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Wartime hero who saved famed building grins as he is honoured on 100th birthday

A wartime hero who saved one of Wales’ most historic buildings from burning down as a teenager grinned as he was honoured on his 100th birthday, his courageous secret having recently been discovered by his family after nearly 83 years.

Ronald Brignall was just 16 years old when, during a Second World War air raid, he scaled Cardiff’s City Hall with one 12Ib (5.4kg) sandbag clamped between his teeth and another under his arm – saving the building from destruction by dousing the flames.

Mr Brignall was cheered on by fire-watchers as he climbed back up a 25ft (7.6 metre) drainpipe with a fire hose – also gripped in his teeth – to finish putting out the fire, only about 10 minutes after springing into action.

Ronald Brignall bravery honour
A 100th birthday party was held for Ronald Brignall at his care home in Sussex (Aaron Chown/PA)

The plumbing apprentice had been walking home from college on February 2 1941 when air raid sirens started and he saw a German incendiary bomb land on the roof of City Hall.

Mr Brignall’s son Ian said his “modest” father had never spoken about his wartime heroism and the family only found out three months ago – nearly 83 years later – because he had kept some newspaper cuttings from the time.

Speaking to a local paper at the time, Mr Brignall’s only comment was that his jaw was sore from carrying the sandbag and that he had ruined his suit.

A 100th birthday party was held on Thursday at the Sussex care home where Mr Brignall now lives, attended by his son, daughter and other care home residents.

The centenarian smiled as his birthday was celebrated, surrounded by birthday cards and memorabilia, including contemporary newspaper clippings, old photographs and a commendatory letter from his then-employer, who gave the young man some money to put towards a new suit.

The Lord Mayor of Cardiff, Bablin Molik, travelled to Sussex to present Mr Brignall with a framed certificate on behalf of Cardiff Council, thanking him for his “outstanding heroism” in tackling the blaze as “other incendiary bombs and anti-aircraft gunfire splinters were falling around him”.

Ronald Brignall bravery honour
Ronald Brignall’s son described him as a “modest” and “stoic” man who kept his heroic past a secret (Aaron Chown/PA)

Mr Brignall said: “I was only a teenager, and I didn’t have any fear.

“I just wanted to make sure the bomb didn’t do any damage to City Hall.”

After becoming an official fire-watcher, he joined the RAF in 1944, taking part in the last major airborne operation of the war (Operation Varsity) the following year as a rear-gunner on a Whitley and Halifax bomber.

Three RAF representatives handed a congratulatory letter to the Air Force veteran, who was wearing medals awarded to him as a result of his service.

Ms Molik also gave him a Welsh rugby shirt, signed by all of the players, saying she was “honoured to meet a living legend” and was delighted to present Mr Brignall with his belated honour.

Ronald Brignall bravery honour
Ronald Brignall’s only comment at the time was to complain his jaw hurt from gripping the sandbag and his suit had been ruined (Family handout/PA)

A singer performed for the care home residents, singing Elvis Presley songs and other hits from the 1950s and ’60s.

Mr Brignall’s son said he had rediscovered the old newspaper clippings when he “delved through his belongings to try and find some old photos” to display on his father’s birthday.

He said when he had asked his father why he had never told anyone about the Cardiff City Hall fire, he replied: “Well, it just never seemed relevant.”

”I think he’s a very brave, very stoic chap,” he added.

He said: “Dad’s a little frail now, as you’d expect from someone who is 100, but I know he is thrilled to have this recognition and the certificate from the council.

“It’s the perfect present on his birthday.”