I guess a good place to begin my history blogging journey would be to start at the beginning of my love for history.
When I was nine years old my parents took me to France. I think we may have visited Disney Land Paris, but I honestly cannot remember. What I do remember though is the scarred and pockmarked fields of the Somme Valley created by the trenches and bursting shells over eighty years before and the behemoth bunkers that had sheltered the German troops as the allies stormed the beaches of Normandy.
It was here, in northern France, that my fascination of military history exploded like the Lochnagar Mine near the French village of La Boisselle had done on July 1st, 1916. I needed to know everything possible about the First and Second World Wars. This was my new obsession at age nine but it did not take long to snowball into an obsession to learn all things militaria. Mum and dad, supportive as ever, added fuel to the fire and encouraged my obsession and even helped me start collecting military memorabilia from different conflicts throughout history.
To this day I have quite an extensive collection of militaria at my parent’s house, but there is one thing that I have always longed for above all else and that is a Victoria Cross (VC). Sure, I have a replica but the real deal costs upwards of six figures (which is a little out of my price range). The largest collection of Victoria Crosses is held by Lord Michael Ashcroft who privately holds 162 medals, over one-tenth of all VCs ever awarded. His collection, along with the Victoria Crosses and George Crosses held by the Imperial War Museum can be seen at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery in the Imperial War Museum in London.
The Victoria Cross is the highest award of the British Honours System and is awarded for gallantry “in the presence of the enemy” to members of the British Armed Forces and formerly to members of the forces of Commonwealth countries. The VC was introduced on 29th January 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of heroism performed during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856). Since then, the decoration has been awarded 1,358 times to 1,355 individual recipients, only 15 since the end of the Second World War. The bronze from which all Victoria Crosses are made is cut from cannons captured from the Russians after the Siege of Sevastopol in 1855.
The greatest number of Victoria Crosses awarded for a single day was twenty-four for deeds performed during the Indian Mutiny on 16th November 1857. Twenty-three of these were awarded for the action at Lucknow, whilst one was received for an action at Narnoul, south of Delhi. The largest number of VCs awarded to a single unit during a single action is seven, to the 2nd battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot (Warwickshire Regiment) for the defence of Rorke’s Drift over the 22nd and 23rd January 1879 which saw a little over 150 British and colonial troops successfully defend the garrison against an assault by over 3,000 Zulu warriors. The greatest number of VCs awarded for a single conflict is, unsurprisingly, the First World War (1914 – 1918).
The decoration is a bronze cross, bearing the crown of Saint Edward surmounted by a lion, and the inscription “FOR VALOUR”. The cross is suspended from a “V” to a bar ornamented with laurel leaves, through which the crimson ribbon passes. The reverse of the suspension bar is engraved with the recipient’s name, rank, number and unit, whilst on the reverse of the medal in the circular panel is the date on which the act is engraved. Although all VC ribbons nowadays are crimson in colour, originally, the crimson ribbon was designated for the army whilst recipients from the navy received a blue ribbon. This changed after the creation of the Royal Air Force in 1918 when King George V signed a warrant stating that all recipients would receive the crimson ribbon and that living recipients of the naval version were required to exchange their ribbons for the new colour.
Now that we know a little about the Victoria Cross, let’s have a look at some of the recipients and the courageous actions that they performed.
Chief Skipper Joseph Watt VC – Royal Naval Reserve
Born in 1887 in the Scottish fishing village of Gardenstown into a large family, Joseph Watt’s family moved to Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, when he was ten after his father, a fisherman, was lost at sea. Young Joe learned the fishing trade from an early age, but the war changed the community as most men volunteered for service with the Royal Navy on patrol service, hunting for enemy shipping and submarines. Joe was no exception and was transferred to Italy in 1915 serving on drifters, like the ones he used back home, in the Adriatic Sea, attempting to keep Austrian submarines from breaking through into the Mediterranean Sea.
On 15th May 1917, Skipper Watt and his crew of eight men and a dog were part of a patrol on the Otranto Strait looking out for suspicious activity following an increase in submarine sightings (the 72km patrol line was known as the Otranto Barrage). Unbeknownst to the Allies, the Austrians had planned a major operation against the naval blockade. The attack fell upon the drifter line during the night and sank fourteen of the forty-eight drifters defending the Otranto Barrage. Watt’s drifter, Gowanlea, was confronted by the Helgoland, an Austro-Hungarian cruiser, which demanded the surrender of Watt’s tiny ship and ordered the crew to abandon ship before sinking it. Rather than comply with the enemy’s demands, Watt ordered his crew to open fire on their much larger opponent with the drifter’s six-pound gun.
The Gowanlea was hit by heavy shells sustaining serous damage and wounding some of the crewmen. However, the other drifters around Gowanlea followed her example but were also subjected to heavy fire. The Royal Naval cruisers HMS Dartmouth and HMS Bristol came to the rescue of the tiny drifters and the Austrian cruiser fled but subsequently became engaged in the inconclusive Battle of the Otranto Barrage. Despite her own heavy damage and casualties, the Gowanlea moved amongst the wreckage and flotsam of the battle rescuing wounded men and providing medical attention to those in most need.
After the war, Joe Watt returned to Fraserburgh, refusing to speak of his war experiences. He joined the navy again as a drifter captain to serve in the Second World War, accompanied by his son who had been invalided out of the army after being wounded serving with the Gordon Highlanders during the Battle of France.
Watt, who always shunned the fame generated by his Victoria Cross, kept the medal in a drawer full of junk on board his boat. Chief Skipper Joseph Watt VC also received the French Croix de Guerre and the Italian Silver Medal for Military Valour for his courageous actions on 15th May 1917.
