Curly’s night of terror to rescue little Peggy Byng from Southsea cellar

George 'Curly' Palmer with fellow members of the ARP rescue team
George 'Curly' Palmer with fellow members of the ARP rescue team

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Last week I suggested that the man in the overcoat having his hand shaken (above) might have been rescued by the other men after an air raid.

It turns out that the chap with the toothy grin was the hero and had done the rescuing, an act for which he was awarded the British Empire Medal.

I’m grateful to colleague Bob Hind for pointing me to the story of George ‘Curly’ Palmer and the night of December 5, 1940.

For that was when a high explosive bomb landed at the back of houses in Belgrave Street, Southsea, leaving a crater 75ft wide and 30ft deep.

The explosions that followed killed four members of the Byng family who lived at number 59.

But 12-year-old Peggy Byng survived and was trapped in the wreckage of the house’s cellar.

Diminutive Curly was only 5ft 4in but as a keen boxer, he was tough. His other nickname was Punchy.

He was a member of the Haslemere Road-based ARP rescue squad and his team was sent to Belgrave Road to see if there were any survivors.

He couldn’t get into the house through the rubble but managed to squeeze through a coal hole into the front cellar. Peggy was trapped in the rear cellar.

He called out and Peggy replied, faintly. He promised he wouldn’t leave her despite being in water from fractured mains and fire hoses which reached up to his chest and was rising. He alerted his mates who got the firemen to turn off their hoses before he drowned.

In the dark, Curly finally broke through to the rear cellar and sat with her in the darkness talking and singing to her.

Gradually the rubble was removed and just after midday the next day Curly came up with Peggy in his arms, 15 hours after he’d gone into the cellar.

Peggy had suffered hardly a scratch and recovered after a few days in St Richard’s Hospital, Chichester.

Part of the citation which accompanied his BEM reads: ‘... regardless of personal danger from the collapsing debris and periodic explosions of coal gas in saving little Peggy Byng’.

The full story of Curly’s heroism, plus many more, can be found in Bob Hind’s 2006 book Portsmouth, City of Gallant Hearts.