You are in: Display

Why you may ask if this is about my fire service days?, by Irene Cottam


Why you may ask if this is about my fire service days? Well-during the War, as with most people, I was impatient to be able to do my bit, and wanted to join the
W.A.A.F. I applied, and was sent for a medical, had an interview, and was accepted. I received a letter telling me to report to Manchester, with a list of things I had to take. I was informed that I would be a teleprinter operator. At that time I didn't know what a teleprinter operator was, but it didn't matter, I was in! I duly arrived in Manchester in October 1940 amongst hordes of other girls all eager to start.

When I presented my credentials to the Officer in Charge, she examined my National Insurance Card, and said, "You aren't 18 until 31st January are you? I'm afraid you'll have to go back home, and come back in January." I was furious! But home I went.

Fate must have known I was intended for a different life, because in the month of October in 1940 the National Fire Service was formed, and the recruiting age began at seventeen and a half years, so I thought "Blow the W.A.A.F.", and promptly joined the fire service. Hence the start of five memorable years as Firewomen/Driver Woods (my maiden name) 875650. We new firewomen had to attend a month's course at a starter school in West Cliff, and were given several options as to what we wanted to do, i.e. telephonist, clerk, cook etc. I opted right away to be operational as a driver.

About 40 of us went to Tithebarn Street Fire Station as trainee drivers, and we were allocated a large house next to the Fire Station. There were two Leading Firemen and one lady as Driving Instructors. So as there were only two rather dilapidated old taxis for tuition we couldn't all go out at once, and had to wait for a turn. If you weren't out on driving tuition the time was filled in by cleaning the billet, cooking meals, washing up etc., and working in the workshops at the back of the Fire Station cleaning engine parts. We had to learn about vehicle maintenance, and combustion engines-all good practice!

Now the Head Instructor was a bit of a ladies man, or thought he was, and the girls who rolled their eyes at him seemed to get preference in driving tuition. This wasn't my way of working so day after day I was destined to stay in doing chores. One day, after helping to cook the dinner I was clearing the table when this instructor spoke to me "You haven't been out on instruction yet have you?" "No" I replied, "and I never will if I have to make eyes at you either." I expected a telling of, but instead he said, "Put those pots down, get your coat and come with me." When I got trembling in the car he started laughing and said, "Well I like your spirit, at least you're honest." He took me out every day after that, and I passed my first driving test in two weeks!

After passing a test driving cars we gradually went up the scale driving vans, then bigger vehicles, having to pass a test at each stage-seven in all until eventually you graduated on to heavy goods vehicles, and had to take the Advanced Driving Course when a Police Inspector took us for the final test. So you see we had a very good training. All the girls didn't pass in fact some fell by the wayside. For instance one Irish girl, a huge six footer who you would expect to sail through, was driving a car during the first stages, and was told to take the car onto the Longridge Road. There wasn't another vehicle in sight, it was very quiet till round the corner came one very solitary jeep. Paddy, as we called her, panicked, took her hands off the steering wheel, and covered her eyes screaming "Oh my God a blooming convoy!" So that was the end of her driving career.

Although we had qualified as driers some of us had to be trained in pump drill or fire fighting. This was a lot of fun, but very hard work. Part of it entailed being lowered from the top of the hose tower, a tall structure, which was used for drying the fire hoses. A turntable ladder, fully extended, was a waiting. We had to grab what was called a davy line, fasten it around us, then be lowered dangling on the end of the line down to the ground. That part was not so bad; the worse part was climbing the cat ladder on the inside of the tower. This was flat against the wall, and we had to climb up unaided. There was a lot of derelict property at the back of the fire station, and some of this was set on fire for us to extinguish-under strict supervision of course.

Now fire drill is very methodical, not haphazard at all. We were in teams of seven, each member of the crew had a special job, and we had to stick to a special routine. When we got more proficient our team entered into competitions with teams from other parts of the county. These were based on speed. The fastest team to complete the drill with water on the target won, and I'm proud to be able to say we won the Lancashire Championship, and were awarded medals. During this training we must have driven our instructor up the wall-we were always playing tricks. Like squad drill, we had to obey commands such as "Fall in" and "Close up" before running to our fire pump. We wore tin helmets, wellies and boiler suits under a long rubber coat. So one day we decided beforehand that when the instructor shouted "Close up" we would all lift these coats up above our heads. The poor man's face went scarlet. I don't think he ever got over it.

