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The NSWFB’s role in the creation of the Darwin Fire Brigade, 1941

The Museum recently shared a post on our social media remembering 80 years since the bombing of Darwin began during World War Two (WWII) on 19 February 1942.

The war had a significant impact on the history of firefighting in Australia with the Darwin Fire Brigade directly created as a result of the war response. This brigade was established by the NSW Fire Brigade (NSWFB).

In 2018, the Museum received support from the NSW Department of Veterans Affairs and was able to include this important piece of history in our wartime era display. This is an extract from the story of the NSWFB and WWII.

Museum of Fire CEO Belinda McMartin with the new wartime war panel created thanks to a grant in 2018.

Of all Australia’s major cities, Darwin was one of the last to experience population growth. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the population began to develop and only as Darwin transformed into a key strategic base during WWII that the township began to become home to a significant settlement. Despite this, when the war reached Australian shores, Darwin was still only considered a town (not being granted city status until 1959) and was home to only around 1,500; though this number increased dramatically as members of the allied forces descended.

On 19 February 1942 the bombing of Darwin began however a Fire Brigade had only just been established at the end of the previous year, 1941.

Dennis Light 4, 1952 (Museum of Fire Collection)

In 1940 when an ARP unit was established in Darwin, they had acquired an old hose cart from the police which had been the only real protection for the city. At this time a fire brigade was not even considered as Darwin did not have reticulated water. This was rectified in 1941 and the need for a fire brigade was made a priority however as there was no one in Darwin experienced enough to initiate the new brigade, the New South Wales Fire Brigades agreed to provide an officer and Dennis Light 4 Fire Engine.

It was the Federal Government who approved the creation this brigade which was to be a civilian fire brigade with the strength of two permanent officers and eight retained Firefighters. While the appliance was shipped to Darwin, Sub-Station Officer Horace Wentworth Pye (who would later become NSWFB Chief Officer) was flown to Darwin to begin preparations. Upon arrival in wartime Darwin Pye found a difficult situation before him. The premises set aside for the brigade were unsuitable and so he immediately set about finding new premises at the corner of Cavenagh and Daly Streets. He also had trouble forming a brigade as many locals worked in the Public Service and did large amounts of overtime which made them unavailable. Pye managed to secure the services of nine men and on 31 October 1941 Chief Officer Bailey; the first Chief Officer of the Darwin Fire Brigade arrived to take control of the brigade.

Darwin Fire Station, 1946 (Courtesy Libraries and Archives Northern Territory)

It had been decided that the Chief Officer position was not to be held permanently by anyone, but rather officers from the Canberra Fire Brigade (at the time an independent brigade but under the administration of the Melbourne Fire Brigade) were to rotate the position on a three-year basis.

This would not come into effect though, because as attacks on Darwin increased control of the fire brigade was assumed by the military. With Darwin no longer being a civilian brigade, Chief Officer Bailey and O’Brien returned to Canberra and NSW respectively following the evacuation of nearly all civilians from Darwin.

Up until November 1943 Darwin experienced a total of 64 air attacks (97 took place across the entire north of Australia) and the Darwin Fire Brigade is the only known major city Australian brigade to undertake firefighting duties whilst in a warzone and under attack. Following the conclusion of the war, Chief Officer Bailey returned to resume control of the brigade as it was returned to civilian control from the military in 1946.

Blazing fuel oil at Darwin during the raids in 1942 (Museum of Fire Collection)

This is an important piece of the NSWFB’s history but one that you probably didn’t know. The Museum’s Heritage Team were pleased to be able to research the story and exhibit the history in our wartime display.

If you’d like to read the full story of the NSWFB during wartime make sure you visit the Museum!

-Belinda McMartin (article produced in 2018 whilst in the role of Senior Heritage and Research Officer)


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