Mike and Julie Blenkinsop enjoy the chance to experience and extremely rare, Fordson WOT 1 airfield tender vehicle.
Imagine a January night on an open airfield during the war. A freezing wind blowing straight off the North Sea, is driving a blizzard of snow across the flat, open landscape, whipping it into piles on fields unbroken by trees. The temperature is well below zero, but the wind-chill factor takes it to another level.
It’s 1942 and the only protection from this dire weather is the cab of your truck. Well that, in theory, is the good part, except your truck is a Ford WOT-1 airfield crash tender that’s parked at the end of a Lincolnshire bomber base’s runway. The vehicle has no doors, its roof is made of canvas and it doesn’t have a heater – an unnecessary extra. So, why would you be there rather than inside a cosy dispersal hut with a nice log stove?
Well, the runway itself is quite a way from the fire station, so it was deemed more practical to have the emergency crew (a driver and four firemen) sitting at readiness close to where the bombers would be landing so that, when stimulated into action by a red flare, response would be as immediate as possible. Training flights could see a squadron of bombers taking-off, to return eight hours later, during which time the fire crews would be on constant stand-by, in case a bomber or two was forced to return early.
While, in theory, this was a practical solution, the effect on the morale of the frozen crews was anything but. The crews of the three vehicles parked up at the intersection of the runways were usually huddled together in one vehicle with a closed cab; perhaps a Bedford OY or QL water tanker, which would accompany the WOT on to the apron. The crew overspill was relegated to the canvas-covered, quick-response Jeep, probably a few degrees warmer than the WOT, but the negative ‘polite’ personnel feedback did eventually lead to a re-design of some of these Ford cabs.
Many of these WOT fire tenders were still being used after the war, and the winter of 1946-‘47 was a particularly horrific one, with temperatures not seen before – the snowfall and freezing conditions almost brought Britain to a standstill. Had Air Ministry officials been required to be in the same situation, we’d suggest a better solution would have been found earlier!
The monotony of sitting out in no-man’s land in the freezing cold was only broken twice a day by a visit from the NAAFI van, usually based on an Austin K2 and staffed by, and we quote from historical contemporary documents, ‘two most beautiful ladies’. A welcome ‘char and a wad’ – the RAF slang for a cup of tea and a sandwich – was always gratefully received. Every airfield had a NAAFI wagon, although larger ones, by the nature of the field’s acreage, had two. During the winter months, oil-heaters had to be kept going underneath the fire appliances to keep the oil in the sump and the water in the tanks, from freezing.
During the 1930s, up until the outbreak of the war, the Crossley company had a virtual monopoly on the supply of 6×4 fire tenders, with its IGL/FE1 model, ordered mainly by the RAF; a 4×4, forward-control crash tender was also offered. Additionally, the IGL machine was provided, in streamline form, with a long, sloping, enclosed and very elegant limousine-style body.
Ford was building a six-wheel chassis, known as the Type 79, from 1934, which was used in many forms, including fire tenders. But it was War Office demands which initiated this new design, the WOT range. Although it’s fair to assume that the Fordson WOT-1 began a series of WOT-designated trucks, this wasn’t quite the case, as the WOT-1 appears to have been a modification of the already-available WOT-3, a four-wheel chassis version of which 18,000 were built.
The six-wheel, 6×4 WOT-1 was built by Ford at Dagenham in Essex, to fulfil the urgent demand for a three-ton truck which could be adapted to carry diverse bodywork, including potential use as an airfield fire crash tender. Its useful, 6×4 drive and long 164 and 178in (WOT-1A) wheelbase, made it an ideal platform on which to hang all sorts of different bodies.
Our highlighted and unique working example, RAF 108140, started life in Essex in 1941, and is now part of the RAF Firefighting Museum collection, currently based at Normanby, Scunthorpe. This Fordson WOT-1 airfield fire crash tender (War Office Type-1, being the most popular explanation for the design category ‘WOT’), had been one of the appliances rushed to France, six days after D-Day, to provide fire cover at the forward airbases which had been set up by the Americans and the British as they pushed the Germans back through France and Belgium.
