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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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VC’s of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 by Stephen Snelling

I am a big fan of this series of books on the Victoria Cross. There are literally hundreds of books out there about the VC, and with many hundreds of winners there are plenty of subjects to write about. The problem I find is, that often we read about the same or similar stories in books. Some of the VC stories are well known – and for very good reasons, of course. But isn’t it great to read about some of the lesser-known deeds as well? Therefore I think it’s quite a nice touch to cover all of the Victoria Crosses awarded for a particular campaign, in one volume. This particular volume looks at the Battle of Passchendale – more properly, Third Ypres – fought between July and November 1917.  A remarkable 61 VC’s were awarded, to men from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. There were a couple of VC winners at Passchendaele with strong Portsmouth connections.

James Ockendon was a 26 year old action Company Sergeant Major in the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who won the Victoria Cross at ‘t Goed ter Vesten Farm on 4 October 1917. Born in Portsmouth, Ockendon had joined the ‘Dubs’ pre-war in 1909, and was serving in India when war was declared. When the Battalion were recalled in 1914, he joined the 29th Division and subsequently fought at Gallipoli, before being sent to the Western Front in 1916. Apparently on the eve of Battle, Ockendon’s Battalion were adressed by a General, who asked ‘who is going to win a Victoria Cross tomorrow?’, to which Ocekdon replied, ‘I am, sir, or I will leave my skin in dirty old Belgium’. Two months previously he had been awarded the Military Medal. When a platoon officer was killed by a Machine Gun and another wounded, Ockendon found himself in charge of his company and took it upon himself to charge the position, killing all but one of the Germans. He chased the survivor for some distance before bayonetting him. After the attack Ockendon gathered the survivors of his company, and headed for ‘t Goed ter Vesten Farm. Although they were met by heavy fire, Ockendon somehow managed to convince the Germans to surrender. Ockendon wad described as a quiet, unassuming man, and was feted when he returned to Portsmouth on leave later in 1917. He was discharged from the Army in 1918 after suffering from the effects of Gas. James Ockendon VC MM died in 1966, at the age of 75. His son, also called James, is still a member of the Portsmouth Royal British Legion, and to this day Ockendon’s VC is the only one that I have seen outside of a display case.

Dennis Hewitt was serving with the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, the 1st Portsmouth Pals, when he won the Victoria Cross at St Julien on the first day of Third Ypres, on 31 July 1917. Born in London, his maternal grandfather was a deputy lieutenant of Hampshire, which might explain why he joined the county regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916 after studying at Winchester College and then Sandhurst. At the age of 19 he found himself commanding a company, in the second wave of the attack near Steenbeck. Resistance was stiff along Pilckem Ridge, and Hewitt tried to re-organise his company, despite being badly wounded by a shell blast. Refusing treatment, he led the company on to the next objective line, and although the objective was secured, Hewitt became a casualty in the hail of machine gun fire. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial. He might not have strictly speaking been a Portsmouth lad, but he died serving with and leading many a young man from Portsmouth.

Montague Moore was serving in the 15th Hampshires, the 2nd Portsmouth Pals, at Passchendaele. Born in Bournemouth in 1896, he went to Sandhurst in 1915 at the age of 18. Commissioned into the Hampshire Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916, he was wounded in the leg at Messines Ridge in 1917. Back in time for Third Ypres, he led 120 men in an attack at Tower Hamlets on 20 October 1917. They captured the objective, but suffered heavy losses. They remained on the objective overnight, and were shelled the next day by British artillery, who thought that they had all been killed. Eventually Moore had only 10 men left. Moore and his party sat out the rest of the day and the next night, and returned to the British lines under the cover of the morning mist, after being in no mans land for almost 48 hours. Their return was greeted with amazement. Moore retired from the Army in 1926, and retired to Kenya, where he died in 1966.

All of the stories are very well written, and have been researched in fitting detail. It’s a very inspiring read. Of course, I’m a big fan or researching, writing and reading individuals stories, whether they be decorated or not. They all have something different to teach us. I’m thinking out aloud here, but wouldn’t it be interested to see a book of ‘near misses’ to the VC sometime?

VC’s of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 is published by The History Press

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Portsmouth-based soldier’s 1914 VC sells for £276,000

Sidney Frank Godley VC, the first Private to b...

