The phenomenal Norfolk firefighter who rescued 27 people from drowning
- Credit: Contributed
There was nothing remotely showy about Fred Sadd. Not a shred of swank or swagger. But there was, unquestionably, an aura about him, one of calm assurance that those around him found innately reassuring.
Described as “a gentle giant”, as his son, Brian, recalled: “If anybody was ever in trouble, you’d hear them say, ‘Go and get Fred! Fred’ll sort it out.’ No matter what the problem was they knew they could rely on him to help”
He was, in short, the ideal man to have around in a crisis - and never more so than on a night of storm and flood that inflicted unparalleled death and destruction along a 250-mile swathe of coastline stretching from the Tees to the Thames Estuary.
The devastating North Sea surge that struck the East Coast without warning on the night of January 31-February 1, 1953 resulted in a tsunami of tragedy with more than 300 lives lost and thousands more rendered homeless.
It was a catastrophe of Biblical proportions redeemed only in part by the extraordinary deeds of bravery performed by hundreds of ordinary men and women caught up in the worst flood disaster since the Second World War.
But of the many acts of selfless courage displayed on that most terrible and terrifying of nights none surpassed the Herculean feats of 43-year-old leading fireman Fred Sadd.
In a 13-year career spanning war and peace, he had experienced many bad nights but nothing that compared with the damage wreaked by the gale-driven wall of water that overwhelmed Norfolk’s sea defences and turned large tracts of Yarmouth and Gorleston into potentially lethal inland lakes.
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Not that he had any inkling of what lay in store when he answered the call at the Gorleston Sub-Station that would catapult him into the eye of the storm.
The words were still imprinted on his memory 20 years later when he recalled the turn of events that would see him feted a national hero and his real-life gallantry portrayed comic-strip style alongside the fictional exploits of Britain’s favourite space-age super hero Dan Dare: “There is a fire at the pre-fabs in Bells Marsh Road. Apparently there are children involved.”
It was a little after 10pm, some four hours after the 10ft high surge had made fatal landfall among the scattered communities bordering the west Norfolk coast, and still there was no hint of the impending threat.
The first Fred and his three-man crew knew of the danger facing them was when they drove headlong into a road fast becoming a river. “Suddenly the driver stopped,” recalled Fred. “I thought he was lost at first, but then I saw the water coming down the street towards us.”
Scrambling out of the cab, they splashed through a rapidly rising torrent of icy water to an embankment above the line of pre-fab bungalows. From there, they looked down upon a scene of worsening carnage almost beyond comprehension.
In that howling blackness people were battling to stay alive against the rising tide of freezing floodwater. Worst off were the families huddled in the pre-fabs. Some took refuge on the tops of cupboards as the water lapped around them.
One man rescued a child and woman only to find himself and his wife marooned in their own home, cut off from safety by a torrent of water that was shoulder high.
“If it hadn’t been for a man swimming round and finding us and then leading a boat we should have drowned,” he said. Of their saviour, he later remarked: “He was in the water for hours swimming round from window to window. I don’t know who he was, but he deserves the highest praise.”
The mystery hero of the hour was Fred Sadd. As the water levels rose and the dangers grew, Fred, as the most senior and, at a height of 6ft 1.5ins, tallest member of his crew, ordered his men back while he scrambled down the bank, guided towards the stricken homes by a solitary torch beam shining from one of the pre-fab windows and the cries for help piercing the buffeting wind.
Plunging blindly into the water, with nothing but his uniform to protect him against the cold and any hidden obstructions, it was all he could do to stay on his feet. “Suddenly,” he later recalled, “I was nearly up to my neck, with the soft ground giving under my feet. I could not see any fence tops, ditches or other obstacles until I blundered into them.”
A lesser man would have accepted defeat and turned back, but Fred struggled on. “There was no time to worry or feel frightened,” he would later insist. “It was my job and I was paid to do it.”
Driven on by a mixture of blind optimism and sheer bloody-mindedness, he waded through the debris-strewn water until he could walk no further and was forced to swim, shouting encouragement to the trapped families as he splashed from one partially submerged bungalow to the next one.
He found a fisherman who promptly produced a rowing boat, albeit one that lacked both ‘bung’ and oars.
Undaunted, Fred helped fix a makeshift plug for the hole and, in the absence of oars, they pushed out across the water, hauling themselves forward with the aid of a line of fence posts until they ran out, at which point Fred clambered over the side and began variously pushing and pulling the boat from one home to another.
It had become a race against time. “Time was so precious,” he would later say. “One of the pre-fab people had told me that his family could only last out another 15 minutes. So, we went to him first and saved the man and wife and two little girls.”
It marked the beginning of what he called a ‘circular tour’ of the beleaguered pre-fabs. Having pushed and pulled the boat carrying the first family to the safety of the embankment, Fred plunged straight back into the floodwater.
On his next journey he carried two men and women into the boat before swimming to a neighbouring house where he rescued a husband and wife together with their six-month old baby.
On one trip the boat became wedged for half an hour on a garden wall leaving Fred to carry on alone in answer to a cry for help from a woman marooned in her home with three children. A little while later he returned with three babies which he transferred into another boat that had joined the rescue effort.
And so it went on, a one-man life-saving operation. Whole families lifted to safety on the back and shoulders of a single fireman.
But even his mighty strength had its limits. After hours without break in freezing conditions that a senior fire officer later described as “atrocious”, Fred’s body gave out and, having just delivered another boatload of survivors to dry land, he collapsed.
It was not, however, the end of his prodigious effort. Given first aid and transported back to the fire station, he barely had time to shower and change his uniform when another call for help came in at 3.25am, this time from the houses in Bells Marsh Road.
Despite suffering from injuries to his legs and the effects of his prolonged immersion, he did not hesitate. Once again a fire was reported, but this time Fred knew what to expect. “When we got there,” he later recalled, “the front door was locked and the people lowered me the key on a piece of wool from a bedroom window.”
Their rescue complete, he returned to a neighbouring house where he found three terrified children sheltering in an upstairs room. “The parents were out. I don’t know if they knew what was going on or if they were unable to get back. I used my axe to cut a glass panel from the front door, then put my arm through to open it. Then we brought out the children,” he said matter-of-factly.
In all, some 15 people, nine of them children, were rescued during that second rescue mission, bringing to a total of 27 the number saved largely as a result of what one official report described as his “extreme perseverance and courage”.
Not that Fred considered his actions in any way special either at the time or in the years that followed. When he eventually returned to his home in Yarmouth Road, Caister, he said nothing about his leading role in the rescue work. “He was much too sleepy,” his wife Nellie said. “He kept dozing off and then waking up with terrible cramp.”
Even the reports he compiled gave little hint of the hazards, still less his heroic part in the life-saving operation. Typical of them was one in which he merely recorded: “Persons evacuated for safety’s sake. Weather: stormy. Road condition: wet.”
Others, however, disagreed, with the award of the George Medal, given to Leading Fireman Frederick William Sadd for a display of “courage of the highest order”.
Fred's medal is set to go to auction at the end of November with Spinks.