Category Archives: victoria cross

Victoria Cross Heroes – Gerard Roope VC

Lieutenant-Commander Gerard Roope VC

Lieutenant-Commander Gerard Roope VC

In the annals of history, there is no doubt that to perform a feat of such bravery to be nominated for a Victoria Cross, putting your life and limb on the line is part and parcel of the action. As unpleasant as it is, in all war, there is a chance that you might not make it home.

But some people take it a step further, and when faced with a difficult decision stare death in the face. This is not suicidal, because action in a suicidal manner is reckless. This is a calculated, balanced judgement, to take on the enemy when you’re heavily outgunned. A judgement that Second World War Destroyer Lieutenant-Commander Gerard Roope made.

On the 8th April, 1940, H.M.S. Glowworm was proceeding alone in heavy weather towards a rendezvous in West Fjord, when she met and engaged two enemy destroyers, scoring at least one hit on them. The enemy broke off the action and headed North. The Commanding Officer at once gave chase. The German heavy cruiser, Admiral Hipper, was sighted closing the Glowworm at high speed. Because of the heavy sea, the Glowworm could not shadow the enemy and the Commanding Officer therefore decided to attack with torpedoes and then to close in order to inflict as much damage as possible. Five torpedoes were fired and later the remaining five, but without success. The Glowworm was badly hit; one gun was out of action and her speed was much reduced, but with the other three guns still firing she closed and rammed the Admiral’ Hipper. As the Glowworm drew away, she opened fire again and scored one hit at a range of 400 yards. The Glowworm, badly stove in forward and riddled with enemy fire, heeled over to starboard, and the Commanding Officer gave the order to abandon her. Shortly afterwards she capsized and sank. The Admiral Hipper hove to for at least an hour picking up survivors but the loss of life was heavy, only 31 out of the Glowworm’s complement of 149 being saved. The VICTORIA CROSS is bestowed in recognition of the great valour of the Commanding Officer who, after fighting off a superior force of destroyers, sought out and reported a powerful enemy unit, and then fought his ship to the end against overwhelming odds, finally ramming the enemy with supreme coolness and skill.

Gerard Roope as last seen holding onto a rope dropped by the Admiral Hipper, but could not hold on and presumably drowned. The Captain of the Admiral Hipper was so impressed by the valour shown by HMS Glowworm that he ensured the British authorities were informed, via the Red Cross. Full details only emerged after the war, however, and Roope’s widow and son were presented with his Victoria Cross in 1946.

To this day Royal Navy Commanders are taught that one day, they may have to make the same sacrifice as Roope. During the Falklands War in 1982, Commander Christopher Craig, was ordered to take HMS Alacrity through Falkland Sound, attack anything in the way, and zig zag around the entrance of Falkland Sound to check it if was mined. Hitting a mine would have spelt disaster for the small frigate. Craig could have expected very high praise indeed if Alacrity had been sunk, but as she was not, almost nothing is remembered of her story.

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Filed under Falklands War, maritime history, Navy, Remembrance, victoria cross, World War Two

Victoria Cross Heroes – Major Robert Cain VC

Major Robert Cain VC

Major Robert Cain VC

I must confess to having a particular admiration for this Victoria Cross winner. Not only is he Jeremy Clarkson’s father-in-law, and not only did Major Robert Cain win his Victoria Cross during the battle of Arnhem, but there is something so completely normal and modest about his life before and after the VC, that it shatters the myth that all VC winners are supermen. Theres something of a VC winner in all of us.

A pre-war worker for Shell, Major Robert Cain was commanding B Company of the 2nd Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment when they landed in Gliders at Arnhem. After leading his company in the attack into Arnhem, he was the only senior officer to survive. Major Gilchrist, of the 11th Parachute Battalion, met Cain, who told him that “The tanks are coming, give me a PIAT”. It was not exactly the job of a company commander to take on tanks with a PIAT, but that he was determined to have a go speaks volumes of the man.

After the remnants of the attack fell back to Oosterbeek to hang on for dear life, Cain was determined to take on as much Germany armour as possible. On the afternoon of 21 September 1944 two tanks approached his position. Standing in the open and guided by a spotter high in a building, he destroyed the first tank, but was wounded when a PIAT shell exploded in his face. In his own words he was “shouting like a hooligan. I shouted to somebody to get onto the PIAT because there was another tank behind. I blubbered and yelled and used some very colourful language. They dragged me off to the aid post.”
However within half an hour, against medical advice, he had returned to the front line. Later in the battle he and another man took over using a 6 pounder anti-tank gun until it was destroyed, and then with no PIAT rounds remaining he used a 2 inch mortar, firing from the hip. Before withdrawing across the Rhine, he even found time to shave.

