Captain Simmon Latutin, GC - The Hero of Mogadishu
By Martin Sugarman
(Archivist, British Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women – AJEX - Jewish Military Museum, London)
“The King has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the GEORGE CROSS in recognition of most conspicuous gallantry in carrying out hazardous work in a very brave manner to Captain Simmon Latutin 242974 Somalia Gendarmerie (Harrow Middlesex).” --- London Gazette 6th August 1946
The George Cross - instituted by king George VI in September 1940 - is only awarded to soldiers or civilians of Britain and the Commonwealth for acts of the greatest heroism and conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger, but not necessarily in the field of battle; it is equal in stature to the Victoria Cross as the highest and most prestigious award.(1)
Simmon Latutin was born at number 20, North Villas (2) off Camden Square, Camden Town, London, on July 25th 1916.(3) His father was Moses Vlatutin, born in Riga (4) in 1887, distantly related, so the family history has it, to a famous Russian Jewish general of the same name who had later lifted the siege of Kiev – his home town - in World War Two and died there after the war. The father of Moses Vlatutin was a regimental tailor who travelled , with his family, as the regiment was posted from place to place. When his first wife died (she was the mother of Moses) he re-married and had a second family. At least one of Moses’ stepsisters fled Russia to Israel where relatives live to this day.
Moses himself had become a master tailor at the age of 16 years, and had thus earned the right – under the anti-Semitic laws of the time - to move from village to village for work in Czarist Russia. He made his way to Odessa and later to Roumania, where he stayed for some years working hard to save for his emigration to America. Around 1912, he arrived in London having crossed Europe in stages by train from city to city. Here he met and fell in love with Fradel Kraftcheck (5) (who later shortened her name to Frieda/Freda Kraft), born in Warsaw in 1895, but brought to England with her brother and parents when she was three years old. Moses became Morris and the couple married in 1913.
An orthodox Jewish working class family, they first lived in Stamford Hill, Hackney and later moved to a rented house in Camden Town where Shimeon (later Simmon) and his younger sister Blanche were born. Simmon’s mother did not enjoy good health and for many years his father, with his European accent, worked in his tailoring shop in the basement of their house, so he could be near to and care for his wife at home.
Sheila Gaiman, a first cousin and daughter of Pearl (Simmon’s aunt) recalls (6) that after Simmon had shown his musical talent (on the violin and later viola, at the age of seven) his parents tried to shelter him from the normal rough and tumble games that other boys got up to, for fear he would damage his hands. How successful this was remains a mystery. She remembers that he practiced intensely and often and according to a strict timetable his parents laid down; they were enormously proud of his skill and had high hopes for him as a top musician in the years to come. Sheila recalls how Simmon’s bedroom faced over the back garden in Camden and when they went round to visit, they would secretly play ball with him from the garden, throwing the ball back and forth to him in his first floor room!
Simmon attended the North London Polytechnic School between 1931 and 1933, attached to the nearby College which stood as now in Holloway Road (7); he was very bright and the headteacher advised the family that he should apply for a mathematics scholarship at Oxford University. But Simmon, the gifted and sensitive musician, loved to listen to music whenever he could – there was never enough money to attend concerts – and had his heart elsewhere . Three years after his Barmitzvah, at the age of 16, he won the Westmoreland scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music to study violin (8). He was a student of piano and violin from 1932 (when he won the four year Sainton Scholarship for violin in September of that year) (9) till 1940. His student record shows that he won first the bronze then the silver medals for violin, culminating in the Certificate of Merit, the highest award possible in that instrument. He was awarded various bursaries as a result of his talent including the Bache Scholarship in 1935. (10)
Still aged only 16 he was approached by Sir Henry Wood’s assistant to apply for a post in Brighton to play the viola; he borrowed a viola, played it that evening, and auditioned for the job next morning and got it! (11) Within four years he was playing for the London Symphony Orchestra, at 20 years old, one of its youngest players, having beaten off very stiff competition. (12) As an honour, he was loaned the RAM’s Stradivarius viola to play for several years up until the war.
Archives at the London Symphony Orchestra offices in the Barbican, first mention Simmon in the programmes of the 32nd series of concerts of the 1937-38 season – specifically the 25th November 1937, where he appears in the viola section playing at the Queen’s Hall (13) in Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontious”, conducted by Adrian Boult (14) . His name appears consistently up until April 1940 (15), after which the names of the orchestra members stop appearing and archive programmes peter out, perhaps due to war-time paper shortages. Simmon is also mentioned once in the Minutes of the Board of the LSO in August 1939, where he was refused permission to play with the English Opera Company as “it was not in the best interests of the Orchestra” (16)!
At the RAM Simmon met Margaret Liebet Jacob, a woodwind student and daughter of a long established and observant Anglo-Jewish family, George and Phoebe Jacob (nee Green). Their origins in Britain dated back to the 17th century. Margaret had been born on December 6th 1917, at 129, Hamilton Terrace, St John’s Wood, one of three children, with an older brother and younger sister. She went to St Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith and attended the Hampstead synagogue in Dennington Park Road. She was a diligent student and learnt Hebrew, Bible studies and religious studies (privately at home from a Miss Manville) with enthusiasm and ability, from the age of four, passing the Chief Rabbi’s confirmation tests when she was in her teens.
