South Africa’s Second World War Victoria Cross Heroes

South Africa’s Second World War Victoria Cross Heroes

By Anna La Grange, Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History

The Victoria Cross, which is the highest British military order for bravery in the face of the enemy, was instituted in 1856 by Queen Victoria. The date was backdated to 1954 to include the Crimean conflict. The idea behind the Victoria Cross was that bravery should be recognised not only in advanced ranks of the British forces, but in all ranks. In a time when rank, class and prestige was everything in society, Queen Victoria’s need to award all ranks can be viewed as extremely forward-thinking. During the imperial and colonial era, the Victoria Cross could also be awarded to individuals from British domains who showcased outstanding acts of bravery whilst serving on Britain’s side.

The design of the Victoria Cross medal is in the form of a Maltese cross and on the obverse of the cross the inscription “For Valour” is surmounted by the Royal Crest. Victoria Crosses are made from bronze metal, obtained from a piece of bronze that originally formed part of two guns that were captured during the Crimea in 1954. The remaining bronze is kept at the Royal Logistic Corps’ Defence Stores Distribution Depot at Donnington, Worcestershire. Some of the first Victoria Crosses had either a navy coloured ribbon (for naval recipients) or a crimson coloured ribbon (for recipients serving in the army). This concept was abandoned in 1920, after which King George V decided that all Victoria Crosses will be issued with a crimson red ribbon by all military services. Most other medals are struck at a mint, but Victoria Crosses are manufactured by Hancock & Co jewellers in London (the company is responsible for producing all Victoria Crosses to this day). Ironically, the most coveted bravery medal in the world, is intrinsically almost valueless. It is only once the medal is engraved and awarded that the monetary value drastically increases.

The Victoria Cross seems to be a captivating research theme for writers. It is a subject that researchers, collectors and historians cannot seem to get enough of. Quite a large number of the works within the historiography focus on one of two aspects. Firstly, how Victoria Crosses have been won; and secondly, the evolution and general administrative history of the Victoria Cross. Recently, especially with military history moving away from the outdated ‘drum and trumpet’ writing style, writing about subjects like the Victoria Cross seems to be a daunting task. Newer research endeavours with the Victoria Cross as the main subject seems to utilise unique themes to research the medal. Prime examples of this are John Winton’s The Victoria Cross at Sea: The Sailors, Marines and Airmen Awarded Britain’s Highest Honour, which uses a naval perspective to study some Victoria Cross recipient stories; and Brian Best’s Unrewarded Courage: Acts of Valour that Were Denied the Victoria Cross. The most recent impact-bearing take on the Victoria Cross is Melvin Smith’s Awarded for Valour: A History of the Victoria Cross and the Evolution of British Heroism.

A quick look at the historiography concerning the Victoria Cross indicates that it is a topic that female researchers seldom pay any attention to, the reason behind this phenomenon can be the topic for an entire article by itself. This article, however, aims to look at the Victoria Cross from a South African perspective. In the long history of the Victoria Cross only 1 355 individuals have received this prestigious medal. In the event of a second award of a Victoria Cross to the same individual, a bar is added to the medal. Only three individuals have ever been able to obtain a bar, bringing the total of Victoria Crosses awarded to 1 358 (three being bars). Of these 1 355 individuals who have received Victoria Crosses only 28 are South African (21 between 1856 and 1914, 4 between 1914 and 1918 during the First World War, and 3 between 1939 and 1945 during the Second World War).

The first South African to be awarded with a Victoria Cross is Lieutenant J.P.H. Crowe who served in the 78th Regiment (Seaforth Highlanders) during the Indian Mutiny in 1857. Since then 27 other South Africans have won this prestigious award. Any of these 28 individuals would serve as an interesting research topic for an article. For this article, however, the focus will be on the three men who won their Victoria Crosses during the Second World War. A total of 182 Victoria Crosses were awarded during the Second World War, of which only three were awarded to South Africans.

The first Victoria Cross awarded to a South African during the Second World War was to Sergeant Quentin George Murray Smythe. On 5 June 1942, during an attack on an enemy stronghold in the Western Desert near Alem Hamza in North Africa, Sergeant Smythe took command of his entire platoon leading them to victory in the process. After successfully attacking and claiming the stronghold Smythe also successfully defeated the enemy’s attempt at reclaiming the position. During the whole ordeal Smythe showed tremendous bravery and leadership despite being severely injured himself. His actions during the abovementioned engagement earned him a Victoria Cross, which was officially awarded on 11 September 1942.

The second South African to win a Victoria Cross during the Second World War is Captain Gerard Ross Norton, who won his Victoria Cross for his actions on 31 August 1944 during the attack on Monte Gridolfo, Italy. Norton originally served in Die Middellandse Regiment between 1936 to 1938 and was later transferred to The Kaffrarian Rifles. He served the Kaffrarian Rifles unit the fall of Tobruk, where he was one of the few who successfully escaped. After escaping, Norton travelled more than 900km, mostly on foot, all the way to EI Alamein. After this Norton served with the Royal Hampshire Regiment who was posted in Italy. On 31 August 1944, during the attack on Monte Gridolfo, Norton continued on alone after his platoon was pinned down by heavy machine gun fire. Norton successfully attacked two machine gun positions despite being under direct fire from the enemy and severely outnumbered. His complete disregard for personal safety, and thus extreme heroism, earned him his Victoria Cross, which was officially awarded on the 26th of October 1944.

The third South African hero to win a Victoria Cross during the Second World War is Captain Edwin Swales. Swales won his Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery showcased in an operation on 23 February 1945. Swales originally served in the Natal Mounted Rifles until 17 January 1942 after which he was transferred to the South African Air Force. Swales’s main task as a “master bomber” was to seek out and attack enemy targets. During his last mission Swales not only successfully finished the mission with a badly damaged aircraft, he also saved the lives of all his crew members by ordering them to bail out once he knew they were over friendly lines. Not long after the last crew member had successfully jumped from the plane, Swales’ plane crashed to the ground. Swales was later found dead at the controls having given his life so that his crew can live. Swales’s Victoria Cross was posthumously awarded on 24 April 1945.

The Victoria Cross, an award that has long captivated the academic community, remains an intriguing topic to research. This article highlighted the three Second World War South African recipients who won this prestigious medal. The Second World War was a dynamic time in South African history, a time that is enjoying some well-deserved attention in the historiography. It is thus important that some of the more understudied aspects of South African Second World War experience (like Victoria Cross awards) should not be forgotten.

Reference list

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