Mike and Julie Blenkinsop investigate the range of large and fascinating post-war RAF fire appliances, some of which still survive.
The 1st April 2018, was the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force, which was formed back in the last year of the First World War, when the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service amalgamated.
Previously, fire-fighting was left to a branch of the Army to provide cover but, as aircraft fires escalated, the authorities realised that an independent RAF fire-fighting force was required, although it wasn’t until 1921 that the fire dangers prompted a discussion about the need for dedicated vehicles as, previously, extinguishers were manhandled to the scene of the fire by the airfield personnel. The first appliances, Crossley 6×6 tenders, were converted at an MT depot in Shrewsbury. Morris B1s and Crossley IGLs followed, then came the Fordson WOT. However, it wasn’t until the 31st December 1943 that an official RAF Fire Service was created.
Two years after the end of the war, the Royal Air Force had a hotchpotch of fire appliances covering the approaches to their runways and, following the Ford WOT period, a decision was taken to categorise them all into a ‘mark’ arrangement. Most just became known by a ‘mark’ number; in fact, it could be said that the RAF was quite unusual in never designating the make or bodybuilder of the vehicle, simply referring to them as a Mark 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 etc. What existed already was put into the first four marks, but in this article, we’re dealing with the newer, post-Second World War machines, starting with the Mark 5.
The new Mark 5 (FV13402) was a bit of a revelation; it had a top speed of 60mph and could provide 2,300 gallons of foam per minute, which represented a 100% improvement over previous fire tenders. Two examples have been preserved by the RAF Fire-fighting Museum – 43 AF 31 and 38 AF 36. This crash tender came on-line in late 1951 to replace the various old, wartime machines scattered around the country’s airfields. It’s thought 84 were built for the RAF, using the Thornycroft Nubian TF, three-ton, 4×4 cargo lorry chassis as its base; a vehicle built mainly for the RAF from 1941, of which nearly 4,000 examples were turned out.
This four-wheel-drive cargo chassis found a second life after the war, but Thornycroft’s own AC4/1 engine (developing around 85hp) was replaced by the eight-cylinder, 5.67-litre Rolls-Royce B80 that produced almost twice as much power (140hp!). The James Whitson company and Carmichael built the bodies with Sun Engineering providing the fire-fighting equipment; it carried a water tank of 400 gallons and a foam tank of 60 gallons. There is some evidence to suggest that some at least were rebuilt by the Miles company around 1957.
One Mark 5 has continued to prove particularly useful as it’s become not only a preserved appliance, but a local fire-fighter for a Northamptonshire village. NNX 397 is active with the Geddington Volunteer Fire Brigade, while a Coventry-Climax trailer pump provides the waterpower. The village acquired it in 1980 from British Aerospace after it had spent its life around the airfields at Bittleswell, near Lutterworth, where Hawker-Siddeley had an important factory. But it isn’t known whether Thornycroft Nubian chassis number 45330 served directly with the RAF. It has been named ‘Queen Eleanor’, in deference to Geddington marketplace having one of the finest Eleanor crosses in the country.
Interestingly, these Thornycroft Nubian TF/B80s were also bought by a number of civilian brigades, and used as 500-gallon capacity water tenders (WrT), including Staffordshire (its biggest user, with 19 machines), Cheshire, Glamorgan and Northamptonshire, which would have been a very interesting acquisition, as four-wheel-drive fire appliances would certainly be an unusual procurement, but were well justified by these county authorities, as they all had large expanses of heath and woodland which were difficult to access with standard-drive appliances.
After withdrawal and sale from Ministry auctions, most were scrapped for parts and their Rolls-Royce engines exported, but some found further work fitted-up with a salvage crane. One is known to have survived, albeit in a different form, having been cut-down to carry breakdown recovery equipment; SSU 998 is a 1951 appliance, branded to Shire Aggregates and belonging to Tim Speight of Boroughbridge.
The 5A followed, and was a more basic functional design. Where the old 5 had graceful, limousine-style, flowing lines, the 5A had solid, chunky panels with angular features protected by a very large front bull-bar. The bodywork was from University Coachworks Motors, with Pyrene as the equipment supplier, all being placed onto a new-build, Thornycroft Nubian chassis. The roof-mounted monitor appeared on this model and the electric bell was retained as a feature on the front grille. It’s believed that 80 were built initially, but the RAE (Royal Aircraft Establishment) also ordered some independently, to protect its airfields. The 5As put in 20 years of RAF service, before being withdrawn in 1976, one allegedly converted to a breakdown/recovery vehicle by the RAF at one of its bases in North Africa.
