29 October 2020
Peter Duckers looks at gallantry medals awarded for the Blitz and Home Service during World War II.
British towns and cities, ports, transport hubs, industrial centres and historical sites, became the target of an all-out German aerial assault in 1940-1941 that became known as The Blitz. Not surprisingly, fighting the fires and dealing with the collapse of buildings caused by high explosive bombs and incendiaries, and rescuing those injured or trapped during the raids called forth examples of bravery and fortitude by both civilians and emergency services which merited reward at the highest levels. But, the existing system of reward for civilian bravery could hardly reflect the scale of the new situation.
The most prestigious award for civilian bravery was undoubtedly the Albert Medal (from 1866) but this venerable award was seldom conferred and had to some extent fallen out of use. More commonly, the various grades of the Order of the British Empire (1917) could be conferred for civilian bravery; appointments to the Officer (OBE) or Member (MBE) grades of the Order are known for brave service during the Blitz. More commonly still, the medal which formed the lowest level of the Order of the British Empire, the British Empire Medal (BEM) was awarded for service during the fire-fighting and rescue work which resulted from the air attacks.
Right: The BEM for ‘meritorious service’ worn from a military ribbon. The ‘meritorious service’ version was frequently awarded for service during the Blitz
From 1922, the BEM existed in two forms: the standard award for Meritorious Service and one for gallantry, referred to as The Empire Gallantry Medal (EGM). Initially the only difference between them was the wording on the obverse (‘Gallantry’ or ‘Meritorious Service’) until, in 1933, a silver laurel branch on the ribbon was added to the Gallantry version to make it more distinctive. Both types were awarded for service during the Blitz and, indeed, the BEM for Meritorious Service is one of the most commonly seen Blitz awards, which by no means lessens its significance. Only 130 Empire Gallantry Medals were awarded between 1922 and 1940, when it ceased to be awarded: 62 Military, 64 Civil and four Honorary awards.
Left: The Empire Gallantry Medal, with laurel spray. The emblem was added after 1933 visibly to distinguish the award from the more commonly awarded ‘Meritorious Service’ type
New awards introduced
However, the sheer scale of the Blitz soon saw the introduction of new levels of award. In September 1940 the George Cross (GC) was instituted and, as a lower-tier award, the George Medal (GM). Both were born directly out of the experience and necessity of the Blitz when it was felt that there was a real need to reward the many acts of civilian bravery beyond the scope of the existing awards open to civilians which, it was considered, did not reflect the new, extreme circumstances. The two new awards could be granted to military personnel, though were ‘confined to actions for which purely military honours are not normally granted’ or were not deemed appropriate (like bomb disposal at civil sites). Both were essentially created to recognise gallantry resulting from enemy action and brave deeds in general by civilians and members of the emergency services.
Announcing the new award, the King said, “In order that they should be worthily and promptly recognised, 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 the Victoria Cross, and the George Medal for wider distribution.”
The Warrants for the GC and the GM, dated 24 September 1940, were published in The London Gazette on 31 January 1941. They were to be given ‘for acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger’ not in the physical presence of the enemy. Both could be awarded to a person of any military rank in any service and to civilians, including police, emergency services – as in the Blitz – and merchant seamen. Posthumous awards were authorised from the outset and awards could also be made to Commonwealth or foreign citizens. Holders of the George Cross (as with the Victoria Cross) are also entitled to a monetary annuity, which has varied over time.
Right: A George Cross group, with Defence Medal and War Medal. This was awarded to Sergeant M. Gibson, of a Bomb Disposal Company, Royal Engineers (DNW)
The GC replaced the Empire Gallantry Medal, which therefore ceased to be awarded as such and all holders of the old award were instructed to exchange their medal for a GC, a substitution unprecedented in the history of British decorations. A few recipients chose not to!
Both awards were designed by Percy Metcalfe (1895-1970), well-known as a designer of medallions and coins for various countries (e.g. the 1935 Jubilee Crown, the obverse of the British Coronation Medal of 1937 and many coins, including the first coinage of Eire).
