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As war became imminent, by Mr. Curran

As war became imminent, factories and workshops were required to prepare for air raids and bombings. As I was in the mill fire brigade (an insurance company requirement), it was suggested that I and a few operatives should go for training with the town fire brigade.

This led to my becoming a member of the auxiliary fire service and to more professional training.

By the time war was declared in 1939 I had successfully completed my studies at the Manchester College of Technology. There was, however, one more stage to complete - the highest standard in full textile technology, also known as the Associateship of the Textile Institute. However, the war put a stop to any further study in Manchester and, in fact, because I went to India immediately following my naval service, I never had the opportunity to sit the Institute exam.

War made life more hectic, working a 48 hour week in the mill, fire service training in the evenings, and eventually experiencing heavy air raids. On the sound of the air raid siren I had to report to my allocated sub fire station. This was a nightly event and sleep became a luxury.

Manchester, eleven miles away, was heavily raided and on going to her office one morning, Lily found all the buildings up to their block had disappeared during a raid. She was also involved when a bomb fell about 200 yards from her home. Windows were blown out and she and her parents were covered with soot blown down the chimney by the bomb blast. Unfortunately a child of a neighbouring family was killed.

Liverpool was also on the list for heavy German bombing and in May 1941, during a week of heavy raids, our station was called upon to send a relief crew. As it was my crew that was on duty we all volunteered to go and without delay we were on our way to Bootle in Liverpool. It was Friday night so the mill would have to manage without me for the Saturday morning period.

As we neared Liverpool, the sky was red from the reflection from the fires. Entering Liverpool was like going into a cave due to the volume of smoke overhead, but it was still a cave lit internally by a mass of red flames. Many buildings were down and many were damaged. The fire station to which we reported was still standing and it was there that we were allocated a fire in a timber yard. We quickly set to work, water being available from a nearby bomb crater. Two of us dropped over a wall to get onto an overlooking railway embankment, attacking the fire from the back, whilst the rest of the crew attacked from the front. As the air raid was still going on a German plane dropped incendiary bombs into an adjacent railway goods dispersal yard immediately behind us. Soon that fire leapt across the railway lines and joined up with the fire we were fighting. Railway sleepers were burning, along with the telegraph poles alongside and very quickly we were surrounded by fire. Then, rather dramatically, our water supply was cut off. There was no way of escape. To our left was a gap where there had been a railway bridge that had been carried away by a bomb some time earlier. To our right, the whole railway track was a blaze of fire. Having no water, the railway sleepers under our feet started to burn. The waterproofing on our oilskin coats melted and our rubber boots blistered whilst our hosepipe was burned through. We were in real trouble. Fortunately, the rest of the crew became aware of our plight and we were rescued, as they had regained a water supply, and using a spray jet cleared a path and helped us to reclimb the wall.

The timber yard fire was being doused with water but had mostly burnt itself out, so at this point we managed to get into the yard. Our problem then was the workshop which was ablaze. Once we had gained access we soon had the blaze under control, but whilst inside the building the floors of the two upper rooms, having been damaged by fire and weakened, crashed down due to the weight of the machines. Being well-trained firemen, we had sheltered in the doorways so the floors and the machines fell on each side of us. Regaining the yard we found a burnt out car containing two charred bodies. I remember standing on something in the deep water, which I discovered was a foot within a boot. By Sunday evening we had the fire out completely, but this had taken us from about 3.30am on the Saturday morning. We had had no sleep for two nights, no food other than potatoes (one of the crew found a large burnt out pile of potatoes in the railway yard. Some layers were baked just right for eating). On the Sunday morning we discovered that a man was living in a nearby house and although it was badly damaged he kindly supplied the whole crew with a drink of tea. We reported that the fire was out late on Sunday evening and we were allowed to leave for home; a very sorry lot of men, vowing never again.

An ammunition ship had blown up in the Canada docks, about half a mile away from our fire, and a ship's plate passed just over our heads to land in the railway yard. Bombs had fallen further over in Liverpool.

At home in Heywood, my fiancée was waiting for news of my safe return as we were due to be married the following month. Fortunately, there was a quiet period during the rest of May and June so the wedding took place as arranged, quietly and with no honeymoon.

On the Monday morning I was back to work.

We had managed to rent a cottage in the same street as my Mother, but within two weeks I was back in Liverpool having been called up for full time fire brigade service. The temporary fire station I was sent to was located on the notorious Scotland road.


