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

Sunday 5 February 2012

Flight Lieutenant Richard Carew Reynell RAF

Dick Reynell (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
An early part of the process of researching a Blitz Walk is to go through the relevant local authority Civil Defence, or ARP Incident Log. Only by doing this, can we get an idea of what happened in any given locality, to see if there are any incidents, major or minor, that are likely to yield any personal accounts or photographs, or both, that are so vital in providing a series of 'stands' along the route of our chosen walk that make for what we hope will be an entertaining and informative experience for our walkers.

Sadly, in what today seems a remarkable act of cultural vandalism, some local authorities destroyed their Civil Defence records in the 1960s and 70s, perhaps at a time when Second World War history was of limited interest and when there were still plenty of veterans who could relate their experiences. Fortunately, these boroughs in London were in the minority and today when history is firmly back on the agenda, many of the London Boroughs have excellent archives and heritage centres where one can examine all manner of local history, not least amongst them being records from The Blitz.

One such source of information is the excellent Greenwich Heritage Centre located at the old Woolwich Arsenal site and it was whilst researching the Incident Log and Photo Library for what was to become my first Blitz Walk in my own locality of Blackheath and Greenwich that I first chanced upon the story of Flight Lieutenant Richard Carew Reynell and how he met his end, almost on my doorstep, on Saturday 7th September 1940 - the first day of The Blitz.

There in the archives, I discovered a photograph of Richard - 'Dickie' to his friends and squadron colleagues - and wondered why the archives of a south east London borough contained a photograph of a rather dashing looking RAF Officer. I found the answer to my question almost immediately afterwards with the discovery of a couple of newspaper cuttings which began to give up the first shreds of the story. A few days later, when transcribing the Incident Log, I came upon one of the many entries made on 'Black Saturday', that fine late summer's afternoon that saw Goring's Luftwaffe hitting London hard for the first time. That entry simply reads "7th Sept 1940 - Incident 6A - 3- Kidbrooke Gardens - RAF Parachutist badly injured."

And that was it, no further detail, just a photograph, two newspaper cuttings and a terse entry in an Incident Log written hastily in the heat of battle some 70 years ago. The newspaper cuttings did tell us that Dickie Reynell had been alive when he fell to earth but had sadly died before he could be taken to hospital. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, as always provided invaluable information regarding Dickie's squadron, service number and his burial place. Further help came from the superb work of the Aircrew Remembrance Society who were able to furnish the details of the aircraft he was flying and some important background information. They also provided a link to Dickie's original obituary from 'Flight' magazine of October 1940, which told that Dickie was an Australian - apart from Britons, many of 'The Few' were from the Empire and Commonwealth as well as Allied countries conquered by the Nazis. All of a sudden, Dickie Reynell was not just a photograph of any one of the brave men of 'The Few' - he was a real person, undoubtedly brave, with an interesting past, who died doing the job he loved and who perished helping to defend my City and furthermore, defending my local neighbourhood.

Then last week, I was approached by that redoubtable local blogger, The Greenwich Phantom, who in turn had been approached by Andrew Rennie, an author in Dickie's native Australia, who is preparing a biography of the man and who is trying to piece together the final hours of his life. So, without in any way wishing to steal Andrew's thunder - in any case this blog can only scratch at the surface of a story like this - it now seems a fitting time to share with you the story of this brave man, one of some 510 RAF aircrew, British, Commonwealth and Allied, who gave their lives during the Battle of Britain.

Richard Carew Reynell was born in 1912, in Reynella, South Australia, where his family owned a large winery estate. Dickie's father was Lieutenant Colonel Carew Reynell, who had been killed at Gallipoli in 1915 whilst serving with the 9th Australian Light Horse. In 1929, Dick came to this country to study at Oxford but soon joined the Oxford University Squadron and having discovered his love of flying, abandoned his studies and joined the RAF in 1931, with whom he served in 43 Squadron at RAF Tangmere. He was a natural flyer and in 1937, joined the Hawker Aircraft Company as a test pilot and thus was involved from an early stage with the Hurricane, one of the new generation of monoplane, eight gun fighters which, along with the Spitfire was to prove the saviour of this country during the Battle of Britain. His obituary in "Flight" Magazine describes how he demonstrated the Hurricane at the Brussels Air Show before the war to a distinguished audience, including General Erhardt Milch, at that time Secretary of the Reich Aviation Ministry, where his display was an amazing demonstration of the Hurricane's capabilities. Dickie was not a 'show off' pilot but was a consummate professional, who believed in doing everything well. He also possessed a great technical knowledge of his aircraft; in short he was the perfect test pilot.

