The Victoria Cross (VC), the highest award under the Imperial honours system, is awarded to members of the armed forces for gallantry in the presence of the enemy. While it was previously awarded to Commonwealth countries, many have now instituted their own honours systems. The Australian system of honours and awards was established in 1975 with the Victoria Cross for Australia becoming the pre-eminent award.
The Victoria Cross is a bronze cross pattée bearing the crown of Saint Edward surmounted by a lion with the inscription FOR VALOUR. A crimson ribbon is attached.
Origins of the Medal
The Crimean War (1853–1856) brought about by Russian expansionism at the expense of a declining Ottoman Empire saw Britain and France coming to the aid of the Ottomans. On all sides about 1.5 million men were mobilised and there were horrific causalities with more than 500,000 being killed or wounded. Public interest was aroused as this was one of the first major wars where reports and photographs were graphically displayed in mass circulation newspapers. Attention to the plight and suffering of troops also received worldwide attention through the pioneering nursing efforts of Florence Nightingale.
In England this resulted in improved hospitals being built to care for the wounded, the largest of which was at Netley, just outside Southampton. There was also a need for increased recognition for the bravery displayed by ordinary men involved in this conflict. The Queen is said to have been deeply affected when she visited the wounded at Netley and especially remembered the terrible injuries suffered by Private Charles Byrne of the 34thRegiment of Foot (Cumberland Regiment). She ordered that a medal be awarded to Private Byrne for his acts of bravery. Accordingly, a silver medal was struck and was presented to Byrne, which became the precursor of the Victoria Cross.
The Victoria Cross was officially introduced on 29 January 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War. Originally there were two ribbons, one red for Military service and the other blue for Naval service but the latter has been discontinued. To date (2018) this medal has been awarded to 1355 recipients, of these three have received a Bar to their VC, signifying a second award of the medal. Only 16 medals, 11 to members of the British Army, 4 to members of the Australian Army and 1 to a member of the New Zealand Army have been awarded since WW11.
By far the greatest number of VCs have gone to Army recipients, with 117 going to the Navy which includes the Royal Marines, Naval Brigades and the Royal Naval Air Service. The Air Force has only received 26 VCs but this does not include those from the RN Air Service (2) and the Royal Flying Corps (13) and the RAAF (1) when serving with the RAF.
Tradition has the source of the gunmetal from which these medals are struck as coming from Russian cannon captured at the Siege of Sevastopol. Hancock’s the London makers of all VCs are unable to confirm the origins of the metal used in the first medals which may well have come from Russian guns. However, they can vouch that medals made since December 1914 came from Chinese cannons which were captured from the Russians during the Crimean War. This source is still being used today, including Australian VCs.
It has been suggested that the medal was purposely made of low value material so that recipient’s or their families would not be encouraged to sell them for the value of precious metal. The value of the prestigious medal only lying in its intrinsic nature and the rarity of the award.
The first VC awarded to the Royal Navy
The first VC was awarded to Midshipman Charles Lucas, RN serving aboard HMS Heclafar from Crimea. As this war extended throughout the Russian Empire the Royal Navy sought to increase pressure on Russian naval resources in the Baltic. During the bombardment of Bomarsund in the Baltic Sea in August 1854, 19 months before the medal was gazetted, a hissing Russian shell landed on deck. 20-year-old Lucas ignored orders to fall flat and pushed the shell overboard where it exploded. He was promoted to Lieutenant on the spot, conditions for award of the VC were backdated, and he ended his career as an Admiral having the added good sense to marry his captain’s daughter.
The first Australian colonial recipient of a VC was Lieutenant Neville Reginald Howse. After graduating as a medical practitioner in England, Howse who had weak lungs, emigrated here for the beneficial climate. In January 1900 he enlisted in the NSW Army Medical Corps and a month later was shipped to the Cape taking part in the South African War. For bravery in action in July 1900 he was awarded the Victoria Cross, and remains the only Australian medical officer with this distinction.
In August 1914 when aged 50, Howse again enlisted and was given command of the medical unit in HMAS Berrimaaccompanying the Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force which captured German New Guinea. Afterwards he served at Gallipoli where he was wounded but was soon back at the front. Major General Sir Neville Howse finished his distinguished military career as Director-General of Australian Army Medical Services.