The First Victoria Cross awarded to a private soldier in the First World War has been sold at auction for £276,000. Private Sidney Godley, of the 4th Royal Fusiliers, earnt his VC at Mons on 23 August 1914 when he single-handedly managed to hold up a German advance on a bridge over the Mons-Conde Canal.

Born in East Grinstead in West Sussex on 14 August 1889, he moved to London when he was 7 and later worked in an ironmongers store. On 13 December 1909 he joined the Royal Fusiliers, a Regiment that has traditionally recruited from London. In 1911 Godley was with the 4th Royal Fusiliers at Corunna Barracks near Farnham, and no doubt lived in Barracks in Portsmouth.

The 4th Royal Fusiliers were one of the first units to go to France in August 1914, and found themselves facing the German Army at Mons in Belgium. Under heavy fire, he was wounded twice, with shrapnel in his back and a bullet in his head. He carried on the defence of the bridge for two hours while his comrades escaped, until he ran out of ammunition and was eventually captured.

Godley remained a Prisoner of War for over four years until 1918, learning that he had been awarded the VC whilst in captivity. He received the medal from King George V at Buckingham Palace on 15 February 1919. He died on 29 June 1957, and was buried at Loughton Cemetery in Essex.

Intriguingly, I was researching the 4th Royal Fusiliers only the other day, as  in 1914 they were based in Portsmouth as part of 9 Infantry Brigade. One of the first photos that I saw was that of Private Gidley, with his distinctive moustache. The next day, unbeknown to me, his VC was sold.

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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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Donald Dean VC edited by Terry Crowdy

Donald Dean‘s story is a quite remarkable one. Spanning two world wars, and the small matter of Britain’s highest honour for bravery, there can’t be many tales out there quite like this.

What I really like as well, is that Dean’s memoirs have such an easily-readable manner, which is no doubt down to his affable yet modest nature. Joining the Artists Rifles on the outbreak of war (he was underage), Dean was soon identified as an officer candidate and commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Queens Royal West Kent Regiment. Promoted to Captain by 1917, he was severely wounded in an action at Passchendaele, where he led a Platoon in defending an outpost for days against a vastly superior enemy. Modestly, he makes virtually no mention in his memoirs of his VC.

Dean was recalled to service immediately prior to the start of the Second World War, when the British Army was expanding after the Munich Crisis. Dean was originally given command of a Battalion of the Buffs, in the process raising several more Battalions. Upon the outbreak of war, however, his divisional commander removed him from command, with the explanation that he did not want his division to be commanded by territorials. Even First World War veterans with the VC. Unfortunately I have not been able to trace the Major-General in question.

Passed over for command in his Regiment, Dean was transferred to take command units in the Pioneer Corps. Historically the Army’s Navvies, and possibly the least glamorous unit in the army, the Pioneers performed valuable yet unsung physical labour. Taking part in the withdrawal to Dunkirk, Dean’s units of Pioneers held together firm on the perimeter of Boulogne while unmentioned units of the Guards fell back, commandeering their own ships in the process. Dean was strongly warned never to mention the fiasco. That a man who had been adjudged as an ‘amateur’ when it came to commanding an infantry unit led a Pioneer unit in a rearguard action should not be lost on the reader. The Pioneer Corps was traditionally a dumping ground for men who were deemed not clever enough or fit enough for the rest of the Army, and unwanted officers such as Dean, but as so often in British military history the Pioneers punched well above their expectations.

After returning from Dunkirk Dean and his Pioneers defended a section of the British coastline, before he left to take command of the Pioneer element of one of the least known operations in the Second World War – the invasion of Madagascar. Held by the Vichy French, a British task force secured the island as a safety measure against capture by the Japanese. Once ashore on Madagascar, Dean had an extremely complicated task in leading a rag-tag labour force, including natives and other various contingents. Commanding such diverse units must have called upon leadership and people skills in spades. Dean was not averse to taking matters into his own hands, and at one point was censured by a senior commander for ‘wanton destruction of civilian property’ for using metal railings to form an improvised roadway!

