War changed in the 20th Century. With civilians as much a target as anyone else, what it meant to be a combatant changed as well. Senior Historian Chris Anderson’s most recent History Hikes post, a race-with-death story about the Royal Engineers who defused a bomb under St. Paul’s Cathedral during WWII, illustrates just how true this statement is.
The George Cross: Gallantry Comes in Many Forms
By Chris Anderson
As the sun rose over a smoking London on the morning of September 12, 1940, the “Nation’s Church,” was in very deep trouble. Earlier that morning, at approximately 2:25, a massive SC1000 bomb had crashed into the pavement just in front of the steps by the entrance to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Weighing in at 2,200-pounds, the bomb had buried itself 15-feet below the surface immediately underneath the southwest corner of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. If it exploded, it would unquestionably have done fatal damage to the magnificent building.
Arriving on the scene some 12 hours later, Lieutenant George Davies, the commander of 16/17 Section, Number 5 Bomb Disposal Company, began to assess the situation and to determine a course of action. The German bombing of London had begun in earnest on September 7 and already there were so many bombs hitting the city that overwhelmed civil defense authorities had begun to prioritize defusing bombs that had failed to explode. Upon arrival at a bomb site, disposal teams from the Royal Engineers would determine if an unexploded piece of ordnance could be stabilized in situ and deactivated later or if it could be removed and detonated at a safer location. Only as a last resort would units attempt to deactivate a bomb on site.
Davies could quickly see given the size of the hole, the angle of the bomb’s penetration and its location that it would be necessary to defuse the bomb on site. In addition to resting underneath the corner of St. Paul’s, the bomb also sat on top of a nest of gas and electrical lines and the trunk line that controlled all phone cables to the north of the country. He also reasoned that the bomb had a delayed action fuse, which the Germans had only just started using. Already, he knew, that the bomb had been ticking away for at least 12-hours and that 80 hours was generally considered the maximum time allowed before detonation.
He immediately ordered six men of the team to begin prying up paving stones around the hole. As they did so, the six almost immediately fell into the pit as the ground underneath gave way. Hitting bottom there was silence from the men. Quick investigation revealed that in their haste to get to the bomb the engineers had cut a gas line and been knocked unconscious by the fumes, which caused them to fall to the bottom of the pit. The men were pulled from the hole and treated while men from the Gas Light and Coke Company began working on breaks in the gas line.
Work continued throughout the day, only being interrupted when further gas leaks required that the hole be flooded or when crews had to evacuate the pit to seek shelter as additional bombs began falling on the city during a subsequent raid. By dawn on Friday 13, the crew had reached the bomb-but not for long. Disturbances caused by the digging and subsequent bombing had caused the massive projectile to sink deeper into the soil. By the time it stopped, it was some 26-feet underground. With the bomb likely to go off at any moment, digging had to continue. On Saturday, word leaked to the city about the threat to St. Paul’s, the Daily Mail reported, “Those most gallant-yet most matter-of-fact-men of the Royal Engineers are many a time running a race with death.”
Almost 80 hours had passed when, on Sunday morning, a shout from Sapper George Wyllie rose up from the pit. The bomb had been reached and seemed stuck where it was. There was no time to spare. A rope was quickly lowered into the hole from an army truck and secured around the bomb. As the truck pulled away, the rope snapped. A second attempt was made with the same result. Finally, Wyllie secured more ropes around the bomb and these were attached to two trucks pulling in tandem. Slowly, the 8-foot long killer was pulled from underneath the church.
With little time to spare, as soon as the still ticking bomb reached the street it was secured onto a cradle by the engineers and lifted onto the bed of an Army truck. With police driven motorcycles at the front to clear the way, Davies jumped behind the truck’ steering wheel and drove the bomb through the streets of East London to the Hackney Marshes six miles away. Once at an area set aside for the detonation of bombs Davies had his deadly cargo unloaded and readied for detonation. When it was set off by forced explosion, the St. Paul’s bomb blasted a crater 100-feet wide into the terrain and knocked out windows as far as a half-mile away. The Ministry of Home Security remarked in a press release shortly afterward pointing out that, “only the courage and tenacity of the officer [Davies], his NCOs and men prevented St. Paul’s from being levelled to the ground.”
The safe detonation of the bomb was widely reported and Davies and his incredibly brave men became celebrities. Many began calling for the award of the Victoria Cross (VC) to the men who had saved St. Paul’s. But there was a problem. Like the Medal of Honor in the United States, the conditions for award of Great Britain’s highest medal for bravery are quite strict. In the case of the VC, the action must be witnessed and it must be performed, “in the presence of the enemy.”
