It was on Wednesday 21st June 1854 that 20 year old Charles Davis Lucas won the first Victoria Cross. He came from County Monaghan in Ireland and had joined the Royal Navy when he was thirteen. Now twenty, he was a Mate on HMS Hecla as part of an Anglo-French fleet at the eastern end of the Baltic bombarding the Russian fortress of Bomarsund. The fortress mounted some eighty massive guns and, as HMS Hecla drew closer to Bomarsund, a live shell landed on the Hecla’s deck and lay there, smoking evilly and obviously about to go off, to murderous effect.
Charles Lucas coolly picked the shell up, carried it to the ship’s side and dropped it into the sea, where it exploded with a huge bang and a giant fountain of spray. Lucas was promoted to lieutenant from that day and his was the first act of heroism to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
The medal was not actually instituted until 1856, but it was made retroactive to cover the Crimean War. Queen Victoria took a keen interest in the decoration which bore her name and it was she who suggested the words ‘For Valour’ beneath the medal’s bronze Maltese cross – rather than ‘For the Brave’, which she pointed out could be taken to imply that other people were not.
Charles Lucas’s campaign medals, including his Victoria Cross, are now displayed at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. They are not the original medals though – they were left on a train and never recovered! Replacement copies were made, though the reverse of the Victoria Cross copy is uninscribed.
The crosses were actually made of metal from Russian cannons captured at Sebastopol. It was a crucial innovation that the medal was awarded completely regardless of rank and on no consideration other than a single act of valour or devotion in the presence of the enemy.
Many years later the writer C.S.Forester used this incident to good effect in one of his Hornblower stories.
In December 1941, the United States entered World War II, and Marlene became one of the first celebrities to help sell war bonds. She toured the US from January 1942 to September 1943 (appearing before some 250,000 troops on the Pacific Coast leg of her tour alone) and was reported to have sold more war bonds than any other star. During two extended tours for the non-profit United Service Organizations Marlene – along with others such as comedians and musicians – provided live entertainment.
In 1943 Marlene assumed the honorary rank of Colonel in the American Army and began to make radio broadcasts – and then to make personal appearances on behalf of the American war effort.
In 1944 and 1945, Marlene performed for Allied troops in North Africa, Italy, France and the UK. She also went into Germany – her place of birth – with Generals James Gavin and George Patton. When asked why she had done this, in spite of the obvious danger of being within a few kilometres of German lines, she replied, “aus Anstand“—“out of decency”. Wilder later remarked that she was at the front lines more than Eisenhower!
Her revue, with Danny Thomas as her opening act for the first tour, included songs from her films, performances on her musical saw – a skill she had originally acquired for stage appearances in Berlin in the 1920s – and a “mind reading” act that her friend Orson Welles had taught her for his Mercury Wonder Show. Marlene would inform the audience that she could read minds and ask them to concentrate on whatever came into their minds. Then she would walk over to a soldier and earnestly tell him, “Oh, think of something else. I can’t possibly talk about that!”
American church papers reportedly published stories complaining about this part of her act. Right or not – in 1944, the Morale Operations Branch of the Office of Strategies Services (OSS) initiated the Musak project – a musical propaganda broadcasts designed to demoralize enemy soldiers. Marlene was the only performer who was made aware that her recordings would be for OSS use. A number of songs were made in German for the project and included “Lili Marleen”, a favourite of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Major General William J Donavan, the head of the OSS, wrote to Marlene, “I am personally deeply grateful for your generosity in making these recordings for use.”
John McCrae is remembered for what is probably the best known and most popular of all First World War poetry. It is believed that he was so moved by the death of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmet, who had been killed by a shell burst, and inspired by the profusion of wild poppies he could see in the nearby cemetery, that he wrote In Flanders Fields. Sadly, John McCrae did not survive WW1; he died from pneumonia whilst on active duty in 1918. He is buried at the Commonwealth War Grave Commission, Wimereux Communal cemetery.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We live, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold on high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The words of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD, Canadian Army (1872-1918)
My mother’s father was involved in this war and served in many areas of conflict – but not in Flanders. He died in the mid-1930s and, according to my mother, the doctor said it was because of what he did in the war.
