First published in the Mail on Sunday on 20 September 2020.
The medal awarded to the bravest of the brave celebrates its 80th birthday next week… and what better way to mark it than to hand it to all those who went into battle with Covid-19, says LORD ASHCROFT.
They are an eclectic mix of people – bomb disposal experts, secret agents, police officers, a schoolboy, a tram conductor and even an air stewardess. They have one thing in common: at some point in their lives they displayed such outstanding courage that they were awarded the George Cross (GC), Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious award for bravery when not in the presence of the enemy.
Today, just four days before the 80th anniversary of the creation of the GC, is an appropriate time to pay tribute to all those recipients of the decoration – living and dead – who since 1940 have earned their place in the history books. I regard them as the bravest of the brave.
As a champion of courage and a collector of gallantry medals, my fondness for the GC has grown and grown. Ten years ago my appreciation of the medal became so pronounced that I wrote a book called George Cross Heroes, one of six that I have penned on gallantry.
The GC achieves exactly what it was intended for when it was instigated by George VI on September 24, 1940 – it rewards extreme valour beyond the battlefield.
At that time, just over a year into the Second World War, the King was facing a dilemma: many bomb disposal officers and some civilians were, in the early days of the Blitz, showing immense courage.
However, George VI was unable to award them the Victoria Cross, the most prestigious award for gallantry in Britain and the Commonwealth, because the courage they had displayed was not – as the rules dictate – in the presence of the enemy. So, with the help of his close advisers, the King came up with a new medal for bravery above and beyond the call of duty.
As he said in an address to the nation on September 23, 1940: ‘I have decided to create, at once, a new mark of honour for men and women in all walks of civilian life. I propose to give my name to this new distinction…’
The GC was created by royal warrant the next day but the irony is that, since then, about two-thirds of its 164 direct recipients have been personnel from the Armed Forces – and only around a third have been civilians.
This is because the bulk of the awards, particularly for bravery shown in the concluding five years of the Second World War, went to bomb disposal officers. Yet the civilians who received the award since 1940 have indeed come from all walks of life. And they include four women (to this day no woman has ever been awarded the VC because they have not been involved in frontline duties). Sadly, just over half of all the GC awards have been made posthumously, which indicates the degree of danger that the GC involves.
The first GC had been announced in the London Gazette on September 30, 1940. It was awarded to a civilian, Thomas Alderson, who had been responsible for a series of heroic operations in his home town of Bridlington, Yorkshire, where he had taken on the wartime role of Detachment Leader, Air Raid Precautions.
The seaside town of Bridlington was bombed several times by the Luftwaffe and, on at least three separate occasions during August 1940, Alderson showed outstanding gallantry. On one occasion, he worked tirelessly in great danger and in cramped conditions for three-and-a-half hours to release six people trapped in a cellar under a collapsed building.
His citation ended by saying: ‘By his courage and devotion to duty without the slightest regard for his own safety, he set a fine example to the members of the Rescue Party, and their teamwork is worthy of the highest praise.’
After the end of the war, it emerged just how many Britons had risked their lives to work behind enemy lines, often with the local resistance groups. Eventually three women were awarded the GC for their wartime heroics, two of them posthumously.
Violette Szabo (nee Bushell), who was born in Paris and spoke fluent French, was determined to help free the country of her birth. As part of her work for the highly secretive Special Operations Executive (SOE), she carried out two dangerous missions in German-occupied France.
However, her work with the local resistance, or Maquis, ended when she was captured on June 10, 1944, four days after the D-Day Landings, and tortured over a period of five months.
Some time in late January or early February she and two other female ‘spies’ were executed.
Szabo was 23 when she died and she left a young daughter.
Szabo’s GC was announced on December 17, 1946, and her citation ended by saying: ‘She was arrested and had to undergo solitary confinement.
‘She was then continuously and atrociously tortured but never by word or deed gave away any of her acquaintances or told the enemy anything of any value. She was ultimately executed. Madame Szabo gave a magnificent example of courage and steadfastness.’
Shortly before George Cross Heroes was published, I started a collection of GCs in addition to my collection of Victoria Crosses (VCs), the latter being the largest in the world and numbering more than 200.
Both collections are on display at a gallery that bears my name in the Imperial War Museum in London and I am delighted to say that the GC collection includes the Szabo decoration, which I purchased at auction five years ago.
On October 19, 1952, John (always known as ‘Jack’) Bamford became the youngest recipient of the George Cross. The son of a scrap metal dealer, Bamford was just 15 when a fire ripped through his family’s home in Nottinghamshire.
Aided by his father, young Bamford climbed up outside the house to release his mother and three of his siblings from a bedroom window, only to realise that two of his brothers were still trapped inside. He then crawled through the flames before dragging, and then lowering, both Roy, four, and Brian, six, to safety.
Jack, however, suffered severe burns to his face neck, chest, stomach, back, arms and hands. Only expert nursing, several skin grafts and his determination to live allowed him to pull through.
On December 16, his GC was announced when his lengthy citation concluded that: ‘John Bamford displayed courage of the highest order, and in spite of excruciating pain succeeded in rescuing his two brothers.’
On April 29, 1960, Raymond Donoghue became the first – and so far only – Tasmanian recipient of the GC. He had been a tram conductor for only six weeks when his tram collided with a lorry, went out of control and started running backwards.
Realising the dangers, Donoghue shepherded all the passengers to the front of the compartment, furthest from any likely impact. If he had leapt from the tram or gone to the front, his life, too, would have been saved.
