Sunday, 16 February 2020

Sidney Alfred Holder, The Wall and the Unknown Soldier

Firemen Remembered Plaque to Sidney Alfred Holder in Shoe Lane (author's photograph)

This post was originally written in August 2011 but since then, one or two discrepancies in the original story as recounted to me have come to light. These corrections have now been incorporated into the text, which is updated accordingly.

On Thursday 11 August 2011, I was lucky enough to be invited to the unveiling ceremony of one of the memorial plaques to be erected by the charity 'Firemen Remembered' which does so much excellent work in preserving and honouring the memory of the firefighters of the Second World War, who went from being described as "£3-a-week Army Dodgers" according to some of the more unscrupulous organs of the press, to receiving a ringing endorsement from Prime Minister Winston Churchill no less, who described them as "Heroes with grimy faces."

This particular plaque is located close to the scene of the incident at Shoe Lane, just off London's Fleet Street and commemorates a tragedy that was immortalised on canvas by the War Artist Leonard Rosoman R.A., who at that time was a member of the Auxilary Fire Service and who witnessed the event at first hand. Deeply troubled by what he had seen, Rosoman created a powerful image, which he found himself painting and re-painting, as if trying to exorcise what he had witnessed from his own consciousness. The artist subsequently stated that he was never entirely happy with the work and at first thought it was too raw for public consumption but it is today recognised as one of the iconic images of the Blitz. The image entitled 'The Falling Wall' by the artist but for some reason re-titled by the Imperial War Museum as 'A House Collapsing on two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London EC4' is reproduced below, courtesy of the IWM. The original is currently on display at the IWM North in Manchester, although perhaps would be better located in London, given that is where the incident occurred.

"The Falling Wall" by Leonard Rosoman (IWM collection)

On the night of 29th/30th December 1940, some 140 medium bombers of the Luftwaffe dropped some 24,000 incendiary bombs concentrated on the City of London in a raid that became known as "The Second Great Fire of London". The raid had been carefully planned to coincide with an exceptionally low tide on the River Thames, which once the water mains had been damaged by the high explosive bombs which were also dropped on the Square Mile, made it nigh on impossible for the beleaguered firefighters to obtain emergency supplies of water from the river. The spread of the fires was further compounded by the fact that many nightwatchmen and fire watchers employed by the various businesses in the City, had taken advantage of the Christmas and New Year holidays to sneak away for a long weekend, so leaving fires to spread unchecked. This failing was the subject of an official Government Enquiry after the event, the result of which was to compel companies to provide full-time fire watches on their premises.

As part of the ceremony, the redoubtable Stephanie Maltman, one of the leading figures behind the charity, explained what to the best of our knowledge today, had happened on this night in Shoe Lane and how Auxiliary Fireman Sidney Alfred Holder and a now unknown helper who had simply been passing by had come to perish beneath fifteen feet of white hot bricks and masonry.

The programme cover for the unveiling event (author's photograph)

Sidney Holder, Leonard Rosoman and the future travel writer and novelist William Sansom were part of an AFS squad from Station 13 at Belsize Park, detailed to fight a major fire in Shoe Lane, just off Fleet Street, adjacent to the Daily Express building. The three men were controlling a branch directing water onto the blazing building and although it looked a hopeless task, stuck bravely at their task. Amazingly, but not uncommonly during a major raid, there were still passers by going about their business and the firefighters were joined by an off duty soldier and an RAF airman, who offered to help. During the course of their toils, a more senior AFS Officer appeared on the scene and instructed Rosoman to leave the branch to the others and accompany him on a recce from an adjacent building to see if they could find another spot from which to direct their branches at the by now out of control fire. As they surveyed the scene, Rosoman heard the ominous crack of the wall crumbling under the heat and collapsing onto the men below, one of whom was Rosoman's close friend, William Sansom.

Incredibly, Sansom and the RAF man survived the incident by dint of good fortune; the wall had collapsed almost as a solid slab of masonry but they had had the luck to be standing more or less in line with a window aperture which framed them as the wall collapsed. The two men were showered with masonry but were not seriously injured and were quickly able to free themselves in order to clamber to where Holder and the soldier had been directing their branch. The two men tore at the red hot bricks with their bare hands, severely burning themselves at the same time. They were quickly relieved by a Rescue Squad and it was only when they were taken aside, that Sansom and his colleague realised the extent of the injuries to their hands.

Wreath laid at the unveiling ceremony (author's photograph)

The rescuers eventually reached the two buried men; the soldier was dead when they found him. His steel helmet had been crushed almost flat and he was burned beyond recognition. Although the details are sketchy, history tells us that Sidney Alfred Holder was alive when pulled from the rubble; the Commonwealth War Graves Commission tells us that he died 'near to St Bartholomew's Hospital' which suggests that he died in an ambulance whilst being taken to hospital.

