One of the biggest dangers was from firebombs, or incendiary bombs. These were small devices and were dropped out of planes in large quantities. When they hit something they started to burn, slowly at first, but then more strongly. So many of these bombs were scattered around that it was impossible for the fire service to get to them all. In fact it was the responsibility of local people, men and women, to put the fires out before they got out of hand. These bombs could fall in the street, in the garden, or through your roof, where they might start a fire in the loft or an upstairs bedroom. People were supposed to have buckets of water, buckets of sand and a thing called a stirrup pump available. Three people were needed to operate the pump, which sprayed a jet onto the flames. If you just poured water onto the burning chemicals, you could actually spread the fire.
So teams of people in every road did firewatching and tackling fires. People had to do two hour periods during the night, then wake the next person. Some people doing firewatching were killed in the raids. In the centre of town and at factory sites, it was soon found that with no one about after dark fires could develop into huge blazes which could destroy rows of businesses or workshops, and eventually every fit man over 18 and under 60 had to do firewatching.
Below are some pages from a 1944 manual on German incendiaries (thanks to Brian Henderson and Harry Murch)
Homeowners were expected to tackle any incendiaries in their houses themselves, as these cigarette cards show.
Churchman's cigarette cards: advice on incendiaries, website by Peter Risbey
Later, in 1942, the Germans put explosive charges in the incendiaries to discourage people from approaching them.
Fires were constantly being fought after air raids. This is a record of just a few days for Acocks Green:
Fires tackled in Acocks Green between 19th and 23rd November 1940
Kilmorie Road, Olton Boulevard East, Rover Aero factory at Clay Lane (several), Hollyhock Road, Francis Road, Hazelwood Road, Sherbourne Road (several), Alexander Road (several), Shirley Road (several), Botteville Road, Keats Grove, Oakhurst Road, Circular Road (several), Severne Road, Eastcote Road, Douglas Road.
Memories of fighting incendiaries
Because of the danger from incendiary bombs, there was a rota for people in the road to do firewatching. This meant that every other night you had to stay up and watch for bombs landing in your part of the road. There were different teams for each part of the road. We walked up and down with our helmets on, carrying our gas masks, and holding our torches. We were up for the job! The Fire Service helped us by training us. For example they told us how to open people’s doors without breaking any glass. In fact on our road, people were asked to leave their side gates open, so we could get round the back quickly, and many left their doors open too. I learnt a lot: there was a co-operative, friendly atmosphere, and everyone spoke to everyone. If a fire started, we tackled it with the stirrup pump, and reported it to the A.R.P. wardens, who sent for the Fire Service. We also told the householders in the shelters if their house had been hit. The firemen came quickly, unless they were away on other calls. If the raid was a bad one, everyone had to be out, whatever the rota said. It was all very organised: it had to be.
If there was a raid it used to start about 7.30 or 8 in the evening. If you were on duty firewatching, you wouldn’t get to bed until 2 or 3 in the morning, and if a house in your part of the road was hit you would be up all night. You then had to go to work the next day, whether you had had any sleep or not.
You were supposed to tackle an incendiary bomb by smothering it with a sandbag, or a dustbin lid, or spraying water onto it with a stirrup pump.
One night I was helping to tackle a fire in Kilmorie Road. There were three of us in the fire team. An incendiary bomb had landed on a house, and gone in through the tiles. Then it exploded and blew the tiles off. Some of the incendiaries had explosive charges in them. If you were leaning over them with the dustbin lid and they exploded, you’d had it. Anyway, one of us was up on a ladder spraying the fire in the roof, and I had the other end of the hose attached to the stirrup pump in the bucket. The other person kept on running to fetch water to refill the bucket. I was pumping away like mad, bending down over the pump, when a tile came down off the roof and hit me on the back of the head. Because I was leaning forward, my helmet was not protecting me from things falling from above. I fell to the ground, not moving. A little later, I came round, and the others said they thought I was dead. Anyway, I pulled myself together, and was back on duty within half an hour.
Another type of firebomb was the oil bomb. One landed in the Avenue opposite Roberts Road. Fortunately the oil did not ignite, so what happened was that it went all up the front of the house instead and made a right mess.
Stan Arnold, in a letter sent to us in 2005
In early 1941 as a family we lived with an aunt at 452 Gospel Lane, my sister's birth being registered there as of 18th July 1941. At a date which I am seeking after 18th July 1941 and probably as late as early 1942 an incendiary bomb came through the roof of 452 and, according to my mother's tale to myself as a teenager, the bomb was lying across the rails of my cot at right angles to myself. She was able to reach into the cot to retrieve me. I have no memory of that moment in the night, but do remember seeing the hole in the roof next day when we were picked up by my aunt's brother and taken to their holiday retreat whilst repairs to the house were undertaken. My mother informed me that she always had to put up the "sliding" side of the cot in order to prevent me running around the house in the early hours, also had the bomb not have lodged at that position I would not be writing this. The bomb apparently smouldered but did not explode. My mother repaired the cot and it was handed down to my sister and two other brothers.
Mr Robbins, of Hazelwood Road, interviewed in 1977
I was in the Fire Brigade. I used to have a big tree out at the front here. I used to have a ladder up that tree, and I used to stand at the top and see how the fires were going on in town. I could see what was going on, you know. But after a while they got too hot - I didn't stop out there long....They got conscripted personnel in our brigade.....They even had to back out of the army, because we didn't have enough men, to help out...for the time being.
Lawyers, solicitors, actuaries, brainy people - you'd be surprised who were part-time firemen, and even full-time, because they were conscripted. All mixed in together. They got on all right. Some of them hadn't got any idea. Some of them hadn't got the foggiest. But they learned, and everyone did their bit. (The war) joins you together, without a doubt. When there's any fear and anybody...gets together you're united against the common enemy. Very good.
Image of a German incendiary bomb, Wikipedia