The Victoria Cross is highest and most prestigious decoration for bravery awarded to British and Commonwealth service personnel. On this unique archive audio CD and download VC winners from the First and Second World Wars describe their actions in their own words. Thirteen are first-hand accounts by recipients between 1915 and 1945, two are posthumous tributes by comrades. All illustrate the exceptional modesty of VCs, and the courage of men in extraordinary circumstances. Actions and campaigns described include Hill 60 (Ypres), the Battle of Britain, North Africa, Burma, Bomber Command missions, Monte Cassino, D-Day, the St Nazaire raid, a daring wing-crawl at 30,000 feet, and the X-craft attack on the Tirpitz.
Digitally remastered from original source recordings made between 1915 and 1946, the extended CD runs for 76 minutes and includes a detailed booklet, with archive images and historical notes by James Hayward.
Tracklist: Sergeant Edward Dwyer (1915); Flight Lieutenant Roderick Learoyd (1940); Flight Lieutenant J.B. Nicolson (1940); Lieutenant Charles Upham (1941/1942); Sergeant Pilot James Ward (1941); Commander Robert Ryder (1942); Sergeant Quentin Smythe (1942); Flight Sergeant R.H. Middleton (1942); Lieutenants B.C.G. Place and D. Cameron (1943); Naik Nand Singh (1944); Fusilier F.A. Jefferson (1944), Major John Mahony (1944); Sergeant-Major Stanley Hollis (1944); Lieutenant G.R. Norton (1944); Flight Sergeant George Thompson (1945)
Reviews: "Fifteen original recordings, including five from the RAF. It's fascinating to hear these tales from those who earned the decoration, or listen to the posthumous tributes from those who were there. Well worth the price of admission" (Flypast, 10/2007); "Forgotten voices that offer a fascinating insight into heroism in wartime" (Jive Magazine, 10/2007)
CD liner notes by James Hayward
Of the fifteen archive recordings collected on this CD, twelve are first-hand accounts by VC winners from all three armed services made between 1915 and 1946. All demonstrate the characteristic modesty of VC recipients. Indeed some are reluctant to discuss the personal heroism that lead to the award, and prefer instead to talk of comrades and family (these include Dwyer, Upham, Smythe, Norton). Of the remaining accounts, two are by third parties serving close by the VC recipient (Middleton, Thompson), whose award was either posthumous, or where the recipient was recovering from wounds at the material time (Mahony), or whose first language was not English (Singh).
E. DWYER (1915) 6.30
On 20 April 1915 Edward Dwyer was serving as a Private in the 1st Battalion, East Surrey Regiment. At Hill 60, a ridge feature three miles south-east Ypres, Dwyer found himself alone in trench, from which the rest of his platoon had been killed or wounded by Germans attacking with grenades (bombs). Collecting all the grenades he could find, Dwyer then stood on the parapet and bombed the enemy, under fire, keeping them at bay single-handed until reinforcements arrived. Earlier in the day Dwyer had already shown great courage in leaving his trench to bandage wounded men in the open, under shellfire. Edward Dwyer was a diminutive figure and dubbed 'The Little Corporal' after his VC made him a national figure. This unique recording was made during the second half of 1915, when Dwyer spent six months in Britain assisting the national recruiting drive, and was released as a double-sided 78 rpm record (Regal G7228). The exercise was not repeated with other medal winners and seems not have been a conspicuous sales success, although the disc stands as the only contemporary spoken-word recording made by a serving soldier of the Great War, and as such is invaluable. Dwyer declines to describe his VC action, and instead describes the grueling retreat from Mons in August 1914, the vagaries of army pay, field rations, day-to-day life in the trenches and the art of bombing. He also sings snippets from several popular marching songs, and castigates slackers and draft dodgers. Born in Fulham, London (25.11.1895), Dwyer was a grocer's assistant before joining up. He was promoted to Sergeant but killed in action near Guillemont on 3 September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. His medal is displayed at the Queen's Royal Surrey Regiment Museum.
