The recent terrible and tragic events in London are, at the time of writing, recognised collectively as the worst terrorist outrage against a resident population in mainland Britain during peacetime. Previously the West Midlands had shouldered this statistical burden for over thirty years. This personal eyewitness account provides an exclusive and unique insight into the role of the Brigade during the aftermath of those earlier terrorist acts.
On the night of 21st November 1974 the Brigade attended two separate incidents in the city centre of Birmingham that occurred within minutes of each other. The first was at the Mulberry Bush situated at the base of the Rotunda. The second occurred some 150 metres away in the basement of the Tavern in the Town and was by its nature the more demanding of the two. These incidents became known as the Birmingham pub bombings. 21 people were killed and around 200 received injuries that required urgent hospital treatment. Many others declined treatment.
I attended the incident at the Tavern in the Town as an operational fireman. Due to circumstances at the time I am in the unfortunate position of being able to provide a unique and detailed account of some of the events of that night.
The West Midlands Fire Service had been formed some eight months earlier and comprised eight new divisions. During that time little had changed at Highgate Fire Station. The Station designation had changed from 5 to B5. A new cap badge, helmet transfer, a set of reefer buttons and a set of tunic buttons had been issued to each individual. Uniformed personnel were re-numbered from 2000 upwards to avoid confusion with old brigade numbers. The highest Birmingham Fire and Ambulance Service number at the changeover had been around the1950 mark. The new numbers issued reflected length of service. My number had changed from 1782 to 3331. The appliances remained unchanged, except for the station designation tallies and a large oblong piece of sticky backed plastic with the words ‘West Midlands Fire Service’ that covered ‘City of Birmingham’ and the coat of arms. All the emergency ambulances had been removed from Birmingham fire stations, including Highgate, at re-organisation, and transferred to the NHS. There were still a number of teething problems with mobilising to larger incidents, caused in the main by too many fire controls, radio channels, and divisions. As a consequence some divisions remained insular.
Most of the Brigade was on the three watch system with each watch on a 56 hour week. The Fire Brigades Union had recently banned pre-arranged overtime in an attempt to improve pay and conditions. Previously, the Brigade had allowed a maximum 24 hours overtime each week. The financial hardship caused by the overtime ban had resulted in the loss of operational personnel and was causing manning shortages throughout the Brigade. It was becoming a rarity to have more than four riders on any pumping appliance and was not unusual for appliances to be off the run due to insufficient manning. The rates of pay would get worse before they got better. In less than three years I would find myself as a Station Officer standing on the picket line outside Smethwick Fire Station in Rolfe Street at the start of what would be a long and bitter national fireman’s strike over pay.
At 1800 hours on that cold, dark, Thursday evening, Red Watch reported for duty at Highgate Fire Station. The Pump crew consisted of Sub Officer John Frayne [Officer in Charge], Fireman Alan Hill [Driver], Fireman Nigel Brown and Fireman Martin Checkley. John Frayne at the age of 29 was the oldest member of the crew.
The Pump at Highgate was known as the ‘Pink Panther’ because it had been given an expensive respray in an experimental day-glow pink. It was a 1972 Dennis F48, registration number BOM 878K. Designed to carry the weight of a wheeled escape ladder, it was powered by a Rolls Royce straight eight petrol engine with manual gearbox. It was fast, powerful, reliable, and of course, highly visible.
During the first couple of hours of the shift, Highgate’s Pump had responded to two calls on the station area. The second call was to a bomb incident along Stratford Road, Sparkhill. This type of incident was not uncommon at the time but had become more frequent over preceding weeks. Whilst returning to station from this last incident, we were instructed to attend Station A1 Central for standby duty. It was around 2020 hours and the first call to the bombing at the Mulberry Bush had been made.
Within a short time we had driven through the front gates and into the 1st Pump Escape (PE) bay at Central and booked on station. Seconds later, we were mobilised to make up at the Mulberry Bush which was situated at the base of the Rotunda in the city centre. It came as no surprise because we had listened in to the assistance and informative messages as we approached Central.
