The huge volume of explosives that were dropped by the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) on Britain during the Blitz called for incredible feats of bravery. Targeted aerial attacks on towns and cities began on 7 September 1940 and wrought huge devastation until they temporarily drew to a close in May 1941.
As a result of the numerous instances of courage that happened during the attacks on civilians in 1940, a new gallantry medal was created. King George VI instituted the George Cross (GC) on 24 September to reward outstanding bravery displayed away from the heat of battle. It was intended to be an equivalent to the Victoria Cross, which was earned by committing an act of extreme bravery under enemy fire.
The majority of the initial awards of the GC were for rescue work and bomb disposal. When explosive devices failed to detonate, the bomb disposal teams that went to make them safe did so knowing that they could be killed at any moment. People who were trapped under the rubble of bomb-hit homes were saved by men who knew the remnants of the buildings could collapse on them as they tunnelled through the debris.
1. Bennett Southwell GC
1. Bennett Southwell GC
A German mine fell on a house in Shoreditch, East London on 17 October 1940 and failed to explode. Ordinary Seaman Bennett Southwell and his commanding officer, Sub Lieutenant Jack Easton, went to deal with it. The mine had fallen through the roof of a house and the surrounding area had been evacuated. It had come to rest in an awkward position so Easton decided to try to defuse it where it was, to avoid disturbing it. As he worked, Southwell stayed close by and passed him the tools he needed. Easton had not been working for long when suddenly the device dropped. It started ticking.
Knowing that they had only 12 seconds until it detonated, they both fled the scene. Southwell ran full pelt down the street, while Easton dived for cover. Easton was buried under rubble from the blast but was eventually freed. The mine generated a huge explosion, which destroyed a large area of housing. Southwell was caught in the blast and died. Such was the devastation that it was six weeks until his body was found.
Both Bennett Southwell and Jack Easton were awarded the George Cross for their actions. Bennett had only started work in bomb disposal a month before he was killed. His widow, Marion, collected his posthumous GC from King George VI at Buckingham Palace in October 1941.
Bennett Southwell’s George Cross is on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes at IWM London
2. John Babington GC
In late 1940, a German mine landed in Chatham Dockyard in Kent, bringing the place to a standstill. Such was the size and weight of the mine it had driven itself into the ground and ended up in a 16-feet-deep pit. It was fitted with a new type of anti-handling fuse, which made it a particularly dangerous prospect for bomb disposal. A few weeks earlier, an RAF officer had died trying to disarm a similar device. Ignoring the danger, Sub Lieutenant John Babington volunteered to tackle the mine. He was lowered into the pit.
Babington attached a line to the head of the fuse to remove it, but it broke. Although the device could have detonated at any moment, he went into the pit three times, but each time the line broke. Finally, he succeeded and had the bomb lifted out and safely destroyed. His bravery helped the bomb disposal authorities in understanding how to deal with the mechanisms of these new devices.
John Babington was a sub lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve who worked in bomb disposal during the Second World War. He had a scientific background and was teaching physics when war broke out. A calm, thoughtful man, he put his skills to good use in the dangerous and high-risk field of bomb disposal. Throughout the war, he passed on his knowledge in tackling devices to others. Babington survived the war and went back to teaching. He died in 1992.
3. Robert Davies GC
3. Robert Davies GC
On 12 September 1940, in a night of heavy raids over London, a huge bomb fell to the ground and became buried almost underneath St Paul’s Cathedral. Lieutenant Robert Davies of the Royal Engineers was sent to tackle the unexploded device. The bomb had fallen at 2.25 am and forced its way 8 metres down into the ground. It could not be disarmed, and detonating it would have destroyed the cathedral. The only option was to remove it intact.
Davies led a team of men in their painstaking task of digging out the bomb, which took them three days to complete. They had to be extremely careful, as one wrong move could have set it off.
Damaged electrical cables and ruptured gas mains made the work even more dangerous. Once Davies and his men had successfully excavated the massive bomb, they used two lorries to pull it carefully from the ground.
St Paul’s Cathedral was safe, but the bomb, now loaded onto one of the lorries, was still very dangerous. To protect his men from any further risk, Davies decided to drive it away himself to be disposed of. He took the wheel and drove on his own, quickly but carefully, to Hackney Marshes in East London. This was the nearest bomb ‘cemetery’, a place designated for destroying fuses or exploding live devices. In the middle of the marshes, he detonated the bomb, which blew a 30-metre-wide crater.
Robert Davies and his team of Royal Engineers became the ‘bomb squad which saved St Paul’s’ and were widely congratulated for their life-saving actions. If such an important London landmark had been seriously damaged, it would have had a crushing impact on British morale. Davies was awarded the newly-established George Cross in September 1940. He later emigrated to Australia, where he died in 1975.
Robert Davies’s George Cross is on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes at IWM London.