After Madagascar Dean was transferred to command Pioneer forces in Italy. There once again Dean was in command of a polyglot collection of men, including British, Canadian, South African, Polish, native Africans and Italians to name but a few. By the end of the war he had acquired the monicker ‘Dogsbody Dean’ for his ability to deal with any awkward situation, and for handling any task given to him. Not a bad record at all for someone deemed not good enough to command an infantry Battalion in 1939. We can only wonder what the Army missed out on thanks to that ridiculous decision.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Dean’s remarkable story – there cannot be many others like it. He gives some valuable insights into leadership in war, and some very useful anecdotes about the human experience of war.

Donald Dean VC is published by Pen and Sword

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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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Victoria Cross Heroes: The Battle of the Imjin River

Survivors of the Glosters stand on the Imjin river

Survivors of the Glosters stand on the Imjin river

Certain battles come to have a defining influence on the armed forces out of all proportion to their size, for many years later. The battle of the Imjin river is just one of these.

During the Korean War in April 1951, The North Koreans – with heavy Chinese Communist support – launched a strong attack on UN positions near the Imjin river, just north of Seoul. The sector was defended by the 29th Infantry Brigade, with a Belgian Battalion under command. This relatively tiny force held their positions for over 2 days, against overwhelming opposition. Although many were killed or captured, their actions did much to blunt the Communist offensive. Not only did it have a tactical and strategic influence, but also a moral one. The heroic stand on the Imjin river captured the world’s imagination.

In particular the stand of the 1st Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment – the Glorious Glosters – has come to have a huge legacy on the traditions of the British Army. Not because they were SAS, or Paras, or Marines, but ordinary line infantry, young men from a peaceful country recruiting area, many of them national servicemen. It showed what ordinary people are capable of when making a stand.

The Glosters CO, Lieutenant-Colonel James Carne, was awarded the VC. Although he had won a DSO in the second world war, he was seen as an average officer at best. However during the battle he moved constantly amongst his unit under heavy fire, and twice personally led assault parties to drive the enemy back – a tactic H Jones would employ at Goose Green. He was eventually captured and subjected to brutal treatment in captivity, including being drugged and forcefed communist propaganda.

Lieutenant Phillip Curtis, of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry but attached to the Glosters, had learnt of the death of his wife just before the battle. He went on to charge an enemy machine gun post alone. Not once, but twice, even after being wounded the first time. He was killed yards from the position, and was awarded the VC. His story is certainly not the only one where a soldier has reacted to personal loss by disregarding their own safety.

Among the other British officers decorated was Captain Anthony Farrar-Hockley, who was awarded a Distinguised Service Order. He had originally enlisted as a Private in the Glosters in second world war, whilst underage. After earning a commission and serving with the Parachute Regiment in Greece, he spent two years as a prisoner after the Imjin battle. He went on to command Allied Forces Northern Europe, retiring as a General.

The Battle of the Imjin river deserves a place in British military history alongside Waterloo, Rorkes Drift and Arnhem as examples of how soldiers know what has gone before them, what their forefathers have done, and what they are capable of doing themselves. In an army which places tradition higher than any other, these are valuable stories indeed.

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Victoria Cross Heroes – Eric Nicolson VC

Eric Nicolson VC

Eric Nicolson VC

Although the Battle of Britain has an esteemed place in British military history – think of the few and the many, spits and hurricanes, Douglas Bader and all – of all the young airmen engaged in that desparate struggle, only one was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions. Not only that, but he was the only RAF fighter pilot to win the VC during the second world war.

Flight Lieutenant Eric Nicolson, 23, was flying a Hurricane with 249 Squadron in August 1940, over Southampton.

Flight Lieutenant Nicolson’s aircraft was hit by four cannon shells, two of which wounded him whilst another set fire to the gravity tank. When about to abandon his aircraft owing to flames in the cockpit he sighted an enemy fighter. This he attacked and shot down, although as a result of staying in his burning aircraft he sustained serious burns to his hands, face, neck and legs. Flight Lieutenant Nicolson has always displayed great enthusiasm for air fighting and this incident shows that he possesses courage and determination of a high order. By continuing to engage the enemy after he had been wounded and his aircraft set on fire, he displayed exceptional gallantry and disregard for the safety of his own life.

Not until the second fighter had been destroyed did Nicolson bail out. On landing he was approached by a Home Guard unit, who proceeded to shoot at him.

