It was a rotten trick. Two high-ranking officers approached the third officer of Rochester’s Auxiliary Fire Service at its HQ in the railway arches along The Common, now Corporation Street, early in the Second World War.
“How quickly could your men get out?” the brass hats asked.
The chief officer and deputy were away, so the third-in-command replied proudly: “About 15 seconds!”
But that was not what the Army meant. They wanted to know how quickly the voluntary firemen could quit their base near the bridge. Hitler’s invasion was expected at any moment and the army was under strict instruction to demolish Rochester Bridge if that happened.
That was the least of their troubles. Where could the firefighters find a new base central enough for a quick response to any incidents – Luftwaffe bombs or straightforward domestic blazes — that might befall Rochester’s ancient heart? They had to move within a fortnight and needed a new home — quickly.
They found one at the bottom of Foord Street, in the Tory Town area (where as a young reporter in the late 1970s I shared a house with fellow Chatham News men Martin Brunt and Nick Wells). The new HQ was a large garage commandeered from Naylor’s funeral directors of nearby Delce Road; the brigade also acquired the Majestic cinema garage (now site of a block of flats) on Star Hill.
Substations were formed at various points throughout Rochester, one at Prior’s Gate House near Minor Canon Row: this had a large trailer pump towed by a car and was for the protection of the cathedral so Bishop Chavasse provided a stove, chairs and beds in for the firemen.
My great grandfather John Richard Rayner, a bedesman and bellringer at the cathedral, was also a firewatcher there, usually on the cathedral roof. In 1941, when the danger was at its greatest, he would have been 76. I’m rather proud of that.
Substations were also formed at Wouldham and Borstal, although I’m not sure where. I’ve been told that the AFS might have had a base near Nashenden Lane and at one point they volunteers mustered near Ron Matthews’s shop at the end of Mount Road. Mr Matthews was in the AFS.
Emergency water stations were set up in the Vines (the King’s School swimming pool), Victoria Street, and the old city swimming pool at the Willis Avenue end of the Esplanade. Four concrete barges holding 40,000 gallons were moored on the river by Shorts. (They always fascinated me as boy: how on earth could concrete float?)
The AFS was formed in 1938 to supplement the volunteer brigade that had been going in Rochester since Victorian times and was similar to today’s retained fire units.
Chatham Dockyard made the Medway towns a prime target for Luftwaffe bombers. The Nazis were also after Shorts Brothers’ aircraft works on Rochester Esplanade.
Shorts was the target of a particularly serious raid between 3.20am and 4.30am on April 8, 1941, when the city was hit by high explosive bombs, some with delayed action timers, parachute mines and about 1,000 incendiaries. Hundreds of houses and shops were damaged over a wide area and hundreds were temporarily made homeless.
Wickham Street took the brunt of it, as well as Amherst Road, Onslow Road, Catherine Street and St William’s Way. Eleven people were killed, 28 seriously injured and 66 slightly hurt.
That night, the city AFS suffered its first casualties. At the substation in Willis Avenue, Firemen Cyril Gibbons of Dorrit Way, Francis Chater, of City Way, Frank Ryder – on secondment from Chatham AFS — and “Jinx” Durling of Delce Road) had just after a fire at Shorts and put on the kettle when their post took a direct hit from a parachute mine. Chater and Gibbons died instantly. Ryder died in hospital.
Fireman Durling — nicknamed Jinx because he was so accident-prone — survived. He had been standing behind a tree on lookout duty and the blast spun him round so violently that it wore through the soles of his boots. The noise of the blast perforated his eardrums.
Mrs Ivy Batchelor who lived nearby, also died.
* I am indebted to Brent Wigley, upon whose pamphlet, A Brief History of the Fire Service during the Second World War, this feature is based.