The George Cross is an elegant but quite plain silver cross, 48mm high and 45mm wide, with a circular medallion in the centre depicting St George and the Dragon, surrounded by the simple wording ‘FOR GALLANTRY’. In the angle of each limb is the Royal Cypher GVI. The flat reverse is plain, its centre engraved with the name of the recipient and the date of award. The cross is attached by a ring to a bar ornamented with laurel leaves, through which passes the plain dark-blue ribbon. As with the Victoria Cross, and a distinction peculiar to these premier bravery awards, a miniature replica of the cross is worn at the centre of the ribbon on occasions when medal ribbons alone are worn.
The George Medal takes the form of a circular silver medal of standard size. The obverse carries the crowned effigy of the monarch with the usual titles, while the reverse depicts St George on horseback slaying the dragon, apparently on the coast of England, with the legend ‘THE GEORGE MEDAL’ around the top edge. The ribbon is the usual 32mm wide, crimson with five narrow blue stripes, the blue colour reflecting that of the George Cross ribbon.
Right: The George Medal, showing obverse and reverse
Bars could be awarded to both medals for further acts of gallantry (though none has yet been issued with the GC). In undress uniform or on occasions when the medal ribbon alone is worn, a silver rosette is worn on the ribbon to indicate each bar. Recipients are entitled to the post-nominal letters GC or GM. Unlike the GC, the original Warrant for the George Medal did not permit posthumous awards, a situation not amended until 1977.
The first recipient of the George Cross, Thomas Alderson, typified the bravery that the King wanted to reward. As an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) leader during the Blitz, he led a series of dangerous underground searches, while the air raids were still continuing above him, in his home town of Bridlington, with no concern for his own safety. Since its inception in 1940, the George Cross has been awarded 408 times, 402 to men, four to women and two collective awards, most famously to the island of Malta to reflect the courage and fortitude of its people during its own Blitz, the relentless German air offensive against the island.
To date, there have been only 162 awards of the George Cross (with approximately 105 of these granted for WWII service) and 245 exchange awards, of which 112 went to recipients of the Empire Gallantry Medal and 133 to recipients of other high-level earlier awards, like the Albert Medal. Of those who received the original Cross, 86 were posthumous awards. In addition, there were four posthumous recipients of the Empire Gallantry Medal whose awards were gazetted after the start of World War II and whose medals were exchanged for the GC.
Chronologically, the first recipient of the George Medal was Coxswain Robert Cross, of the RNLI lifeboat City of Bradford, whose award was gazetted on 7 February 1941. It was conferred for an incident on 2 February 1940 when Cross took the lifeboat out in gale force winds and very rough seas to rescue the crew of a steam trawler. The first recipients of the GM actually to appear in the London Gazette (30 September 1940) were Chief Officer Ernest Harmer and Second Officer Cyril Brown of the Dover Fire Brigade, and Section Officer Alexander Campbell of the Dover Auxiliary Fire Service, who on 29 July 1940 had volunteered to return to a ship loaded with explosives in Dover Harbour to fight fires aboard while an air raid was in progress. Seven other people were also awarded the medal at this time, including the first women recipients: Ambulance Driver Dorothy Clarke and Ambulance Attendant Bessie Hepburn for rescuing a man badly injured in an explosion.
The first person to receive a bar to the GM, indicating a second award, was George Sewell, an engineer for Shell-Mex and BP Ltd, based at an oil terminal near Hull, for his actions during an air raid. He had been one of the first recipients of the GM in September 1940 and his bar was gazetted on 4 July 1941. The total number of George Medals issued to date is approximately 2,200, of which around 720 and one bar were conferred on civilians during WWII, along with roughly 670 medals and 19 bars to the armed forces and Merchant Navy.
Another lower-level recognition of gallant service, the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct, had been introduced as early as 1916, but only existed until 1939 in the form of a certificate. However, to create a more visible reward, from 1943 the Commendation took the form of a not-very-inspiring gold and red coloured plastic pin-backed badge, bearing the design of a sword in a wreath, surmounted by a crown. The badge, 38mm long by 20mm wide, was designed by George Kruger Gray. It was to be worn directly on the coat, after other medals, or pinned to the ribbon of the Defence Medal, if awarded. The first of this type were gazetted on 15 December 1939.