R.A.B. LEAROYD (1940) 3.59
On the night of 12/13 August 1940 eleven Hampden bombers of 49 and 83 Squadrons undertook a low-level attack on the Dortmund-Ems canal at a point near Munster, where the canal crosses the River Ems via twin aqueducts. Due to previous attacks by 5 Group the ground defences had been increased, so that this raid was met by an intense flak barrage. Although two Hampdens were shot down, eight managed to press home the attack and caused considerable damage. Flight Lieutenant Roderick 'Babe' Learoyd of 49 Squadron won Bomber Command's first Victoria Cross of the war after making a determined attack at 150 feet in the full glare of searchlights. Learoyd's aircraft was badly hit, sustaining ruptured hydraulics and its flaps and undercarriage put out of action. After nursing his crippled back to RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire Learoyd was obliged to circle for three hours until dawn broke and he was able to risk a belly landing. Learoyd made this broadcast anonymously on 19 August 1940. Roderick Alastair Brook Learoyd was born in Folkestone (5.2.1913), and worked as a fruit farmer and motor engineer before joining the RAF in 1936. The nickname 'Babe' referred to his impressive physical size. By the time of his VC investiture Learoyd had been taken off operations, and later rose to the rank of Wing Commander. He died on 24 January 1996. His medal is held by the Lord Ashcroft VC Collection.
J.B. NICOLSON (1940) (6.11)
Flight Lieutenant Eric James Brindley Nicolson (1917-1945) describes the action on 16 August 1940 which lead to him being awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest gallantry medal and the first (indeed only) awarded to Fighter Command during the Second World War. Recorded on 2 December 1940, and broadcast anonymously. A Hurricane pilot with 249 Squadron, then based at Boscombe Down, Nicolson was on patrol between Poole and Romsey early in the afternoon of 16 August and engaged several enemy fighters, before his own aircraft was hit by cannon shells from a Messerschmitt 110 at 17,000 feet. As well as wounding Nicolson the shells ignited his gravity tank, yet even with his Hurricane on fire he still managed to press home an attack on an Me 110, possibly the same one that had attacked him. By this time the cockpit was a mass of flame, in the midst of which his left hand held the throttle open while molten metal dripped from the instrument panel onto his feet. Before baling out Nicolson suffered severe burns to his hands, face, neck and legs, and landed in a field at Millbrook, near Southampton. On this recording Nicolson omits to mention that he was fired on by an over-excited Home Guard as he descended, and peppered with shotgun pellets. His VC was presented by King George VI at Buckingham Palace on 24 November, although afterwards the reluctant hero refused to wear the mauve ribbon on his uniform until he was reprimanded for being improperly dressed. Nicolson returned to flying in April 1941, and by 1945 had been promoted to the rank of Wing Commander. Sadly Nicolson was killed on 2 May on board a Liberator of 355 Squadron, which crashed in the Bay of Bengal. Although he has no known grave, his VC is on display at the RAF Museum, Hendon.
C.H. UPHAM (1941 and 1942) 2.02
New Zealander Charles Hazlitt Upham is one of only three men to be awarded a Bar to his VC, and the only double recipient during the Second World War. In 1941 Upham was a Second Lieutenant with the 20th Battalion, Canterbury Regiment, 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Between 22 and 30 May, during the fighting on Crete around Maleme airfield, Upham displayed outstanding gallentary over several days of testing close-quarter combat, and was twice hit by mortar shrapnel and wounded in ths foot. In spite of this, and a bout of dysentary which sapped his strength, Upham refused hospital treatmant and carried a wounded man to safety when his company was forced to retire. Several days later he ambushed and drove off an attack at Sphakia, 22 Germans falling to his fire. The following year Upham (now a Captain) was awarded his second VC, following a successful attack on the Ruweisat Ridge at El Alamein on 14 and 15 July, during which he was severely wounded and taken prisoner. Born in Christchurch, New Zealand (21.9.1908), Upham was an exceptionally modest man, and on this UHF recording (made on 24 October 1941) prefers to pay tribute to his ANZAC comrades in Greece and Crete, rather than talking of his own heroism. Following his capture in 1942 he made repeated escape attempts and was eventualy imprisoned in Colditz; after the war he became a farmer, and would allow no German cars onto his property. Charles Upham died on 22 November 1994. His medals are held by the Imperial War Museum and displayed at the Army Museum in Waiouru.
J.A. WARD (1941) 7.03
On the night of 7/8 July 1941 Sergeant James Ward was second pilot in Wellington bomber AA-R of 75 (New Zealand) Squadron, Royal Air Force, based at Feltwell (Norfolk) and tasked to bomb Munster. On the return leg over the Zuider Zee the aircraft was attacked by an Me 110 night fighter, causing a petrol fire near the starboard engine which quickly threatened the entire wing. Unable to extinguish the fire with extinguishers, as a last resort Ward volunteered to climb out of the aircraft and crawl three of four feet out onto the burning wing, secured only by a dinghy rope. Even at a reduced speed of 90 mph the slip-stream from the engine was terrific, moreover the bomber was flying at 13,000 feet. There Ward smothered the burning wing fabric, and attempted to staunch the leaking fuel feed pipe with a canvas cockpit cover. Despite his exhaustion he managed to return to the aircraft, and the Wellington made an emergency landing at Newmarket. Recorded August 1941. Born in Wanganui, New Zealand (14.6.1919), James Allen Ward was killed in action on 15 September 1941, when his aircraft was shot down over Hamburg. The first Commonwealth squadron in Bomber Command, 75 is reckoned to have flown more sorties than any other heavy bomber squadron in the European theatre, and to have suffered more casualties. Ward's medal is displayed at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. His VC recommendation was a matter of discussion at the time, since some senior figures questioned whether the award was appropriate, given that Ward's actions had some aspect of self-preservation. However the particular exigencies of manned flight and bombing raids can hardly have been predicted when the award was first awarded in 1857.
