, with its primary function to prevent fires, including inspection and enforcement of Fire Prevention Orders introduced for designated premises, tackle any outbreak of fire in its early stages using issued firefighting equipment, report outbreaks of fire and summon assistance from the NFS when the fire was beyond local Fire Guard control, act a guides to any responding NFS resources and assisting them as appropriate at the scene, including damping down after the blaze had been controlled, so as to release the NFS crews for other incidents.

Generally, the Plan operated following a siren alert, on the fall of bombs or hearing anti-aircraft gunfire if no prior alert had been given and at any time from half an hour prior to and after the designated period of ‘black out’ throughout the hours of darkness. Each NFS fire station area was divided into Fire Guard Sectors, each under a Fire Guard Sector Captain. Each Sector was sub divided into Street Party Areas under Party Leaders. Each Street Party was responsible for properties, which could be houses or designated small business premises, not requiring their own Business Premises Party under The Business Premises Order. Each Party consisted of 20-30 Fire Guards split into Teams of three Fire Guards, one of whom was the designated Team Leader. In each area, in addition to a ‘Depot’ for general administration and equipment storage, there was a designated ‘Fire Guard Point’ that would be manned immediately on an air raid alert linking Sectors with each other and with the NFS.

Further changes were made in April 1943 when the Fire Guard organisation was established as a separate service. A Local Authority officer replaced both the Chief Warden and the Fire Guard Staff Officer as the head of the service and given the title Fire Guard Officer often assisted by a Deputy Fire Guard Officer and Assistant Fire Guard Officers depending on the size of the local authority area. Other changes took place to the existing rank structure and replaced with whole-time paid ‘Fire Guard Area Officers,’ part-time unpaid ‘Area Captains’, ‘Sector Captains’, ‘Block Leaders’ and ‘Street Party Leaders’.

Compulsory service for men was extended to 63 years of age and voluntary enrolment for men between the age of 16 to 70 and for women 18 to 60. By the end of December 1943 it was estimated that there were some 6 million people enrolled in the organisation. Barely had the newly organised Fire Guard really established itself when D-Day commenced the liberation of Europe and despite a period of a new terror commencing on 13 June 1944, brought about by the use of V1 flying bombs, (‘Doodlebugs’) and later, V2 rockets the need for protection from a large civilian fire force diminished. The ‘V’ weapons did cause devastating damage over a wide area, but relatively small scale and localized fires.

Gradually schemes were closed in those areas not seen to be under threat and the Fire Guard Plan was suspended with the responsibility for reporting fires reverting to the Wardens Service. There was a relaxation of any daylight Fire Watching at the majority of business premises. On 6 September 1944, with the Allied advance going so well through the occupied countries of Europe that it was decided to make substantial reductions in the Civil Defence Organization in all areas except the London region and the Southern and Eastern areas of England. On 2 May 1945 the whole of the war organisation for Civil Defence was disbanded.

See also 

Auxiliary / National Fire Service
Auxiliary Fire Service alternative fire station
Auxiliary Fire Service garage
Charles Gillard


Yeovil Borough Council's Fire Guard Office personnel, in a colourised photograph of May 1945.

Back row (left to right) - AB Rendell (Fire Guard Area officer), Miss B Wiscombe (Junior Clerk), John Wood (Clerk), Miss L Pomeroy (Shorthand Typist), B Gillett (Fire Guard Area Officer).

Front row (left to right) - W Vicary (Asst. FGO - Inspection), T Wilks (Asst. FGO), George Atkinson (FGO), F Robbins (Asst. FGO), Miss M Lawson (Asst FGO - Women's Section), J Cave (Asst FGO - Training).