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The Complete George Cross by Kevin Brazier

I’ve always been fascinated by the George Cross as an award. Overshadowed by its more high-profile cousin, the Victoria Cross, the George Cross is the highest awardnfor bravery that isn’t in the face of the enemy. I’ve done a lot of research into Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth GC, a Royal Navy Bomb Disposal man who was awarded the George Cross posthumously after being blown up by a mine he was working on in 1940.

This book is a reference work describing the lives and actions of all of the men and women who have won the George Cross to date. There have been a total of 406 awards. There are some staggering statistics – no one has yet been awarded a bar, but several women have won the medal. The island of Malta was collectively awarded the medal in 1942, and in 1999 the George Cross was awarded to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. 14 Australians have won the GC, ten Canadians and a Tasmanian. The youngest recipient was just 15, and the oldest 61.

The George Cross was instituted in 1940 by King George VI, inspired by the bravery being shown by civilians and service personnel alike during the Blitz. Military decorations could normally only be awarded for action in the face of the enemy. As a result, many brave actions would have gone unrewarded without the institution of this new medal. In recent years it has come to prominence with a number of awards made for action in Afghanistan, including to Bomb Disposal personnel and Matthew Croucher, a Royal Marine who used himself and his Bergen to shield his comrades from an accidentally dropped Grenade.

Due to its unique criteria, the George Cross has also been awarded to civilians – including a Detective who protected Princess Anne from an attempted abduction in the centre of London. In fact of the 161 direct awards made since 1940, around 60 of them have been awarded to civilians. It has also been awarded to a number of women who worked undercover in occupied Europe during the war, with SOE or assisting in the repatriation of escaped Prisoners of War. 245 recipients of earlier bravery medals exchanged their awards for the George Cross.

I’ve often pondered whether there is a place in the modern military world for two separate awards, and whether the distinction of ‘in the face of the enemy’ is relevant today, in particular with the nature of warfare – is the calm, calculated bravery of a bomb disposal officer any less than an officer leading a bayonet charge, for example? It does seem as odd as the distinction between officers and men that used to appy to gallantry medals until the early 1990’s. Is there any reason why the George Cross should be in the shadow of the Victoria Cross? None that I can think of. In some ways I think that the George Cross is more representative of the unpredictable nature of twentieth century ‘total’ war, and of war amongst the peoples.

Whatever might happen in the future, whats certain is that the George Cross has a rich heritage, and some stories that are very humbling indeed. This is a brilliant book, that I found fascinating to read.

The Complete George Cross is published by Pen and Sword

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Tattoos – a quick social history

I went with someone to go and get a tattoo done the other day. And no, before you ask, it wasn’t on me! I actually found the process quite interesting, much nicer than having a blood test or an injection, no doubt because the environment is much nicer…

Anyway, while there I got talking to the tattooist. Much like taxi drivers and barmen, they see all sorts and hear all sorts. And we got onto the subject of how tattoos are perceived by society. We came to the conclusion that although tattoos have gone a lot more mainstream nowadays – thanks to people like David Beckham, Robbie Williams et al – there is still a stigma attached to them. People still assume that if you have a tattoo, then you must be either a criminal, a sailor, a biker or a prostitute.

Maybe it’s because I come from Portsmouth – the home of the Royal Navy – or that I’ve got a lot of friends into heavy metal, but I’ve never understood the fuss about tattoos. Someone once described it to me thus… some people go out and buy a painting and hang it on the wall. Some people, however, like to wear the ‘painting’ on them. It’s a form of expression, albeit a very commited and lasting one. And gone are the days when the black ink turned manky and green – you can see some really impressive tattoos now, it really is an artform.