R.E.D. RYDER (1942) 4.05
Commander Robert Ryder describes his part in the raid on St Nazaire (Operation Chariot) on 28 March 1942. Recorded 21 March 1946. The raiding force (comprising 600 army and navy personnel) attacked and demolished dock facilities, while an obsolete destroyer packed with explosives, HMS Campbeltown, was rammed into the gates of an enormous dry-dock, from which it was feared the German battleship Tirpitz might operate. The Campbeltown detonated the following morning, destroying the lock gate and killing 250 Germans in the process. The raid was judged a success and the dock remained unusable until 1947. However casualties were heavy, and only three of 18 launches made it back to England. Ryder commanded the naval forces during the raid, and was on board the HQ ship, MGB 314, which evacuated many men under intense enemy fire and was the last British vessel to leave the port. Ryder (16.2.1908 - 29.6.1986) subsequently attained the rank of Captain, and retired from the Navy in 1950, afterwards serving as a Conservative MP. His VC was one of five awarded following the St Nazaire raid, and is displayed at the Imperial War Museum, London.
Q.G.M. SMYTHE (1942) 3.16
In June 1942 Sergeant Quentin Smythe was serving in Libya with the Royal Natal Carabineers, South African Forces. The action for which he was awarded his VC took place at Alem Hamza, south of Gazala, against the background of Rommel's drive on Tobruk. On 5 June, after his officer was severely wounded, Smythe took over command of his platoon, and despite having sustained a head wound, attacked first a machine-gun nest and next anti-tank position, eliminating both crews. Ordered to fall back, Smythe then executed a skilful withdrawal, defeating a vigorous enemy attempt at encirclement. His younger brother Brian served in the same platoon. In this UHF recording, made on 12 September 1942, Smythe is introduced by his Commanding Officer, and takes the opportunity to send a personal message to his family. A professional soldier and an outstanding marksman, Smythe subsequently rose to the rank of Captain. Quentin George Murray Smythe was born in Natal, South Africa (6.8.1916) and in civilian life and was a farmer in civilian life. He died on 22 October 1977 in Durban. His medal is owned privately.
R.H. MIDDLETON(1942) 6.25
On the night of 28/29 November 1942 Flight Sergeant Rawdon 'Ron' Middleton was first pilot on a Stirling heavy bomber (BF 372 - OJ:H) of 149 Squadron based at Lakenheath (Suffolk), tasked to attack the Fiat works in Turin, Italy. Having set out at dusk on the 28th, Middleton found that the bomber was running short of fuel, but pressed on regardless, negotiating a low and hazardous flight through (rather than over) the Alps. The Stirling then made three low passes over Turin in order to identify the target, but was hit by anti-aircraft fire, seriously wounding both pilots and making the aircraft difficult to control. Middleton's several injuries included the loss of his right eye. He blacked out, during which the Stirling dived to 800 feet and was further damaged by flak. After the second pilot (Flight Sergeant L.A. Hyder) took control and climbed back to 1,500 feet the aircraft dropped its bombs and set course for home. With the cockpit canopy smashed, both injured pilots were obliged to fly for four hours in an icy gale, once again negotiating the Alps. Over Northern France the Stirling was again hit by flak, and dropped to 600 feet. Middleton remained determined to fly his crew to safety rather than abandon the aircraft over enemy territory. Five of the eight man crew were able to bale out over the English coast, although the engineer and front gunner jumped later and perished in the Channel, while Middleton died at the controls when he ditched the stricken bomber off Dymchurch, Kent. This recording was made on 14 January 1943 by Pilot Officer M.E. Skinner, Middleton's wireless operator: 'It was like seeing a film of a burning house.' Born at Waverley, Sydney, Australia (22 July 1916), Rawdon Hume Middleton worked as a jackaroo before joining the Royal Australian Air Force in October 1940. The Turin raid was his 29th operational sortie of a 30 mission tour. In addition to his posthumous VC (the first for the RAAF), he was also promoted to the rank of Pilot Officer. His medal is displayed at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
