Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Victoria Cross: a symbol of Valour

This is a photograph of the actual Victoria Cross awarded to Private James Smith of the Border Regiment who was awarded the medal for an act of gallantry on 21 December 1914 alongside his comrade Private Abraham Acton VC. Jimmy Smith and Abe Acton are just two of only 1355 recipients of the award since its inception during the Crimean War. Jimmy Smith’s medals, including the Victoria Cross, are held by the KORBR and Border Regiment Museum at Carlisle, Cumbria.

In 2006, to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Institution of the Victoria Cross, the Royal Mint have brought out a special edition Fifty Pence Coin Set. Additionally, at the end of June 2006 a Service of Thanksgiving was held in London. It was attended by HRH the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall, some of the surviving Victoria Cross holders and relatives of other VC winners. The Victoria Cross is arguably the most famous medal awarded for acts of self-sacrifice and outstanding bravery by those who have fought for their country.

[For addtional information and debate about the Victoria Cross click on 'Comments' below]


Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Further information about the Victoria Cross, George Cross etc is given below. (Some of this will no doubt already be known to contributors to this forum).

During the Second World War, King George VI instituted the George Cross on 23 September 1940. It was intended for “… deeds of valour by civilian men and women in all walks of life”. However, in addition to civilians the George Cross was awarded to servicemen for courageous acts when the strict terms of the Victoria Cross warrant were not fully met, such as members of bomb disposal units or SOE agents.

Since its inception, the George Cross has stood alongside the Victoria Cross. This was the case at the Victoria Cross Thanksgiving Service in London in June 2006.

Some of my relatives were among the West Cumbrian ‘pals’ who went to France with Jimmy Smith and Abe Acton in 1914 serving with them in the 2nd Battalion The Border Regiment. James Smith VC was wounded in the arm at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, but survived the war. The true name of Private James Smith VC when he was born in 1881 was James Alexander Glenn. He took his mother’s maiden name of Smith to sign up to the Army at the age of 13!

While on leave in Britain in 1915 James Smith got married and after leaving the army at the end of the Great War, he settled into married life at Middlesborough in North Eastern England. During the Second World War, Jimmy Smith served in the Home Guard. It must have been a very rare Home Guard unit indeed that had a Victoria Cross holder among its ranks. He passed away in May 1968 and was cremated at ACklam Cemetery, Middlesborough.

Abraham Acton VC was killed at the Battle of Festubert in May 1915. He has no known grave. Both of Abraham Acton’s parents died at Douglas on the Isle of Man during the Second World War, where they had been living for several years. Robert Acton, Abraham Acton’s father, passed away on 10 January 1940. Elizabeth Acton, Abraham Acton’s mother, passed away on 5 November 1944. Abraham Acton’s Victoria Cross is held by the Beacon Museum at Whitehaven, Cumbria. Abraham Acton died in battle at the age of 22. By contrast, Abraham Acton’s youngest brother, Harold Acton, passed away at the age of 93 as recently as June 2006.

Since the Second World War there have been only 12 recipients of the Victoria Cross. The most recent recipient was to Private Johnson Gideon Beharry. It was awarded in March 2005 for displaying the highest gallantry while serving in Iraq the previous year. Private Johnson Beharry is just the latest of a very select group of valiant servicemen to have been awarded the Victoria Cross.

Saturday, 01 July, 2006  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Quite right Joseph - they were all worthy - the Canadian Corps in Italy was awarded three V.C.'s for overwhelming valour the first was at Casa Berardi near Ortona when Capt Paul Triquot of the 22nd Battalion ( Van Doos) held the enemy at bay, with his shrinking company for some 24 hours until reinforcements finally arrived. The secon wa at the River Melfi near Frosinone in the Liri valley when Major Mahony of the New Westminsters kept a small bridgehead in being over night until relieved. The third was "Smokey" Smith who, on accasions would ride on my tank into battle of which I wrote for the BBc series : -


We should know that all details of an event is seldom reported in full either in the media or in the history books,and so one should take the witness account of most matters as being closer to the truth bearing in mind the effects of the inevitable march of time on one’s memory

The story I am about to relate is hearsay, as at the time of these actions I was in various Hospitals from 18th September 1944 until the middle of January 1945, and it was not until I returned to duty at the Tank depot at Rieti that I was told the story by survivors of our regiment.

It is about two ordinary blokes.

The first is a Canadian, born in New Westminster in B.C. who joined the Seaforth Hghlanders of Canada and marched with them from the beaches of Sicily until the end of the war in Europe . He had survived all the battles and now after the Gothic line, his battalion was fighting in the approaches to the Po River valley which, as you might know, is criss crossed with many small and large rivers all feeding the Po delta and the Lago Commachio, on the edge of the Adriatic Sea. This ground was extremely unsuitable for British - or American Tanks, but favourable to the German Panthers and Tigers as they had much wider tracks and had the added benefit of night sights which allowed them to operate in the dark !

The Seaforths "C' Company Commander was a real estate executive from Vancouver by the name of Budge Bell-Irving who had decided that my friends section should be equipped as Tank busters with PIAT's ( Projectile, Infantry, Anti- Tank) and Thompson submachine guns. One night they were detailed to cover their “A” company who were being held up by the very swollen River Savio as the “monsoons” had already started some two weeks before, and to search and destroy any Panthers which were known to be roaming around the area. This did not take too long and they were attacked by a Panther which wounded one of the section n.c.o's whereupon my friend picked up the PIAT , fired a shot , and knocked out the Panther, using his tommy gun he then scattered and killed many of the following platoon of Panzer Grenadiers. Two more Panthers appeared and one was fired at,the third took off, and in the panic to remain whole, the second Tank was reversed into a ditch where the crew bailed out considering obviously that discretion is the better part of valour !