I hated the situation. Between raids there was little to do, I was newly married and away from home. After two or three months a fire officer came to our station in a seaman's type uniform. On enquiring who he was, I learned he was the officer in charge of fireboats. I immediately asked if I could volunteer for a transfer. He asked if I knew anything of seamanship or engineering. I immediately claimed to be an experienced engineer and was told I would eventually receive a transfer. This came quickly and I was allocated to a boat on the Prince's Dock. This was the Mayflower, which in former times had carried holiday makers around the bay, but was now equipped with two large fire pumps. I found I was one of two engineers. Actually, I didn't even know how to start an engine but by keeping my mouth closed and my eyes open I soon learned what was required.

With the ship moored in the docks, our sleeping accommodation was in a wooden hut alongside. This I didn't like as it was dirty and untidy. I found a hammock which I took onboard and used at night, slinging it between the two fire pumps - rather a squash but quite comfortable. One morning, after an air raid, I was awakened by shouting from the quay. I went up on deck and found that the boat was suspended halfway up the dock wall by the mooring lines. During the air raid the dock gates had received a near miss from a bomb and having been damaged they had allowed the water from the dock to flow into the river. Another member of the crew joined me on the deck and we gradually played out the mooring lines, lowering the boat so that it lay on the bottom of the dock. It was due to good seamanship that the lines were capable of gradually being unrolled around the mooring bollard, which enabled us to lower the weight of the boat plus the weight of the two Leyland fire pumps. Fortunately, the boat was of good, sound construction otherwise the bollard could have pulled out and the boat crashed down with me still in the hammock.

After I had been in the crew for a few weeks, a visitor arrived to gain experience of the type of work which we did. He was in fact a ship's captain and had come into the fire service to take over a boat, which was being fitted out for service, onto the river and out to sea if required. At the end of his time with us, he asked me if I would be interested in joining this new ship as an engineer. Agreeing to do so, I was quickly given a transfer and found myself working on an ex-Norwegian fishing trawler. We worked a system of two days on board and one day on shore. This required three sets of crew with each crew consisting of three seamen and one engineer. The other two engineers were both Liverpool mechanics and were given the rank of leading firemen. In addition to the captain there was also a bosun. Both the captain and the bosun, between them, covered all three watches, while we the crew were the duty watch on the first day on board and on standby for the second day.

The ship was equipped with a semi diesel engine for propulsion and four Leyland fire pumps. Over the two years I spent on board we had to fight a number of fires, including a big one at sea with a tanker carrying high-octane fuel in seven tanks, and also having a deck cargo of fourteen aircraft. Using gallons of foam, we managed to save four of the fuel tanks and also seven aircraft.

Being a wooden ship, half of our efforts were directed at stopping our own ship going on fire. For this purpose we had a ring of piping around the deck. This could be connected to a pump so that we could keep the decks wet by spraying water over the whole system.

Of course we did not have ships on fire everyday, so our main job was to cover ships that were a fire risk. These would consist of petrol tankers lying in the river after discharging their cargo, ventilating their tanks. It was in this condition that the ships were at risk of explosion. Their crews who had brought the ships across the Atlantic Ocean were taken ashore to rest during this period of ventilation and we went alongside to give cover.

Also, on a number of occasions we covered naval vessels, which were without power due to boiler problems. On one occasion it was the battleship King George V, on another it was the aircraft carrier Ark Royal - both being berthed in the Gladstone Dock at the time.

All the members of the crew were trained in seamanship, use of breathing apparatus, acetylene cutting and radio telephony. In addition to being an engineer I also acted as the ship's carpenter.

Fortunately during most of the time, the German air raids were becoming less frequent and odd air raids did not cause much damage.

After the boat had been in commission for about 18 months, it was requiring attention in the dockyard. On one occasion, going on duty, I started up the four fire pumps and after a few minutes started to feel rather sick. I moved from the engine room up on to deck where I felt better able to go back and stop the fire pumps. Unfortunately, I immediately started to be sick again and only just managed to get out of the engine room before I became unconscious. This proved to be due to carbon monoxide poisoning and as we were on the river at the time, I could not receive the medical attention that I required. By the time I was able to see a doctor, the poisoning was right through my blood stream and he recommended that I be off duty for the time it would take for me to recover. For this purpose, I returned home and was on leave for 14 days. On returning for duty, I found that the boat had been taken into dry dock to discover the reason for the carbon monoxide. This proved to be the exhaust manifold which had been placed in the bilges. During my absence the boat had been given a complete overhaul in Birkenhead dry-dock. Whilst the refit was taking place the two engineers had done a complete overhaul of the propulsion engine and its accessories.