Later in the war Nicolson fought in India, rising to the rank of Wing Commander. He died in 1945 when the B-24 Liberator he was flying in caught fire and crashed in the Bay of Bengal. His body was not recovered. His VC can be seen at the RAF Museum, Hendon.

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Victoria Cross Heroes – so near yet so far?

Plenty have people have come close to winning a Victoria Cross over the years, but somehow fallen short of the very exacting criteria. The Victoria Cross is perhaps the hardest of all the Supreme Decorations to win. So few of them have been awarded, especially in recent years. And even more so in recent years, most awards are posthumous.

A lot also depends on how the incident is reported. Firstly, if somebody performs a heroic act, but there are no witnesses, they have almost no chance of being honoured. Secondly, brave acts are reported up the chain of command, and at each stage they can be rejected. A lot depends on HOW senior officers write up a report of an action. On such administrative whims, brave acts can be lionised or forgotten.

There are quite a few well-document cases where men have almost certainly earnt a VC, or come very very close to winning one, but for some reason have missed out.

Blair Mayne DSO and 3 Bars

Blair Mayne DSO and 3 Bars

The most extraordinary has to be Lieutenant-Colonel Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne. Mayne won 4 Distinguished Service Orders during World War Two, a phenomenal record. Even King George VI asked why Mayne had not been recommended for a VC. His abrasive attitude probably didnt help matters. One VC recommendation was even signed by Montgomery before being rejected at the War Office. In 2005 a petition of over 100 MP’s demanded that Mayne’s Victoria Cross be reinstated posthumously. To this date, however, nothing has been done to recognise this gross injustice.

While it could be argued that a VC should only be awarded for a specifically brave act and not continual bravery, there are precedents. Leonard Cheshire was awarded his VC for his accumulated service throughout the war, as was Guy Gibson – although in Gibson’s case the Dams raid tipped the balance in his favour.

There also plenty of cases of young officers performing very bravely in war, and being given an unusually high award for their rank. This was usually a recognition that they had gone very close to winning the Victoria Cross but for some reason it had been downgraded. Field Marshal Montgomery won the Distinguished Service Order in World War One as a young Lieutenant. The DSO was usually reserved for Officers of Major and above. Lieutenant-General Boy Browning also won a DSO in World War One as a young Lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards.

Lance Corporal Matt Croucher GC

Lance Corporal Matt Croucher GC

In recent years, the George Cross has been instituted for acts of bravey that are not in the face of the enemy. Whilst this is a very noble concept, and especially fitting for civilians, bomb disposal personnel, there are flaws. In modern warfare, especially with IED’s in Afghanistan, the enemy often does not face down our troops. But does this make a brave act any less brave? In 2008 in Afghanistan Royal Marines Reservist Lance-Corporal Matt Croucher saved the lives of his comrades by jumping on a grenade. His rucksack shielded him from the blast. He was initially put forward for a VC, but this was downgraded to a GC as there were no enemy nearby. How some desk wallah felt able to decree that Crouchers actions did not deserve a VC escapes me.

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Victoria Cross Heroes – Rambahadur Limbu VC

Rambahadur Limbu VC

Rambahadur Limbu VC

A lot has been said about the Gurkhas recently. In fact, its almost become trendy to wade into an argument with some kind of pro-Gurkha stance. Even the British National Party have done it. But read up about them, and they’re even more impressive. Fine fellows they are, and we should be under no illusions or take for granted what a fantastic service they have given us for many years. Every account I have ever read praises them no end, and every ex-serviceman I have ever spoken to who has worked with them has nothing but good words to say about Johnny Gurkha. And especially about their fearsome curries. It has been said that ‘If a man says he is not afraid, he is either a lair or a Gurkha’. Not only are they incredible fighters, reportedly their behaviour is exemplary – disciplinary problems in a Gurkha Battalion are non existant. And small and modest men they might be, but it would be a foolhardy person indeed to start trouble in a pub full of Gurkhas.

For a relatively small contingent in the British Army, the Gurkhas have long punched well above their weight when it comes to honours. 16 Gurkhas have won Victoria Crosses, 13 of them native Gurkhas and 3 British officers serving with them. Perhaps the most inspiring story is that of Lance Corporal Rambahadur Limbu, who won his VC in Borneo in 1965, in the war against Communist Guerillas, a kind of war that the Gurkhas excel at time and time again.

