Plaque commemorating Jewish war hero who saved two men from fire

A plaque in Camden commemorating Captain Simmon Latutin, who was awarded the George Cross

A plaque in Camden commemorating Captain Simmon Latutin, who was awarded the George Cross - Credit: Martin Sugarman

A plaque honouring a Jewish war hero who died saving men from a blazing barracks has been installed in Camden.

Capt Simmon Latutin GC died when fireworks exploded in a hut in Mogagishu where he was stationed during World War 2.

Simmon was not in the hut when it happened but ran in to save the men who were.

The plaque, at Simmon's former home at 20 North Villas, has taken two years to come to fruition after delays and technical hitches.

It was installed by Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX) archivist Martin Sugarman and financed by Jerry Klinger of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation.

The initiative to install plaques honouring Jewish war and cultural heroes began for them both three years ago as part of a campaign to combat rising antsemitism.

"Simmon's story was very little known until I uncovered it from his wife and family, as well as documents and cuttings hidden away in many archives," said Martin.

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"My motivation was that of the three Jewish GC awards, his was the only one that was posthumous. So he never lived to enjoy the celebrity and honour that goes with it."

Simmon was born in Euston in July 1916, the son of poor immigrant tailors Moses and Fradel Kraftcheck.

He attended the North London Polytechnic School between 1931 and 1933 and later won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music to study violin.

Within four years he was playing for the London Symphony Orchestra, at 20 years old, one of its youngest players.

Simmon Latutin with wife Margaret and daughter Anne.

Simmon Latutin with wife Margaret and daughter Anne. - Credit: Margaret Latutin

At the academy Simmon met Margaret Liebet Jacob, a woodwind student. They were married in a private ceremony at Marylebone Town Hall registry office in March 1940.

Then in July 1940 Simmon was called up into the Army. Though physically strong, his eyesight was very poor and, following his medical, he was downgraded and sent to the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps as private 13052358 at Clacton.

But he was not happy and was determined to apply for a commission for a fighting regiment, as he wanted desperately to confront the Nazis, Martin said.

The first time he failed, but on the second occasion, he memorised the reading card while waiting for the eye test.

He was upgraded and posted to the IXth Battalion, the Somerset Light Infantry at Donnington.

On January 5, 1942 his first child was born and Margaret was soon pregnant with a second.

In April 1943, Simmon was posted to former Italian Somaliland, in East Africa.

He had wanted to stay with his regiment which had started rehearsing for D Day.

In late summer of 1943, Simmon was posted to Mogadishu to command the infantry training school for Swahili-speaking Kenyan African troops and troops of the Somalia Gendarmerie about to go to Burma to fight under Orde Wingate.

Martin said he was given his own house and sought out any Jewish servicemen in the locality, and always entertained them for Friday night, the eve of Sabbath, in his quarters.

In early December 1944, he developed a tropical ulcer on his leg and spent two weeks 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 and died in the course of his duties.

On December 28, Simmon was asked by a captain and a sergeant of the British Military Police, stationed in the camp, if they could have some of the old Italian signal rockets stored in the hut for the New Year celebrations with the African troops. Simmon agreed unlocked the doors.

Within seconds of the two men and an African soldier entering the hut, there was a loud explosion that could be clearly heard in central Mogadishu.

Simmon dived into the blaze and pulled one man out. Then, with his clothes now on fire, he went in again to rescue the second man. He tried to go in a third time but was held back. He died two days later from his injuries.

Capt Simmon Latutin's medals. The war hero was posthumously awarded the George Cross

Capt Simmon Latutin's medals. The war hero was posthumously awarded the George Cross - Credit: Martin Sugarman

Some 18 months after Simmon’s death, Margaret received a letter stating her husband was to receive a George Cross in recognition of his supreme courage in the incident in trying to save the three men.

Simmon is remembered on many memorials including on the World War Two memorial at Golders Green synagogue.

At the foot of his grave in Nairobi is Margaret’s own tribute: “We can never forget your unselfish courage in true service to mankind."

Simmon’s full story is told on the Jewish Virtual Library at www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/simmon-latutin and in Martin Sugarman’s book, Fighting Back: British Jewry's Military Contribution in the Second World War.