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mofton

Royal Navy VC's of WWII

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Hello All,

So a few months ago WG did an interesting-ish article on the highest awards for valor of most of the navies in WOWS.

Somehow, despite using the Victoria Cross as the header image they didn't then mention the Victoria Cross at all in the article...

https://worldofwarships.com/en/news/common/pedal-to-the-medal/

Oh well, to be honest it's a minor miracle WG notice the Royal Navy at all.

I thought I'd do a quick look not just at the medal but at the 23 Victoria Crosses awarded to Royal Navy (and Empire) servicemen in WWII.

The Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross is the United Kingdom's highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. While other awards may be given for general excellence the VC requires both the presence of the enemy - bravery without the presence of the enemy may result in the award of the George Cross. Gallantry also indicates that success or excellence is not required. The legend of the Victoria Cross is that the physical medals are smelted from the bronze of captured Russian cannon from the siege of Sevastopol. The criteria for award include recommendation by an officer, witnesses, approval at a high governmental level and by the Monarch

The VC was introduced in 1856 a few years before the US Congressional Medal of Honor (1861), slightly after the French Médaille Militaire (1852) and before the Japanese Order of the Golden Kite (1890) and Russian Medal of Ushakov (1944) but well after the German Iron Cross of 1813.

It may not be the oldest, but with a total 1,358 awarded it's one of the most 'elite' with just 182 awards in WWII. For comparison the similar Congressional Medal of Honor has about 3,500 recipients of which 471 were given in WWII. In contrast the Japanese award was bestowed over one million times, the lowest grade of German Iron Cross 4.5 million times though the highest orders were infrequently awarded - it seems a different style of award (the fat transvestite Battle of Britain losing drug addict Goering awarding himself one for not much in WWII detracts from the deserving recipients).

Many British awards reflect the strong British class and rank structure - for instance the Distinguished Service Cross was awarded to officers, while the Distinguished Service Medal was awarded to 'other ranks' on basically the same criteria. Orders and Crosses are typically for Officers, medals are for others. With the Victoria Cross however, it's fairly 'egalitarian' and open to award to all ranks.

Royal Navy Awards in WWII

The 23 Royal Navy VC's (with the help of Wikipedia...) I've tabulated below, including for reference the rank and ship as well as date and notes. I've also broken them into 'service type' somewhat arbitrarily, splitting service branch and nature of the award.

Midget Submarines

 

Rank

Ship

Date

Notes

Donald Cameron

Lieutenant

HMS X6

22-Sep-43

 

 

Basil Place

Lieutenant

HMS X7

22-Sep-43

 

 

James Magennis

Leading Seaman

HMS XE3

31-Jul-45

 

 

Ian Fraser

Lieutenant

HMS XE3

31-Jul-45

 

 

Submarines

Peter Roberts

Lieutenant

HMS Thrasher

16-Feb-42

 

 

Thomas Gould

Petty Officer

HMS Thrasher

16-Feb-42

 

 

Anthony Miers

Lt. Commander

HMS Torbay

5-Mar-42

 

 

John Linton

Commander

HMS Pandora

September 1939 to March 1943

 

 

HMS Turbulent

 

 

Malcolm Wanklyn

Lt. Commander

HMS Upholder

24-May-41

 

 

Heroism

Jack Mantle

Leading Seaman

HMS Foylebank

4-Jul-40

Posthumous

Alfred Sephton

Petty Officer

HMS Coventry

18-May-41

Posthumous

Richard Stannard

Lieutenant

HMT Arab

2-May-40

 

 

Amphibious Assaults

Frederick Peters

Captain

HMS Walney

8-Nov-42

 

 

Stephen Beattie

Lt.Commander

HMS Campbeltown

27-Mar-42

 

 

Robert Ryder

Commander

HMS Campbeltown

28-Mar-42

 

 

William Savage

Able Seaman

HM Motor Gun Boat 314

28-Mar-42

Posthumous

Air

Robert Gray

Lieutenant

HMS Formidable

9-Aug-45

Posthumous

Eugene Esmonde

Lt. Commander

825 Naval Air Squadron

12-Feb-42

Posthumous

Destroyer Captains

Robert Sherbrooke

Captain

HMS Onslow

31-Dec-42

 