This particular appliance then found its way to Berlin, where it probably participated in the Berlin Blockade airlifts; it would have probably have had quite a busy life providing cover to the never-ending stream of cargo aircraft bringing food and supplies into the city, cut off from the rest of Europe by the Russians. It’s believed to have gone through RAF workshops on a 1952 rebuilding programme then, rather typically in 1953, it became regarded as surplus to requirements. It was returned to the UK and auctioned-off, probably from Great Missenden, after which it ended-up in a scrapyard.
That would have been the end of it, but for the determined efforts of military vehicle enthusiast, Tony Corbin, who’d cut his restorer’s teeth on a Bedford QL RAF refueller. He rescued the WOT from a farmer’s field in 1980. It had fallen into a dreadful state after 27 years languishing in the scrapyard near RAF Benson, in Oxfordshire.
Tony had it moved to the IWM (Imperial War Museum) where he worked on it for more than 10 years, stripping it right back to basics and rebuilding it from the chassis up. One of the biggest problems was the rear cross-member, which runs directly under the water tank. One of the important aspects one should know before restoring any fire appliance – especially one which has encountered foam-producing compound – is that the chemicals used to generate the foam are highly corrosive to metal.
Closer to home
Fourteen years after its acquisition, Tony decided that he needed the appliance closer to home, so that he could more easily spend spare time on the project. During this period, he was making his living repairing and renovating pinball and gaming machines from his home-based workshop, but a space was found for the WOT. It was literally ‘coming home’, as Tony’s workshop was in Dagenham, Essex, remarkably close to where the Ford had first breathed life at the famous Dagenham works.
By 1986, the chassis had been returned to bare-metal, primer had been applied and the rear cross-member was rebuilt. Henderson Bearings, of Ringwood, surpassed itself and increased its reputation by finding both wheel and pump bearings for the WOT, and maintained their ‘we can find any bearing’ catchphrase. In 1987, the re-constructed V8 engine was fitted back into the chassis, and the new windscreen appeared too. Then 20 years passed to find Tony standing back to admire his completed restoration, finished in disruptive camouflage, as one of the six appliances known to have been painted in that scheme.
In 2004, Tony lent his WOT to the Twinwood Farm Museum at Bedford; the RAF airbase that Major Glenn Miller, the famous American bandleader, flew from on his last journey, in December 1944. It’s now a heritage site for the museum commemorating his name. In July 2008, the WOT was rallied at the War & Peace Show, where it was destined to meet its eventual new owner, Steve Shirley, who eventually bought and took delivery of it two years later, for the RAF Manston Fire Museum collection.
RAF Firefighting Museum
Steve is the founder of the RAF Firefighting Museum, which has grown exponentially in the past 10 years. He was an RAF fireman himself, having served for 36 years and attaining Warrant Officer status and an MBE. His wife, Kim, didn’t appreciate what she was starting when she bought him a model fire engine on his graduation from the Fire School many years ago, when it was based at Catterick!
Steve started looking at the real thing and began a collection which is now considered to be the biggest ex-military fire appliance collection in the world. Once the ‘red bug’ had him in its grasp, more red machines followed and, even when they turned green or blue, he still wanted them. Eventually, in 2017, he turned the collection into a registered charity; a 40-strong volunteer workforce keeps the wheels turning, the two-tones blaring and the blues flashing.
The Fordson WOT-1 specification makes for interesting reading. The top speed available from the 85hp side-valve was quoted as 50mph, but it took a long while to get there! With a fuel consumption figure of 8mpg, the WOT had a maximum range of 125 miles, although this didn’t account for the fuel used while working, but not moving. At an event in 2017, the WOT achieved 53mph on the speedo, but the driver admits to a following wind on a downgrade!
