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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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