Part II: Bertha
Drawing principally on Scotland Island News (SI News) archives, Part II focuses on one particularly memorable fire truck.
|A detail from John Parker’s 1991 painting of Scotland Island’s old fire shed, which stood down by Tennis Court Wharf.
The picture appears to show the brigade’s ‘Blitz’ wagon, even though it had been replaced some 15 years earlier.
Electricity arrived on Scotland Island in 1962 and with it came more houses, more people, and a bigger fire brigade. The brigade had begun in 1955 as an offshoot of the Scotland Island Progress Association, forerunner of SIRA. At first the two organisations were barely distinguishable, but during the 1960s they grew apart, with separate meetings and membership.
|A ‘Blitz’ in service to the Duffys Forest Brigade in 1973. Note the white overalls worn by firefighters at the time.
But some things didn’t change. Every able-bodied man was still expected to play a role in the brigade. ‘There can be no back-sliders’, said Captain Grahame Maclean in 1968. Men were organised into three-man rosters, taking turns to be on hand during the fire season. Thus the burden of attending fires was perhaps more evenly spread than it is today.
Even in the 1960s women remain conspicuously absent from accounts of firefighting activity, save as caterers. But by 1967 the St John Ambulance Association was training first-aid officers on the island, and 10 of the 15 certificates awarded to permanent residents went to women. Attendance at medical emergencies remains a core function of today’s brigade.
Prior to the foundation of the NSW Rural Fire Service in 1997, brigades were largely reliant on local authorities for equipment. Scotland Island’s brigade was founded with a £490 grant ($17,000 in today’s money) from Warringah Council. That was enough for the construction of a small fire shed near Tennis Court Wharf, as well as the purchase of a pump, some hose and 20 knapsack sprays which were kept dotted around the island at people’s houses.
Notably absent from early accounts of the brigade was any kind of vehicle. Knapsack sprays might handle small spot fires from falling embers, but larger fires require the transportation of heavy hoses, pumps and personnel, let alone water. It seems inconceivable today that a brigade would be expected to function for its first decade without some form of land or water conveyance.
|Another Blitz, this one used by
Lismore City Council RFS as a water tanker
It’s indicative of the inadequacy of official support for the fledgling brigade that it was left to residents to donate what was presumably the brigade’s first truck. Following extensive fires in Elvina Bay during the summer of 1964/5, the then owner of Quarterdeck (on the island’s north-western point) offered an ‘old but reliable’ Commer truck, fitted with water tank, pump and hoses. As a backup, the truck’s tank could be filled from a hydrant located at the back of Quarterdeck, which was in turn fed by sea water pumped from the property’s jetty.
Fortunately brigade transport wasn’t reliant on resident largesse for long. Sometime around 1968 the island acquired ‘Bertha’. Few today remember Bertha, but the significance of this vehicle in island folklore must have been such that when, more than 20 years later, brigade captain John Parker immortalised the old shed in his watercolour painting (still on display in the new station), it was Bertha that he depicted as parked outside, even though by 1991 Bertha had long since gone.
Known to Australians as a ‘Blitz wagon’, Bertha was more properly described as a Canadian Military Pattern (CMP) truck. Canadian factories produced 850,000 of these vehicles in World War II: more trucks than were produced by the three main Axis nations combined. Indeed the CMP truck has been described as Canada’s biggest contribution to the war effort.
With a windscreen that was angled downwards to reduce reflected glare observable by enemy aircraft, and with a distinctive pug-nosed profile intended to make them more compact and easier to ship, Blitz wagons were deployed in just about every theatre of war. Even the Russians used them to counter the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.
|Two Blitz wagons belonging to Warringah Shire and displayed at 1962’s Warringah Fire Prevention Week.
It’s unclear whether Bertha was among the vehicles on display.
After the war pretty much the entire British Commonwealth was awash with CMP trucks. In the case of Australia, where the Blitz had been manufactured under licence, some of these surplus trucks were adapted for bush fire fighting. They were acquired by numerous local authorities, including Warringah Council. Indeed two such vehicles can be seen in action here, being used to quell Belrose’s 1967 bush fires.
Acquisition of a truck necessitated a 30-foot extension to the fire shed. Just like the original structure, this addition had to be built by volunteers. The 1968 party, held to celebrate the expanded shed, was described as ‘the Island’s biggest blowout since the coming of electricity’.
|Islander Bob Green (right) alongside the Land Rover
that replaced Bertha in 1976.
The utility of the island’s Blitz is debatable. One can only imagine what it was like trying to manoeuvre a 30-year-old wartime truck around island roads, and it was said that Bertha was a vehicle that only Captain Jim Duff ‘was game to drive’.
In September 1973 a ‘torrid’ brigade meeting, attended by a ‘record crowd’ of 51 residents, heard how Bertha’s pump was inoperative, causing SI News to quip that the truck was less a fire tender and more a fire tinder. At the same meeting ‘tempers flared’ when it was alleged that the truck had been used for private purposes.
In 1976 this vestige of wartime Australia was finally retired, replaced by a Land Rover and trailer unit, vehicles perhaps better suited to island roads.
This periodic history of the brigade will be continued in future editions of the PON.
Monday, 11 October, 7 pm
The October brigade meeting will be a general meeting. The brigade intends to use the meeting to elect a training officer and a station officer. Members interested in these positions must receive two written nominations from ordinary members of the brigade, these being sent to the Secretary (email@example.com) at least seven days prior to the meeting.
Due to COVID restrictions the meeting will be held entirely online. A link to the meeting has been provided to members via email. Please do not go to the station for this meeting.
West Pittwater Energy Reliability Project
Construction work in Lovett Bay: starting Friday, 1 October
Work on a submarine electricity connection between Lovett Bay and Scotland Island is due to commence Friday 1 October. There will be no construction work over the Labour Day weekend.
A drilling rig is expected to be delivered to Lovett Bay Friday 8 October. Actual drilling is expected to start Monday 11 October.
Pedestrian access on Bona Crescent (Lovett Bay) will be maintained throughout the work.
Further information can be accessed here.
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