The Victoria Cross was introduced in Great Britain on Saturday 29th January 1856 by Queen Victoria. Its ‘role’ was to reward acts of valour during the Crimean War. The VC takes precedence over all other Orders, Decorations and Medals and may be awarded to a person of any rank in any service and to civilians under military command. The first presentation ceremony was held on Thursday 26th June 1857 when Queen Victoria invested 62 of the 111 Crimean recipients in Hyde Park.
The Battle of the Alma took place just south of the River Alma and is usually considered the first battle of the Crimean War. It was on this day – Wednesday 20th September 1854 – at that Battle, that Edward Bell & Luke O’Conner of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and John Knox, William Reynolds (the first private to be awarded the VC), James McKechnie & Robert Lindsay of the Scots Fusiliers Guards each earned their Victoria Cross. All survived the war.
63 years later, on Wednesday 20th September 1917 Second Lieutenant Hugh Colvin of the 9th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiments won his VC during an attack east of Ypres in Belgium. He took command of two companies and led them forward under very heavy machine gun fire. He then went to assist a neighbouring battalion. In the process he cleared and captured a series of ‘troublesome’ dugouts and machine-gun posts, some on his own and some with his men’s assistance. He personally killed several of the enemy and forced others – about fifty in all – to surrender. His Victoria Cross citation concludes ‘Later he consolidated his position with great skill, and personally wired his front under close-ranged sniping in broad daylight, when all others had failed to do so. The complete success of the attack in this part of the line was mainly due to Second Lieut. Colvin’s leadership.
Mrs Nella Last of Barrow-in-Furness was one of the many volunteer members across Britain of the Mass Observation Archive team – a community that had been set up in 1937 to observe British life by recording a day-to-day account of their everyday lives. These archives now give us a unique insight into the stories and experiences of British civilians going through a time when their country was at war.
This is from her diary for Saturday 13th September 1941 and Nella simply records seeing a child:
‘He was undersized, dirty, tousled and ragged. His poor little eyes were nearly closed with styes and when I touched his cheeks, his flesh had the soft, limp feeling of malnutrition.’
The war was having an impact on people no matter what their age.
On this day – Thursday 29th August 1940 – the Daily Sketch headlined: NAZIS RAID LONDON – AND 13 TOWNS. The sub-headings said that ‘Mr. Churchill Sees Coast Battles’. However, it was the ‘INSIDE INFORMATION’ piece that caught my eye. The following are just three pieces from that information:
Many complaints are being made to the Minister of Home Security about the profiteering in the construction of brick-and-concrete bomb shelters. Questions are to be asked when Parliament reassembles.
Anderson shelters are no longer obtainable. Certain builders are taking advantage of this. They are demanding – take it or leave it – from £30 to £50 for small family shelters which could be built at a profit of £20.
Frau Goebbels is becoming regal-minded. She is going to Versailles to spend two weeks’ holiday at the Royal Palace. A suite of rooms where once the King of France lived is being prepared for her.
The Sketch is not all ‘War Related’ though. On page 10 we find the following ‘Caddie’s Nightmare’. The caddie who carries the world’s heaviest golf bag is to get a rest.
Densmore Shute, American Ryder Cup golfer, has been rushed to hospital with appendicitis.
Denny’s bag was for long a caddies’ nightmare. The heavyweight affair he had for the unofficial World Championship match with Henry Cotton at Walton Heath (UK) three years back was a fearful and wonderful thing.
It contained 20 clubs (6 woods & 14 irons), loads of golf balls, woollies, an outsize umbrella and golf shoes, and the victim, who I think used to carry the late Lord Lurgan’s clubs, estimated the weight at 50lb.
With the coming of the fourteen-club rule, Shute’s bag lost some corpulence, but I don’t think it’s true that his home caddy still offers to carry for both players when Shute goes out for a round.
