Sunday, 19 February 2012

George Cross Heroes

The George Cross
The George Cross is the highest civilian award for gallantry and is indeed, the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross. The George Cross can also be awarded to members of the armed forces for similar acts of bravery when not in the face of the enemy, such as bomb disposal operations. Quite simply, both of these awards are for extraordinary acts of bravery and as such, the award of either of these medals is a rare event worthy of note.

The origins of the George Cross lay at the height of the London Blitz in September 1940. It was felt by many, not least of whom was King George VI, that the many acts of civilian bravery that were occurring could not be rewarded by any of the existing military or civilian awards. So it was then that on 24th September 1940 that the King instituted the new award with the following statement:

"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 Warrant for the medal was published in the London Gazette and described the conditions for it’s award thus:

"The George Cross, which may be awarded posthumously, is granted in recognition of acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger."

The Warrant goes on to state:

"The Cross is intended primarily for civilians and award in Our military services is to be confined to actions for which purely military Honours are not normally granted."

So it can be seen that the George Cross is not awarded lightly and as in the case of the VC it is fair to state that the award is given to ordinary people who have proved themselves capable of extraordinary actions

In the paragraphs that follow, we shall take a look at four such awards to people from different backgrounds and serving in vastly differing roles but united by their extraordinary courage.

The very first George Cross was awarded for an act of bravery that occurred before the Blitz proper started and went to Thomas Alderson, a 37 year old ex Merchant Navy engineer, turned council worker and part time ARP Warden in Bridlington. In August 1940, this coastal town attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe, presenting an easy to find target at a time when London was still strictly out of bounds on Hitler’s direct instructions. On three separate occasions, Alderson led rescue teams into badly damaged buildings and at great personal risk, managed to extract the injured civilians. Alderson’s award was to set the tone for many others to follow.

Sub Lieutenant Francis Brooke-Smith was a Royal Naval Reserve officer who volunteered for Mine Disposal work at the beginning of the war, having been called up from his peacetime Merchant Navy occupation. The Germans had adapted naval mines for use as air burst bombs and due to their maritime provenance, the Royal Navy was called upon to deal with them. By December 1940, Brooke-Smith had already successfully dealt with sixteen mines when he was called to defuse one which had lodged itself on a fireboat, the Firefly, in the Manchester Ship Canal. The mine was lodged firmly alongside a deckhouse and with great difficulty he was able to move it slightly with a rope so as to access the fuse. Then, lying at an awkward angle on the deck, he was able to extract the fuse, staying on the job even when the mechanism started ticking again and completing the task before the mine exploded. For this act of bravery, he was awarded his George Cross and perhaps fearing he had used his allocation of luck, was posted to North Atlantic convoy duty in the ex-American ‘four stack’ destroyer HMS Broadwater. He was still serving in this vessel when she was torpedoed whilst escorting convoy SC48 on 18th October 1941. Brooke-Smith was commended for ensuring the destruction of the destroyer’s confidential books and for helping with the evacuation of the survivors. If ever there was a case of ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’, then this was it. After the war, Brooke-Smith went back to the Merchant Navy and served on trans-Atlantic liners before tragically being killed in a road traffic accident in December 1952, aged 34.

Anthony Smith GC (RB of Kensington & Chelsea)

Another Royal Navy mine disposal officer was Lieutenant Ernest Oliver Gidden, known to all as Mick. He had already been awarded a George Medal for his work in defusing a mine which had fallen between two houses in Harlesden, north London in September 1940. On the night of 16th/17th April 1941, London was hit by the heaviest raid so far of the Blitz – an early birthday present for Hitler. A parachute mine had fallen on to Hungerford Bridge, the main railway line crossing the River Thames into Charing Cross Station. The mine had fused itself onto the live rail but by using a hammer and chisel Gidden managed to turn the weapon over and eventually, after six hour’s work, he removed the fuse and made the mine safe. For this extraordinary act, Mick Gidden was awarded the George Cross; one of only eight people awarded both the George Cross and the George Medal.

