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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Victoria Cross - Part Two

Updated: Apr 13, 2023



World War Two


Despite the intense combat of World War Two, only 182 VCs were awarded, compared to the 628 in World War One. Crucially though, just under half of them were given posthumously. The first of these was awarded to Lieutenant Commander Gerard Roope, the captain of the destroyer HMS Glowworm. On 8th April 1940, in the Norwegian Sea, Glowworm came across the German cruiser Admiral Hipper. Despite the disparity in size, Roope took on the enemy vessel with torpedoes. Having failed to score any hits, he opted instead to ram the German cruiser, causing significant damage to her hull, before Glowworm capsized and sank, her guns still blazing. Roope was not among the 31 men who were rescued. His award of the VC was partly recommended by Admiral Hipper's captain, Kapitän zur See Hellmuth Heye, who wrote to the British authorities via the Red Cross, praising his opponent’s courage.


Lieutenant Commander Gerard Roope VC

Another award that was largely based on German accounts was that to Guardsman Edward Charlton of the 2nd Battalion, Irish Guards, for actions on 21st April 1945 at Wistedt, Germany. When the tank he was driving was disabled, he was ordered to dismount the turret .30 Browning machine-gun and support the infantry, who were in danger of being overrun. Advancing in full view of the attacking Germans, firing from the hip and inflicting heavy casualties, he halted the enemy advance, enabling his comrades to withdraw safely, despite having received serious wounds, including a shattered left arm. Charlton subsequently died of his wounds whilst in German custody. His VC was the last one to be awarded in the European theatre of WW2.


Among several awards to members of the RAF was that to Flight Lieutenant Eric Nicolson of No. 249 Squadron, who was the only Battle of Britain pilot to be awarded the VC. On 16th August 1940, having taken off from RAF Boscombe Down near Salisbury, Nicolson's Hawker Hurricane was fired on by a Messerschmitt Bf 110, injuring him in one eye and one foot. His engine was also damaged and the petrol tank set alight. As he struggled to leave the blazing aircraft, he noticed another Messerschmitt, and getting back in his seat, he succeeded in shooting it down before finally bailing out, though not before having sustained serious burns to his hands, face, neck, and legs.


Flight Lieutenant, later Wing Commander, Eric Nicolson VC

Among the awards for actions in the Far East Campaign was that to Lieutenant Basil Weston of the Green Howards, who on 3rd March 1945, led his platoon in an attack on a number of Japanese bunkers during the Battle of Meiktila, in Burma. His inspired leadership saw his men capture each successive enemy position, despite facing fanatical opposition until they reached the last one. It was here that he fell, wounded, at the entrance to the bunker. Realising that the position was strongly held and that his men would undoubtedly suffer heavy losses in their attempt to capture it, he pulled the pin out of one of his grenades and deliberately blew himself up with the occupants of the bunker.


Post-war Awards


Since the end of World War Two, only fifteen VCs have been awarded: four in the Korean War, one in the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation in 1965, four to members of the Australian Army in the Vietnam War, two during the Falklands War in 1982, one in the Iraq War in 2004, and three in the War in Afghanistan for actions in 2006, 2012 and 2013. The most recent of these was awarded to Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey of 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, for an action in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, which took place on 22nd August 2013.


Lance Corporal, now Colour Sergeant, Joshua Leakey VC

In total, since its inception on 29th January 1856, there have been 1,358 awards of the VC to 1,355 individual recipients. Of these, 836 went to the British Army, 117 to the Royal Navy - ten of which went to Royal Marines - 51 to the Royal Air Force and other airforces, four to civilians, and the remainder to Imperial and Commonwealth forces.


Awards to Colonial Troops and Foreigners


Although initially, only British forces were eligible for the Victoria Cross, by Royal Warrant of 1st January 1867, the VC was also extended to colonial troops. The first colonial soldier to receive this decoration was Major Charles Heaphy, a member of one of the New Zealand militias serving in the Māori Wars, for bravery displayed on 11th February 1864. He was also the first New Zealander to win the VC. Today, 24 different countries boast of at least one recipient among their number, with the likes of Australia and Canada among the major contributors.


Indian troops, still controlled by the Honourable East India Company until 1860, were not originally eligible for the VC since they had their own decoration for bravery, known as the Indian Order of Merit. Although the VC was extended to European officers and men of the East India Company in October 1857, since they were not eligible for the Order of Merit, Indian troops had to wait until 1911 before they became eligible for the VC. The first award went to Sepoy Khudadad Khan of the 129th Duke of Connaught's Own Baluchis, for his actions at Hollebeke, Belgium, on 31st October 1914.