Talking of squad drill, in the early days we had to learn square bashing as it was called. We were taken to Fulwood Barracks to train. Now at that time we didn't have any uniforms, so we wore men's navy boiler suits and tin helmets, but had to wear out own shoes. Heaven knows what we looked like. Some women wore high heels, and one particular lady who was five foot wide was trying to march in three-inch heels-not a pretty sight-especially with half the British Army looking on.

Eventually we were issued with uniforms, and allocated to different jobs. For operational duties-that is when we had to go out to fires etc., - we usually had special jobs to do, and one of mine was driving a petrol van. This was an old furniture van, and I had to keep it filled with jerry cans (2 gallon cans), which I filled with petrol (pink petrol) from a pump in the fire station yard. The cans were stacked to the roof of the van. Very dangerous when you look back, but I thought nothing of it at the time. There was also a reserve stock of full cans, which had to be kept topped up. It was behind the prison in part of the prison grounds. If you ever go along St. Mary's Street from Ribbleton Lane there is a small doorway in the wall on the right, which has been bricked up now, and it led down to a room below ground level, and the petrol cans were stashed there in case of emergency.

During a fire alarm I had to take the petrol wagon to the scene to top up the fire engines and trailer pumps, which ran on petrol, so I kept going the rounds of engines to make sure they had enough petrol. Come to think of it I must have been the only woman in England who was allowed to take petrol to a fire!!!

Other operational duties included driving the mobile canteen, which supplied food and drink to the working firemen (nice warm job that), but there were times when we had to take it to Liverpool or Manchester during the blitz. The worst job of all was taking a vanload of spare fire hoses to a fire. These were used as extensions to the ones fitted in fire engines. The snag was that you had to wait until after the incident was declared safe, and all the engines had returned to the base. You then had to find, collect, and roll up all the wet and heavy hoses, which belonged to your van, and heaven help you if you were any short.

Of course, we weren't at fires and incidents all the time. There were plenty of non-operational jobs to be done. One was staff car driving, which I didn't like particularly. I didn't see the point in driving officers who could drive themselves. Sometimes we drove vehicles, which needed delivering to other districts. I remember the day after I had passed my final test I had to take a new van to Kendal. I didn't even know the way to Garstang never mind Kendall and, of course, there were no signposts of any kind during the war. We were told to "Follow the telegraph poles." However, I got there safely and came back on the bus, which took hours! One day I was driving a staff car back from Lancaster with two female officers, and we gave a lift to a girl who spoke with a foreign accent. We dropped her off when we arrived at Broughton, and she was later found dead further south in Cannock, Staffs.

Another day I had to take six firemen on a flat wagon to Blackburn. Of all people a Canadian Army Sergeant got into the cab and explained on the way that we were going to pick up a full size boxing ring. We brought it back to Preston to a fire station in Corporation Street-there were lots of temporary fire stations then-and the boxing ring was duly erected. What it was for, and where it went after that I don't know because I went off duty, but I think it must have been something for the Army. We used to work 48 hours on duty then 24 hours off. The first night we had to stay up all night on stand-by, but the second night we could go to bed unless called out on an emergency when we had to get up. So the 24 hours off duty were spent mostly sleeping, and a quick trip to the Regent or Queens Hall dancing.

Most days I was allocated to the food van-a job I really liked. In Aqueduct Street there was a large store for equipment and food, and each fire station got an allocation of food and milk every day. There were a lot of temporary fire stations dotted around Preston, Penwortham, Leyland, Bamber Bridge etc., and I enjoyed taking the rations to them. Now the mile was in large churns, and I had to measure out so many pints for every station. The firemen were always begging for just a bit more milk, and I used to try and oblige, but often found I was running low near the end of the deliveries so I would sneak some water into the rest of the milk to make sure I had enough to go round. However, the milk started to look a bit watery so I learned sense, and began to put the water in before I set off-that way everybody was happy.