Tony Smith GC's commemorative plaque at Dovehouse Green (author's photo)


The Rescue Squads were a curious breed; some of them were no angels and instances of looting often cast a finger of suspicion at these men. They were also had something of a reputation for a rough sense of humour, perhaps understandable given the sometimes grim nature of their work. These men sometimes armed with no more than picks and shovels tunnelled and burrowed their way into ruined buildings in a bid to rescue trapped survivors. Many of these men were ex miners, tunnellers or those otherwise used to working in confined spaces. One such man was Anthony Smith (pictured), a member of the Chatham Heavy Rescue Squad. Tony had served in the Royal Marines during the Great War and had lost three fingers on one hand on the Somme in 1917. A chimney sweep by trade, his injury had precluded him from re-enlisting on the outbreak of war in 1939, so he had joined the Rescue Service in order to ‘do his bit.’ Although the main Blitz on London had ended in May 1941, the ‘Little Blitz’ of late 1943/early 1944 was the Luftwaffe’s last throw of the dice before the introduction of the Terror Weapons. These raids were insignificant in comparison with the Blitz of 1940 but they presented another blow to the war weary city and her inhabitants. On the night of February 23rd 1944, a High Explosive bomb, probably aimed at the Lots Road Power Station on the River Thames, fell instead on a Guinness Trust tenement block in Edith Grove, Chelsea which collapsed with many people trapped inside the buildings. To make matters worse, the basement of the wrecked building began to flood from a burst main, endangering those who had survived the bomb with drowning instead. Tony Smith and his rescue squad arrived and set to work. Smith heard the cries for help from one Sam Mitchell, a baker trapped in the basement and without a thought for his own safety, Smith entered the basement through a hole in the rubble. This hole collapsed behind him, trapping Smith also but he pushed on, found and freed Mitchell and dragged him to safety through the rear of the building where he kicked through a wall to safety. Without pausing, Smith re-entered the ruins and rescued a woman in the now rapidly flooding basement. Smith and his fellow rescue squad workers toiled all night under arc lights to free survivors and recover bodies. Some 76 people died at Edith Grove that night but many survived thanks to the efforts of Anthony Smith and his colleagues. He was deservedly awarded the George Cross on May 30th 1944 and subsequently made a Freeman of the Borough of Chelsea.

In previous articles in this blog, we have looked in more detail at other recipients of the George Cross and in this entry we have scratched the surface of the stories of some more of these brave men. No doubt, we will look at others again in the future, for their stories never fail to inspire, even some seventy years on.


Published Sources:

The Blitz – Constantine Fitzgibbon, Macdonald 1957
Fulham in the Second World War – Leslie Hasker, Fulham & Hammersmith Historical Society 1984
Ordinary Heroes – David Walker, The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea
The People’s War – Angus Calder, Jonathan Cape 1969

6 comments:

  1. The full stories of Alderson and Smith are told in Come if ye Dare - The Civil Defence George Crosses by Terry Hissey. Available from the Civil Defence Assn.

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  2. Thanks Joe. Obviously due to space constraints I have only given a brief resume of these recipients. Sadly, I don't have a copy of Terry's book, which is bad form on my part as Terry is a follower of this blog! I must purchase a copy. Thanks again for your interest.

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  3. Hi Blitzwalker,
    Anthony Smith did not rescue occupants from the Guiness trust buildiongs. His heroics were performed in Edith grove on the north side of the kings rd opp the Guiness buildings where now stands Brick barn close, which was built on the waste ground after the action. My mother in law was in the Guiness trust and bombed out that night, she went on to marry Anthony Smiths nephew Anthony Stringer. The medal was sold in mysterious circumstances. Please keep up the good work

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  4. Thanks for your interest Dave. I can do no better than quote from the Borough of Chelsea's Incident Log, which clearly states that the buildings destroyed belonged to the Guinness Trust in Edith Grove. As regards his medals, I think that they may have re-surfaced as the Imperial War Museum is going to be featuring a major display of VCs and GCs when they reopen in the summer and I understand that Tony's medals are going to form part of this display. Let's hope so.

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  5. hello Blitzwalker, your quite right the guiness hit with a great lose of life. I contacted Spinks of St James regarding his medal and it was bought by a private dealer and now is in Australia.I am trying to get all his paperwork to copy from his nephew which has the original incident report for that nights incident, if your interested i can forward a copy if you would like. I dont know if your aware that his grave is in North cheam cemetery, Mortlake road and a new grave stone was dedicated to him with the RMLI badge also on the stone with the George cross. This was at the instigation of a local Chelsea historian who was also the chap that got the memorial to the Americans who died in Turks row sw3. Regards Dave

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  6. Thanks again Dave. I did know that Tony is buried in North Cheam but have yet to get down there and photograph his grave - I will do so sometime. I would be very interested to see a copy of the original incident report - that would be very kind of you. I had heard that his medals went to Australia but all I know is that the IWM have asked to use one of my photographs of his plaque and of him, so perhaps they've managed to get the medals on loan for their exhibition. We'll have to wait until July to find out!
    Cheers Steve

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