Private Sidney Godley VC – The Royal Fusiliers
As previously noted, the First World War holds the record as being the single conflict with the largest number of VCs awarded. Well, Sidney Godley’s award was the first of 628 won through the war.
Godley was born in 1889 in East Grinstead, West Sussex. His mother died in 1896 and young Sidney was sent to live with his uncle in London. Between the ages of fourteen to twenty, he worked in an ironmonger’s store before joining the Royal Fusiliers in 1909.
Britain joined the war on 4th August 1914. On 23rd August at Mons, Belgium on the Mons-Condé Canal Godley and Lieutenant Maurice Dease were manning a machine gun after the previous crews had been killed or wounded. Lieutenant Dease was killed and the order to retreat was issued. Godley offered to defend the railway bridge whilst the rest of his unit retreated. Private Godley single-handedly held the bridge under heavy fire. He was wounded twice; a shell fragment lodging itself in his back and he took a bullet to the head. Despite his injuries, Private Godley continued his defence of the bridge for two hours whilst his comrades made their escape. When he eventually ran out of ammunition, Godley dismantled his machine gun and threw the pieces into the canal. He attempted to crawl to safety but was captured by the advancing German soldiers.
It was originally believed that Godley had been killed by the enemy until it was later discovered by POW lists that he was, in fact, being held as a prisoner in a camp called Delotz. He received the information that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross whilst in this camp. He received the actual medal from King George V at Buckingham Palace in February 1919.
Captain Charles Upham VC & Bar – 20th Battalion (New Zealand)
Of the 1,355 recipients of the Victoria Cross, only three have ever been awarded a second. A bar across the ribbon represents the second award of the VC. These men are: Arthur Martin-Leake and Noel Chavasse, both doctors with the Royal Army Medical Corps who received both awards for rescuing wounded under heavy fire; and New Zealander Charles Upham who remains the only combatant soldier to have received a VC and Bar.
Charles Upham was born in 1908 in Christchurch, New Zealand. He attended Agricultural College where he earned a diploma in agriculture in 1930. He worked first as sheep farmer and later as a manager before valuing farms for the government. In September 1939, Upham enlisted in the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force and was posted to the 20th Battalion. Despite five years’ experience in the Territorial Army where he held the rank of sergeant, Upham insisted on joining as a private. He was eventually convinced to join Officer Cadet Training Unit in July 1940.
It did not take long before the newly minted officer saw action. He picked up his first Victoria Cross during the German invasion of Crete in May 1941. Second Lieutenant Upham led his platoon over 3,000 yards without heavy weapons or support and captured a strong German defensive position head on. He personally destroyed three German machine gun positions with grenades and a pistol. After this he helped evacuate the wounded under heavy fire before passing 600 yards of hostile territory to recover a platoon in danger of becoming isolated.
By this point in the fighting, Upham had already received mortar shrapnel wounds to the shoulder and a bullet in the foot, but he pressed on with the fight. When orders to withdraw south were given, he sent his platoon south whilst he moved forward warning other units that they were in danger of being cut off. As he advanced forward he was forced to play dead after being fired upon by two enemy soldiers. With only one functioning arm he was able to crawl to a tree and prop up his rifle to kill the soldiers.
Later, whilst still heavily wounded and using ingenious tactics, Upham led his platoon into deceiving an enemy section into exposing themselves whereupon he quickly mowed twenty-two of them down with a Bren Gun.
The Battle of Crete only lasted for 11 days, but Charles Upham had put together such an extensive catalogue of gallantry that could only be rewarded with the Commonwealth’s highest military honour.
WHAT A GUY!!!!! And that was just the first one!
After recovering from his injuries in Egypt, Upham was promoted to Captain and given command of a company of NZ troops. During the First Battle of El Alamein, Captain Upham VC continued to lead from the front and by the evening of 14th July 1942 he had already been wounded twice but continued to remain with his men. During an attack on El Ruweisat Ridge, he personally scouted ahead of his company to assess the initial phase of the attack, braving sustained fire to bring back the important information.
When his company was ordered into the main assault, it came under heavy fire from four machine gun positions and several tanks. He could be seen and heard above the great din of battle by his men and he rallied them at great personal risk to take the objective. Upham single-handedly destroyed several gun positions – surely his bread and butter by then – and added a tank to his ever-mounting tally. He was shot through the elbow during the attack which shattered his arm.
Eventually, weak from the loss of blood, he was finally removed from the field to the Regimental Aid Post but once his wounds were dressed he quickly returned to his men who were still under heavy fire. His company continued to hold off the numerically superior enemy forces throughout the day, but he eventually collapsed from exhaustion and further wounds. By this point, Upham’s company had been reduced to only six men and the position was eventually overrun leading to his capture. For these actions, Captain Charles Upham was awarded a second Victoria Cross after the war.
Once in captivity, Upham still had a willingness to fight the enemy. He made several attempts to escape his captors, once breaking an ankle jumping from a moving truck and once knocking himself unconscious after throwing himself off a high-speed train. Charles Upham ultimately ended up in the escape-proof Colditz Castle but once this fell into Allied hands, he attempted to re-arm and join an American unit.
Major-General Howard Kippenberger remarked, upon being asked by King George VI, that ‘in my respectful opinion, sir, Upham won the VC several times over.’ After learning of this man’s exploits I believe Kippenberger was bang on.
There are many books, websites, and television and radio programmes available on the Victoria Cross, but I highly recommend a book that I received for Christmas several years ago. It was written by, arguably, the leading authority on the VC, Lord Michael Ashcroft. Victoria Cross Heroes can be found by clicking on the link.