Margaret and Simmon, with their obvious mutual interest in music, fell in love. He was tall, broad and muscular, well spoken, with curly, dark brown hair and brown eyes. Classical music was his life – he had little time or money for other pursuits - and had he lived he would certainly have been assistant conductor to Henry Wood; with a well-developed sense of humour, he was at the same time very serious.
They became engaged and after they were married bought a diamond for £49 from a street trader in Hatton Garden, which they had set in platinum for £3 for Margaret. It became their engagement ring and she treasures it to this day over 66 years later.
Parental relationships were, however, strained - for Margaret’s parents – especially her domineering mother - were unhappy and totally disapproved of her relationship with the son of an orthodox Jewish family of recent East European origin. Margaret also found visits to Simmon’s parents quite difficult, as the family were strictly kosher and pious. In addition, Simmon’s parents seemed not to be pleased that his work took him away from home on Sabbaths and Holydays, nor that work in his field was so hard to come by, especially when war first broke out. Simmon consequently lived away from home. Margaret too felt the need to leave home but Simmon would not agree without them first being married, since many people knew about their relationship - and Simmon refused to risk any chance of scandal for her. They decided that this was the opportunity, sad though it was for them to do. Not being able to face two sets of parents who had never met, at an orthodox Jewish wedding, they were married in a private ceremony at St Marylebone Town Hall Registry Office on 15th March 1940, with two casual acquaintances for witnesses, and told their parents later! They used part of an old gold watch chain to make a wedding ring as they could not afford anything else, and had the rest of the chain made into a bracelet for Margaret.
Following the marriage, Margaret’s parents became even more estranged, but Simmon’s parents – especially his mother – were always very kind and supportive and Freda always referred to Margaret as “her daughter”. Simmon’s sister Blanche was also very close to Margaret and they were firm friends.
They lived in a bed sit at 94a, St Johns Wood High Street, NW8 (17). Margaret was working in full time Civil Defence, earning under £2 per week (18), involving stressful and long shift work as a first aid auxiliary; also practising setting up a mobile hospital should the need arise; and staffing tube station first aid posts during the Blitz. Simmon, meanwhile, did voluntary unpaid Civil Defence work and also had some weekend work playing at concerts. There was little time for visiting family and friends; life consisted of work, sleep, housekeeping and staying alive during the bombing.
One of Simmon’s younger cousin’s, Marlene Malnick (nee Tobias) related to the author (19) another amusing story. Her father, Simmon’s uncle Mick (aka Myer), was recovering from an operation in the London Clinic near the Royal Academy of Music around 1938. On a number of occasions, Simmon visited him and played his viola to cheer him up. After some time, Mick told Simmon that whilst he was welcome any time, he should not bring his viola in future; because there were complaints from matron that the young nurses were distracted from their work, by constantly going into his room to see the handsome young man who was playing such divine music.
Then in July 1940 Simmon was called up into the Army (20).
Simmon was a tall (5’ 11”) , robust and physically strong man with the build of a rugby player, but his eyesight was very poor; consequently, at his medical he was graded B3 and sent to the Primary Training Company, No 4 Centre, Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps (AMPC) as Private 13052358, at Clacton.
In March 1941 he was promoted to Lance Corporal and in June attached to the 20th Company of the Pioneer Corps. Through July, August and September, he attended and passed cadre courses at No. 23 Pioneer Company Group at Donnington, where he was described by his Commanding Officer as “very keen, thorough and intelligent…(especially) in squad control”(21).
But he loathed this period and was determined to apply for a commission for a fighting regiment, as he wanted desperately to confront the Nazis; the first time he failed, but on the second occasion, he was able to memorise the reading card whilst waiting for the eye test. Bluffing his way through, and possibly with the connivance of a friendly Medical Officer, he was graded A1, much to his delight. In January 1942 he was selected as a candidate for OCTU and in March proceeded to No. 3 Infantry Training Centre for a pre OCTU course of instruction. In April 1942, he was sent to C Company , 163 OCTU, at Heysham.
During his OCTU, he was described by his officers as “above average intelligence, with evident powers of leadership, initiative and resourcefulness when in command… leadership comes easily to him and he can be a “tough” as well as a thinker… I have no hesitation in recommending him as an outstanding cadet with wide knowledge who with experience in a battalion, will be one of its most useful and promising officers” (22).
From here he was posted to the IXth battalion, the Somerset Light Infantry at Donnington (23).
His Jewish chaplain card notes that he had a spell in Colchester military hospital in August 1940 where he was visited by a “Rabbi R.” Military Chaplain, and given the usual Jewish Military Prayer Book, Book of Jewish Thoughts and Psalms. He also met Senior Jewish Army Chaplain Dayan Rabbi Gollop on July 13th 1941, Rabbi Edgar in August, and in May 1942 Reverend Lew.