The Officer in charge of the Stores Depot was called Bob Tanner (1/6d). He came from London was not very popular because he was a neurotic fusspot, always moaning and very full of his own importance. Part of his job was to buy supplies, and one day he bought a huge stock of tinned soup. He was quite proud of his achievement, but in reality it was rubbish soup, and nobody wanted it so he was left with boxes and boxes of this soup stacked all over the place. He got torn off a strip for buying it from his senior catering officer, Column Officer Holden, who was stationed at F.F.H.Q. in Broughton. Mr. Tanner was not pleased. As I said before, he was always moaning, and was forever asking for a separate office for himself. One day he got on the phone to Column Officer Holden asking again when he was going to get his office built. Mr. Holden replied, "Build a b.. office out of your b.. tins of soup."

In Leyland there was a fire service training school, and it was one of the places I took rations to. I arrived as usual one Monday morning, and took the food into the kitchen then made my way back to the van. A lot of rapping on the windows made me turn around, and there lined up across the windows were a lot of men in strange khaki uniforms. They were all making various signs asking me to meet them outside the school at six or seven or eight o'clock as the fancy took them. This was my first encounter with the Yanks who had come over here. They were at the school to learn about British methods of fire fighting, and it must have been one of their sightings of a woman in uniform doing war work, driving a large van! They frightened me to death. I had to deliver there every day, and each time I got the window treatment, but they were laughing, and I decided they might not be so bad after all, but I wouldn't speak to them. By the way they had their own food and they didn't use ours.

On the Thursday I had just got back in my van when one of the Americans ran over to me shouting, "Just a minute Ma'am." In his hand was packet, which he gave to me saying, "Eat that as you go on your rounds." It was a beautiful three decker sandwich, white bread with real butter, and stacked with delicious layers of ham and piccalilli. I swear it was the best sandwich I have ever tasted, especially after our meagre rations. The very next day, Friday, the same man came out again, and I thanked him for the sandwich. He put another packet in my hand and said; "Well Ma'am yesterday was the first course, now here is your sweet." It was a carton of fruit salad. Was it good?! They finished the course that day so I didn't' see any faces at the windows after that.

Now during the War, of course we had to make most of our own entertainment, and a concert party was formed. My sister Kathleen, who was a telephonist in the control room, and myself, had been to dancing lessons as youngsters, so we were asked to do a tap dance routine. There was to be a special concert and social evening at the Corporation Street Station, the one where I took the boxing ring. It had a large hall with a stage so it was quite a suitable venue. We had a very special guest artist on that night, it was Tessie O'Shea. She was a lovely lady, very friendly and helpful. Some of you may remember her. My sister and I were to open the concert with a tap dance routine. Came the day of the concert, everything was ready but, of course, I was on duty during the day. I was on staff car duty, but this time I didn't mind because the officer was a lovely elderly gentleman. He had been the Chief Fire Officer at Penwortham Fire Station, and had come out of retirement to do his bit for the war effort. His name was Bob Cottam, and by coincidence I eventually married another Bob Cottam, but they weren't related. Company Officer Mr. Cottam was the Liaison Officer between various military groups, i.e. Army, R.A.F., etc., and this day he asked me to take him to another fire service school which was in Grimshaw Street, Preston. This school was for military officers learning fire fighting. We got to the school, and I stayed in the car while Mr. Cottam went inside. After a period of time they must have had a break because suddenly six Americans surrounded my car. This time they were officers. I don't know what they put in their coffee, but I got the same spiel. "Hey Ma'am, can we take you out tonight, no funny stuff, all six of us will take you out together." I said a definite "No", and when they persisted I explained that I was on duty that night at this special concert (but I didn't tell them what I would be doing). "Well hey Ma'am can't you invite us?" came the next request. I hurriedly said, "Oh no that's impossible, it's strictly for the service personnel." Their break ended, they went back inside, and I breathed a sigh of relief. At the end of the afternoon Mr. Cottam came out alone, and we returned back to the fire station.