We turned out of Central and were confronted with a total gridlock situation around Lancaster Circus, Masshouse Circus and St Chad’s Circus. The only viable alternative was a reverse run against heavy traffic down the full length of Corporation Street and along the lower end of New Street towards the Rotunda. Aggressively forcing the two lanes of oncoming traffic apart caused little problem on the journey down Corporation Street. The heavy traffic moved onto the pavements to allow me access. At the bottom of Corporation Street, I cautiously turned left in case of oncoming traffic into New Street. As I turned, I braked and focused on a surreal scene that was unfolding in the darkness around us. We were mentally prepared for an unpleasant incident at the Mulberry Bush but this situation caught the four of us completely by surprise.
A bomb had exploded only moments before our arrival in the Tavern in the Town public house, which was situated in a basement beneath King Edward House. Dust was billowing out from the remains of the television shop frontage directly above the basement. There was a crowd of about 100 people in the roadway and on the pavement in and around Union passage opposite.
In those first seconds, I saw few movements. There were hardly any from the crowd, many of whom had been knocked to the floor and stunned by the effects of the blast. A double decker bus was partially blocking the road in front of me. It seemed to have just left the bus stop up from the Odeon Cinema on its way to Kingstanding. The bus appeared to have been badly damaged by the blast and was stationary at an angle from the pavement. A couple of people were staggering around in the road alongside it. Two young police officers were making their way past the Odeon towards the Tavern trying to take in the situation. They both seemed oblivious to our sudden arrival on the scene. The only other movement I can recall is the brief appearance of a white fire helmet looking around from Worcester Street behind the Rotunda, then disappearing on seeing the Pump arrive.
Sub Officer Frayne looked at me and said ‘I think it best if we stop here, don’t you’. I nodded and drove over the carpet of broken glass and pulled up directly in front of where the entrance to the Tavern in the Town used to exist. John said firmly and clearly ‘right, let’s get stuck in’. This galvanized the four of us into immediate action. He told me to inform Fire Control of the situation and send an assistance message. Nigel and Martin were told to run out the hosereel and remove the searchlight from the top of the rear of the appliance.
As the appliance doors opened, it seemed as if every alarm was ringing in the city centre and it was difficult to hear yourself think. It would be hours before they could all be silenced. The crowd began to recover and displayed a range of emotions. People were screaming and crying; many were seriously injured and were being tended by the less seriously injured. Individuals started to shout warnings that another bomb was on the premises. Others were shouting in anger against the outrage.
The crew entered the basement with the searchlight, trying to peer through the darkness and clouds of dust. The images and screams amongst the devastation and rubble would remain forever in the minds of the crew and the two young Police officers who witnessed the scene.
Requesting radio priority, I informed Fire Control that we were unable to proceed to the incident at the Mulberry Bush together with the exact nature and location of the new incident. This radio message turned out to be the first call to Fire Control and the other emergency services that this second incident had occurred.
I knew the building well, having erected scaffolding at the rear some years previously, and so had some idea of access and the basement floor area. Consideration was given to the stability and structural damage to supporting walls and floors in view of the eight floors above. There were no visible external cracks on the front of the building. There was a probability of airborne asbestos fibres due to the nature of the incident and age of the building. Finally, there was the possibility of a secondary explosive device. The casualties’ needs would override these considerations. The incident appeared to be basically a major search and rescue operation with a couple of small pockets of fire and a large number of casualties.
After a quick, rough head count of the casualties, I allowed up to four casualties to each ambulance. I then decided to make pumps five and request forty ambulances. There were probably less than ten red (emergency) ambulances on duty throughout the City at that time of a thursday evening. Taking into account other demands on their services, we would be fortunate if even three managed to attend the incident. That, however, was not my problem. Fire Control asked me to confirm that I had requested four zero, forty ambulances. I confirmed and the radio fell silent.
John had meanwhile assessed the full extent of the situation within the basement and realized that we could not wait for assistance to arrive, otherwise there would be greater loss of life from those victims suffering some appalling injuries.
John walked across to the crowd on the pavement opposite and requested assistance from any male who felt fit and able to assist in the rescue. His positive, calm, confident approach resulted in a number of individuals stepping forward without hesitation or regard for their own safety. Teams of volunteers were then quickly established under the leadership of John, Nigel and Martin, who then re-entered the basement.