Margaret lived through the Blitz in London in various bed-sits near her parents home. When she fell pregnant, she contacted her old synagogue and asked if she and Simmon could arrange to be married in the proper Jewish tradition before their child was born; but the cost was so exorbitant, and the response so hostile, she abandoned the idea. At around this time she sought some financial help from the Officers Family Fund and received a small loan and grant which she eventually paid back.
Afterwards Margaret was evacuated to a flat in Park View, West Road, Berkhamstead, a town where members of her parents’ extended family were in any case living; and on January 5th 1942 their first daughter Anne was born at the Grange Nursing Home in Berkhamstead. Relations with Margaret’s parents considerably improved after this happy event, joyful as they were to have a grandchild!
During October through to December 1942, Simmon attended the Tactical Training School at Aldershot and also managed to be the concert/entertainments officer for the officers’ mess with the Somersets.
Among Margaret’s first cousins in the area were brothers Jack Green (aged 10) and David (aged 8) (24). Jack has very fond memories of his “uncle” Simmon – who first taught the boys to ride their bikes - coming home on leave on a number of occasions during 1943, in uniform. He would ring them and off they would all go cycling into the surrounding countryside, walking on the golf links and visiting a ruined castle, returning hours later for tea, with David riding piggy back. They remember him as a kind, avuncular and charming man, whose visits they looked forward to. By an amazing coincidence, when Jack was at Clayesmore School near Blandford, in 1950, as a member of the CCF (Public School Combined Cadet Force), he trained for 3 weeks with the Somerset Light Infantry, Simmon’s old regiment.
Simmon’s cousin Sheila Gaiman recalls vividly how the family were enormously honoured about Simmon’s membership of the LSO and when he came home on leave he would often go to play in their radio concerts. They would all gather around the radio and Paul Beard, a famous leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with whom the LSO frequently played (25), would announce that Simmon Latutin was playing with them that evening as the family swelled with collective pride.
Margaret recalls one charming incident when Simmon – as a new and very proud parent – was wheeling daughter Anne in her pram. He was newly commissioned, smoking his pipe, when a private approached the young family and smartly saluted an officer! With one hand on the pram and the other on his pipe, Simmon rapidly appraised the situation and whispered loudly to Margaret, “grab the handle!” whilst with his now free hand he returned a crisp salute to the soldier.
By January 1943, Simmon was posted with his battalion to Northern Ireland and Margaret went on a visit to County Down for three months with Anne to be near his army base. She was in digs, firstly on a farm close to his camp, and later in Downpatrick. But Simmon was able to get frequent passes to spend time with his family. Between February 10th and March 10th 1943, however, Simmon attended a Battle Course at Barnard Castle.
Not wanting to have an only child, soon Margaret fell pregnant again and returned to Berkhamstead. By the time she was 4 months, Simmon came home to Berkhamstead in April 1943, on embarkation leave, pending posting to former Italian Somaliland, in East Africa. Simmon was very disappointed as he wanted to stay with his Regiment who had started rehearsing for D Day. Both he and Margaret believed that he was posted away to avoid having him in action with his poor eyesight, a disability that the other officers had obviously noticed.
On at least one occasion Simmon went to Haslemere to visit a much-loved aunt, Pearl (Freda’s sister) and his cousins. His cousins, Rhoda Zeffertt and Sheila Gaiman (Pearl’s daughters), who were small children at the time, remember Simmon as such a gentle and kind man, and recall clearly that it was during his embarkation leave and he had come to say goodbye (26). There was great excitement as he came to the garden gate in his smart officer’s uniform. Pearl was especially excited but had accidentally put on her dress inside out and Rhoda recalls how she would not change it in case it brought bad luck. Pearl adored Simmon for, though his aunt, she was only about 10 years older and they had been playmates when Simmon had visited them in the Mile End as children. She had spent many hours with him as a baby and in effect helped partly to bring him up.
On April 9th 1943, travelling the usual troopship route via West and South Africa, around the Cape, Simmon left the UK and arrived in Durban on May 21st, then proceeding to Mombassa, arriving on June 10th. Simmon was first sent to the border with Abyssinia, commanding African troops who were engaged in trying to stop Arab slave traders transporting their appalling “cargo” from the Abyssinian border to the Cairo markets. In his letters home he described to Margaret some of his adventures (27). On one occasion a runner came to him with urgent news, which Simmon thought had to be about the arrival of his second child; instead it was about the surrender of Italy on September 8th. Soon after another runner arrived, this time with the glad news of the birth of his second daughter, Elisabeth (28). The only European for 400 miles, he was asked to give all kinds of advice and show leadership to local people on many occasions – once having to oversee the birth of an overdue baby in a village (29).
Rhoda Zeffert (see above) recalls that just before the Christmas of either 1943 or 1944, when Simmon was in East Africa, his toddler daughter Anne was on the British Forces Radio to recite a popular nursery rhyme song of the day, for her dad; Rhoda clearly remembers all the family in her house gathered around to hear Anne perform (30) and also recalls Anne saying hello to her daddy, and Captain Simmon Latutin’s name being mentioned by the compere; all the children were allowed to stay up and listen.