Sepoy, later Subedar, Khudadad Khan was the first Indian awarded the Victoria Cross

To reflect changes within the Empire and the Commonwealth, a Royal Warrant of 30th September 1961 allowed for service personnel of Commonwealth countries to also become eligible for the VC. This enabled the four awards to members of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam in the 1960s, despite the fact that Britain was not involved in the conflict. In more recent times, however, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have created their own version of the Victoria Cross, all three of which look almost identical to the British one.


Corporal Ferdinand Schiess, a Swiss national, was awarded the VC for gallantry during the Defence of Rorke’s Drift on 22nd January 1879

While the original warrant of the Victoria Cross made no allowance for the award of the medal to non-British subjects, a number of VCs have been bestowed on foreign nationals. These include five Americans, three Danes, two Germans, and one each from Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, and Ukraine. The Swiss national, Corporal Ferdinand Schiess of the Natal Native Contingent, was the first foreigner and the first man serving with a South African unit to win the VC, for gallantry during the Defence of Rorke’s Drift on 22nd January 1879. Perhaps the most unusual award of the VC to a foreign national was that given posthumously to the American Unknown Warrior of WW1. Although no VC was awarded to the British Unknown Warrior interred at Westminster Abbey, he was instead awarded the American Medal of Honor.


Curiosities


The greatest number of Victoria Crosses awarded in a single day was 24, on 16th November 1857 during the Indian Mutiny, 23 of which were awarded for deeds during the Second Relief of Lucknow. The largest number for one distinct action was eleven VCs for the defence of Rorke’s Drift on 22nd - 23rd January 1879 during the Zulu War, including seven that went to men of the 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot.


The Battle of Rorke’s Drift on 22nd - 23rd January 1879 saw no less than 11 Victoria Crosses being awarded

One of the more unusual rules of the VC is that which enables the award to be handed out by ballot in the event of a gallant and daring act being performed by a large number of men who were all deemed to be equally worthy. In this case, the men involved chose four recipients from their own ranks: one officer, one NCO, and two other ranks. In all, 46 awards have been awarded by ballot, with 29 of them during the Indian Mutiny. Other examples include four awards granted to Q Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, at Korn Spruit on 31st March 1900, during the Second Boer War, and the famous "6 VCs before Breakfast" awarded to the 1st Battalion, The Lancashire Fusiliers, for their role in the 'W' Beach landings at Gallipoli on 25th April 1915. The last four ballot awards were given to members of the Royal Navy for the Zeebrugge Raid in 1918.


The regulations regarding the VC also provide for individuals to receive more than one award of the medal, should they perform subsequent acts of outstanding gallantry. In this case, bars are awarded to be added to the original medal. Only three men have won the VC twice. Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Martin-Leake won his VC on 8th February 1902 at Vlakfontein, whilst serving as a surgeon with the South African Constabulary during the Boer War, and then received a bar to his cross for bravery during the period 29th October to 8th November 1914, near Zonnebeke on the Western Front, whilst serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps. Captain Noel Chavasse, also of the RAMC, won the VC on 9th August 1916 at Guillemont on the Somme, and a posthumous bar for gallantry for actions between 31st July and 2nd August 1917 at Wieltje in Flanders. Captain Charles Upham of 20th Battalion, New Zealand Expeditionary Force, won the VC for his actions on Crete during the period of 22nd to 30th May 1941, and a bar for bravery in Egypt on 14th - 15th July 1942.


Captain Charles Upham is one of only 3 men to have won the Victoria Cross twice

The oldest recipient of the Victoria Cross is believed to have been Lieutenant William Raynor of the Bengal Veteran Establishment, who was aged 61 years and 10 months when he won the VC during the Indian Mutiny. The youngest recipients were Drummer Thomas Flinn of the 64th Regiment of Foot in 1857, and Hospital Apprentice Andrew Fitzgibbon, of the Indian Medical Establishment, attached to the 67th Regiment of Foot in 1860: Both were aged only 15 years and 3 months at the time of their actions. Perhaps the most famous of the young VCs is however Boy 1st Class John Cornwell, who was 16 years and 4 months old when, during the Battle of Jutland, on 31st May 1916, he remained at his gun position on HMS Chester despite having been mortally wounded.


Boy 1st Class John Cornwell was one of the youngest to be awarded the Victoria Cross, at just 16 years and 4 months old

There have been some instances of VCs being awarded to members of the same family, including to four pairs of brothers, as well as to three father and son pairs. Among these were the brothers Lieutenant Hugh Gough and Major Charles Gough, as well as Charles’s son Major John Gough. There have also been instances of in-laws and cousins winning the VC.


Today, the biggest collection of Victoria Crosses is found at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum in London. Opened on 12th November 2010, the gallery contains 48 VCs held by the museum itself, together with another 162 personally amassed since 1986 by the businessman and politician Lord Ashcroft, who helped fund the opening of the gallery so that the medals could be displayed to the public.

 

References


Duckers, P. (2005). The Victoria Cross. Shire Publications Ltd.

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