Monday 16 August 2021

Firemen Remembered: Harry Errington and the George Cross

The Invicta Road plaque remembrance ceremony in 2018 (author's photograph)

Since taking up guiding some twelve years ago, I have met some delightful people who have helped and encouraged me and frequently collaborated on various projects. One of my very earliest such contacts was Stephanie Maltman, the moving force behind the Firemen Remembered charity, an independent organisation that is dedicated to recording and remembering those firemen and women who served in the London Civil Defence Region during the Second World War and which commemorates those who died whilst serving.

Observant Londoners will have spotted the distinctive white, oval shaped plaques at various locations across the capital upon which the names of firemen and firewomen (the rank of "Firefighter" was not introduced until the late 1980s) are recorded, sometimes along with the names of other Civil Defence workers who died alongside them. Thanks to Stephanie, I have been fortunate enough to have been invited to a number of unveiling and dedication ceremonies of new plaques and on one occasion, worked with her to get a plaque installed at Invicta Road School, the scene of a tragic loss of fire service lives in November 1940.

The most recent plaque to be installed was of necessity, unveiled without ceremony due to Covid restrictions in 2020 but commemorates seven Auxiliary Fire Service members who died at the former Jackson & Allum's Garage at Rathbone Street, in the area of London's West End that we now know as Fitzrovia. The garage was then in use as an annexe of AFS sub-fire station 72Z but on 17 September 1940, received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb that killed the seven firemen, as well as nineteen civilians who were using the basement as a shelter. 

Firemen Remembered plaque at 7-9 Rathbone Street, London W1 (author's photograph)

However, as the plaque informs us, apart from the tragic loss of life, Jackson's Garage was the scene of an act of great bravery that saw the only George Cross awarded to Harry Errington, the only member of the London Fire Service to be so awarded during the Second World War.

Harry Errington was born on 20 August 1910 in a small, two roomed flat at 47 Poland Street, Westminster. He was one of four children born to Yiddish speaking, Jewish immigrants from Poland, Solomon and Bella Ehrengott, who were tailors originally from Lubartov, near Lublin. They had come to England in 1908 in order to flee the pogroms and had changed their name to Errington shortly before Harry's birth. He was educated at the Jewish Free School in Westminster and had vague memories of the Zeppelin raids of the First World War, when with his school friends, he remembered collecting pieces of shrapnel from the streets after each raid.

Upon leaving school, Harry initially trained as an engraver but the fumes from the nitric acid used in the process affected his chest and so instead, he went to trade school and became a tailor working for his uncle in Savile Row. His job at this time was to take finished articles of clothing to other Savile Row shops and bring back other work for his uncle. After completing his training as a cutter, he got his first job with a famous Dutch tailor called Sholti but as soon as he discovered that Harry was Jewish, sacked him in a move that would be illegal today but was typical of the widespread anti-Semitism of the time.

The site of Jackson's Garage in 2018 (author's photograph)

Harry eventually obtained another job in 1936 with the famous tailors Simpsons of Piccadilly but in August 1939, three weeks before the declaration of war, he volunteered to join the AFS full time, along with three friends at Shaftesbury Avenue Fire Station. Harry was highly motivated in his desire to help defend his local neighbourhood, as he had numerous relatives still living in Poland, all of whom he later learned were murdered in the Holocaust.

His first base was at his former school at Hanway Place, which was the main Station 72Z and as this was during the period known as the "Phoney War", they saw little action and were able to concentrate on training. Harry and his crew of four had the typical equipment of the time - a requisitioned taxi and a trailer pump. Harry recalled that morale was high and that as they had several chefs amongst their number from West End restaurants, the food was excellent.

In early 1940, he was transferred to Jackson & Allum's garage in Rathbone Street, which for Harry was a bonus as it meant that he could now walk to work from his home in Poland Street. This station had five crews and larger purpose built wagons for towing the trailer pumps. One of the main raisons d'etre of the AFS was to act as a mobile reserve to reinforce other areas and on the first night of the Blitz, 7 September 1940, Harry and his colleagues found themselves tackling fires a long way from their usual "manor" in places as far-flung as the Surrey Docks, Peckham, Camberwell and the Woolwich Arsenal.

