The Victoria Cross is the highest award for gallantry available to all ranks and covering all actions since the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854. It was introduced by Royal Warrant on 29th January 1856 as a means of adequately rewarding any officer or man who performed some signal act of valour in the face of the enemy. Queen Victoria took a close interest in all aspects of the design of the award, which was named after her. To date a total of 124 Victoria Crosses have been awarded to the Royal and Dominion Navies, the Fleet Air Arm, Royal Marines and Coastal Command.
Victoria Crosses are made from the bronze from cannon, which were originally intended to have been from captured Russian guns from the Crimean War, in storage at Woolwich. It was later discovered that the two guns actually used were in fact antique Chinese guns. The crosses are of relatively simple design with a lion on the royal crown with scroll below bearing the legend ‘FOR VALOUR’. Originally it was suggested the scroll should bear the legend ‘FOR THE BRAVE’ but Queen Victoria herself changed this as it implied that not all men in battle were brave. Originally crosses awarded to the Royal Navy used a blue ribbon but since 1918, the crimson army ribbon has been used for all three services.
Victoria Crosses held by the Royal Naval Museum
John Bythesea, Baltic 1854
During the Crimean War Lieutenant Bythesea and Stoker William Johnstone, a Swedish National, were landed at Wardo Island in the Baltic to intercept and capture the Czars military despatches, which were regularly transported along a coastal road. After three days in hiding, disguised as peasants and armed only with one pistol between them they captured the despatches and three soldiers whom they forced to row them back to their ship, HMS Arrogant.
On loan from Bythesea’s descendants
Henry Raby, Sebastopol 18th June 1855
Lieutenant Raby’s VC was one of three awarded for the same act. He won his VC during the failed assault on the fortress of the Redan at Sebastopol on 18th June 1855. During the retreat from the walls of the fortress a wounded soldier was seen from the British trenches to be sitting up and shouting for help. Lieutenant Raby, Lieutenant D’Aeth, Captain of the Forecastle John Taylor and Boatswain’s Mate Henry Curtis left the shelter of their trench and ran seventy yards under heavy enemy fire to carry the wounded man to safety. Lieutenant D’Aeth died of cholera in August but Raby, Taylor and Curtis were all gazetted for the Victoria Cross in the first list of 24th February 1857. Commander Raby was the first man ever to wear the Victoria Cross, being the senior officer of the senior service at the first presentation ceremony. Queen Victoria presented the award in person and actually pinned the medal straight into Raby’s chest, although he did not utter a sound!
On loan from the Raby family
Arthur Knyvet Wilson, El Teb, Sudan, 4th February 1884
Captain Arthur Wilson was awarded the Victoria Cross when as an ‘observer’, he became involved in the Battle of El Teb with the Naval Brigade in the Sudan, 29th February 1884. He replaced a wounded officer and whilst leading the attack on rebel Arabs broke his sword. He later became Admiral of the Fleet and one of the most important naval figures in the late nineteenth-century.
Loftus William Jones, Battle of Jutland 31st May 1916
Commander Jones was Captain of the torpedo-boat destroyer HMS Shark at the Battle of Jutland in May 1916. During a destroyer counter-attack led by HMS Shark, she was badly damaged and immobilised by German shells. Under a hail of enemy shells, Commander Jones had his leg shot away above the knee but even as a tourniquet was being applied he was issuing orders for a replacement White Ensign to be flown. After Shark had sunk, Commander Jones was seen on a life raft encouraging survivors to sing. He was not amongst the survivors rescued however and his body was later washed ashore in Sweden, where he was buried.
Harold Auten, English Channel, July 1918
Harold Auten won his Victoria Cross as a Captain of one of the secretive Q-Ships, named HMS Stock Force. ‘Q-Ships’ were armed decoy merchant ships, which were used to lure U-boats to the service where they could then be attacked by concealed guns. Auten was a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve and an experienced Q-Ship captain. On 30th July 1918, the ex-collier Stock Force was hit by a German torpedo and slowly began to sink. Auten ordered a ‘panic party’ to row away from the ship but he remained on board with the crews of the two concealed 4” guns. The U-boat surfaced and as the panic boat rowed back to the ship the U-boat followed to within 300 yards. Stock Force hit the U-boat immediately with gunfire and continued to do so until it slid backwards into the water and sank. Badly damaged from the torpedo hit, Stock Force sank later that night but all the crew were rescued by a passing torpedo boat.
Jack Foreman Mantle, Portland, July 1940
Jack Mantle’s VC is the only one awarded to the Royal Navy for service actually in the United Kingdom.
By mid 1940, German bombers based in France, had begun attacking towns and installations along the south coast. On 4th July a force of twenty Stuka dive-bombers attacked Portland in Dorset where Jack Mantle was manning a 2 pounder pompom gun on HMS Foylebank, an Auxiliary Anti-Aircraft ship anchored in Portland Harbour. Early in the attack, his left leg was shattered by the blast of an exploding bomb and although wounded many more times he continued to fire the gun. His citation read:
‘Between his bursts of fire he had time to reflect on the grievous injuries of which he was soon to die; but his great courage bore him up till the end of the fight when he fell by the gun he had so valiantly served’.
On loan from the Mantle family