In late summer of 1943, Simmon was posted to Mogadishu to command the infantry training school for Swahili speaking Kenyan African troops (31) and troops of the Somalia Gendarmerie about to go to Burma to fight under Wingate. He was promoted Acting Major (he was promoted Captain on August 1st 1944) and given his own house. He made it his business to seek out any Jewish servicemen in the locality and always entertained them for Friday night (eve of Sabbath) kiddush (Jewish religious supper) in his quarters; what Margaret proudly, rightly and movingly describes as “keeping the Jewish boys together in some way by inviting them to his house”. In early December 1944, he developed a tropical ulcer on his leg and had to spend the period December 4th to 20th in hospital in Nairobi, returning to Mogadishu by air with a leg in plaster and using a walking stick, just before Christmas. This meant he was unable to go on the next bush training patrol with his men, and his Second in Command went instead. This proved to have a fateful and tragic outcome.
Just after Christmas, on December 28th, a Captain and Sergeant of the British Military Police, stationed in the camp, came to ask Simmon if the men could have some of the old Italian signal rockets stored in a hut, for the New Year celebrations with the African troops. Simmon agreed and taking the keys, hobbled along with the men to unlock the doors. As the two men and an African Askari entered the hut, there was a huge explosion, which was heard clearly in central Mogadishu (32). Without hesitation, Simmon plunged into the inferno and pulled out one man; then, his clothes now ablaze, he plunged in again to pull out a second man; attempting to enter a third time, other soldiers pulled him away, as he was so badly burnt. Throughout all this, he would have been unable to use his stick, dragging men out of the flames, and would have been much hindered by his leg plaster. The African soldier had died and the by now badly burnt three survivors were rushed to hospital (33); the two MP’s died that day and Simmon succumbed on December 30th (34).
On January 2nd 1945, Margaret received a telegram at her home in Hemel Hempstead (35), saying Simmon was gravely ill in hospital with 3rd degree burns; Margaret called a relative who was a nurse to ask for some explanation of this, and it was she who called Margaret’s mother who came over immediately to stay with her (36). Two days later, the day before Anne’s 3rd birthday, the second, fatal telegram arrived announcing Simmon’s death. He was 28 years old. Margaret was devastated; Simmon had never held his second daughter.
Margaret remembers much of these events as a blur; with no telephone at home, she went at around 2pm that day to telephone her sister-in-law Blanche from a public call box, at work, and told her the terrible news. Blanche was then allowed home immediately to inform her parents in Camden that afternoon. Morris and Blanche then journeyed to see Margaret and about two days later Margaret went to see her parents-in-law at the house in Camden.
Simmon’s effects were eventually sent home to Margaret; these included various personal items, but most important, his violin and viola. A treasured watch she had given him with his name inscribed on it, which in fact she had inherited from her grandmother, never arrived, however, and was probably stolen.
At Pearl’s house the news came as bombshell. Sheila and Rhoda remember their mother receiving constant phone calls that Simmon was very ill. Sheila could not quite believe what she was hearing and being about 10 years old then, got younger sister Rhoda to do something. The children had a game whereby when eating a fried egg - as they were that evening - they would break the yoke and make a wish. Sheila said that all the cousins should make a wish that Simmon gets better quickly; she then told young Rhoda to go and tell their mother what they had wished, for Sheila deep down knew that the worst had happened. Their mother, standing in the kitchen, sadly replied that Simmon would not get better, and that he had in fact died. Pearl was speechless for some time and that was how Sheila remembers that terrible day. How the news was broken to Simmon’s parents she does not recall but she remembers that Freda especially was beside herself with grief at the cruel loss of her so talented and gentle son.
In April or May 1945, Sheila was sent by Pearl on a mission - to stay for 10 days with her aunt Freda to try and cheer her up. Sheila remembers taking this very seriously and indeed she met with a partial success; they played games together and went shopping, Sheila trying desperately to distract Freda – and Morris - from their grief, alone in the house whilst Blanche, their daughter went to work.
At the National Archives in Kew, the author discovered the War Office (WO) Diary of “HQ Troops East Africa Command, Mogadishu” (37). In the monthly summary for January 1945 it states tantalisingly, on January 10th, “ court of inquiry (C of I) into an explosion at the Gendarmerie”, in the minutes referring to December 1944. However, in the notes following there is no sign of any minutes of the meeting (38) where it was discussed, or any copy of the inquiry itself.
A Jewish neighbour in Hemel Hempstead, on hearing about Simmon’s death, came to give her condolences, but also astonished Margaret by telling her that her nephew – a Jewish soldier in East Africa - had been a frequent Friday night guest at Simmon’s house in the training school and had attended his funeral! One can only imagine Margaret’s feelings at such an amazing coincidence. Sadly she does not remember the name of the serviceman.
Margaret drew great strength from her Jewish faith and learned to accept the terrible blow dealt to her, with courage and fortitude. She knew for Simmon’s sake and that of her daughters, that she had to go on and make the best of her life. A particular officer’s wife from the SLI, whom Margaret had got to know in Northern Ireland, wrote a particularly moving letter to her.
