Courage in the Face of the Enemy

THE Victoria Cross is the highest award for bravery “in the face of the enemy” that the UK can offer.

The latest recipient of the VC will be a posthumous award to Lance-Corporal James Ashworth who died from a grenade blast as he tried to protect his men in Afghanistan during a clash with the Taliban in 2012.

Only just over 1,300 such medals have been awarded since it was introduced by Queen Victoria in 1856 to honour acts of valour in the Crimean War and barely a dozen medals have been won since the Second World War.

Its rarity has seen some medals change hands at auction for as much as £410,000, the sum paid for Captain Alfred Shout’s posthumous VC awarded in 1915 for hand-to-hand combat at the Lone Pine trenches in Gallipoli, Turkey.

Dorset has its own VC hero in Jack Mantle from the Second World War.

He was an acting leading seaman in the Royal Navy on the south coast in 1940 when there was a German air raid on Portland.

Mantle was on board the converted merchant ship HMS Foylebank manning the starboard 20mm pom-pom gun when the bombers attacked.

Early on his left leg was shattered in a blast but, although wounded again many times, he remained at his gun and continued to train and fire it by hand after electric power failed until he collapsed and died. It was only the second VC awarded for action in the UK.

There have been many incidents of striking bravery including Wing Commander Eric Nicolson who won his VC in 1940 as a fighter pilot over Southampton.

His Hawker Hurricane was attacked by a Messerschmitt and he was hit in the eye and foot, his engine was damaged and his petrol tank set on fire, but as he struggled to get out of his blazing fighter Nicolson saw another Messerschmitt.

Incredibly he decided to get back into his fighter and attack the enemy plane, firing until it dived away to crash. Only then did he bail out, managing to open his parachute and land safely in a field…..despite being fired on by members of the Home Guard who ignored his shout that he was an RAF pilot!

Perhaps the most famous VC was won by Wing Commander Guy Gibson who led the heroic Dambusters raid into Germany to attack several dams while there is also the VC awarded to Lieutenant Howard Elphinstone at Sebastopol in 1854.

He first led a group of volunteers out into no-man’s-land at night in a highly dangerous effort to recover scaling ladders and other vital equipment from a previous abortive attack on the Redan fort.

Then he took part in the final assault on Sebastopol where he was “killed”, his body being taken from the battlefield to join a mound of corpses awaiting burial.

But his servant had been searching for him, recognised his boots and dragged him from the pile where it was discovered that he was only unconscious not dead having been hit in the head by a shell splinter. He made a good recovery but the sight in his right eye could not be saved.

Courage in the face of the enemy never seeks medals but it will always deserve recognition and I am proud of my grandfather who fought at two small skirmishes during the First World War that history remembers as the Somme and Passchendale. He walked away from that with nothing more than a single bullet wound to the delight of his family, but he would never talk about the conditions in the trenches where bravery of a different sort was displayed by all.




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