Doors, tabletops and planking were used as makeshift stretchers by the teams to remove the critically injured to the relative safety of the pavement to await the arrival of ambulances. This was a difficult, demanding and distressing task for all those concerned. The large first aid box carried on the appliance was quickly exhausted.
Divisional Officer Newby from A Division, who was off duty and without his fire kit, then appeared at the scene. He had been dining at a local hotel, had heard the Pump arrive and decided to investigate. He managed to locate John and gave him encouragement and support. He then came over to me and asked me to update him on the situation and the messages I had sent. I informed him of the incident at the Mulberry Bush of which he was unaware. He asked if I would mind taking command of the Pump as the incident Control Unit and to drive it away in the likely event of a second explosion. He then walked off towards the Mulberry Bush. Trying to recall what a Control Unit was supposed to do, I grabbed the notepad and pulled the pencil off the string from the front of the cab and switched the blue lights back on. This was to indicate the appliance was the Control Unit in accordance with Standing Orders. I then informed Fire Control. I would have preferred to have got on a bus and gone home.
By now the large crowd was naturally starting to become increasingly concerned for the welfare of the injured. People continued to approach me on a number of occasions regarding the lack of ambulances. I assured them that ambulances were on the way, but delayed because of traffic. I asked them to look after the casualties as best they could until additional assistance arrived. There was little more I could do for them at that stage other than remain calm.
I was approached by a taxi driver who recognised me. He was on the rank around the corner in Stephenson Place and had been asked by an injured couple to convey them to hospital. He asked if he was allowed to do this and if so, did I need their personal details. I told him to carry on and not to worry. Then suddenly it dawned on me. Having worked as a taxicab driver in the city since 1969, I knew that the Taxi Owners Association (T.O.A.) had a superb radio system and that other cabs may still be in the city centre. I called after him and asked him if he could call T.O.A. control in Tindal Street on his radio and ask for assistance at the scene from any available cabs. He ran back to me and confirmed that cabs were on their way round to assist.
Trains into New Street Station had been stopped from arriving because of the bombings. This had caused a build up of cabs on the rank in the concourse at the station. In minutes, every available cab had travelled the 300 metres from the station, passing the Mulberry Bush, around the Rotunda and into New Street, forming a queue to the incident. The cab drivers were asked to split the casualties between the Accident Hospital and the General Hospital if possible. With military precision, as each cab left the scene, they did so by turning right into Corporation Street to the General or left into Stephenson Place to the Accident.
Shortly afterwards the Pump from Station B2 Bordesley Green pulled up in front of me with Sub Officer Gunter in charge. The Pump crew from Station D1 Ladywood arrived on foot a few minutes later after being delayed by traffic. It was a relief to have three fire crews in attendance. We now also had additional emergency lighting, salvage sheets, burn sheets, first aid and resuscitation equipment.
Many of the cabs continued to return to the scene to give further assistance in removing casualties and to take home those who had declined hospital treatment.
With up to five seriously injured people and their carers into every available cab, a basic triage system had been established. The critically injured remained at the ambulance collection point that had been established on the pavement waiting for the ambulances. The remains of the deceased were being carried out of the basement in salvage sheets. The bodies were placed beneath salvage sheets and kept out of view in an area set aside on the pavement alongside the Pump. At this stage the only emotion being shown by the crews was anger at the appalling outrage carried out against innocent young people.
Thanks to the efforts of the taxi drivers the large crowd had reduced dramatically. However, there was still a number of critically injured requiring an ambulance. Thinking that the delay in the ambulances arriving was because of the traffic conditions around the city centre, I beckoned three young men across from the pavement opposite. I intended to give them a large axe to break into British Home Stores up the street and collect bedding and towels from the basement. At that point four ambulances arrived on the scene so I changed my mind. Thanks to the earlier efforts of the taxi drivers, the ambulance crews now had clear access to the critically injured lying on the pavement. Had the ambulances arrived first, it would have been likely that the crews would have been overwhelmed by the number seeking hospital treatment.
