The Victoria Cross at Sea
The Victoria Cross had its genesis in the Crimean War.
The rank and file Servicemen, were controlled by their Naval Chief Petty Officers, or by Senior non Commissioned Officers in the Army. Despite the Officer Corps, the ordinary Sailor or Soldier might well acquit himself with distinction on the battle front.
Role of the War Correspondent
For the very first time, the courage and endurance of the common soldier reached the pages of the daily newspapers, and quite often made the Front Page.
At this time, the most esteemed award for Military prowess in the British Army was the Order of the Bath, but it could only be awarded to Senior Officers. Junior Officers, and NCO'S could win promotion or Brevet Rank, in the field. The ordinary Soldier could only be awarded a Campaign Medal, issued to every one taking part, whether he had fought bravely or not.
In 1854, to remedy this situation , the Distinguished Conduct Medal for NCO'S and privates was instituted. This medal carried a pension, and was much valued. However, there was an awareness of the need for a decoration, open to all, regardless of rank, which would reflect individual gallantry of those in the front line.
The French had their Legion of Honour, and the Military Medal, Russia and Austria had awards for gallantry, regardless of rank. It was time for Britain to follow suit.
In December of 1854, an ex Naval Officer and now a Liberal Member of Parliament, Captain Thomas Scobell, placed a motion befoe the House of Commons that:-
Having debated the matter in the Commons, and being assured the question was under consideration, he agreed to withdraw his motion.
The then Secretary of War, the Duke of Newcastle, wrote to Albert, the Prince Consort, on the 20th. of January 1855.
A Little bit of Ribbon
On the 20th. of January, he followed up his letter by announcing in a speech to the House of Lords, the New Award. At the same time an official memorandum was doing the rounds of the War Office, giving details of a Cross to be awarded for "A single act of valour in the face of the enemy." Events were moving along quite quickly, but within a few days of making his speech in the Lords, Lord Newcastle lost his job as Secretary of War, but he had lit the fire under this issue.
Lord Panmure now took over this function, and became the new Secretary of State for War, and he corresponded with Albert. The Queen was starting to put in her sixpenneth on this subject, and the draft warrant submitted by Panmure, had pencil alterations made to it by Albert, as a result of his discussions with Her Majesty.
It had already been decided that this new award would bear her name, in true Civil Service long winded style it was proposed that it be named: "The Military Order of Victoria." Albert crossed this out and suggested "Victoria Cross." and so it became known.
Panmure indicated that he intended to publish in the London Gazette, names of recipients of the Victoria Cross, and then place them before the Commons, the Queen who was taking a keen interest in her new award responded very stonily to that idea.
Queen Victoria continued to make her presence felt, when the first drawings of the design of the Cross were submitted, she selected one close to that of the Army Gold Cross that came from the Peninsula War, but added the VC should be smaller. The motto read: "For the Brave." Oh No! she declared, it might be thought that the only men in a battle were those who were awarded a Victoria Cross, and her Motto: "For Valour." carried the day.
In London, the jewellers, Hancock's of Bruton Street, were given the commission to produce the new medal, and it had been decided to use a base metal, but the first proof shown to Her Majesty, was not well received.
Taking the Queen's comments to heart, a bright idea emerged, Why not use bronze for the new medals taken from Russian Guns captured in the Crimea?
An engineer was despatched to Woolwich Barracks, and two entire 18 pound cannons were given to him for this purpose, as he did not want to totally destroy the guns, he sawed off the knobs found at the breech end of these cannon, these are technically known as Casabels, their purpose to secure restraining ropes when firing the guns.
Although these guns looked ancient enough, they did carry inscriptions that did not look at all like Russian lettering, it took some time before it was decided that: The Victoria Cross metal had not emanated from a Russian Gun source, but from a Chinese one, and even worse still, may never have been at the scene of battle in the Crimea.
But, both had been the Queen's enemies, and indeed, both were foreign.
