The George Cross – For Gallantry

Posted on Tuesday 11th August 2015

To mark the 75th anniversary of the institution of the George Cross in September 1940, Tony Gledhill GC examines its formation.
The King and Queen Elizabeth had been moved by the scenes they had witnessed first-hand as they toured London during the Blitz and heard the remarkable stories of the exceptional efforts undertaken by some people under extraordinary circumstances. The King was, however, frustrated by the strict terms of reference associated with the Victoria Cross which meant that what he perceived as deserving cases were not being suitably recognised or rewarded.
‘The King is very angry that the War Office will not recognise bomb disposal officers as being eligible for military decorations on the ground that they are not “working in the face of the enemy,”’ Euan Wallace, the Senior Regional Commissioner for Civil Defence in London, wrote in his diary. ‘He wanted to give Lt Davies the VC and said some things about the generals at the War Office which would have surprised them.’

King George inspects bomb damage in London’s East End, 10 September 1940. Just two weeks later the King made his broadcast announcing the George Cross and George Medal. (Historic Military Press)

The Lieutenant Davies that the King felt should have been granted the Victoria Cross, was Temporary Lieutenant Robert ‘Jock’ Davies, the Commanding Officer of 16/17 Section, No.5 Bomb Disposal Company Royal Engineers, who was sent to deal with an incident at St Paul’s Cathedral. In the early hours of 12 September 1940, a 1,000kg bomb had fallen close to the steps below the south-west tower and slammed into the roadway of Dean’s Yard. This bomb had enough destructive power to demolish the whole façade of the cathedral – but it failed to explode. After an extraordinary effort, it was eventually dealt with successfully by Davies and his team and the threat to St Paul’s removed.
The King felt that individuals like Alderson should be recognised for their courage and perseverance.
‘I am speaking to you now from Buckingham Palace, with its honourable scars, to Londoners first of all, though of course my words apply equally to all the British cities, towns and hamlets who are enduring the same dangers. The Queen and I have seen many of the places here which have been most heavily bombed and many of the people who have suffered and are suffering most. Our hearts are with them tonight.
‘Their courage and cheerfulness, their faith in their country’s cause and final victory are an inspiration to the rest of us. To the men and women who carry on the work of the A.R.P. services I should like to say a special word of gratitude.
‘The devotion of these civilian workers, firemen, salvage men, and many others in the face of grave and constant danger has won a new renown for the British name. These men and women are worthy partners of our Armed Forces and our police of the Navy, once more as so often before our sure shield, and the Merchant Navy, of the Army and the Home Guard, alert and eager to repel ay invader, and of the Air Force, whose exploits are the wonder of the world. Tonight, indeed, we are a nation on guard and in the line.’
Elsewhere in his speech, King George spoke for the first time of his new gallantry awards: ‘Many and glorious are the deeds of gallantry done during these perilous but famous days. In order that they should be worthily and promptly recognized I have decided to create at once a new mark of honour for men and women in all walks of civilian life. I propose to give my name to this new distinction, which will consist of the George Cross, which will rank next to Queen Victoria Cross, and the George Medal for wider distribution.’

A portrait of Thomas Alderson GC in Civil Defence uniform, wearing both his George Cross and Silver Issue RSPCA Gallantry Medal. On three occasions in August 1940 Alderson led rescue teams and entered dangerous buildings to rescue trapped civilians, becoming the first person to be directly awarded the George Cross. (Courtesy of Mrs J.P. Wilson)

Thomas Alderson and his wife, Irene, pictured outside Buckingham Palace on 20 May 1941, following the inaugural investitures of the George Cross. (Courtesy of Mrs J.P. Wilson)

Recommended Reading:

Further Reading

The Complete George Cross
(Hardback - 256 pages)
ISBN: 9781848842878

by Kevin Brazier
Only £25.00

The George Cross, the highest civilian decoration, is awarded for 'acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger', and all the recipients of this exceptional honour are recorded here. As a complete chronological record of George Crosses awarded in Britain and around the world, this book is an essential work of reference for anyone who is interested in the history of the medal and in the acts of bravery and self-sacrifice it commemorates.

The first direct awards of the…
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The author of this article is one of the few living George Cross recipients. Seen here on the right, Tony Gledhill was a Police Constable in the Metropolitan Police when he became involved in the chase of a car carrying armed East End gangsters in Deptford, London, on 25 August 1966. During the chase, numerous shots were fired at Gledhill’s police car. The pursuit ended when the criminals’ vehicle crashed into a lorry. In the events that followed, Tony had a gun put to his head. Both Tony and his colleague, Police Constable Terry McFall, were injured in the confrontation but managed to subdue the men until assistance arrived. For his part in the incident, McFall, seen here on right at the pair’s investiture at Buckingham Palace on 11 July 1967, was awarded the George Medal. (Courtesy of Tony Gledhill GC)

Both medals were officially instituted on 24 September 1940 – though the Royal Warrants themselves were not published in The London Gazette until 31 January the following year. The Warrant for the George Cross included the following statement: ‘Whereas we have taken into Our Royal consideration the many acts of heroism performed both by male and by female persons, especially during the present war: And whereas We are desirous of honouring those who perform such deeds: We do by these presents for Us, Our Heirs and Successors institute and create a new Decoration which we desire should be highly prized and eagerly sought after… It is ordained that the Decoration shall be designated and styled “The George Cross”.’
The first announcements of awards of the two new medals were published in The London Gazette on Monday, 30 September 1940. The three George Crosses listed included those of Davies and Sapper George Wylie, a member of the former’s unit. There were also sixteen George Medals announced.
The George Cross. (Historic Military Press)

The George Medal. (Historic Military Press)

The George Cross, and the George Medal, was not the first civilian gallantry award. So, in order to bring due recognition to those that had received other medals and to simplify the system of awards, those living recipients that had been granted the Empire Gallantry Medal (officially the Medal of the Order if the British Empire for Gallantry) were instructed to exchange their medals for a George Cross. Thirty years later, in 1971, the surviving recipients of the Albert Medal and the Edward Medal were also invited to exchange their award for the GC. A total of 112 EGM holders, sixty-five Albert medallists and sixty-eight Edwards medallists who were eligible to exchange their awards have brought the total number of GCs issued to 406.
That said, not all of those who had the opportunity to exchange their medals did so, preferring to keep their original awards – despite the moving words of the King when he concluded his BBC broadcast on 27 September 1940: ‘The walls of London may be battered, but the spirit of the Londoner stands resolute and undismayed. As in London, so throughout Great Britain, buildings rich in beauty and historic interest may be wantonly attacked, humbler houses, no less dear and familiar, may be destroyed. But “there’ll always be an England” to stand before the world as the symbol and citadel of freedom, and to be our own dear home.’

Recommended Reading:

Further Reading

Awards of the George Cross
(Paperback - 192 pages)
ISBN: 9781848842007

by John Frayn Turner
Only £12.99

In 1940, King George VI, deeply impressed with the heroism of servicemen out of the front line and civilians non-combatants in acts connected with the war such as bomb disposal, rescues after air raids, instituted the George Cross for ‘For Gallantry’ away from the heat of actual battle.
In 1942 the GC was awarded to Island of Malta. Among the many inspiring stories, many posthumous, are those to Violette Szabo and Forest Yeo-Thomas of SOE.
This inspiring book is the only one to describe the deeds of…
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