History Week Feature Blog: The Link between the NSW Fire Brigade and the Military
By Guest Writer Ian Grimwood
This blog is a modified extract from Ian’s recent History Week presentation. To view the recording please visit https://www.museumoffire.net/copy-of-history-week-2021
In this piece, I will highlight the close association that the Australian Military Forces and the Fire Brigade in NSW have had since the nineteenth century, up to contemporary times.
If we start with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) back in 1884 a portion of the senior leadership and many of the firemen over the next 15-20 years were ex-Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel. Consequently, much of the ceremony, traditions and firefighting methods of the Brigade, through the decades, can be traced back to the Royal Navy’s early influence. This is due to the fact that fire at sea is a sailor’s biggest fear and so the Royal Navy had developed procedures that were efficient and effective. These procedures were then able to be transposed into structure firefighting.
In fact, as early as 1885, preference was given to ex-seamen, be they Merchant or Royal Navy, due to the following:
Regulation 5 stated, ‘all other things being equal, preference will be given to seamen’ (MFBAR, 1885:7).
Seamen were considered good firefighting material because they were agile, used to discipline and long stretches of standing watch, could do the knots and splices that were needed for firefighting in those days and were accustomed to eating, sleeping and working on the same premises.
Moving forwards there are links that I’ll now discuss across many conflicts.
The earliest conflict that I can associate the Military Forces and MFB with, is the Sudan War of the early 1880s. The Colony of NSW sent a contingent of 758 Men, being an Infantry Battalion and an Artillery Battery in 1885. Private Richard Isaac Barratt D Coy NSW Infantry, ex-Royal Marine, returned to Australia on 19 June 1885 from Sudan and after spending 5 days in quarantine at North Head due to typhoid being present on his ship, he was appointed to the MFB on 6 July 1885.
Second Boer War, 1899-1902
The Second Boer War saw veterans of this conflict return to Australia and begin to join the MFB in increasing numbers. I have been able to identify 14 members of the MFB who served in South Africa. For men returning to civilian life and who had experienced the discipline and structure of Military service, the Fire Brigade offered security and stability that was not easily achieved in the civilian world that they were re-entering and one that was experiencing an extreme drought.
Pictured here: Charles White who worked at Cessnock Fire Station and also served in the Boer War. Pictured here c. 1923.
Boxer Rebellion, China, 1900
Frederick Sturch (pictured below, c. 1900) was born 1876 in England and was an adventurous soul. This man’s life straddled several wars in which he participated, including the Boxer Rebellion in China. He served with the Royal Navy for 7 years and later joined the MFB on 15 February 1900, where he worked at Headquarters and George St West. He resigned 31 July 1900 and enlisted in the NSW Naval Contingent to China. Despite his short time in the MFB, Sturch used what he had learnt while deployed on at least two occasions when fires broke out at the British Legation due to Chinese rebels using incendiary devices and starting fires. Only three Sydney Firemen are noted as being in the China contingent.
On 15 August 1914, Sturch enlisted in the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force and was discharged 22 December 1914. The following year, on 11 July 1915, he enlisted with the 9th Field Ambulance. He was transferred to the 35th Battalion on 18 March 1917 (aged 41), and fought at Messines where he was shot in the legs and eventually discharged in December 1917. During WWII Sturch became a Senior Warden for the Regents Park area, detailed to respond to potential bombing and would have been instructed by NSWFB Air Raid Precaution Instructors.
By the time WWI started, the MFB had been renamed the New South Wales Fire Brigades (NSWFB) as now the whole state of NSW was under the organisation’s jurisdiction. Permanent and Volunteer members resigned for Active Service in big numbers and this is recorded on Personnel Cards and the Volunteer Register held at State Records. Over the course of the war, 23% of the NSWFB workforce enlisted, with 9.5% of enlistees being killed on Active Duty.
At least 324 members, that we know of, served in many of the theatres of war that saw conflict. From service with the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force in capturing the German Radio Station at Rabaul, the Landing and subsequent campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula, the Desert Columns of the Middle East with the Australian Lighthorse, the Defence of the Suez Canal, to the mud, destruction and industrial slaughter of the Western Front in Belgium and France, NSW Firemen, both Permanent and Volunteer and staff, were there. Of this number, 31 of the enlistees were killed on Active Duty.
Initially, returning veteran Permanent Firemen who volunteered to serve were not going to have their positions kept open by The Board of Fire Commissioners. They could reapply on return but would have to be physically fit and wait for a vacancy to appear. Volunteers were still going to receive their retainer for the duration of their absence. But, after successful negotiations between the Board and the Fire Brigade Employees Union, it was agreed to re-employ the returning veterans.
Seniority was restored and the difference between military and Fireman’s pay was met.
The Returned Soldier and Sailors Association and Repatriation Department was invited to submit applications on behalf of returned veterans wishing to join the NSWFB. As a result of this, between 1915 and 1938, 287 returned servicemen were either re-employed or employed by NSWFB. Positions have been kept open for all subsequent conflicts for Firefighters deployed on military operations. Many of these returned veterans, rose through the ranks and made positive contributions through their experience and leadership qualities, gained on the battlefield.