The reason for this timely delay was explained to me later in the evening by one of the ambulance crews I knew at the incident. Apparently, all available ambulances had been arriving via Smallbrook Ringway. They were all being directed in and stacked up along the ringway from Worcester Street by fire crews at the Mulberry Bush. The fire crews were unaware that some of the ambulances had been mobilised to the incident at the Tavern. The ambulances were ferrying the injured from the Mulberry Bush to The Accident Hospital via Holloway Head. They then returned to the scene at the Mulberry Bush. After a couple of journeys they assumed that the ‘New Street incident’ was the Mulberry Bush. This was the first incident that they had come across. It was a taxi driver returning from the Accident Hospital, shouting that they were needed around the corner at the Tavern that had alerted them. They in turn informed the officer in charge at the Mulberry Bush. He released a couple of spare fire crews who walked round to give general assistance.
I had requested the attendance of the Midland Electricity Board early on in the incident. One of the reasons for this was that some of the victims had been blown through a brick wall into an area beneath the main front entrance to King Edward House. The remains of the unfortunate victims were wedged between the rubble and the main underground electric cables that supplied the city centre. The cables were live and the insulation damaged. The floor inside the entrance then collapsed in on top of them. It was impossible to reach them until the power could be isolated. This proved to be a complex task for the electrical engineers. They had to divert the supply from other areas of the city centre before the cables could be made safe. This operation took some three hours to complete.
Meanwhile, the rest of the casualties had now been removed from the scene. Arrangements were made for collection of the deceased who were to be taken to the mortuary at Newton Street. The remains were still hidden from view of the cameras by the Pump. It was decided that the best course of action would be for me to drive the Pump slowly out and alongside the Pump from Bordesley Green. Simultaneously, an ambulance would reverse across the roadway into the space with its doors open. Then when it was full we would reverse the procedure. This was to provide a screen to protect the scene from the public gaze. This manoeuvre would be carried out on three occasions. Film footage of the time shows the Pump pulling out into position. The filming ceased when the film crew realised what we were attempting to achieve.
Shortly afterwards a junior officer brought across a local fast food shop owner. He wanted to know how many personnel were at the scene. He had been watching the situation on television and wanted to help by providing the fire crews with hot food for free. I checked the number from the crew boards and he went off and reappeared some minutes later with a young assistant carrying two boxes of individually wrapped portions of pie and chips. These were placed on the pavement behind the Pump. The food was discretely distributed and consumed out of sight.
Additional lighting and generators requested earlier had arrived and were set up in the basement. A fingertip search of the area was then carried out. During this search a suspect briefcase was found near the front of the basement. Someone shouted that they had found what appeared to be another bomb. By this time everyone was getting tired and nerves were becoming frayed, so it was no surprise that the evacuation was completed in seconds. I informed Fire Control about the suspect package, grabbed the roll boards, abandoned the Pump contrary to earlier instructions, and ran around the corner into the safety of Corporation Street. There I was surprised to find I was in the queue for a welcome and much needed cup of tea provided by two kindly ladies from the Salvation Army.
Bomb disposal were soon on the scene to investigate the briefcase. They were already at Steelhouse Lane Police Station after dealing with an earlier bomb incident at Five Ways. They had with them a small tracked robot vehicle that was remotely controlled through a long umbilical cord. The little vehicle moved slowly along the pavement. It carefully took up position on the edge of the open basement to look around with its onboard camera for the briefcase. Much to the amusement of the crews it provided some light relief as it toppled in. A bomb disposal officer then entered the basement and declared the briefcase safe. John meanwhile was across the road on the corner of Stephenson Place with a couple of other junior officers and a senior fire officer who had arrived before bomb disposal. They were talking to a group of what looked like plain clothes police officers and a senior uniformed police officer. We were all slightly bemused when a car with a young man hanging across its roof then sped round the corner in an attempt to flee the scene. Even more so when police attempted to pursue it on foot.
After waiting around for thirty minutes the adrenalin had faded and the sense of urgency diminished. It was decided that the incident could now be scaled down to two pumps. Relief crews would be arranged as soon as practicable. A fresh pump crew from Central arrived for relief duties and the crews from Bordesley Green and Ladywood returned to their home stations. Fire Control then instructed Highgates Pump to return to Central for standby duty. I turned the Pump around in New Street, headed off up Corporation Street and again drove back into the 1st. PE bay at Central. It was around midnight and John went to book on station. Before the rest of us could get off the Pump the bells went down and John returned with a mobilising slip. John jumped aboard the Pump, where to now I asked, back to the Tavern to relieve ourselves he replied. All four of us did try to raise a smile.