Instead, however, he went into the driver’s cab at the rear – now acting as the very front of the runaway vehicle – where he continuously rang the alarm bell to warn the busy traffic of the dangers. He also tried in vain to apply the emergency brake. He was killed instantly when it collided with another, stationary, tram.
The citation to his posthumous GC, announced on October 11, 1960, said that: ‘By sacrificing his life Donoghue was responsible for saving the lives of a number of persons.’ Aged 40 when he died, he left a pregnant widow, with whom he already had six children.
Tony Gledhill was awarded the GC for an act of bravery on August 25, 1966, less than a month after England had triumphed in the World Cup at Wembley. It was also a time of great tension for the Metropolitan police, as the episode took place just 13 days after Harry Roberts, the notorious police killer, murdered three officers in Shepherd’s Bush, West London.
Then aged 29, Gledhill and a fellow police constable had been patrolling on foot in Deptford, South-East London, when they were ordered to pursue an erratically driven car containing five armed robbers.
An 80mph chase ensued, with the criminals firing 15 bullets at the two unarmed officers in an attempt to shake them off. After five miles, the robbers crashed into a lorry, whereupon they tried to flee amid scenes of mayhem.
One of them tried to hijack Gledhill’s car at gunpoint, ordering the two constables to get out. But Gledhill responded by grabbing the criminal’s hand gun as the car set off then, finding himself dragged along as the vehicle accelerated, somehow managed to get back inside and overpower the driver in a struggle.
Gledhill’s GC was announced on May 23, 1967.
Barbara Jane Harrison is the only woman to receive the GC for actions other than those undertaken during the Second World War.
On April 8, 1968, she was the stewardess on a Boeing 707 passenger jet taking off from Heathrow airport with 126 passengers and crew on board. Roughly a minute after take-off, the number two engine caught fire. Two-and- a-half minutes later, the plane made an emergency landing.
Harrison stayed on board to help passengers escape from the rear galley door down a chute that had become twisted.
When huge flames prevented their escape, she directed passengers to another exit before attempting to save an elderly disabled woman.
However, both were overcome by smoke and flames and Harrison died, aged just 22, along with the elderly woman. Harrison’s posthumous GC citation announced on August 8, 1969, praised her as ‘a very brave young lady who gave her life in her utter devotion to duty.’
Jim Beaton had been working as the personal bodyguard to Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, for less than a year when a deranged gunman tried to kidnap her as she was being driven back to Buckingham Palace after a Royal engagement in the City on March 20, 1974.
In his courageous and eventually successful attempt to save the life of the Queen’s only daughter, he was shot twice from close range and later underwent emergency surgery. His GC was announced on September 27, 1974.
In an interview for my book, Beaton told me: ‘Looking back on it, there were only two directions for me to go – forwards or backwards. And I suppose backwards, to use modern parlance, wasn’t in my vocabulary.’
I am glad to say that Beaton, along with Gledhill and Bamford, are all still alive and are active members of the VC and GC Association, which represents all living holders of the two decorations.
The most recent award of the GC was to Dominic Troulan for his actions during the Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya. His GC, the first to a civilian for 25 years, was announced on June 16, 2017, when his citation ended: ‘Troulan had the presence of mind to realise that the terrorists could be hiding among the survivors. Troulan enlisted help and searched the civilians once he had led them to safety, thus ensuring that no terrorists were hiding in their midst.’
Incidentally, Troulan was a retired major who had already been awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal (QGM) for bravery in Northern Ireland.
I should point out that this article and my book highlight only the direct awards of the GC.
In 1971, the living recipients of the Albert Medal and Edward Medal were invited to exchange their awards for the GC and most elected to do so (although 24 decided to keep their existing decoration). Those holding the Empire Gallantry Medal had already had their award exchanged for the GC in 1940.
I hope that these examples of outstanding bravery over the past eight decades help to explain my immense affection for both the recipients of the GC and the decoration, which is made from silver with a plain cross of four equal limbs. In the centre, the cross, which is one-and-a-half inches wide, has a circular medallion portraying St George slaying a dragon. The inscription around this central medallion reads simply ‘For gallantry’. The GC is worn on the left breast before all other decorations, other than the VC.
The GC replaced the Empire Gallantry Medal which George VI did not consider of high enough standing for the purpose he had in mind. The GC was awarded for ‘acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of great danger’.
The King also decided that the George Medal (GM) should be awarded for acts of great bravery that were not so outstanding as to merit the GC.
During the history of the GC, there have been two collective awards. The first was to the island of Malta on April 15, 1942, for the bravery of the islanders in resisting Germany and Italy during the early years of the Second World War. The second was to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) on November 23, 1999, for the bravery of its men and women during a 30-year campaign of terrorism, during which 302 officers were killed and thousands more injured.
I hope that the staff of the NHS might soon become the third collective award of the GC for their bravery in tackling the coronavirus pandemic. During this current emergency, many people from all walks of life have stepped up to the plate, but it has been our 1.2 million-plus NHS workers who have borne the brunt of the burden during the past six months.
Wouldn’t the 80th anniversary of the creation of the GC be the perfect time to recognise their collective bravery? That’s just a personal view, however. What is beyond doubt is that the GC has proved to be a huge success as a means of rewarding exceptional valour, both in times of war and peace.
I, for one, shall be raising a glass on Thursday to wish this wonderful decoration a very happy 80th birthday.