Many other letters of condolence arrived, but one in particular was informative. It came from a retired British regular army officer, Major Arthur McKinstry, who lived at Limuru in Kenya, growing coffee. He had lost his only son serving in the RAF and had adopted Simmon as a kind of surrogate. His letter raged because he knew that an order of 1942 had instructed that the Italian rockets be dumped as unstable. This order had never been carried out by the CO of the time. It was almost certain that the hobnail boots of the men, scraping on the concrete floor of the hut had created a spark which caused the explosion.
Simmon’s death was announced on page 6 of “The Daily Telegraph” on January 16th, and via the British Jewish Military Chaplains department, in the Jewish Chronicle on page 16, on January 26th 1945.
Many tributes came. Lt Col Richard E Thorne, Deputy Commandant of the Somalia Gendarmerie wrote to Margaret on January 2nd 1945 (39), expressing his deepest sympathy; he had looked upon Simmon as a personal friend and “an extremely efficient and outstanding Officer in every way….he was more than anyone responsible for the ( Training School’s) unqualified success. He was undoubtedly looked up to with respect and affection by all the men who passed through his hands, in the neighbourhood of two hundred, and by his permanent staff”. Simmon was still conscious in the hospital, to where he and the others had been rushed . Thorne went on, “He talked to me saying first ‘I am terribly sorry about this, Sir’… this was because we were together reorganising the School and he had just prior to this been in hospital with a bad ulcer on the ankle which would not heal and he felt that he was again incapacitated. He then asked me, ‘What happened to the native – did he get away?’. I tried to set his mind at rest over this - to save the shock – although I knew he had not been able to be got away. I feel you would like to know this as it again shows how his reactions even then, were consideration for others. Mercifully he suffered little if anything. We buried him on the morning of the 31st (December) with full Military Honours and a tribute to the affection and regard with which he was held was shown by the fact that no less than 50 Officers and 10 other ranks attended – a very large proportion of our strength here… I feel very deeply myself the loss of a friend and a very gallant Officer and gentleman”(40).
On January 22nd, Col P R Munday, the CO of the Gendarmerie added his own tribute, writing to Margaret, “of his sincere sympathy… in the tragic loss of Captain Latutin, who died so gallant a death…I was away …when the fire occurred… his undaunted courage and magnificent selflessness in his determination to effect a rescue… are beyond praise. I have lost in him a most valued Officer, who was doing his work at the Training School for which he had been specially selected, exceedingly well and he was very popular amongst his men who all appreciated his ability to instruct and his firmness of character. As a friend also I mourn his loss, as he was a most charming person in private life. His funeral was well attended by all the available officers who form the garrison and he was afforded full military ceremonial. Major Mckinstry who knew him was also present”(41).
Some time later a Major of the Somalia Gendarmerie wrote to Margaret to say that he would be in England in due course and would like to meet her for lunch at the Overseas Club in St James’s. Margaret agreed and dressed for the occasion. The officer eventually arrived late and somewhat the worse for drink, and he invited her to a restaurant in Jermyn Street. Here, he egotistically and tactlessly regaled her with how he had enjoyed a “good” war in Somaliland but this was the first time he had home leave in 5 years. Margaret thought – but did not say – that her beloved Simmon would never have the home leave that this man was enjoying. As the luncheon wore on, Margaret was eventually able to bring herself to ask him if Simmon realised how badly burnt he was; he sharply replied that he had no idea! But he patronisingly reminded her of the Officers Families Fund that could provide her with some assistance. Afterwards Margaret took him for a short meeting with Simmon’s parents in Camden, although only Morris was strong enough to see him. Two weeks later Margaret received a grant from the Officers Families Fund for her two daughters; although she regarded it somewhat as blood money – given the nature of Simmon’s death – she accepted it for the children’s sake.
One day in April 1945, then 3 and half year old daughter Anne was talking with Margaret, and she asked if it was true that her daddy was never really coming home. Margaret explained that this was true. Anne then asked, then where will he go? Margaret explained that when a match is struck and then goes out, we know that there has been a flame but it is now gone; we do not know where it has gone but we do know that it once was bright and strong and has now gone – just like daddy. This apt and moving explanation seemed to satisfy Simmon’s little girl.
The Award and Remembrance
On February 2nd 1946, a letter was sent from Brigadier D H Wickham, Chief British Army Administrator in Somalia, to Civil Affairs Branch in Nairobi (42). Nairobi had clearly requested witness statements of the incident at Mogadishu, and Wickham had to reply, “both the persons carried out of the burning (explosives) store by Capt. Latutin died before they were able to make any statement. I enclose however, a report by No. 132 Sgt Aden Abdi of the Somalia Gendarmerie, who was an eye-witness of Capt. Latutin’s action”.
The reader will understand why I now quote his statement in full.