After tea I met up with my sister Kathleen and we went to get ready for the concert. We had to make costumes out of whatever we could find, but we were happy enough with them. At Corporation Street there were lots of last minute preparations, and nerves, but finally the concert started. Kathleen and I tripped on to the stage to the strains of the pianist to do our opening number, and I nearly died. There on the very front row, with a beaming Company Officer sat in their middle, were the six American Officers all in their uniformed glory. That was bad enough, but what had we chosen for our opening number? Only "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy", and we were all done up in stars and stripes. Have you ever wished the ground would open up and swallow you?

Shortly after this I was transferred to F.F.H.Q. at Broughton for a short spell. While I was there a memo came round asking for anyone with gymnastic or acrobatic abilities to volunteer for a special agility team. The purpose of the team was to do a display of gymnastics at the "stay at home" holidays, which were prevalent then. Various towns organised big fetes and events on one of the town parks. Preston used Avenham Park, and the Fire Service, along with military units, and others were asked to make up an entertainment demonstration. This was done to boost morale during the War as holidays were definitely out. The Fire Service had a demo of fire fighting, and a group of dispatch riders who gave a display of motorcycle riding, and we gave our gymnastic display. When we got to any venues our officer would go to find out what time we would be on. He always came back with the same words "We follow the despatch riders." That must have been one of the earliest catch phrases, because we always used it. Anyway, I digress. When I got the memo I put in my application, and after an interview was accepted. Well, I thought it would make a change from washing cars at D.H.Q., and was instructed to report to Blackpool Fire Station with full kit.

There I met up with the other prospective members of our agility team. There were eleven firemen and seven firewomen, including the instructors. They hailed from different parts of the North West. We were bundled into a van and taken to a school in Thornton, which was to be our home for some months until we were fully trained. Trained did I say? It should be torture! Although we were all pretty fit, and had been gymnasts of sorts in the past, we had to work so hard we could hardly move at the end of the first week. The officer in charge, Coy and officer Shute (nicknamed Bang Bang and very dishy) decided we should go to the Derby Baths in Blackpool for hot brine baths to ease our aching joints. What a sight we must have presented, hardly able to walk we went to board the tram to the baths, and we couldn't even get up the tram steps. Some agility! We had to literally pull, push and lift everybody till they were all aboard. It must have been a patient conductor on the tram. Anyway the hot salt baths did the trick, and after that the training became easier. When we finally did our displays on the parks we had to carry an old portable gramophone, which was placed near the loud near the loudspeaker system, and our chosen records were relayed. We marched on to the tune of "Entry of the Gladiators", and did our display to a tune called "The Blackbird Hop." Two records I'll never forget.

We had worked hard during training so the night before our first display, which was in Lancaster, the officer said we could go out to relax, but with strict instructions to behave, and to be back early, as we had to catch a train at 6 a.m. the following morning. The men all cleared off in different directions, but we girls decided to stay together, and the seven of us went to a local dance. Now we weren't drinkers, being fit fanatics, but when we needed refreshment we chose cider thinking it was just a fruit drink, and we would be okay, famous last words. It wasn't long before it took effect, and a very merry seven staggered back to the school-late. A very irate Company Officer Shute greeted us. I was at the back, and in silence he let the other girls go up to our room then shouted, "Woods, come here", then tore me off a strip. He said, "I blame you for this." Why me I don't know, but I suppose I could understand his concern. He had worked very hard on his project, and he had visions that we were going to let him down at the first hurdle. He carried on, "I'm making you responsible for getting those girls up in the morning, and you are all grounded for the rest of the week." Sheepishly I said, "Yes", "Yes what?" he bellowed, "Call me sir." I replied "Yes Sir Shute" and I saluted. Well, I was a little bit drunk. However, I was afraid to go to sleep that night, and I did make sure we were all up and ready the following morning, and the first display was a great success. A funny incident happened that first day in Lancaster. We girls had to wear very short white dresses with pants to match. We were getting changed in a pavilion, and had stripped off to put on these dresses. One Blackpool girl nicknamed Flash (quite a suitable name since her surname was Gordon), was quite near the door, and stark naked, when a knock came, and the door opened. It was a completely strange fireman who had come to tell us we were on in five minutes. I don't know who was more gob smacked him or Flash, but it certainly took him some time to apologise. We weren't exactly Olympic standards, but we did get pictures, and an article in the Picture Post, a popular magazine of the times.

