It was one of the most conspicuous acts of bravery of the Second World War. On March 18, 1944, a 30-year-old lieutenant from Sidcup was leading his men up a hill in Burma that was occupied by the Japanese. It was always going to be a tough encounter, since the Japanese were known to fight with suicidal ferocity; and sure enough, an officer leapt upon George Albert Cairns and attacked him with his ceremonial sword. So furious was his stroke that the Japanese severed Cairns’s arm. Yet the lieutenant not only killed his opponent; he mastered his pain to pick up the fallen sword.
With his good arm he then laid about him to such effect that the Japanese were routed and the hill was taken – a rare event in that grisly conflict.
Lt Cairns then toppled over, with the bodies of his enemies around him, and later died of his wounds. He was awarded the Victoria Cross. His name was recorded, along with those of 137 others from Sidcup who gave their lives in that war, on a bronze plaque and placed on the town’s war memorial.
This monument had been erected by public subscription in 1921 to honour the dead of the First World War, and in particular to the 204 men of Sidcup who “passed out of sight of men in the path of duty”. So there were altogether 342 names on that memorial in Sidcup. They were there so that people of our generation, and the next generation, would never forget the sacrifice they made.
They were intended to be a permanent reminder of the horror of war, and of the losses sustained by families in this one Kentish town. The whole purpose of the memorial was to act as a physical reassurance to the shades of those soldiers that their deaths had not been in vain. It is a promise from the living to the dead – that we will always revere what they had done.