It’s not surprising that Royal Navy sailors picked up the art of tattoing. It has been going on in some parts of the world for thousands of years, in particular some of the Pacific Islands. And on their travels, sailors picked up these kind of customs and made them their own. How else do we think that curry was eaten in Portsmouth, well before Indian restaurants? I would argue that in actual fact, tattoos have been part of the mainstream in Portsmouth society for hundreds of years. Many young men in Portsmouth would have had tattoos, in fact it was probably the norm, especially for sailors. And what Portsmouth’s families don’t have a sailor or two down the line somewhere? Ironically my great-grandfather, Thomas Daly, had more tattoos than any of his descendants, to my knowledge. According to his service record he sported a cross on his right forearm and dots on his left. George Cross winner Reg Ellingworth had tattoos on both arms. Colour Sergeant Frederick Bird of the Royal Marines had two dots on his left forearm. Chief Yeoman of Signals George Pankhurst had an interesting tattoo on his right arm – a bird on a branch. Apparently there were complex conventions about what tattoos represented what in the Navy – often where a person had served or what they had done.

A few years ago the Royal Naval Museum held an exhibition on the naval history of tattoos. Sadly I did not get to see it, but I’m sure it must have been pretty interesting. I’ve read plenty of stories about how young sailors would get taken to a tattooist by their ‘sea-daddy’ whilst on a run ashore, not having any choice in the matter. No less a person than King George V was tattooed in this manner – although these were never seen in public, the Steven Poliakoff drama the Lost Prince alludes to them.

So in conclusion, I think the stigma about tattoos is completely unwarranted. They have been a part of life on earth for thousands of years. Having a tattoo does not make anyone less of a person. If anything, I think that judging someone for something so trivial is, subconciously, a way of putting yourself on a pedestal by putting them down. Very sad, and very 19th Century.

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The Ashcroft Gallery: a review

Front of the Imperial War Museum London

Imperial War Museum (Image via Wikipedia)

I was up in London yesterday after seeing Biffy Clyro at Wembley Arena on Saturday evening, so popped into the Imperial War Museum to take a look at the New Lord Ashcroft Victoria Cross and George Cross Gallery.

To sum up, I’m disappointed. The medals, the heroes, the stories are legendary… but the Gallery itself – is that it? I can’t believe it took £5 million – yes, £5 million! – to do that. The interactive touch screens and use of media is very good, but hardly ground-breaking. The medals themselves are displayed in simply wooden boxes, that any reasonably skilled DIY enthusiast could knock together in their garden shed. The room itself is not large at all, and I can’t understand why its on the fourth floor and not the ground floor. There’s no rhyme or reason as to how the gallery is laid out, and its difficult to find any given individual’s medals. I’m told that the 241 medals are arranged in terms of qualities such as leadership, sacrifice, aggression, skill, initiative, endurance, and boldness, but it didn’t seem that logical to me.

It’s disappointing that Britain’s principal military museum cannot do better. I work in local museums and I’ve seen how inventive Exhibition designers have to be and can be with shrinking budgets and rising expectations, and I can’t see for the life of me how the exhibition itself cost £5m. Consultants, feasibility studies, options appraisals, sub-contractors, researchers, over-the-top marketing maybe. But the largest collection of the world’s most hallowed medals deserves an almost spiritual experience, not just another exhibition.

I was there to look for the George Cross and medals of CPO Reg Ellingworth, the Portsmouth Mine Disposal rating killed in 1940. Me and my mate spent a good twenty minutes hunting for his medals, and without the aid of any kind of plan or index it was hard going. We finally found Ellingworth’s display, and on the multimedia screen I found several photos of Ellingworth that I had never seen before, including one of him in tropical white uniform and a rather hazy photo of him at work on a mine – neither of which I had seen before, or even appear on the IWM’s online catalogue of images! But it is nice to see a brave man such as Ellingworth being remembered in such a prominent place – now to make sure that Portsmouth recognises him and his peers too.

