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Today is the 79th anniversary of the Dambusters raid. Its leader, Wing Commander Guy Gibson was awarded The Victoria Cross as a result. Gibson became one of the founders of the Pathfinder Force and transferred to Mosquitos. He was lost somewhere over the North Sea returning from a raid. It is thought that his plane ran out of fuel.

The status of the Victoria Cross is so well known that it could almost be described as Common Knowledge, along with its abbreviation of “the VC”. Everyone knows what it is and what it stands for but its origins and the entitlements which attach to it are less well known.

The VC was inaugurated by Queen Victoria with the strong encouragement of her husband and consort, Prince Albert in the days of the Crimean War. In those days decorations for battlefield exploits were only available for officers. There was nothing for the rank and file; the common soldier or NCO’s. The best they could get was to be mentioned in despatches and then only one of a larger group who were all mentioned.

The Crimean War gave birth to a new profession, the War Correspondent and a journalist working for TheTimes, William Russell, was able to publish reports of the outstanding acts of bravery performed by the regular soldiers, exploits that the public at home were never made aware of. One of these reports caught the eye of Capt. Thomas Scoble, a member of parliament who, in 1854 proposed the idea that a new and separate award should be created to recognise outstanding battlefield exploits by any soldier regardless of rank. 

 

The suggestion immediately attracted strong resistance from the officer class who argued that the success of the British Army was achieved by the collective discipline developed within the ranks and that the recognition of individualism would undermine that regime.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert recognised the merits of Scoble’s suggestion and instructed the War Office to come up with a plan. The public servants came up with a plan to elevate one of the ancient orders and use it as the means to this end. They produced a document setting out their recommendations. The document was not well received by Prince Albert who set about amending it by eliminating some suggestions and re-writing others.

Prince Albert described what he thought the medal should look like, the inscription on it and the name, “Victoria Cross”. He wanted a very simple medal of little intrinsic value as a piece of jewellery and that the inscription should simply be “For Valour”. On the reverse side would be the recipient’s name and date of the awarding of the medal. The medal was intended to be simple. When it was first unveiled in 1857 the critics were horrified. The concept of medals at that time were that they should be ostentatious and grand, the grander the better. The original prototype of the medal as designed by Prince Albert and with one minor exception, remains the same today. The difference was in the decoration of the bar which is attached to the ribbon.

The medals are made from a single piece of bronze from a Chinese made cannon captured from the Russians at Sebastopol during the Crimean war. Every VC has been made from this same piece of metal. The remaining metal is kept in a special safe at an Army repository in Shropshire under the tightest of security protections.

The medals are made, even today, by the original little jeweller, Hancocks Jewellers, in Burlington Arcade in London. When a new batch of medals is to be made the required piece of metal is brought under armed guard to Hancocks’ shop. Hancocks’ describe the metal as “veinous”. It is unstable, not like pure metals. It is an alloy produced during the early 1850’s or, perhaps, earlier. The last batch of blanks was produced in the late 1980’s. 6 or 7 remain today waiting to be used. Hancocks’ estimate that the remaining piece of metal will be enough to produce another 80 medals and on that basis it would seem that there is almost 100 years’ supply. The unused blanks are kept in a special safe used solely as a repository for them alone. All existing stocks are identical. Their uniqueness comes with the award and inscribing the recipient’s details on the reverse side.

Queen Victoria deliberately wanted the medal itself to be worthless as a piece of jewellery. The value comes from the story behind the feat that leads to its awarding to a recipient.

How does one win the Victoria Cross?

There is no template or book of rules to define what is worthy of its recognition. Briefly put it is said to be “an act of valour performed under fire and in the face of the enemy”. Add to that it should also inspire the troops around you to rise to bigger and better efforts.

When a notable act is performed the soldier’s commanding officer makes a recommendation which is passed up the chain of command to the War Office where it is dealt with by desk bound warriors, namely, civil servants. Frequently, more often than not, these recommendations are rejected and downgraded for a variety of reasons. Some seemingly unfair.

For example, an RAF Catalina pilot who had just sunk a U-boat but received 72 wounds in the process fought to keep his plane aloft and get home with his one dead and three wounded crew. The sea was too rough to land on so a flight of about one hour home was the only option. Delirious and on the brink of passing out he succeeded. When his recommendation reached the War Office, one of the desk bound warriors made the comment that it should be downgraded because there was an element of self-preservation.

In the case of Private Simpson, of donkey fame, there have been several attempts to award the VC to him posthumously and all have been rejected. The reasons given are that although he performed acts of valour under fire they were not in the face of the enemy. It was pointed out that there were numerous greater actions by others in the Ambulance Corps who went into no-mans’ land to retrieve wounded soldiers under far more dangerous circumstances than Simpson. 

 

It is often said that an action resulting in a VC is often performed by a soldier who goes somewhat berserk on the spur of the moment. This rationale is strongly denied by very senior battlefield commanders who know what they are talking about. Certainly the element of adrenalin rush is paramount along with anger but it is controlled anger. The Commander of the British contingent in the Iraq War has said that there is nothing more useless than uncontrolled anger. The common factor in VC winners is tightly controlled anger coupled with fierce dedication to the task at hand.

The secretary of the George Cross and Victoria Cross Association, who has probably personally known and met more VC winners than anybody else apart from The Queen herself says that there are two factors common to all VC winners she has met. One is their humility. None of them brag about their exploits, some do not even talk about it. The other is their upbringing. She says 75% of them have come from homes where there was no father present during childhood or they were the older child of a very large family. She says this has inculcated in them a sense of responsibility to others that has carried through to adult life.

This is brought out in the words of Keith Payne who won his VC in the Vietnam War. 

Finally, what does winning the VC entitle the recipient to? The answer is nothing material. The medal is the only thing and it cannot, repeat, cannot be taken away under any circumstances. These chattering fools who have never wielded anything more dangerous than a rolling pin and advocate stripping Ben Roberts-Smith of his medal because of his supposed attitude to women, need to take a running jump at themselves. They only display their ignorance. The VC is awarded personally by the Monarch. The lord giveth and only the Lord can take it away. She never will.

With the rise of combat by remote means rather than hand-to–hand methods the prospect of VC awards is likely to diminish. The opportunity to perform personal acts of bravery becomes less and less but it will not disappear altogether. One wonders what will happen if we become a republic.

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