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Fire from the sky: Sarnia firefighters part of nearly forgotten chapter from the Second World War

Published on

Phil Egan

A lesser-known story from the Second World War has an interesting Sarnia connection.

C.F. (Charlie) Jennings was a Sarnia firefighter who enlisted in a special unit known as the Corps of Canadian Fire Fighters, comprised of 406 men who fought fires in England.

The Corps was formed in response to the German Blitz, which was designed to break the morale of the British people. The massive aerial bombardment targeted 16 cities and killed 40,000 people – almost half of them in London, where more than one million homes were destroyed or damaged. Britain’s National Fire Service needed help.

British war Prime Minister Winston Churchill looked to the dominions for help, and Canadian leader William Lyon Mackenzie King responded. Recruitment for the Corps of Canadian Fire Fighters had begun by March of 1942

Drawn from 107 communities, the Corps was trained in Ottawa and deployed to England later that year under the command of G.E. Huff, the former Brantford fire chief.

Sarnia’s Charlie Jennings had been a wheelsman aboard the Northern Navigation Great Lakes ships prior to joining the Sarnia Fire Department. Together with C. Taylor and S.W. Boulton of Sarnia, Jennings signed up for the Corps.

The Canadians were posted to six fire stations: two in Southampton, two in Portsmouth, and one each in Plymouth and Bristol. The Corps suffered three fatalities between 1942-1945 as they fought domestic fires and those caused by the phosphorus bombs dropped in German air raids.

Today, few Canadians know the story of the Corps of Canadian Fire Fighters – men who bravely answered the call of their beleaguered brother firefighters in England. A recent book by John Leete titled, Under Fire, Britain’s Fire Service at War, helps to tell their story.

After his service with the Corps, Charlie Jennings returned to the Sarnia Fire Department and rose to the rank of Assistant Chief. Jennings walked to work every day from his home at 214 Napier St. He died at the age of 83 and was buried from Parker Street United Church.

His sons Tom and Fred still live in the city. Tom, now 90, was a platoon chief with the Sarnia Fire Department. Fred, age 84, spent 22 years with Catalytic.

Fred Jennings still has one of the big Sarnia Fire Department fire bells left by his father. Chrome-plated, it later saw service as the bell used at wrestling and boxing matches at the old Kenwick Terrace, once located near the corner of Christina and George Streets.

The bell, an old Sarnia alarm box, C.F. Jennings’ uniform hat and gloves, and a plaque honouring the Corps of Canadian Fire Fighters, can be found on the Sarnia Historical Society website.

 

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