Cain’s Victoria Cross was announced on 2 November 1944:

“Throughout the whole course of the Battle of Arnhem, Major Cain showed superb gallantry. His powers of endurance and leadership were the admiration of all his fellow officers and stories of his valour were being constantly exchanged amongst the troops. His coolness and courage under incessant fire could not be surpassed”

Upon leaving the Army after the war Cain returned to his job working for Shell, before retiring to the Isle of Man. When he died in 1974 his family were astounded to find a Victoria Cross among his belongings – apparently he hadn’t thought to mention it.

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Victoria Cross Heroes – Albert Ball VC

Albert Ball VC

Albert Ball VC

Among Victoria Cross winners, more than a few show that quintessentially english personality trait – eccentricity. Many who people who might have been almost sectionable in peacetime have found their moment in wartime. First World War fighter Pilot Albert Ball is perhaps one of the most eccentric of the lot.

Ball was unhappy with the hygiene of his assigned billet in the nearest village. He elected to live in a tent on the flight line. He soon built a hut to replace the tent; he reasoned it was better to be closer to his airplane. Very much a loner, Ball preferred his own company. Apparently sensitive and shy, he spent much of his spare time tending to his small garden and practicing the violin. He insisted on working on his own aeroplanes, and as such had an untidy and dishevelled appearance. In combat he refused to wear goggles or a flying helmet.

But this eccentricity added up to make a ferocious fighter, who consistently performed heroics in the air. By the time of his death on 7 May 1917 Ball had accounted for one balloon and 28 aircraft. For consistent gallantry he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

“For most conspicuous and consistent bravery from the 25th of April to the 6th of May, 1917, during which period Capt. Ball took part in twenty-six combats in the air and destroyed eleven hostile aeroplanes, drove down two out of control, and forced several others to land. In these combats Capt. Ball, flying alone, on one occasion fought six hostile machines, twice he fought five and once four. When leading two other British aeroplanes he attacked an enemy formation of eight. On each of these occasions he brought down at least one enemy. Several times his aeroplane was badly damaged, once so seriously that but for the most delicate handling his machine would have collapsed, as nearly all the control wires had been shot away. On returning with a damaged machine he had always to be restrained from immediately going out on another. In all, Capt. Ball has destroyed forty-three German aeroplanes and one balloon, and has always displayed most exceptional courage, determination and skill.”

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Filed under Remembrance, Royal Air Force, victoria cross, World War One

Victoria Cross Heroes – Boy Jack Cornwell VC

Boy First Class Jack Cornwell VC

Victoria Cross winners inspire for all kinds of reasons. But very few combine a shining example with young age. Jack Cornwell showed that age need be no barrier to heroism and devotion to duty.

At the age of 16 Jack Cornwell found himself serving onboard HMS Chester, a light Cruiser of the Royal Navy. Early in the battle of Jutland Chester came under fire. Cornwell, manning a 5.5inch gun, stayed at his post throughout a heavy bombardment that killed the rest of his colleagues and caused carnage on the Chester’s upper deck. All the time, Cornwell, although seriously wounded, waited obediently for orders and with no thought for his own safety. After the action, ship medics arrived on deck to find Cornwell the sole survivor at his gun, shards of steel penetrating his chest, looking at the gun sights and still waiting for orders. Although Cornwell was taken to hospital after the battle, sadly he died on 2 June 1916.

Admiral Beatty, the commander of the British Battlecruisers at Jutland, reccomended in the strongest possible terms that Cornwell’s incredible feat should be recognised:

“the instance of devotion to duty by Boy (1st Class) John Travers Cornwell who was mortally wounded early in the action, but nevertheless remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders till the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded around him. He was under 16½ years old. I regret that he has since died, but I recommend his case for special recognition in justice to his memory and as an acknowledgement of the high example set by him.”

In September 1916 it was announced in the London Gazette that Jack Cornwell had been posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross:

“The King has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of the Victoria Cross to Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell. Mortally wounded early in the action, Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell remained
standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders, until the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all round him. His age was under sixteen and a half years.”

Cornwell’s VC can be seen at the Imperial War Museum, London.

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Filed under Navy, victoria cross, World War One