Back to the Exhibition, I disagree quite strongly with the way ‘Ashcroft’ gets crowbarred into everything – it should be about the (extra)ordinary medal winners, not a dubious tax-exile whose meaningful contribution to humankind is, errm, hang on a minute… nothing. If he had any kind of humility he wouldn’t insist on plugging his name at every opportunity. Even the Gallery’s website is full of pictures of the man himself, and links to his books. Tasteless. Plenty of philanthropists donate money to causes such as this without demanding that their name is emblazoned everywhere. Just an observation.

I’ve never understood this blind obsession with VC’s and GC’s either. There are plenty of incredibly brave men who were only awarded DSO‘s or DCM‘s. There are also stories of men performing incredibly brave deeds and receiving no recognition at all because their officer did not write the act up properly. My thoughts, as someone who has done a fair bit of research into thousands of men who were killed in the First and Second World Wars, is that bravery is not limited to medals alone.

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The Real Enigma Heroes by Phil Shanahan

We’ve all heard about the film U-571. Or, more importantly, how its a travesty of a film. Supposedly a fictional film based on true events, it is nothing more than a plagiarism of heroism, twisted to maximise profits with scant regard for any kind of integrity.

The men who were the REAL heroes were Able Seaman Colin Grazier, Lieutenant Tony Fasson and NAAFI Canteen Assistant Tommy Brown. Serving onboard the Destroyer HMS Petard, in October 1942 they volunteered to join a boarding party for the sinking U-559. Although the U-Boat was rapidly sinking, Grazier and Fasson went down below and retrieved vital documents, passing them up the conning tower to Brown. They remained below searching, and were onboard when the ship went down. Colin Grieve and Tony Fasson were both awarded a posthumous George Cross, and Tommy Brown the George Medal.

The capture of vital Enigma code books enabled codebreakers at Bletchley Park to finally crack the Enigma riddle, and continue to read German communications until the end of the war. In particular, the capture helped the Allies to win the crucial Battle of the Atlantic. Without that victory, D-Day might not have been possible, and the war may have lasted much longer – raising the disturbing possibility of the Russians reaching the Rhine or the Channel.

Yet surprisingly, it has taken decades for Grazier, Fasson and Brown to receive any recognition. The official secrets act precluded any publicity being given to the incident. The British Government were also keen to ensure that the Germans – and Russians – did not find out that the Enigma code had been broken. And thus the situation remained. Even the men onboard HMS Petard on that fateful night were not aware of how important Grive and Fasson’s actions were.

Phil Shanahan, of the Tamworth Herald, has ensured that the mens names will be remembered for evermore. Starting with a chance discovery – that Grieve came from Tamworth, he was astounded that the winner of the George Cross was unknown in his home town. A series of articles in the Herald followed. A Committee was formed, and set about raising funds for a fitting tribute in Tamworth town centre. Along the way he had some interesting encounters, with the Producer of U-571, and the Imperial War Museum. The U-571 debacle in particular raised much publicity for the Colin Grive Project. As Shanahan states, not many English provincial journalists have been interviewed in a Dallas daily newspaper!

There are some emotive episodes. In particular, I felt a personal connection with the dilemma Phil Shanahan found when confronting the Imperial War Museum. It is simply impossible to cover absolutely everything in any museum or book. The sad fact is that many people have their cause that is close to them, but there is never enough room to give each of them the credit that they deserve. It is a dilemma that many a poor Curator has faced, and I feel that the people who have to choose what to leave out deserve more sympathy. Similarly, it is easy to understand the sentiment that Grieve and Fasson should have been awarded the Victoria Cross. It’s something that I have written about at the time – that bravery is bravery, regardless of enemy action. Yet they were awarded the George Cross under the standards set, and it would have been unprecedented to upgrade them to the VC.

This is a very interesting and rather unique book. It is, in many ways, two books in one – firstly the story of HMS Petard, and then secondly the long fight to earn Grazier, Fasson and Brown recognition. They are complementary stories, and are intwerwoven in the order of which Shanahan and his team uncovered the stories and embarked on their campaign. There are some small errors of accuracy, but you can feel Shanahan’s passion. Something that many historians would do well to take note of, and not those involved in the making of U-571.