“I remember the day in December 1944, just after Christmas, when a fire broke out at the Somalia Gendarmerie Training School in Mogadishu. Between the hours of 1500 and 1530 I was in my barrack room when I heard shouts of “Fire, Fire!” and simultaneously a number of explosions. I ran out of the barrack room and saw that the fire was in the store where explosives are kept. I picked up a bucket of water and went to the scene of the fire. On my way I sounded the fire alarm. On arrival at the store, the first person I saw was Captain Latutin, whose clothing was aflame, dragging the Military Police Sergeant Major though the doorway of the store. The Sergeant Major was naked except for a pair of smouldering boots. Captain Latutin laid the Sergeant Major clear of the doorway, and then immediately dashed back into the store, to return in a very short time, dragging the Military Police Captain with him. The Military Police Captain was naked. Captain Latutin’s clothing was by this time practically burnt off him, and his hair was alight. I rushed up to take off Captain Latutin’s clothing, but he ordered me to attend to the other two which I did. Myself and some other Gendarmes put all three burnt men into a truck and took them to the De Martino Hospital (43). The fire continued all the afternoon and it was most dangerous to approach the building on account of the continual explosions.
I was the first person to arrive at the scene of the fire, and I feel sure that Captain Latutin would not have died had he not gone into the blazing building to bring out the Military Police Captain, because when I saw Captain Latutin the first time, after he had dragged out the Sergeant Major, he was not badly burnt”.
On May 29th 1946, Sir Robert Knox, DSO, received a letter from the War Office (44), saying -
“Dear Robert, I submit the attached citation for the posthumous award of the George Cross to Captain Simmon Latutin, Somalia Gendarmerie. The recommendation has been forwarded by the G.O.C.-in-C. (General Officer Commander in Chief) East Africa Command. “
All of this was of course completely unknown to Margaret at the time.
Some 18 months after Simmon’s death, and now living in Harrow (45) on just her widow’s war pension, Margaret wrote to the War Office asking if some kind of recognition could be given to Simmon, perhaps a posthumous Mention in Despatches, so that she would be able to explain in some small way to her two children why their father had died in a non-combat zone. After some time, a reply was received to the effect that a George Cross was going to be awarded to Simmon in recognition of his supreme courage in the incident in trying to save the three men (46); the medal is the highest award for gallantry that can be bestowed, given when not in the face of the enemy. And so it was announced in the press the following day, the London Gazette publishing it on 6th August 1946, promulgated on 10th September, and “The Times” and “Telegraph” on September 11th 1946 (47), (48). The Jewish Chronicle announced the award on their front page on September 13th 1946, quoting in full the GC Citation that was in “The Times”: (49)
“It was on December 29th 1944 that a fire occurred at the Training School Store, Somalia Gendarmerie, Mogadishu, while some Italian rockets and explosives were being taken out for another unit about to hold a New Year’s entertainment. Captain Simmon Latutin, together with one officer, a Company Sergeant Major and a personal boy, were in the store selecting explosives , Captain Latutin standing in the main doorway. For some unexplained reason, a fire broke out and almost simultaneously, a great number of rockets began to explode and burn. There were some 70 cases in the store (50). The force of the explosion and the fire turned the store into an inferno.
Regardless of the detonating rockets, the intense heat of the fire and the choking clouds of smoke, Captain Latutin plunged into the storeroom and succeeded in dragging out the officer who was almost unconscious due to his burns (51). By this time Captain Latutin’s clothes and body were alight, but unhesitatingly he rushed again into the inferno and rescued the Company Sergeant Major, who by this time, owing to the fire, was quite naked. The body of the personal boy was recovered later, but was unrecognisable due to its charred condition.
The heroism of Captain Latutin was outstanding as he fully realised the acute danger he was in as he twice entered the building ablaze with explosives and flames. His unquenchable determination to succour the injured is illustrated by his second entry into the store, even though his own clothes and body were alight. His action was illustrative of the finest degree of British courage and a magnificent example of undaunted selflessness.
Captain Latutin died next day as a result of his injuries”.
The original citation goes on – “Despite the fact that only one eye-witness is available, the evidence of the extremely gallant conduct and determined heroism of Captain Latutin in unassailable.” (52)
There were other tributes; on September 11th the “Daily Express” described the award to “a sturdy young man who sat in mufti (53) playing the viola at wartime symphony concerts in London”, quoting Margaret as saying “‘after he joined the Army in 1940, he continued to play with them when he was on leave. He was a quiet man… whatever job Simmon had to do he did it thoroughly. He was in charge so he went along… he never knew his efforts had been in vain nor realised how badly he had been burnt. For that I can be thankful’”.
“The Daily Graphic” newspaper of the same day carried a similar, but shorter story (54) and the Minutes of the Board of the LSO noted on September 16th the award of the GC to Simmon.
The Jewish Year Book announced the award in the edition of 1947 on pages 312 and 320. However, his regiment did not officially know till November 1960 about the award because he had been seconded to the Somalia Gendarmerie (55).
Disappointingly, none of the three local Camden newspapers mentioned one word of the award in 1946 or in 1947 (56) even though they featured plenty of stories about locals being given MBE’s, MC’s and other decorations; one is left wondering at the motives for this (57).
Within a few weeks, the Major from the Somalia Gendarmerie wrote to congratulate Margaret on the award of the George Cross to Simmon, but suggested that they would have liked to have proposed the award themselves. Margaret politely but firmly replied that they had already had 18 months to do this and that was surely long enough.