These iconic, period fire tenders worked from their inception in 1940, right through until 1962 at RAF stations on the front-line and, only when a new breed of appliance – the Thornycroft-built Mark 5 and the DP1s – became available, were the WOTs moved back into a reserve position. Even then they remained perfectly capable of covering front-of-house while a more modern appliance was off-line being serviced. To put this into period context, these Ford WOTs could still be seen returning to their station’s apron under the wings of Avro Vulcans, the lead plane in Britain’s nuclear V-Bomber strike force during the 1960s.
The last runner…
Today, ‘Wotty’, to give it the affectionate name it’s known by at the RAF Firefighting Museum, is the only, fully-working example of the Fordson WOT-1 crash tender, and now carries RAF disruptive camouflage colours stencilled with F/12 markings, indicating it was working within 12 group RAF Duxford, circa 1943.
An RAF favourite
Of the 9,154 Fordson WOT-1s chassis built between 1940 and 1945, almost all were used by the Royal Air Force, although around 120 were diverted to the Army, which used them as searchlight-carriers and refuellers. The vehicles were used in over 17 different roles, encompassing parachute-drying, photography, floodlighting, balloon launching and as a bomber-crew bus. The barrage-balloon winch-tenders, which launched and anchored the anti-aircraft balloons used to protect key potential target areas, worked alongside their Canadian Ford stablemate, the Sussex; basically, a commercial design adapted for a new role.
Probably the most famous, but most difficult to find of the variants now, is the crew-bus. Only two are known to exist, with only one being a runner. These six-wheelers ferried the bomber crews from their ‘living’ accommodation to their aircraft in the dispersal areas. The interior wasn’t opulent, just an extremely basic, large area with seating for 23, plus space up-front with the driver for another passenger.
Access was by a set of tall, rear double-doors, along the lines of an ambulance, so that the crew’s cumbersome flight-packs could be easily loaded for rapid dispersal. A Lancaster crew consisted of seven or, in some cases, eight men, so one crew-bus could service three Lancaster bombers. RAF 57630 is the rare, surviving crew bus preserved at the East Kirkby airfield of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre collection at Spilsby, the home to one of the only three surviving Lancaster bombers, ‘Just Jane’.
A rare look inside
It carries a Middlesex registration plate TMM 788, and is marked-up as having belonged to No.5 Bomber Group, based around Lincoln. It was our first chance to see inside one of these iconic wartime crew-buses, only having seen them in post-war black and white war films. This one had been converted to a camper sometime after its war service, and this may be the same vehicle that was regularly eyed-up by north-east military vehicle enthusiasts as its rear end poked out of a barn in the village of Ovington in Northumberland in the mid-1980s (the authors included). In its conversion, it has lost the two exit panels, normally situated on each side of the bodywork, between the pair of sliding windows used as escape hatches should the bus have rolled over, whether by accident or having been blown over by enemy action.
Some were used as mobile recruiting offices, with large Tannoys® mounted on the roof, so this conversion work may have been undertaken while in military service. Alternatively, they may have been changed for use after the war, to fulfil some other role. The vehicle performed well, but a set of wider tyres or twins on the rear bogie would have enhanced the design of the house-body shape; not an issue in 1942, when the task was to move a group of people half a mile or so in a hurry. Communication between driver and passengers was made possible via a speaking tube.
It’s been suggested that it was the coachbuilder Duple that was contracted to build these crew-bus bodies. Although the construction was of exterior metal panels over a wooden frame, hardboard was used on the inside for the walls, with a heavy-duty wooden floor and 11in wheel arches cut into the bus bodywork. Gross weight was a touch under six tons.
It’s not difficult to imagine the bus doors opening as the aircrews strode from their huts with all their kit, and the bus roaring off to the dispersal area where their bombers were being started up. Screeching to a halt, the double doors opened out and emptied the crews at their respective aircraft. With one bus effectively servicing three planes, preparations for a night raid of 85 bombers must have been quite a sight.
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