“…Leading his support group in the van of the attack he could see the nearest trench and in it a sentry manning a machine gun. Determined to gain first blood he inched himself forward until… he was seen and the sentry opened fire, immediately wounding a man to his right. Rushing forward he reached the enemy trench… and killed the sentry, thereby gaining for the attacking force a foothold on the objective …with a complete disregard for the hail of fire he got together and led his fire group to a better fire position…

…he saw both men of his own group seriously wounded… and… immediately commenced… to rescue his comrades …he crawled forward, in full view of at least two enemy machine gun posts who concentrated their fire on him… but… was driven back by the accurate and intense…fire…After a pause he started again…

Rushing forward he hurled himself on the ground beside one of the wounded and calling for support from two light machine guns…he picked up the man and carried him to safety… Without hesitation he immediately returned… for the other wounded man and carried him back… through he hail of enemy bullets. It had taken twenty minutes to complete this gallant action and the events leading up to it. For all but a few seconds this Non-Commissioned Officer had been moving alone in full view of the enemy and under the continuous aimed fire of their automatic weapons. …His outstanding personal bravery, selfless conduct, complete contempt of the enemy and determination to save the lives of the men of his fire group set an incomparable example and inspired all who saw him

Finally… Lance Corporal Rambahadur was… responsible for killing four more enemy as they attempted to escape…”

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Victoria Cross Heroes – Ian Fraser VC and James Magennis VC

Magennis and Fraser (first and second left)

Magennis and Fraser (first and second left)

One of the things that most seems to spring up, time and time again, with VC winners is how modest they are. They have nothing to boast about, what else is there to prove? In the case of these two gentleman, I remember watching a documentary where one of them said ‘the Navy trained me to do a job, I went and did it, and they gave me a VC’. Incredible. This is not surprising, however – when you look at the ice cool presence of mind Ian Fraser displayed in the most testing circumstances imaginable, it seems completely in character. Combine that with James Magennis’s courage and devotion to duty, and you have one of the most daring naval operations of the war.

Towards the end of world war two, on 31st July 1945 Royal Navy midget submarine XE-3 was tasked with placing mines on a Japanese Heavy Cruiser near Singapore. This extremely hazardous operation. Towed part of the way to her target, she was released 40 miles from the Takao. The crew faced unbelievable hazards, in severely cramped conditions and under incredible pressure. At one point the submarine was suck underneath the large warship, until Lieutenant Fraser, the commanding officer, had the presence of mind to rock the midget sub back and forth to scrape out a channel in the seabed, giving her enough room to escape. To panic would have been all too easy. Leading Seamen James Magennis, the subs diver, spent a considerable amount of time in the water, and had to scrape barnacles off the hull of the ship before he could place the charges, reducing his hands to a bleeding mess. He placed every single mine, when others might have jettisoned some. On their escape from the target, Magennis entered the water again to release one of the limpet mine carriers, which was stuck. Despite being seriously exhausted he immediately volunteered.

During the long approach up the Singapore Straits XE-3 deliberately left the believed safe channel and entered mined waters to avoid suspected hydrophone posts. The target was aground, or nearly aground, both fore and aft, and only under the midship portion was there just sufficient water for XE-3 to place herself under the cruiser. For forty minutes XE-3 pushed her way along the seabed until finally Lieutenant Fraser managed to force her right under the centre of the cruiser. Here he placed the limpets and dropped his main side charge. Great difficulty was experienced in extricating the craft after the attack had been completed, but finally XE-3 was clear, and commenced her long return journey out to sea. The courage and determination of Lieutenant Fraser are beyond all praise. Any man not possessed of his relentless determination to achieve his object in full, regardless of all consequences, would have dropped his side charge alongside the target instead of persisting until he had forced his submarine right under the cruiser. The approach and withdrawal entailed a passage of 80 miles through water which had been mined by both the enemy and ourselves, past hydrophone positions, over loops and controlled minefields, and through an anti-submarine boom.