The posthumous investiture took place at Buckingham Palace on December 2nd 1947 (announced in “The Times” on December 3rd)(58), postponed slightly as the King was abroad on an official visit to South Africa in the weeks before. Margaret’s mother’s attitude had somewhat altered by now, as a George Cross award was something, of course, she could boast about. But Margaret alone was invited to attend with her children (59). It was bitterly cold and she and Blanche and the two children took a taxi to the Palace.
Margaret remembers the ceremony as quite low-key, with quiet string music being played in the background. Anne, Simmon and Margaret’s daughter (60), remembered that the seats were arranged in pairs, for the 2 people invited for each family, and pinned to the seats were raffle ticket style numbers. She said to Margaret that she had better sit on a specific chair which she chose of the two, so that Margaret would not get hurt by the pin! She also remembered being disappointed when told by Margaret that the King was the man in the uniform, as she was expecting someone with a huge crown and cloak!
One other George Cross was presented first to an elderly couple just before, and then Margaret and Anne were called forward. The King looked very ill, and sadly he stuttered when he spoke to Margaret and she was unable to understand what he said. She remembers clearly, though, that she replied to the King, “I am very proud of him”. The King presented her with the medal in an open case as toddler Anne, in her light tweed coat, stared at him, finger in her mouth. Quite nervous, they both forgot to curtsy! Having been told mistakenly by her mother that only one child could attend, she had taken Anne as the older child, to the ceremony. At one stage, overawed by the plush surroundings, Anne whispered to her mother, “Do they have marble statues in their bedroom too?” Elisabeth, meanwhile, was taken for a walk to St James’s Park by her aunt, Blanche Latutin, to feed the ducks. As a result, for many years, the medal was given to Elisabeth to keep, but is now on permanent loan to the SLI regimental museum in Taunton.
After the investiture, all four went for a coffee and snack and returned home by bus to Simmon’s parents. They were of course deeply grieved by his death, especially his mother, and they never really recovered from it. Anne and Margaret both remember vividly when they arrived in Camden that Freda wept ceaselessly, but Simmon’s father silently took the medal in its case over to the window, to the sunlight, and gently turned it over to read the inscription. He then slowly, carefully and gently handed it back to Margaret.
On April 27th 1946, the LSO held a concert at the Albert Hall in memory of those members who had perished during the war. It was called “A Tribute to the members of the LSO who gave their lives in the cause of freedom 1939-45”. Anne remembers attending the first half with family members and that the programme had Simmon’s name inscribed on it (61) along with six others.
Sadly, Simmon’s mother died on May 30th 1953 and within 17 days his father too had passed away, on 16th June; they were aged just 58 and 66 years (62).
Simmon is remembered on the memorial to Commonwealth servicemen and women of the Two World Wars (GC and VC section) which is in Constitution Hill, near Hyde Park Corner; at the Royal Academy of Music War Memorial in the Marylebone main building (63) and in the RAM Magazine “Roll of Service” published in September 1945 (64); on the World War Two memorial at Golders Green synagogue, Dunstan Rd, NW11 (65); on a large memorial on the grave of his parents at Willesden cemetery (66); on a Roll of Honour in the former Harrow synagogue, Vaughan Road (67); and of course in both the Somerset Light Infantry (Taunton) and Jewish Military (Hendon) Museums.
The memorial at Golders Green synagogue was inaugurated in October 1954 (68), presided over by Rev Isaac Levy, Senior Jewish Chaplain to HM Forces, attended by Reverends Newman, Livingstone and Tashlicky. Alderman Bernard Waley-Cohen – later Lord Mayor of London - unveiled it and two members of the Royal Horse Guards formed a Guard of Honour, with several Standards of the North West London branches of AJEX on parade.
After the war Margaret was financially insecure, earning only a poor living copying music manuscripts as a freelance. Then, through an old pre-war friend of Simmon’s - Joe Sack (69)- she met a South African who told her she could get a much better paid job in an orchestra in South Africa; so off she went in March 1948 to Cape Town. Employing an African domestic and nurse for her girls, Margaret was soon playing in the Cape Town Broadcast Orchestra, and with various string quartets; she also got a music teaching post at the University of Cape Town and managed in addition to take a diploma in music teaching. Margaret spent five and a half years in South Africa (70), soon meeting a German Jewish refugee, Michael Liebert (born in Berlin, his family had sent him to family friends in South Africa in 1935; they remained and had died in Auschwitz). She and Michael married in December 1948 at the Cape Town City Hall. Michael had served in the South African army in WW2. Whilst in South Africa, the past re-visited her again on one occasion as she met a former RAF officer, who knew Simmon; but for an injury he had received at the time, he had meant to attend his funeral in Mogadishu the day after he died.
Michael was an ideal stepfather to the girls who, after all, did not remember or know Simmon - although Anne did remember the press attention the family got at the announcement of the GC and at the investiture in 1947. However, after much hardship, some unpleasant experiences with her new in-laws and the rise of the racist Apartheid regime, Margaret and Michael decided to move back to the UK in August 1953 (Margaret had wisely rented out her Harrow house whilst abroad and so they had somewhere to live).
