by Fred Collins

There is a group of Canadian Firefighters who are worthy of special recognition. Their exploits are largely forgotten and most members of the Canadian Fire Service today have probably never heard of them. However, they wrote a special chapter in courage and service during the Second World War and in the annals of the Fire Services of Canada.

In 1941 the Right Honourable MacKenzie King, the Prime Minister of Canada visited England. During this visit the United Kingdom requested that Canada form a contingent of Firefighters to serve in Great Britain. This request was agreed to and shortly thereafter recruiting began for the Corps of Canadian Firefighters Overseas. Enlistment was voluntary and Firefighters from all across Canada answered the call. The original Corps, consisting of 422 members, was made up of men from 107 municipalities representing all provinces of the Dominion.

Their presence in the United Kingdom did not go unnoticed. The Manchester Evening News edition of Saturday, 15 May, 1943 referred to them as “a blood transfusion for a sorely wounded warrior.” After a four week course following arrival in England, mainly of blitz firefighting, rescue work and drill, the contingent was assigned to 2 fire stations in Southampton, 2 in Portsmouth, 1 in Plymouth and 1 in Bristol. Corps headquarters was established in London. After a brief familiarization period the Canadians became solely responsible for their districts.

The Corps was commanded by Gordon E. Huff, a former Fire Chief of the Brantford, Ont. Fire Department. He was largely responsible for organizing and recruiting the unit. He was, at that time, a 23 year veteran of the Ontario Fire Service. He was chosen, in the words of MacKenzie King, because “He was a crack Firefighter, he knew the English well having been over in the last war and he had proved his worth as a fire organizer”. During this period the cities where the Corps was stationed were subjected to heavy air raids. The fires started by the bombs had to be dealt with and those buildings which were destroyed but where no fires occurred made for unique rescue situations. Also, the number of alarms to be dealt with was far beyond those experienced in more peaceful times. There were numerous injuries to Corps members, but few were serious. Only three members lost their lives; one in a traffic accident In the course of training and the third due to a robot bomb. In addition, only three other members were seriously injured during their tour. Commander Huff puts this down to “good luck” but I suspect it was more a case of good training and professionalism. However, as is always the case, some luck does come into play. On one occasion, a bomb destroyed the hostel of one of the crews. They were away fighting a fire at the time the bomb hit.

The Corps served with distinction until the war ended. Corps members were awarded: 1 Order of the British Empire (Commanding Officer Huff), 1 Member of the British Empire, 2 British Empire Medals, 1 Royal Humane Society Testimonial on Parchment and 2 Royal Humane Society Testimonials on Vellum. As well, all who served were awarded special badges signifying their service.

When they got back to Canada many of them joined various Fire Departments across the country, bringing with them their unique experiences, training and knowledge from their war service.

I was privileged to serve on a fire department with one of these individuals. Captain Duncan Doan of the Welland Fire Department related many stories of his exploits while he was serving in Plymouth and London. Like all heroes, he said nothing of the bad times but only related the good and the humorous. Two other members of the Corps I met later. These two individuals are likely known to many of the older Firefighters still serving. They are Martin S. Hurst, who later became the third Fire Marshal of Ontario and Ralph Leonard, who became the first Chief Instructor of the Ontario Fire College.

The Author: Fred Collins has passed away since writing this article. His son Rob Collins is a volunteer interpreter with the Friends of the Canadian War Museum.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of The Friends of the Canadian War Museum. It was originally published in their newsletter The Torch, Volume 23 No 4, November 2012

If you are interested in the history of the Fire Service, look for the book Standing against Fire, by Lt Col (Ret’d) Lorne MacLean. It is available from the publisher General Store Publishing House