Hancock's had trouble with the gun - metal from this Chinese source, it was too hard, and cracked the die used to stamp out the VC's, so casting the medals was tried, to find this method gave a much better result, higher relief, and better depth.
Medals were ready about September 1856, now came the hard part, to whom should they be awarded?
Boards of Adjudication were appointed
The First Victoria Cross awarded to the Navy
First Investiture of the Victoria Cross by Queen Victoria
The Queen's Diary recorded her thoughts for that day
As the Queen elected to remain on her horse for the ceremony, it caused some consternation for her staff, a table on the dais had been set up with the sixty two Crosses laid out in readiness for Her Royal Highness.
Both Her Majesty, and all of the recipients turned out to be equal to the occasion, she leaned down from the saddle, and invested, one after the other, in fact, so efficient did the Queen prove to be, ten minutes was all she needed to complete the task of investing the first sixty two who received this high honour for bravery.
There exists a contemporary report, that the Queen leaning forward like a Cossack with a Lance, stabbed one of the heroes, Commander Raby, through his chest.
He, true to the spirit in which he won his award, did not flinch, as His Sovereign managed to fasten the pin through his flesh.
It was reported that the whole parade went off very well to the rapturous applause of the public.
Description of the Victoria Cross
Originally, a blue ribbon was worn by Naval recipients, and a crimson one for Army recipients, but, in the First World War, a crimson ribbon was adopted for all winners of this prestigious award.
When the ribbon is worn alone, a tiny replica of the Cross is attached to the ribbon.
Award of the Victoria Cross
The award carries a Pension, originally fixed at ten Pounds, but in 1898 it was raised to fifty Pounds, if the recipient was poor. ( I am not aware just how the word Poor, was interpreted. ) But, in 1959, the Pension was raised to one hundred Pounds, for all surviving holders of the Victoria Cross, irrespective of their circumstances.
Eligibilty of Women
Number of VC's won since inception of this award
King Edward V11th. decided that the VC won by a person who died from their actions was to be presented to relatives, and this decision was made retrospective, right back to the Crimean War.
Naval Victoria Crosses
Another ten were won prior to WW1, in varying locations around the globe, wherever British Ships and their Companies were serving.
World War 1
With the exception of the British Battlecruisers in 1915, at the Battle of the Dogger Bank, the most daring of engagements occured not in the larger ships of the Fleet, but in the lesser vessels of the Royal Navy, scattered around the world. It was in Submarines, as a result of Torpedo Boat raids on shore establishments, sailors in Landing Parties, as Infantry when Naval personnel served ashore in trenches, as airmen, that the majority of VC's were won by serving Naval Officers and Ratings in WW1.
First Naval VC in WW1
Lieutenant Holbrook was awarded the VC, "For sustained courage under intense stress." Every crew member was awarded the Distinguised Service Medal.
In 1915, the New South Wales country town of Germantown, was renamed Holbrook, after this Naval hero. His Victoria Cross is now held in Holbrook , and as you drive from Melbourne to Sydney, or the reverse, the main Hume Highway passes through the town centre, and you suddenly come upon a most unexpected sight, here, hundreds of miles from the sea, is part of an O Class Submarine, Otway, from the Royal Australian Navy, including her sail, proudly on display, to commemorate Lieutenant Holbrook, and his exploits in faraway Turkish waters, back in 1915.
Success of Q Ships
In WW1, in an attempt to reduce the losses of Allied Merchant ships to the German U-Boat arm, The British Admiralty introduced cargo vessels that were quite heavily armed, but were deliberately disguised to appear as harmless freighters. They were then sailed alone to provoke an unsuspecting U-Boat to attack them, these ships gained the name of Q Ships.
The Q Ship Farnborough, on the 22nd. of March 1916, was under the command of Lieutenant Gordon Campbell, it was attacked in mid Atlantic by U-68, but the torpedo it fired passed astern of Farnborough, and no reaction to this attack was made by this Q Ship. Thge Submarine surfaced to use its deck gun on the apparently hapless freighter, and Campbell ordered a Panic Party of his Naval Seamen, who were disguised as Merchant Sailors to take to the boats. The U-Boat " licking its lips" at the thought of an easy kill, closed to 800 yards from its intended victim.
