Obituary: Jack Bridle

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JACK BRIDLE had a long and distinguished career as a fireman from 1931 to 1963, which embraced the temporary nationalisation of the country's various fire brigades during the Second World War.

He was "born under a hose-cart", the son of a fireman at the busy Shaftesbury Avenue station of the London Fire Brigade in 1907, when a fireman's working week was 144 hours; when he joined in 1931 Bridle's hours were still half that. Even so there was no shortage of recruits, and to improve his chances of following his father into the brigade, he had joined the Army in 1924. After six years in the Royal Engineers he qualified as an Instructor at the Command School in Alexandria and had to resist the temptation of a commission and an appointment to the Army Education College at Shorncliffe.

After joining the London Fire Brigade, he made rapid progress through the junior ranks and by 1939, within eight years, was one of the 130 District Officers, from whom the 20 Superintendents were selected. The threat of war had increased promotion prospects; a new rank of Chief Superintendent had been introduced. But there was no national fire service; fire prevention and fire-fighting were the responsibility of local authorities, and some ran their brigades as an extra division of their police force. Others took a more enlightened and professional approach, and kept them separate.

Yet, despite a recent Royal Commission there was no responsibility for local authorities to co-operate with one another, and a distinct and almost aggressive parochialism prevailed. The new Auxiliary Fire Service of 1938 was by no means the single body that its name suggests; the constituent pumps and personnel were essentially auxiliary to one of the multiplicity of local brigades. At government level such planning that was possible was in the hands of the Police and Fire Brigade Division of the Home Office, their hands strengthened by their administration of government grants for additional equipment, which included German turntable ladders.

In 1939 the Home Secretary decided that his office must do what it could to provide some centralising influence, and augmented his tiny Inspectorate of Fire Brigades, largely by asking the London County Council to second a small but powerful cadre. The Chief Officer himself, so felicitously named Firebrace, led a team of 14 of which Bridle was one; he was assigned to the West Midlands. It was here that he distinguished himself in 1940 by advocating a mobilising procedure of the London Fire Brigade.

Instead of leaving machines in their own stations if they were not ordered to a fire, the LFB had a procedure based on three standard messages - if the incident could be dealt with by local resources, the officer in charge made a home call; if greater strength was needed, a district call brought in appliances from further afield, and if things got worse a brigade call mobilised the entire brigade. District and brigade calls meant that stations near the fire were reinforced from within the brigade so that cover was maintained over the entire area, even though many of the mobilised machines might not be sent to the incident. This proven procedure meant that time was saved in concentrating reinforcements where they were needed.

There was another precedent of which the Home Office and a London officer would have been aware, based on the 1917 plan whereby London and most if not all the adjacent brigades gave one another mutual support in mobilising against the first air raids on this country. Thus to say that Bridle's plans clashed with a Home Office doctrine that represented the autonomy of local authorities by leaving a concentration of local appliances at their native stations and summoning - or requesting - reinforcements from further afield is perhaps something of an exaggeration. How much operational responsibility was given to seconded officers is not always clear, but Bridle was called to account by the legendary A.L. (later Sir Arthur) Dixon, a Cambridge wrangler who had entered the Home Office in 1903 and was then an assistant under- secretary in the Police and Fire Brigade department.

But nationalisation of the 1,600 various fire brigades was strategically essential in wartime, and in 1941 they were reconstituted as a single National Fire Service of 39 Fire Forces. Bridle at 34 was by far the youngest of the Fire Force Commanders, and it is significant that he was appointed OBE the next year. His first command was of 23 Area, which covered Warwickshire and the West Midlands; in 1943 he was given the larger command of 4 Area, based at Leeds. Thereafter he saw little of the war on the Home Front and, when it ended and the National Fire Service was restored to the counties and boroughs of the day, he ended his fire-fighting career as Chief Fire Officer of West Sussex from 1948. In 1963 he retired to Guernsey.

A.B. Sainsbury

Alfred John Bridle, fire-fighter: born London 30 June 1907; OBE 1942; married 1936 Eva Talbot (two sons); died St Peter Port, Guernsey 27 January 1999.