One such fellow was Frederick Creeke, born in Whakatane, New Zealand, who joined the MFB on 5 March 1909, resigning, with the rank of Second Class Fireman on 14 September 1914 for Active Service. He had enlisted on 10 September 1914 and proceeded overseas, serving at Gallipoli, Messines, Ypres, among other battlefields and being wounded and gassed on several occasions. But his years of firefighting served him well, being awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, second only to the Victoria Cross, for the following actions, when Battery Sergeant Major, 16th Battery, 6th Army Brigade, Australian Field Artillery:
On the afternoon of the 21st June 1917, at Messines, the 16th Battery was heavily shelled and all ranks were ordered to leave the gun pits, and seek cover, five casualties having previously occurred. At 3.30pm the camouflage on No 1 pit caught fire and burnt fiercely endangering about 300 rounds of shrapnel and H.E. stored in the pit alongside the gun. BSM Creeke called for volunteers to assist him to put out the fire. Bdr Brown Dvr Bishop A/Cpl McSweeney and Gunner Baker, immediately volunteered, and these other ranks at great personal risk succeeded in putting the fire out by throwing buckets of water over it, the water being obtained from shell holes and a well nearby. The whole of the camouflage was destroyed and many sandbags set alight also a few rounds of ammunition were charred. All the above took place under very heavy shell fire from the enemy 5.9s.
So here we have a soldier with firefighting and military experience, taking control of and directing his troops and using that combined experience on the battlefield. Creeke returned to Australia and re-joined the NSWFB on 30 August 1918. He was promoted to the rank of Sub Station Officer in 1928, and later retired in 1946.
The Annual Report of 1918 records that during the period of war, 63 Permanent, including 12 Imperial Reservists, 212 Volunteer Firemen, 6 members of the Clerical Dept, 2 of the Mechanical Dept and 4 of the Electrical Dept resigned for Active Service (being a total of 299). However, the Honour Roll, unveiled in May 1923 and located at City of Sydney Fire Station has a total of 315 names – a greater number than accounted for in the Annual Report of 1918. Late additions, combined with others who had previously been unrecognized, brings the total to 325 known members who served during WWI.
On 1 March 1928, a two platoon rostering system was adopted, resulting in 131 additional firemen being employed, opening the way for more veterans to be appointed.
In the early days of WWII, the NSWFB had many members trained as Air Raid Precautions Instructors who provided advice to NSWFB Staff and to public and private institutions and firms. By 1942, 131 members had been trained as Air Raid Precaution Instructors.
At the end of 1940 the total Brigades strength for the state was:
· 810 Officers + Permanent FFs
· 1,782 Volunteer FFs
A Reserve Corp was established in 1940 and numbered 1,453 in 1941. An Auxiliary of a further 2,000 was established to supplement the Reserve. A Women’s Auxiliary FB Corps of 3,000 was also established.
On 19 May 1942, the NSWFB was declared a protected undertaking under the National Security (Manpower) Regulations. This meant that to enlist, a Permanent Member had to resign from the NSWFB.
With Japan’s entry into the war, the NSW Premier notified the Brigade that it should be placed on a war footing. This allowed the Brigade to access appliances and equipment through the Lend/Lease arrangement. Throughout the war, firefighting instruction was provided by NSWFB to Army Navy Air Force and US Navy.
At war’s end, the Women’s Fire Auxiliary and the Auxiliary Reserve were disbanded.
The Brigades strength at this time was now:
· 1006 Officers + Permanent FFs
· 1827 Volunteer FFs
It is fair to say, as Churchill did, that the Fire Brigade had become the Fourth Arm of the services during the war.
Immediate post-war Brigades must have been amazing places to work with the experience and camaraderie that veterans shared. Men who had seen so much would have provided cool heads in serious situations faced by the younger member of the Brigades.
Pictured here: SO Dowling, WWII Veteran and Conspicuous Bravery medal recipient
Of course our past late Commissioner, Ian MacDougall was an ex-Royal Australian Navy Admiral, submariner and Cold War Veteran. Notably, he was appointed as the first NSWFB Commissioner who had not been a firefighter. His skills in administrative organisation and HR were used to progress the Brigade into the twenty-first century.
With the introduction of the 40 hr week in 1955 and the consequent increase in firefighter numbers, it stands to reason that many Korean war veterans would have joined NSWFB. A true estimation of numbers is still being researched.
Many members who were conscripted into National Service, served within Australia and Vietnam and were able to return to their positions in NSWFB, with many also joining NSWFB after military service in Vietnam. As a rough estimate, since 2000, 359 members have been employed in administration, permanent, retained positions, where they inspire confidence within each other and within the team. Of this number, 44 of these veterans are women.
Our firefighters add value to the Australian Defence Force and the Australian Defence Force add value to FRNSW. This simpatico relationship between the Military and FRNSW is most evident on ANZAC Day when a large contingent of current serving and ex-serving Military/FRNSW members march with their medals on to illustrate the story, in part, of their service to the Nation and State.
The Museum of Fire would like to thank Ian for taking part in History Week 2021. Ian joined CEO Belinda McMartin for a Q & A on Sunday as well. You can watch this here: https://www.museumoffire.net/copy-of-history-week-2021