Reynell continued to serve at Hawker's but in August 1940, had returned to 43 Squadron in order to evaluate the Hurricane's performance in combat conditions and to recommend modifications that could be made in the light of wartime experience. His touch had not left him however and by 7th September he had already been credited with shooting down one enemy aircraft as well as a number of 'probables' to his name. On the 7th September, he was scheduled to return to Hawker's to resume his duties owing to the death of another of the Company's test pilots but in the event, he opted to stay with 43 Squadron until the end of that day's flying.

Saturday 7th September 1940 dawned as a beautiful late summer's day. Some people were working in their wartime jobs, whilst others, seeking a measure of normality attended more traditional pursuits such as football matches in the limited wartime leagues that had recently resumed. A few bombs had fallen on the suburbs of London and on 24th August, some had even fallen on the City and north London as a result of a navigational error by a small number of bombers but until this day, the capital had escaped the worst attentions of the Luftwaffe.

However, this was not to last; as a result of the bombs falling on 24th August, Churchill had ordered a retaliatory raid on Berlin and although the damage caused had been miniscule, the loss of face had caused Hitler to fly into a rage and to pledge that British cities would be wiped from the map. So it was then, at 4.45 p.m. on Saturday 7th September that the air raid sirens sounded their mournful wail over London and the fighter squadrons of the RAF, hitherto used to defending their own airfields and shipping in the Channel, were vectored to intercept the raiders as they crossed the coast and headed towards the sprawling capital.

For this first, daylight phase of the attack, Goring had deployed some 348 bombers escorted by 617 fighters from Luftflottes II and III commanded by Albert Kesselring and Hugo Sperrle respectively. As the sirens sounded, Fighter Command had all of the 21 squadrons within 70 miles of London either in the air or at readiness. The first two RAF squadrons to intercept the raiders were 602 Squadron and Dickie Reynell's 43 Squadron, both from Tangmere. As they broke through the haze at 16,000 feet, somewhere over Beachy Head, the sight that encountered them was something that the RAF pilots had never seen before. A seemingly endless array of bombers and fighters, against which stood some 20 Spitfires and Hurricanes.

After harrying the enemy through to the south-eastern suburbs of London, Dickie got into a tangle with a Bf109 and at about 6 p.m., over Blackheath, his Hurricane, serial number V7257 was blown into several pieces; the engine fell through the roof of St Ursula's Convent, starting a fire. The main bulk of the aircraft fell on the area of Blackheath known as Crown Point, whilst Dickie himself was blown out of the aircraft and fell, without deploying his parachute at Kidbrooke Grove on the other side of the heath, where he was pronounced dead at the scene. The Incident Log, written in the heat of the moment described the scene of his death wrongly as Kidbrooke Gardens.

Thus passed Richard Reynell, like so many casualties of war a victim of circumstances; if he had decided to return to Hawker's that morning he could well have survived the war and gone on to an even more illustrious career as a test pilot. Dickie left behind a widow, Enid Marjorie as well as a baby son and his death was part of what proved to be a day of heavy losses for Fighter Command; 18 Hurricanes and 10 Spitfires were lost and more importantly than the machines which could be replaced were the men who could not. Apart from Dickie, another of those killed was his close friend and 43 Squadron Commander, Sq/Ldr Caesar Hull of South Africa, who died when his Hurricane was brought down in the grounds of Purley High School.

The daylight raiders wreaked a terrible price on the ground; large swathes of the East End, the Surrey Docks and the Woolwich Arsenal were ablaze with the fires lit acting as a beacon for a further 247 German bombers from Luftlotte III returning in a second wave to stoke the inferno. By dawn, some 400 British civilians were dead. The raids were not without cost to the Luftwaffe - they had lost some 37 aircraft together with their crews killed or captured but considering the size of the attacking force, this was the Luftwaffe's day (and night). Retribution was to follow but for now, the RAF and Londoners had to lick their wounds.

Richard Reynell is buried at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey, far away from his native Australia but as mentioned earlier, Andrew Rennie is planning a book which will commemorate his life and achievements. If anyone reading this blog has any information on Richard Reynell, either through family recollections or perhaps as an eye witness of his final moments, albeit perhaps as a small child watching on Blackheath, then please get in touch as Andrew is anxious to tie up as many loose ends as possible in tracing the last hours of this brave man.

Watch this blog for an announcement in due course as to when Andrew's book is to be published; this writer, for one will be certain to purchase a copy.

Printed Sources:

Backs To The Wall - Leonard Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1971
Flight Magazine - October 31st 1940
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri Service Press 1990

Internet Sources:
Unpublished Sources:

Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Civil Defence Incident Log - Greenwich Heritage Centre
Greenwich Heritage Centre Photo Library
Andrew Rennie's (so far) unpublished work