4. Brandon Moss GC
4. Brandon Moss GC
The city of Coventry suffered particularly badly during the Blitz. On the night of 14-15 November 1940, German bombs rained down for 11 hours in one of the most devastating attacks on the English city. Brandon Moss was on duty that night. He was a Special Constable throughout the Second World War, serving with the defence forces. After working a 12-hour shift in a factory, he went out at night to help during air raids. It was a dangerous job and Moss narrowly escaped death a number of times. During the 14-15 November raid, a house was demolished by a direct hit.
Knowing there were three people trapped inside, Moss ignored the threat of further attacks to clear a tunnel to them. He led a rescue party in highly dangerous conditions that included collapsing debris and a gas leak. When the situation became too perilous, the other rescuers gave up. But Moss kept going alone. His tireless efforts paid off and he finally freed all three people.
Moss then learned that more people were trapped in the neighbouring house. Trying to reach them again meant risking the falling beams and rubble of the bomb-hit home. Fighting sheer exhaustion, Moss worked alone throughout the night to rescue another person. Moss’s ‘superhuman’ efforts to save these people were carried out between 11.00 at night and 6.30 the next morning. Further explosives fell while he was working, and it was known that a delayed-action bomb had fallen nearby.
The following month, Brandon Moss became the first Special Constable to earn a George Cross. He continued his dangerous voluntary work for the rest of the war. He retired from the Special Constabulary in 1948 and died in Coventry aged 90.
Brandon Moss’s George Cross is on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes at IWM London.
5. Selby Armitage GC
5. Selby Armitage GC
As an officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, Lieutenant Selby Armitage was mobilised for war in 1939. He went to HMS Vernon, the Royal Navy’s torpedo and mine school in Portsmouth. There he learned about dangerous mines and soon became an expert in defusing them. When the Germans dropped huge bombs known as parachute mines during the Blitz in 1940, he was called on to deal with them.
Parachute mines often landed in awkward places and Armitage tackled one that had fallen on the roof of a factory. Another mine he dealt with was found hanging in a tree in Orpington in Kent. He could only reach it by climbing up an unsteady ladder, which would have made escape impossible had it started ticking. But Armitage worked with cool determination despite the danger and managed to successfully defuse the bomb.
The huge mines were very unstable. When one he was working on started ticking, Armitage had only run 25 metres before it exploded. Despite this near miss, he was back on duty next day. For undertaking months of this dangerous work, he was awarded the George Cross in December 1940. He was one of only eight people ever to receive both the George Cross and the George Medal, which he received in 1944. Selby Armitage survived the war. He died in 1982.
6. Reginald Ellingworth GC
6. Reginald Ellingworth GC
Reginald Ellingworth served with the Royal Navy during the First World War. By the Second World War, he was a torpedo specialist based in the shore establishment HMS Vernon. He became part of a Rendering Mines Safe team, working closely with Lieutenant-Commander Richard Ryan. During the Blitz, the pair specialised in defusing unexploded magnetic mines. It was dangerous work, where any movement could restart the mines’ timers.
On 21 September 1940, Ellingworth and Ryan were called to defuse a German mine in Dagenham in East London. They had already cleared several mines that day, including one at nearby Hornchurch that threatened the airfield and an explosives factory there. The Dagenham mine was hanging from the roof of a house in a densely-populated area. Undeterred by the danger, the two men strode confidently towards the mine. But as they were working to make it safe, the mine suddenly exploded, killing both men. Ellingworth and Ryan were both awarded a posthumous George Cross for their bravery.
Reginald Ellingworth’s George Cross is on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes at IWM London.
7. Harold Newgass GC
7. Harold Newgass GC
Harold Newgass joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve when the Second World War broke out. He never went to sea, but instead volunteered for special duties in bomb disposal. By late 1940, Newgass was an expert in rendering unexploded German parachute mines safe. He was commanding a naval bomb disposal party working to clear these mines in Liverpool.
On the night of 28 November 1940, the city was hit by a particularly devastating air raid. During this attack, a large mine fell through the roof of a gasholder in Garston in Merseyside. Its parachute became tangled in the hole in the roof and it failed to explode. The gasometer held some 2 million cubic feet of gas, meaning the gas supply for half of Liverpool was threatened. Had the mine exploded, it would have caused great damage and destroyed many homes. The whole surrounding area came to a halt, industry was paralysed and 6,000 people were evacuated.
Before the mine could be dealt with, the base of the gasometer had to be drained of the 1.25 million gallons of water that was there and a hole cut in the top for access. Despite these preparations, which took several days, it was clearly still going to be an extremely perilous operation. Although he knew that the mine would be difficult and dangerous to defuse, Harold Newgass decided to tackle it on his own. On 3 December he went into the gasometer. He had to wear an oxygen cylinder inside as the air was unsafe. Each cylinder lasted 30 minutes and, had the mine begun to tick, he would not have had time to climb out and escape before it exploded.