Farnborough swung into action, an apparent "steering house" came to life, revealing a 12 pounder gun, two 6 pounders appeared on both sides of the bridge, these weapons soon found the U-Boat's range, and aided by dropping some depth charges, the German Boat was sunk with all hands.
Campbell was to enjoy further success with the same ship, now renamed Q5, but it was now February 1917, and the U-Boats were much wiser in their approach to lone Merchant Ships. On this occasion, Campbell allowed his ship to take a torpedo aft of the main bulkhead, hoping it would take some time for to fill up from the in rushing sea. But, as the Panic Party got away, the ship started to settle, and Campbell did not want to "Blow his disguise" by manning the pumps, and his crew remained hidden. At last, U-83 deemed it safe to surface, and she edged to within 100 yards of the sinking ship, the covers came off the guns, and a dozen hits on the U-Boat were made within 30 seconds. The U-Boat quickly sank, only one German Officer and one Sailor made it to the stern of their intended victim.
Q5, although crippled, was towed to safety, all her crew being saved unhurt. Campbell received the Victoria Cross for this action, which also signalled the end of using Q Ships.
The Battle of Jutland
Three Naval VC's came out of Jutland
His VC was awarded posthumously, it became quite evident that the further WW1 progressed, to gain a Victoria Cross, it was necessary to die for it.
Boy Cornwall from the Cruiser Chester
When it came upon the German Fleet, Chester was in the van of Admiral Hood's squadron, and it received heavy gunfire in its first encounter with this enemy Navy. Some 20% of her crew were either killed or wounded, and about half of all the gun's crews were adversely affected, including the forward 5.5 inch gun where Jack Cornwall, only 16, served as the sight setter. Two of this gun's crew crawled to safety, others lay dead or were dying scattered around the gun mounting, but Jack Cornwall, the former Grocer's delivery boy, held firm at his post throughout the long ordeal of this action. It was many hours later, when the battle was at last over, before it was realised that Jack was dying, by then it was too late to save him. and he subsequently died. His body was taken ashore, and without any ceremony, Jack Cornwall was buried in a common grave at Grimsby.
Admiral Beatty, when writing up this action, described Boy Cornwall's part in this action in glowing terms. There seems little doubt, that the then Public Relations Team went into action, how much does the Public need a hero to take the heat off what might be described as an unfortunate and costly failure?
The body was disinterred from its communal burial spot, and then given a Hero's Funeral, complete with Gun Carriage, White Ensign, with an escort of Naval Cadets, and Troops of Boy Scouts lining the route for the former Boy Scout's second, and very Public Funeral.
Cornwall's Victoria Cross was gazetted in September, and the public reaction was amazing, to quote a modern analogy, Boy Cornwall became as famous as did the Beatles at the absolute height of their fame, with all the mass hysteria that accompanied their appearances around the world.
Painters competed to show the most moving and harrowing portrayal of the action in which he died, at one stage it appeared difficult to obtain a true likeness to the dead hero, but his little brother came to the rescue in this regard.
Copies of these pictures appeared in School Rooms, and Scout Halls, across the whole country, a special day was declared in his honour.
The Scouting movement set up a Cornwall Memorial Fund, for Cornwall Badge winners, in fact, there seemed to be no end to the public adulation of this simple young man, who had died at his action station in the Navy he served.
WW2. 1939 - 1945
I have selected but three of these to represent the whole, and these will give a taste of the actions whereby brave men rose at a specific occasion and performed beyond the normal call of duty.
1. Commander John Wallace Linton, in command of the Royal Navy Submarine Turbulent
Tubby had been born at Malpas in Monmouthshire, and attended the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, he was a wonderful Rugby player, being capped 6 times for the Navy, between 1927 - 1930. In the thirties, he served in Submarines based in Hong Kong, come the war, he was in the Submarine Pandora, which he drove to America for a refit, returning to England to stand by the building of a new Boat, Turbulent, at Barrow - in - Furness. This name, from now on, could well be used to describe Linton's life at sea.
