This may seem, to those not fortunate enough to live in Great Britain, a most unusual solution to perhaps the most extreme problem a country could have: how to prepare for the effects of nuclear war?
Ahead of the Second World War, the UK government established an Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS), outside the regular county-based fire services. The reasoning was that the AFS would be able to supplement the local fire brigades in the event of major fires and civil emergencies, including those arising from bombing raids.
After the war, the AFS was maintained in a slightly changed form. In principle, a column of up to 144 vehicles could be deployed as required to assist a local service. Initially, wartime vehicles were used, but from the mid-1950s purpose-built vehicles were being procured.
The main one of these, and the only one anyone can remember, was the Bedford RL Type, officially known as the RLHZ Self Propelled Pump. Bedford was GM’s UK based truck builder, part of Vauxhall, and named after the county town of Bedfordshire, Vauxhall’s home since 1908. In total, over 3000 were built between 1953 and 1958, with bodywork from one of 10 or more UK bodybuilders. Around 1300 were two wheel drive; 1800 were four wheel drive.
The Bedford RL type also had a distinguished military history as a regular truck for the 101 uses the military have for such vehicles, and was offered to the civilian market as well.
The RL was built as a military version of the SCL truck, which shared all the visual elements of the chassis and cab, but lacked the big wheels for good ground clearance. Many RL, though not all the fire pumps, were built with four wheel drive also. Power came from a petrol 4.9 litre straight six, though some were also built with diesel engines. The fire pump was always petrol powered.
In the special language of professions such as police officers, the fire service and the like, there is no space for the term “fire engine”. This was an “appliance”, technically a “self propelled pump”, and its main role was to provide additional water, from a river or lake for example, for other teams to use. Some RLHZ were equipped with the necessary hoses and nozzles to provide the necessary varying flow patterns needed for specific situations.
The main pump was capable of moving something like 1000 gallons (full size Imperial ones, of course) a minute using a Coventry Climax engine, not unrelated to the one in the Hillman Imp. The appliance itself carried up to 400 gallons of water, although the lack of baffles in the tank led to some unfortunate side effects when answering the emergency call.
The Green Goddess carried a crew of six – a driver, a vehicle commander and four crew members in what looks now to be a very spartan and basic cab.
The AFS and the associated Civil Defence Force were stood down in 1968: either the likelihood of nuclear war had faded or the regular fire services were judged as able to cope. Many of the vehicles were sold off and some broken for spares, but a large number were mothballed, though, just in case.
In 1977, the staff in the local fire brigades went on strike (that wonderful euphemism “industrial action”), and the Green Goddesses were called upon, staffed by the Army, to provide the necessary fire and rescue service. This happened again in 2003.
On both occasions, possibly as a short hand, the media identified the Green Goddess appliances as having been retained by the government for use in the event of nuclear attack. Such shorthand often sticks, even if it is potentially inaccurate or incomplete.
The appliances were also used in other civil emergencies, noticeably flooding where their pumping capability was vital, again operated by military personnel.
Over the years, various modification processes had been completed, ranging from such basics as flashing indicators and more modern taillights to current standard flashing beacons and sirens, to replace the hand rung bell.
Over 1000 were still in service in 2005, and many had just a few thousand miles on the clock, when the appliances were finally retired, and a sell off process was undertaken. Many, such as this well cared for example, went into private hands and collections; many were sold into the third world countries as fire appliances and as water pumps. Some were also passed through charitable organisations into the third world.
Even now, many people will recognise the affectionate nickname of the Green Goddess. And that they were Britain’s last line of defence to nuclear attack.