The night the Sergeants' Quarters went up in smoke!

Tony Northan

A memorable event that happened when I was NCO in charge of a duty fire picquet in Le Cateau Lines, Catterick sometime between 1956-58

Aged twenty I'd started my two-year deferred stint as a National Serviceman with the Royal Signals at Catterick in October 1956. After four weeks' square-bashing with 8 Troop, 7th Training Regiment [see image here - Mike G] in Vimy Lines those of us being moved to 2nd Training Regiment for eight weeks' trade training were marched the short distance down the road to Le Cateau Lines where, after the two months' were up, I was retained as an NCO Draughtsman Instructor for the rest of my time in service. So the previous five years I'd spent as a full-time student at Luton & Hornsey Schools of Art weren't entirely wasted!

A chore that came round regularly for those with one or two stripes was a weeks' duty in charge of the lines' fire picquet which involved moving one's kit and caboodle to an empty WW1 barrack room set aside for the purpose. The NCO was joined there by a motley crew detailed from the ranks of the trade trainees to 'man the pumps' for that week. The chosen half-dozen or so always seemed less than enthusiastic but I took it as a challenge and tried to make the best of it.

The fire-fighting 'vehicle' at our disposal was hardly state-of-the-art being a wooden cart-like contraption with two 4' diameter spoked cartwheels on a 3' wide axle. The canvas water hose was stowed flat wrapped around the full width of the axle supported above which was a 3' wide, narrow, shallow, lidded box which contained only three items; a brass standpipe, iron key and bar. In use at the scene the bottom end of the 3' long standpipe was screwed onto the nearest underground water-main hydrant while connected to its top end by a brass coupling was the non-nozzle end of the water hose. The 3' long key went down t'hole to fit the tongue on the on/off water valve next to the hydrant and the short iron bar was fitted horizontally through the oval loop at the top of the key and turned with both hands to open and close the valve and control the flow of water. Propulsion for the cart was provided by a couple of galloping fire picquet hanging-on to the cart's long T-shaped wooden handle.

On the night of the event it was getting dark and to make matters worse it was blowing a bit of a gale. The picquet, always on-call of course, were flat-out on beds engaged in various leisure activities; reading comics, stuffing their faces, playing cards or giving ear to Radio Luxembourg. Others perhaps were writing letters the envelopes for which would probably have added to them the letters B.U.R.M.A. or some other such acronym being a coded salacious instruction to the writer's beloved as to the compliance expected of her upon her hero's return home next leave!

Raised voices shouting outside arrived indoors with us via two breathless lads who burst in with the news that the WW1 barrack room at the bottom of the hill, containing the individual bunkrooms of the lines' unmarried Sergeants, was ablaze! This news had no effect whatsoever in stirring the relaxing crowd who, assuming it to be a wind-up, voiced various colourful suggestions in the general direction of the heralds as to just what they could do with their urgent call-to-arms. I well remember one wit, probably having suffered at the hands of the aforesaid three-stripers, advised the newsbearers to return to the conflagration and either fan it or throw petrol at it, the latter being the preferred option. This only caused the informant pair to fairly dance up and down in frustration at not being taken seriously

In due course and to humour them we drifted casually outside and were indeed met with the sight of the Sergeants' accommodation 150 yards down the hill going up in smoke. As the official Camp Fire Brigade was based some way off - I forget where - the purpose of a fire picquet detail was to try to delay the progression of any fire incident until the professionals could get there. I immediately sent one lad racing-off to the nearby guardroom to put the call through while the rest of the picquet, regardless of its various stages of undress and now fired-up with enthusiasm and the promise of a real live fire on which to practice, grabbed the cart from its parking spot and hared-off down the hill in the darkness at breakneck speed. For one picquet at least the rare chance to cover itself in glory by actually fighting a real fire was too good to miss.

Within seconds the contraption screeched to a halt with the box lid already being thrown open in haste to get at the three vital bits of equipment. But we were in for a was EMPTY! In such circumstances to say we were speechless is an understatement. Like the lost in the desert we needed water urgently so the only alternative was to despatch several lads to nearby barrack rooms to commandeer the obligatory in-situ stirrup-pump and three fire buckets. The thin pulses of water that emanate from the nozzle of these things as the pump-handle is pushed up and down is pathetic to behold and worse than useless. Waiting for buckets to fill was just as frustrating but by now at least sightseers alerted by the commotion were arriving from every direction to help so we were not alone. Bucket chains and stirrup-pumps were all we had to quell a blaze that, due to being fanned by the strong winds, was quickly becoming out of control. Thankfully, and much to my relief, it was not too long before the Camp Fire Brigade put in an appearance.

The barrack room - built for WW1 with a brick shell, solid wood floor and doors - had been converted to contain a number of private bunk rooms with walls consisting of a wooden sub-frame covered with tongue and groove boarding and plywood doors. All this would have been decorated with layers of oil paint so the combination provided a good collection of combustible materials guaranteed to foster a speedy and rampant blaze.

Inevitably I was required to submit a report on the fiasco and I recall that the subsequent investigations and inquiry by the powers-that-be exonerated the picquet and yours truly its commander and also established the reason for the equipment being missing. Apparently, those naughty blokes from the nearby M.T. section (situated - for those who may remember - adjacent to the Training Spider and Officers' Mess) had without informing anyone 'borrowed' the three vital bits of equipment from our cart for the purpose of washing-down the concrete floor of their vehicle shed!

I've no doubt the head of someone in the M.T. department rolled for that one! Had the now possession-less victims of the blaze had any say in the matter so too would another few anatomically-personal bits and bobs as well!

Tony Northan, 8th May 2011