 

Gerard Roope

Lt. Commander

HMS Glowworm

8-Apr-40

Posthumous

Bernard Warburton-Lee

Captain

HMS Hardy

10-Apr-40

Posthumous

Last Stands

Edward Fegen

Commander

HMS Jervis Bay

5-Nov-40

Posthumous

Thomas Wilkinson

Lieutenant

HMS Li Wo

14-Feb-42

Posthumous

Of the 23 awards only 4 are for 'other ranks' with the highest rank being awarded that of Captain. Nine awards were made posthumously including three of the four 'other ranks' awards - Officers having a far better chance of surviving to claim to award in person.

Of particular note is the preponderance of submariners - 9 of 23 VC's including those awarded to midget submarine attacks, despite the submarine branch being a very small component of the Royal Navy. It is also interesting (to me) that the largest ship involved in a VC was an Armed Merchant Cruiser, with one award on an old C-class anti-aircraft cruiser and no awards on modern cruisers, battleships or for actions onboard aircraft carriers. The opportunities for award seemed greatest on the smallest ships tasked on the most hazardous and expendable missions. Some of these awards are for prolonged action with single events rather than single events.

Relatively few awards were made to air crew.

'Destroyer Captains' are worthy of their own category, although in some cases the award is mixed gallantry and success. It's also worth noting that some awards are reflective of 'moral courage' required in a command role.

Examples

X-Craft

[Warship] Operation Source, 22 September 1943 by Johne Makin

Operation Source by Johne Makin - A depiction of an X-Craft Attack on German Battleship Tirpitz

With four awards, X-craft were clearly a hazardous undertaking and I must say I agree with them. Having read about X-craft attacks, the hazards of operating a tiny submarine of such limited resources, attacking very heavily defended anchorages each VC seems very well deserved. I think the awards to the officers in charge reflect on the whole crews involved. Having to cut through nets with the onboard diver, navigate obstacles, with the extreme risk of death or capture seems entirely brave and the efforts of Operation Source where 6 midget subs with a total crew of 24 knocked out a 45,000t battleship for 7 months (she was never 100% after that) are tremendous. In the Far East the efforts of XE3 and her crew were also disproportionate to the forces involved.

The Whale has Wings

vBfkMVqg.jpg

The Channel Dash by Ralph Gillies-Cole

Two Royal Navy airmen were awarded the VC. I think are both are utterly deserved but also somewhat reflect a 'Charge of the Light Brigade' mentality. Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde is one of the two. He first flew against a German battleship in the strike launched by HMS Victorious against the Bismarck in 1941. In 1942 the shameful episode of the 'Channel Dash' - the escape of Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen via the English Channel cost him and 16 other RN airmen their lives and 6 Swordfish biplanes. The RAF response was tepid, and despite the promise of Spitfire fighter cover not being delivered the RN, operating from shore bases in South East England were chopped up.

His VC citation speaks for itself.

Spoiler

ADMIRALTY. Whitehall. 3rd March, 1942.

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of the VICTORIA CROSS, for valour and resolution in action against the Enemy, to:

The late Lieutenant-Commander (A) Eugene Esmonde, D.S.O., Royal Navy.

On the morning of Thursday, 12th February, 1942, Lieutenant-Commander Esmonde, in command of a Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, was told that the German Battle-Cruisers SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU and the Cruiser PRINZ EUGEN, strongly escorted by some thirty surface craft, were entering the Straits of Dover, and that his Squadron must attack before they reached the sand-banks North East of Calais.

Lieutenant-Commander Esmonde knew well that his enterprise was desperate. Soon after noon he and his squadron of six Swordfish set course for the Enemy, and after ten minutes flight were attacked by a strong force of Enemy fighters. Touch was lost with his fighter escort; and in the action which followed all his aircraft were damaged. He flew on, cool and resolute, serenely challenging hopeless odds, to encounter the deadly fire of the Battle-Cruisers and their Escort, which shattered the port wing of his aircraft. Undismayed, he led his Squadron on, straight through this inferno of fire, in steady flight towards their target. Almost at once he was shot down; but his Squadron went on to launch a gallant attack, in which at least one torpedo is believed to have struck the German Battle-Cruisers, and from which not one of the six aircraft returned.