B.C.G. PLACE & D. CAMERON (1943) 6.40
Lieutenants Basil Place and Donald Cameron describe the daring midget submarine attack on the German battleship Tirpitz in a Norwegian fjord on 22 September 1943. Recorded 21 June 1945. Codenamed Operation Source, the first attempt to destroy the 43,000 ton Tirpitz (as well as Scharnhorst and Lutzow) saw six British X class midget submarines set out under tow from Loch Cairnbawn in Scotland, of which three managed to penetrate the Altenfjord. All had traveled at least 1,000 miles from base, and once inside the fjord had to negotiate minefields, patrol craft, torpedo nets and gun and listening posts. X5 appears to have been lost prior to the attack, but X6 (Cameron) and X7 (Place) successfully placed four tons of explosive charges beneath her hull. On detonating an hour later these charges caused extensive damage to the Tirpitz, disabling her main turbines and two aft turrets, and damaging her port rudder and hull frames. Only after six months was the battleship able to move south for further repairs. After placing their charges both X-Craft came under attack and had to be scuttled. Of the two four-man volunteer crews, all from X6 survived but only two (Place and Aitken) from X7. All six men were taken prisoner, and both Place and Cameron awarded the VC for their part in the action, which became the basis of the 1955 film Above Us The Waves. Basil Charles Godfrey Place (19.7.1921 - 27.12.1994) was later promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral, and became Chairman of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association. His VC is held by the Imperial War Museum, London. Donald Cameron (18.3.1916 - 10.4.1961) transferred from the Royal Naval Reserve to the regular navy, and continued to serve in submarines until his early death aged 45. His medal is privately owned.
NAND SINGH (1944) 3.55
An acount by Major-General Frank Messervy of how Naik (Corporal) Nand Singh of the 1/11th Sikh Regiment, Indian Army, won the VC during an action on the main Maungdaw-Buthidaung Road, Arakan (Burma), on 11/12 March 1944. Japanese troops having infiltrated the battalion position at night, and dug in on a spur commanding the vital road, Nand Singh commanded the leading section of the platoon ordered to retake the position. This was achieved without fire support, yet under heavy enemy rifle and machine-gun fire and grenades. Every man in his section was killed or wounded, and Singh took three trenches single-handed at the point of the bayonet. Although he was wounded in the thigh, and peppered with grenade fragments, he returned to his unit six weeks later. Recorded by General Messervy on 30 May 1944. A professional soldier, Nand Sing was born in Bahadur Village, Punjab (24.9.1914), and was killed in action on 12 December 1947 in Kashmir during the Indo-Pakistan conflict. He was posthumously awarded the Maha Vir Chakra by the Indian Government, and remains the only VC of the Second World War to be killed in a subsequent conflict. By way of unhappy coincidence, General Messervy was made the first Commander-in-Chief of the new Pakistan Army between 1947-48. Nand Singh's medal is displayed at the Sikh Regiment Centre, Ramgarh, Bihar.
F.A. JEFFERSON (1944) 3.12
In May 1944 Fusilier Frank Jefferson was serving in the 2nd Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers. During an attack on the Gustav Line near Monte Cassino on 16 May Allied armour was held up by anti-tank obstacles, leaving the leading companies of infantry to capture the strong points alone. German forces then counter-attacked with infantry and two tanks. Jefferson ran forward under heavy fire with a PIAT anti-tank weapon, and destroyed one of the tanks from twenty yards. Unusually, Jefferson fired the PIAT from a standing position and was thrown off his feet. He then retired, re-loaded the PIAT, and advanced towards the second tank, which withdrew out of range. Jefferson's company then held their position until Allied armour broke through, and the advance could continue. Recorded 8 September 1944. Born in Ulverston, Lancashire (18.12.1921), Francis Arthur Jefferson was subsequently promoted to Lance Corporal and emigrated to America after the war. He took his own life on 4 September 1982, while suffering depression after his VC was snatched from his mother's home in Bolton. The whereabouts of his medal remains unknown.
