Battle of the Flames by David Needham

Bannister Publications £17.99 ISBN 978-1-909813-68-7

Why was I, approaching four years old, lying on cushions under my grandmother’s dining table with Grandpa outside the front door of their Spring Lane, Lambley, house on the night of 8 May 1941?

Fortunately for me I was not aware of the tumult of fear and destruction evident from the thundering of high explosives and the persistent glow of the incendiary inferno. (It was only much later that I realised how frightening it must have been for my grandparents, knowing that my parents were on ARP and fire-watching duties that night.)

And it is only since reading David Needham’s Battle of the Flames that I have grasped a true picture of the horror, terror, fortitude and heroism shown and experienced by the citizens of Nottingham and in particular the Fire Service, police and medical staff and the volunteer forces of the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) officers, the WVS (now Women’s Royal Voluntary Service) and all those neighbours and others who did their best to aid and protect during the onslaught.

David Needham takes us through Nottingham’s wartime experience from the setting-up (and occasionally somewhat rocky settling-in) of the city’s defence structure, and the gradual unfolding of the impending fearful attack on Nottingham.

David’s very skilled and readable account, as well as giving us a detailed account of the city’s preparations, also manages to convey the feeling of apprehension as the Blitz on the United Kingdom developed.

On the night of the “Bomber’s Moon” – bright moonlight clearly illuminating vulnerable targets – the journeys of the firemen to their fire stations are vividly described:

“Alf Porkett had to leave his family in the care of a neighbour and then cycle as quickly as he could from his Wollaton home to Triumph Road Fire Station. The anti-aircraft guns were firing, and shrapnel was chattering to the street, searchlights were sweeping across the sky and the dark shape of the bombers could be seen in the beams, or as they passed across the moon.”

Truly evocative; and spine-chilling.

As the chapter progresses, incidents follow on top of one another, giving a sense of the urgency and chaos in the streets as fire engines battled to get through tangles of hose and avoid falling masonry: the battle was particularly difficult in the narrow streets of the Lace Market where Bishop Talbot, vicar of St Mary’s, beseeched the firefighters: “Will someone help me save my church?” which, threatened on all sides by explosions, the fire-fighting crews managed eventually to do, averting a catastrophe such as had happened at Coventry Cathedral just a few months before.

Amongst the unceasing efforts and courage (some fire-fighters worked for 18 hours with no break) there were the odd unexpected or bizarre moments. The caretaker of the Masonic Hall on Goldsmith Street was fire-watching on the roof when he heard a blast and suddenly found himself on the ground floor, concussed but otherwise unharmed.

A Government official in seeking to rescue a safe containing important documents from a top floor office in the Lace Market asked the firemen not to roll it down the stairs – as he didn’t want to spoil the carpet!

As well as a detailed account of the events in the Lace Market and city centre, the book also covers the destruction wrought in the suburbs, where Sneinton suffered considerably – with tragic losses at the Co-op Bakery.

Battle of the Flames is lavishly illustrated: this new and enlarged edition features both colour and monochrome images. In a number of cases the original building, its bombed ruins and its replacement are shown side by side.

Fortunately for Nottingham, the heroic efforts of the Fire Service and others managed to save the greater part of the city which we can still enjoy today.

One building which did survive (despite its proximity to a major explosion at what is now NTU’s Arkwright Building) is the original Central Fire Station, which remained in operational use until a few years ago. This building was surely a central player in the city’s twentieth-century and World War II heritage, and as such should be valued and conserved rather than being summarily replaced: I hope David Needham and his Fire Service colleagues will agree.

Much has been said recently about the “Blitz Spirit” and how it has been revived during the Covid emergency. There have certainly been similarities in the way communities have been supporting each other, but nothing more outstanding than the way in which the NHS, its staff and volunteers have courageously battled with the same determination and courage that the emergency workers of World War II fought the Battle of the Flames.

Hilary Silvester

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