When the refit had been completed, senior fire service officers went on board as an acceptance committee. Unfortunately, the engines could not be started and after four attempts the two engineers had exhausted the necessary compressed air cylinder. That day coincided with my return to duty and I had been drafted to a boat that was temporarily doing duty on the river. As we had a compressor on board we had an urgent call to go to the assistance of the engineers. After we had recharged the compressor bottle, the engineers again attempted to start the engine but did not succeed. I was then asked to go to their aid but on trying to start the engine, I found that it was impossible. We then removed the inspection panel from the sump of the engine and found that the sump was full of water instead of oil. I found a trickle of water running into the sump and traced it back to the exhaust cylinder, where, in replacing the gasket, the two engineers had left about ¼ of an inch of the old gasket in place and cooling water from the jacket was leaking to run down into the sump. I asked the two engineers to remove this faulty gasket, replacing it with a new one. After this had been done the engineers removed the water from the sump and refilled it with oil. The inspection panel was refitted and I had the compressor cylinder recharged and again made an attempt to start the engine. This immediately fired and the boat was ready to pull out into the river. I retuned to the temporary boat but the following morning reported for duty on the F.B. "UT Noring" again.

Towards the end of 1943, a crew was to travel to Southampton to bring a private yacht which had been commandeered to Liverpool to be fitted out as a fire boat and which would eventually be used at the invasion of France by the forces. There was much speculation as to who the crew would be. The captain of the river boat was to be in charge and he picked his own crew, which included me as the engineer. As we would be at sea for 2-3 days, a second engineer was required and he proved to be a full time engineer from the Liverpool fire brigade. The yacht was in Camper and Nicholsons's shipyard. As it had a steel hull we first had to have the gull degaussed as protection against magnetic mines in the English Channel.

The accommodation consisted of four cabins and a large stateroom. The engine room greatly impressed me as it had two 8 cylinder diesel engines and an opposed piston diesel engine for lighting and pumping duties.

We completed the dock trials and the boat was ready to sail. Our captain attended a convoy conference and the following day we joined a convoy leaving Southampton for Liverpool.

Our position in the convoy was the last boat on the outside leg. After about two hours sailing, one of the engine cylinders developed a knock. I thought it was a big end bearing of the cylinder crankshaft, however, the other engineer - being of more experience than myself - thought the problem was down to broken cylinder rings and he proved to be correct. We decided to request the captain return to the shipyard in Southampton to ascertain the fault and have it put right. We shut down the engine and left the convoy, returning to Southampton on one engine. Camper and Nicholsons's engineers stripped the cylinder head and, lifting out the cylinder, found all the rings to be broken and these had to be replaced.

After a further dock test run our captain again requested a convoy. This was seven days after our first attempt and it was also on Christmas Eve. As our captain went into the convoy meeting, the commander in charge on seeing him said "What are you doing here? You're dead." He was referring to our first convoy, when the last two ships in that convoy were sunk. He was not aware that we had left that earlier convoy and he was still under the impression that we had been one of the victims.

Again, on joining a convoy we found we had been allocated the same position as we had before, as the last boat on the outside leg and again, after about three hours' sailing, we had the same fault as the first time.

We were working a duty watch of four hours on and four hours off and I was on the off-watch at that time. I became aware of an engine shutdown so went to find out the cause of the trouble (which of course had proved to be the engine knock). We warned the captain of the problem and decided that we could take the cylinder out of use, which, however, would still take at least three hours with the engine stopped. Using only one engine we soon fell behind the convoy. Very quickly a naval frigate came alongside to complain of our low speed but when informed of the engine trouble the frigate captain said that he could not afford any delay to give us cover and we would have to do the voyage unescorted. Wishing us "Good luck", he dashed off after the rest of the convoy.

By this time it was quite dark, we had closed down the dead lights and the hatch door was also battened down from the outside. We needed electric light to work by, but could not risk showing a light to the outside.

Fortunately the sea was quite rough so there was no German E-Boat activity. Things were, however, quite grim in the engine room as, unknown to us, diesel oil had leaked out into the drip trays below the bulkhead fuel tanks. As the boat was thrown about this fuel oil splashed over. The air was filled with fumes and our overalls soon became saturated. Arthur Williams, the fire service engineer, was soon very seasick. We both struggled manfully to take out the cylinders and get the engine running again, but this time only on seven cylinders.

With both engines running we doused the lights and had the hatch opened to allow the engineer to leave, as it was his watch of duty. Unfortunately he was so ill that he did not come back onto duty until we were off the coast of Anglesey, about forty hours later. I had also succumbed to seasickness but had very little sympathy from the rest of the crew.


Arriving in Liverpool I learned that my calling up papers had arrived, transferring me to the Royal Navy. The fire service authority had, however, returned them, stating that I was at sea. They came back abut 14 days later and a month after that I reported to His Majesty's ship, the Royal Arthur which was moored at Skegness.