Monday, 5 October 2020

A George Medal Hero in Charlton

During the lockdown forced upon us by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I passed the time by writing up and producing a series of "virtual" Blitz Walks on Twitter, one of which covered my own local area of Charlton in Southeast London. One of the stories that came out at the time was that of Albert William Brittan, of the Greenwich Rescue Service, who was awarded a George Medal for his bravery in releasing victims trapped in a bombed house in Charlton Lane on 8 December 1940.

I had previously searched for a photograph of Albert at the National Archives and online but to no avail but was delighted recently when watching an edition of The Antiques Roadshow on BBC Television - not a programme I regularly watch - to see an image of him appear, together with his medals, so armed with a screengrab of the photograph, we can now tell his story a little more fully.

To begin with, we need to find out a little more about our hero; Albert William Brittan was born in 1904 to Amy Brittan (nee James) and her husband Joseph Brittan, a demolition worker. They lived at the family home in 41 Hamilton Street, Deptford. It was a large family, with Albert being one of five sons and with two sisters also living at home. Albert doesn't feature on the 1939 Register at that address, as he had married Emma Rose Roberts in 1929 and somehow seems to have slipped under the radar when the census was taken but three of the family are still at Hamilton Street; parents Joseph and Amy together with one of Albert's younger brothers, Sidney who is also listed as a demolition worker. This was obviously a family concern, for Albert's medal citation also shows this as his civilian occupation.

Albert William Brittan (centre) (screengrab from BBC Antiques Roadshow)

On the night of 8/9 December 1940, at approximately 02:40 close to where a level crossing takes the railway line from Woolwich Dockyard towards Charlton Station, two high explosive bombs fell on a terrace of houses located at 19/27 Charlton Lane. The incident log records "PEOPLE TRAPPED, 4 FATAL CASUALTIES, 6 TO HOSPITAL, 16 TO FIRST AID POST". 

It has to be remembered that this rather cold description was written in the heat of the moment, as were all such incident logs and is in fact, inaccurate in so far as five people lost their lives in this incident.

Albert Brittan's George Medal citation (author's image)

Shortly after the bomb fell, local Air Raid Wardens would have ascertained that persons were trapped in the ruins and it wasn't long before the Rescue Squad, under the command of 36-year-old Albert Brittan arrived on the scene. By this time, Albert was recorded as living at 14 Oxenham House, Benbow Street, Greenwich and had joined the Rescue Service soon after the outbreak of war. His experience as a demolition worker would no doubt have been of great benefit, given his knowledge of the construction of buildings.

On arrival at the scene, Brittan was informed that five people were trapped in the ruins of number 25 and soon worked out that they were trapped in the remains of the kitchen. He quickly set his squad to clearing as much of the debris as was safely possible and then entered the building himself. He was soon able to rescue a baby and after passing the infant to his colleagues, he went back into the ruins and after moving a door and beams obstructing his passage, he was able to rescue the baby's mother and carried her out of the building. Returning inside, he next freed a young girl and also recovered the body of an elderly lady. Shortly after re-entering the building yet again, the roof partially collapsed and almost trapped Albert but he persisted in his work, all the time whilst other bombs were falling and anti-aircraft shell fragments were falling in the vicinity.

After some five hours in the ruined house, he was finally able to rescue the final trapped person, a man who had been pinned down by floor joists. Once he rescued him, only then was Brittan satisfied that all of the occupants had been rescued. His hands were cut and bleeding and needed to be dressed by a doctor from a nearby First Aid Post, who happened to be Dr John Montgomery, Club Doctor of  Charlton Athletic Football Club, as well as being the Company Doctor at Siemen's (a large local employer at that time) and a future director at The Valley. Montgomery was one of the witnesses to Albert Brittan's recommendation for an award and was well qualified to do this, having no doubt witnessed his efforts at first-hand.

Recommendation for Albert Brittan's award (author's image)

In total, thanks to the efforts of Albert Brittan and the other members of his Rescue Squad, seven of the twelve people they rescued between them came out alive and all subsequently survived. The five that lost their lives are listed at the bottom of the article.

Dr John Montgomery (centre in wing collar) (Charlton Athletic Museum)

Brittan was recommended for a George Medal by the London County Council, with the recommendation endorsed by Mr Tinslay, Officer in Charge of the Greenwich Rescue Service and by Dr John Montgomery of the Valley First Aid Post, with the award confirmed and gazetted in the London Gazette dated 25 April 1941. The citation concludes thus:

"Brittan was under the debris for five hours without relief and displayed initiative, resource and a high courage. Through his exertions, four persons were rescued alive."

The site of the bombed houses in Charlton Lane (Paul Chapman)

The bombed terrace of houses in Charlton Lane were never rebuilt after the war and today the site forms part of the grounds of Pound Park School but in a way, this is an apt memorial to the five who perished here as well as to the heroic efforts of Albert Brittan and his Rescue Squad who ensured that seven others lived to tell the tale.

I haven't yet been able to ascertain any real details of what Albert did subsequently but he appears to have died, aged only 46, on 31 October 1952 in Greenwich, leaving Emma Rose as his widow. One can only speculate whether his early death was due in some way to his dangerous work as a demolition contractor in an era when health and safety practices were largely absent in the workplace.

In remembrance of those who died here on the night of 8/9 December 1940:

Rachel Miekle Cumming, aged 72, of 27 Charlton Lane
Sidney Martin, aged 32, of 27 Charlton Lane
Florence Lilian Maud Budden, aged  37, of 25 Charlton Lane
Gertrude Budden, aged 59, of 25 Charlton Lane
Desmond Charles Lambert, aged 17, of 23 Charlton Lane



Published Sources:

The London Gazette - dated 25 April 1941


Unpublished Sources:

Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Civil Defence Incident Log 1939 - 1945
Home Office Inter-Departmental Committee on Civil Defence Gallantry Awards, Case No. 843 - HO 250/19/843 - UK National Archives, Kew