Harry Ehrengott was born into a poor Soho immigrant Jewish family in Poland Street on 20 August 1910. His parents, Solomon and Bella, were tailors and Harry’s first language was Yiddish. Changing their name to Errington, they sent Harry to St James’ and St Peter’s Primary school in Great Windmill Street and then the Westminster Jewish Free School, he was bar mitzvahed at the Manetti Street synagogue.
Anti-Semitism against the poor Soho Jewish community meant that Harry had to find work within his family as a tailor in Savile Row, but by 1936 he worked at Sim
pson’s of Piccadilly and was also a club manager at the West Central Jewish Youth Club.
Knowing war was coming, Harry joined the AFS in August 1939 and was based at Soho fire station on Cambridge Circus. By early 1940 he was at a substation in Jackson and Alum’s garage at 7–9 Rathbone Street, next to what is now 27 Rathbone Street. When the Blitz began, Harry attended many fires all over central and south London.
On the night of 17 September 1940, Harry was resting with his watch in the basement of the garage when it received a direct bomb hit. The floors and vehicles collapsed into the basement area, which was sheltering both firefighters and civilians. Twenty-six civilians including seven firefighters were dead. Harry was blown across the floor but, still conscious, he began to crawl to where he thought the stairs were, through the fire, rubble and smoke when he came upon his friend John Hollingshead trapped by debris and his burnt back exposed. Harry dragged him free by scraping away at the masonry with his by-now burnt hands and carried him up the stairwell. But on the way out he found another friend, John (later Sir John) Terry, bloody and semi-conscious with a radiator pinning him down. But once he got Hollingshead to the street and despite being warned by the rescuers that the building was about to collapse, and not to re-enter it, Harry ran back into the inferno and rubble to bring out Terry, conscious now that his damaged hands may end his work as a skilled tailor.
Escaping this time through a smashed window, Harry, concussed and also burnt on his arms and hands, then handed Terry to the rescue teams and grabbed and dragged Hollingshead to the maternity hospital in Soho Square where they both received first aid. Later Terry and Harry ended up at Cheshunt hospital together, recovering. Bodies were still being recovered from the site until 29 September.
When Harry got home, after four months, his flat was bombed whilst they were in the basement shelter, on his first day back, and he spent a night calmly clearing rubble from his own block of flats and rescuing people!
As his wounds did not heal within the prescribed 13 weeks, Harry was dismissed from the service in order that they would, by law, not have to pay his wages – shabby treatment for a heroic and injured man. He was ordered by his doctor to rest and went to stay with relatives in Birmingham.
Harry had nightmares about Rathbone Street for a while, but not dispirited, he began work at a factory making Lancaster bombers and ran a local sports centre for young men, rejoining the local NFS, and then volunteered for the army but was turned down as unfit.
It was while in Birmingham that Harry received the letter awarding him the GC for gallantry, gazetted 8 August 1941. The long citation said he ‘showed bravery and endurance in effecting the rescues at the risk of his own life’; but a witness, Major Jackson, added that Harry ‘carried out the rescue in appalling conditions with 3rd degree burns, at very considerable risk, and obviously without any thought for self-preservation’. Harry received the medal at Buckingham Palace from HM King George VI in October 1942, with his parents accompanying him. He was greatly embarrassed when his mother, unbeknown to him, went round the local area showing the medal to everyone she could find. Friends and family always said he was extremely modest about the whole award and rarely spoke of it.
Post war, Harry remained a sports coach and played a large part in introducing British Basketball to Regent Street Polytechnic, and as a serious British Olympic sport, mentoring and travelling with the UK team in several Olympic Games. He was life president of the UK Basketball Association. He spent every Christmas in Exeter with the Terry family at their insistence, as Mrs Terry said to Harry that it was because of him that she had a happy marriage and two children. This tradition continued until the families passed away. He always said this was the greatest tribute anyone could pay to him.
Harry was Treasurer of the VC and GC Association, probably the world’s most exclusive Club – and always attended the Annual Parade of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women of the UK (AJEX) in Whitehall on the Sunday after the National Parade. He was Treasurer of the Westminster Branch of AJEX and a member of the West End Great Synagogue. Harry never married but had a large extended family, retiring from work as a tailor in 1992. On his 90th birthday in 2000, the Soho Fire Station held a big party for him and photos of the occasion hang in pride of place in the office area on the first floor to this day.
From 2002 he lived at the Nightingale Jewish Care Home in Clapham, and died on 15 December 2004. At his funeral at Cheshunt Jewish Cemetery, a fire engine attended with crews and many fire brigade and AJEX veterans with standards formed a guard of honour. The Fire College at Moreton-in-Marsh has a road named after him and in 1990 he was one of three GC holders to sign the first-day postage stamp cover envelope on the 50th anniversary of the GC award. His medals were donated to the Jewish Museum in Camden, and the miniatures to the Jewish Military Museum also in Camden. The LFB Museum also has a display about him.
Harry remains the only firefighter to receive the GC in a Second World War bombing incident and one of three Jewish recipients in the Second World War.
Finally, in November 2020, a marble plaque was unveiled next to a separate plaque for the seven firefighters killed, to commemorate Harry’s GC award, at 27 Rathbone Street, almost exactly to the month 80 years after the event. The plaque was the gift of Jerry Klinger of the Jewish American Historical Preservation Society, UK Branch, and also in the name of AJEX UK.
For more information, go to www.vmbooksuk.com/search?q=martin+sugarman