Owing to the fact that XE-3 was tightly jammed under the target the diver’s hatch could not be fully opened, and Magennis had to squeeze himself through the narrow space available. He experienced great difficulty in placing his limpets on the bottom of the cruiser owing both to the foul state of the bottom and to the pronounced slope upon which the limpets would not hold. Before a limpet could be placed therefore Magennis had thoroughly to scrape the area clear of barnacles, and in order to secure the limpets he had to tie them in pairs by a line passing under the cruiser keel. This was very tiring work for a diver, and he was moreover handicapped by a steady leakage of oxygen which was ascending in bubbles to the surface. A lesser man would have been content to place a few limpets and then to return to the craft. Magennis, however, persisted until he had placed his full outfit before returning to the craft in an exhausted condition. Shortly after withdrawing Lieutenant Fraser endeavoured to jettison his limpet carriers, but one of these would not release itself and fall clear of the craft. Despite his exhaustion, his oxygen leak and the fact that there was every probability of -his being sighted, Magennis at once volunteered to leave the craft and free the carrier rather than allow a less experienced diver to undertake the job. After seven minutes of nerve-racking work he succeeded in releasing the carrier. Magennis displayed very great courage and devotion to duty and complete disregard for his own safety.

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Victoria Cross Heroes – David Lord VC

David Lord VC

David Lord VC

David Lord joined the RAF in 1939, training to fly biplanes on the Indian North West Frontier. In 1941 he Squadron were the first in the RAF to received the Douglas Dakota, an aircraft that would become synonymous with Lord. Early in the war he flew on resupply missions in the Middle East, India and Burma, being commissioned as Flight Lieutenant in 1942 awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1943.

By early 1944 he had returned to the UK with 217 Squadron, based at RAF Down Ampney, training to drop paratroops, supplies and to tow gliders. He took part in the D-Day operations of June 1944.

In September Lord also took part in the massive airlift operations that were part of Operation Market Garden. Having already flown as a glider tug on the first two days of the battle, by the 19th he and his crew were tasked to drop desparately needed supplies to the British Airborne Soldiers fighting in Arnhem.

“On September 19th, 1944, Flt. Lieut. Lord was pilot and captain of an aircraft detailed to drop supplies to our troops, who were closely surrounded at Arnhem. For accuracy this had to be done at 900 feet. While approaching the target at 1,500 feet the aircraft was severely damaged and set on fire. Flt. Lieut. Lord would have been justified in withdrawing or even in abandoning his aircraft but, knowing that supplies were desperately needed, he continued on his course. Twice going down to 900 feet under very intense fire, he successfully dropped his containers. His task completed he ordered his crew to abandon the aircraft, making no attempt himself to leave. A few seconds later the aircraft fell in flames, only one of the crew surviving. By continuing his mission in a damaged and burning plane, twice descending to 900 feet to ensure accuracy, and finally by remaining at the controls to give his crew a chance of escape, Flt. Lieut. Lord displayed supreme valour and self-sacrifice. “

For a total of eight minutes after his plane was hit, Lord remained at the controls. Only once all of the supplies had been dropped did he order his crew to bail out, while making no attempt to do so himself. This valiant effort was observed by the men surrounded at Arnhem and provided a brilliant boost to morale, particularly in such a bitter struggle. Stanley Maxted, a BBC Radio reported who was at Arnhem, made a memorable broadcast on the effect it had on the men of Arnhem to watch planes trying to get supplies to them. Many men were said to have been so mesmerized that they stood up out of their trenches to watch Lord’s plain flying overhead.

Sadly only Lord’s Navigator survived, and became a POW. The story of Lord’s supreme sacrifice was only known when he was released in 1945, and resulted in Lord’s nomination for the Victoria Cross.

Lord and those of his crew who were killed are buried in Arnhem-Oosterbeek War Cemetery in Holland. Lord’s VC is part of the Ashcroft VC collection.

His headstone bears the fitting and moving epitaph:

“Greather love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends”

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Victoria Cross Heroes – Albert Jacka VC

Albert Jacka VC

Albert Jacka VC

The Victoria Cross is eligible for any British or Commonwealth serviceman. Or even, for that matter, anyone serving with or attached to British of Commonwealth forces. And throughout the medal’s illustrious history many of our colonies have punched far above their size in terms of the heroism that their citizens have shown.