George Taylor – described as a curmudgeonly accountant from Sheffield records on Monday 22nd July 1946:
‘As I am saving up current Readers Union books for my holidays I have been looking over old issues. It is only last November that I read the anthology ‘This Changing World’ and I was astonished at how little detail I remembered. I think the political trends in the book dismayed me even more than in November. I, for one, do not wish to live in a world where everything is planned: I would much rather have liberty to make a fool of myself than become an ideal citizen by regulation.’
An extract from ‘Our Hidden Lives’ by Simon Garfield – published by Ebury Press in 2004
On Wednesday 2nd July 1947 Edie Rutherford – a South African housewife and Socialist now living in Sheffield, England – recorded in her Mass Observation diary:
Chinese laundry near here has a new notice up, ‘a few customers taken in.’
She also recorded that:
‘Today, for the first time for years, I opened the door to a ‘Will you buy something from a disabled ex-serviceman?’ man and he opened his case with alacrity. He seemed to have nothing I wanted, but, as I have done door-to-door selling, I always buy if I can. So I took two pairs shoelaces and bodkin, 10d the lot.
He then offered me elastic but, as I have enough just now, I declined with thanks. He was young and looked fit enough. One had hopes that this kind of thing would not follow the war this time.
Husband has sent to Selfridges for sports coat advertised at 48/-. Prices here around are £5 for a coat worth buying, and thirteen coupons.
It will take many years for Britain to recover from the conflict – but they would succeed.
One of the great films of my time is the 1955 story of ‘The Dam Busters’ – a British 2nd World War film that starred Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd. The film recreates the true story of 1943 when the RAF’s 617 Squadron attacked 3 German dams with Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb. What is rarely mentioned though is Richard Todd’s involvement in the war itself. He had volunteered the day after the conflict had begun and, in May 1943, was posted into the 6th Airborne Division. He later admitted that he had kept his pre-war job as an actor a secret because he wanted to do useful things in the war itself rather than being transferred to ENSA.
His first practice jumps were from moored balloons but he was soon doing practice jumps from Whitley bombers. This training was the lead-up to parachute jumps into enemy territory – and this became fact for Richard on D-Day Tuesday 6th June 1944.
It was on that day that Richard Todd – and a great many more – dropped into Normandy to help change the course of the war. He and many others were there to defend a bascule/moveable bridge built in 1934 that crossed the Caen Canal between Caen and Ouistreham in Normandy and was a major objective of the British airborne troops during Operation Deadstick.
On the night of Monday 5th June 1944, a force of almost 200 men, led by Major John Howard, took off from an airfield in southern England in six gliders to capture not just this vital bridge but also “Horsa Bridge”, a few hundred yards to the east, over the Orne River. They were to land, take the bridges intact and hold them until relieved. The attack was successful and played an important role in limiting the effectiveness of counter-attacks in the days and weeks that followed.
It was following the success of D-Day – Tuesday 6th June 1944 – that this whole successful attack was renamed Pegasus Bridge in honour of the operation – the name being derived from the shoulder emblem worn by the British airborne forces – the flying horse of mythology Pegasus.
On Monday 27th May – the first full day of the evacuation – one cruiser, eight destroyers, and 26 other craft were active and Admiralty officers combed nearby boatyards seeking small craft that could ferry personnel from the beaches out to larger craft in the harbour.
In this same day the Luftwaffe heavily bombed Dunkirk, both the town and the dock installations. Water supplies were knocked out, the resulting fires could not be extinguished and an estimated thousand civilians were killed, one-third of the remaining population of the town.
In the air the Luftwaffe was met by 16 squadrons of the Royal Air Force, who claimed 38 kills on Monday 27th May while losing 14 of their own aircraft. Altogether, over 3,500 sorties were flown in support of Operation Dynamo.
The RAF continued to take a heavy toll on the German bombers throughout the week. Soldiers being bombed and strafed while awaiting transport were for the most part unaware of the efforts of the RAF to protect them, as most of the dogfights took place far from the beaches. As a result, many British soldiers bitterly accused the airmen of doing nothing to help.