Right: The plastic badge representing the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct, 1943-44, in its red card case of issue
This plastic badge was replaced in 1944 by a simple silver laurel leaf for civilians and a bronze oak leaf for armed forces’ personnel (including merchant seamen during time of war) to bring the reward into line with other commendation emblems. The bronze oak leaf insignia was identical to that awarded to signify a Mention in Despatches. As with the Badge, these emblems would be worn simply on the jacket or on the ribbon of the Defence Medal.
In terms of general medals, World War II was to see a novel concept: a medal for service within the UK. World War I was the first conflict to involve attacks on the home population of Great Britain and home defence units in a significant way, and after the war there was criticism that no home service medal was awarded to the tens of thousands of men and women who had done important war work in the UK and Ireland. Civilians – men and women – had worked in a wide range of industries and activities (like ordnance, arms and uniform production, transport, administration, nursing, charitable works etc.) and large numbers of forces’ personnel had remained in this country or in Ireland on national defence service or other important war duties, like guarding prisoners of war. Thousands of men served in the Army throughout the war but if they did not go beyond the UK, they received no service medal. Although a home award was considered, it was eventually deemed to be too complicated and too expensive to proceed with. The institution of the Order of the British Empire in 1917, with its larger than usual range of grades, was meant to be one way to reward important wartime service in these fields but, of course, not every war worker or home defence soldier was appointed to the Order.
The Home Front effort reward
After World War II, in which the home population, home defence personnel and emergency services had contributed and suffered on a scale far greater than that seen between 1914 and 1918, some effort was made to redress this omission. Certainly in terms of forces’ personnel and the emergency services, their efforts were to be recognised by a distinct home service medal, although it was not awarded purely to civilian workers. This was The Defence Medal, authorised in May 1945. Its terms of award, as finally established for service in Great Britain, were fairly complex. Essentially it was given to service personnel, to the Home Guard and to other recognised emergency and Civil Defence services, like the National and Auxiliary Fire Services, for three years’ service (1,080 days) in the UK, reduced to three months if involved in bomb and mine disposal. Service would be counted from 3 September 1939 to 8 May 1945, or to the stand-down of the organisation if earlier (the Home Guard, for example, was stood down in December 1944).
Right: The Defence Medal, showing its obverse and reverse
Three years is a long time for other World War II medal requirements and there would have been plenty of people who did not quite qualify for that length of time, despite long war service. Personnel of 50 different organisations with 90 distinct sub-divisions were eventually declared to be eligible, though in most cases the recipient had to make a personal claim for the medal, and they are still being issued to late claimants. Duties curtailed by death or wounds or recognised by the award of a gallantry medal automatically qualified for the Defence Medal, irrespective of time served.
The medal, like the contemporary War Medal, was issued in cupro-nickel, although the Canadian government issued its in silver. It bore on its obverse the uncrowned head of King George VI with the usual titles while the reverse depicted two heraldic lions flanking a crowned oak sapling, with date 1939 and 1945 to the sides and waves at the bottom representing the sea. The wording, ‘THE DEFENCE MEDAL’ appears in the exergue.
The ribbon is highly symbolic. The broad green edge stripes are said to represent, as the HMSO paper states, ‘Our green and pleasant land’, the superimposed thin black stripes recall the war-time blackout and the central wide stripe of orange represents the terrible fire-bombing which devastated so many towns and cities.
The Defence Medal could also be awarded for overseas’ service in areas not designated as theatres of war but still under threat of enemy action (e.g. Cyprus or Ceylon) but the unnamed medal has never been very highly regarded by collectors and examples are easily and cheaply available on the market.
However, in terms of its award for UK service reflecting some of the most terrible and stressful periods of British history (as during the Blitz), it nevertheless represents dedicated and sustained effort over a long period of time and, especially if associated with bravery awards, recalls the work of many determined, dedicated and often very brave people.
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