Sidney Alfred Holder was born on 21 April 1907 and lived at 69 Denmark Road, Hendon, with his mother, Emily. His peacetime job as shown on the 1939 Register was a Temporary Railway Porter but he had obviously joined the Fire Service at some point after this. Despite fairly extensive research by Stephanie and her colleagues at Firemen Remembered, the identity of the soldier who heroically offered to help on that fateful night has never been established and he remains 'known unto God' but to us mere mortals, one of the many 'unknown soldiers.'

Dark City alleyways and passages,
curtained for a century by tall walls,
exchanged their twilight gloom for
a flood of yellow light in one
theatrical moment...

                         William Sansom                                                       

Published Sources:

Fireman Flower - William Sansom, Hogarth Press 1944

The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991

Unpublished Sources:

1939 Register - UK National Archives

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Books, Books and more Books!

A "shelfie" of one of my new alcove shelves (author's photo)

Regular readers of this blog, together with anyone who knows me well, will testify to the fact that I am something of a bookworm and have a house full of books, mainly covering military history but also with a sizeable number on transport history, film and a decent sized cricket library too!

This hobby/obsession (depending who you listen to) had threatened to get out of control, as towards the end of 2018, I had simply run out of space and as well as two overflowing and inadequate bookcases, books had begun to pile up on the floor, on chairs and tables. 

Some of those who clearly don't know me suggested that I either sell some of those "that you hardly read" or that I have an even bigger clear out and transfer the lot to electronic format!

I must confess that I have disposed of a few, a very few titles that were either duplicates, didn't fit in with my general theme of interest, or frankly weren't very good but any idea of a mass cull just wasn't going to happen and towards the end of last year, I finally got around to getting some larger capacity, heavier-duty shelves installed. The idea for them came from a Twitter friend of mine, David J.B. Smith, aka @NavalAuthor whose own shelves I had inspected when paying him a visit a couple of years back. These were re-purposed scaffold boards, easily sturdy enough to carry the weight of books, sanded and cut to size to fit the space available. In Dave's case, these were located along one wall of his office but in mine, they were to fit in two alcoves, either side of the chimney breast and each arranged in a run of six shelves. This would give me ample storage for everything I currently have and also provide room for expansion, if necessary. I am useless at anything remotely connected with DIY, so apart from purchasing and preparing the scaffold boards, the actual installation was entrusted to a good mate of mine who is a professional handyman.

Installation took slightly less than an afternoon and once this was done, I was able to start re-stocking the shelves, as well as having a general sort-out and placing the books in some sort of order. The photograph at the top of the page shows mostly the naval side of things, with a section devoted to Dunkirk, another to individual ship or action histories and a further one to the Battle of The Atlantic and submarine warfare, before moving into the subject of military high command, with a few "unclassifieds" thrown into the mix!

Shelfie two, showing the air war section (author's photo)

On the other side, the second alcove shown above contains all of my transport books, together with air war, Blitz and Home Front titles, plus once again a few that don't really fall into any of these categories. The books you see in these "shelfies" aren't always continually being read but they are important sources of reference when writing this blog, when planning new walks, preparing talks and when undertaking research, which is another important source of income for me.

LCC Bomb Damage Maps (author's photo)

The 'London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939 - 1945' was reviewed by me in October 2015 and although anything printed on paper has been disparaged by some who should know better, this work often provides a useful first insight into a question that has been posed to me by a customer who needs general information into the wartime history of a specific area in London. Obviously, the maps cannot help with bomb incidents in the parts of London that fall outside the then LCC area and neither can they give dates of incidents but they do provide valuable clues from which to start

Another invaluable source of reference is William Kent's 'The Lost Treasures of London', published in 1947 for 12/6 (about 63 pence in today's money), which I found at a car boot sale for 50 pence about ten years ago. This book proves that no idea is new and indeed, William Kent was giving us Blitz Walks some seventy three years ago and indeed, this work often accompanies me on my City walks, where some of the personal accounts prove invaluable and insightful.

Title paper of The Lost Treasures of London (author's photo)

Another fascinating book that is long out of print but which forms part of my collection, is Richard Collier's 'The City That Wouldn't Die', published in 1959 and which concentrates solely on one raid during the London Blitz, the night of 10/11 May 1941, the heaviest raid of the campaign and what proved to be last against the capital for some eighteen months. The book provides many eye-witness accounts and looks at the events of the night from many viewpoints - members of the public and Civil Defence workers on the British side and from airmen on the German side. I use some of the personal accounts from here in my "Thames on Fire" walk.

The City That Wouldn't Die (author's photo)

With Malice Toward None (author's photo)

Another work which contains an excellent account of the events of 10/11 May 1941, mainly in and around Fleet Street, is 'With Malice Toward None', written by Cecil King and published in 1970. The Fleet Street connection immediately falls into place when one understands that King was the proprietor of the Daily Mirror and Sunday Pictorial newspapers and the book is written in the journalistic style that would be expected of the author.

