Hundreds of people gathered in Tower Bridge Road last week to honour “one of Britain’s bravest men”, three years after a campaign was started to remember Bermondsey boy turned war hero Albert McKenzie.
Letters from the Queen and Prime Minister David Cameron were read out as a statue was unveiled on October 23 at the junction with Grange Road, on what would have been McKenzie’s 117th birthday.
A 21-gun salute on the HMS Belfast also took place in memory of the legendary sailor, who died aged 19 not long after receiving the Victoria Cross for displaying incredible bravery during a WW1 sea raid in Belgium.
The statue was erected close to Alice Street, where McKenzie grew up, and Grange School, where he was a pupil. Positioned on blue slate, to symbolise the sea, and a white plinth, to symbolise the harbour walls, it is also adorned with two war-era iron rings from the Belgian port.
The Albert McKenzie Memorial fund was launched in 2012 by resident Paul Keefe, who was shocked that the sailor wasn’t recognised by any memorial, other than a plaque at Grange School which was lost during renovations in the 1990s. He enlisted the support of then-MP Simon Hughes, Admiral Lord West and Albert’s great-nephew Colin McKenzie, who helped lead a grassroots campaign that raised the £142,000 necessary for the statue to be realised.
Sir Simon Hughes, former MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and a member of the memorial group, said that he was glad that “one of the best stories of bravery from Bermondsey” had finally been told.
He said: “This is a real person from a real family in Bermondsey. We could not be more proud today. He was not just one of Bermondsey’s bravest ever but one of Britain’s bravest ever.”
The sailor’s heroics started as he stormed Zeebrugge port’s heavily guarded harbour walls in 1918.
He came under fire and lost his machine gun but carried on regardless, “pushing, kicking and kneeing every German who got in the way.” He made it to safety and was awarded the Victoria Cross but sadly died of influenza in November just days before the end of the war.
Paul Keefe, chair of the Albert McKenzie Statue Memorial Fund, said of the campaign to create the statue: “It brought Bermondsey together. It rekindled old friendships and cemented new ones. Every man, woman and child who gave money to make this come to fruition can be very proud.”
The Queen and Prime Minister also sent their regards, with David Cameron praising McKenzie’s “tremendous courage” and “extraordinary valour.”
Mr Cameron said in his letter, which was read by Sir Hughes: “At just nineteen years of age, Albert demonstrated tremendous courage. Despite being severely wounded himself, he fought on and continued to advance valiantly, often exposing himself to great danger.
“Tragically, Albert died three months after receiving his decoration, just one week before the end of the First World War. Like so many others, he was unable to witness the hard-earned peace that his brave actions had helped to achieve. This statue will stand as a monument to his life.”