|The George Cross
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.
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