Westminster in War (author's photo)

William Sansom was an author and travel writer in peacetime but during the Blitz, was a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service and so his book, 'Westminster in War' published in 1947, must have contained at least some of his own personal experiences. Once again, it has proved an invaluable source of reference over the years and has often accompanied me on my travels around the streets of the present-day City of Westminster. I was lucky enough to pick up this copy, signed by the author, for the princely sum of £5, from a Chelsea antiquarian bookshop some years ago.

Bomber Command War Diaries (author's photo)

Apart from guiding walks, another important source of my income these days is researching family history enquiries, often from the descendants of Allied airmen. This usually entails at least one visit to the National Archives at Kew to examine operational record books from the relevant squadrons but for those who served with RAF Bomber Command, a useful first point of reference can be to check out 'The Bomber Command War Diaries; An Operational Reference Book 1939 - 1945' compiled by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, which was first published in 1985. Putting this work together must have required many visits indeed to the then Public Records Office to go through the various squadron records and RAF archives. Obviously, this book doesn't provide a squadron-by-squadron guide as to who bombed where and when but it does provide details of every single operation mounted throughout the war by Bomber Command on a daily (or nightly) basis. From this information and from the service histories of the individual airmen, it can then usually be ascertained from a follow-up visit to Kew, exactly how many missions a particular airman flew, to which targets and even in which individual aircraft.

The Blitz (author's photo)

Bomber's Moon title paper (author's photo)

Returning to the Blitz, two of my earliest second-hand purchases remain amongst my most prized possessions, partially because of the illustrations contained therein. These are 'The Blitz' by Constantine FitzGibbon, published in 1957 and 'Bomber's Moon' by the journalist James Negley Farson. These wonderful books contain illustrations by no less than Henry Moore in FitzGibbon's book and some beautiful, evocative pencil drawings by Tom Purvis in 'Bomber's Moon'. The book is themed on Purvis and Farson's travels through London in the Blitz, including various nights spent in air raid shelters and a trip down river to Greenwich. One of the drawings relating to the Thames trip is shown below - 'Old Ron' the Billingsgate Fish Market porter - '45 years in the market' and one of those London faces instantly recognisable to one who grew up in the capital when it was a working city, rather than the somewhat bland place that it has increasingly become.

'Old Ron' the Billingsgate Porter by Tom Purvis (author's collection)

Both Negley Farson and Constantine FitzGibbon were Americans, although both spent much of their time on this side of the Atlantic and indeed, in FitzGibbon's case, served in the British Army until 1942, when he was commissioned into the US Army. The American contribution to the literature of London at War cannot be overstated and I am fortunate enough to possess several of them, including 'Ernie Pyle in England' a 1941 work by the eponymous author, 'I Saw England', another 1941 publication, this time by Ben Robertson, 'A London Diary', also from 1941, written by Quentin Reynolds and finally 'Hell Came to London', a 1940 work by Basil Woon which concentrates on the author's experiences of two weeks living in London starting on 7 September 1940, the first day of the Blitz, which became known to Londoners as 'Black Saturday'. Woon's personal accounts have been much-quoted by other authors and still make remarkable reading to this day.

Title paper from 'Hell Came to London' (author's photo)

It is fair to say that all of the books mentioned above and indeed all of those that you see in the 'shelfies' shown at the beginning of this article, are much-loved by me and have become very much part of the furniture here at Blitzwalker Towers, whether they be old or new publications. I couldn't possibly write about all of them here but will perhaps return to the subject in the future and look at some of the other subjects covered in my library.

All of the photographs used to illustrate this piece are copyright to the author and may not be reproduced without my express written permission.

Books referred to in this piece:

The Blitz - Constantine FitzGibbon, with illustrations by Henry Moore, published in 1957 by MacDonald.
The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book 1939-1945 - Martin Middlebrook & Chris Everitt, published (paperback) in 2014 by Pen & Sword.
Bomber's Moon - Negley Farson, with illustrations by Tom Purvis, published in 1941 by Victor Gollancz.
The City That Wouldn't Die - Richard Collier, published in 1959 by Collins.
Ernie Pyle in England - Ernie Pyle, published in 1941 by Barnes & Noble.
Hell Came to London - Basil Woon, published in 1940 by Peter Davies.
I Saw England - Ben Robertson, published in 1941 by Jarrolds Limited.
The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945 - editor Lawrence Ward, published in 2015 by Thames & Hudson.
A London Diary - Quentin Reynolds, published in 1941 by Random House.
The Lost Treasures of London - William Kent, published in 1947 by Phoenix House.
Westminster in War - William Sansom, published in 1947 by Faber & Faber.
With Malice Toward None - Cecil King, published in 1970 by Sidgwick & Jackson.