J.K. MAHONY (1944) 4.05
Major John Mahony of the Westminster Regiment (Motor), Canadian Infantry Corps was awarded the VC for his actions during the Battle of the Liri Valley, Italy, which opened the way for the advance on Rome. On 24 May 1944 Major Mahony was ordered to establish a bridgehead across the Melfa River, the eastern bank of which was heavily defended by German forces. The crossing was made at 15.30 under heavy artillery and automatic fire, and Mahony's isolated company fought for five hours, driving off two strong counter attacks by infantry and armour. Mahony was wounded in the head and legs early in the battle, yet refused medical aid and continued to direct the defence of the tiny bridgehead until relieved at 20.30. Mahony himself does not speak in this BBC recording of his VC presentation on 31 July 1944, and instead we hear the citation read by King George VI (travelling incognito in Italy as Major Collingwood), and commentary from Godfrey Talbot. The piece stands as a unique actuality recording of an award ceremony held in theatre, although in fact King George VI presented Mahony with his VC twice. On 31 July Mahony was still recovering from his wounds, and so unsteady on his feet that the King had difficulty in pinning the medal to his tunic. When some months later he was formally invested at Buckingham Palace, Mohony apologized for his earlier frailty. Born in New Westminster, British Columbia (30.6.1911), John Keefer Mahony remained in the Canadian army until 1962 and died on 16 December 1990 in Ontario. At his own request was buried without a military funeral.
S.E. HOLLIS (1944) 3.39
Company Sergeant-Major Stanley Hollis of D Company, 6th Green Howards, won the sole Victoria Cross awarded on D-Day, 6 June 1944. After clearing two pill-boxes behind Gold Beach and taking a large number of prisoners, Hollis cleared a neighbouring trench and later led an attack on another strongly-defended gun position at Crepon, engaging the enemy with a PIAT and a Bren. After realizing that two of his men had been trapped he returned to rescue them. This recording was made on 21 August 1944. In September Hollis was wounded in the leg and evacuated to England, where he was decorated by King George VI on 10 October. Stanley Elton Hollis was born in Middlesbrough (21.9.1912) and spent several years in the Merchant Navy and as a lorry driver before joining the Territorial Army in 1939, and serving in France, North Africa and Sicily. After the war Hollis worked as an engineer and publican, and died on 8 February 1972. His VC is displayed at the Green Howards Museum in Richmond, Yorkshire.
G.R. NORTON (1944) 2.48
On 31 August 1944 Lieutenant Gerard 'Toys' Norton commanded a platoon of the 1/4th Battalion, Hampshire Regiment, during an attack on the Monte Gridolfo feature, a twin-hill German strongpoint on the Gothic Line in Italy. With his unit pinned down by heavy automatic fire from enemy positions on two hills, Norton single-handedly eliminated two German machine gun nests armed only with grenades and a sub-machine gun. Despite being wounded, Norton went on to clear a house, taking several prisoners, and continuing to lead his men as they advanced along the valley to capture the remaining enemy positions. On this recording, made on 26 October 1944, 'Toys' Norton is introduced by his company commander, Major Baile. The piece is a little confusing, as Baile refers to Norton by his nickname, Toys, while in his own short piece Norton is reluctant to describe his own actions, preferring to pay tribute to the bravery of his men, and to send a message to his family. Born in Herschel, Cape Province, South Africa (7.9.1915), as a Sergeant in the Kaffrarian Rifles Gerard Ross Norton was awarded the Military Medal in North Africa. At the time of his VC action Norton was attached to the Hampshire Regiment. On arrival at the base hospital to which he was evacuated, he found that one of the nurses was his twin sister, and the pair celebrated their birthday the following day. Norton was later promoted to the rank of Captain, and in peacetime was a farmer. He died on 29 October 2004 at Harare, Zimbabwe. It is understood that his medals were destroyed in a fire.
G. THOMPSON (1945) 7.07
Flight Sergeant George 'Tommy' Thompson was a wireless operator with 9 Squadron, Royal Air Force, operating Lancaster bombers from Bardney, Lincolnshire. On 1 January 1945 his aircraft (PD 377U) took part in a daylight raid on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, and had just released its bombs when it was hit by heavy calibre anti-aircraft fire. This shattered the nose, started several fires, disabled the intercom and left the bomb doors hanging open. Despite the gaping hole, flames and exploding ammunition Thompson twice negotiated his way down the burning fuselage to rescue the mid-upper and tail gunners, both trapped and ablaze, sustaining severe burns to his own legs, hands and face in the process. Having lost height steadily for an hour the Lancaster crash-landed near the Dutch village of Heesh. Although 'burned beyond recognition', Thompson still managed to congratulate the pilot, Flying Officer F.H. Denton, but died of his injuries three weeks later on 23 January. This recording by Flying Officer Denton was made on 12 February 1945. George Thompson was born in Trinity Gask, Perthshire (23.10.1920) and was a grocer before war broke out. His medal is displayed at the National War Museum of Scotland (Edinburgh Castle).
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