Simmon’s grave was eventually moved to Nairobi Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery (grave 1.3), Ngong Road (71) albeit without Margaret’s knowledge. Later, she received an invitation from the War Office with a free (!) ticket to attend the official opening of the cemetery, and recommending an inexpensive hotel to stay in, if she could fly herself out; but Margaret had to politely refuse, saying she was working full time with two small children and anyway her late husband was buried in Mogadishu. She received a very curt reply saying the body had been moved. Margaret’s second husband Michael, however, had a former refugee cousin in Nairobi and she attended the ceremony on her behalf and took a photograph of the CWGC headstone, carved with the Star of David (72). Inscribed on the foot of the white Portland stone grave is Margaret’s own tribute: “We can never forget your unselfish courage in true service to mankind”.
In Harrow Margaret got a job as a music teacher in a local secondary school, and Michael became a successful salesman and manager. At aged 19, Anne became Head Girl at St Paul’s Girls school – the first Jewish girl to hold the post in the school’s history. But Margaret fell ill with arthiritis in her hands and spine and had to re-train as a teacher of English to foreign students. She later wrote a book on music teaching. In 1971, they moved to Walderton, near Chichester, West Sussex where Margaret ran the local play group. In the 1980’s, Michael sadly became a sick man and died in December 2004. They had 56 years of happy marriage.
Margaret had been close to Simmon’s sister Blanche (who married in 1946) for many years, but eventually they drifted apart when Margaret moved to West Sussex. Sadly, Margaret was never even told when Blanche sadly died quite young of cancer.
For many years Margaret was invited to and attended SLI annual reunion dinners in London, until she moved to West Sussex, and once attended an SLI “Beating Retreat” at Wells Cathedral with one of her granddaughters; they were presented to Princess Alexandra, then Colonel of the Regiment, on that occasion.
In 1979, a letter appeared in the Jewish Chronicle (73) from Joe Sack, the founder and then Managing Editor of the “Orchestra World” magazine. Previously music editor of the Rand Daily Mail, but living in 1979 in London, Joe had been a cello and composition student with Simmon at the RAM in the 1930’s and also knew Margaret of course. Responding to a letter about Jewish holders of the George Cross, Joe wrote movingly and with emotion about how Simmon’s family had made a lonely student from South Africa so warmly welcome in their humble home. He said Simmon was “like so many true heroes, a quiet, modest, retiring young man, as big in heart as he was in stature”. They had been in the London Symphony Orchestra together, and he declared Simmon one of the best viola players in Britain at that time. When war came, they went their own ways, promising to meet up again. In May 1943, Simmon wrote to Joe telling him of his posting to East Africa – a letter he still had in 1979 – and they did almost meet in Durban when Simmon was en route and Joe in the South African Air Force; but they only managed a telephone chat and they sadly never spoke or met again.
Simmon’s daughter Anne has had a distinguished career as a University academic in Sociology. Elisabeth has had a long and varied career in primary education and – perhaps not surprisingly – is a talented string player (cello) like her illustrious Father (74)!
But the last word must rest with Simmon. He left a letter for Margaret in case of his death (75), and in it he predicted that, “We Latutins will make our mark”. So they have, living up to his ideals of service and devotion to duty.
Margaret Latutin was unstinting in her help, making many audio tapes, writing letters, reading drafts of the manuscript and speaking with the author on the telephone on numerous occasions, despite her 89 years. Without her enthusiasm and assistance this study would not have been possible.
I would also like to thank Jack Green (cousin of Margaret); Simmon Hill (son of Blanche Latutin); Simmon Latutin’s cousins Sheila, Rhoda, Marlene and Maureen; Simmon and Margaret’s daughters Anne and Elisabeth; Anna Charin of the Jewish Chronicle Library; the staff of the Tower Hamlets Local History Library; the staff of The National Archives – TNA - (formerly Public Record Office) at Kew; Bridget Palmer of the Royal Academy of Music Library and Archives; Mark Aston of the Camden Local History and Archives Centre; Karen Nathan of the United Synagogue Burial Society; Charles Tucker of the United Synagogue Archives; Peter Bowbeer of the London Metropolitan University; Naomi Hill of Golders Green Synagogue; the staff of the Bushey and Willesden United Synagogue cemetery offices; Bob Thomson of the Harrow Local Studies Library; the curator of the Somerset Light Infantry Museum in Taunton, Lt. Col. David Eliot; Mary Connor of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission; Marion Hebblethwaite of the GC Database; the staff of the Reading Room of the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth; Jack Cowdrey of the Royal Albert Hall archives; Libby Rice of the LSO Archives; The Army Records Office, Glasgow; Peter Baron and Tony Kearney of the Northern Echo newspaper, Newcastle; Helen Charlton of the South Shields Gazette.
Source: Martin Sugerman, Reprinted with Permission. This article is the sole copyright of Martin Sugarman and may not be used, reproduced or copied in part or whole without his express permission. The views expressed in this or any other paper by the author are not necessarily the views of AJEX or of the Jewish Military Museum.