Tag Archives: malta

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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UXB Malta: Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal 1940-44 by S.A.M. Hudson

Bomb Disposal has got a pretty high profile at the moment, what with the recent award of the George Cross to two British Army Bomb Disposal experts, and the film The Hurt Locker. Therefore its probably as apprpopriate a time as any to take a look at the incredibly brave men who worked on Bomb Disposal in Malta during the Second World War, and this book dedicated to telling their story.

After Italy entered the war in 1940 Malta became strategically important; a thorn in the side of Axis ambitions in the Mediterranean. From Malta British bombers could attack Italy and convoys heading for North Africa. Converesely, Malta also acted as a staging post for Allied Convoys. Therefore the Italians and Germans launched repeated and concerted attempts to obliterate Malta. Particularly between 1940 and 1942, for its size Malta was the most bombed place on earth. And with 15% of bombs failing to explode, there was much work for the Bomb Disposal teams.

Yet it was by no means a simple matter of exploding the bombs. Obviously this could not always be done. And with the wide array of bombs – from the tiny but deadly incendiaries and ‘butterfly bombs’ to the giant Hermann and Satan bombs – and the complex fuzes – anti-handing, delayed activation, for example – every job seems to have presented its own challenges. And with many bombs impacting and penetrating feet into the ground, digging them out was often hard work.

What is really incredible to read, is that despite years of frenetic work dealing with hundreds of bombs, none of Malta’s Bomb Disposal Engineers were killed on he job – testament indeed to their professionalism. And when we consider that for most of the war the team consisted of two young officers in their early twenties and but a handful of men, their service seems all the more sterling.

What stands out for me most of all is how evocative the book is. It is impossible not to read the countless stories and reflect on whether you could display that kind of steely cold bravery, all day every day for months indeed years on end. Yes, Bomb Disposal takes a particular kind of courage – the infantryman in the second world war might experience short, sharp periods of battle, and maybe the occasional prolonged fight. But the Bomb Disposal Sappers in Malta were dealing with countless incidents every day that could have killed them at any second.

This book is fine tribute to those remarkably brave men who saved many lives. Hudson more than does justice to these incredible human beings. And there are such strong parallels with the men out in Afghanistan right now dealing with IED’s.

UXB Malta: Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal 1940-44 is published by The History Press

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First Light by Geoffrey Wellum

I’ll sat it again, I’m a big fan of the veterans first-hand account. I much prefer reading about the normal guy at the sharp end to hearing about the tit-for-tat arguments between Generals. Even with a fighter pilot, traditionally a well-covered part of the war, there is much to be learnt from personal stories.

Geoffrey Wellum volunteered for the RAF just prior to the Second World War, and this book charts his wartime experiences. From learning to fly in a Tiger Moth, and then a Harvard, Wellum brings alive the dedication and training required to make the grade as a fighter pilot. He was posted to an operational squadron at Biggin Hill at the height of the Battle of Britain. He was thrown pretty much straight into combat, demonstrating just how fast some of the few had to learn. For his efforts Wellum was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Then after a tour as an instructor Wellum took part in the epic Operation Pedestal convoy to reinforce Malta. Transported into the Mediterranean onboard the Aircraft Carrier HMS Furious, Wellum took off just after HMS Eagle was torpedoed. After landing on the besieged island he witnessed the cripplied Tanker Ohio limping into Valetta Harbour.

Wellum writes warmly of the cameraderie of a front line fighter squadon. We are also reminded just how young many of ‘the few’ were. But what really sets this book apart is the way that Wellum describes the rigours of air to air combat. He writes in a manner that brings the emotions, the intensity alive for the reader. He takes you into the cockpit with him. It is quite remarkable that he is able to recall those experiences all these years later.

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Filed under Book of the Week, Royal Air Force, World War Two