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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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Victoria Cross Heroes – Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson

The Victoria Cross is the highest award for Gallantry that any British or Commonwealth Serviceman or woman can receive. It is always awarded first at any ceremony, and always the first medal worn. And with apologies to the Medal of Honour and the Iron Cross, there really is something special about that crimson ribbon and dark metal pattee cross. It has a history and a mystique all of its own. Go to a Museum where they have VC’s on show, and gaze through the gleaming glass at those hallowed medals, and try and argue that they are ‘just a lump of metal’.

Created in the Crimean War to recognise brave and heroic acts by all sailors, soldiers – and later airmen – regardless of class, rank or creed, in recent years it has become harder and harder to earn. This is shown by how many of them are awarded Posthumously, after the recipient has died in action. Of the two awarded for the Falklands War, both Sergeant Ian McKay and Lieutenant-Colonel H Jones were killed in Action. Corporal Bryan Budd was also killed winning his VC in Afghanistan. Only Private Johnson Beharry, in Iraq, has survived to receive his award in person in recent conflicts. And even then, he suffered terrible brain damage in the process. There are also countless stories of men being nominated for VC’s, but in the long process they were awarded a more minor medal.

It has occured to me more and more that although we are fully aware of some of the more famous VC winners – Guy Gibson, Leonard Cheshire, and of course the famous action at Rorkes Drift. But what of the hundreds of other recipients who did amazing things, but that we dont hear about?

So, starting now I’m going to take a periodic delve into the London Gazette’s records of Victoria Cross Citations, and look at some unsung holders of the Victoria Cross. This week we look at Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson.

Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson was the flight engineer in a Lancaster detailed to attack Schweinfurt on the night of 26th April, 1944. Suddenly it was attacked by a fighter at about 20,000 feet. A fire started near a petrol tank on the upper surface of the starboard wing, between the fuselage and the inner engine. Sergeant Jackson received shell splinters in the right leg and shoulder. Recovering himself, he remarked that he could deal with the fire on the wing and obtained his captain’s permission to try to put out the flames. With a fire extinguisher and parachute, he started to climb out of the cockpit and back along the top of the fuselage to the starboard wing. Before he could leave the fuselage his parachute pack opened and the whole canopy and rigging lines spilled into the cockpit. Undeterred, Sergeant Jackson continued. The pilot, bomb aimer and navigator gathered the parachute together and held on to the rigging lines, paying them out as the airman crawled aft. Eventually he slipped and, falling from the fuselage to the starboard wing, grasped an air intake on the leading edge of the wing. He succeeded in clinging on but lost the extinguisher, which was blown away. By this time, the fire had spread rapidly and Sergeant Jackson was involved. His face, hands and clothing were severely burnt. Unable to retain his hold he was swept through the flames and over the trailing edge of the wing, dragging his parachute behind. When last seen it was only partly inflated and was burning in a number of places. Realising that the fire could not be controlled, the captain gave the order to abandon aircraft. Four of the remaining members of the crew landed safely. The captain and rear gunner died. Sergeant Jackson was unable to control his descent and landed heavily. He sustained a broken ankle, his right eye was closed through burns and his hands were useless. This airman’s attempt to extinguish the fire and save the aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands was an act of outstanding gallantry. To venture outside, when travelling at 200 miles an hour, at a great height and in intense cold, was an almost incredible feat.

Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson VC

Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson VC

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Filed under Afghanistan, Falklands War, Iraq, Museums, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, World War Two