One Hundred and Still Going Strong
Australia now claims one hundred VCs, 96 under the Imperial honours system and 4 awarded under the Australian honours system which were received in the following conflicts:
South African War (Boer War) 6
World War One 66 (16 posthumously)
World War Two 20 (10 posthumously)
Vietnam War 4 ( 2 posthumously)
Afghanistan War 4
Of the above all have been awarded to Army personnel excepting to one WW1 medal issued to a member of the Australian Flying Corps and three medals issued to members of the RAAF during WW11, one of which was serving with the RAF at the time of the award.
The Royal Australian Navy and the Victoria Cross
Many acts of heroism by RAN personnel have been recognised but none by the award of a VC. Possibly the closest came during the WWI raid on Zeebrugge in April 1918. An RAN Leading Seaman Rudd on loan to the Royal Navy was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) for his bravery during the raid and later participated in a ballot for the award of a Victoria Cross. The use of the ballot system enabled men who had taken part in the action to vote for an officer and rating to be awarded the VC. As a result of the ballot a Royal Navy and Royal Marine officer, Royal Navy rating and a Royal Marine were each awarded a VC as voted by their peers. Rudd was one of five ratings selected to take part in this ballot and could have been awarded a VC but settled for the DSM.
In 2013, The Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal announced the results, later accepted by the Government, of an inquiry into the possible award of a posthumous VC to 12 service personnel, including the following 10 from Navy:
- Lieutenant Commander Henry Hugh Gordon Dacre Stoker, a RN submariner on loan to the RAN when in command of HMAS AE2 during the Dardanelles campaign.
- Midshipman Robert Ian Davies lost in HMS
- Captain Hector Macdonald Laws Waller in command of HMAS Perth when she was lost in the Battle of the Java Sea
- Lieutenant Commander Robert William Rankin in command of HMAS
- Lieutenant Commander Francis Edward Smith second-in-command of HMAS
- Acting Leading Seaman Ronald Taylor serving in HMAS
- Leading Seaman Dalmorton Joseph Owendale Rudd, involved in the Zebrugge raid.
- Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheean lost in HMAS
- Leading Cook Francis Bassett Emms serving in HMAS Kara Kara during the Japanese raid on Darwin on 19 February 1942,
- Lieutenant David John Hamer serving in HMAS Australia in January 1945.
- Leading Aircrewman Noel Shipp serving with the RAN Helicopter Flight in Vietnam, and
- The Tribunal also considered the special case of HMAS Yarra involved in action in March 1942 recommending that a Unit Citation for Gallantry be awarded. The Tribunal did not recommend any other awards.
The results of a further inquiry by the Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal was released on 01 June 2018. Government approval has been received to the Tribunal recommendation that a Unit Citation for Gallantry be awarded to the RAN Helicopter Flight which served in Vietnam from October 1967 to June 1971, with an event to mark the recognition of this award to be held later this year
It could be argued that the kind of individual courage and initiative likely to result in a recommendation for a VC is uncommon in warships where every single member of the ship’s company is expected to work together as a team to win the fight. The actions of Ordinary Seaman Sheean was one of many outstanding incidents throughout the RAN, none of which resulted in a VC, but again there appears to be plentiful evidence for the award of a VC to Lieutenant Commander Rankin on behalf of his gallant ship’s company.
The highest-decorated Australian naval sailor
Ian Desmond Laurie-Rhodes enlisted in the RANVR using the name of Rhodes in September 1940. He had previously tried to enlist but was rejected on medical grounds and used the name Rhodes as a successful subterfuge. He was sent to England under the Yachtsman’s Scheme and as an Ordinary Seaman was posted to the destroyer HMS Kashmirwhich shortly sailed for the Mediterranean and was involved in the Battle of Crete. On 23 May 1941 Kashmir together with her sisters Kellyand Kipling came under sustained air attack in which both Kashmir and Kelly(Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten) were sunk.
Rhodes was stationed at the Port Oerlikon which was going under water when he saw his ship being again strafed by a JU 87. He climbed to the Starboard Oerlikon and opened fire on the approaching aircraft hitting and destroying it. For his courageous and selfless action Rhodes was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal which, the Australian War Memorial lists as the highest decoration awarded to an Australian naval sailor. He was later commissioned and served in HMAS Shropshire, and was serving ashore at Port Moresby when the war ended.
