OBITUARY : Sir Frederick Delve

Frederick Delve, for 14 years Chief Officer of the London Fire Brigade, was an outstanding figure in the world of fire. His 92 years spanned the part of a century remarkable for its increase in fire hazards and in developing the essential services for dealing with them.

"Freddy" Delve was the son of a Brighton master tailor. His parents' plans for his education were shattered in 1918 when an over-patriotic "flapper" on Brighton sea-front mistook the tall, blond teenager for an older man dodging military service, and pinned a white feather to his lapel. To his parents' distress, he joined the Royal Navy on his 16th birthday. The war ended two weeks later.

Resigned to Service life, Delve became a wireless telegraphist. His ship was sent to the Black Sea to evacuate the British Military Missions as the Red Army overran the ports there and for the first time he became aware of the importance of good communications.

In 1922 Delve left the Navy, and joined the Brighton Fire Brigade. By 1929 he had passed a series of technical examinations with distinction, been commended for two particularly courageous rescues and promoted at the age of 27 to Second Officer - the youngest in Britain. He moved to the prestigious Croydon Fire Brigade as Chief Officer in 1934 and under his leadership they became the first in the country to install radio communications between all appliances and HQ.

It was from Croydon that he led his brigade to the legendary Crystal Palace fire in 1936. There, he said, "for the first time I saw firemen turning their brass helmets back to front to protect their faces from the searing heat." It was there too that he developed the skill which was to become vitally important during the Blitz, of relaying hose over long distances and, if necessary, uphill from the water sources to the fires.

Delve was one of a small group of young, dedicated senior fire officers who had been pressing the Government to take seriously the threat of firebombing in any future war. It was not until after the air attack on civilians in Guernica during the Spanish Civil War that, in 1937, the Home Office set up a committee, on which Delve served, to advise on changes in the fire service in Britain which, at that time, comprised more than 1,660 different brigades, most with equipment incompatible with neighbouring forces. The ensuing Fire Brigade Act of 1938 established the Auxiliary Fire Service and, for the first time, admitted women to the brigades.

As war started he became Deputy Inspector-in-Chief of Fire Services and when the enemy began their saturation raids on Britain's cities he travelled to their aid with help, advice and, if necessary, support from neighbouring brigades or the armed services.

The heroism of the Blitz firefighters could not hide the deficiencies of their equipment and organisation and Delve was, again, among those who persuaded the Government to establish the National Fire Service in 1942. Soon afterwards he was appointed Chief Officer of No 5 Region - the whole London area including its 70 craft of the River Thames Formation which he delighted in equipping with radio-communication. It was to prove essential in their work protecting the fleet of support vessels which packed the Thames Estuary, laden with explosives and ammunition, awaiting D-Day.

When the RAF began their intensive campaign against enemy cities, Delve was among the fire chiefs who advised on how to achieve optimum results from fire bombing. Soon he was protecting London from the onslaught of V1 and V2 rockets.

After the war, when the NFS was disbanded, Delve remained in London as Chief Officer of the re-formed London Fire Brigade where he dealt with the many new problems, including tower blocks, increasingly difficult traffic accidents and the dangers of moving hazardous materials across the capital. He replaced the old street fire alarm posts with the "999" system, modernised the fleet of fire appliances and began a rebuilding scheme for fire stations.

He was the first Chief Officer of the LFB to be knighted in office and, on his retirement in 1962, joined the board of Securicor. He never ceased to grieve for his wife, who died after 56 years of happy marriage.

Sally Holloway

Frederick William Delve, fire officer: born 28 October 1902; Chief Officer, Croydon Fire Brigade 1934-41; Deputy Inspector in Chief, National Fire Service 1941-43; CBE 1942; Chief Officer, London Fire Brigade 1948-62; Kt 1962; married 1924 Ethel Morden (died 1980); died 2 October 1995.

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