Margaret Knowles Murdoch Begbie, 1918 - 2004                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

The following account of Margaret (Daisy) Begbie’s wartime service in the National Fire Service was written by herself and appears below unedited. Margaret is included due to her experience of the Fernieness crash and, I suspect, she often worked throughout East Lothian.


“This is a short story about my time spent in the National Fire Service during WWII. I joined in February, 1941 when I was twenty-two years old. I had to do six weeks training as a driver. But, as I could drive, as well as being a heavy vehicle driver, this was no bother.


After passing the test I was posted to my station. I was only a few weeks there when a memo arrived stating that a motorbike test was being made possible for women as well as men. I immediately put down my name, much against my mother’s judgement, as she was horrified. However, I passed as a dispatch rider and was sent to another station. My duties included taking mail from Coillesdene House at Joppa, where I was stationed, to the Headquarters in Leith. It was exciting zooming along on a bike. Attached to our division were three women dispatch riders. It was part of our daily routine at the station to clean the fire engines and bikes, which had to be in perfect working order with chrome gleaming.


Posted to Musselburgh


A few months later, they wanted a driver/dispatch rider for the station in Musselburgh, where I lived. I was there for four and a half years. I enjoyed being stationed in Musselburgh as we were on call to a big variety of jobs. But, at first, I didn’t like walking to the Fire Station because I had to pass some of the mills in the town. There were often mill workers standing around outside and they would shout things at me as I went by because I wore trousers and they thought this was terrible.


The Esk flooding


When the sirens went my sister Mary, who was in the police, and I would throw on our uniforms and rush to our stations buttoning clothes as we ran. You never knew how long it would be before you saw your front door again. I remember one time when the sirens went during the night. It had been very heavy rain all the day before and [it became] more torrential then ever as we hurried through the darkness. There were puddles everywhere. We were soaked when we reached our stations, especially our feet. It was only when the All Clear sounded and we went home as dawn broke, that we realised the River Esk had burst its banks and what we thought were puddles had been flood water.


When the crews went to jobs, I was either the driver or a dispatch rider leading the machine to where the fire was. We were on call day and night. There were many farm fires and it could be very difficult getting engines along some of the narrow farm roads with hedges on either side. Sometimes when you arrived you couldn’t get enough water due to low pressure or accessibility and the fires raged out of control.


The ‘Alien’ Dispatch Rider


Sometimes there could be funny moments too. I remember being called to a major fire where a lot of Canadian lumberjacks were working. It was quite far from our station and no one was sure where exactly it was. As I was the driver’s mate that day, when we came across an isolated cottage in the country, I got out to ask for help. I had on my helmet and gas mask. When the door was opened, the elderly lady was petrified and began screaming. She must have thought I was an alien from outer space and chased me with a broom before slamming her door! I had no luck until we came across a little corner shop in a small village. But this time, I took off my mask. Soon we were on the right road. The fire was raging and we were there for six hours before we had it under control.


Salvation Army


When we were at fires that lasted for hours, the Salvation Army would often appear and make soup from the plants at the side of the road, like nettles. It tasted so good when you were hungry. There were many times when we were so thankful to see them arriving because we knew that they would make us something to eat and we would get hot cups of tea.


Ferny Ness crash


But, sometimes, a job would leave us with great sadness. On this particular occasion we had a call to go down the coast to Gosford Bay near Longniddry. There had been a bus carrying young naval cadets which had been bombed near Ferny Ness*. I was driving the fire engine that day. It was one of the saddest sights I’ve ever seen. I can still see it yet as if it were yesterday. The twisted mangled bus and broken torn bodies everywhere, some hardly recognisable as having been young men - just bits. The sobs and groans and the sudden screams of pain piercing the terrible silence will always be in my head. Many of the injured did not survive and it was really just trying to make them as comfortable as possible and holding their hands or stroking their cheeks until they died. This was one of my saddest jobs but I knew it had to be done. There was no joking that day as we returned to the station. Like other incidents in the war, this one, for some reason, just seemed to vanish from the records as if it had never happened. No doubt national security would be given as the answer. But those of us who attended the incident will always carry it in our minds. For many years after, I had dreadful nightmares reliving the scene, waking up screaming and sweating. Nowadays people would get counselling. During the war you just got on with it because the next day might have been worse.


Relaxation


We had some free time and we made the most of it. Along with the other two dispatch riders, my sister and other friends, we would all go to Edinburgh for a bit of fun. One night we thought we would go round the bars. We were having a super time because, by then, the Americans and other foreign troops were in the town. We were all enjoying our drinks and the company when one of our gang turned round and saw two of our women officers. They were always much harder on us than the male officers so we hoped they hadn’t seen us. But, in front of our friends we were given a row and told we should not be in a pub as we were in uniform. Well, we just told them that they were in uniform too and no exceptions should be made to the rules. Of course, a wee drink had made us brave. However, it was never mentioned again when we saw them next, so it must have had some effect on them. Needless to say, we still continued to have a drink and enjoy ourselves in uniform. After all, we were supposed to be fighting for our freedom.


I spent four and a half years in the service. I did the job I was asked to do for the sake of our country and went through experiences that would last a lifetime. One of the best things was the friendships that I made. But, I never thought that I would ever have to put out so many fires!


Lacking recognition


I just wish though that the work done during the war by fire-fighters was given more recognition. You read all about the Armed Forces, the Land Army, The Bevin Boys, the Civil Defence, etc., but how often do you read about what wartime firemen and women did during those dangerous times? We were right at the heart of so many serious incidents, but it’s almost as if we hadn’t existed. Only those who served in the National Fire Service know the full extent of what we achieved and I’m proud to have been part of it.”


* Daisy’s wrong to attribute the casualties and the destruction of the bus to it having been ‘...bombed...”. It was hit by a practising dive-bomber which failed to pull out of a dive.

Margaret (Daisy) Begbie, National Fire Service

Margaret Begbie and colleagues, NFS