A fine statue was commissioned and erected in Tamworth town square, and a nearby Hotel was named the Colin Grazier Hotel. A Tamworth Housing Estate has had its roads named after men involved in the incident. And every year, the people of Tamworth celebrate Colin Grazier Day, with a small ceremony at the memorial, and a tot of rum in the evening.

This is a book and a campaign that is gripping and most inspiring. If only more local newspapers and local councils would be more diligent in recognising our communities heroes. It has certainly motivated me to ensure that Portsmouth’s heroes of the two world wars should never be forgotten.

The Real Engima Heroes is published by The History Press

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Bomb Disposal experts awarded George Cross


Two British Army Bomb Disposal experts have been awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest award for bravery not in the face of the enemy.

Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid and Staff Sergeant Kim Hughers, of the Royal Logistics Corps, was deployed to Afghanistan in March 2009. As High Threat Improvised Explosive Device Disposal operators, Schmid and Hughes were in the forefront of the battle against the lethal threat that IED’s represent.

Staff Sergeant Kim Hughes

Staff Sergeantt Hughes’s actions are described in his citation as “the single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan.” In one incident on 16 August 2009, Hughes was tasked to clear a route near Sangin in Helmand. One soldier was seriously injured by an IED, and as he was being recovered another IED detonated and killed two more soldiers. The area was effectively an IED minefield, overlooked by the enemy. Hughes and his team were called in to deal with the devices. They left behind protective clothing in order to save time. Upon reaching the first casualty Hughes discovered a further IED, and calmly carried out a manual neutralisation. His citation states “It was an extraordinary act.”

“Dealing with any form of IED is dangerous; to deal with seven IEDs linked in a single circuit, in a mass casualty scenario, using manual neutralisation techniques once, never mind three times, is the single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan. That he did it without the security of specialist protective clothing serves even more to demonstrate his outstanding gallantry. Hughes is unequivocally deserving of the highest level of public recognition.”

Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid

After deploying to Helman in June 2009, Staff Sergeant Schmid personally dealt with 70 IED’s. He spent long periods of time in close proximity to IEDs and in the gravest personal danger. Before his death in action he responded to 42 IED tasks. One incident involved an 11 hour operation to clear an area, after an infantry company had had several of their vehicles blown up by IED’s.

On another occasion, Schmid was in Sangin District Centre to deal with an artillery shell. On arrival he immediately realised that many civilians around him in the bustling bazaar were in peril. He quickly assessed that the shell was part of a Radio Controlled IED intended to cause maximum casualties in a well populated area. The nature of the device also meant it was almost certainly over-watched by the bomber controlling it. Without any consideration for his own safety Schmid immediately decided to neutralise the IED manually. To do this he employed a render safe procedure that should only ever be employed in the gravest of circumstances and which is conducted at the highest personal risk to the operator. In an instant, he made the most courageous decision possible, consciously placing his own life on the line in order to save the lives of countless Afghan civilians and demonstrating bravery of the highest order and well beyond the call of duty.

Staff Sergeant Schmid was killed during an operation near Forward Operating Base JACKSON. Having dealt with three IEDs already that day, he and his team were transiting to another compound when a command wire was discovered running down the alleyway they were in. SSgt Schmid and his team were trapped with no safe route forward or back as they did not know in which direction the IED was situated. Knowing that his team were in danger, he immediately took action to reduce the hazard. SSgt Schmid eventually traced the wire to a complex IED with three linked buried main charges. He was killed whilst dealing with the device.

His citation states:

“Schmid’s actions on that fateful day, when trapped in an alleyway with no safe means of escape, probably saved the lives of his team. These occasions are representative of the complexity and danger that Schmid had faced daily throughout his four month tour. His selfless gallantry, his devotion to duty, and his indefatigable courage displayed time and time again saved countless military and civilian lives and is worthy of the highest recognition.”