Now it sounds as though we only had fun and games, but I can assure you we also had some very sad experiences. I remember going to one huge fire at the Heapey Bleach Works, a large mill on the outskirts of Chorley. When I got there it was an awesome sight, blazing from end to end, and three firemen were badly injured.

Early on another morning there were two terrific explosions on Preston Docks. We thought they were bombs, but when we got there within a few minutes it was a petrol tanker ship called the Lyseta, which had exploded. What a sight. The huge brass propeller was half buried in the ground some twenty yards away and there was debris all over. Seven sailors had been killed, the ship was still floating, but listing badly, and there were still men aboard. We were told to go and get them off, but to get to the dockside I'm afraid we had to pick our way through pieces of flesh and bodies. The ambulance men had a terrible job picking up the pieces. The deck of the tanker had been split down the middle, and each side had folded back on itself like a sardine can. It was filling up with water. Even in tragedy there is humour. These poor sailors still on board were not English; they were Lascars, quite small men who didn't understand a word of English, so when we called to them they didn't know what we were saying. So one fireman had a brainwave, or should I say a brainstorm? He started yelling, "You speakee English." We eventually got them ashore, but what a tragic sight. They were all badly shocked, and were carrying all kinds of weird things, which they obviously treasured. One had seven trilby hats, one on top of the other, all on his head. Miraculously the ship was salvaged, and I saw it again in service some time later.

In the big push before D Day we were transferred to Liverpool for a spell. I was posted to the main fire station in Scotland Road, and I drove a left hand drive American Ford V8, towing a 40 ft. long control van. There was still spasmodic bombing, and I remember a bomb being dropped on a street which we had driven down the day before when everything was intact. When we went back after the bombing there was a huge crater in the road filled with water from a burst main, and sadly the body of a baby was floating in it.

The worse tragedy I attended was the day an American bomber crashed on the village school in Freckleton, and a café across the road. 56 people died, 38 of them young schoolchildren. Two bombers had just left the American base at Warton when a terrible storm appeared from nowhere. The sky turned black, and there was terrible thunder and lightening. The planes were ordered to turn and return to base. One managed this successfully, but the other one was hit by lightening, flipped completely over, and fell on to the village, and to this day I can't go through Freckleton without seeing the wreckage of that plane across the road. The few surviving children were taken to the American Base Hospital where they were well cared for. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope went to visit them. The Americans on the base collected a huge amount of cash to help, and eventually a Memorial Hall and Rose Garden have been built in the children's memory.

Some years after the War an organisation was started called B.A.D. 2 (Base Air Depot 2) in conjunction with some of the Freckleton people. Reunions in America, and every five years in this country, have been held since 1980. Because I was at the crash I was invited to join in 1984, and have attended the English reunions ever since, and made a lot of friends. They came over again this year in June, but many of them are getting old so it may be the last visit. I have had lots of mementos given to me, especially from American firemen, and when I arranged a visit for them all to Preston Fire Station I was presented with a lovely plaque.

Well time is getting on, and so am I but the last vivid recollection I have happened on Christmas Eve 1944. The War had quietened off up here, and I was on duty at Broughton H.Q. It was the first night of duty so we had to stay up all night, but the Duty Officer was on his second night, and was able to go to bed. Being Christmas we had a party in the canteen, and knowing we were all in a merry mood the Duty Officer, before he left to go to his quarters, threatened that anyone who woke him up before morning would be on a charge, and off he went. It was a beautiful moonlit night, and towards morning we drivers walked down the drive to our billet which was the lodge in Garstang Road at the entrance to H.Q. We were standing in the gateway when we heard a noise like a plane. Looking up we saw this object like a small plane, but with flames shooting out of the back, coming from the direction Whittingham, and heading South West. It was a flying bomb-probably one of the last ones of the War. We had to raise the alarm, but when we rang the Duty Officer he didn't believe us. Well would you? He said we were all on a charge. Fortunately the red alert came through, and we were saved. The bomb fell on some hen cabins near Lostock Hall, and apart from some chickens no one was hurt.

And so in 1945, after VE day, my fire service career came to an end. An experience I wouldn't have missed for the world. But I should really have been a W.A.A.F.