The largest single loss of firefighters in British history did not happen while fighting a fire but when a Luftwaffe bomb landed on a school that was being used as an auxiliary fire station during the Second World War.
The German bomb landed on an Auxiliary Fire Service sub station housed at Old Palace School in Poplar, killing 34 firefighters.
That night the fire crews were on standby, waiting to be called out to the latest area to be devastated by the bombing, not knowing they were the ones who would be hit. The landmine dropped onto the roof of the school and fell down a stairwell into the watch room, killing two firewomen – Hilda Dupress and Winifred Peters, who were on watch room duty – outright.
The firemen waiting outside were caught by the blast that demolished two thirds of the building and buried them under a mountain of fallen masonry. So swift was the death and destruction that, by the time the overstretched rescue services arrived, there was nobody to save.
A plaque has been erected at Lansbury Lawrence Primary School on the site of the old school. It reads: “In memory of the 13 London firemen and women and 21 Beckenham firemen killed on the night of 19th April 1941 when a bomb destroyed the old school being used as a sub-fire station.
This is the largest single loss of Fire Brigade personnel in English history. Details of this tragic incident were recorded in the wartime diaries of Mr W. Somerville, an off duty member of the Homerton crew. It is to him and the many thousands of men and women that made up the A.F.S. and N.F.S. 1939-1945 that this plaque is also dedicated.”