Time to change medal criteria?

For us mere mortals, it is almost impossible to comprehend the bravery and nerves of steel needed to work in Bomb Disposal. The awards of the George Cross to Staff Sergeants Schmid and Hughes are richly deserved, and not only a fitting tribute to them but their colleagues too. Among all the controversy about Defence funding, we should remember that the British Army can call on some of the most professional experts in the world when it comes to specialist tasks such as Bomb Disposal.

In previous times, the lines between ‘combat’ and ‘non combat’ were relatively clear. But in a world of increasingly unconventional warfare, can we truly draw a line between bravery that is under enemy fire and that which isnt? The inference of ‘not under enemy fire’ is that it is not quite so deserving. But IED’s ARE the Taliban’s way of fighting. Particularly with the case of Staff Sergeant Hughes, the press release on the MOD website states that the incident took place in the presence of the enemy, and that British soldiers had to fire shots to keep their heads down. If thats not in the face of the enemy, then what is? Is dealing with an IED less brave than a conventional pitched battle?

A similar case took place last year, when Royal Marine Lance Corporal Matt Croucher jumped on a grenade that had accidentally activated. His rucksack shielded him from the blast, but he saved the lives of his comrades at the risk of his own. Yet because there were no enemy present, somehow it is seemed slightly less brave. Clearly, if a token Taliban fighter had been so much as standing nearby firing into the air, Croucher would have been awared a Victoria Cross.

In 1993 the Government reformed the Gallantry Medal system, to remove distinctions between officers and men. And quite rightly too – an act of bravery is an act of bravery, and it should not matter whether it was performed by a Private or a General. Much as the 1993 review took account of the fact that class should not be an issue in the modern age, is it now time to review the caveat of ‘under enemy fire’? The nature of warfare has changed considerably, and if we are going to expect our men and women to go int harms way, we should ensure that we honour them properly.

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Able Seaman Henry Miller GC

HMS Unity

HMS Unity

Able Seaman Henry Miller, 39 and from Southsea, was serving onboard the submarine HMS Unity when she was in Blyth harbour, North East England on 29 April 1940.

Shortly after leaving to begin a patrol in the North Sea HMS Unity collided with the Norwegian Freighter Atle Jarl taking the First Lieutenant and Able Seaman Miller with her. They had remained in the flooded control room to allow the rest of the crew to escape

On 16 August 1940 he was awarded a Posthumous Gallantry Medal of the Oorder of the British Empire. Sometime later when the George Cross was instituted for acts of bravery that were not in the face of the enemy, his Miller’s medal was exchanged for the George Cross.

He has no grave other than the sea, and is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

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Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth GC

The George Cross

The George Cross

The George Cross is the highest award that can be given for bravery that is not in the face of the enemy. In all likelihood, acts that are rewarded with a George Cross would probably be given a Victoria Cross if they were in battle.

One of the first Portsmouth men to be awarded the George Cross during the Second World War was Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth. Aged 42, he was serving at HMS Vernon, the Royal Navy’s torpedo school, which also trained officers and men in mine warfare, bomb disposal and diving. At the height of the Blitz in 1940 bomb disposal teams were obviously in demmand to deal with unexploded bombs.

CPO Ellingworth, together with Lt. Cdr. Richard Ryan, R.N., went to a warehouse in Dagenham, Essex on 21 September 1940, where an unexploded bomb was hanging from a parachute. The pair, who had faced many dangers together, were both killed by it’s explosion and both were awarded the George Cross posthumously. In a previous incident at Hornchurch, Essex Ellingworth and Ryan disabled a device threatening an aerodrome and explosives factory.Their George Crosses were announced in the London Gazette on 17 December 1940.

CPO Ellingworth is buried in Milton Cemetery, Portsmouth.

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