After commissioning in January 1942, his new command sailed to the Mediterranean, by now, Linton was in his late thirties, a good deal older than most other Submarine Commanding Officers, and he was now a Commander.
Linton and his Turbulent, achieved great success in the Mediterranean, sinking an Italian Destroyer, 28 supply ships bound for Rommel's Africa Corps, a German U-Boat, a German Armed Merchant Cruiser, out of a full year of operations, his Boat and crew spent 254 days at sea, and half of that period was spent submerged.
By the spring of 1943, Linton now wore a Distinguished Service Order, and a Distinguished Service Cross on his Naval Uniform, at home in Gloucestershire, his wife Nancy maintained these prized decorations safely in their Presentation Cases.
Linton refused to go home for a rest, and the inevitable had to happen in due course, Turbulent sailed for another patrol, and on the 4th. of May 1943, it was announced that she had failed to return to base, and must be presumed lost. She had last been known to be sailing close to minefields between Corsica and Sardinia.
Prior to the public announcement about the loss of Turbulent, Commander Linton, and his crew, the Admiralty on the 26th. of March, had sent a signal to C in C Mediterranean, repeated to C in C Levant, it read:
This message was indeed an accolade from the usually stiff and rather stuffy members of the British Board of Admiralty.
Victoria Cross awarded to the late Commander Tubby Linton
His wife Nancy was to receive it.
She received a touching letter from Anthony Miers VC, by now a Captain in the Royal Navy, who recalled exploits together, and their long and rewarding friendship.
2. Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson, Royal Naval Reserve
Wilkinson, born on the 1st. of August 1898, came from seafaring stock, at only 14, he had joined his father's sailing sloop. In WW1, he had served in the Blue Funnel Line, S.S. Alicinious, converted to a Troopship. Four years after the Peace Treaty had been signed, he joined the Indo - China Steam Navigation Company, and by 1936, had worked up to become one of their Masters.
Li Wo, had been launched in Hong Kong in 1938, designed with tall sides and a fairly flat bottom, she had been destined for the upper segments of the Yangste River, but because of the Far East War, she remained confined to the Delta of the Yangste, working out of Shanghai. Wilkinson was her Captain , and the Royal Navy commandered her when WW2 broke out.
She became a Warship by adding a 4 inch gun in her bow, 2 machine guns high up on her sun deck, and on her stern, a depth charge thrower was fitted.
Wilkinson sailed his small craft to Singapore, where on the 12th. of February 1942, the city was repeatedly attacked by Japanese aircraft, but Li Wo, at anchor in the harbour, managed to escape with but a few shrapnel scars upon her decks.
The next day, Wilkinson was ordered to sail for Batavia, to escape but 2 days before Singapore fell, much to the amazement and chagrin of Winston Churchill, the Governments of Britain and Australia, and the British and Australian publics.
Li Wo with a company of 84, many of them survivors from sunken ships, sailed in company with another converted river boat, Fuk Wo, commanded by Lieutenant N. Cooke, RNR. Both vessels anchored near Raffles Light, at 0500, ( 5 AM ) as dawn was breaking, they inched through the Durian Strait minefields, and set a course for their target of Batavia.
During that afternoon both ships were subjected to repeated high level bombing attacks from Japanese aircraft, all were repelled, but some damage was sustained. Wilkinson and Cooke anchored near a small island, deciding their best chance of escape lay with steaming as fast as possible, but at night, then hide up by day, off Singkep, until they could press on again under the protection of darkness.
On the 14th. of February, two Japanese bombers found them, once again the ships fought off their attackers, but they could hide no longer, and decided they would proceed, but separately, and they parted company.