With tons of bombs falling across Great Britain in the autumn of 1940, thousands of people—both soldiers and civilians—were performing incredible acts of bravery every day. As The Times correctly pointed out in an article about Davies and his men, “The new turn of war has placed every inhabitant of London in the line of battle.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill and others in his government were aware of this shortcoming in the honors system.
Prior to the Second World War there were a series of medals that recognized civilian bravery. First was the Albert Medal (AM), which was instituted in 1866 and named after Prince Albert. It was originally intended to recognize saving lives at sea. The Edward Medal (EM) received its royal warrant in 1907 and honored acts of bravery in the preservation of life in mines. Finally, there was the Empire Gallantry Medal (EGM), constituted in 1922, which was originally a part of the Order of the British Empire. It was felt, however, that none of these awards were regarded as highly as the VC in terms of precedence nor did they recognize the unique circumstances of many of the acts of bravery being exhibited not on a traditional battlefield. Simply put, war had changed in the 20th Century and with civilians now just as much a target as anyone else, what it meant to be a combatant had changed as well.
Discussions on resolving the problem of how to properly recognize bravery in all its forms had begun in August. During one of these meetings General Hastings “Pug” Ismay, who was in charge of civil/military relations for Prime Minister Winston Churchill, had suggested creating an award that would recognize the many acts of courage—both civilian and military—that were being performed off the battlefield. King George VI saw the need for such a distinction as well and quickly acquiesced to the creation of a new honor that would recognize such acts.
Eighty years ago, on September 23, 1940, King George VI announced the creation of the new award, which would be called the George Cross (GC). “In order that they should be worthily and promptly recognised,” the king proclaimed, “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.”
The warrant came into effect the next day. The new medal would stand equal in precedence with the VC in the British honors system. In order to overcome the problem of recognizing men like Davies, Wyllie and other service personnel, the warrant for the award stated that, “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.”
Just like its equivalent, the VC, the GC is a simple medal. On the front of the four equal limbs of the silver cross, which is suspended from a one-and-a-half-inch wide blue ribbon, is a circular medallion showing St. George slaying the dragon surrounded by the words “For Gallantry.” On the reverse is engraved the recipient’s name, and the date of their act of bravery. Holders of the award wear their GC on their left breast before all other decorations besides the VC.
It was appropriate that the fist award of the new decoration went to civilian Thomas Hopper Alderson. On three separate occasions in August 1940, Alderson, a detachment leader in the Air Raid Patrol who, led rescue crews in the coastal town of Bridlington into badly damaged buildings to rescue injured civilians. “On one occasion,” his citation reads in part, “he worked tirelessly in great danger and in cramped conditions for three-and-a-half hours to release six people trapped in a cellar under a collapsed building. The next two recipients were Davies and Wyllie, who were recognized for their efforts in safely disposing of the bomb that almost destroyed St. Paul’s.
Since then, the GC has been awarded directly to 161 individuals and two groups. Of the 106 awards of the Cross before 1947, the majority went to individuals engaged in bomb disposal activities. It is an indication of what is required to be awarded a GC by pointing out that 86 of the original 161 awards have been posthumous. In 1971, holders of the AM, EM and EGM could have their awards exchanged for a George Cross. Most did, which means that officially there have been 407 awards of the George Cross. The most recent award was in 2017 when Dominic Charles Rupert Troulan, a retired soldier, helped end the terrorist attack at the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. The award has been given to 395 men and 12 women-three of whom were agents in the Special Operations Executive during World War II. Among the other recipients are a schoolboy, tram conductor, airline stewardess, policemen, soldiers and sailors.
In addition to the individual awards of the GC, there have been two group awards. The first was to Malta, which was awarded in April 1942 in recognition of the islanders’ bravery and resolve during the Axis siege. So highly regarded was the award that an image of the Cross was put on the flag, where it remained after the island received independence from Britain in 1964. The second group award was to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which was given in honour of the efforts of the RUC to keep peace in Northern Ireland and in memory of the 302 members of the force killed in the line of duty.
I must admit that I regard the George Cross as one of the most important medals for courage. When it was created at the height of the Blitz in 1940, it was an acknowledgement that in the modern era civilians can find themselves just as much on the front line as soldiers. It also acknowledges that bravery and courage come in many, many, forms. I think it is tremendously fitting that on the 80thanniversary of the creation of the George Cross, that there is now discussion here in the United Kingdom to recognize the collective bravery of the 1.2 million workers of the National Health Service—an estimated 330 of whom have died as of this writing—as they have worked on the front line every day in the battle against the Coronavirus with a collective award of the George Cross.