The Mark 6 changed the face of fire tenders and was a most unusual appliance. The airfield fire-fighters asked for a high-mobility vehicle with simplicity of operation and ease of maintenance, but what they got was a far cry from that, although it is generally remembered with great affection by those who crewed it. In 1957, the RAF took possession of the Mk 6; everybody else called it the Salamander. Developed by the FVRDE (Fighting Vehicle Research and Development Establishment) in Chobham, Surrey, it used technology and design from the successful Saladin, Saracen and Stalwart six-wheel-drive models.
Alvis came up with a vehicle utilising twin front-axle steer, six-wheel permanent drive with a rather high centre of gravity; it wasn’t quite what the doctor ordered for a rapid-response vehicle, spending a large majority of its time on tarmac runways. It was, however, loved by many of the fire crews who were often taught to drive on this machine and, despite its design issues, it was an effective fire-fighter. It was pretty quick off the mark, but the big Rolls-Royce B81, rear-mounted, eight-cylinder engine took a lot of maintenance and due to poor engine and main-mechanicals access acquired a name for being a difficult vehicle to service without a time-consuming strip-down.
They were notorious for ‘explosive’ backfires; keeping the twin contact-breakers fine-tuned was an art in itself. Hardy souls, like Dave Jenner and Steve Harrison who work hard maintaining their preserved, first production chassis N° FC1, 23 AG 56, at the RAF Fire-Fighting Museum, know just how many spanners and other pieces of equipment end up irretrievably lost, under the engine or in the inaccessible belly of the vehicle – perhaps the Alvis designers should have put a hinged access hatch underneath this part of the truck. In fact, one other owner of these interesting machines has said that he has retrieved almost a full tool kit from his experiences ‘diving’ into the depths of the engine bay. As the Salamander is waterproofed up to 2ft 6in, should it be necessary to gain access to any of the transmission equipment, one is obliged to remove the water-tank and this makes any gearbox job very time-consuming.
Driving on hard tarmac winds-up the drive shafts, making for regular replacement, except when the stresses could be lessened by ‘scrubbing-off’ onto some softer surface with some ‘give’ in it. With a semi-automatic box, FV651A, its service nomenclature, was equipped with either Pyrene or Foamite equipment with a body built by University Motors. It had five gears usable in both forward and reverse and could lay down 9,000 gallons of foam in a couple of minutes, although it only had a tank of 700 gallons (3,150 litres) and a 100-gallon (450 litres) tank of foam compound.
The interior layout was well received by the fire-crews in that the steering wheel position was central so that the driver could continue to manoeuvre the machine while the rest of the six-man crew could tumble out of both sides of the cab. Eighty-one were made for the RAF (some sources suggest 89), plus a few prototypes, although there were five different modifications as the six-year production continued, ending up with the Mark 6d, which is reflected in their RAF registration numbers, some being in the 03 AG, others in the 26 AG serials.
Fortunately, a few have been preserved, perhaps as many as 12 still exist, including the aforementioned 23 AG 56 at the RAF Fire Fighting museum with Mark 6C 26 AG 70 in their ‘to do’ hangar, while 23 AG 76 is in the RAF Museum at Hendon. Interestingly, one Stalwart, the amphibious army five-ton load carrier from Alvis, based on the same chassis as the Mk 6 was converted into a water-borne fire-fighting appliance as an experiment.
Others which have been illustrated are the Headcorn Airfield (Kent) machine now safely protected by a Norfolk enthusiast and an engine-less, but otherwise complete Mark 6 (with only 83 miles registered on the clock) stored for 20 years and hidden in one of the most unlikely places, a warehouse in the west end of Newcastle Upon Tyne, 10 yards from a main city centre road! If you fancy a real challenge, it was up for sale at the time.
Only one Mark 6 was transferred to the Army, making an interesting riot-control vehicle with full frontal, armoured mesh protection of the type available in those days. It carried the Army registration 52 EK 60.
Following their sale from the Ministry auctions, typically in 1970 (ten were available at the 28th April 1977 sale along with a pair of DP1 appliances), a few found their way across to the coast at Skegness where an enterprising chap chopped-off their roofs, added bench seats and ran them as beach-tour tourist vehicles.
Another was bought by tree expert John Cooper, from Kent, who used it to carry explosives and tree-extraction equipment into forests using the Mk6’s exceptional cross-country capability. Typically, they sold at the Ministry auction for a few hundred pounds, examples being lot 677, 26 AG 73, for £440 and lot 452, 23 AG 84, for £420 on the 18th August 1977. The final Mark 6 was taken out of service in 1978.
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