Perhaps the most famous Austrialian recipient of the Victoria Cross is Albert Jacka. Born in 1893, in 1914 he joined the Australian Army. After Turkey allied herself with Germany Jacka’s Division was sent to guard the Suez Canal in Egypt. From there, he and his comrades took part in the fateful Galipolli campaign in 1915. In a campaign blighted by incompetent planning, Jacka’s part in it would be one of the few bright spots.

Landing at ANZAC Cove on 26 April 1915, Jacka and his comrades were immediately pitched into battle against Turkish defenders. Despite British predictions that the Turks would collapse, they fought bitterly in defence of their homeland. On 15 May, they launched an offensive against the ANZAC positions. In the resulting conflict, Jacka shot five and bayoneted two Turkish soldiers, forcing the remainder to flee the trench; he then held the trench alone for the remainder of the night. This was a ferocious and tenacious action, far beyond what could have been expected of any man. But somehow Jacka showed that when ordinary people are put in dire straits, some of them are capapble of extraordinary feats.

His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to award the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned Officers… Lance-Corporal Albert Jacka, 14th Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces. For most conspicuous bravery on the night of the 19th-20th May, 1915 at “Courtney’s Post”, Gallipoli Peninsula. Lance-Corporal Jacka, while holding a portion of our trench with four other men, was heavily attacked. When all except himself were killed or wounded, the trench was rushed and occupied by seven Turks. Lance-Corporal Jacka at once most gallantly attacked them single-handed, and killed the whole party, five by rifle fire and two with the bayonet.

As the First Australian to win a VC in the First World War, Jack became a national celebrity. In 1916 he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. In 1916 he went to France, fighting in the battle of the Somme. He went on to win two Military Crosses. Although it has been suggested that Jacka deserved a bar to his VC, for an action at Pozieres in 1916, research has shown that his superior officers never reccomended him for a second Victoria Cross in the first place. As such, accusations of British snobbery are unfounded. By the end of the war Jacka had been wounded several times, and also gassed before he ended the war as a Captain.

Upon the conclusion of the war, Jacka returned to a heroes welcome in Australia and entered business; establishing an electrical goods importing and exporting company. He was later elected to the local council, where he became the mayor of St Kilda, Victoria. Jacka never fully recovered from the multiple wounds he sustained during his war service, and died at the age of 39.

Albert Jacka’s Victoria Cross is on public display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Australia.

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Supreme Courage by Sir Peter De La Billiere

Supreme Courage - Sir Peter De La Billiere

Supreme Courage - Sir Peter De La Billiere

As I am currently looking through the London Gazette’s online records of Victoria Cross citations, I thought it would be both topical and appropriate, given the closeness to Remembrance Day, to take a look at one of the many books focussing on Britain’s highest award for gallantry.

Sir Peter, or DLB, needs no introduction. A long-serving SAS officer, commander of British Forces in the Gulf and highly decorated himself, he is one of Britain’s most high profile Generals of modern times, long before Mike Jackson and Richard Dannatt. Therefore not only is he well entitled to write about heroism from the first hand- unlike, say Lord Ashcroft – but his name on the cover of a book will always inspire interest.

DLB tells some fascinating stories in this book. Some of them are well known, such as Noel Chavasse and Guy Gibson, and will be a quick recap to most people with an interest in military history. Some of them are not so well known, such as David Wanklyn and Albert Ball. But all of the cases included in the book are treated in context – their lives before and after the VC. Selecting VC winners to write about must be impossible – there are so many deserving cases.

One aspect where DLB really adds to our understanding, is the multinational and multicultural element of the Victoria Cross. The VC has been won by many Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Indians, Gurkhas, and men from many other backgrounds. War can be a leveller as a human experience, and provides the same potential for tragedy and heroism to all men, regardless of race, colour or creed.

In taking this broader approach, DLB adds to our understanding of courage and heroism, and also our understanding of human nature and ourselves. What is it about human beings that makes such feats possible? Drawing on expert analysis by Lord Moran, and citing examples from his own career, DLB takes us away from a simple ‘this is what happened’ narrative. This is essentially a social history, a valuable addition to any military library.

If you like this, you might also like:

Warriors – Max Hastings
The Anatomy of Courage – Lord Moran

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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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