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