The One that got Away
The Commonwealth Line, founded in 1916, was supplemented by a number of German and Austrian merchant ships captured in Australian waters during WW1. This Government owned company was enhanced by five handsome new passenger liners built in 1921-1922, impressively named Esperance Bay, Hobsons Bay, Jervis Bay, Largs Bay & Moreton Bay. To the great detriment of our national maritime industry, a slump in world trade aggravated by local industrial disputes resulted in the company’s failure. Its ships were sold at bargain prices, later acquired by the Aberdeen & Commonwealth Line.
At the outbreak of WW11 Jervis Bay was requisitioned and fitted out as an Armed Merchant Cruiser with 7 x 6-inch and 2 x 3-inch guns, all from the Victorian era. Other than her past history and name there is a further association with Australia as her captain was Edward Stephen Fogarty Fegan, RN. Between 1928 & 1929 he had served as Executive Officer of the Royal Australian Naval College at Jervis Bay. The next few years had not been kind to Fegan who was aged 49 when offered command of HMS Jervis Bay as an Acting Captain.
In May 1940 Jervis Bay was the sole escort of 37 merchantmen between Bermuda and Halifax when they encountered the heavy cruiser (often referred to as a pocket battleship) KMS Admiral Scheer with her 11-inch main, and 5.9-inch secondary, armament. Completely outclassed, Captain Fogarty ordered the convoy to scatter and placed his own ship between them and the enemy. While the odds were hopeless the sacrifice allowed the majority of the convoy to escape. From Jervis Bay’s crew of 254 officers and men, 86 survived, who were rescued by a neutral Swedish merchantman. Captain Fogarty who was wounded in the action and went down with his ship was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Our Own Victoria Cross Town
While the RAN may not yet claim a Victoria Cross we do have the town of Holbrook named after a naval VC recipient. After the outbreak of WW1 the small country town of Germantown situated halfway between Sydney and Melbourne searched for a new patriotic name. In December 1914, a Royal Naval submarine sank a Turkish battleship at the Dardanelles. As this was the first time a battleship had been sunk by a submarine the crew were fated as heroes and their commander Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, RN awarded the VC.
In 1915 the name of Holbrook was gazetted as the town’s new name. Commander Holbrook visited the town on a number of occasions and now the town boasts a real submarine, as since 1997 the hull casing of ex HMAS Otway, is located in a park near the main street.
Perks of the Trade
It is customary for all military personnel, regardless of rank, to acknowledge and salute a VC winner in uniform. Apart from the prestigious ribbon and medal associated with the decoration, there is a VC annuity, which in Britain amounts to about $20,000 per annum, but on our own shores this currently amounts to a parsimonious $4,500.
The Victoria Cross and George Cross Association is made up of holders of the VC, Britain’s highest military award for bravery and the GC, the equivalent award for civilians and military personnel who have displayed conspicuous bravery not in the face of the enemy. The patron of the Association is Her Majesty the Queen and the Prince of Wales is president. Reunions are usually held every two years for the small number, about two dozen holders of these awards who are able to travel. The last reunion was held at St James’ Palace, London in 2016. Those with Commonwealth awards are also invited.
Mention should be made that five members of the RAN and RANVR mainly associated with the disposal of enemy mines have been awarded the George Cross, this is out of a total of 22 Australians who have received this distinguished award.
Victoria Cross Collections
The largest collection of VCs is held by the Imperial War Museum in London with over 210 medals. The Australian War Memorial in Canberra holds an astonishing 70 of the 100 medals awarded to Australians. Possibly one of the most interesting displays of 16 VCs is to be found at the museum of the Royal Welsh Regiment in the small border-town of Brecon.
These days all commodities seem to have a price and because of scarcity this applies to the VC. What was until recently thought to be a world record price was $1,000,000 paid at auction in Sydney in July 2006 for a VC awarded to Captain Alfred Shout. Since then this figure is reported to have been exceeded by a sale in London in 2017 of the medals, including a VC, of the late Vice Admiral Gordon Campbell.
Doubtless the above collections will continue to develop but as we have thankfully witnessed, through a long period of relative peace and prosperity, with a declining number of awards. This may add to the mystique and give the medal even greater prestige.