About 1100 (11 AM) a seaplane sighted Li Wo, and she was a target for three hours from Noon to 1500 (3 PM) Near misses damaging both her hull and decks. Then, at 1600 (4 PM) to the North East, a convoy of smallish ships was sighted, then to the horror of Wilkinson and all aboard Li Wo, a second group of ships came into view, 15 ships, some as large as 6,000 tons, escorted by a Japanese Cruiser and several Destroyers.
Wilkinson called his ship's company together, and explained that rather than trying to escape, it was his decision that Li Wo, would engage the convoy in an attempt to inflict some damage. His crew knew, as well as their Captain knew, their hours were numbered, and they had only 13 shells left to fight their 4 inch gun, as most of the ammunition for this gun had been expended fighting off all the Japanese air attacks.
Li Wo turned towards the enemy, her Battle Ensign flying. Wilkinson's second in command, Sub-Lieutenant Stanton, volunteered to man the totally exposed 4 inch gun on the fore deck. The convoy was 4.5 miles away, and the nearest Destroyer about 7 miles distant.
A scratch gun's crew joined Stanton, Acting Petty Officer Arthur Thompson took up the gun layer's position, two other Officers, an Australian Stoker, and two Able Seamen completed this gun crew.
The third shell fired from Li Wo scored a direct hit on the Japanese Transport, and it caught fire, still Wilkinson pressed on, his bridge machine guns blazing away, and the Transport continued to burn fiercely. Li Wo was mortally wounded, but Wilkinson told his Coxswain, "I am going to ram that transport." The two ships met with a grinding of metal on metal, the war was over for the stricken Transport, her crew abandoned her, and the next day she sank.
It was now 1800 (6 PM) and the Japanese Cruiser was closing fast, Li Wo had exhausted her ammunition, a short salvo from the Cruiser ended her agony.
Abandon Ship was ordered by her Captain, rafts and wreckage supported those who had survived. Machine gunning of these sailors by the Japanese, left but 10 alive from those who had leapt over the side.
At 1808 (6.08 PM) Wilkinson was still on his bridge as his ship sank beneath him. The 10 survivors reached land some 20 miles away, but they soon became Prisoners of War. Three died in captivity, leaving a scant 7 from the original 84, but Stanton was one of those to survive. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, for fighting:
In all, nine awards were announced, including a Victoria Cross for the dead Wilkinson.
The peace time river boat Li Wo, a scant 1,000 tons, turned Wardship, now rests on the bottom of the ocean in the Far East, but her crew who fought her so valiantly are not forgotten.
In the Imperial War Museum in London, a scale model of this proud little ship stands for all to see, as she appeared prior to her escape from Singapore. At her bows, the Union Jack, with a White Ensign flying at her masthead.
Thomas Wilkinson VC, you and your crew are still remembered for your gallant action against quite impossible odds.
3. Petty Officer Alfred Edward Sephton
Aba, a British Hospital Ship sent out an SOS on her radio, and the Cruisers Coventry, and Phoebe, quickly responded to this call for help, steaming towards the given position.
They were soon set upon by German dive bombers, who seemingly arrived without any warning. The Cruisers anti-aircraft armament quickly went into action, and Petty Officer Sephton, at his action station in one of the High Angle Control Directors, ensured that Coventry's AA guns stayed fixed on their target. He was incensed that the Germans had ignored International Convention, by attacking a vulnerable Hoispital Ship, who should have been exempt from any such attack, at least, that was what was supposed to obtain.
Sephton's Director was destroyed, as two bullets found his body as their target, he remained standing, badly bleeding, carrying on with his task, he lost a lot of blood. The two Cruisers were winning this battle, they would survive to assist Aba, but, PO Sephton was not winning his fight to survive, he remained at his station until he died there.
He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.
No Australian Naval Officer or Rating has ever been awarded a Victoria Cross
There seems little doubt if the George Cross had not been instituted, Officers from our Naval Reserve such as Syme, involved in Mine Clearance and Delousing in UK, during WW2, would have won a VC.
Many believe, as do I, that the following three RAN personnel, were all worthy of nomination for the award of a Victoria Cross, but, it did not happen, all died in action for their Navy and their country.