On 17 September 1940, Harry and some twenty colleagues were awaiting their next "shout" in the basement of Jackson's Garage, along with around thirty members of the public who were sheltering there. At 00:14, the floors above crashed into the basement as the building received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb. The garage petrol store was also located above the basement and the burning fuel created a fireball that swept through the basement. Harry was blown across the floor and knocked unconscious but quickly awoke to find himself unhurt but stunned. The cellar was burning and smoke-filled and although the main exit was blocked, he was able to make his way to the emergency exit but on his way, heard screams for help; he saw his friend John Hollingshead laying face down in great pain with his legs trapped by masonry. Without hesitation, Harry found a blanket and placed it over his head to try and get a measure of protection from the flames and returned to help his friend.

Harry Errington GC (author's collection)

Harry was able to scrape away and lift the rubble with his bare hands, seriously burning and cutting them in the process. Freeing Hollingshead, he then carried him out into the street but on his way, noticed another friend, John Terry, trapped beneath a heavy radiator. Having taken Hollingshead to safety, Harry then returned into the burning basement, by then in danger of imminent collapse and freed Terr, dragging him out of the building.

Harry was by this time in serious pain from his cut and burned hands, which he must have surely known could end his peacetime livelihood. The injured men, including Harry were taken to the nearby Middlesex Hospital for treatment but later transferred to the relative safety of a hospital in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. It was whilst recovering here that he recalled being given copious supplies of beer, courtesy of some Canadian soldiers who were also patients here. The Canadians didn't think much of English beer and so were happy to give it away to the English firemen!

Harry was eventually discharged by the AFS as his wounds failed to heal in the thirteen weeks allowed by the Civil Injuries Act and as his parents had moved to Bromsgrove, near Birmingham, he moved there and got a job working at Austin Aero, which manufactured Lancaster bombers. He also attempted to join the Army at this time but was refused as medically unfit due to his injured hands. Harry later re-joined the now-nationalised National Fire Service in Bromsgrove as a part-timer and remained with them until the end of the war.

Harry's George Cross was gazetted on 8 August 1941 based on the recommendation of Hollingshead and Terry, the two men he had rescued, who had reported his actions to a senior officer. Despite his injuries (he had third degree burns to his hands and arms), Harry had modestly not mentioned his act of rescue to his superiors. His GC was awarded to him in October 1942 by the King in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

After the war, Harry returned to Simpsons but eventually established his own tailoring business, Errington & Whyte in Sackville Street, which he ran until his retirement in 1992. In his youth, he had been a keen basketball player and after the war coached the Regent Street Polytechnic team and later still became Vice Chairman of the UK Amateur Basketball Association. He was heavily involved with the Great Britain basketball team at the 1948 London Olympics and travelled around the world with the British team. Harry was also an active member of AJEX - the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen, which have also placed a plaque in Harry's memory at Rathbone Street.

AJEX plaque honouring Harry at Rathbone Street (author's photograph)

Stephanie Maltman, who met Harry on several occasions, describes him as having been a "gentle and self-effacing" man. In his retirement, Harry was a welcome visitor to Soho Fire Station in Shaftesbury Avenue, who gave him a splendid 90th birthday party in 2000 and he was particularly honoured to have a road named after him at the Fire Services College at Morton-in-Marsh.

In 2002, Harry became a resident of the Nightingale Jewish Old Age Home in Wandsworth and died in 2004 at the age of 94, His medals are now on display at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town, having been gifted by his family.

Published Sources:

Jewish Participation in the Fire Service in the Second World War - Martin Sugarman - Valentine Mitchell, 2016
The London Gazette - 5th August 1941
The Salamander, Journal of the Worshipful Company of Firefighters, Issue 7, April 2006

Unpublished Sources:

Metropolitan Borough of St Marylebone Civil Defence Incident Log