His high courage and splendid resolution will live in the traditions of the Royal Navy, and remain for many generations a fine and stirring memory.[6]

The Greatest Raid

wOvxsKqg.jpg

Campbeltown by Norman Wilkinson - The lend-lease destroyer, disguised as a German torpedo boat is trapped in the glare of searchlights as she moves to ram the St. Nazaire lock gates

Four Royal Navy VC's were awarded for desperate and unusual amphibious assaults and raids. Three were awarded in one night - for the raid on St. Nazaire in 1942.

The overall commander of the mission and Captain of the Campbeltown who successfully conned his ship up river, through a hailstorm of fire and into the lock gates were each awarded a VC, as was the gunner of the Motor Gun Boat supporting the operation - almost suicidal bravery while fighting his unprotected gun. The mission commander spent several hours in the river under fire and the destroyer captain was captured but kept his mouth shut about the bomb in Campbeltown.

He Died at his Post

LQnUdcXg.jpg

Foylebank by Michael Alcorn-Hender - the mortally wounded Seaman Jack Mantle stays with his gun firing back at attacking German aircraft

The VC awards to Alfred Mantle and Jack Sephton are very similar. Both were mortally wounded while manning anti-aircraft guns. This is strongly reminiscent of the famous VC awarded to the 16 year old Jack Cornwell in WWI.

Last Stand

YAxGBXn.jpg

The Jervis Bay Action by Charles Pears - The woefully outgunned AMC Jervis Bay (right) charges the Admiral Scheer (distant firing) in an effort to buy her convoy time to escape

In November 1941, the Armed Merchant Cruiser Jervis Bay fought to the death in a violently one sided engagement with the German raider Admiral Scheer. Jervis Bay was merely a liner with a handful of ancient 6in guns and no match for any real warship, but nonetheless she had a duty and went down fighting for it, earning her captain the VC. The brave actions of Capt. Fegen and her crew meant that 32 of 37 merchantmen would escape the attack.

Conclusions


To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you’ve cover to ’and, an’ leave an’ likin’ to shout;
But to stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An’ they done it, the Jollies—’Er Majesty’s Jollies—soldier an’ sailor too!
Their work was done when it ’adn’t begun; they was younger nor me an’ you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin’ in ’eaps an’ bein’ mopped by the screw,
So they stood an’ was still to the Birken’ead drill, soldier an’ sailor too!

Excerpt from 'The Birkenhead Drill'

The Royal Navy's personnel being awarded 23 Victoria Crosses for their heroics in WWII seems hardly enough, but none would ask for an award. I hope that this basic background and a few examples I've selected (partially on the basis of available images) are of interest and do sometime to obviate WG's dolorous treatment of the award in their article.

Edited by mofton
  • Cool 17
  • Boring 1

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great read  thanks for posting plus 1

regards

  • Cool 1

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Great post Mofton.  Thanks for putting this together for us.

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5 hours ago, mofton said:

The legend of the Victoria Cross is that the physical medals are smelted from the bronze of captured Russian cannon from the siege of Sevastopol.

 

Some sort of Russian Bias there... is it true!? :Smile_teethhappy:

 

Great read as usual, though!

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1 hour ago, pikohan said:

 

Some sort of Russian Bias there... is it true!? :Smile_teethhappy:

 

Great read as usual, though!

From school history lessons,  with no further fact checking so completely anecdotally , the early medals were smelted from cannons captured at Sevastopol however they ran out and new medals aren't.          Would have to check further when I am home.

 

@mofton  another interesting post thanks.

 

And to the person who said it was boring, you need to sit down in front of the mirror and have a good hard look at yourself mate.

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Wow, the story of the HMS Li Wo is actually insane.

Great write-up as per usual!

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19 hours ago, Camo68 said:

From school history lessons,  with no further fact checking so completely anecdotally , the early medals were smelted from cannons captured at Sevastopol however they ran out and new medals aren't.          Would have to check further when I am home. good hard look at yourself mate.

It is true. 

Here is an article by the people who make the awards, and how they continue to get the metal

https://www.hancocks-london.com/the-victoria-cross/

 

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Excellent writing as usual Mofton, keep it up! :) 

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