For Valour - Ernest "Smoky " Smith.... was awarded the Victoria Cross
... the date ..23rd October '44.... the second anniversary of El Alamein and start of the victorious march of the 8th Army from Egypt to the Alps. As a well known film star might say - notta lotta people know that , and we who are left must not forget it either ! "Smoky" might get half a page in the History books. He does however enjoy a place on most excursions of the Governor General and the Prime Minister’s delegations overseas , he is still full of wit and enjoys meeting people and laying the Seaforth’s wreath at the Vancouver Cenotaph each year.

My other friend was an Englishman from Yorkshire who had his pipe permanently clenched between his teeth, and was the despair of our Sergeant Major who was forever telling him to put his pipe in his pocket as an Officer might see him. Everyone knew of this habit and just ignored it and got on with the job in hand.

-- 2 --

The day after "Smoky" won his V.C. the Panther which had ended up in the ditch was recovered and presented by the Seaforths to "A" squadron 145th Regt. R.A.C. and after a good clean and check up was used against it's makers until the ammunition ran out. Before that however, my friend who was the gunner of this captured Panther took great joy in stonking the enemy with their own 19 foot long barrelled special 75mm gun !

One day at around refuelling this Panther my friend was carrying two Jerricans of fuel, and as always, with his pipe in his mouth, when he tripped a schu mine. He died on the way to the Casualty Clearing Station (CCS).

His name .…… Walter Pollard.……………… the date .... 11th November 1944

You won't find Walters name anywhere near a History book, but it is recorded on a marble headstone in the British cemetery at a place called

Cesena, in Northern Italy !
Two ordinary blokes, doing extraordinary tasks, in extraordinary ways !
It is with great regret that I add that

Ernest " Smokey" Smith
died on wednesday 3rd August 2005 in Vancouver British Columbia at the age of 91 - he was the last Canadian holder of the V.C. from WW2.Like the old soldier that he was - he simply faded away

Sunday, 02 July, 2006  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Hello Tom and Frank,

Thanks for some very interesting comments. I have a book about those who have been awarded the VC. After reading your contributions I've looked up the fellows you've mentioned.

Being an athlete myself, I quite like the principal reason cited for Private Alfred Robert Wilkinson won the VC. He must have been some runner after the first four had been killed! Apparently, he was commissioned and ended up as a Lieutenant.

According to the book I have it says Alfred Wilkinson took time off work to attend a VC reunion dinner at the House of Lords in 1929. His employers promptly docked his pay! After a public outcry by a newspaper the book says the employers grudgingly reinstated the docked wages. It doesn't say which newspaper was involved, but if it was not the Express perhaps they never mentioned this fact in Sunday's paper?

Tom, in the book I have there is a fairly detailed account of the VC action by Major John Keefer Mahony, Westminster Regiment (29 May 1944). it seems he received two head wounds and refused medical treatment until the objectives had been achieved.

The account given in my book about Captain Paul Triquet VC says upon reaching Casa Berardi (14 December 1943) his company was reduced to 2 sergeants and 15 men. They then held out until relieved by the rest of the battalion the following day.

The date of the VC action for Private Ernest Alvia Smith VC is given in my book as 21 / 22 October 1944. For the VC action he held off a German counter attack by infantry and tanks basically single handed AND helped a wounded comrade at the same time. It seems he ended up as a Sergeant. He must have had some character!

Private Ernest Smith VC was lucky in that he lived to receive the respect he was due. That he survived such an incredible VC action at all showed it was his lucky day, and as a bonus he lived to such a grand age of 91.

As you say, sometimes the details of an event such as a VC award is not reported in full either in the media or in the history books. Few of those who won the VC and survived seem to have told their own story. Perhaps it is understandable given what happened. You wouldn't want to live at that level very often.

Bi for now.

Monday, 03 July, 2006  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Joseph -
you are right to look up these people as they hold us up to a standard which is almost unattainable. Dates become confused on a battlefield as it somehow doesn't seem to matter when one is killed.
Smokey was quite the character, you could depend on two things with that man - One he would be holding a glass of good scotch - for at least ten seconds - and he would be trying to best you with a joke.
For the last ten years he was a constant companion to the Governor General and Prime Monister on their international visitations, with a corporal aide de camp to push his wheelchair.
Once, when visiting Taormina in Sicily, the corporal was awakened to find Smokey exhorting him to come next door to his suite as it was 5 a.m.
Rushing into the suite the corporal found Smokey standing over two glasses of Scotch, and staring out to the East from his balcony and saying " you should try to see as many sunrises as you can Laddie !

Monday, 03 July, 2006  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Further tyo the "Smokey" Smith legend ----
after demobilisation in early 1946 just about everyone in Canada was buying him a beer...this bothered him somewhat as he could see the end of that particular line.
When the Korea "Police action" in 1950 - Smokey rejoined the army and made his way over there, where his C.O. took fright at being responsible for the life of a VC holder and so made him a segeant and stuck him in base supplies - well out of harms way.
On his return to "civvy" street he opened a travel business which did not do very well, and a period of drift set in until he was taken in hand and nmde into a National Asset, a role he played with distinction.

Tuesday, 04 July, 2006  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

It cannot have been easy to have been a VC holder after a war. At least your pal Ernest Smith seems to have found his niche in life and lived it long and well! So many of them never even survived the action in which they won the VC, or died some time afterwards.

The fellow James Smith VC my relatives knew never lived back in his home area after the Great War, and Abe Acton VC who won his VC in the same action was killed less than 6 months afterwards.

I only hope Johnson Beharry VC has a long happy life when he leaves the Army. It must be very difficult to just get on and live an 'ordinary life'. Maybe it will be easier for him than after either of the World Wars or Korea etc.

Tuesday, 04 July, 2006  

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