17 February 2009
FOR FIFTY-SEVEN days and nights London was ablaze.
Its horizon was lined with hundreds of fires, its buildings destroyed and hundreds-of-thousands of its residents hidden in the Underground stations in search of safety.
Teams of firemen battled against the flames throughout the onslaught to save what they could of the capital.
This was The Blitz in 1940 - Hitler's attempt to break the British spirit and force surrender in the Second World War.
Some of these brave firemen were onboard the Massey Shaw, a fireboat that had been commissioned five years earlier by the London County Council because it wanted a boat that could go under all the bridges of the Thames, and her tributaries, at any state of the tide.
Powered by two eight-cylinder diesel engines, she had the power of four fire engines, was able to pump 3,000 gallons a minute, and had a maximum speed of 12 knots. J Samuel Whites of Cowes Isle of Wight built the 60-ton boat at a cost of £18,000 - a high price for a boat at the time. She was, and still is, 78'0" long, has a beam of 13'6" and a draft of just 3'9".
The Massey was heralded as a great addition to the fire fighting capabilities of the London Fire Brigades River Service and within a few months she had demonstrated how useful she could be by fighting a huge warehouse fire at Colonial Wharf, Wapping.
The fire had gained hold of an eight-storey warehouse and normal firefighters could not get close enough to the blaze.
Massey was able to blow a hole in one of the walls of the building with its water jet and made a 'firebreak', allowing crews to stop the fire spreading. At the time, she was credited with saving over a million pounds worth of stock, by preventing the fire moving along to other adjoining warehouses.
Audrey Preston, 87, remembers visiting her father, Alfred "Tom" Cox, when he worked on Massey Shaw.
Mrs Preston said: "He was quite taciturn about the whole period. But he used to talk about men that he had lost
over-board when they were fighting the fires.
"I know he was there at the bombing of St Paul's - he was away from home for about two weeks.
She added: "He got in touch with us one day, saying not to go to work because the firm had been bombed."
By this time, Massey had already contributed greatly to the war-effort by joining the flotilla of Little Ships that sailed across the Channel to rescue soldiers from Dunkirk.
It was May 1940 when she answered a call from the Home Office asking her to take part in 'Operation Dynamo'. She made three trips to the beaches with her volunteer crew of LFB, AFS and NFS Firemen, rescuing 500 troops from the beaches and 30 French merchant seamen after their vessel hit a mine.
Massey continued as an operational Fireboat on the Thames until 1971, when she was decommissioned by the London Fire Brigade.
After more than ten years of flux Massey had fallen into a state of disrepair, but it was now that a group of enthusiasts decided try and preserve and hopefully restore her.
The Massey Shaw & Marine Vessels Preservation Society was then given a fifty-year lease on the vessel from the Fire Authority, and began working on her in their spare time.
The group has just received a £500,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore the boat to full working condition and create an education programme for children in the area.
This article was written with the help of The Massey Shaw & Marine Vessels Preservation Society.
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