This time the roads were empty and the city centre quiet. Within a minute or so, we had booked back in attendance at the Tavern as the relief crew. The underground power cables had just been isolated by the engineers. The crew from Central was busy removing the rubble in an attempt to remove the last two remaining bodies from beneath the cables. We assisted in the extrication which took about twenty minutes. The final body recovered was wrapped and lifted across the shoulders of a fireman from Central. He then climbed the ladder to ground level and placed it in the waiting ambulance. John then spent some time with a police forensic team who had arrived on the scene. He booked the incident correct in charge of police with a further visit to be made at first light and both appliances returned to their home stations.
Back at Highgate the Pump was checked, refuelled and placed back on the run. We all crashed out for a couple of hours until we were required to return to the Tavern at around 0630. Back at the Tavern I remained with the Pump while John, Nigel and Martin noted all of the dimensions together with internal and external collateral damage. This information would be needed to complete the K433 fire report and narrative that John would be required to type out with one finger and submit. Sitting alone at first light in a deserted New Street, it was difficult to imagine the traumatic scenes witnessed just a few hours before. I reflected on the fact that so many peoples lives had suddenly changed forever. Street sweepers and emergency glaziers then started to arrive to tidy up and sanitise New Street. John finally closed the incident and left it correct in charge of the police at about 0730, some eleven hours after we had first arrived. We were back on station at 0800 just in time for a cooked breakfast before washing off our fire kit and hanging it up in the drying room prior to the watch change at 0900. The £10 that we would each be paid for that 15 hour night shift had been well earned.
This is my personal recollection of the events of that night and because of the passage of time, remains incomplete and will need input from others. There was never any form of debrief and the incident was rarely discussed. Apart from an occasion three months later, when the crews were presented to Her Majesty the Queen in the committee room at Headquarters. In common with most incidents of this nature some aspects will never be spoken of. However, I feel sure that everyone who witnessed that night has continued to share the pain and suffering of the innocent victims and their families over the past thirty years.
The West Midlands Fire Service remained in complete charge of the incident throughout. Command and control by Sub Officer John Frayne and the three other junior officers from Bordesley Green and Ladywood, who between them had over ninety years of operational experience, was exemplary despite difficult and traumatic conditions. The operational performance and efficiency of all the crews was outstanding. It could be argued that this was, in part, attributable to the unusually short lines of command. The incident certainly brought into focus the question of rank, role, and responsibility. Many critically injured people survived because of John’s leadership, character, and initiative, particularly during those crucial first few minutes after arrival. Typically, John’s role at the Tavern in the Town was never officially recognized.
The Birmingham pub bombings resulted in Parliament introducing the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 1974, within a matter of days. Since then, millions of pounds have been spent on emergency planning to prepare for major terrorist incidents such as this. It would be interesting to see how this particular incident would be approached today by a crew of four firefighters given similar circumstances.
Some years later, as a deputy chief officer, I attended a national seminar. One of the speakers was a Home Office adviser talking about computer modelling in regard to emergency planning at major incidents. He invited suggestions for a realistic scenario to support his theory. After the usual embarrassing silence, I kindly provided an outline of the situation at the Tavern without mentioning names or details. He looked at me with surprise and said “thank you, but can we keep it real. Has anyone any sensible suggestions?” I smiled to myself and said nothing.
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Near the bottom of the staircase in the basement of the Tavern in the Town.
The blast damaged and abandoned bus in New Street near the Odeon Cinema.
(Pictures courtesy of Express and Star)
This account, by its nature, remains incomplete. If you were a member of the emergency services, a taxi driver or a volunteer, who attended the Birmingham pub bombings and are able to make a contribution please email Birmingham999@yahoo.co.uk giving your Brigade number, Ambulance number, Police collar number or Hackney Carriage Badge number.
Contributions will be incorporated into this website only with the permission of the authors.
All accounts of the role of the emergency services and others during the aftermath of the bombings will be incorporated into a portfolio and forwarded as a historical reference to the local history section of the City of Birmingham Central Library. Contribute now because time is running out.