Newgass made six trips down into the gasholder. He first assessed the situation and planned his approach, then took down the necessary equipment he'd need. He then placed sandbags around the mine, lashed it securely, and turned the mine so he could access the fuse. He was then able to remove the fuse, detonator and primer. On his last oxygen cylinder, he finally withdrew the timer and made the bomb safe.
Newgass had shown great bravery and endurance in undertaking this exhausting work. He made a vital contribution to keeping the people of Liverpool safe and enabling industry and war work to continue. He was awarded the George Cross in March 1941.
Harold Newgass’s George Cross is on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes at IWM London.
8. Michael Gibson GC
8. Michael Gibson GC
Soon after the outbreak of the Second World War, Sergeant Michael Gibson was transferred from the Durham Light Infantry to the Royal Engineers. He was posted to the No 9 Bomb Disposal Company, based in Birmingham. It was responsible for dealing with unexploded devices across the West Midlands.
A Luftwaffe raid on Coventry on 14 September 1940 resulted in two unexploded bombs in a factory complex in the city.
Sergeant Michael Gibson and other members of his company were sent to deal with them. One of the devices exploded but, luckily, no-one was harmed. Gibson’s team then worked to uncover the other bomb from the rubble. Suddenly, they heard it emitting ‘an unusual hissing noise’. It seemed highly probable that it could detonate at any moment. Fully aware of the dangers, Gibson sent the rest of his team away to safety and worked by himself to extract the fuse. This he managed to do and the bomb was removed from the factory, saving many lives.
Michael Gibson earned a George Cross for the bravery he displayed on 14 September. A month later, he was back in action after another air raid on Coventry. Along with six other bomb disposal men, on 18 October Gibson went to deal with a 550-lb bomb from a housing estate. They transported it to an open space to defuse it. But as they were unloading it, the bomb exploded, killing them all. A memorial plaque in Coventry commemorates Michael Gibson’s wartime bravery.
Michael Gibson’s George Cross is on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes at IWM London.
9. Francis Brooke-Smith GC
Francis Brooke-Smith served with the merchant navy and the Royal Naval Reserve before the Second World War. In 1940, Brooke-Smith, now a sub-lieutenant, volunteered for mine disposal work. He travelled where he was needed around Britain to defuse German parachute mines.
In December, a mine fell on the deck of a fire-float on the Manchester Ship Canal. It ended up wedged awkwardly near the engine, in a way that presented a considerable challenge to Brooke-Smith, whose task it was to disarm it. Firstly, he lifted the mine out of where it had lodged. This helped him, but he still had to lie in an uncomfortable position to work on the device. But, just as he began to do so, the fuse clock started to whir.
Brooke-Smith stayed calm and tried to stop the timer before it detonated. Due to the position of the bomb, he had to work purely by touch, at full stretch, and using a new, unfamiliar piece of equipment in order to make it safe. Despite these difficulties and the pressure of the situation, Brooke-Smith stopped the clockwork in time. A month later, he disarmed a highly unstable mine buried nearly two metres down in an East London allotment. In all, Francis Brooke-Smith defused 16 mines during the Second World War. For his cool courage, he received the George Cross.
10. Arthur Merriman GC
10. Arthur Merriman GC
During the Second World War, Arthur Merriman’s experience as a science teacher was put to good use. In early 1939, he began work as Assistant Director Bomb Disposal with the Directorate of Scientific Research. He soon became Joint Secretary of the Unexploded Bomb Committee and began to undertake a great deal of research work in connection with bombs. As the war escalated, his work took him around the country. To carry out his job, he often went ‘under cover’, using the story that he was an air raid inspector. In reality, he had a far more dangerous – and hands-on – role in bomb disposal.
In the early hours of 11 September 1940, just days into the Blitz, a 550-lb bomb landed on London’s Regent Street but didn't explode. After the area had been evacuated, Arthur Merriman arrived on the scene. The unexploded bomb started ticking and he knew he would have to work against the clock to make it safe. Merriman carefully began removing the highly explosive material inside, making it steadily less dangerous. But he didn't know how long he had until it detonated so he worked as quickly as he could to extract the explosive.
He drew on his scientific knowledge to estimate how long he had. When he felt the bomb was significantly safer, he withdrew to a safe distance. Soon afterwards, it exploded. Thanks to Merriman’s skilful work, instead of the mass casualties and huge damage the bomb could have caused, just a few windows were shattered nearby. Merriman earned a George Cross for his coolness and brave determination in saving London’s West End from imminent disaster. Soon after, he was commissioned into the Royal Engineers. As a technical adviser in bomb disposal, his expert knowledge was much sought after and he travelled to various locations to examine explosive devices. Arthur Merriman survived the war and died in 1972.
Arthur Merriman’s George Cross is on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes at IWM London.